Pen Portraits

Angela Drisdale Gordon talks to us about Pen Portraits, an icebreaker activity that encouraged students to discuss their personal interests and cultural background. Angela was previously Course Leader for the Foundation Diploma Fashion Design and Marketing at  LCF. She is now Head of Further Education at UAL.

Pen portraits is an icebreaker activity – how did it you use it?
We wanted to have an icebreaker which would help students talk about their personal interests. It was pretty simple – students asked each other a long list of questions and would share their answers with the group. The questions ranged from ‘what’s in your fridge?’ to ‘do you have a faith?’  Our aim was to enable students to open up about their interests without feeling pressure to delve too deeply.

The tutor also shared their own answers to each of the questions, this is a chance for students to get to know you and for you to offer some insight into your own creative interests and ethical viewpoints. I’m Agnostic, and I explain this to students. So from the outset we are talking openly about our religious beliefs and cultural identity. This short exercise gave us an insight into students’ beliefs and perspectives on a range of issues and topics. It also helped us to reflect on how they might relate to us as teachers – and helped us adapt our communication in a way that was inclusive of different student perspectives.

What do you find challenging about exploring issues relating to faith and belief?   There is a nervousness surrounding religion – people are afraid of offending or not knowing about a certain belief or practice. I just approach it from a perspective of curiosity – I take time to get to know students and ask them questions about themselves. One-to-one tutorials are important, but we also create space to discuss diverse identities and cultural perspectives within group tutorials with students.

How do you support students to explore diversity and social identity through their work?
This course in particular attracted students from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, as well as high numbers of international students. We would see students flourish and develop their own identities during their studies – for example, I noticed that many LGBT students develop new ways of expressing their identity during the course of their studies. These kinds of activities are therefore important to have at the start, and to revisit at other points in the course.

It’s vital that we give students the option to draw on different cultural references in their work. Unit briefs should be encouraging students to visit places like the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, or Hackney Market on a Saturday, as well as places like the V&A and Science Museum!

Students need to make up their own minds about who they look to for inspiration, but as tutors we must support and encourage them to encounter different belief systems and cultural practices. I expect students to become experts in their field – and part of this is knowing the historical and cultural context of a particular design.

What do you do when a student explores cultural or religious references that you’re not familiar with?   

Students often make references to cultural or religious practices which I’m not familiar with. I respond by researching the area myself, so that we can have an informed discussion about the student’s work. Students should not be directed away from exploring a particular theme simply because it is new to the tutor – on the contrary, this is the way we develop our knowledge of the field, and expand our understanding of a subject.