Originally published Friday, April 7, 2006

doin’ Dallas for design

Mott trip to Kalpulli, Mexica Culture, San Martin de las Piramides 3/06
Above: The photo is of me on top of the Temple of New Fire, Mexico City, March 2006.


It’s all about perceptions, isn’t it. As a professor at an urban community college whose charge it is to create graduates ready to move on to either the professional world or to a 4-year school for more training, I perceive that there is a scarcity of opportunities for my graphic design students to get some real exposure to professionals, meaningful feedback, professional trade exhibits, etc. But to many of the students who participated in a recent trip, it was an opportunity for a drinking free-for-all. Guess it was time to change their perceptions, after all.

Don’t get me wrong. The conference – the DSVC Student Show and Conference – held in Dallas, TX, was a great success. And my students, for the most part, participated in a way that made me quite proud. Many took advantage of the “free” stuff, the break-out sessions with Dallas-based pros, the studio tours, portfolio reviews, and the four headliner speakers – Heather Amuni-Dei (Nike), James Victore, Ellen Lupton, and Chip Kidd. They got the chance to meet students from around the country, from colleges big and small, who were all working towards the same goals as they were. In essence, they had the opportunity to gain insight on the future of their “chosen” profession and how they might be able to succeed in it. And, if it’s at all do-able, I’ll do the trip again next year.

It was the “extra-curricular” activities, however, that disappointed me. As with other trips I have arranged, my rules were – don’t make complete fools of yourselves and me, don’t offend the hosts, and don’t break any laws. Guess that “underaged drinking” or providing alcohol to those who were “underaged” didn’t sink in as an illegal offense. Nor was doing flips on the bed considered potentially damaging to the furnishings (or just generally leaving the room a complete disaster) considered offensive to our hosts. And breakdancing in front of the elevators was apparently okay and not considered drunken out-of-control behavior. Having students from other colleges bringing alcohol to our students’ room was apparently not perceived as being potentially viewed as an advertisement that those “Michigan folks” provided a “safe place” to get blasted. And I guess that playing musical beds was not deemed as risky behavior, either. Not that I’m a prude, but I’d think that some folks would have had more self-respect than that. But I guess not.

Above: Chip Kidd signs his books after his lecture during the DSVC Student conference


It’s funny, too, that in spite of the incredibly public venue that is the world-wide-web, I find it easy to follow a trail of myspace blogs where students have either boasted or complained about this or that related to the whole affair.

So what is a creative professor to do?
My personal process followed these three basic steps…

A) Assess the situation:
It sucks. Such an unnecessary hassle. If I try to ignore the whole thing, it will come back to bite me in the ass…

B) Then learn from it:
I’ve apparently not made my position clear on what is expected (no… DEMANDED) as proper student behavior.

C) And last, educate.

That is, after all, what my job is about. If I can’t get a message across – either visually, verbally or both – than I’m not doing my job very well, am I?

Above: Jeff Barfoot, DSVC President, introduces students to the “treats” they’re in for…


I spoke to my dean, who also holds a higher position on an interim basis, and asked if she would please support me as I tried to address the situation in my own way. I also spoke with our campus police chief, who was willing to go with a more “educational” approach sufficient to address the seriousness of the situation. And so I began the task of channelling my own energies, and suppressed anger, into a video animation – crudely produced but effective nonetheless – on my personal impressions of student behavior. I wanted students to see what I saw, to realize that nothing they did existed in a vacuum, and that their irresponsible actions could negatively impact on innocent victims such as their peers… and me.

Near the end of our first class meeting after our return from Dallas, I shared my project with the students. But not before we had spent nearly two hours discussing the more positive aspects of the conference and what students had gotten out of it. They all agreed it was a great experience, one that I should plan to repeat for next year’s crop of students.

And then I showed them my crude little animation. At first they laughed. It WAS funny. And the dialogue was, word-for-word, taken from numerous student quotes. But by scene four of this 5 minute mini-feature, the laughter had stopped.

Silence. Only the dialogue of a conversation between two professors and the dean talking about the problems caused by misbehaving students and their negative impact on future trips… no more funding. By the last scene, where the students in the animation are saying “I don’t get it”, the tension in the room was palpable. With a little dramatic flare, some ominous music, and an Edgar Allen Poe heartbeat, the film ended and the students sat in complete silence…. looking down, looking up, looking anywhere but towards me.

Then, without raising my voice too loud, I let them have it… the lecture.

Above: a scene from Ellen Lupton’s talk at the DSVC Student Show…


I don’t get paid extra for taking students on trips. Most faculty won’t do it. For just these reasons alone – because they don’t want the hassle of dealing with pain-in-the-ass students who think it’s nothing but a big party.

My own reputation was put on the line… with colleagues and administrators who might be lead to believe I tolerate such behavior, or worse, condone it.

But the coup-de-grace of this afternoon was the visit from two uniformed officers from the college police department. While they were clear in pointing out the threats to my personal reputation and my career due to student behavior, they were also clear in establishing the seriousness with which the college would view their bad behavior. After they left, I dismissed the class, except for four students (out of five – one was noticeably absent) who were to be given letters addressing allegations of illegally providing alcohol to someone underage (not a minor), or of being someone underaged observed being drunk while on the trip. It was also inferred that damages were reported by the hotel. I have yet to address that specifically with relevant parties. It’s possible that because the students left a sizable tip for the maid-service that they’ll be willing to overlook any extra work that was necessary after our check-out.

I appreciate that, after a little stressed-out conversation, these students expressed a certain amount of remorse for their behavior, and gratitude for my stepping in on their behalf. It was made clear that, were it not for my intervention, they could face disciplinary action by the college administration.

So now, while the smoke literally clears around me, I have to catch up with the loads of work that I was supposed to be doing instead of putting out fires inflamed by adolescent nonsense. I felt it was important, however, to offer this blog as a means of publicly expressing my feelings on the subject, in light of recent myspace blog hysteria.

And I have to decide what demonstration of contrition would be adequate for the students to redeem themselves. Maybe they’ll come up with something on their own. But I need to work out the details on how to make this lesson a lasting one. It must be a lesson that will enable… not disable… their futures.

Should they get thrown out of school? I don’t think so. It should not go that far. I did not directly (nor did I want to) observe illegal behavior. No one suffered irreparable harm – except maybe my reputation – which will survive, nonetheless.

However, academia is not a democracy. And the allegation alone can be enough to crush a career. So I stand in hope that to have come so close to losing everything they’ve worked for, yet having been saved from the brink, will be enough to make the students’ lesson stick. I hope so. For I don’t think I have what it takes to save them from themselves… again.

So there you have it. Perceptions of what folks can get away with, if they think they’re “grown-up”, can be just plain wrong. Sometimes it’s better to act like a grown-up. You know…the responsible kind. And to save “sowing your wild oats” for the drawing pad…

Have a problem with that?

Better see me after class…


See my little animation, now located in my April 19th (2006) blog. Apologies in advance for the crude production quality. But I think it gets the message across…

PS: I’ll get back to my Mexico musings as soon as I catch up with this PILE!!!