Being a part-time fashion educator during a pandemic

Fashion educators are
paid poorly. I don’t believe this is stated enough. Of course, all
educators are paid poorly, but fashion happens to be the world’s third
largest industry, worth an estimated 2.5 trillion dollars globally, and
counts among its ranks the world’s third-richest person in Bernard Arnault,
CEO of LVMH, and sixth richest in Amancio Ortega, owner of Inditex, parent
company of Zara. According to Forbes the US leads the world in tuition
fees. Yet those engaged in helping educate the future leaders of this
lucrative industry are paid peanuts.

New York City-based part-time faculty generally earn between 3000 and
5000 dollars per class per semester, with no benefits or stability.
Teaching a class one semester does not guarantee it will be yours the next.
Most part-time professors in the city frantically try to secure, if not
multiple classes, then appointments at several schools to earn enough to
meet the basic cost of living. It’s not unusual for one professor to be
teaching seven classes across four institutions, racing back and forth
between the boroughs and the garment district. The following semester they
might only get two classes. With Covid’s arrival they might have none as
schools trim their part-time faculty due to lower enrollment, particularly
of international students.

Most part-time fashion educators hold a Master’s degree in their
subject, and bring a wealth of industry experience to the classroom that
cannot be found in textbooks or at academic conferences. They are often
expected to plumb their professional network of contacts to produce experts
for student critiques to an extent that can become obnoxious for their busy
industry friends. The part-time fashion educator’s core skill set
encompasses pattern-cutting, sewing, embroidery, illustration, mixed media,
the latest CAD software, photography, and the history of fashion, but they
are expected to be articulate on topics including, but not limited to, goat
farming in Mongolia, Secessionist architecture, French new wave cinema,
social justice issues, Washi papermaking, Himalayan crafts, biochemistry,
who’s exhibiting at Frieze and headlining at Coachella. As the fall 2020
semester kicks off, their salaries are the only unchanging element of their jobs.

An unprecedented time in fashion education

If they weren’t teaching summer classes, these educators were tirelessly
participating in workshops, training sessions, Q + A senates and town halls
in readiness for the first entire semester of remote instruction. They were
asked to sign up for workshops with titles like “Synchronous and
asynchronous engagement.” Adapting curricula is probably the easiest part
of going remote, but building out content to infuse an online course with
the energy of New York City and the aesthetic associated with an expensive
fashion product is more challenging. Professors teaching “hands- on”
subjects such as fashion illustration or sewing are creating videos to
build a reference library of techniques demonstrations for students to
access outside of scheduled class time. If spring was about scrambling to
adapt, fall is being rolled out as a slickly produced template for the
future of education.

Maintaining quality of education is the key focus of institutions, but
the mental health of educators is a less common discussion. Instructors
themselves who might have offered an excess of office hours appointments or
loosened their after-hours availability during spring, out of concern for
their students, are vowing to be more protective of their time this
semester. This is an unprecedented time in education across the board: some
schools are being hit with lawsuits for moving to remote teaching while
others are fending off this fate by extending liability waivers for
students to sign if they are undertaking in-person instruction. North
Carolina State University and University of Notre Dame are just two higher
education institutions that have had to make a u-turn, suspending in-person
instruction due to Covid clusters on-campus. This will surely prey on the
minds of professors teaching senior year thesis collection who are tasked
with a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction. Modified plastic face
shields are being explored as alternatives to cloth masks to aid oral

Schools have generally ignored the wave of demands for reduced tuition
that arose in spring and continued throughout the summer from both parents
and students who believe remote learning constitutes a diminished
experience. Some institutions have even increased tuition citing the extra
financial burden of moving the program online and investment in technology
and software licensing. Educators are first in the line of fire of any
resentment regarding tuition. Attacking an instructor during end of
semester’s student reviews can be a shortsighted way for a student to
retaliate if they, or their parents, feel they are not getting their
money’s worth at this time when family budgets are rocked by unemployment
or failing businesses.

Under normal circumstances the hustle of being an NYC-based part-time
fashion professor is not for the faint-hearted. But this fall semester
brings the challenges to a whole new level.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for
the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

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