By Susana Gómez Báez
Last semester, first-year interior design student Kelley Clayton was asked to try her hand at contemporary art by creating a wooden box that showed emotion.
And while beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Clayton says the only beholder whose judgement counted was her professor’s. Since creativity can be so subjective, so can your grade.
“It was all his decision,” Clayton says. “If he didn’t like it, you fail. It’s all subjective.”
According to her, trial and error was the only way to know if you were on the right track.
“Every single week you show him and he’d be like ‘change this, change that,’ until eventually … to you, it doesn’t mean anything anymore. But he’s happy with it so you go with it,” she says. “That’s all that matters because he’s the one marking it.”
Clayton is one of many Ryerson students in creative programs who feel they have had to learn to cater the creative components of their assignments to professors’ tastes.
These programs combine both artistic and technical skills, so whether more creativity or practicality will hold more weight is up to the professor.
Fashion student Jaclyn Scott* says realizing that was her biggest lesson.
“If I learned anything at Ryerson [it’s] that you need to show your work to as many people as possible,” she says. “In fields where opinion matters that’s the only way to judge your success.
One person is not a valid representation of how good your work is in a creative field.”
Professors are aware of this, says Yew-Thong Leong, an associate professor of architecture.
“Aesthetic is a very difficult thing to assess,” he admits. “But professors, regardless of what students think, do not mark indiscriminately.” Leong says he focuses on the technical portions of an assignment, and evaluates creativity by looking at the process that went into it.
“You cannot be creative in isolation,” he says. “You cannot be creative in a vacuum, you cannot just pull things out of a hat. The process … is what makes the end product aesthetically relevant.”
He says he tries to teach his students how to apply creativity in the real world. That way, even if he dislikes an idea, he says he marks how well the concept is carried out instead.
Architecture masters student Eric Tran says he wishes every professor was like this. He says he has a friend who dropped out of the program in her final year because a professor was not happy with her thesis and was pushing her to do something differently.
According to Tran, even though architecture is meant to be a mix of inventive and practical concepts, the emphasis on which topic is explored depends on which instructor you get.
“You will have profs who are practicing architects and then you will have profs who have never practiced, who have always been in academia, and you will know right away,” he says. “[Practicing architects] teach you how to manage your own business, how to get yourself out of legal situations. These are the things that we as students need to know before we get into the actual profession, before we commit ourselves.”
But sometimes students value a more practical approach, rather than having too much creative freedom. Tran says one of his firstyear professors whose entire career was spent in academia pitched the idea of gathering garbage in Toronto and putting it in the lake to make an island. Such a grandiose endeavour isn’t a practical use of students’ time, he adds.
“These are really big ideas,” he says. “But you can see the huge differences in the spectrums of [professors] right away. So you have to gauge as a student what you want to take from [them].” Instead, Tran proposes working on more achievable real-world assignments and investing lecture time into learning about budgets.
Leong agrees that industry lessons are an important aspect of classroom learning. He says he wishes Ryerson would employ more practitioner professors, as they bring in experience gathered in the working world.
“[An academic] doesn’t have to worry about [practicality],” Leong says. “They can be completely creative in terms of exploration, they can be creative in terms of writing, but don’t have to worry about … delivering services of products to the industry. But you go to university to get fully employed.”
Ryerson was only granted university status in 1971 and still upholds the reputation it earned as a practical school when it was a polytechnic.
“Ryerson prepares us for the outside world more than a lot of other schools,” says Aubrey Deluca, a third-year architecture student.
According to her, students in the architecture program do site visits as part of certain classes to get a feel for how building and designing translates from theory into reality.
“I have friends who go to U of T and they don’t take field trips or anything. They read books and Google things,” she says.
Although it may not be enough for some, Ryerson is much more hands-on than many other universities.
Petrija Deobela, a first-year photography student who decided to take up the program after taking classes at the University of Toronto, celebrates Ryerson for its real-world approach.
“Ryerson tries to make you competitive with college grads that have technical proficiency,” she says.
Yet some programs focus so much on technical proficiency that students express the same kind of displeasure as those who have an excessively creative curriculum, even if the program warrants the extra creativity.
According to Scott, students tend to feel intimidated about pushing their boundaries creatively or innovatively because they fear receiving poor grades as a result.
“I wish [the professors] would see someone that’s really trying to push themselves and expand their horizons and take that into account when they mark,” says Scott. “Look at the first muslin, the first prototype that they first handed in and see how far they’ve taken the idea, how far they’ve gotten from zero to getting it perfect. They are challenging themselves intrinsically.”
What can happen, says Scott, is a student will create an illustration for a garment that is far from his or her comfort zone, sacrificing perfection for originality. But that isn’t always properly rewarded.
“[Professors] seem to measure how far away from perfection you are instead of how far you’ve had to come,” she notes, adding that her time at Ryerson has tought her many things she needs to work on, but has left her strengths unclear.
“This program is so expensive, and we want to learn, and the only way to learn is to challenge yourself and they don’t encourage it. People are intimidated to challenge themselves because they’re afraid of the repercussions it’ll have on their grades.”
She remarks that the fashion world is about taking risks and making something completely new, even if it results in “falling flat on your face” every so often.
“In the real world, if you’re coming up with a new concept … it’s not going to turn out perfectly the first time that you try it,” Scott adds. “There are a few steps involved to finesse everything and the evaluation system does not [always] take that into account.”
In fact, she notes that although there is emphasis on meticulous things like how many stitches per inch you have, more practical skills are missing.
“We never work with budgets,” she says, highlighting how essential this is in the fashion industry.
All projects must be handed in with a cost sheet that explains the target audience, but since the student chooses the audience, it’s up to the student how much to invest.
“Obviously if you have rich parents who can afford for you to spend $2,000 on your evening wear project, you’re going to come up with this amazing dress,” Scott says. “Higher end fabrics are easier to work with. Our professors encourage us to work with higher end fabrics for that reason. The end result is better and … [professors] judge you based on that on your final. And it’s not an equal playing field because I don’t have a $2,000 to spend on my evening wear project.”
But most students agree that even if they have to make a wooden box with motifs that move through space or hang up your creativity for a while, graduating with an art degree from Ryerson can be worth it.
“Ryerson has a really good reputation for some reason,” says Scott. “I’m not quite sure why sometimes, but I guess I’m glad my degree is going to carry that reputation.”
*Names have been changed.