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Dean Schreiber Reflects on How Design and Learning has Changed

One year ago, Dr. Rachel Schreiber became the Executive Dean of Parsons School of Design in New York. With more than two decades of experience in art, design, education, tech and leadership, she’s also a recognized gender historian. With a PhD in history and an MFA, she brings a new perspective to the classroom as an educator and highly published author. Additionally, her creative designs have been featured as juried exhibitions of her art around the globe. Grit Daily News was one of more than 1,000 members of the press attending Collision From Home but we were among the few who had the opportunity to check in with Dr. Schreiber.  

Grit Daily: You’ve had a consequential first year as Executive Dean with a pandemic, how has COVID-19 changed higher education?

Dr. Rachel Schreiber: It’s pushed us to do things that we needed to do. One of my deepest concerns at Parsons is how we can reach more students beyond only those that can come to NY City, and tech is making that possible via a virtual platform. The types of solutions that we’re doing now are anchored in sustainability which will help us meet objectives beyond this moment. Earlier this year, the faculty of our Tishman Environment and Design Center signed a manifesto that they would no longer fly to conferences to reduce their carbon footprint. Later this year, we’ll be hosting a virtual festival which will broaden our reach so that more people from around the world can see our exhibit for longer. Yes, we miss being on campus but can emerge from this stronger than ever.

women in tech Rachel
Dr. Schreiber, Exec Dean Parson’s School of Design

GD: How has Parsons School of Design fared during the pandemic?

RS: We had already embraced tech long ago, so we were strongly positioned to make the shift to online learning. Even our knitting class is tech-enabled so students prepare designs on a computer for whatever it is that they need to integrate and emulate. There’s always room to learn. I’m deeply impressed with our faculty and their spirit of collaboration. They rose to the challenge of the pivot we were all forced to accommodate in March. Professors had to completely reimagine how they used time, varied lessons and shifted the nature of assignments. The level of creativity is boundless. One faculty fashion designer used an orange to teach alternative construction methods. Students had to peel the orange in a range of ways then flatten the peels upon which they drew patterns to construct spheres in different ways. As designers, we’re creative and ready to problem-solve in the moment

GD: Do students learn differently today than they did 20 years ago?

RS: We live in a society that doesn’t wholly support education. I want Parsons to educate a more diverse population of students, doing so will enable diverse designers who can then contribute to finding solutions for the environment and other big problems. However, they will only be effective if they can reflect the society that we come from. There are systemic barriers and immigration challenges which need to change at a macro level first.

GD: How have student needs changed over the years?

RS: Yes, they have. We can see generational differences, even differences within micro-generations, and you can see those changes in the classroom. What I’m really excited about is that students are demanding equity. They want their curriculum decentered and decolonized. Years ago, there was a long period of time, let’s call them “the slacker years,” when students were not politically engaged but that’s not how it is today. These days, we have a lot more to balance, so we think about industrial design with a broader context. We teach the tech students need to know; and we teach materials science to understand the impact of our design choices; we teach collaboration with social scientists to understand who and how our products will be used. Our curriculum is constantly changing to keep up and is becoming more complex each year to accommodate an increasingly wider scope. We’ve seen a proliferation of graduate programs and an increased desire for greater flexibility with learning. Graduate education is counter-cyclical to the economy, so I expect that we’ll see a surge in applicants as joblessness rises this year.

GD: How are people responding to design differently than they did 20 years ago?

RS: Definitely differently. There’s been a transformation to design fields because of tech but we’ve also seen the emergence of design research and strategy. In fact, one of our most popular majors is in Strategic Design Management because of the value that designers can bring to problem-solving. With respect to the pandemic, we have an important role to play. We’ll be running classes on what a post-COVID NYC looks like, how urban systems like transportation and retail will be changed as a result. We’re not only architects of interior and fashion design, but we’re developing strategies around how to approach the big problems and can bring a unique perspective to every challenge. Problem solving and critical thinking are at the core of design.

GD: With your MFA, how has art morphed since you did your degree?

RS: I’m going to answer this question in a way that touches on gender. When I was in college, I was in design. I remember when Apple dropped off Mac computers and told us to play with them to see what we could do with them. So, I am a digital native. Of course, it was a smart move by Apple because everyone who graduated went into their first job telling their new employer that they needed a Mac. From there, I went on to do a master’s in fine art in photography and it was at the time that the digital arts were just coming on the scene. Nobody had studied digital art yet, so I was hired to develop the first curriculum for the field. At that time, there was a lot of bias against women in tech, which made it all the more interesting. I could tell you countless anecdotes about men being surprised that I knew about tech. Fast forward to 2020 and tech is a component of every major field of study at Parsons.

GD: You’re a gender historian; 20 years from now, you’re looking back at how women were impacted by today’s ongoing protests. Tell us what you see.

RS: We need to be careful about the term and who we mean when we say “women.” The history of American feminism is fraught with gaps where we’ve tried to simplify things. Up until recently, “women” stood only for white cis-gender women. Today, we need to more specific about who we’re speaking about and we need to be more inclusive. It’s heart-breaking that it’s taken more deaths to shift the country’s mindset but the BLM movement has begun to broaden our the recognition that Black cis- and  trans-women endure racism and deadly violence, in addition to Black men and all BIPOC. At the same time, the recent landmark rulings in the Supreme Court protecting the rights of LGBTQ people and DACA rulings protecting Latinx people will be seen as catalysts for change. TBD how things will play out in the November federal election. What I hope is that 20 years from now, historians will say that we truly embarked on the hard work of addressing the inequities of society and gender as they intersected with race and origin in spite of 2020 being an exceptionally complex year of crisis.  

GD: As a gender historian, are the differences between men and women increasing or decreasing?

RS: There is a larger, structural and wicked problem that designers are equipped to tackle. When I was a student of art and design, the history taught was male and White-centric; it wasn’t even questioned. How we teach today is totally different, all of our courses include digital equity and inclusivity of all people. Call me an optimist, but I do think we are heading in the right direction! We’re a long way off from fully addressing these problems but we now at least understand that we need to take a harder look at our faculty, curriculum and everything else to ensure that are we truly aligned. We are creating an inclusive and equitable learning environment that we all need to work on and make a priority; our collective efforts so far look promising.

GD: What do you wish people knew about you?

RS: I think that if a person looks at my resume, they may see a bunch of seemingly disparate things; an undergraduate degree in graphic design, a Masters in photography, a PhD in history, art exhibitions, publications and so on. But to me, it’s all part of one continuum: they aren’t separate moments in my life. My first degree in design informs everything that I’ve done including my role in executive administration. You’ll routinely see designers in higher education administration roles because of our ability to problem-solve and see challenges differently. My undergraduate degree brought a heightened level of creativity and intellect to how I think about problems. I consider myself a life-long learner. Never stop learning, even after you graduate! I want people to see the whole picture and recognize that we’re not different things but one thing that’s been assembled and how we’re continually changing is what makes things endlessly interesting.