Field Notes on Pandemic Teaching: 3

This is the third installment in a narrative survey of educators around the globe on the challenges of the massive move to online teaching. Some challenges are practical and logistical; others are more conceptual, political, and even philosophical, involving the importance of campus community, the role of schools in providing for the wellbeing of students, and passionate convictions about the nature of learning and the transmission of knowledge. How will the current adaptations inflect our understandings of studio and seminar instruction, in which the tools might be digital but the teaching is individualized and immersive, grounded in time and place, rooted in embodied encounters that allow for serendipitous discovery?

Clockwise (from upper left): From the Instagram and Twitter pages of Aarhus School of Architecture, Weitzman Penn School of Design, USC Architecture, and University College Dublin.
Clockwise (from upper left): From the Instagram and Twitter pages of Aarhus School of Architecture, Weitzman Penn School of Design, USC Architecture, and University College Dublin School of Architecture.

Teaching is many things. Sometimes it’s exciting and thrilling — pulling off a new lecture, weaving together strands of thought you’ve been wrestling with for years with an illustration you discovered on a digital archive the night before and getting just the right feedback, the right help really, from a student. Sometimes it’s daunting — having to learn the names of new students, or to publicly ‘fess up that you don’t know the answer to perfectly reasonable questions, or to struggle for a way back to the next slide when you’ve gotten lost in the middle of an argument. And — as we all like to complain — teaching is often hard, grinding work. It’s not having enough time to prepare, to plan ahead, follow up, respond to email, mark papers, attend meetings, take a break, a nap, a walk, a cup of coffee, tea, to start a local union, have a chat.

All these things, and much more, are now upended in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. What will be the fallout? It’s all too easy to suspect that there will be immense pressure to maintain many of the “contingency” or “emergency” measures; that much of what we are now missing — all the once ordinary activities that can’t be accommodated in a Zoom seminar or Canvas forum — will not return when the crisis is over. In which case there will be a struggle; an uneven struggle in which the worst kinds of people with the worst kinds of motives will scheme to make our universities more “efficient,” and to realize already laid plans to turn them into global brands with product lines of educational content.

To translate this moment into a desirable future, we need a grassroots vision of the post-pandemic university.

Is this it? Will the sensory deprivation of online teaching be the new normal? My hunch is that in order to translate this moment into a desirable future we need to do more than resist; we need to use the experience of remote teaching to create our own pedagogical vision — a grassroots vision of the post-pandemic university. To hold back the Uber-ization of academia, the de-professionalization of faculty — to avoid becoming become piece workers in a global supply chain of academic commodities managed by platform capitalists making a percentage on every seminar we teach — we’ll need to develop and articulate our own strategies for how to shape and deploy all the new technologies and platforms being pushed by administrators. How might we make space for new affinities and communities in our teaching? What really seems to work, and maybe even work better, at a distance? It’s a lot easier to dismiss workers, including academic workers, as Luddites if their refusal to embrace a new program is not paired with an alternative vision. Shaping this vision, I think, will be a key task for shaping future struggles about the university as a community of teaching and learning.

We will need to be united and determined, once the blowback comes. We’ll need to share and compare our experiences, to train our critical faculties on the future of the university, amidst all the other political debris of the pandemic. Ordinary people like you and me — stuck in quarantine, tired from putting kids to bed, worried about our parents’ health or our own, glued to the pandemic dashboards and press conferences, inboxes overflowing, isolated, alienated, teaching critical theory from our kitchen tables — will need to work together to make sense of what all this means. If we don’t forge our own vision, others will prevail.

— Johan Pries

The second half of the spring semester for my classes at The New School was to have marked a shift to the outdoors — a transition from classroom learning to field trips and site visits and environmental observation. As the air warmed and days lengthened, we were to have toured urban infrastructures and gallery exhibitions, visited with local community groups, and documented the converging networks in our environments. Yet instead of traversing doors, we’re contemplating windows — both the windows that look out onto budding trees and returning songbirds; and the layered and gridded windows that connect us virtually to our colleagues and students, who telecommute from their high school bedrooms and messy kitchen tables. Through these Zoom windows and chat screens, we catch glimpses into spaces, and meet family members and pets, we never would have otherwise known (and some malevolent actors we’d rather not know).

Instead of traversing doors, we’re contemplating windows.

We witness the convergence of worlds and the superimposition of roles: the teacher-parent-elder caregiver, the student-sibling-child. These windows are where conference rooms, office cubicles, classrooms, labs, studios, and domestic workspaces coalesce and clash in real time. I’ve watched laptop-toting students wander as they’ve sought a corner of the house that offers an acoustic buffer — or a solid internet connection. Still others have chosen to customize their video backdrops — to project themselves into secluded beaches or Martian landscapes or movie sets, where their heads float, bobbing glitchily as an algorithm struggles to render the border between one reality and another. The mainstreaming of these computational aesthetics — the glitch and the grid, the redux of webcams and telepresence — will continue to influence art and design. This is the fenestration of connection in our newly “contactless” world.

— Shannon Mattern

The move to online teaching at my university has been breathtakingly fast, supported by all-new platforms with all-new capacities, multiple problem-solving feedback loops, and a deluge of emails with technical advice. Testifying to what could be called the success of this move, we recently heard that the “emergency remote learning” we have supported this semester might segue to “planned online learning” in subsequent semesters.

One of the most striking dimensions of the university’s response to the pandemic, however, is the limited amount of thought about the pandemic included in this response: to date, very few of us in the university have Zoomed, Bluejeaned, or emailed much of anything about if and how we can make sense of the world we now find ourselves in. Rather, the pandemic has thus far presented itself to us as either a crisis to survive or a problem to solve. While these presentations are entirely understandable and useful, they also seem incomplete; as well as crisis and problem, the pandemic is also an unthinkable catastrophe and, precisely as such, a solicitation of thought, regardless of whether this thinking is conducted on- or offline.

Discussion map, "Education as Co-liberation," Taubman College, February 6, 2020.
Discussion map, “Education as Co-liberation,” Taubman College, February 6, 2020. [Andrew Herscher]

Zoom chat thread, "Education as Co-liberation," Taubman College, March 26, 2020.
Zoom chat thread, “Education as Co-liberation,” Taubman College, March 26, 2020.

This semester, I’m teaching a doctoral seminar, “Education as Co-liberation,” that began in January with bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress. “The classroom,” we read, “remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.” As we’ve moved from in-person classes to Zoom meetings, we’ve found that the historical dynamics we have been exploring — colonialism, racism and racial capitalism, structural inequality, epistemic violence — have only become more relevant, if also so much more challenging to grasp amidst their cascading and terrible effects. Our digital classroom has somehow remained a precious space — a place where the need for sense-making has been expressed, shared, and, at times, tentatively advanced into thought. What makes the classroom precious, in other words, is that our need for sense-making has turned us from syllabus towards crisis and we’ve been able to think together about that crisis even as it has moved us online.

— Andrew Herscher

Lost in Zoom

Years ago an electronic engineer told me that in order to allow signals to transmit through phone lines as efficiently as possible, all the gaps and pauses between words are removed and then inserted back in at the other end of the line. I’m still not sure I understood her correctly, but I remember thinking that the strategy was crude but literal-minded and utterly logical: transmit as little content as necessary. You could conduct endless calls every day without ever knowing that this artificial operation — this sleight of hand — was enabling and indeed underpinning the seemingly natural back and forth of conversation.

This possibly misremembered fragment of information came to mind during these times of ubiquitous, seemingly continuous digital communication through which we are all now living and teaching. Zoom — which I only first heard of a few weeks ago — has become second nature. The easy instinctiveness of the interface is beguiling. The shared temporal register — synchronous interaction, in the jargon of online teaching — confers a sense of immediacy. We are present together. But only up to a point, until a glimpse into each participant’s private, separate surroundings reintroduces the reality of spatial distance. The collage doing the rounds — Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper rendered as a Zoom call, the thirteen apostles each in their own box — makes the point eloquently. That all-encompassing spatial continuity embodied in Leonardo’s single-point perspective has been supplanted by the logic of the collage grid. What new kind of space is this? Forty years ago, in their seminal Metaphors we Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson described how spatial terms are ingrained in all our interactions. Could they have anticipated the extent to which the same language predominates in Zoom-world? We enter and leave, we wait to be invited in, we gather around a shared screen. And yet all the while, those diverse backdrops — students joining from Australian back gardens, from Swedish apartments, from Dublin bedrooms — make us realize we are not really together at all.

The Last Supper on Zoom, via David Rudin on Twitter
The Last Supper on Zoom, via David Rudin on Twitter.

There are some positives — in the diversity of the student group, the range of social and cultural experience brought to bear on a shared project; in the collapse of hierarchies brought about by our shared reliance on technology; in the reliability of the time-tabled tutorial. But the losses are more grievous. For all the promise of social interaction, Zoom facilitates only a highly transactional form of exchange. For conveying information, setting tasks, and measuring progress, it works just fine. For tossing ideas around, for positing suggestions, and testing scenarios — not so much. Points get made with urgency, while others are “muted.” Hesitation or contemplation are not readily accommodated. Silence means nothing to say. Communication has to be purposeful, pause-less, carefully articulated. Zoom is no place for mumblers, or holders-back. It is geared towards the made-up mind, the readymade opinion.

Zoom is no place for mumblers, or holders-back. It is geared towards the made-up mind, the readymade opinion.

Which is why Zoom is so exhausting over long stretches. Information is getting transmitted in a highly concentrated manner. There are no gaps or pauses. Whole dimensions are lost. Space — the very medium of architecture — is conspicuously absent. A couple of weeks before strict separation became the rule, I visited Grafton Architects’ new Town House building for Kingston University near London — a building predicated on the overlapping of highly diverse activities within a continuous spatial weave. Space serves to bind everything together by holding it apart.

There is no question that this enforced period of spatial separation would be infinitely more difficult without the communicative power of Zoom and its equivalents. What would this experience have been like for universities, for society at large, ten or even five years ago? Technology allows us to manage, for now. But when all this is over — and the sooner the better — we need to put the gaps and pauses back in.

— Hugh Campbell

This disruption is shedding even more light on structural barriers to equity and inclusion in
architectural design education. Even before the abrupt move of our entire operation to work-from-home, we were pushing discussion about design studio culture, care labor, mental health, and financial cost. The global crisis and the spatial injustices that it illuminates — extremely uneven access to safe housing, to health care, to childcare, and to digital connectivity — shows just how critical it is that schools of architecture keep a very close eye on how the structures that we put into place during this transition will begin to correct, rather than amplify, inequities in access to high-quality design education.

— Erin Moore

Love in the Time of Corona, or the generative potentials of the pandemic

That is how they were: they spent their lives proclaiming their proud origins, the historic merits of the city, the value of its relics, its heroism, its beauty, but they were blind to the decay of the years.
— Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Our lives are full of c-words these days; corona, crisis, and chaos, but also change and creativity. As in Márquez’s novel, the latter exists in spite of, or maybe even because of, the other.

The current situation holds devastating as well as generative potentials, and while our main focus is on the alarming effects of the pandemic, the first rays of Scandinavian spring sun makes it difficult not to seek some optimism for the future. On March 13, our educational institutions closed down with the obligation to continue teaching and research through distance learning and collaboration. At first, it felt like a stop-and-go-penalty topped with a change from performance slicks to wooden carriage wheels. We were suffering from a lack of traction, and our previously intuitive communication with the machine was challenged, to say the least.

Nice-to-have discussions became need-to-have reactions as we exchanged our studio-intensive, peer-to-peer, and project-integrated teaching for a plethora of new platforms.

Nice-to-have discussions became need-to-have reactions as we exchanged our 21st-century, beaux arts-founded, studio-intensive, peer-to-peer, and project-integrated teaching for a new plethora of online communication platforms, tuning the engine as we moved forward, video conference by video conference, from the isolation of our homes. Fast forward three weeks, and we seem to have moved beyond mere survival and to have found enough control to start reflecting on our experiences. These experiences hold knowledge that would have taken us years of work (and institutional conflict) to gain otherwise. For no matter that we might consider ourselves creative, innovative, and educationally non-conformist, we educators are usually quite conservative. Our students are expected to push boundaries and act with agility, but in academia we often rely on the longstanding traditions of the past; until now.

"The Aarhus School of Architecture continues its work, although the school of physically closed to prevent the contamination from COVID-19."
“The Aarhus School of Architecture continues its work, although the school is physically closed to prevent contamination from COVID-19.” [Instagram]

But if the temporary closing of our school has forced us to embrace new ways of teaching, it has also underscored the particular advantages of our educational model. What students and faculty miss are not only the physical places, but also the place-based interactions. They miss the school — the public space in their city of education — and have rediscovered the value of what they might have taken for granted over the years.

When this is all over, when we begin rebuilding our societies, institutions, businesses, and families, we will need to reaffirm our love for what we are rediscovering and at the same time to explore the potential of new models of teaching and living. As architects we have the capacity to get carried away with our discoveries — even if they are rediscoveries — and this will help us move forward. If we refrain from going back to our old ways and if we embrace the change almost as if we invented it, I believe that our cities and our communities will be the better for it.

Again, from Márquez: “When they strayed from the straight and narrow, it was something so unusual for them that they bragged about love as if they had just invented it.”

— Rasmus G. Hansen

Living in the Digital World

Old dogs are learning new tricks in this silent spring.

The coronavirus pandemic is resulting in a massive disruption in higher education. We do not yet understand the magnitude of the change as we are in the midst of it. We are still learning how to teach, to conduct research, and to serve remotely. In addition to my responsibilities as dean, I am teaching this semester. Like my colleagues, I have adapted my teaching as well as my administration with new technologies. These remote teaching and meeting tools bring us into our students’ and coworkers’ homes and them into ours. We are apart, but in some ways a more intimate community.

From the Instagram feed of the Penn Weitzman School of Design.
From the Instagram feed of the Penn Weitzman School of Design.

At the University of Pennsylvania, around 4,000 courses transitioned to remote teaching in less than a week. Similar transformations have occurred across the nation, an unprecedented display of the abilities of faculty and staff to respond to a major health crisis affecting their students, colleagues, families, and themselves. Students are defending their dissertations online. Students are being able to complete their courses and to graduate on schedule.

Let’s pause for a moment and acknowledge: that is pretty amazing!

My field of operation remains similar to before the pandemic. I conveniently live only a few blocks west of my campus office. I have set up camp in my home library. My iPad connects me to the world. It delivers the messages of another friend, another colleague testing positive. The iPad also reports on many doing what they can to fight this enemy.

I do miss my office with the views to College Green with busy academics, students, squirrels, pigeons, and hawks all pursuing their own paths. I miss the face-to-face daily encounters with people, the dedicated Penn faculty, students, and staff. I’m fortunate for many things — my current health, my front porch, neighbors with dogs, the weather.

We have probably been changed forever. I expect for the better. My hope is that we will emerge more compassionate teachers, more resourceful scholars, and maybe even better human beings.

Frederick Steiner


 Not a month ago, a student was flying me through a Rhino file in response to a “three-dimensional study” assignment. I wanted to say, “If you are not aware that this is a two-dimensional representation, on a very flat screen, of a rendered projection of a model, then you should maybe exercise your sensory apparatus before you lose it.” But I’m told that I’m old-school, that the future is digital — which is probably why I’ve been holding on to outmoded notions of the real lately. (Not the pseudo-essentialism of precious things, but actual materials with texture and heft.) I guess I asked for it: For the past decade, I have repeatedly undermined students’ adoration of Peter Zumthor’s Atmospheres (2006) with Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981), and called out the delusion of immediacy by deconstructing ideological apparatuses of mediation. After all, ’90s education demystified for my generation any presumption of expressive material presence, so why would Gen Z Zoomers get to enjoy blue pills off the shelf? Well, I now spend the quasi-entirety of my days in spaces perceived through a two-dimensional interface, whether it’s my computer screen or the window through which I stare down at street life (or the current lack thereof).

I’ll recognize that online studio-teaching has quickly transcended the limitations of our traditional physical format. Digital drawings created on a 1080p screen 20 inches from the eyes of their producer benefit from being viewed under analogous conditions, rather than printed too small and hung too far away to be seen past the front row of (hierarchically seated) reviewers. And, speaking of reviewers, increased online accessibility has enabled a geographically diversified pool of guest critics for my courses — and here’s a shout-out to friends and former students who have participated from across the global slice of our time zone. The easily shared links by which we declare this learning space “public” have reshuffled attendance; lectures, reviews, even desk-crits are better attended than ever, albeit not always by the students originally enrolled … This highlights the obvious consequences of relaxed disciplinary mechanisms and increased self-organization: the playing field has never been so uneven. The students’ formatted presence on my screen conceals more than ever their disparate material conditions of production. They are especially polarized in their capacity to manage the resource that is time; between those who are able to harness every minute of it towards their own becoming, those who need to dedicate it to survival, and those who simply dissipate it into the unknown, because nothing has trained them for this.

The design studio, however panoptical, offers more than a physical infrastructure that allocates equal desktop space. It offers common hours through which skills sets, expertise, energy, motivation and/or inspiration are in constant flux, and are thereby permanently redistributed. A shared studio impedes sorting into the haves and have nots. (Those who work at home rather than in studio tend to either exceed all expectations — unnecessarily — or fall short — unfortunately.) The very physicality of studio space enables regulation of common standards against the logic of competition — which we know is anything but free and fair — just as the fixed parameter of 12 studio-hours per week can help level the ground between those rich in hours and those disadvantaged by day-jobs or dependents.

A shared studio offers common hours through which skills sets, expertise, energy, motivation and/or inspiration are in constant flux, and are thus permanently redistributed.

Two weeks after the shift online, it is this absence of common ambient studio time that is most reflected in the students’ diverging rates of progress. They’ve given Zoom a fair chance: I have seen them leave it on for hours to keep one another company; organize peer reviews; enjoy happy hours; virtually blow birthday candles from one frame into the next; and rediscover the simple joy of parlor games. But the interface flattens one thing that most requires depth, which is the fluctuating range between foreground and background — not only in space but also in one another’s presences; we lose the dynamics between working on a computer and stepping away from it; between pinning a print out on a wall and backing up to observe it; between focusing on one’s project and wandering away to a peer’s desk to inquire on their progress; between layers of chatter that demand different tuning frequencies.

I look at my students, their work, their (intra-)virtual backgrounds, their pets roaming in and out of the frame; they filter in at a steady 40Mbps and land at a numbingly uniform 128 dpi on my screen. At the end of the day, I turn the screen off and stare at the black glass for an extra second. There is undeniable relief in the release from mediation to the immediacy of matter.

— Mireille Roddier

Teaching online in pandemic quarantine and beyond

Why not start this reflection on teaching online while literally getting a pain in my ass while sitting at my desk waiting for a student to show up on Zoom for an individual conference! She had never answered my email to confirm or to let me know, as requested, whether she was observing the strike the graduate students at my institution called as we were to go online.

Picking up this reflection later in the day. Eventually the student showed up and we had a relaxed and interesting conversation. Being trapped in lockdown during a pandemic is an unconventional equalizer.

Drawing by Mira Schor.

Drawings by Mira Schor, 2020.
Drawings by Mira Schor, 2020.

I had already allocated more than my usual class time to giving a group of students some individual attention — and the disruptions caused by the platform itself, as well by the effects of the student strike, meant that I spent almost twice my contracted class time. In past years, having been given a preview of what it might mean to teach online seminars (what with prompts, and chat rooms, and monitoring responses, and so forth), I realized it was way more work for less money — which is why university administrators are so eager to go to it.

But these politics and irritabilities aside, I can say that, this emergency having come near the end of a school year, I know the students in person; how they comport themselves in the physical world — who is late, who is on time, who pays attention and participates, who is texting during class, how they interact with each other. I can move forward with an online relationship based on some embodied knowledge. Without that, the alienation would be daunting.

One of the roles of a teacher is to model professional behavior, and for a woman that is all the more crucial — to literally model how you present yourself.

Looking at it differently, one of the roles of a teacher is to model professional behavior, and I think for a woman that is all the more crucial — to literally model, in terms of how you present yourself; what you wear as much as what you say; how you control discourse; how you pick up on a mood or conflict within a group. All of which is to say that any move by institutions to use this moment of crisis to permanently move teaching to an online platform, especially in fields where the object of learning is the making of a literal object — a painting, a sculpture, an installation, a performance — would deny the educational enterprise some basic interactions upon which the transmission of knowledge and standards of human behavior are based. My own educational experiences as an artist were all about embodiment; not only getting the attention I narcissistically demanded from teachers, but also the fabulous spectacle of my teachers teaching. If you were lucky, you could hang around them a bit, to see how they just were.

— Mira Schor


I don’t want to compare online teaching to classroom. I don’t want my brain to be rewired to accept this as the new normal, ever. I don’t want students to change their expectations, to get used to attending classes while slumped on their sofas. I don’t want institutions, increasingly focused on budgets, to get used to this approximation of being in a room together without being in a room together. I’m telling myself that this is a one-time-only experiment, not uninteresting. I don’t have much power over these don’ts, and I worry about this. How to overcome the passivity and solitude of our current situation, as professors, neighbors, citizens, people? How to teach a new generation of artists to think otherwise, now, while locked into a monitor? And after? What do I want this after to look like? What will this after look like?

I don’t want students to change their expectations, to get used to attending classes while slumped on their sofas.

The malware that is Zoom. This, for the moment, is what’s left to us, as I start the meeting of my Video 1 class, the big rectangle becoming populated by smaller ones. I feel lucky that our group had already been established, over six weeks in real space. We run off this memory of each other’s warmth, of sitting around a table, someone closing the curtain, someone rushing to turn out lights, me jumping up to the computer, the blackboard. I am a physical teacher. No Zoom glimpse of a chartreuse wall or dog knocking over a plant will make up for this.

My students refer to our “pods,” having all watched the reality show Love is Blind, in which speed-dating partners sequestered in what the show calls pods can talk, but not see each other. Each Zoom pod is different — the chintz or paisley curtains of a parent’s dining room; a cat-scratched couch with mustard throw; pajamas. A chilly outdoors, student huddled in a wool hat, behind her a prison fence where inmates shout. A flash of a pet cockatoo. Screech. A shadow crosses the background, head down, carrying a beverage. A siren. From outside my window, or theirs?

These details, these hastily sketched pixelated spaces, take up my mental processing power. All these rectangles filled with pixels approximating human form. My brain starts privileging the present; the near past is forgotten. Did that student answer already? What did they say? This is headache inducing.

[via Twitter]
[via Twitter]

We live in the land of making-do, of bending form and process toward what we can get.

But it could be worse. I teach the moving image. Watching videos virtually is not the worst translation of the medium. Size and resolution vary, but a video — whether at an art house like Film Forum in Manhattan or on Netflix on a laptop on a kitchen table — is still a video on a screen. This experience makes me mourn, once again, the end of cinema: the sound of seats shifting, the laughter, the infectious coughing, purses opening in unison during a weepy scene. My class is suddenly an uneven playing field, in that some have cameras and computers, and some don’t. I now teach scarcity, which, for me, is a known terrain. Independent filmmakers and video artists are always without; lacking equipment, budget, crew, locations, permission. We live in the land of making-do, of bending form and process toward what we can get. The university’s lovely cameras, tripods, microphones, which the students have painstakingly learned to use, are now behind locked doors — so I cheerlead excitement for making do without them. What can we shoot, from the vantage point of a bedroom, a fire escape, a backyard? Skype interviews? The riches of footage from the internet? The results are surprisingly good, some even astonishing. There is one resource we suddenly have in abundance: time.

In so-called studio visits, conversations have changed. We are no longer focused on objects, but on each other’s faces in medium to extreme closeup. The space between us is collapsed and we talk in a more personal way. An opening question, how are you doing?, is fraught. Everyone is holding their breaths, a makeshift spell against bad news. We talk a lot about words, reading and writing. Studio work, object making, has gotten a lot smaller or is posited in the future conditional. Most exciting, we talk about a radical reevaluation of ideas and themes. How are things changing? What is worth doing? What is at stake? If we are paying attention, if we are up for it, we can see the world reveal itself — even as we see, each day, the same view outside the same window. Gray, sunny, gray. Do we … how do we … how must we speak in and to this cracked-open world?

— Shelly Silver

My previous experience with remote teaching helped prepare me for the challenges of the transition to online instruction. But one crucial factor is that this transition occurred mid-semester, which has meant that my students and I have benefited from the solid foundation laid by in-person instruction. I do wonder if I would feel as comfortable with the work my students are currently producing if we had begun this semester online. Since I teach both history/theory and studio courses, it has been interesting to compare the different challenges. The main challenge with history/theory courses has been to maintain the intellectual gains that accompany group discussions in class after we moved to asynchronous class instruction (i.e. to taped course lectures that students can listen to any time, on their own). By contrast, the main challenge with studio has been to maintain the gains of informal learning that occur in the physical space of the studio now that we are all remote from each other. My students have continued to work in groups, so this type of intellectual engagement has not completely dropped off, but I’ve worked hard to make up for this loss in my individual comments, which is very time intensive.

Jenna Herbert and Mira Shami, Hamlin Park Braiding Incubator, 2020. Created by SUNY Buffalo architecture students, this project celebrates black braiding culture and entrepreneurship in this combination residential/small business redevelopment of an existing structure.
Jenna Herbert and Mira Shami, Hamlin Park Braiding Incubator, 2020. Created by SUNY Buffalo architecture students, this project celebrates black braiding culture and entrepreneurship in this combination residential/small business redevelopment of an existing structure.

The social costs of racial segregation are especially stark these days.

More broadly, this public health crisis has prompted me to speak with my students about the hidden structural realities of social and economic inequality in the United States. First and foremost, far too much of our public health infrastructure has been given away to privatized institutions, which has greatly diminished our ability to conduct collective actions such as universal testing for COVID-19. This simple act alone would have significantly reduced the number of people infected and, in turn, decreased the demand for emergency health care in New York City and other hard-hit regions. In Buffalo, local and county health agencies have been generating statistics about who has contracted COVID-19 by neighborhood (via their zip code). Unsurprisingly, these numbers reveal that people in wealthier neighborhoods are better able to afford to socially distance and self-isolate and to stockpile food, while those in low-income neighborhoods — many of whom still do not earn a decent wage — are forced to work in jobs deemed “essential” while living hand-to-mouth during this crisis. The social costs of racial segregation are especially stark these days — which has become especially relevant since my studio is now designing affordable housing for the very neighborhoods being squeezed by this public health crisis.

Charles Davis

Common (back)ground

The shared space is a prerequisite for democracy. Separating people is the most effective way to discipline people. Any regime, democratically legitimated or not, likes it when we all stay at home. Once on the street, people tend to resist and change the system. The same goes for architecture education. To separate students from each other (and from their teachers) is to make it easy to manage them. But it is toxic for creativity, criticality, and academic freedom as such.

Shared space is a prerequisite for democracy.

Currently, we are obliged to separate physically and to meet virtually. Can we fabricate a shared space on the screen? Can we design a common background, or rather a common ground, which emotionally unites all the participants of a video conference? Could this prefigure a new way to meet? Could it open up the hierarchies that we have established in our education over the years? Can we consider this a project which will might even make education better after the disruption than before?

— Philip Ursprung

Johan Pries, Andrew Herscher, Hugh Campbell, Shannon Mattern, Erin Moore, Rasmus Hansen, Frederick Steiner, Mireille Roddier, Mira Schor, Shelly Silver, Charles Davis, Philip Ursprung, “Field Notes on Pandemic Teaching: 3,” Places Journal, April 2020. Accessed 08 Jun 2023.

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.