You teach at Cleveland State University as an assistant professor of graphic design. Why did you decide to start teaching? My first teaching experiences were mandatory—I was in graduate school at the time—so it may be more accurate to say that, at first, I had little choice in the matter. I feel sheepish thinking about it now, but I initially balked at the idea of helping to shape young designers’ minds. I didn’t want the responsibility and wasn’t confident enough to believe that I would do justice to the role of teacher. However, I was fortunate to have faculty mentors—chief among them Eric May, one of my all-time favorite human beings—who made a point of telling me that not only did they believe I could do it, but also that I would be good at it. Being an educator takes a certain amount of courage and vulnerability, and the “decision” to pursue it was ultimately a process of opening myself up to the possibility. After grad school, I landed a position teaching design at my undergraduate alma mater. The rest is more or less history.
Growing up, who were the important teachers for you? These are just a few among many: My kindergarten teacher Kathryn Aschliman—best kindergarten teacher ever—who inspired creating thinking and making at an early age. My second-grade teacher Mrs. Sanders, who made writing fun; I still have my creative writing book from her class. My college art history professor, Judy Wenig-Horswell, who introduced me to black artists. My dad, who was my African American history professor and helped me think about the social and political implications of communication. And Eric May, a graduate school professor who was a wonderfully creative soul. All these people made it OK for me to fail, yet still maintained high expectations of me.
What challenges did you overcome to develop your own voice as a teacher? This question is difficult in that it touches on some uncomfortable truths. Namely, as a black woman and one of the few black design educators out there, I have to prove that I am knowledgeable in a way my white counterparts do not. Every educator faces challenges—that goes without saying! However, the fundamental demands of teaching do not negate the fact that I have the added pressure of having to continually demonstrate that I actually know what I’m talking about. For the most part, I’ve learned how to avoid being psychologically hampered by the ways my gender and skin color may, at least initially, influence the way students see or evaluate me. But it has taken years of experience to get here. I feel safe saying, moreover, that the majority of students I’ve taught have had a positive experience in my classroom.
What’s a foundational course that you wish existed in more design programs? This one is easy: Design history! And not just a design history course that emphasizes our discipline’s European roots; one that includes the diversity of cultural contributions that are part of the American experience and larger global perspectives would be amazing. As cliché as it sounds to say that “the world is changing,” it is! And if we want the work of future designers to have integrity, we need to become better acquainted with our own history and context.
How has teaching and research affected how you approach your work as a freelance designer? For me, research, teaching and freelancing are inexorably linked; I’m more effective as a design educator when I can speak from professional experience, and my professional work and teaching inform the research questions I’m interested in studying. Though I spend the majority of my time these days on research and teaching, I still love working as a freelancer. The academic aspects of what I do make me appreciate creative work even more. I suppose that teaching is also a way to live vicariously through students—it’s gratifying to help nurture their ideas and see them come into their own as young designers.
In what ways do you work with your students to make a positive impact through design? Teaching design is an opportunity to engage students on current issues and help them think about ways in which they too can use their creativity in socially responsible ways. I relate assignments—even typography projects—to issues affecting students’ local communities and the world at large. I emphasize the impact that communication can have—whether for good or for ill—in the hopes that students learn to appreciate design for its depth and complexity and not simply as something that is cool to do as a job. At the end of the day, they will still decide for themselves what kinds of contributions they want to make to the field. But my hope is that our discussions about privilege, our reflections on what “design for social good” means in practice and the value I place on working collaboratively will stay with them long after they’ve graduated.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? I wish I had known how important it is to have professional mentors. I had a general support system; however, I would have benefitted from developing relationships with established practitioners in the field. There’s a great deal of knowledge about the design world that I had to figure out on my own, and I could have saved myself a certain amount of heartache if I had known then what I know now. But rather than stew over it, I make sure my students learn from my experience. I’m fortunate, too, that I’m now in a position where I have both support and mentorship to help me as I continue to move forward in my own career.