De Angela Duff and NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering–Integrated Digital Media

At the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, De Angela L. Duff co-directs a powerful and popular interdisciplinary program in Integrated Digital Media.

Before joining NYU, De Angela was the Program Director and an Associate Professor of Design, Art & Technology and Web Development & Interaction Design within the College of Art, Media & Design at The University of the Arts (UArts) in Philadelphia. In addition to her MFA in Studio Art (Photography) from the Maryland Institute of Art (MiCA), a BFA in Graphic Design from Georgia State University, and a BS in Textile Engineering from Georgia Tech, Duff is a designer, web developer, and photographer.

Intersection of Design, Art, and Technology

At the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, the Integrated Digital Media (IDM) academic programs explore digital media in a holistic way, as practices that range from computer programming for app development, software design, game development and interaction design to 2D and 3D graphics for human-computer interfaces, augmented reality and game design to photography, film, and audio for media installations, performing arts research including motion capture, and integration with various mediums. IDM students are engineers, entrepreneurs, and artists who are training to work in fluid industries that need people who are technical, innovative, and creative.

At its core, IDM is “the intersection of design, art, and technology,” Duff explains. There are core building blocks for the program- Image (whether it is graphic design, photography, video, or 2D/3D animation), Sound, Interactivity (including programming or physical computing), and Narrative/Storytelling. Students are able to combine these four building blocks in whatever combination that supports their career goals, as the program is remarkably flexible and geared to the individual-thus, as Duff explains, each student’s education is individualized.

“My own background is reflective of that,” she adds, as she was drawn to each field that had elements of what she was passionate about exploring, and then she self-taught any elements that weren’t supplied by the program, such as web design and development. In the early 90s, for instance, when the early web browser Mosaic was released, there were no tutorials online, so she just reverse engineered the code, even though she had no prior experience with coding. “I basically just taught myself,” she admits.

Later, while going to school full-time and working full-time simultaneously, she created the first website for Georgia Tech’s College of Computing, and she took every opportunity that came her way to work with new media. Because many of her early professors at Georgia State’s Graphic Design program in the early nineties were unfamiliar with computers, they instructed their students to go “figure it out” in the lab down the hall. Because she could indeed figure it out, this was incredibly empowering for a young student. She is quick to add, though, that she believes her story “isn’t really unique.”

Ultimately, she made the transition from the industry to being a professor, and she acknowledges things are trickier now because there are so many resources and the changes are practically instantaneous, which means some might want the learning process to be equally fast. Part of her job is to emphasize for this generation that learning requires “a commitment and a curiosity,” as well as the hours and hours of work to master any worthwhile skill. This is the same drive that makes her conscious of never “watering down” fundamentals just to teach a new and fashionable technology.

Keeping the Core Strong

In the IDM program, students are trained in the foundation classes, and then they choose electives from anywhere on campus or studio electives, which are offered by IDM. They are able to keep a variety of courses offered every semester, so students are able to satisfy their requirements and build a body of work that is personalized to the student and geared to forward the individual student’s goals and long-term life plans.

They offer a variety of Special Topics, especially to students in the graduate program, and there are standard studio electives in everything from Sound Design and Documentary Film to Augmented Related and Native Mobile App Development. Then, there are ongoing Special Topics in areas like Experimental Game Narratives, Data Visualization, and Wearable Technologies. Another common Special Topics area is found in Ability Labs-for instance, a “Mind’s Eye Redux” course is focused on helping visually impaired individuals use technology to explore MOMA art.

Clearly, this is not a field that stays still for even a moment, and that requires a tremendous amount of curriculum design and redesign, a task many educators would find daunting. Duff, however, has always found constant revision of the curriculum to be something she enjoyed and was drawn too, so staying on the cutting edge of technology isn’t a burden for her-it’s a passion.

Helping Students Evolve

Mark L Skwarek, Lecturer in the IDM program, describes Duff as an amazing coworker. He notes, “She brings great passion and energy to anything she does.” He also mentions that NYU School of Engineering professors are the best in NYC, offering the most cutting-edge courses. Dana Karwas is also a Lecturer in the IDM program. Also praising Duff’s seemingly endless amount of energy and dedication, she finds Duff to be a wonderful leader and mentor whose direct and honest feedback offers countless benefits to students as they “evolve into young professionals living and working in NYC.”

R. Luke DuBois is the other Co-Director of Integrated Digital Media. “De Angela is a terrific colleague,” he explains, “and we’d be for her tremendous focus and commitment to the IDM program’s mission and her powerful mentorship of students. He adds, “One of my favorite things about De Angela’s engagement with education is that she pushes the students to make, to do, and to engage, as a way to learn to think creatively and critically in the world.”

DuBois explains that Duff’s efforts go far beyond “by-the-book, project-based learning”; instead she knows each student’s aspirations and astutely reminds them each “where they’ve come from and where they’re going.” DuBois finds this ability to keep students on track as they continue through college and onto a graduate degree a rare gift, as students so often struggle to do that for themselves. “De Angela talks often about wanting our students to be T-shaped individuals,” DuBois explains, “in that they have breadth of experience as well as depth of knowledge.” He notes that this stance inspires him and all of their colleagues, as something he finds himself checking against to ensure he designs his own classes to stay aligned with those goals.

DuBois adds that many undergraduates are “secretly fascinated” by how Duff manages to stay organized and calm throughout the chaos of the day. He notes that he’s the more “typical” example-running around a few minutes late, perhaps forgetting things, looking for items in a “wreck at all times” office. Duff just has a different energy. He is inspired by the way their students can come to Duff’s office at any time of the day and unload their stress-just to have her take it in and look at them to say, “I got this with you, and we’re gonna figure this out.”

Curriculum as a Living Document

DuBois mentions a point of pride for the program (that Duff is the “main architect” for crafting) is their curriculum. Though there may be some fields of study where the same syllabus can get the job done for a few years in a row, this field is not one of them. It is broad and fast moving. He explains you can easily find yourself out of date or-just as problematic-get lost in short-term trends that leave you skimping on fundamentals only because they aren’t “hot” in the marketplace culture at the moment.

“That’s the challenge with the curriculum,” DuBois explains, “to treat it as a living document.” He believes this is one of Duff’s greatest strengths-her ability to abstract core themes and ideas that need to be covered in IDM from the specific technologies you would use to work in those spaces. This move allows them to protect the core of the curriculum while giving them agility in swapping out new methodologies, technologies, techniques, and workflows.

Another strength of the program, he believes, comes from polling their industry partners-the companies that hire their students-to know the specific tech those students will need to be successful. Though that sounds straightforward and even simple, DuBois explains, “The hard part is keeping the eye on the ball in terms of more abstract knowledge…problem solving, design, critical thinking, creativity. Those are things to be passionate about.”

DuBois finds the IDM program to be “at the intersection of engineering and creative practice,” meaning students get the best of two worlds: research-active inquiry woven with a mandate to push creative boundaries of any technology. “It’s interdisciplinary, complicated stuff, but every civilization uses the maximum level of technology available to it to make art, and creative thinkers are vitally important as drivers and agents of social and technological change,” he explains.

“We are creating an environment that offers students a chance to excel and succeed in that space.” At its core, DuBois believes the undergraduate program takes a “holistic, 50,000 foot view look at digital media as a field of interconnected disciplines that are changing under your feet all the time.” As such, their best students are the ones who quickly master navigating that space and learn to “collaborate early and often” as well as “specialize but not over-specialize.”

Creating Creative Citizens

Katherine Bennett is an Adjunct faculty member of Integrated Digital Media and a former colleague of Duff’s from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where they worked together for six years. “De Angela is phenomenal,” Bennett raves. “She is someone I really look up to. She holds a hard line for her students; she expects a lot out of them. She is creating creative citizens.”

Bennett explains that Duff’s students experience “less of shell shock when they get out there” because Duff works with them as individuals, always helping them stay “wired in to their own educational plan.” She also has trained them repeatedly in how to be productive, how to be creative, and how to find resources-skills that will enable them to succeed regardless of their chosen fields. They are ready for “all the tech and all the creative individual work.” In fact, Bennett recalls that it was hard to keep their students in school sometimes-not because of problems at home but because “they were being recruited at the undergraduate level.”

Bennett adds that Duff is constantly attuned to the success of the students after they graduate and stays heavily involved with the alumni. Because she is a passionate educator who is constantly “seeking insight and resource for self-improvement,” she uses student feedback to alter the program. Bennett mentions that Duff is able to find the time to be reflective and pro-active in adjusting the program on a regular basis because Duff is more than just a curriculum expert-she made herself a time-management expert as well.

When her friend and colleague grew interested in time management as a practice a while back, Bennett recalls Duff often surrounded with a slew of books on the field, as she worked to put all those practices into effect. Once Duff saw for herself what worked best, she made quick work of training her students in those same practices, something Bennett finds incredibly refreshing in a colleague and an educator. “Everything De Angela does,” Bennett adds, “she thinks about how to share it with others.”

Praising Duff for her selfless nature and endless work, Bennett also stresses that Duff is “incredibly empowering and incredibly demanding.” She shares that when she looks at one of Duff’s thirty-page syllabi, she finds herself learning a lot, even as a professional. She also considers it a testament to her colleague’s skill and motivation that students who fared poorly in the class, even if there were no chance to retake the course, would ask Duff for another copy of the syllabus years later-because they quickly realized there were essential skills missing that were expertly explained and detailed on the syllabus Duff had provided semesters earlier.

Bennett admits that this is the kind of work that calls for constant energy, devotion, and evolution. Students and educators have to hold themselves to this high standard constantly. In a program like this, she adds, “You don’t just roll in, do your thing, and roll out.” Every year, Duff reverse engineers the program to ensure that students are leaving the program with exactly what future employers will expect them to know. “She’s looking at where students are and figuring out how to get them there,” Bennett explains, “teaching students to be independent and resourceful on their own.”

About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Mississippi College. After finishing her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, she taught and served as the University Writing Center Director for Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most recently, she taught Business Communications at Samford University.