Field Notes on Pandemic Teaching: 4

This is the fourth installment in a narrative survey of educators around the globe on the challenges and opportunities of the massive move to online teaching. Some 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): California College of the Arts, Twitter; at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, a sign taped to a studio in late March; the MLA program at the Knowlton School at OSU held a virtual open house in March; thesis studio at Slocum Hall, Syracuse School of Architecture.
Clockwise (from upper left): California College of the Arts, Twitter feed. A sign taped to a studio in late March at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, via Facebook. The MLA program at the Knowlton School at OSU held a virtual open house in March. Thesis studio at Slocum Hall, Syracuse School of Architecture.

The Virus Didn’t Do It

Unlike me, my students are comfortable with online instruction. Most are glued to screens in and out of studio anyway. Today, one student successfully used one of the now ubiquitous collaboration platforms to present her work, and switched easily from PDFs to images to videos to websites. The technical side worked — and worked better than our in-person, in-studio presentations where we jump from models to pinned-up images, from this monitor to that projection. The visual smoothness is noticeably pleasant especially since there is a scalar comfort between the screen and my face and body. Perhaps the virus has merely boosted the pace of digitalization.

On Zoom there are no parallel conversations. It’s unsatisfying to not be able to interrupt someone!

Sound and speech, though, are not as seamless. Uneven volumes, background noise, and slight audio breaks all spoil the sense of connection. Perhaps the worst aspect of screen-mediated group engagement is the static nature of speaking and listening: a discussion can feel more like a series of stilted exchanges. There are no parallel conversations. It’s very unsatisfying to not be able to interrupt someone! This will likely be resolved with increased bandwidth and next year’s software release. Maybe we just need to get used to it.

I certainly miss the atmosphere of the studio, the sounds of activity, the half-heard conversations, the general noise that isn’t really noisy but comforting. Online teaching seems to flatten both excitement and worry, eliding subtle tensions and side-long glances. The spectrum of communication and connection feels incomplete. The culture of the studio is by no means perfect, yet I’ve sensed some nostalgia for it. I suspect I feel this myself.

From the Facebook page of the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.
From the Facebook page of the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

I teach in a second professional degree program in which desk crits usually consist of groups of students talking with two or three faculty members. This arrangement, meant to acclimate students to collaborative processes and multiple voices, is not well served by current online platforms — no matter that business-meeting applications claim otherwise. The back and forth never gets real traction; the little chat boxes are inadequate. A side conversation consists of texting someone already in the group conference, and can feel delightfully sly.

The educational system beyond elite institutions has been whittled down to the bone, in the U.S. and everywhere, like so many other once valued public goods.

Sadly, I am aware that my concerns and experiences are informed by the privileged environment of a wealthy private university. For some time now, the educational system beyond elite institutions has been whittled down to the bone, in the U.S. and everywhere, like so many other once valued public goods. Higher education has been undercut by austerity policies and competitive logics for which the easy fix has appeared to be privatization — all of which has led seamlessly, and ruthlessly, to online learning platforms. This new regime might be liberating in the narrow technical sense of offering new models of knowledge sharing. Perhaps. But the new “distance” learning, a subset of technologies of surveillance, produces ever more abstracted social relations, more means of classification and control, flattening both the socio-political and material conditions in which we live, and learn.

Just now I’ve received an email from a company seeking “Remote Mentor Cooperation” for a global “Online Academic Program.” They even stuck in a bit from my bio saying what a good fit our relationship could be. Oh, the shock. I’m commodifiable.

— David Smiley

I did not become an educator to speak to a screen and I am growing tired of this form of transmitting knowledge and sharing ideas. I miss the feedback I get from my students’ faces and the ability to adjust to the messages their faces and bodies convey — puzzlement, boredom, excitement, curiosity. The small matrix of students’ faces, the neutralizing glow of their screens — we have to make do, for now, but Zoom-fatigue is setting in.

I did not become an educator to speak to a screen.

We are already keenly aware of what we’re missing. Much of our training and practice in landscape architecture is field-based, from making first-hand observations to conducting embodied experiments to translating those discoveries into design thinking and action. Studios, seminars, and workshops are rooted in fieldwork that takes us to landscapes of various types and scales. Some colleagues are taking their students on virtual field trips, but these cannot replace the experience of actual site visits with their many possibilities for serendipitous discovery through immediate, grounded encounters and the corporeal reading of space and place.

Zoom seminar on the history of cemetery design.
Zoom-based seminar on the history of cemetery design. [Alison Hirsch]

Some international students are weary from participating in classes that are still set to Pacific Daylight Time.

We are also missing the culture of studio, where students learn from and support each other through what are often grueling processes of project development. Online, the possibilities for camaraderie are limited if not lost. In recent weeks we’ve seen students struggling with connectivity and bandwidth, and though we’ve been quick to address the access issues, other challenges persist. Zoom virtual backgrounds might mask varying degrees of chaos in the background, but they can’t silence the chaos — children or siblings or roommates competing for space or demanding attention. Some international students are weary from participating in classes that are still set to Pacific Daylight Time. Our program does not have students who rely on school for housing or food, or as a safe space in the case of domestic violence (at least as far as we know), yet students are facing new stresses and struggling to adapt. They have proven extraordinarily resilient amidst the great uncertainty, and they are shockingly prepared for class. Still, I miss sharing a physical space with students immersed in processes of making, imagining, and sharing ideas.

— Alison B. Hirsch

Some institutions have more experience in certain kinds of online courses, but few universities are better prepared to pivot to remote teaching than Tulane. You might say that Hurricane Katrina taught the school how to fish — to seek solutions rather than waiting for them to be delivered to us.

But still, this crisis is challenging the instinctively conservative nature of academia, which is struggling to make large, quick strides in order to keep pace with new technologies as well as the habits and skills of a younger generation. This struggle becomes yet more intense because it involves maintaining our commitment to research and instruction, as opposed to the nimbler and less constrained profit-centered businesses that have been driving the academy’s adoption, not to say embrace, of digital teaching platforms.

From the Instagram page of the Tulane School of Architecture.
From the Instagram feed of the Tulane School of Architecture.

Once the pandemic is under control, and we’ve processed its lessons, this will indeed be the central question: how to preserve the integrity of the academic mission in the face of obvious financial temptations. In an ideal, self-correcting system, the pedagogical innovations of the pandemic would be further adapted to reduce the unsustainably high costs of higher education. Unfortunately, as the 2008 recession taught us, the system is neither ideal nor self-correcting; the outcome of recent crises has been yet more inequality. This should be a pivotal moment for the country and its fundamental systems. The most obvious and urgent need is the establishment of a robust national public health system; almost as urgent is the reform of higher education in order to make it more accessible and equitable.

We have wasted many years in futile pursuits: we have been talking among ourselves about fictional problems.

For schools of architecture, this is moment to refocus. We have wasted many years in futile pursuits: we have been talking among ourselves about fictional problems. We have imported from the sciences the concept of “theory,” and we have propagated theories that cannot be tested or proved. To be sure, we are hardly alone; as George Steiner argues, in Universitas?: “the idiom of the scientific permeates the humanities and the so-called social sciences. … The almost riotous proliferation of ‘theory’ — another word for arrogant intuition — in literary studies, in aesthetics, even in the study of history, derives essentially from the aura of the natural and abstract sciences.” Our cities and our built environment — the planet and its people — can no longer afford our distraction. It is urgent to grapple with real issues, including human health, social health, environmental health. All are fundamentally dependent upon urban and natural spaces at all scales; upon our housing, and upon the public and shared spaces we will once again inhabit. The most positive outcome of this crisis will be new respect for grounded, specific knowledge. The projects emerging from design schools — our student theses, our professorial prompts, all our pedagogy and research — will be more valuable if we set aside our old, self-indulgent ways and aim to contribute to new knowledge that is at once rigorous and imaginative.

— Iñaki Alday

Kim Anno, Tower of Babel, oil and inkjet text on linen, 2020.
Kim Anno, “Tower of Babel,” oil and inkjet text on linen, 2020.

The first time was a lifeline, with everyone glad to see each other’s faces. We checked in on wellbeing and assured each other that we were alive and kicking, however frustrated in our homes. Some students are in a design-personality-free dorm without books, paintings, tools, etc. Their challenges seem harder than for those who are home with parents, partners, or families. Many international students are quieter, although in the weeks before lockdown they had begun to crack their shells and speak out with new-found voices. It was as though they were now retreating into the rules of command and authority, and had no new place from which to take space. One sent me a long, impassioned email about racism in America and how appalling it is. The undergraduates were definitely frightened, concerning themselves with how to get flights back to their countries, mostly China and Korea. The graduate students were more resolved that they came to California because they wanted to rebel against authorities and find something unique in the world, and they were definitely going to continue this quest.

My grads are in end-of-term reviews. As always, they are naturally nervous; some are jubilant. We have had to re-review two students — and apparently this has gotten around, despite our reassurances that it is not a form of punishment but of attention. The online-review experience is intimate, thought it can be too much in some ways (I have to be cool, and much more entertaining).

The mute-button thing was a hindrance in trying to tell if students were present or not.

The second week with undergraduates was problematic. I had a guest speaker, and this engaged most students, but others kept blacking out their screens, and I couldn’t tell if they had to go to the bathroom, or had left the class altogether. The mute-button thing was a hindrance in trying to tell if they were present or not. The assignment was to make a speculative monument to something in a California park, using data they had already collected. I thought of two young men whom I had taken one day to Redwood Regional Park in the East Bay hills, and how both were now in their own countries with that memory. My syllabus was predicated on camping, field trips, and deep investigations into parks, which for the most part we now cannot do. Tricky.

— Kim Anno

New York City, Looking south on Lafayette Street from Canal, Manhattan, March 22, 2020. Photograph by Greg Lindquist
Manhattan, looking south on Lafayette Street from Canal, March 22, 2020. Photograph by Greg Lindquist.

It’s been difficult to focus, as the landscapes in NYC and across educational institutions keep drastically shifting under my quivering feet. But: Some questions I have, in no particular order:

Seriously, will we educators be replaced by robotic surrogates?

1. Seriously, will we educators be replaced by robotic surrogates? (For robots, read: A.I. supra-computers machine-taught via data collection in social media, dating apps, Alexas and Siris, in concert with this season’s Westworld that eerily dropped into its plot an exposition of the virus … ) Asked in another way: What is lost and what is gained when a person directs a class from behind a digital interface?

2. In the passive receptivity of video conferencing, how might I assess whether or not students are engaged (short of employing “attention tracking” features that indeed exist and follow students’ eye movements)? I see many darting eyeballs — when I ask them to tap a “thumbs up” button in the control panel to acknowledge “I can hear you,” I get an immediate reply from a quarter of them and from the rest nothing.

3. Listening to my students struggle over video conferencing to keep a happy face in front of other scared, tired, anxious souls is heartbreaking. Some work as journalists on immigration issues; some receive federal and state benefits and have undocumented partners continuing to ride subways as essential workers. Others are home, with both parents working in hospitals. One student, from Korea, was afraid to leave her apartment after hearing that some of her Asian friends had been punched. Another is working with her mother (in their Queens apartment blocks from a hospital) to produce protective masks in China and distribute in NYC. Difficult not to cry during these sessions. To communicate a visceral sense of empathy, I flailed limbs and gesticulated wildly, repeating, “Thank you for sharing, I am so glad to hear you are safe and well.” I said this even though I knew they were not exactly safe and well: teaching some form of adaptive denial.

4. “There’s a crack, there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Often, the interface is only exposed when it is broken; glitches reveal the inherent social, political, and economic biases of algorithms and software. How can we not see so-called “Zoom bombers” as performing an act of civil disobedience or a public service announcement about the weaknesses of our system? By which I mean not only endemic racism, but structural problems posed by the interface.

5. This model is unsustainable. I cringed as I wrote the following in an email to the students I love working with the most: “Please email the TAs — do not email me directly; the number of students I have as an adjunct (which means I don’t get health or retirement benefits, an office, or salary from the school, just a flat rate for the course) this semester is overwhelming when I have 30% of them emailing me at once: Pratt — 3 classes at 20 each; Bergen Community College — 3 classes at 30 each; RISD — 1 class at 44 = approximately 194 students.” How can I not spend 14 hours a day in front of a computer? Symptoms of dry eye, which I spent years resolving, returned after several days of staring at a computer while not blinking.

Will adjuncts suffer a massive rolling pandemic of class cancellations?

6. A preview of what’s to come: Today I received notification that a precollege program, in which I have taught almost every summer since moving to NYC, has been cancelled. Because our program was largely popularized as an experience of NYC for out-of-town or foreign high school students, I had already had a difficult time seeing how it could go online, not to mention the fact that travel bans and quarantines will likely linger into the summer in response to the rolling pandemic. Will the fall semester move entirely online? Will students drop out? Will adjuncts suffer a massive rolling pandemic of class cancellations?

— Greg Lindquist

Working From Home

Once a year or so growing up, I liked getting sick. A low-grade fever seemed a small price to pay for a few days home from school, lying in bed all day watching TV and eating Jell-O. It never lasted long and after two or three days I was usually back to business, frolicking with my friends. Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Oregon’s governor issued a state-wide shelter-in-place order on 23 March 2020 — the day my sabbatical began. Like my child self, for the first week or so after the order, even as awareness and concern mounted, I basked in the evaporation of classes, schedules, and deadlines. I made rice pudding (in lieu of Jell-O), took long walks in the woods behind my house, stayed up until 2 am watching movies, pondered the sudden strangeness of everything, and ordered camping gear online.

As week two of mandatory social distancing slips into week three, I’m trying to get back to work, but there are so many things around the house I find that need cleaning and straightening, so much television that still needs watching. The cat is purring sweetly, beckoning me to the couch. The spring rains are narcotic. I miss my local café, with their strong coffee and weak internet. The fact is, I’ve gotten out of the habit of working all day from home.

Some years ago, while writing my dissertation and needing to get out of the house, I volunteered at a local hospital. There I befriended a successful freelance writer undergoing long-term care. Among other things, we talked about the challenges of maintaining work/life balance while working from home, something I was then facing for the first time. My new friend gave some simple, practical advice. Get up each morning, pack a bag with what you’ll need for that day’s work, take a walk around the block; home is now the office. At the end of the day, do the same thing in reverse; the office is now home. It was a minor mental trick, an optical illusion you see right through, but it helped me to complete a dissertation and another decade of marriage.

And so, tomorrow, I’ll get up, pack a bag, take a walk, and get to work. Like almost everyone else, I’ll miss the closeness of my friends, but I trust that we’ll be frolicking again soon. And when we do, this time, there will be pudding for all.

— Keith Eggener

Studio space is sacred space. We hold it sacrosanct, essential to the transformation from novice to designer. It is the home-away-from-home of the design student, the charged environment where one eats and drinks, develops lifelong friendships, often sleeps, sometimes even studies. What happens in studio between classes, in the middle of the night, can be as essential as what happens during class — peer-to-peer learning, collective resource sharing, critical debate, stress releasing shenanigans — all supported, if not created, by a strong studio culture. There is a correlation, we think, between the spaces we make in and the spaces we make. What happens when that real space disintegrates? Is it possible to build the same studio culture without the physical places that shape it? And do we want to?

Student surveys indicate a rising mental health crisis within our studio walls.

At the urging of the American Institute of Architecture Students, the National Architecture Accrediting Board has for the past decade required “studio culture statements.” In an effort to be more encompassing, these are now called “learning culture statements,” but the main focus remains the stubbornly persistent institutionalized conditions of an often patriarchal and nearly always exhausting set of longstanding practices embodied in studio. This is backed up by student surveys that indicate a rising mental health crisis within our studio walls. At Wash U, we’re in the midst of rewriting our learning culture statement, and the sudden shift to distance learning has further illuminated this process. A year ago, criteria such as empathy were met — by me, admittedly — with skepticism, as somehow foreign to design teaching and risky to a professional distance I’ve spent years earning and cultivating. Aspiration? Engagement? Impact? Compassion? Absolutely. But questions of empathy, in particular as they relate to work/life balance, seemed antithetical to my own experiences and expectations of the sacrifices that have long been part of design education.

From the Instagram page of the Sam Fox School at Washington University in St. Louis.
From the Instagram feed of the Sam Fox School at Washington University in St. Louis.

And now here we are, looking into each other’s houses, mutual observers of our daily stresses and travails. Suddenly it is impossible not to empathize with our students as we literally witness their struggles to balance school and life. So now, following intense debate among our student-led group and expert input from those working in the trenches of the learning culture evolution, we’ve crafted a values statement that defines a holistic education — one that aims to be collaborative and inclusive, balanced, accountable, engaged, impactful, empathetic.

Off-campus teaching is proving to be a ripe opportunity to reconsider the culture of sacrifice that has long marked design education.

Certainly, there are big losses leaving behind the space of studio, but off-campus teaching is proving to be a ripe opportunity to reconsider the culture of sacrifice that has long marked design education. This is not to suggest we should be less rigorous, critical or ambitious in our pedagogy, nor lose sight of the extraordinary creative potential of the studio experience. I heartily believe in peer-to-peer learning and the deep commitment the creative process takes, and I personally hope the forced Zoom experience is short-lived. We are conducting a global-scale, real-time experiment in which we are called upon to accommodate greater diversity and to be more culturally resilient. Perhaps, as a discipline, we can recognize this as an opportunity to remake our studio culture so that it yields not fear, anxiety, and exhaustion but confidence, aspiration, generosity, and inclusion.

— Linda C. Samuels

We are a relatively new school; our architecture program started in 2014. Because MEF University has implemented a flipped learning policy, our students and faculty are familiar with the suite of online tools and platforms. We use Blackboard and Collaborate Ultra; all students access the LMS — the Learning Management Systems — via their smartphones, and all are required to own a laptop from the second year on. All university instruction is in English, with the exception of design studios.

We are also a small school; students and faculty work closely together in a program strongly centered around the shared physical space of the studio. All students have desks and lockers, and studio are always open — 365 days/24 hours. At the end of their first year, students collaborate on a design-build project in different cities around Turkey as well as abroad — an experience that builds community and solidarity too. We know our students (academically) very well.

So in some ways we were prepared for the move to online teaching. For seminar courses, the transition has been especially efficient, even positive. In larger classes (my history of urban form seminar has 75 students), we no longer have problems with crowded rooms. Online, all students are effectively sitting in the front row. Participation has improved; more than 95% of my class has been present. Perhaps counterintuitively, engagement has improved as well. During the first seven weeks, in the physical classroom, about five to ten students would participate in discussions; now it’s about double that number. (Some use the chatbox to share comments.) We can also more easily invite guest experts from around the country and the world.

MEF University, an architecture studio, pre-pandemic.
An architecture studio at MEF University, pre-pandemic. [Ipek Yurekli]

MEF University, online studio environment created by architecture students as a way to compensate for the lack of shared space and solidarity.
MEF University, online studio environment created by architecture students as a way to compensate for the lack of shared space and solidarity. [Arda İnceoğlu]

For studios, the transition has been smoother than we imagined. We can meet in the digital space easily. Individual sessions are similar to desk crits. Students share 2D images and 3D Rhino models. So far, we’ve experienced few problems with bandwidth. Yet online studios are problematic. Some forms of pedagogy seem futile. Unwillingly, we have waived the requirements for model-making. Outside school, many students do not have access to materials, and it would unethical to require that they purchase any on their own since stores are closed. But in any case, without the ability to handle and touch the models, design discussion would be unsatisfying. Even more troubling, the community and sociability of the studio environment are hard to translate to the virtual space. There is a real risk that online studios will consist largely of one-to-one conversations. So this week, in my second-year studio, we’ll be holding group discussions on non-school topics: on interesting buildings, on books and movies.

There is a risk online studios will consist largely of one-to-one conversations. So this week we’ll be holding group discussions on non-studio topics, on interesting buildings, books, and movies.

Online studios promote and indeed require a high degree of self-sufficiency and initiative on the part of students. Some seem to be thriving. Yet others are struggling. We pride ourselves on not having “bad” students — students who don’t complete coursework, or who seem uninterested in their projects. We believe that is a measure of a good school. But now we see clear differences: now we see good, mediocre, and even poor studio performance. As it turns out, it is harder to motivate some students in the online space. First-year students are having a hard time since they are not (yet) proficient with digital tools. Our graduating class is the unhappiest group. Not only are they in the midst of a global health crisis with major social and economic impacts; they are also realizing they have left school (read: studio) for good. And of course one very difficult issue is access; some students, especially in smaller cities or rural areas, have limited or no internet access; this will be an ongoing dilemma for online education.

If overall, I am (we are) more satisfied with our online teaching experience than we would have expected, this is surely related to the strong culture and mutual trust that had been established as a result of our shared experience in the physical spaces of the school. I suspect that the experience of a course that began online would be more negative.

— Arda İnceoğlu

Scientists predict the climate crisis will produce more pandemics. Once again the discipline of architecture is being challenged to question longstanding values and aesthetics, and to acknowledge that the formal is inextricably connected to the political, social, economic, and environmental. Today it is more crucial than ever that we teach intersectionally. To do otherwise will render us irrelevant.

Lori Brown's home office, set up for remote teaching; the project onscreen is by Syracuse M.Arch student Morgan Noone.
Lori Brown’s home office, set up for remote teaching; the project onscreen is by Syracuse M.Arch student Morgan Noone. [Martin Hogue]

In physical, shared spaces, students learn how to be not only skillful practitioners but also socially engaged citizen-architects.

The space and time of teaching is critical in preparing students to address exigent issues and in instilling the confidence to take risks. I would argue that this pandemic — this shutdown — reaffirms bell hooks’s proposition: “the classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.” The physical togetherness and interpersonal connectedness of the classroom and studio are vital; in these spaces, students learn how to be not only skillful practitioners but also intellectually and socially engaged citizen-architects. Can these values and ideals be modeled and transmitted in Zoom? In the virtual teaching space, students from dramatically different backgrounds, from places around the globe, can meet and encounter new ideas. But what online spaces can’t easily accommodate and often thwart are the awkward silences and discomforts of such encounters; in the virtual there isn’t the space to take the time to ponder and stumble and pause … to work slowly and tenaciously to grasp ideas, to make them your own. The intellectual energy of patient teaching and careful learning will not transfer easily, if at all, to online environments.

This is a profound challenge that must not be squandered. Once we emerge from this crisis, I will be more committed than ever to intersectional design education, and to the “radical space of possibility” that is one of the powerful achievements of higher education.

— Lori Brown

It is, from my perspective, very difficult to state with any clarity what academic life will look like post-COVID-19. All schools have had to quickly adjust, adapt, and acclimate to new learning environments. Once we are past this, will there be the opportunity to rethink, or even relearn, how, where, when, and to whom, we teach?

Lectures. We have shifted to virtual teaching very quickly and it has shown some of the cracks in our system. Students I have spoken with see little to no value in watching a Zoom lecture. Are large lectures a thing of the past? Can they be replaced with asynchronous videos and in-person project-based activities? Online education takes this for granted, yet somehow, scheduled lectures persist as the norm at almost every university.

The current issue in studio is waning interest because everyone is stuck at home.

Studios. Much of the perceived resistance to online education in architecture sounds like this: we can put the history survey online easily and maybe some software courses, but I really don’t know about studio. Now, we are all teaching studio online and finding creative ways to do so. Granted, my studio was up and running for eight weeks and students were used to its rhythms. The bigger issue now is waning interest because everyone is stuck at home. Once we are back on campus, how might studio change? Can we teach studio remotely? Can we teach studio as a mix of in-person and virtual settings? Can we invite reviewers from around the world to sit in on a virtual review? Can we invite faculty to teach from other universities? Can we pair studios from distinct schools? Can we scale the studio up?

Faculty Meetings. My calendar has been packed over the past few weeks — many meetings are “updates” from upper administration that are working their way down the chain of command. This game of telephone unintentionally creates misrepresentations and causes confusion. Ironically, many meetings could be eliminated with a recorded update from the president and/or provost. Could we use the time of the meeting to meet as a unit, discuss, and ask questions that could be relayed back up the chain? Not unlike lectures, can we run asynchronous faculty meetings?

From the Instagram page of the ACSA.
From the Instagram feed of the ACSA.

Conferences. For most organizations, annual conferences are the biggest expense but also the biggest revenue generator. How does going virtual change the revenue model? How do faculty network (probably the most valuable part of conferences) in a virtual event? Aren’t many of us already doing this through social media? Other disciplines conduct virtual conferences, yet I know of only a handful in architecture. The ACSA and SAH have worked hard to transition to fully virtual events, but it was not intentional. Is this the new model?

Campus life. Our campuses at Arizona State University, which house and educate 70,000 students, are completely empty, save for the landscaping crews (I wish I was joking) and a few administrators. All that infrastructure (and parking) has an impact — financially as well as ecologically. How much is necessary? A month or so ago, we were talking about the impact on space that an increase of students in studio would have. If students are in studio one day a week and virtual the other, our space problems disappear. What if the studio lasted seven weeks and then went virtual for the next half? Or what if it was virtual for the first half and then in person, with access to shops for the second? How then do we support studio culture, when there is no physical studio?

Financial Model. Amid all the talk and anxiety about housing credits and meal plan refunds, there are schools that will not be able to reopen, given the inevitable drop in students expected this fall. Some students will be unable to get visas; others may defer for a year until their world becomes a bit more normal. Tuition-based universities will be radically affected. Endowments will also take a hit and state schools will most likely see budget allocations reduced. Are there other financial models for universities that might limit the explosive student loan debt? A model that can be resilient in economic turmoil? That can actually stabilize our local economies?

I don’t know how healthy it is to see the dorm rooms, apartments, and houses of my students, or for them to see me at home.

Work/Life balance. I’ve joked with colleagues that I have seen more student apartments in the past few weeks than in my entire academic career. I don’t know how healthy it is to see the dorm rooms, apartments, and houses of my students, or for them to see me at home. Working from home, with a partner, and child, is not easy, but we do have it better than most. What has happened, unfortunately, is more work outside of work time. My computer is always on and I am answering email at all hours. Although my schedule is flexible (and no commute!), I feel less balanced then when I left school and arrived home. Rather than thinking about a work/life balance, can we re-consider establishing boundaries?

Although we are teaching “online,” there are universities that have been doing so for years and were clearly less impacted. That said, to imagine we are managing our courses as well as those designed to be run online is to be mistaken. I’m not convinced that we will, or should, shift to a fully online platform for all students, but I do hope we will learn something from all of this.

— Marc J. Neveu

Stocking the Academic Pantry

I grew up in rural Texas, where the food pantry was a critical component of the rural mandate. “Going to town,” ranch-speak for replenishing, was an infrequent event, dependent on weather. Too much rain, snow, wind, or even heat: no trips to town. Even worse: too little rain, which brought heightened concerns about wildfires. And so I learned to freeze eggs (separate whites and yolks into ice cube trays) and revive green onions for triple the yield (drop the bulbs in a glass of water). My aunt could split any food into at least three semi-plotted pathways towards future meals, and approached her pantry as an opportunity to leverage what she could get now with what she would like to cook eventually. “Extra” did not mean a cache of misguided options. A pantry crowded with every imaginable type of can, jar, bin, or box wasn’t reckless hoarding; it was an edible measure of remoteness and time.

From the Twitter feed of the Knowlton School at OSU.
From the Twitter feed of the Knowlton School at OSU.

While the art of stocking pantries may be the proprietary instinct of the rural, what we’ve witnessed in the last weeks indicates that stockpiling might be the unskilled proxy left to the rest of us. COVID-19 has reawakened a widespread urgency for supplies, one that lies dormant until the onset of hurricanes or snowstorms or wars. Once jumpstarted, it produces a variety of jerky, abnormal material vectors less reflective of a practiced spatio-temporal construct than a reactionary one. And so, toilet paper eludes Americans; Italian grocers report shelves emptied of all stock except frozen Hawaiian pizzas.

Students were given two four-hour sessions to gather their belongings from studio, download to hard drives, and upload to clouds.

Given the unprecedented trajectory of the pandemic, this recent uptick coincided with another, parallel stockpiling — an effort to fill the academic pantry. In early March, amid promises to ensure “continuity of instruction,” we closed the doors of Knowlton Hall for the first time since Merrill Elam and Mack Scogin’s building was opened in 2004. Students were given two four-hour sessions to gather their belongings from studio, download to hard drives, and upload to clouds. IT mustered and, over a five-day period previously known as Spring Break, managed to flip all studio spaces to remote desktops. Rhino and ArcGIS were only one VPN login and a few lagged seconds away from the fingertips of our students. It was a masterful example of contingency rollout, extending our collective digital reach and calming many nerves. Still, it’s worth noting that Knowlton studios are equipped with desktop computers, while many students may lack home computers and reliable wi-fi.

So I wonder whether a stockpiled academic pantry, full of tasty software and familiar digital wares, has masked a larger question about the difference between having options and strategically planning for remote design decision-making. If digital artifacts are the primary first-run products, what are the possible second- and third-run products, ones made from the detritus, the active cultures, or the unused but still nutritious residuals? No doubt, we’ve observed neighbors (and maybe ourselves) confront this conundrum in the grocery store. When staring down canned creamed corn (my personal nemesis, but pick your least favorite canned veg), are we making decisions that protect against unpredictable need while also adding capacity to meal prep once back home? I would argue this is a moment to reassess our academic pantry, to help our students see that options both exist and can be multiplied amidst trips to the remote desktop.

— Kristi Cheramie

From the Instagram page of Taubman College.
From the Instagram feed of Taubman College.

The “pivot”

The swiftness of the pivot from physical to virtual space has revealed the extent to which architectural education — with a handful of exceptions — is not well-organized for online education, and perhaps does not even fully recognize “online” as an educational environment with its own organizational space, modes of communication, pedagogical principles, and combination of synchronous and asynchronous pedagogy.

In fact, there are elements of an architectural education that are well-suited to online or hybrid modes of teaching. Some schools are already advancing pedagogy in these areas, particularly in lecture-based classes, expanding resources beyond text-based learning. But this is not what we are doing right now; right now, we are teaching remotely. Specifically, we are teaching the one class that presupposes a physical environment: studio. Yet here too, we have some experience. At Taubman College, we’ve been using remote interfaces for a while to bring in national and international visiting critics on a more sustained basis, to organize lunchtime speaker series, and to interact with other schools on studio projects. Several studios already take place in mixed reality modalities. However, even here we recognize the need to reconfigure the studio environment to optimize these interactions.

But what we are hearing most from our students is that there is one critical component that the multiple autonomous spaces of remote learning cannot replace: the studio itself. At the most basic level, there is, in online teaching, the reduction of design to representational space; meanwhile analog and digital fabrication capacities are lost. More important, however, is the loss of the physical studio space itself, with its serendipitous conversations, passing observations of reviews in progress, ad hoc assemblies of students from different programs working beside one another in the commons.

Virtual opening of the exhibition "Practice, Product, Protocol" at Taubman College.
Virtual opening of the exhibition “Practice, Product, Protocol” at Taubman College.

For every colleague I’ve met by participating on a panel, I’ve met at least two others in the spaces and events that surround the scholarly content.

Confession: I am on sabbatical and have not had to negotiate this radical pivot with my students. What I have experienced is an equally important part of architectural education: our extracurricular programming. The virtual Post Carbon series sponsored by our chapter of the Architecture Lobby — I am there. An opening for this year’s Fellowship Exhibition on “Practice, Product, Protocol” — I sit down for a Zoom via YouTube stream with a cocktail in hand at the appointed hour along with more students, faculty, and visitors than I know I would have seen in person. The exhibition was installed in the gallery just before our governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, but not before all on-campus teaching came to a halt. The virtual introduction and presentations were terrific, the walk-through of the exhibition well-choreographed, and the discussion among the fellows and three interlocutors, who also took questions from the chat, brought even greater depth to the material. The event now lives online and has had over 700 viewers to date, which accomplishes something necessary: the promotion of the work beyond the gallery walls. But I missed the social event, the social space of the opening, the intermingling, the casual conversation that becomes a political debate about the merits of the work, the jockeying and the joking. Obviously, the seeing and being seen. The same thing will be said for virtual conferences. It is astounding how quickly our professional organizations are pulling these together in real time. But for every colleague I have ever met by participating on a panel, I have met at least two others in the spaces and events that surround the scholarly content.

On the other hand, this pivot has created new opportunities, or more specifically a new set of collaborations that should not be abandoned when we return to not-quite-normal once again: schools and organizations sharing resources; brainstorming webinars for how to shift to remote teaching, deal with students’ heightened anxieties, or develop techniques for shifting community-based practice; and the opening up of journals and books usually behind paywalls. If the sudden shuttering of our physical campuses has revealed our false sense of increased equity and inclusion in higher education, perhaps it can also illustrate new sharing and collaboration protocols, not in the name of an abstract efficiency, but in the creation of shared missions, ethics, and interests.

— Sharon Haar

David Smiley, Alison Hirsch, Iñaki Alday, Kim Anno, Greg Lindquist, Keith Eggener, Linda C. Samuels, Arda İnceoğlu, Lori Brown, Marc J. Neveu, Kristi Cheramie, Sharon Haar, “Field Notes on Pandemic Teaching: 4,” Places Journal, April 2020. Accessed 08 Jun 2023.

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