The Senior Thesis Mentorship Program: An Alternative to the Jury Critique Method
Manuel D. Divino, Jr., RA | Kean University
Overview: The Senior Thesis Mentorship Program at Kean University (Union, NJ) began in the Fall of 2019 as an alternative to the traditional jury-based critique system for design presentations. Rather than have individual students feel as if they are standing in front of a firing squad during the critique process, for the majority of a semester each student is paired with a professional mentor (interior designer or architect), who oversees their work on a weekly basis. At the midpoint of the semester, each student visits their respective mentor’s office and formally presents their project (in progress) to the mentor and any available colleagues. The mentor and mentee continue correspondence until Thesis Night, in which all students display their work, with all mentors present to review as many students’ work as time allows, in a “speed dating” format.
Level: Fourth Year (penultimate semester)
Duration: One semester (16 weeks)
● To provide students with a greater level of quality and quantity of feedback
● To involve design professionals without compromising their schedules
● To expose students to the “real world” of the design profession
● To initiate the possibility of employment for the students
● To ease the workload of the professor in guiding an entire class of design students working on large (10–15K sf), diverse, and complex projects
The path of the traditional jury critique is well documented:
“Open juries…became something of a status symbol for educational institutions, a means by which prospective students could sit in on a critique and form an opinion on the intellectual rigour of a particular school. A downside of this, however, was the perception by some that the jury became a ‘blood sport,’ with students being humiliated and publicly embarrassed as their work was torn to shreds by jurors. Contemporary research has shown a lack of established goals as being a principle reason for student dissatisfaction with design juries. Surveys also revealed that many students believed they had learned less from criticism in the final jury than from interim, informal discussions with their tutors.” (Anthony, 1991, pp. 16, 34-35)
The problem with the traditional jury critique system is that, unless the class is very small, both the students and the audience lose interest very quickly. Students inevitably work on their projects all night, especially the night before the critique, and therefore may not be as aware of or receptive to criticism. All too often, students in the audience fall asleep in their chairs while waiting for their turn. In addition, the quality of the last critique of the night pales in comparison to that of the first critique, both in length and relevance.
It is not uncommon for reviewers to refrain from making a comment that they had made on a previous project, under the assumption that the students had been listening to every word of the jury. This is almost never the case. We have established that the attention span of the students in the room is questionable at best, and thus they do not benefit from the traditional critique-by-jury process. Furthermore, under the traditional system, feedback for students is limited to desk crits with the professor (the quality of which can be severely compromised if the size of the class is large) and comments from the jury. Such a system provides less chance for development and greater chance of disappointment.
The Senior Thesis Mentorship Program was created specifically to counteract the negative effects of the traditional jury critique, while also establishing a new format of critique that is enriching for students, faculty, and professionals alike.
- Prior to the start of the semester, faculty (or a Program Coordinator) establish relationships with design (and/or architecture) professionals who have an interest in Interior Design, design education, or both. The events described in this paper were for two classes of 10–16 students per semester, with two different professors (one per class).
- At the beginning of the semester, a questionnaire is issued to the students to determine compatibility with mentors. The faculty then collates a list of potential mentors, identifying appropriate matches. Matching consists of comparing a student’s project type with the specialty of the mentor, looking at their physical distance, and comparing personalities. A match in all three categories is ideal, but since such a scenario is unlikely, one match will suffice.
- For the first three to four weeks of the semester, faculty work with students at the research and schematic design level, in preparation for correspondence with a mentor. During this time, the mentors are prepped by the faculty, so that every effort is made to match professionals’ schedules with the overall semester schedule of the Thesis class.
- At Week 4, each student is paired with a mentor and initiates correspondence (via email). Students and mentors first schedule how (e.g. virtual, email, phone, or in-person) and how often (e.g. weekly, bi-weekly, etc.) to discuss the project.
- During weeks 4–7 of the semester, mentors and students discuss and develop the project, and the student also participates in desk crits with the professor.
- During Week 8, students visit the mentor’s office to formally present the status of the project (it is understood that the project is not complete, but the student presents it as if it were). Mentors are encouraged to invite other colleagues to participate in the presentation. Mentors evaluate the Week 8 presentation, via a questionnaire issued by the professor (counted as a grade).
- Weeks 9–13 are for design development. Students and mentors are encouraged to keep in correspondence with each other during this time. Also during this time, faculty secure and prepare a presentation space large enough to accommodate students, mentors, and guests.
- Week 14 is Thesis Night, in which all students of the class display their work at the same time. Viewing of the projects runs in two phases: 1) The first hour is exclusively for friends and family of the students. The intention of this hour is to reduce tension for the students. Presenting to loved ones tends to calm the students, especially after having exerted so much time and energy to get to this point. 2) The next 2–3 hours are for design professionals (including faculty, mentors, and alumni) to go around to as many projects as possible so the students can receive as much feedback as possible. This event is run “speed dating” style, with each reviewer spending no more than 15 minutes with a student, maximizing the amount of feedback given/received. (There is no clock or bell telling the professionals that it is time to move on to the next student; movement from one student to another is understood (another duty of the faculty is to prepare the professionals for this).
- During weeks 15–16 the students make final changes (i.e. “tweaks”) to their projects based on the feedback they received on Thesis Night, and present their final submission for the semester in the form of a bound book.
The Senior Thesis Mentorship Program provides each student with professional guidance over a longer period than the traditional jury critique, and does so without the fear of judgement. In meeting with the students on a weekly basis, the mentor becomes invested with both the student and the project, so that when presentation night arrives, the student does not feel as if he or she is standing alone. Instead, they feel as if they have the support of both their mentor and professor. They gain confidence in their work by having been given the opportunity to improve their project along the way, their confidence level is heightened, their stress levels are reduced, and the possibility of finding joy in their work now exists.
The wide range of feedback afforded to the student means that a greater portion of each project is addressed; the more eyes that pass over a project, the more issues there are to be acknowledged and addressed. In this manner, the Thesis project becomes a collaborative moment, not a solitary gesture. This collaboration is far more appropriate and equivalent to the professional world into which the students are about to embark.
Finally, as the goal of the Senior Thesis Mentorship Program is to expose the students to the “real world,” one hopes that the mentor would appreciate the student’s abilities enough to want to hire the student, or at the very least provide him or her with an avenue to other professionals who are looking to hire. As such, Thesis Night becomes more of an audition than a presentation, where there is a tangible outcome of professionalism, excitement, and accomplishment.
Anthony, Kathryn H. (1991). Design juries on trial: The renaissance of the design studio. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.