Rethinking the Crit: A New Year’s Resolution for ACSA
By, Kathryn H. Anthony, Ph.D. ACSA Distinguished Professor & AIA/ACSA Topaz Laureate School of Architecture University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Greetings to all ACSA faculty – and best wishes to all of you for a happy healthy new year! May this be a peaceful and productive year for everyone.
I’d like to call your attention to a new book, a worthy candidate for every one of our bookshelves or digital libraries: Rethinking the Crit: New Pedagogies in Design Education (Routledge, 2023).
When they go well, design reviews–also known as design juries or, in some countries, design crits–can be exhilarating experiences, generating lively discussions, debates and food for thought. These rites of passage can be joyous causes for celebration, marking important middle or endpoints of the academic term, opportunities to showcase top student design work to a wide audience of faculty and guest practitioners from near and far. Yet if this were always the case, there would be no need for Rethinking the Crit.
The mental and physical health of design students has been severely challenged by traditional design reviews that sometimes last 8 hours or more. For generations such marathon sessions have called upon students to stay up all night, barely surviving on junk food and overdosing on caffeine just to stay awake, risking bloody stabs while building models and dangerous traffic accidents if they get behind the wheel, and at worst, feeling worthless or even suicidal. Battle scars from public humiliation that occurs when a design jury goes awry can last a lifetime.
Rethinking the Crit includes contributions by leading architectural, art and design educators from Australia, Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the US who share their candid experiences evaluating student design work throughout their careers. Chapter authors from the US include Rashida Ng (former ACSA President) of University of Pennsylvania, John Barton from Stanford University, and Kathryn Anthony.
Book editors, our Irish colleagues Patrick Flynn, Maureen O’Connor, Mark Price, and Miriam Dunn, led this in-depth multi-year research project, obtaining generous sponsorship from The National Forum for the Enhancement of Third Level Teaching and Learning. A lively symposium at Technological University Dublin held in 2020, fortuitously just weeks before the pandemic outbreak, gathered international faculty along with about 140 students from four schools of architecture, art and design across Ireland, serving as the impetus for the book. The group reconvened in Dublin in 2022 for a follow-up symposium and book launch.
As the editors point out, rather than providing one clear answer to replacing or reforming the crit, the book seeks to raise awareness, provoke debate, and challenge faculty and students to do better. It addresses historical analyses, broad pedagogical issues, and explores less stressful alternatives that disrupt the power imbalance and inequalities of traditional crits, encouraging students to develop lifelong learning skills, sound judgement, and reflection, with increased sensitivity to the importance of students’ gender, ethnicity, class, and mental health.
Recent graduates of Irish architecture, art and design programs explain how they benefitted from novel ways of evaluating student design work at their schools, techniques that have been piloted, routinely used, and rigorously evaluated, giving them an edge in their current professional careers. Among the new methods providing feedback to students are Round Table and Red Dot Day, described in detail in the book. These techniques challenge hierarchies and formalize peer-to-peer learning.
As Sam Carse, a recent TU Dublin alumnus put it, “I would say most people would agree that it was a very positive experience. That finally, as a student our least favourite part of being in college (the crit) was being addressed and being thought about for the first time.” (p. 218). Another TU Dublin alumna, Lorena Dondea, explains “We had a voice and we genuinely wanted to help each other, and I think that a lot of the anxiety that came with the actual crit, when you had a panel of six people in front of you and you’ve sat there waiting for them to argue with each other for about ten minutes before you had something to say was gone with the new methods.” (p. 218). A TU Dublin faculty member, Alice Clancy, reflects, “In practice, we work collaboratively, and the round-table format in particular we found related best to practice, and allowed us to give students a taste of the sort of design discussions that happen in practice and with design teams.” (p. 220).
My own chapter, “Time for a Reset,” reflects upon the 30th anniversary of my first book, Design Juries on Trial: The Renaissance of the Design Studio (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1991). The book set the stage for subsequent work elsewhere and led to the implementation of studio culture as a new criterion of the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) for evaluating all architecture schools in North America. Design Juries on Trial is based upon extensive research with over 900 individuals including systematic observations and videos of juries, diaries of design students, and interviews and surveys of students, faculty, and award-winning practitioners conducted over a seven-year period.
Certain aspects of online reviews used at the height of the pandemic, such as the Zoom chat room, when used effectively, can result in far greater student interaction, more engagement and higher levels of learning than that offered by traditional reviews. Rather than students sitting as second-class citizens behind a row of reviewers, staring at the back of heads and struggling to see their classmates’ projects from afar, online reviews allow all participants to see and hear each other and their work up close. During online reviews, when students are required to write thoughtful critiques of each other’s projects and to pose questions in real-time in the chat room, and then called upon to discuss their comments, they participate actively in everyone’s design review, not just their own, learning both how to receive and deliver criticism. Some of the best aspects of online reviews can be incorporated into in-person reviews, where we benefit from seeing students’ models, an experience that cannot be fully captured online.
Rethinking the Crit is a most valuable contribution to all fields of design—art, architecture, graphic design, landscape architecture, urban design, interior design—any field where public critique and commentary are used to evaluate student work, as well as to all fields of pedagogy. It is currently the only book of its kind to offer a wealth of critiques about how design is taught and evaluated from such a highly experienced, diverse international community of scholars. In this sense Rethinking the Crit is indeed a landmark work.
Preserving the mental and physical health of all our design students is paramount. Rethinking the Crit offers some innovative, tried and true techniques to create safer, more welcoming environments for all—while still delivering much-needed criticism. Its potential impact on a new generation of designers is immense—if only they will take the time to read it, then continue to experiment and evaluate.
Rethinking the Crit is available in hardback, paperback, and as an e-book here.
Rethinking the Crit Editor Maureen O’Connor shares students’ powerful drawings of design crits with the audience. Technological University (TU) Dublin. September 22, 2022.
Rethinking the Crit Editor Maureen O’Connor shares students’ powerful images of design crits with the audience. Here an intimidating juror’s “I don’t like it” takes a direct aim at the student’s heart. Technological University (TU) Dublin. September 22, 2022.
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Founded in 1912 by 10 charter members, ACSA is an international association of architecture schools preparing future architects, designers, and change agents. Our membership includes all of the accredited professional degree programs in the United States and Canada, as well as international schools and 2- and 4-year programs. Together ACSA schools represent some 7,000 faculty educating more than 40,000 students.
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