Department Dossier: Alice Twemlow

June 18, 2010

The latest in a series of one-on-one conversations with SVA department chairs.

At SVA’s 2010 Commencement exercises, MFA Design Criticism Department Chair Alice Twemlow saw the first group of students graduate from her new program. The two-year master’s program—which also goes by the name D-Crit—looks at design in its many forms, examining the aesthetic, physical, cultural, social, environmental and economic impact of design, and offers a rigorous academic approach to criticism. The class of 2010 gathered in May for the inaugural D-Crit Conference, in which the students presented their thesis projects on topics as diverse as the films of Wes Anderson and living on the planet Mars. Early this summer, Twemlow answered a few questions via e-mail about the conference and her department’s multi-tiered use of online media.

How did the D-Crit Conference go?
The conference was a fabulous success, even if I do say so myself! Actually it’s not just me saying so; I received many notes after the event from people who wanted to tell me how inspired they were by the students’ presentations and how impressed they were with the professionalism of the event. In the spring semester we have a workshop dedicated to the study of design conferences and to the preparation of this one in particular, so it was gratifying to hear that all our hard work and attention to detail had been appreciated. It was a quantitative success, too. What with all the national and international press we received in the lead up to the conference, the more than 250 people who attended on the day and the larger audience we reach through videos of the presentations on our Web site, I think we communicated loud and clear the fact that design criticism has come of age.

How important have the Web and social media been to both your recruiting efforts and day-to-day operations?
The D-Crit Web site, the SVA Web site, our Twitter and Facebook accounts and our e-mail marketing have been absolutely essential to our efforts to get the word out about D-Crit and to stay in contact with our extended community. Getting a new program off the ground from scratch will always be a challenge, but we had the added pressure of initiating a new academic discipline too. We send e-mail newsletters to let people know what and where our students have published, where they are undertaking internships and who is coming to speak at our Tuesday night public lecture series. We use Twitter as a kind of running commentary on who is in the D-Crit department at any one time and to tweet tidbits of information and perspective on what they say. Potential D-Crit applicants get a sense of SVA as a learning environment through the main site and a sense of D-Crit’s specific philosophy and curriculum through the D-Crit site. We also feature a Reading Room of texts by faculty members, prominent critics and students; a blog roll of faculty and student blog posts; resources such as lists of design-focused libraries, archives and stores; videos of our public lectures; sample syllabi from our courses; and biographical pages for all of our students where they can post their work, blogs, micro-blogs and sites.

What impresses you most about your students?
So much! With the first intake of students, I was most impressed by their pioneering spirit—their willingness to plunge into the unknown with me and to map out a new field of inquiry called ‘Design Criticism.’ I was also impressed by their flexibility; as we progressed through the first cycle of the curriculum, we often had to recalibrate. The students never let changes faze them. And of course the caliber of their writing, the intelligence of their arguments, and the doggedness of their research have all caused faculty members and myself to gape in awe from time to time.

Can you point to something eye-opening you’ve learned from your students?
The students have to get to grips with the political controversies that give shape to the city as an urban construct. And so, through reading their work and listening to their presentations, I’ve learned a lot about New York City’s traffic circulation, buildings, parks, bike lanes, transportation and sanitation hubs, and bridges. I’ve also learned about where the students come from geographically, emotionally and philosophically. Students often use their personal experience growing up (in Omaha, Ahmedabad or Brooklyn) and their personal sets of references (dogs, death metal or vegetarian cooking) to infuse and amplify their interpretations of the buildings, designed objects and systems through which we operate.

What are you looking forward to for next year?
I’m looking forward to working with our incoming second-year students on developing their thesis projects, which range from analyses of the pop star as designed object and licensed children’s characters to more poetic exploration of the notions of narrative and impermanence in relation to design. I’m also looking forward to beginning to work with a new intake of students who join us from an array of backgrounds in design and the humanities. Many of them are already blogging in anticipation of the fall; they’ve attended our lectures and conference, read the work of the students, so I feel that this group is ready to hit the ground running. I’ll be doing my best to keep up!

Image: ©2010 Visual Arts Press, Ltd.

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