“Any idiot can face a crisis,” wrote Anton Chekhov. “It’s this day to day living that wears you out.” In all honesty, the day-to-day, face-to-face teaching which we hold up as our ideal was prone to getting pretty hard-going round about week seven of a Spring Quarter. So I feel as though I simply exchanged the usual seasonal teaching challenge for the momentarily novel challenge of remote teaching.
Indeed, one of my TAs this quarter, Harold Linde, pictured here as the sole member of my live audience, is completing an MFA on “Smartphone Containment Implements and Rituals,” which reminds me that even live classroom teaching was hobbled with social distancing. I might be bringing some students back into the fold if I can teach them on their phones. As the camera at the back of the room tracks me, my production values are actually better than Stephen Colbert’s right now. With my tub of black market sterilizers on the lectern, I look like I’m sponsored by Clorox.
Before anyone else could “shock doctrine” my pedagogy, I decided to shock doctrine it myself. Wouldn’t the opportune time to switch up my approach to design history be just when nobody was in the room to witness it go wrong? This was the moment, I decided, to begin my survey anew by framing design as both the hero and villain of racial, patriarchal, classist, species-ist, industrial crisis — a decision which seems all too timely.
And so far we’re getting through this crisis because of a day-to-day ethos. A day-to-day, year-to-year, decade-to-decade ethos. Tech support staff still clocking in are the reason I can teach in the way I do. My 120+ students are hanging in there. (One of them, Camille, thought to email me some positive feedback, since she “figured you’re not getting much interaction with students and it’s probably difficult to gauge the feeling of the class.”) I’m privileged to have a purpose and opportunity for paid work as ten million file for unemployment insurance in just a couple of weeks.
It’s the near-future day-to-day, the new normal of maybe about week seven and beyond that I worry about more, after the novelty and forgiveness has started to wear away, as more students have cause for bereavement, as their families paying my salary face hardship, as eventually colleagues are laid off, and as the distance model is given a second look as part of a permanent solution. Which reminds me why I’m teaching design-as-crisis, hero and villain: it’s the perpetual memorandum that things can improve as well as worsen if we plan together about what matters.
A sign of the day-to-day that lurks: when Harold left the lecture seen in these pictures, he discovered his bike had been stolen, from the center of a deserted campus.
— Simon Sadler
A free university
In the turn to remote teaching, we are being bombarded with an arsenal of proprietary software and platforms that require immense amounts of uncompensated labor to master: video conference meetings, Learning Management Systems, exam proctoring software, discussion platforms, online chat platforms, game learning platforms, instant messaging platforms, and so on. Instructors and students are expected to transform our teaching and learning, on short notice and without training, into a version of “online” education using a cornucopia of these profit-generating tools. To compensate for the loss of in-person contact and the potential inequities of access, instructors have made heroic efforts to create adequate synchronous and asynchronous experiences. The suspicion that this crisis and ensuing budget cuts will provide administrators with a pretext for shifting more of our curriculum to cheaply generated remote courses is justified. The education-industrial complex thereby further penetrates the university.
The suspicion that this crisis will provide a pretext for shifting more of our curriculum to cheaply generated remote courses is justified.
Some of us dream of an alternative: a free university. We envision a forum for unfettered teaching and learning, a space in which our pedagogical labor is not monetized by for-profit companies and our students’ data is not scraped and sold to third parties for targeted advertising, where our knowledge can be exchanged freely. Can we take what we are learning under duress to reimagine higher education on a different model of participation? Can our current experiences be the catalyst for renegade institutions that refuse the imperatives of the neoliberal university? This will be work for the immediate future as we find our way through the crisis and work to retain the integrity of learning and the generation of knowledge.
— Patricia Morton
THE PANIC. Like every other educational institution, the University of Edinburgh responded to the pandemic by almost immediately replacing conventional teaching formats with online models. For us, the needs were relatively limited as we were at the end of the semester. For others, it was different. In both cases I thought the reaction was a panicky one — it was clear from early March that we were in an emergency of a nature none of us has experienced in our lifetimes, and the best course was for everyone to go home, to stay home. Early on there was a lot of production (of teaching materials, assignments, online events, stuff), much of which seemed to be for the benefit of the producers rather than the students. I took another approach simply because my own levels of concentration were so poor, and I couldn’t imagine my students were faring any better (and the conversations I had suggested this was the case). I recorded a few short talks covering the material we missed, and made myself available to chat one-on-one by Skype or Zoom. Others did more. I am fortunate to work in a school that allows a range of approaches; for the time being, at any rate, and for me, less was more. Some things carried on pretty much as normal, of course. PhD advising, and supervision of other dissertations, worked fine online, as did small meetings with one or two colleagues.
THE FUTURE. I hope we get through this. There are plenty of academics who are genuinely comfortable teaching online and have done extraordinary work over the years to make it possible. I’m not one of them. Most of my teaching happens in small groups of between ten and twenty, and the classroom for those groups has always been a real space where most of what happens is contingent on the moment and on who’s there. Moving around in the space is important, as is sticking things on the walls, and a whole range of non-verbal cues and actions. Regardless of the content, the classroom for me has always been a mixture of theater and therapy, and I can’t imagine easy ways of reproducing these things online — nor, frankly, would I want to. It’s not what I came into teaching to do. That said, I’ve always liked doing straightforward, old-fashioned lectures too, and these can be done easily enough online. But the ones I’ve done so far have suffered though the lack of audience. I realize just how much I need the audience, how much even a lecture is a dialogue.
— Richard J. Williams
We cannot keep calling this “online teaching.” Online teaching requires far more structure and planning than any of us have had the capacity to provide. This is better considered as crisis management and harm reduction. We are in a reactive mode, and the best we can do is to try to avoid causing any more damage.
— Fred Scharmen
At the moment, there are (let’s face it) few benefits to teaching design remotely. Currently I am teaching a graduate theory seminar and, with seven other instructors, a large undergraduate design studio. The pivot to online teaching was pretty smooth for the seminar, in which ten students are enrolled; dare I say, it’s actually working quite well. But for the design studio, the transition has been trickier; for students and faculty it can feel challenging and lonely. We all miss the collective camaraderie, the companionship of the shared space.
Online reviews will allow schools to assemble design juries that are more international and much more inclusive.
Looking further ahead, I’m wondering about how the measures we are taking to respond to an emergency will change our pedagogical practices once the crisis is past. Institutional structures are likely to change, perhaps radically; for example, there might be more movement across universities, with students selecting courses from multiple schools, à la carte, rather than enrolling exclusively with one program. Or, for another example, design reviews might alter in scope and format; and to be sure, some changes will be beneficial. For years many schools have struggled to afford the travel expense of visiting critics. Online reviews will allow schools to assemble design juries that are more international and much more inclusive; students will benefit from having more diverse perspectives on their projects. Online reviews might also be customized and personalized, by aligning jurors and students with compatible sensibilities and themes. In the process we might finally do away with all-day marathons. Ideally such reforms will help make our programs more equitable and humane.
Student bodies everywhere are likely become less international, at least for a while. To attract students from other countries, schools might shift some courses online for the foreseeable future. Design studios could move from typical 16-week sequences to shorter, more intense bouts of instruction. Students could still travel, but for shorter periods. In the near term, schools will likely experiment with a hybrid of both online and place-based instruction — which might be a boon for commuter schools, where many students have long daily trips to campus. And if international students don’t return in the same numbers, some schools will shrink. At the same time other schools, especially those with hefty endowments that can support the huge bandwidth for online pedagogy and provide students the necessary devices, will get bigger. (The differences in resources are already evident; it’s the wealthier schools that have been able to roll out online lectures very speedily.) Of course, this mirrors trends in the design profession, where multinational corporate firms are devouring smaller independent practices.
The concept of remote education is not new. The Open University was a pioneer in using information technology to transform teaching.
As we rethink institutional frameworks and explore new ways for education to be delivered, it’s worth remembering that the concept of remote and/or distributed education is not new. There are lessons to be learned from how information technologies advanced education in the past. The Open University, for example, established in the UK in 1971 and now one of the largest schools in Europe, was a pioneer in using technology to transform teaching, moving away from point-based and physical interaction to a network-based approach that deployed television and radio broadcasts — the BBC was the primary interface, while the Post Office was used to mail exams and worksheets. The initial class included over 25,000 students, mostly from working-class backgrounds, who otherwise would not have been able to attend university. And earlier, Cedric Price was creating speculative projects that imagined new flexibilities and temporalities for teaching; these include the Detroit Think Grid (1967), which envisioned educating an underserved population using a kit of parts of technological devices distributed around the city and networked to a central command center, and the Potteries Thinkbelt (1963–1967), which contemplated how information systems in tandem with vacant post-industrial infrastructure could be redeployed to form a regional university in the North of England.
Education and information systems have long histories and advances in one realm inevitably inform the other. Today the shift to online has begun and there seems no going back. Now the internet along with software from Blackboard to Zoom has replaced television and radio (although during the current lockdown, the RTE, the national station in Ireland, has been broadcasting classes to school children). But the guiding philosophy of remote learning, as a mean of reinventing educational systems in order to make them more equitable and accessible, remains as potent as ever.
— Clare Lyster
My first experience of an online class was three weeks ago, sitting with our child. During the first online meeting with her preschool class, frustration set in quickly. Once we figured out how to use the “Brady Bunch” view in Zoom, I began observing some problems with the interface:
- The challenge of choosing where to look on the subdivided screen.
- Never knowing when it was her turn to speak or if she was ever heard.
I suspect that both of these problems are related to the “split attention effect,” a phenomenon that occurs when information is delivered to a learner simultaneously via different sources. Most of us have experienced this effect during lectures when a speaker reads a text that is also projected. Reading the screen while also listening and looking at the speaker forces an increased cognitive load on the audience, thus making comprehension more challenging. In response to her frustration, our daughter lost interest within five minutes and began drawing in front of the iPad tablet, with her markers and paper deceptively out of view.
Whether or not learning can occur, teaching online is undoubtedly a struggle against distraction. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t.
The split attention effect also applies to online teaching. “Zoom Rooms” are not unified spaces, but fragmented assemblages of views into different spaces, as if Sergei Eisenstein were conducting a global experiment in visual montage and social interaction from beyond the grave. Each student is sequestered in a separate box, so one never knows quite where to focus. Visual presentations with screen sharing only exacerbate the problem. And then there are the off-screen distractions: Someone’s parent calls for lunchtime, a sibling enters a room, or my family is playing upstairs in the kitchen. Whether or not learning can occur, teaching online is undoubtedly a struggle against distraction. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t.
— Marshall Brown
A Teachable Moment
Crisis presents opportunities. With the norms of living, working, learning, and teaching all upended in the COVID-19 pandemic, now is the time to rethink our habits and assumptions. From food drives to neighborhood “bear hunts,” citizens around the world have already found creative ways to combat social isolation and mobilize mutual support despite the shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders instated in cities and communities, not to mention the complete closedown of large cities, starting with Wuhan. Many in our field have also found ways to support ourselves and others since the outbreak began and as classes moved online. Design educators have signed up to offer remote lectures and studio reviews through the Sick Faculty Lecture Exchange and Virtual Final Review Participation, following examples from other disciplines. Webinars on online instruction — for instance, on how to teach community engagement and design/build during the lockdown — have sparked conversations and interactions that would not have occurred otherwise. Makerspaces and fabrication labs at universities have been mobilized to produce personal protection equipment, or PPE, including face fields and 3D-printed ventilator splitters, for local hospitals and health departments.
Seeing the current situation as an opportune moment for distance collaboration, a group of us started a platform called Distance Collaboration Commons, or disCO-commons, to support the sharing of online resources and facilitate collaboration and exchange between educators committed to design for social change. In just a couple of days, over 500 people joined our social media group. Entries started to stream in and fill up our online spreadsheet of resources, from both familiar sources and those not known to us.
The pandemic offers a teachable moment in design for social change.
Conversations started to pop up on our social media wall. A colleague from Hong Kong asked about how to carry on community research and design as well as fieldwork during the pandemic. In response, another colleague from the Philippines described his current work in the streets of Manila, which has shifted the focus of an ongoing project to food relief and a social media campaign. Crisis teaches us what matters most in our role as engaged scholars and educators. The way we organize ourselves in times of crisis is a reflection of who we are as a profession and a community. The pandemic is not only a challenge but also an opportunity to reflect and refocus. It offers a teachable moment in design for social change.
— Jeffrey Hou
For us, the sudden transition to online teaching and learning has reinforced the importance of a studio culture that is grounded in physical, real-world places. Without doubt, our staff and students have adapted with incredible energy and ingenuity (one of our first-year undergraduates, now in Poland under strict lockdown, made her models from her impressive Lego collection). Many of our students and staff are thriving, and their creative skills are coming to the fore in ways we never imagined possible.
Yet we have many students for whom this crisis is seriously impeding their ability to progress. What most of us take for granted — reliable wi-fi access — is nearly impossible for some; this might be due to national internet security systems or to poor broadband infrastructure in rural areas. We are also aware that some students do not have access to computers at home or even enough space to make models and explore the spatial possibilities of their imaginations. We are one of the few programs in the UK in which each student still has access to a desk throughout their time with us; the lack of equity across our cohorts has driven home the importance of this aspect of our culture once again.
Our students rely on having physical and intellectual spaces on campus in which to work.
The lockdown is thus making us realize the degree to which our students rely on having physical and intellectual spaces on campus in which to work. They need access to a well-lit, well-resourced model-making workshop. They require computers they cannot afford themselves. They need each other — students need to be able to rely on their peers if their home environments don’t support our much-loved but slightly odd pedagogical methods. If as a discipline we are truly committed to increasing the social diversity of the architectural profession, we will need to address these issues head on. I fervently hope our studio culture will return forthwith.
— Sarah Lappin
Don’t go back to normal. Of all the coronavirus slogans and memes now circulating, this is the one that is motivating me as we chart a new path for teaching and learning at the Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning.
Residential education based on face-to-face teaching is a glorious thing, but it has limitations and drawbacks, too. Embodied, personalized, and sociable, it is also demanding, prescriptive, and costly. The parameters that work well for some students might disadvantage others, filtering out a diversity of talent based on factors ranging from ability to socioeconomic status.
These dynamics are especially pronounced in professional programs: medicine, law, dentistry, nursing — and yes, architecture. The cost, credit hour requirements, inflexible curriculum, and contact hour expectations of architectural education can be disproportionate to the benefits, particularly for learners from traditionally underrepresented groups. The pedagogy and culture of design studio embody the best and the worst of face-to-face education. Intimate, intense, communal, synthetic, creative … but also excessive, wasteful, exhausting, and at times exploitive.
It’s a trope of space thrillers that when your damaged spaceship is drifting dangerously close to the black hole, you use the last ounce of fuel to set a gravity-assist course that will propel you forward onto a new trajectory. In adapting to the challenges of our traumatic present and unknown future, I’m looking to these gravitational slingshots for inspiration.
My aim is to address the challenges of the pandemic by accelerating equity innovation: academic innovation that supports diversity, equity, and inclusion by making education more accessible to a broader range of learners. To be sure, the digital divide is real; online instruction disadvantages some students. But so does on-campus instruction, which all too often forces learners with diverse needs and preferences into a single pathway through a one-size-fits-all education geared toward the most privileged. So let’s prioritize adaptations that can improve residential education once the plague has passed. This is the work of building the discipline we deserve, rather than perpetuating the one we’ve inherited from forbears with circumstances, demographics, and values that were shaped by different times.
At Taubman College, faculty, students, and staff have stepped up under extraordinary pressure, making the transition from face-to-face instruction in a closely knit community to teaching and learning at a distance using file sharing, email, and, yes, Zoom. They have adeptly migrated annual events such as career fair, new student preview days, and student exhibitions into virtual platforms. Thanks to their dedication and skill, the abrupt adjustment to emergency remote teaching is working — for now. But it’s a far cry from true online instruction, which is intentional, supported, and planned along distinctive pathways.
Looking ahead to a year or more of adaptively triggered social distancing, we expect in-person instruction to be limited in size, density, duration, and frequency. We plan to complement whatever face-to-face work is allowed by public health measures with online instruction, running them in parallel and flexing between them as necessary. We are not going back to normal.
Resilient teaching aims to sustain imaginative discovery and peer-to-peer exchanges, but to discard the all-nighters, the all-consuming schedule, the unsustainable costs.
Beyond the next year or two lies an as-yet-undetermined new normal, in learning and in life, to be planned and designed. Our goal is to move from emergency remote instruction to resilient teaching that combines the strengths of face-to-face education, like access to specialized facilities and a lively academic community, with those of online instruction, such as the flexibility to balance teaching or learning with your caregiving responsibilities, your part-time job, your sleep or sports schedule, and accommodations for your disability. Resilient teaching sustains the imaginative discovery and peer-to-peer exchanges that enrich the design studio, but discards the all-nighters, the all-consuming schedule, the unsustainable costs.
Resilient teaching methods also equip us for the stresses of another pandemic, a natural disaster, or any disruptive event, even as they improve the instructional baseline in good times. If we handle the coronavirus challenge right, we will combine residential and online methods in order to make education more accessible, inclusive, and effective for the long haul. That’s the slingshot whereby this black swan, or black hole, can accelerate us onto a better course.
— Jonathan Massey
It’s impossible to write about teaching architecture now without first recognizing the passing of Michael Sorkin, a victim of COVID-19. Michael was a remarkable, original teacher, who would have applied his incisive intellect, wry humor, and driving doubt to the new pedagogical dilemmas, and to this discussion. He certainly wouldn’t have let this crisis pass without making something of it.
Making something of online teaching is, though, fairly heavy lifting so far. The distancing seems impoverished against the visceral luxury of the in-person communication on which architectural design pedagogy has relied for so long. But I don’t actually find that part troubling. We problem-solve creatively all the time. The solution is always supposed to be better, and we’ll figure it out. However, to solve creatively you have to work with willing participants. It’s going to take a while before students get willing.
That delay has nothing to do with online learning, or with the students being isolated. The biggest problem I’m encountering is that my students are numb. Their suddenly and radically reduced circumstances — future jobs? architectural prospects? — limit what they are willing to think about. I understand. Literally a month ago, many were entertaining multiple job offers, and/or were discussing trajectories with me — large office or small, in the states or abroad? Worse: they grew up in what may have been the longest extended period of flushness in practice since the New Kingdom. Now? One of our best students told me the other day (by phone) that her plan is to take any job immediately, and finish school at night. She’s enrolled full time.
The biggest problem I’m encountering is that my students are numb.
Almost every professor of architecture I know has lived through a major economic downturn (or three, in my case). We know — and trust — that such periods can foster radical creativity, as the mediocre drumbeat of how it is done in practice is quieted in favor of a more interesting academic discourse: how should it be done? What could the world be? So — the many tragedies notwithstanding — I’m cautiously optimistic about the new possibilities this weird situation affords.
For example, I entirely revamped the projects in an architectural photography seminar I’m teaching that focuses on the evolving status of the digital photograph to describe architecture. The students, working remotely, and in isolation from each other, are now collectively documenting an idealized neighborhood from fabricated photographs. The first step is for each to generate a photographic image of an ideal interior in which to be isolated, in which there is a window with something seen beyond. That image is sent to a classmate, who then generates a photograph of the outside of the same building (based on that window) in a virtual version of cadavre exquis: make, share, iterate, share, expand, share, etc.
I like to get students to conspire around tentative and risky possibilities, and I’m psyched about this one. Self-isolation and the digital community afford this group the opportunity to test the hypothesis that collaborative authorship can outpace individual genius, while at the same time describing the terms of our altered public space. But this group — all terrific students otherwise — is not there yet mentally. It’s not a problem of technology. Their Great Expectations are wiped away, and my excitement is, frankly, irrelevant to their trauma. They are not yet willing to engage in the play it will necessarily take to discover what is possible given the new limitations.
That’s my primary concern. I don’t think this is a technical problem first, despite the various issues I have with, for example, communicating via Zoom. I’d forbidden students using computers during my lectures, for the good pedagogical reasons one does so. Zoom’s various distractions — its multiple open windows, its inviting breakout private chat rooms — bring me back to zero. So I’m taping my lectures as slide shows with narrations. But if this goes on another semester, I’ve really got to ramp up the production values! This generation expects more than Ken Burns.
— David Heymann
At the end of our first online class, one student moaned only slightly hyperbolically, “I don’t want to say goodbye!” At the end of the first online session in my other seminar, another student asked if anyone wanted to stay live on the link and talk about work. A group of those still in the same time zone took up the offer, and I said something comforting and platitudinous (and true) about how they remain for one another the fundamental resource that art school can provide … how their presence in each other’s studios is really a presence in the protean conversations that are a sine qua non of critical aesthetic experiment … Someone typed into the Chat log, “yes but I’d rather really be with u”
A meme has bounced around my feed:
One friend who shared it deadpanned: “There hasn’t been a flood or fire; no factories have been destroyed; it’s almost as if surplus value comes from labor. I wonder if anyone has written about this?”
I want to write, as others in this survey are doing, about effort, affect, and money; and the university as a node for the reproduction of credentialized obedience; and teachers and artists as thought-sellers in a perpetually re-devalued market; and embodiment as the precious broken substrate of thought, aesthetics, affect, effort, and understandings of objecthood, history, semiotics. About the half-contemptuous, half-envious, half-fearful tone we’re so used to hearing in the voice of capital when it speaks about art — and how I try to help my students enjoy the pleasures and meet the dangers of acting from inside that porous excess third half of cultural production, reified as idiots when not set up as stars …
But I don’t seem to be able to write this. I was angry and sad about the economics and labor politics of higher education long before quarantine; I was vibrating with dread about climate crisis and the next election long before the virus wiped them off front pages. I couldn’t understand how people in prison or ICE detention or tent encampments were going to survive way before COVID-19 was added to the list of things that threaten their immediate wellbeing, and threaten it more insidiously for all of us who live in our own houses inside the same system of systems. I try to support students as they grope toward the pulsating, amorphous, unreliable, indefatigable conviction that, regardless of how ugly the illness is that grips the state, it matters to make good art. It’s been an onslaught of shocks, but this hasn’t changed.
(I can’t use the phrase “good art” without qualification, though. Today’s version: Something like what Susan Buck-Morss has described as an erotics of cognition. In which materiality and representation, absences and traces, wrap around and seep into and overcode each other while staying separate.)
I try to support students as they grope toward the amorphous, unreliable, indefatigable conviction that, regardless of how ugly the illness is that grips the state, it matters to make good art.
It matters that we keep making it, and the only way to do that is to reinvent opportunities for doing it together, because it is social by definition. “It” is learning-teaching-talking-art; “it” is having a body among bodies; “it” is insisting that aisthesis is emotional, cognitive, and somatic all at once (Buck-Morss again); and that these aesthetics of the bodymind are ineluctably and constantly relevant to justice. It’s extra weird to try to reinvent it when a student emails to say she can’t make the virtual meeting because she just found out she’s lost her housing and has to deal with that … and another writes to apologize for seeming overwhelmed because she’s arranging to take legal custody of her sibling, since her parents are high-risk … and another is in quarantine with the partner she just broke up with … and another can’t muster a smile even for the on-mute “hello all” wave, because, as I happen to know, she’s scrambling to keep a mentally-ill family member safe … It’s weird to ask them to explore their wildly personal versions of the historically freighted erotics of cognition, a.k.a. art, in this context. But then, it’s always a weird thing to do; and it always has to be reinvented, in synergy with every era’s unprecedented _____________.
That second seminar I’m teaching is about tropes of monstrosity, and when all the little Zoom portals had filled, we saw that one person was cuddling a cat. I joked that, in a teleported conversation about monsters, it’s only right to bring along your animal familiar. Four or five others hopped up from their seats or reached out of frame, and settled back down with cats on their laps. I felt an imaginative-projective ripple of warmth, a tiny creaturely electricity, shiver into me through the wider beam of device-current that was already saturating my eyeballs and shoulders with more jangled fatigue — and I could see each face across the 13-rectangle array feeling it too. It made me feel a little better.
— Frances Richard