Field Notes on Pandemic Teaching: 5

This is the fifth 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, and rooted in embodied encounters that allow for serendipitous discovery?

Clockwise (from upper left): Derek Hoeferlin, online landscape studio at Sam Fox School at Washington University in St. Louis. [Derek Hoeferlin) Poster by student in Environmental Design program at University of Colorado, Boulder. From the Instagram page of The New School. Remote teaching from the desk of Hans Ibelings, University of Toronto.
Clockwise (from upper left): Derek Hoeferlin, online landscape studio at the Sam Fox School at Washington University in St. Louis. Poster by student in Environmental Design program at University of Colorado, Boulder. From the Instagram feed of The New School. Remote teaching from the desk of Hans Ibelings, University of Toronto.

After a day in the studio, there is always a thumbtack lodged in the sole of my shoe

It is now three weeks since we have moved our design studio from a physical space to a virtual environment.

In some ways we have been lucky: our university had already adopted Brightspace, a new VLE, or Virtual Learning Environment, so we were up and running with a bells and whistles model. Up until a month ago, however, we had needed to use only a limited functionality — we uploaded our schedules, lesson plans, rubrics, and references — and it acted more or less as a repository for coursework. The daily face-to-face business of teaching and learning was still fully and physically located in the studio.

We are fiercely proud and protective of our studios in UCD. Every student is guaranteed their own desk and storage space. We know this is not the case in all schools of architecture and we understand the pressures to run a course without desks but for 100 years UCD has resisted this. Each studio is unique in character across the five years of the B.Arch. and M.Arch. courses. As they progress through the school, students will sample making a shared place in each studio, finishing their Masters in the attic studio over the library. These studios pulse to the rhythm of the academic year, filling up gradually from September to May with the maps, sketches, models, drawings, equipment, cards of all sorts and weights, photographs, books, found objects, relating to the themes set by tutors and the endeavors of students.

This is not a romantic ode to a beaux-arts model — this is work.

Laptops and phones are charging via a spaghetti of cables; plotters and printers whirr, jamb, run out of ink, paper, toner, always just before a review. After a day in the studio, there are always thumbtacks lodged in the sole of your shoe, a reminder of the pinning up, scrutiny, discussion, revision, referral that occurs in the discussion of work. Teaching happens individually at the desk, or in a group format, or in an all-class session. Learning happens there, and in all the cracks and crevices around this. Students learn as much, if not more, from one another as they do from teachers. This is at the core of the value of studio culture. Students learn a lot when we are not in the room and this is precious.

Drawing by Emma Crane.
Crane drawing, by University College Dublin architecture student Emma Cooney. [Peter Molloy]

Architecture studio conversation at University College Dublin in the now-distant recent past.
An architecture studio at University College Dublin in the now-distant recent past. [Peter Molloy]

Learning happens by accident and this is essential.

They tell us they swap tips, witness trials and errors, ask advice, borrow ideas. This learning happens as they wander through the studio, or bunch for a break around a friend’s desk, or perch outside over coffee or lunch. It’s not on a rubric, it’s not in a Module Descriptor, but it is the learning that establishes the network of ideas, modes, ways of operation, critiques of each generation of architects. Learning happens by accident and this is essential. This not only, we think, makes them better architects when they leave, it makes them better people. So much of education is driven toward outcomes, to metrics, to assessments, to skills. But we also value competencies. A competency does not refer to an activity carried out by the learner in the course of learning: A competency denotes a quality acquired by the learner, a potential for reflection and action. It is not the only way, but the studio and the student’s appropriation of it, use of it, occupation of it and collective enjoyment of it allows those competencies to become part of our graduates’ attributes and offering to the world.

As the crisis hit fast, we have worked hard, and so far have been able to replicate most elements of the formal course online in virtual classrooms, although access to reliable and fast broadband is not a given for our students or staff now working remotely. We are concerned for students’ diminishing agency and control over their education as a result; we place students in a role of peer with their teachers and value a culture of mutual esteem. Isolation, fragmentation, and uncertain resources (technology, time, money, familial support) have brought inequalities into sharp relief and this cuts against good practice in education generally and stands firm against our core values locally as teachers.

We are quite nifty at rapid adaptation. But what cannot be replicated online is the culture of learning that the physical space of the studio provides.

We have set up supports and structures — a lot of structures — to ensure that we keep in touch with students. This online model is much more time and resource intensive than the physical studio. We are working out how to format reviews, and we’ve become literate in a dizzying array of platforms to mimic the real world. We are quite nifty at rapid adaptation — at making things work. And while some students can adapt easily to working at home and may be well supported to do so, others are challenged by family commitments, poor broadband, lack of physical space, and lack of mental space to focus, concentrate, and create. We concede we are learning, connecting, and delivering things in new ways, some of which we will carry forward.

But what cannot be replicated online is the culture of learning that the physical space of the studio provides. Any claim to the contrary misses the value of this irreplaceable part of the architectural pedagogy. Architecture as a practice, as a social, material, and spatial endeavor, has people at its core — we believe it must have. Those who would seek to argue that the removal of studio culture from education is a sustainable way forward in higher education may well be those who do not place people at the center of architecture.

— Orla Murphy + Emmett Scanlon

We interrupt this regularly scheduled program …

The global pandemic has flipped design education on its ear into the daunting and unfamiliar territory of remote learning. We all are disoriented and exhausted, simply trying to carry on “in place.” Motivated more than ever to maintain some normalcy in the midst of bewildering times, design faculty are reaching out to each other and to students with new appreciation for how much we need each other in order to learn, teach, and create new knowledge. Community is the core of studio culture, and social connection is essential to our pedagogy. Yet even as we seek to build and sustain community from afar, the distance that is now mandated underscores the power of representation and the utility of the concept of defamiliarization — a term coined by the critic Viktor Shklovsky in his 1917 essay “Art as Technique,” referring to the literary device whereby language is used in ways that make the ordinary and familiar appear strange and different.

This unavoidable defamiliarization has potential to simultaneously bewilder and teach, while reinforcing our need for each other.

Defamiliarization — simply by casting a subject into a medium whose language might be difficult to understand (poetry, sculpture, dance, music …) — creates curiosity, generates questions, and pushes us to see the world in new ways. I regularly give an assignment that deliberately produces a sense of defamiliarization in an otherwise everyday experience. I ask students to partner with one classmate, to travel to a different location in the city, call their partner, and describe what they see. Students participate in the conversation as if they are together in the same space, sharing a view. The first partner discusses what she is seeing as if the second is standing next to her, and he (the second partner) responds in turn. This form of engagement disrupts the experience, sets reality aside, and foregrounds the descriptive conversation about place. I ask them to do this in order to bewilder them, to get them literally and figuratively lost. The over-arching goal is to slow down the experience of perception in order to provoke uncanny encounters and new ways of seeing. We learn that even when we cannot go to a place, we can exchange, translate, and represent place to generate counter-places and heterotopias.

I would like to suggest that within this temporary and frightening disruption, there lies a small gift for those of us who teach about place. For me, the requirement to “shelter in place” is helping to reframe and expand ideas about what place (and time) can be. The value of seeing things differently, forced by the necessity of thoughtful representation and communication, is magnified as we all — students and faculty — grapple with the feeling that things are now both strange and familiar. With our usual modes of education interrupted and the future so frightfully uncertain, this unavoidable defamiliarization has potential to simultaneously bewilder and teach, while reinforcing our need for each other.

— Liska Chan

For the past several years, at our urban design program, we’ve been running a global urbanism studio. It’s been a fantastic opportunity for students to experience such complex cities as Johannesburg and Mexico City — but when I started as chair, last fall, I had a gut instinct that the whole concept of the studio needed a reboot, especially in these Trumpian times. I started to question the merits of traveling studios in these days of hardened borders and pervasive xenophobia. And more, I started to wonder: do our schools of design need a new ethics of global engagement? The rules of the (international) game seemed to change overnight after the 2016 election here in the U.S. How does a global pandemic further complicate the fragile system? Now, looking ahead to a world that’s post-Trump and post-COVID-19, how can we rewrite the rules of engagement for our students, for our profession?

Zoom-based landscape architecture studio at the Sam Fox School at Washington University in St. Louis.
Zoom-based landscape architecture studio at the Sam Fox School at Washington University in St. Louis, with a project by student Danni Hu. [Derek Hoeferlin]

In these days of hardened borders and pervasive xenophobia, do our design schools need a new ethics of global engagement?

Since our summer traveling studio cannot travel this summer, what if we optimistically start a new experiment that is ambitiously international in scope even as it remains rooted, or sheltered in place, in our school in the middle of the North American continent? I’m envisioning a global urbanism studio that re-energizes Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion World Map — a new studio that radically engages all seven continents on Bucky’s Spaceship Earth. Now is the moment to galvanize our international network to develop new pedagogical models that will deliver the best virtual studio possible for our students, and to create teaching models that reconnect systems, transmit new ideas, and encourage greater collectivity.

— Derek Hoeferlin

Recent edition of Paprika, a journal published by students at Yale School of Architecture.
Recent edition of Paprika, a journal published by students at Yale School of Architecture.

As students organize to demand tuition reimbursement or representation in decisions pertinent to their expensive education, they are getting a lesson in realpolitik.

The move to remote instruction may have been forced, but it is nonetheless bringing into sharp relief what has been true for years: that relevant education is not being delivered inside the academy. Students are realizing not only that their online studios and seminars are impoverished versions of their traditional courses but also that neither is enabling them to develop the skills, information, and relationships that are vital to being effective citizens. Rather they are learning about the precarity of higher education from social media, online forums, journals, and newspapers, and, within the architecture community, from online exchanges generated by journal-forums like Archinect, activist organizations like the Architecture Lobby, and discussions like that generated by Yale School of Architecture students in their publication Paprika. Because students are no longer sheltering in their cloistered campuses, they are able to see how provisional, arbitrary, and temporally limited these communities are. As students increasingly organize to ask for either tuition reimbursement or representation in decisions pertinent to their expensive education, they are getting a lesson in realpolitik. As demonstrated by the recent protests of Yale architecture students who are demanding that “resources be generously allocated to those most in need and most affected by the crisis in order to ensure that our education continues in an equitable way,” and also by the increasing number of graduate students and contract teachers joining unions in many universities, academia’s young student-citizen-activists are finding expansive communities that offer more than their individual schools.

This is not bad news. It is the start of a new commons, one that is less precious, more relevant, and more empowering.

Peggy Deamer

I am a restorative justice practitioner and mediator, working and consulting in NYC schools and non-profits. I also run adult training sessions on conflict resolution, and secondary trauma and self-care. My training sessions are experiential, including somatic learning.

Restorative justice addresses racial equity and justice and is strongest in Black and Brown spaces — NYC schools and the criminal justice system. In RJ Talking Circles (as many already know), a talking piece is passed to bring equity of voice into a space. The talking piece goes around in one direction and you are invited to speak when you have it, and to listen if you don’t. I’ve realized that this format is somewhat similar to a Zoom meeting, where everyone is muted, and one person speaks at a time. The kind of silence we experience in Zoom meetings is similar to that in a Circle, as Circles are mainly listening spaces. But the Circle keepers I know who are now working in Zoom have not been able to figure out how to “pass the talking piece.” RJ is about building community, addressing harm, and healing together; we gather with as few barriers as possible. So the online environment presents a big challenge.

Without structural changes, digital inequities for Black and Brown people will continue.

Incorporating more somatic engagement into online trainings might be key. Fitness has transitioned into the digital realm; for me, working with the online interface is now a matter of improving the flow of somatic engagement during my trainings, and increasing the number of somatic experiences available. I would like to create more intentional pauses, and pace them so as to allow our minds and eyes to rest as we engage one another through digital space.

My fears about online instruction have to do with increasing inequities: The young people I work with, many in shelters, foster care, or homes that are not safe, are craving to learn, but have no access to computers. Without structural changes, digital inequities for Black and Brown people will continue.

But I have hope for the future. My partner owns a bookshop (Three Lives & Co, in NYC), and in the publishing and bookselling industry, everyone feared that once Kindle and other e-book readers hit the market, independent bookstores would all close. Many did, but then we saw an incredible increase in the number of independents — people wanted physical books, and they wanted to browse. Readers sought to be part of a community. I hope distance learning will move through a similar arc, where we realize that digital-learning space is cool and convenient, and we will still gather live. I hope we won’t lose the desire to learn together in person.

— Yuko Uchikawa

I suppose we’re all struggling to find reference points for this situation. I have two. In the first, it’s March 1984 and I’ve recently arrived in New York amid the turmoil of the AIDS epidemic and it seems that everyone I meet in a bar or a club, at a party or at work, turns out to be dying — and all of a sudden it’s not possible to take anything for granted about my own or anyone else’s future or how those futures might unfold. In the second, it’s September 2008 and I’m teaching in the early weeks of the global financial crisis and realize that my students and I are all feeling that vertigo familiar to me from two decades earlier as, for a short while, the future hangs in suspension and no one seems to have much idea what life might consist of from this point forward.

And now: Here we are once more with the future in the balance, and this time we’re all on Zoom, although none of us wants to be, and we’re all trying to make the best of it. I’ve had a longstanding ban on devices in my classes, but now I’m on my device too and we all look at each other looking back, even though it’s impossible to know what someone else is looking at — except that we’ve all shown up, so everyone must want to be here and, like me, must be trying to figure out how to create something connective and meaningful out of a platform designed by tech guys for corporate meetings.

From the Instagram page of The New School.
From the Instagram feed of The New School.

I admire my students for signing in every week despite the extraordinary pressures they’re facing; for being there every time Zoom peers into their personal spaces. Even though it’s much too soon to know what this pandemic will mean or where it will lead, we do know a few things: we know that, like all natural disasters, this one not only reveals fundamental fractures in society (most dramatically of race, class, and gender), it also drastically deepens them; we know that it’s already offering opportunities to opportunists of all stripes; and we know that it has the potential to produce creative solutions to new and old problems.

Being forced to communicate solely on our devices makes it far more difficult to fulfill the pastoral obligations of teaching.

We’re also learning that being forced into communicating solely on our devices makes it far more difficult to fulfill the pastoral obligations of teaching — looking out for students who may be struggling for one reason or another and need extra attention, even just a brief conversation after class or a prompt during a discussion. Despite the superficial intimacy of “meeting” people in their homes, our current technology accentuates our distance. Other students don’t automatically know that someone on our shared screen has had to leave the city because they can’t pay rent; that someone else is desperate to return to their home country, but can’t because the borders are closed; that someone else has family members who are hospitalized; that someone — though how long ago this seems — was being urged by concerned family members in China to wear a mask, but was wary for good reason of doing so here.

As with AIDS, our current crisis offers the meager compensation of clarity. Private universities like the one I work in have embraced an increasingly unequal and unsustainable economic and cultural model: forcing tuition ever higher; becoming reliant on fragile international student markets; bloating a highly-paid, corporate upper administration tasked with developing ever-narrower niche branding; expanding a precariat of contingent faculty to undergird a shop window of ersatz-celebrity professors addicted to a lifestyle predicated on international travel. Along with many of my colleagues, I’ve participated in this journey despite routinely complaining, and now, as the institution wobbles, the costs of our complicity are becoming clear.

It’s more important than ever not to retreat solely into self-concern.

I learned many things from AIDS, and two of them seem relevant if far from comforting. The first is that while survival is imperative, these times of radical instability are the ones in which it’s more important than ever not to retreat solely into self-concern. The second is that although we may guess at the pieces from which the future will be assembled, we can’t predict how those pieces will fit together — even if it’s clear on whom the burden of this disease is falling and we can now see, as with AIDS, the dystopic contours of a world that will emerge once the panic has subsided among those of us with the privilege to reorient our activities or access medical protection and care.

— Hugh Raffles

When disaster capitalism met affective capitalism met surveillance capitalism

As I have been teaching and Zooming from my bed, I’ve had more time than usual to contemplate my neighbors’ dog. Usually he lies with his behind resting right up against the glass door of the balcony; I see a patch of squashed tan fur, the rest of his body obscured by what appears to be that classic white Ikea curtain. Our third-floor apartments are only ten feet apart, above a parking area. I look over often, as the neighbors’ apartment looks south, and I am jealous of their light.

Sometimes, the dog turns around and looks at me, looking at him. He tilts his head and moves his ears — like in a commercial. Once I saw him outside on the tiny balcony, pacing back and forth. He looks like a German shepherd puppy, precociously muscular and watchful. Sometimes I call him, seeking out his lopsided gaze. Psst! Psst! He doesn’t seem to trust me, but I keep trying.

It might seem self-indulgent in this time of pandemic death and livelihoods in freefall, but I often think about my neighbors’ dog when I click a Zoom link and it delivers me, with incomprehensible efficiency, to another private view across another domestic divide.

From the Instagram feed of Bedwyr Williams; screenshots by Manuel Shvartzberg-Carrio.
From the Instagram feed of Bedwyr Williams; screenshots by Manuel Shvartzberg Carrió.

The massive move to online teaching, achieved with brutal speed, has required a lot of emotional labor from everyone.

The massive move to online teaching, achieved with brutal speed in recent weeks, has required a lot of emotional labor from everyone — a lot of affective work to communicate across domestic vulnerabilities, across classes and cultures, and at times across inequalities of almost ontological dimensions. These divides have always existed, but they are now sharpened; I am often just embarrassed about living in a 400 s.f. apartment, having to “teach” from my bed. Sometimes, it is my own privileges — including having a home and being able to work from it — that embarrass me. Despite the best intentions, gazing across these divides can make us cringe. We have rarely seen the intimate architecture of social inequity so close up.

Even before the pandemic, we knew that online courses were a bandage for the inequalities they claim to address. Corporatized distance learning is disaster capitalism’s calculated effort to turn a profit from the lack of free and widely accessible educational opportunities. It’s a cheap surrogate for the real thing. Now, for fear of losing our jobs, we faculty have the cruel privilege of “proving” the rationale for this form of exploitation. Our success could be our downfall. In which case, academia will be made more precarious, more automated, more casualized.

But beyond further commodifying education, the massive delivery of online content is only clarifying that the new frontiers of capitalism are the very substructures of learning itself. Sustained social interactions between students and teachers are essential to a good education; they are particularly important to working-class and first-generation college students. More than just the formal exchange of knowledge, what sustains this bond is affective labor — relations of care that tend to degrade when privatized, when commodified and displaced.

Even before the pandemic, we knew that online courses were a cheap surrogate for the real thing, and a bandage for the inequalities they claim to address.

To be clear: it is not just education itself that is being degraded here — Zoom is fine for the “delivery” of sheer content. What is happening is that the material basis for affective labor has suddenly shifted to our own bedrooms and living rooms. This is accelerating the repurposing of the vital link between the mental and material dimensions of affective labor, potentially disrupting its subtle but crucial aspects: the ability to identify as peers and build solidarity through shared common spaces; the ability to manage stress through non-educational encounters and at actual health clinics; the opportunities to go off-script in the unique fellowship of a seminar room; the serendipitous discovery of unexpected knowledge in the library. To make up for this, we are having to find new ways of sustaining educational affects through the screen — emojis and all. But the bigger picture is that emotional infrastructures are being automated at an unimaginable scale. (Think of Google’s email reply suggestions — “Tomorrow works for me”; “Sounds good!” — as only the beginning of this.) The “material” side of this automation isn’t just being obfuscated — it is being physically replaced by our privileged domesticity (our beds and broadbands), helping universities shed thousands of reproductive workers.

That all these affective-educational interactions are now being digitally recorded will only make their future commodification and instrumentalization that much easier. Questions of data exploitation, privacy, and accountability will need to be addressed over time; but more immediately this recording — this surveillance — is impinging on the free intellectual exchange and relations of care that are fundamental to genuine learning.

What is happening now goes beyond the de facto production of a new teaching contract. We are having to materially and spiritually compensate for the further devaluation of the social contract — and our mandated tools are corporate capitalism’s tools. It is honestly exhausting.

Any day now I am expecting to be asked to make my classes “more like a TikTok.” Which is also why I am so interested in that puppy.

Manuel Shvartzberg Carrió

Design faculty are now being asked to practice what we teach — to quickly adapt, to innovate our methods and tools, to reconsider what is possible.

I have been impressed by the design community’s willingness to teach and learn from each other about how to navigate the transition to online teaching. I am part of a loose coalition of non-traditional design faculty called the Future of Design in Higher Ed. As the news of campus closings spread across the United States and the globe, the group began convening weekly to share ideas via Zoom. It quickly became apparent that the issues are both technical and cultural. We explored how to build and maintain a healthy culture for feedback and critique in a digital environment, and how to show care for our students and their diverse situations, even as we continue to ask them for high quality work. We shared techniques for creating digital environments that foster the relationships between faculty and students and among students that are so critical to transformative learning. And we practiced using new online tools for collaboration and critique. This video-conference call quickly became one of my favorite moments in the week because I know I will learn something new and also have the chance to contribute.

From the Instagram feed of the University of Pennsylvania Integrated Product Design program.
From the Instagram feed of the University of Pennsylvania Integrated Product Design program.

In the Integrated Product Design program that I lead at Penn, we teach skills, methods, and practices for creatively solving critical problems. This requires empathy, agility, and the ability to rapidly learn new tools and respond to emerging technologies. Now design faculty are being asked to practice what we teach — to quickly adapt to unforeseen circumstances, to innovate our own teaching methods and tools, to reconsider what is possible.

It is my great hope that by approaching these challenges collectively, by collaborating and sharing ideas, we will be able to provide a high quality education in an online context under stressful circumstances. And that when we return to our classrooms (in the not too distant future, I hope) we will be better teachers, we will have a bigger toolset to deploy, and our programs and our students will be stronger.

— Sarah Rottenberg

Increasing the Divide

The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting daily regimens around the world; but there is, I think, a potentially positive outcome. In academia, the crisis response is spotlighting the glaring inequities of design education — exposing the degree to which financial security has long been the decisive gatekeeper in determining who can afford to pursue a degree in architecture or landscape architecture or urban design. The cost of attendance is widely understood to be a primary reason why black and brown students choose alternative fields. In many academic programs those who excel are typically those who can devote the most time to their education. Students who must work or support a family are placed at an immediate disadvantage. Legitimate barriers are too often viewed as elaborate excuses, and many talented individuals are not given the opportunities of mentorship and future employment.

From the Instagram page of the University of Miami School of Architecture.
From the Instagram feed of the University of Miami School of Architecture.

A personal computer, top-tier bandwidth, and necessary software become luxuries when students are forced to relocate from the campus where these were available.

Now distance learning is forcing traditional opponents to confront their own biases. Online instruction is making it near impossible to deny the structural divides — the very different levels of access to adequate digital infrastructure and hardware, on the one hand, and to good housing, on the other. In fact, online instruction is only increasing the divides between the financially secure and insecure. A personal computer, top-tier bandwidth, and necessary software become luxuries when students are forced to relocate from the campus settings where these were available. So now, in these extraordinary times, we must all hope that our educational institutions and their leaders approach this crisis not as a near-term problem to be managed but as an historic opportunity for inventing new modes of teaching, for making our schools more compassionate and creative — and for finally removing the barriers to entry and ensuring that our schools of design are fairer, more accessible, and more humane.

Germane Barnes

In a recent essay in the London Review of Books, William Davies examines the challenges a “network society” poses to community behavior, whether evidentiary or imaginary. “Society conceived as a network isn’t about aggregates or averages, but is a complex system through which trends, behaviors, memes, information and infections travel,” he writes. “There is nothing distinctively human or political about the laws of networks: as dots on a vast network map, we are no different from slime mold or animals — we become a herd.”

For years technology enthusiasts have promoted an idealized future of smart cities defined by seamless connectivity, convenience, and comfort, where our home is a node in the internet of things, where goods and services are delivered to our doorstep, and where work and play are mediated by personal screens large and small. Needless to say, the monetization of attention is one of the economic underpinnings of the enterprise, as is a reorganization of urban systems and city life. Companies like Cisco have spent years developing the proprietary platforms that are enabling many of us to function during the global quarantine; so too, Amazon has perfected a business model in which the monopolization of market “segments” might be experienced as a set of services seemingly tailored to one’s particular lifestyle and unique sensibility.

Lygia Pape, Divisor, 1968; performance at the Museu de Art Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, 1990.
Lygia Pape, Divisor, 1968; performance at the Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, 1990.

So here we are, living and working and playing at home, onscreen; at least if we are among those who have the luxury of sheltering in place. In this unsettling new context, the shift to remote instruction could well be exploited by universities to package and promote the targeted distribution and discrete “delivery” of courses as a new kind of educational service or branded product. So we need to be vigilant — to be wary of any effort to normalize this “pivot.” Large lecture courses might — might — survive a change of platform. Back in the old days, a couple of months ago, I’d gaze out at the 200 or so students in my lecture class; all were looking intently at their screens, energetically typing notes (at least that is what I told myself) even as I was searching for the best ways to connect with them, either individually or collectively. While streaming platforms and communication channels create new opportunities for sharing, they also promote the isolated and individualized consumption of educational “content.”

Alone with our screens, we are vulnerable, overwhelmed by information and, maybe, by despair.

As many in this survey have already noted, the studio is an altogether different proposition; it is a profoundly collaborative and creative collective enterprise that must be defended from disaggregation and remoteness. The best studios unfold in gloriously unpredictable ways; they cannot be pre-recorded or pre-packaged. The best studios are deeply social, too. It is difficult to work alone, and often lonely; alone with one’s screen, we are each vulnerable, overwhelmed by information and, maybe, by despair. “It will quickly become evident,” writes Davies, about the shutdown in the U.K., “how difficult it is to sustain society without everyday sociality.” How difficult will it be to sustain the university — the society of students and teachers — without the everyday sociality of the campus?

— Jesse LeCavalier 

In thinking about the massive move to online education, I jotted down two columns, one for challenges, the other for benefits. The lists are fairly balanced. I am teaching two classes this semester: an advanced design studio and a technical drawing class. The transition for studio was fairly smooth, while the drawing class is a greater challenge.

Once the crisis is over, I would not want to work exclusively online; but this fall I may teach one out of three weekly studio sessions remotely. Here is why. I’ve found that students tend to be better prepared when they are expected to share information in a presentation format. Because they understand that contact with classmates is challenged, they’ve been making much tighter common resource/research documents. Attendance is up because even when people are not feeling great, they can still log in. Students with attention issues, as well as introverted individuals, benefit from the situation. I sense this is because they are presenting with fewer distractions and more comforts; fears of public speaking and being put on the spot are also mediated by the computer interface. Personally, I appreciate not needing to commute for two hours a day! Given my work on climate resilience, I’ve been happy to reduce my own carbon footprint.

For one of her courses at University of Colorado, Boulder, Susannah Drake asked students to design educational posters providing information relating to COVID-19.
For one of her courses at University of Colorado, Boulder, Susannah Drake asked students to design posters providing information relating to COVID-19.

Seeing how classmates experiment, learning from one’s peers, getting direct guidance from instructors on the craft and making of models and drawings — these are challenging if not impossible online.

But the challenges are real. Student group work is tough. In my classes, I expect students to sketch out ideas on trace paper and explore multiple design options before presenting finalized plans. It is hard to see and understand their processes without seeing the messy iterations — and this is much harder online. Design is not a linear process, and I encourage them to embrace distraction. But these days they don’t need my encouragement for that — and it’s hard to pull them back and get them to concentrate. Experimentation with physical form in models is also much harder online. It can happen, but understanding scale and the relationship of forms loses meaning when translated into photos or videos for screen consumption. Seeing how classmates experiment, learning from one’s peers, getting direct guidance from instructors on the craft and making of models and drawings — these are challenging if not impossible online. Students are also missing out on the experience of speaking in public, of communicating personally with groups of reviewers, in front of the live audience of design juries. And they’re missing as well the opportunity to really get to know their professors and their classmates — to forge the interpersonal relationships that are as valuable as the technical or scholarly information they acquire in class.

I have a great deal of teaching experience, but lately I’ve felt like a novice because of the new communication platforms that we’re all being asked to learn. Luckily students and faculty are all together in the online space, and we are being patient with each other in this time of great uncertainty.

— Susannah C. Drake

It’s premature to conclude, but the pivot to online teaching has so far seemed relatively easy. Perhaps because we architectural educators are already accustomed to handling representations and images, it hasn’t seemed so difficult to lecture from home, from a monitor, rather than a podium.

In mid March, before my university announced it would close for two weeks (a period which of course has been extended), I gave an experimental Zoom lecture in my intro-to-architectural-history class, but from the lecture room at McGill that I’ve always used. A handful of students and the TA showed up, so I had technical help. Just over 30 students tuned in from elsewhere and the other 30 could watch the recording later. It was a positive experience, even a confidence booster. Some colleagues chuckled as they stood in the door and watched (presumably because I needed to be in the lecture room to carry this off). Later I posted on social media that I needed to give the lecture in my beloved Room 212 because I’m so “place-based.”

The many Zoom meetings serve some psycho-social need I have to connect to colleagues I used to see every day.

The past weeks at home have been filled with dozens of Zoom meetings. Every level of university administration has gathered and chatted on the platform, with lots of repetition. Because I’m jointly appointed in two departments (medicine as well as architecture), the number of meetings was doubled. Normally I’d see this as a waste of time, but in this strange new context I’ve found these multiple, layered meetings reassuring. They make me feel part of something bigger; I get to hear the same messages again and again, ensuring I understand them clearly; and undoubtedly the Zoom meetings serve some psycho-social need I have to connect to colleagues I used to see every day. As has been remarked many times on social media, a week can now feel like a year.

McGill students in the home workspaces.
Students at McGill University School of Architecture share their home workspaces on the school’s Instagram feed.

The architecture of my home office is a factor. My husband is an academic and both of us usually work at our university offices every day. Neither of us had real home offices. Now Peter is working from our kitchen-dining area; I took a corner in our bedroom. The rest of our house is the zone of our two kids (who are in their twenties), our daughter’s boyfriend, and our puggle, Snoopy. Almost all day, one of us will be in a Zoom class or meeting. It’s the new reality.

I’ve always preferred to work at the university. Over three decades, I’ve had dozens of colleagues who preferred to work at home. I still don’t get it. I like everything about going to work: the clothing, the journey, my colleagues and students, the unexpected encounters and conversations, lunch-on-the-go, and the day’s stories to bring home. Now that we are all home, together, all the time, we have little to report except what we’ve seen and heard on Zoom or social media or television. I’m already looking forward to going back to work at my work-place.

— Annmarie Adams


Can we embrace experimentation and disrupt the pedagogies created to occur in shared physical spaces?

Exceptional situations like COVID-19 have posed unique challenges in architectural education. One challenge is how to create a sense of continuity as studios and seminars pivot to remote teaching. At first this might seem necessary, satisfying a desire for familiarity, security, and adaptation. But on further thought the goal of continuity feels highly questionable. Shouldn’t exceptional situations elicit exceptional forms of study? So rather than assuming we can repurpose assorted platforms and tools to craft something that resembles “business as usual,” we could embrace experimentation and purposefully disrupt the pedagogies that were created to occur in shared physical spaces. These common spaces cannot be mirrored or mimicked in virtual spaces, and the gap requires creative examination and debate. We also need to question the ways in which we might measure continuity. We can evaluate the content of projects and we can demand deadlines and requirements. But is this enough?

We are depending on tools and technologies not designed from any specific pedagogical perspective.

There is so much at play in our shared spaces. Tacit knowledge, body language, the emotional rhythms and mutual understandings that are animated when we are all together in a room — these are vital though often underestimated aspects of our classrooms and studios, yet they recede to the point of invisibility in distance teaching. Are we even registering these blind spots in our personal screens as they pixelate on overburdened networks? Undoubtedly education entails more than the delivery and production of hard content; being connected means more than being online. The ad-hoc and multifaceted teaching and learning that happen in the space of the studio cannot be captured in a videoconference. We are now depending on tools and technologies that were not designed from any specific pedagogical perspective. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, et al., are useful platforms that enable information exchange and general communication. But we are seriously lacking platforms intentionally developed for all that architectural education entails.

The issue of continuity needs to be understood not as a problem to solve but as a creative dilemma that will require ongoing attention and commitment, ingenuity and experimentation. Developing new platforms, new interfaces, new forms of exchange that will accommodate soft as well as hard knowledge will not be easy. We can at least begin to try.

Carolina Dayer

Orla Murphy & Emmett Scanlon, Liska Chan, Derek Hoeferlin, Peggy Deamer, Yuko Uchikawa, Hugh Raffles, Manuel Shvartzberg Carrió, Sarah Rottenberg, Germane Barnes, Jesse LeCavalier, Susannah Drake, Annmarie Adams, Carolina Dayer , “Field Notes on Pandemic Teaching: 5,” Places Journal, April 2020. Accessed 29 Sep 2023.

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