Courses at Olin involving collaborative design with an external community have been…well…weird for me. I am not an E:Design, but some vague and murky notion of “design is cool” comprised about 50% of my decision to attend Olin. As such, my expectations going into design courses were absurdly high. Since CD and continuing through ADE, though, I’ve been on a trajectory leading me to reject the idea that fundamentally societal problems, such as food insecurity and the harms of the carceral state, can be meaningfully approached within a CD- or ADE-style, 4-credit, semester- or even multi-semester-long class. I’m not aiming to be A Professional Designer, so I can’t say much about the actual state of the industry, but I sincerely hope that design in the “real world” does not happen like this. If what’s happening on my ADE team (and perhaps more intensely with some other teams, from what I’ve heard) is, in fact, a common set of methods and experiences from “real world” design, I can start thinking of some reasons why this country is so plagued with what tech startups and venture capitalists refer to as “innovation” – snappy-sounding fast fixes that sidestep and distract from serious, sustained analysis of societal problems at hand. We assume every group of people wants, or is capable of wanting, the equivalent of an overworked amateur design consultancy to try to solve problems for them.
On my CD team two years ago, due to a combination of class constraints, our interpretation of those constraints, and maybe a little bit of the fact that we were Online For The Foreseeable Future (which at the time was modeled in my head as “literally forever”), our relationship with our people group – soup kitchen workers, in this case – was fundamentally extractive: we would get lots of important information about how soup kitchens work from our conversations with volunteers, case workers, organizers, and patrons, but at the end of the day, all of our interactions with those amazing, hardworking people – who were innovative in the broader sense, in that they were constantly thinking about how to improve the systems they were a key part of – were just for the CD team’s educational benefit. We produced a mock-up of an “Uber Eats, but free”-style app for soup kitchens, were literally told by faculty that this was “revolutionary” (somehow), and then moved on, never to talk to any of those people ever again. All of this hustle and bustle to make something that looked close enough to a final project for us to get A grades, when during almost every interview we had with a soup kitchen worker, there was this gnawing underlying suspicion that they probably just wanted us to come volunteer with them and be a part of their community in a slow, sustained, honest way. And I pushed that suspicion away. And I fucking hate that I did that. But that pushing away, although certainly an example of maybe not having the best individual priorities at the time, was also not purely individual. There was this pervasive feeling that we had to prioritize what would make the professors happy. I can’t pretend I can pinpoint one source for this flawed priority – I think we were all actors in that little morality play.
In Olin courses, and generally in how Olin talks about itself, a model is implicitly communicated to students about How Change Should Be Made. By constantly reinforcing the idea that Olin classes give us Real World Experience, there is, I believe, a danger that the Real World will be confused with this model. I don’t know what the solution is. Olin not being accredited? Or maybe Olin being more embedded in larger external communities? Just communicating more (real communication, not marketing – though at Olin it can be tremendously hard to tell the difference) about what the purpose of a given class actually is?
Well, anyway, back to the anecdotes. I wanted ADE to be everything CD was not. I wanted to be part of a community, rather than the academic observer standing awkwardly to the side. I wanted to take things slowly, rather than being pushed to deliver something that looks like a product before I’ve even begun to understand all the nuances and underlying forces behind the problem that is being faced. And maybe it’s because I’m just too slow to keep up with all you Olin geniuses, but that’s absolutely not how ADE has gone for me. We assume that ADE will be the answer.
But even though ADE has not ended up the way I imagined or hoped – every time I realize that we can’t share a given piece of information with our community partners because of our existing promises to our legal partners, I die a little inside – I guess I did end up learning something from these past few months: I’ve started to become conscious of the tremendous value of learning history. Looking through the archives of previous teams’ work, only to find some assumption tests where very confident conclusions were made on shockingly shaky grounds, has made me far less certain of our project’s actual value than I was before. Re-reading the actual text of a court decision that appeared to finally make things easier for people who want to prove that a cop pulled someone over on racist grounds, then being confronted with how little this hope lines up with actual judicial practice as observed by our legal partners, made me wonder whether working on a project that’s fully focused on this single piece of legislation is the best thing we could be doing with our skills and time, and whether there are better ways for the team to help in the fight against racist policing. And I know that every person on my team has been agonizing about this too. I could shut down this discomfort, dismissing it as an “existential crisis”, and direct all my focus to the “actual work” of the project. In fact, I’ve tried doing that. I’ve had to try many times, since for some silly and mysterious reason, these definitely totally unrelated “existential crises” just keep coming up in this class, don’t they? We assume everything is actually completely fine.
I’ve failed to stop worrying, but I find solace in the fact that all these different fields outside of engineering can be deeply studied and harnessed to try to understand massive, sprawling injustices like the growing reach of the carceral state. Maybe the “existential crisis” I get during these types of classes is a sign that I just don’t have the tools to engage with the problem I’m trying to face, which is totally okay, because there exist plenty of tools outside the ones we learn here at Olin(!!). I love learning tools that are completely new to me. That’s what I wanted Olin to be about for me, but I’m going to be real, I mostly just ended up being busy and sad. But after I leave Olin, I’ll hopefully have the energy and time to actually join some kind of coalition that’s actively fighting against the carceral state and, what’s more, imagining and co-creating new worlds that have a different, more human view of “justice”…and I won’t be graded on it!
We assume that there is life outside ADE and Olin.
And now, with a new appreciation of history, political theory, societal frame-shifting, and my own life in hand, I hope more than anything else that this assumption holds up. There’s a lot of living to do.