Department 21 a student-led interdisciplinary department at the Royal College of Art


As it previously occurred, Department 21 has abandoned its physical face once again. It is dormant again, waiting for new possibilities to emerge. It is still unclear what form D21 will take from next term on, although the RCA has reserved a space for it on the third floor of the Stevens Building.

Here we finally publish the proposal we wrote in collaboration with CA&D tutors David Blamey and Debbie Cook and Learning & Teaching Coordinator Chris Mitchell:

Pilot Project: Interdepartmental Space 2010/11
This proposal is for the establishment of a pilot interdepartmental space for interdisciplinary learning and teaching in the Stevens Building. The establishment of such a space would build on the experiences and evidence gathered during the 6 week Department 21 experiment and respond to increasing College-wide student demands to develop new models for learning and teaching. For example, in a recent survey of students 87% thought that it was either important or very important that a space like Department 21 exists within the RCA.
This represents an opportunity to develop and test new models of cross-disciplinary education, while making efficient use of a space that has been set aside for accommodating increased student numbers.

Why now?
This proposal would help to reaffirm the College’s progressive position in contemporary academic practices in art and design. In the light of education research at Tate Britain, the Hayward Gallery and the Serpentine Gallery, the project would offer an opportunity to imagine a learning and teaching power dynamic that breaks with conventional ‘master and scholar’ models. Students who want to question and expand their practice beyond the traditional paths based on specific processes and mediums need to be supported in a more imaginative and meaningful way.
A number of institutions and courses have already begun to experiment with interdisciplinary learning programmes, such as:
_ MA Creative Practice for the Narrative Environment, Central Saint Martins
_ Design Matters, Art Centre College of Design
_ Aalto University
_ Master of Fine Arts in Transdisciplinary Design, Parsons The New School for Design
_ Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability, Stanford University
_ Design Academy Eindhoven

What are you proposing to do?
We are proposing to create an open and vibrant learning and working environment for interdisciplinary education.
The project would fit with the current idea of transforming part of the Stevens Building into a bookable, interdepartmental space. Over the period of one year, different interdisciplinary models would be offered and carefully evaluated. By structuring the management of this initiative around the concept of constant redefinition this would become a fertile space for the support of a wide range of interests and needs within the College.

How will the project be carried out?
The project will be student-led but supported by a representative College-wide Advisory Group. Each term the space would either be facilitated by two recent alumni, an elected member of staff or a recent alumnus, in collaboration with a current research student who could sustain a dynamic of critical engagement and energy within the space through their own research interests. In maintaining the space, facilitators would fulfill a range of vital functions, such as supporting the students as coordinators, administrators and, in some cases, technicians.
With the aim of being inclusive, the layout of the space will remain flexible and open, with space allocated towards ‘permanent’ workspaces, a common area, a bookable multi-purpose space and a more enclosed area. The ‘permanent’ workspaces will be offered to students on a half-termly basis, available to two students from each Department across the College.
Students would apply to work in the space by writing an expression of interest that would be considered by the Advisory Group. Staff would apply on the same terms and negotiate with their HoDs for time away from their Departmental duties to contribute to this initiative. A ‘supply’ force of existing staff, whose practices are already interdisciplinary in nature, would support student-centred learning.
The terms of engagement to work in the area would be democratically agreed each term and reflect the needs and opinions of the participants, including any external collaborators.
Initially, each term would explore and evaluate a different structure or approach. These could include:
_ Collaborative projects that coalesce around individual student practice and shared student interests
_ A project starting from a global issue like mobility, ageing population or climate change
_ A project starting from more abstract issues like wealth, gender or biopolitics
_ A project with a non- visual arts department in another UK educational institution
_ A project run by the Helen Hamlyn Centre along the lines of the Methods Lab
_ An external project with an industry partner

It would be agreed that each initiative had a specific outcome that engages a wider audience, i.e: an exhibition, a publication, an event. Furthermore, each student, facilitator or member of staff would be asked to produce a reflection on their experience following their time in the interdepartmental space.

Impact: Who will benefit from the project, and how?
The project would:
_ Test interdisciplinary and student-led approaches to learning and teaching in order to inform future strategic thinking in the area
_ Create a space to bring together, develop and promote the activities of students across disciplines
_ Enable emergent subject specialisms in interdisciplinary areas to be identified
_ Offer a hub of activity in South Kensington for fine art students in Battersea wanting to engage with other Departments
_ Catalyse the energy generated by working across disciplinary boundaries without compromising disciplinary practice.

Students would benefit from the opportunity to:
_ Test and refine their leadership skills by organising and leading a variety of activities relevant to their practice
_ Analyse and develop their practice in relation to other disciplines
_ Establish a strong network with practitioners from a wide spectrum of disciplines
In addition, the project will also benefit recent alumni who, as facilitators, would be able to develop their connections with the College in a professional capacity and broaden their connections with a variety of practitioners.

Alumni working in the space as facilitators would need to be paid part-time and a budget for materials and expenses would need to be allocated to the project.
As the interdepartmental space would potentially provide a temporary home for students away from their Department the project could be funded by cross-charging the Department in question a proportion of the student fees.

Future Developments. How will it be sustained?
As emergent subject specialism’s in interdisciplinary areas are identified new lead curriculum developments could arise out of genuine student concerns and interests. Research areas that encompass subject areas outside art and design could attract a wide range of research funding.
The space could attract PEP students wanting to analyse and develop their practice in relation to other disciplines. Research into interdisciplinary practice and student–led teaching could lead to a culture that could be attractive to for international educators as professional development.

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