‘It puts us at a disadvantage’: Fashion students grapple with online classes, lack of resources

This article is part of the Chronicle’s series “Difficult to Transfer” in which we explore how departments are transitioning arts-based courses online due to the coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic.

Shane Tolentino

When the college announced all classes would transition online in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, faculty in the Fashion Studies Department had a question: How do you teach fashion design courses without sewing machines?

Colbey Reid, chair of the Fashion Studies Department, said the department sent out a virtual poll—that received 77 responses of the 150 students enrolled in courses using sewing machines that it was sent to—in order to see who needed equipment when classes went remote.

Reid said because the number of students in need was low, the college was able to ship the sewing machines temporarily to students in need using grant funds.

Christina Dababneh, a senior fashion design major, was one of 29 students in the department who needed a sewing machine in order to complete work for classes.

Dababneh is using the sewing machine she received to complete designs for her “Senior Thesis I” class. She said she can create four of the five pieces she initially planned but will not be able to produce her “finale” because she cannot purchase the correct fabric due to non-essential store closures. The college offers “scrap fabric” for students to use, but Dababneh said students typically purchase their own fabric for projects.

The five looks were set to make an appearance during the Manifest fashion show, but that has since been transitioned online, as well.

Reid said the college is considering alternate fashion show options such as hosting the show next semester or bringing back students in the “Senior Thesis” class, but she said it would depend on the state of the pandemic.

“All these things that were supposed to happen in the next two months were going to be the star players in our portfolio, and now we don’t have them,” Dababneh said. “When we enter the job industry, people who have the ability to have their shows and photoshoots earlier on will be ahead of the game. It puts us at a disadvantage to not have a completed collection.”

In a collegewide email sent Tuesday, April 14, President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim said it is inevitable that over the next few weeks not everything will work as well as the college hopes, and adjustments will need to be made “on the fly.”

Reid understands students’ frustrations but said classes will have to be different, adding that “in life, we constantly sign up for things and discover they are not the same thing.”

Reid said no classes within the department were discontinued in the online transition.

Even though Dababneh is not entirely satisfied with the transition to online learning, she has appreciated how understanding professors have been and would like to finish the semester the way it currently is. She said she has not focused on school for the past few weeks as her uncle died from the coronavirus, or COVID-19, and her mother and two other family members have been diagnosed with the coronavirus.

“There is a part of me that wants to point fingers to the administration that is above all the professors,” she said. “But as students, I don’t know what is happening behind closed doors. I don’t know what efforts are being made, so I feel like it would be unfair for me to point fingers.”

In order to complete his courses this semester, specifically his “Fashion Design Principles” course, freshman fashion studies major Jabari Middleton-Damu needs a laptop to access Canvas and use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. Although he received a loaned laptop from the college April 6, he has been unable to download and run Photoshop or Illustrator due to technical issues.

“I won’t be able to send in my best work for the rest of the semester,” Middleton-Damu said. “I won’t actually be able to get anything out of the class.”

Middleton-Damu is working with Columbia’s Information Technology office and has let his professors know of his difficulties but said there is no clear solution in sight.

Both Middleton-Damu and Dababneh said they acknowledge Columbia professors are doing the best they can, and Middleton-Damu is still looking forward to next semester.

Justin LeBlanc, an associate professor in the Fashion Studies Department, teaches three courses this semester, two of them considered “making courses,” which are more hands-on and difficult to transfer online, he said.

To prepare for online classes, LeBlanc updated his Canvas pages with links to materials students may need for their courses that can be ordered via Amazon. Students in his “Textile Fabrication and Surface Embellishment” course will likely need access to laser cutters or 3D printing machines in order to complete their final project, so he said he found companies students can send Illustrator files to and get their pieces mailed back to them. LeBlanc said students who were not able to bring any already cut or printed items home with them would have to pay for those services now.

For his “Design Solutions for Fashion” course, most students left their projects on campus, forcing LeBlanc to adjust the final project to a marketing plan. The course will still provide students digital portfolio work while focusing on marketing themselves, which not many fashion classes do, he said.

Reid encourages students to reach out to her directly if they experience any problems during the remainder of the semester.

“Fashion is the discipline of rapid reinvention,” Reid said. “We have to always be fast-paced about our change because culture changes quickly, and this time is no different. This is exactly what we do, [and we] know how to do.”


Correction 04/27/20 at 10:48 a.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the poll was sent to the entire Fashion Studies Department. In fact, it was sent to 150 students enrolled in courses using sewing machines. The Chronicle regrets this error.