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Faculty of the Future

by Alex Joseph

By the time you finish reading this paragraph, some version of all the following could have happened: A colleague posts a “must-read” article about China’s developing luxury goods market to your Facebook wall. A noted fashion journalist you follow on Twitter “tweets” a picture of a hot look from a Milan runway show. Your daughter texts you to ask permission to download a Hindi language textbook to her Kindle. If you’re under a certain age—say, 30—you may integrate such events into your daily life with relative ease. If you’re not, you might never reach the next paragraph.

Globalization and advancing technology are hardly news, but educational institutions are pondering their implications for the classroom. Multitasking may challenge student attention spans, but the next generation will undoubtedly bring new skills to the table as well. As FIT President Joyce F. Brown points out, “The freshmen of 2020 are third graders today—yet they can fix your computer for you if it breaks.” When these tech-savvy, diverse, globally aware young people arrive at college, how will faculty reach them? “The student of tomorrow dictates a different faculty of tomorrow,” says Gretchen Bataille, interim vice president for Academic Affairs. Faculty of the Future, an initiative spearheaded by Dr. Brown, addresses the new reality by exploring criteria to strengthen academics and promote excellence in teaching over the next decade.

The initiative emerged from the college’s strategic plan, 2020: FIT at 75, Bringing the Future into Focus. During the process of filling 40 new faculty positions, the question arose of which skill sets will matter most as the 21st century progresses. To find out, the college engaged in a yearlong process of consulting with full-time, adjunct, and non-classroom faculty, academic deans, and department chairs. This collaboration generated a list of proposed competencies, such as a global perspective, flexible teaching styles, and technological literacy, which were presented during a daylong faculty conference about the initiative in December 2010. At an industry breakfast in January, leaders from design, retail, and manufacturing confirmed that issues raised at the conference were consistent with their concerns for the future.

Later in the month, Hue convened a roundtable discussion to draw out some of these ideas. We asked members of the December conference’s plenary panel to participate: President Brown; Ron Amato, assistant professor, Photography; Ellen Goldstein, Accessories Design professor and president of FIT’s Faculty Senate; Juliette Romano, professor and counselor, Career and Internship Center, and president of FIT’s union; and Celeste Weins, Student Association president. Bataille moderated. Some highlights are offered here. For more on the initiative, go to: fitnyc.edu/facultyofthefuture.

Gadgets, the Internet, and Learning

At the Faculty of the Future conference, Amato proposed a photography assignment, a concept for integrating technology into the classroom: “Students would make one photograph a day for 100 days with whatever device they carry in their pocket, and upload it to Twitter. All the students in the class would be able to see and comment on the photographs from anywhere. It would create an immediacy that wasn’t previously possible, and would allow communication with their instructor and peers that isn’t bound by the walls of a classroom.”

Amato’s proposal was both creative and timely. Technology has permeated every aspect of education, from smart boards in classrooms to courses and entire degrees—like FIT’s AAS in Fashion Merchandising Management—being offered online. According to Tamara Cupples, executive director of FIT’s Office of Online Learning, 5.6 million Americans took online courses in 2009.

The photography assignment has the additional value because it addresses today’s students in a mode they can relate to. Raised on the latest gadgets, these “digital natives” might not respond to the traditional two-hour lecture. Goldstein said she’s already observed such changes in her students: “They want to be entertained; they want something that excites them.”

Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow spoke at the conference about the impact of technology on Generation Y—those born between 1978 and 2000. They are far more easily bored, more visually oriented, and they prize innovation, she said. The immediate availability of information on the internet leads them to expect interactivity in class. Furthermore, the all-consuming nature of technology has potentially troubling consequences for relationships: “Eleven percent of Generation Y will even stop having sex to text,” Yarrow said.

At the same time, there’s a learning curve when it comes to established faculty and their familiarity with new (and always newer) tools. Roundtable participants spoke about a technology-related generation gap. Weins, a Graphic Design student, said, “Professors are blown away when students do a PowerPoint presentation that for us takes five minutes. We just slap it together and they’re like ‘Oh, my God.’” Dr. Brown noted the importance of adaptation: “As wonderful as we are at FIT, people are not going to [enroll] if we are stuck in five years ago.” Fortunately, because of resources like the college’s Center for Excellence in Teaching, we’re not. The CET provides dozens of workshops to keep faculty up to date. Current offerings include tutorials on blogs, wikis, and podcasting, and a walk-in technology clinic.

The consensus seems to be that to engage students, innovation must be fearlessly embraced whenever appropriate. The internet and the various devices that convey it have, like the printing press, changed the means by which we absorb information, but the wisdom of the educator, and the thirst for knowledge, still matter. In his speech, Amato went on to say that, “If faculty model the ability to absorb, synthesize, and contextualize new information and technologies, we can instill in students an intellectual curiosity that will enable them to transcend the latest trend and fleeting technology.”

One example of how this can be accomplished is a simple adjustment that faculty member Mark Higden made in his Creative Fashion Presentations class and described at the December conference. Traditionally, students turned in trend reports on 8.5-by- 11-inch paper, but last spring, he had them create a blog and post the research online instead. Students created video for the assignment and linked to other sites, but the change went far beyond technology. Higden said his relationship to the students became less hierarchical: “They brought in sites and references that surprised me. The whole dynamic in the discussion was much more fluid.” Further, the conversation extended beyond the classroom when students’ friends, family, and even a few strangers began following the blogs. Months later, some of the students are still blogging. Higden said gearing the assignment to the way they think made it a real-world, experiential exercise for them. They’re not just studying the subject, he says, “they’re living it.”

The World is Getting Smaller

Today’s students bring to the classroom a diversity of backgrounds that were unrepresented a generation ago. Goldstein noted, “You don’t walk into a class and see only students from the tri-state area. The international presence enriches everything, because they bring in their culture and its ideas.” Even for students without direct international experience, the internet has so flattened the world that walls that once limited people’s experiences no longer exist, as writer Thomas Friedman wrote in his best-selling book The World Is Flat.

At FIT, in part as a reflection of the international nature of fashion and the related industries (products designed in New York, manufactured in Turkey or China, and shipped around the globe), an awareness of the college’s position in the wider world affects learning. Weins said that, from the students’ perspective, one result is a sense of competitiveness: “The competition isn’t just in the classroom or city; you are competing on the global stage. A professor will say, ‘Oh, you think you can do this really well? I bet a kid in China can do it ten times faster.’” Industries that the college serves are noticing the disparity, too. Dr. Brown remarked that, at the meeting about the Faculty of the Future, industry leaders said they see a difference when international students are brought into their firms. They have more focus and take more pride in their work. “The American students were not quite as grounded in what they were doing,” she added. At the same time, roundtable participants wondered whether countries would always compete with each other. Goldstein said, “Is it always going to be us against them, or is it going to be us as a total industry?”

For FIT, the question of globalization translates into, for one, a need for greater diversity among faculty. Amato said increasing diversity in the Photography Department has given students “permission” to pursue work that is meaningful to them, because “they can now identify a faculty member who’s a role model.” Dr. Brown added that diversity is one important factor in hiring new faculty—“professionals who have something different to bring to the classroom and community. It is inherently added value and a critical component for any enterprise.” Another aspect of globalism is adjusting to other cultures. The process of learning, and then interviewing for a job, is different in different countries. Juliette Romano, career counselor, said Student Services professionals can be key players in helping both American and international students navigate “expectations about eye contact, speaking up,” and other behaviors.

New Models for Teaching, and "The Human Touch"

At the December conference, C.J. Yeh, assistant professor of Communication Design, observed, “If the students want to know something, they don’t need me; they go to Google.” That doesn’t mean the teacher’s role is obsolete. On the contrary, he said. “Learning online is hard, confusing.” He described instructional videos for advanced software that could be found on YouTube, but were impossible to follow. “I’m in the classroom to facilitate, give guidance,” he said. The new paradigm for teachers, he said, is “master learners,” who relate to their students a bit like a tour guide: “We’re on this journey together,” he said.

At the roundtable, Dr. Brown amplified Yarrow’s ideas about how Gen Y thinks. “For us, problem solving is about identifying and analyzing all the various aspects of a situation. For them, it’s about multitasking— tweeting and emailing and going on blogs and getting opinions from a lot of different people—and probably losing interest a lot more quickly than it would take us to come to what we consider a reasonable, well-thought-out conclusion.”

The expectation of immediacy challenges the traditional hierarchy of teacher/student interactions. Many parents and children now treat each other like peers, Yarrow said, and this change has affected attitudes toward authority figures; at the same time, having absorbed messages promoting their self-esteem, they have difficulty with criticism and crave personalized attention. Amato said it’s important to strike a balance. “Believe me, I want to be respected in my classes. The faculty should have an authoritative presence, but they should also listen to what students are saying. There needs to be a spirit of collaboration and open communication.” Romano pointed out that this dynamic isn’t necessarily replicated on the job. “It’s hard for students to understand what will be expected of them in the work place. They might get bored with a training program after six hours, but they’re going to be dealing with supervisors who are baby boomers.”

In order to meet the challenges facing them in the real world, young people need what many faculty are calling “the human touch”—that is, empathy, a sense of connection. With so much information from so many sources arriving via technology, it’s easy for young people to feel alienated— and that’s where faculty can make a difference. Romano said, “Blogs and tweets are wonderful, but you want to be able to sit down with a counselor or faculty member or financial aid person, face to face.”

In years to come, the college will continue to evolve in response to global change. Embracing innovation while meeting the needs of students and industry: that’s the FIT of today, and the FIT of the future.

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