This article looks at the impact of COVID-19 on art and design education, the role of the studio and its relevance to illustration education in particular. Recent research papers are reviewed to identify issues arising from the sudden move to online teaching. Rhizomatic Theory is used to identify connectivity, collaborations and communities as being of central importance to creative learning. The ecological metaphor is applied to the collective, sociable, organic nature of what happens in a creative art studio, and which is difficult to replicate online.
Written by Sophie Allsopp | PUBLISHED ON 21st february 2022 | illustration by sophie allsopp
Is there anything we can learn from the upheaval of last year, when teaching was thrown into turmoil by COVID-19, campuses were shut and even the most practical design courses had to be taught online?
I am currently teaching on the illustration MA course at UCA Farnham, and have been inspired to find out more about the role the studio plays in illustration education. I happily acknowledge that I am a firm believer in the importance to students of a shared physical space, but I am interested to find out what other art and design educators think. What can we learn from comparing online delivery and on campus studio practice?
I researched online for recent literature that covered the topics of illustration, studio practice, and online education. There were several that discussed online art and design education, but none specifically about online illustration education, so I reviewed a journal article looking at more general illustration pedagogies.
- Online design education: Meta‐connective pedagogy by Neil Dreamson (2020)
- An introduction to the manifesto for illustration pedagogy: A lexicon for contemporary illustration practice By Mireille Fauchon and Rachel Gannon (2018)
- The Online Pandemic In Design Courses: Design Higher Education In Digital Isolation by Katja Fleischmann (2020)
- Making little things visible by Derek Jones (2021)
- Emergency Remote Studio Teaching: Notes From the Field by Tara Winters (2021)
The key themes to emerge from the papers are on the importance of connectivity, networks, collaborations and communities. In relation to illustration, Fauchon and Gannon (2018) detail the significance of collaboration, engagement and participation to the subject of illustration, its teaching and practice.
For educators, the pandemic demonstrates the importance of studio space for a multitude of reasons, particularly as somewhere for physical making to occur. Several of the authors emphasise its crucial role as a communal space, as the location for connections and ill defined but essential aspects of design pedagogies to occur. Winters (2021) and Fleischmann (2020) agree on the importance of the studio as a social space, where dialogic based learning can take place. Jones (2021:9) tries to define “the valuable properties that matter so much to student learning… (serendipity, embodied cognition and conceptualisations, social learning and comparison, etc.)” which occur in the studio, but which don’t transfer online very easily. The fact that illustration education, and design subjects generally, emphasise process, thinking and reflection, rather than outcomes, also heightens the need for an experimental space where this can occur.
Dreamson (2020) stresses the importance of making connections and building networks – digital connectivity and networking ability proving useful in different contexts, although he damns educators’ “resistant affection” for traditional pedagogies, and their “pathetic excuse(s)” (Dreamson, 2020:495) for not embracing the transition to digital learning. Unlike the other authors, he describes the traditional studio as always being out of date and unable to keep up with the pace of online knowledge.
All the literature accepts the positive aspects of online design education, such as the convenience, enhanced feedback opportunities, the suitability for contextual research, better engagement (in some aspects) and more inclusivity. Several papers make the point that facilitating analogue and digital networking and connective ability in students aids flexibility, adaptability and self reliance, which helps students to navigate industry, and enhances employability.
In order to analyse my findings, I am using ‘Rhizomatic Theory.’ This is a fairly recent theory that is not well known, so I will explore some of the theory’s main concepts, before applying them to the literature.
Rhizomatic theory was first articulated by Deleuze and Guattari in their impenetrably dense book ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (1988). They identified the rhizome as a useful metaphor for learning due to its non-hierarchical, unpredictable, non-linear, connective properties. (Adkins, 2015). A rhizome is a stem that grows horizontally underground – bamboo and grasses are rhizomes, as is ground elder – you will know how stubborn and easily propagated it is if you’ve ever tried to remove it from your garden – leave just a tiny bit of root in the ground, and up it grows again; a rhizome “ceaselessly establishes connections.” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987:7 cited in Bissola et al., 2017:208)
This concept was expanded by Dave Cormier, particularly in relation to online learning. He describes a classroom or a learning community as an ecosystem, “in which each person is spreading their own understanding,” and through content creation and sharing, the “rhizomatic learning experience becomes more curriculum for others.” (Cormier, 2012).
Cormier emphasises the collaborative nature of learning; of working together, sharing experiences and understanding, with participation and belonging being a key outcome. Content is networked around the learners on the web, so having to “deal with the uncertainty of abundance and choice” is a key challenge. “The connections we create between people and ideas (are) the curriculum for learning. In a sense, participating in the community is the curriculum.” (Cormier, 2012) (my italics).
Rhizomatic learning is essentially non–hierarchical, placing students at the centre of their own learning. In a learning environment, the tutor needs to set a context and boundaries, but within that, if the conditions are ‘fertile’ enough, students can create their own connections: “The syllabus becomes a garden space, a context setting within which learning can happen and the curriculum is the things that grows there.” (Cormier, 2011).
In Deleuze and Guattari’s original philosophy, the world is full of uncertainty. While this may seem troubling, uncertainty leaves room for interpretation, negotiation, flexibility, responsiveness and creativity. This is particularly relevant to creative education, where students so often seek definitive answers, but come to understand that, much like life, decisions need to be made that are neither right nor wrong. There is no ‘one true path’, but a multiplicity of paths that we build for ourselves.
Mixing their metaphors, Deleuze and Guattari describe rhizomatic learning as a map – “a map that is always detachable, connectible, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight.” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987:21 cited in Cormier, 2011)
In analysing rhizomatic theory, organic social connectivity can be seen as the key concept. This important aspect of learning has been addressed by theorists such as social constructivist Lev Vygotsky, who identified that learning resulted from processes occurring between people and then within them (Keenan, 2002:133 cited in Aubrey and Riley, 2019:57). “There is a link with ‘Constructivist and Connectivist pedagogies, when knowledge is seen as negotiated, contextual, and collaborative,’” (Wheeler and Gerver, 2015, cited in Harris, 2016), but it is rhizomatic theory that seems most applicable to the literature I have reviewed.
Dreamson (2020) favours technological networking, and while he is thoroughly dismissive of traditional studio practice, his ‘meta-connective pedagogy’ theory is interesting in the way it describes people always being connected and inside the digital network, while learning occurs outside the person, where it is stored and distributed by technology – an interesting echo of Vygotsky.
Dreamson cites Downes’ theory, which states that knowledge is connective, and that “learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks (of connections).” (Downes, 2012:85, cited by Dreamson, 2020:488). This has obvious echoes in rhizomatic learning, where students are described as being part of a network of connections, which form the curriculum around them.
In another technological link, Winters (2020) describes digital contextual research for design students in a recognisably rhizomatic way when she writes about non linear ways of organizing information, describing it as dynamic, shareable, editable, experimental: “The ability to work with contextual research material in nonlinear, alternative ways facilitates modes of thinking and working that are important in creative learning… it allows for certain kinds of thinking to occur and connections to be made, and not others.” (Winters, 2020:123) Again, the recognition that multiple means of connectivity are central to creativity.
Three of the articles I reviewed (Fleischmann, 2020; Jones, 2021; Winters 2021) are concerned with the transfer of design courses online due to the pandemic, and how well they have coped with the challenge. Their conclusions are mixed, but where they all agree is that, along with practical hands on experiences, it is the social connective element that is so hard to replicate online. All three authors place great importance on the role of the studio.
The role of the studio
The studio has been of central importance in design education since the days of ateliers, where a master fine artist would train apprentices in his studio. It is considered a signature pedagogy (Shulman, 2005) in art and design subjects. The physical space itself, even the arrangement of tables and chairs, plays an important role in creating an active learning environment and fostering communication (Taylor, 2009), but
“The studio is not only a location, but also an environment filled with the accoutrements of creation. Images, objects, and works in progress are often situated here. Conversations, criticism, evaluation, and the generation of ideas are key activities.” (Shreeve and Sims, 2012: 60)
It is the importance of the physical studio which I believe rhizomatic theory can help to explain. Cormier describes rhizomatic learning occurring when: “working together, sharing our experiences and understanding… (it is) more about participating and belonging than about specific items of content.” (Cormier, 2012).
This sense of socially situated, collective belonging, the intangible effects of working in a physical studio alongside your peers, finding inspiration almost by osmosis (another biological metaphor – interesting how often they occur) is what Jones (2021) struggles to describe in his paper. He uses the term ‘little things’, which although twee, is vague enough to cover the richness of the traditional studio environment. Consider this description of rhizomatic learning, using Deleuze and Guattari’s map metaphor:
“The rhizome grows by a process Deleuze & Guattari call ‘mapping’, which is an active questioning that opens its way by drawing out the unknown… mapping is dynamic experimentation with emerging forces around an area of concern. Mapping allows a myriad of re-formations that arise through such participation in the conditions… Here one does not use a map to record; one maps to explore. That is, the activity of involvement is the expressing, communicating, questioning, correlating, ﬁltering … mapping.” (Teal, 2010:300)
The words that Teal uses are revealing: ‘dynamic, experimentation, re-formations, participation, explore, expressing, communicating, questioning, filtering’. They could be applied to a successful creative studio session. Cormier himself writes:
“If you see knowing in a rhizomatic sense there is no difference between a book, a teacher, a learner, a whatever… there’s a bunch of stuff out there and we make our own maps of it. As a facilitator, I’m trying to create an ecosystem wherein that community has a better chance to form.” (Bali et al., 2014)
Describing a thriving creative studio space as an ecosystem is a useful metaphor, as it emphasises the collective, interconnected nature of the space. When the studio is being used in a rhizomatic way, when students are participating and connecting, actively constructing their own learning by making connections and building networks of understanding, sharing their experiments between themselves, then it is the very definition of student centred learning. It is also an inclusive environment, for as Cormier writes, “The whole idea of rhizomatic learning is to acknowledge that learners come from different contexts, that they need different things… it is a commitment to multiple paths.” (Cormier, 2011).
The final article I reviewed was about illustration practice and pedagogy, (Fauchon and Gannon, 2018) as I wanted to link the article to my own specialism. Here again, dexterity, flexibility and adaptability are mentioned, this time in relation to developing skills that are needed to cope with a constantly changing industry. There are interesting links with the paper by Fleischmann (2020), in which the author says the forced transition to online delivery has helped to align student and professional experience, making students more employable and entrepreneurial.
Rhizomatic theory echoes these ideas by stressing continuous transformation and emerging connections in a collective: “This approach implies a collective dimension, which is valuable in designing education projects that develop collective knowledge and foster innovative entrepreneurial initiatives.” (Deleuze, 1988, cited in Bissola et al., 2017:208).
The illustrator’s need to create their work within a context, with an audience in mind, makes illustration ‘relational’ and collaborative, and is “often produced as part of a team or studio” (Vormittag, 2014:45-46), making studio practice for illustration students all the more important.
What makes rhizomatic theory particularly relevant to illustration is the emphasis on collaboration and social settings. “Illustration thrives on a network of active, collaborative relationships.” (Fauchon and Gannon, 2018:213). One of their manifesto principles puts it even more clearly: “Illustration is a collaborative discipline. It does not operate independently; it is made with the intent to engage. ‘Illustration’ is a result of participation.” (Fauchon and Gannon, 2018:219) This sounds like rhizomatic theory in practice.
There are, of course, drawbacks to rhizomatic theory. How do you assess rhizomatic learning? How do you pre-define learning outcomes when you don’t know what those outcomes might be? I don’t have a ready answer, but perhaps it involves defining boundaries, but leaving the connections that students choose to make as open as possible.
What happens when students aren’t good at making connections? A connected environment can be isolating and exclusive if you are on the outside. Technological access issues also need to be addressed. All this calls for careful facilitation on the part of the tutor.
But what rhizomatic theory does do is recognise the importance of the organic, unpredictable, ephemeral, social and connective nature of learning, all of which can be nurtured in the fertile ecology of the creative studio. As a supporter of studio based learning, I have been heartened to read literature that acknowledges its central role in design education.
Despite the many benefits of teaching online, I believe that the extra layer of in-person inter-connectedness and sense of communal endeavour that studio practice provides, that Jones describes as ‘little things’ and other authors have tried (with varying success) to pin down, make studio practice an irreplaceable aspect of illustration education.
By identifying these intangible qualities, perhaps we can help to protect studio practice as the pandemic accelerates the drive to teach more creative courses online.
As E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End (1910): “Only connect! … Live in fragments no longer.”
About the author
Sophie Allsopp is an experienced illustration tutor, working as a sessional lecturer on the MA illustration course and as a creative workshop tutor for outreach and widening participation, both at University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey. She is also a professional illustrator, and has illustrated over 32 books, as well as numerous other projects. Her picture book illustrations have won awards both in the UK and USA.
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