Field Notes on Pandemic Teaching: 6

This is the sixth and final 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): From the Instagram feed of the Graduate School of Architecture at University of Johannesburg. Studio at Aarhus School of Architecture. From "Stories of Space in Times of Quarantine," Felix Rosen, McHarg Blog. Studio at Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at University of Arkansas.
Clockwise (from upper left): From the Instagram feed of the Graduate School of Architecture at University of Johannesburg. From the Instagram feed of Aarhus School of Architecture. From “Stories of Space in Times of Quarantine,” Felix Rosen, McHarg Blog. Studio at Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at University of Arkansas.

Online Studio Diary

Monday March 30, 2020, 9 am Eastern Daylight Time. Log in to the university Zoom, start the meeting, switch to grid view. Students and co-instructors are joining. A quick scan shows sleepy, eager, bored, anxious faces, a few hesitant smiles. Eyes wander to take in the small frames. We’re all now dispersed around the country, around the world. Pictures on interior walls, bookshelves, pillows, potted plants, uneven lighting: these add to our first impressions. One student has changed his background preferences to solid black.

Just days earlier none of us would have imagined coming to class this way. My old Monday routine: a short walk, coffee to go, then the work-filled studio space. Simply to make a casual remark, I tell students that the local coffee shop has closed (for now). Immediately, I regret this comment; why remind them of what they left behind? But then again, I am in New York, currently the epicenter of the crisis, and most of them are (probably) safer elsewhere. In any case, the studio must go on.

Grid View. Navigating from a studio-wide Zoom-grid of 24 participants, to section Zoom-grids of eight, to breakout Zoom-grids of four, we try to replicate our discussions, group work, and desk crits. Toggling between scalable grid views is fairly easy, though it’s already clear that less is more: fewer students per grid leads to more engaged interaction.

Meanwhile on other screens there are images of grids-in-formation at scales and in spaces previously unimaginable, from emergency spaces in the Jacob Javits Center and Central Park in New York, to exhibition halls in Madrid, to medical tents and field hospitals, to freshly painted grids on parking lots to keep homeless encampments six feet apart.

This work-network shared in Zoom-mode offers no escape, sensory or spatial.

Share Screen. Students share their computer screens as we review midterm projects. My view shifts to the individual desktops. I am aware that for some, sharing their desktop screens might feel as invasive as allowing us to glimpse into their homes. Shifting between Google drives, Adobe CS, Rhino 3D, iCloud phone photos, etc., our interface expands beyond Zoom. Removed from the collectivities and distractions of the physical studio space, these everyday tools somehow seem more corporate, more branded, than usual. This work-network shared in Zoom-mode offers no escape, sensory or spatial.

Talking with a friend in Mumbai who is using the same tools and platforms, we lament the U.S. domination of worldwide tech. Screens within screens, in homes across the world, all made possible by Google, Apple, Adobe, et al. All experienced via the devices that are almost extensions of ourselves. On the phone that stays next to me, Notify NYC messages flash during class.

Monday March 30, 2020, New York City.
Notify NYC, Monday March 30, 2020, New York City. [Kadambari Baxi]

Wednesday April 1, 2020, 9 am Eastern Daylight Time. Logging in at nine a.m. sharp, I find some students already present in the grid. A conversation begins, but now I cannot hear anything. Check headphone connections, rejoin with computer audio; still no sound. Check computer settings, still no sound. Log out of Zoom, log in again. I see a message in the chat box: We cannot hear you. I hit Restart.

Restart. Waiting for the laptop to restart, I am apprehensive. Since the onset of the crisis, I’ve worried: What if our computers crash? What if the internet collapses or cellphone networks overload? What if electrical grids shut down? After 9/11, we kept our landline: the bright red mechanical-dial phone is still sitting on a shelf in our apartment. As my laptop reboots, I hear ambulance sirens. I remember the lines of a Beatles song our son was practicing last night, for his own Zoom class: … into the light of a dark black night

Speaker View. Our studio brief is called Harlem Portals: Art, Culture, and Architecture, and students are designing an annex to the Apollo Theater to house an archive and education and community center. With site visits now impossible, we have asked them to write a manifesto, as a way to revisit their projects. In speaker view, students read their statements, one by one. Their words and expressions, magnified by the larger window, feel almost cinematic. Switching to grid view, I see others are also mesmerized, intensely watching and listening. These brief moments of virtual collectivity are spellbinding.

Savoy Ballroom (1953), Harlem, and New York street depiction, part of the Apollo Annex Project manifesto by students: Roland Spier and Rachel Fischer.
Savoy Ballroom (1953), Harlem, and New York street depiction, part of the Apollo Annex Project manifesto by students  Roland Spier and Rachel Fischer.

One student, Roland Spier, shares an archival image showing the Savoy Ballroom in 1953: a dancer who seems to soar above the floor. Another student, Rachel Fischer, invites us to close our eyes as she describes a street with painted walls, where one is “fearful to extend your hand” but eventually “You remove your mask. You remove your gloves and breathe.” As always, as before, some students passionately hold on to their projects. Their imagined alternative urban farms, communal kitchens, youth hostels, health centers: all now layered with different visions and anxieties. The last student manifesto, from Rachel Sherr, contains a warning: “Who do you want seeing you? Not everyone. Who gets to decide? Unless you are powerful, it is not you. How do you use your image? Is your data protected? Own your image! Own your data!”

Asynchronous View. I receive an email from a student unable to attend class who has watched a recording of the three-hour session. “Zoom as a platform is extremely problematic,” writes Amora McConnell. “That being said, this is one of the most fascinating learning experiences I could ever imagine. The access to a record of human dialogue is troubling and yet powerful because of the initial reaction of experiencing it as if it is in real time. There’s an awkwardness and disconnect that is actually somewhat beautiful because of the unprecedented nature of this situation.”

Remote Learning. In this Zoom-studio, all are (most likely) willing participants: students, teachers, teaching assistants, rehearsing our usual roles. For some, it provides a welcome escape; others are eager to inhabit the experiment. Online learning experts suggest that this unplanned version should more accurately be termed “Emergency Remote Teaching.” In our online studio, it feels that we are all, to some degree, just watchers and listeners, more often peers, the usual hierarchies set aside. The old syllabus and class schedule, from way back when, are useful scripts. What we are learning remains to be seen. For now, learning to learn might suffice.

Tuning out of Zoom is a click away. It’s harder to turn off other screens, the ones flashing with Notify NYC messages.

Leave Meeting: A new routine has set in. Tuning out of Zoom is a click away. It’s harder to turn off other screens, the ones flashing with Notify NYC messages. Live/work in our apartment remains surreally calm, but outside in the real world, Governor Cuomo, reading the numbers, warns us daily that the crisis is dire. Meanwhile, a door down the hall remains shut. We are not allowed to interrupt our son’s Zoom-school. I hear later from his teacher that he played a revised version of Blackbird.

Pause … Restart? In this extra-long pause mode, days and nights merge. Time zones collapse in Zoom-studios. Portable screens bring news and messages from around the world. Super-grids multiply, frontlines expand, numbers increase. Should those of us sheltered-in-place be panicking? Please do panic! Then, close your eyes, think of a different world, and breathe. This time, when the restart begins, we know the world cannot be the same as before. But how will it be different? Will it be different enough? I hear the song, again: Take these broken wings and learn to fly / All your life / You were only waiting for this moment to arise…

Kadambari Baxi

Maybe, just maybe

The beginning of the challenge seemed understated, when on Wednesday March 11, Dean Jonathan Massey informed the faculty of Taubman College: Instruction will resume on Monday, March 16, on a remote or virtual basis.

Virtual — suddenly the term acquired new meaning and status. No longer just a mandatory trope of cyberpunk literature, or favorite toy of digital technology aficionados, the virtual was suddenly our new and ubiquitous reality. In my work as architect and educator, digital tools and the related discourse have long played a pivotal role; as a member of the university-wide XR committee, I helped plan the implementation of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality curricular tools. But until the pandemic and the lockdown, virtual applications were used largely as tools of representation and simulation.

A faculty meeting on Zoom; the home office as virtual classroom.
A faculty meeting on Zoom; the home office as virtual classroom. [Matias del Campo]

A final review, above; a rite of passage for design students that will need to find a new format. The field trip (below); how will this integral part of design education be handled, post-COVID?
A final review, above; a rite of passage for design students that will need to find a new format. The field trip (below); how will this integral part of design education be handled, post-COVID? [Matias del Campo]

Now we are seeing the emergence of a digital studio culture. Now our studios consist of virtual meeting spaces that allow us to share and discuss work; online repositories to store and revisit work; and digital publication platforms. Some of my studios also use cloud computing for computationally heavy work in Artificial Intelligence applications or simulations. In combination, these tools and technologies move us beyond the traditional studio, allowing us, for instance, to circulate and interrogate projects more globally. For the upcoming final review, I’m assembling a jury with guests from the United States, Europe, China, and Australia — and the event will be streamed live for everyone to see. Thus the review — traditionally accessible only to those on campus — can become into a far-reaching and inclusive gathering.

Maybe it’s time for online Gertrude Steins to form digital salons that will encourage debate, sociability, conversation, celebration.

More broadly, the current crisis is turning ideas about the digital studio that have circulated since the early ’90s (Architects in Cyberspace, anyone?) into an unprecedented, large-scale experiment in which we are testing future scenarios for architecture education. Simultaneously it serves as a profound interrogation of the traditional pedagogical model of the studio. The face-to-face debate, the serendipitous examination of other students’ projects, the apophenia and positive mis-readings, the social bonding — all these have made the traditional studio an inspiring, informative, and positive learning experience.

Maybe it’s time to form digital salons, virtual open houses that will encourage debate, sociability, conversation, celebration — that will be positive alternatives to discrete containers of education and intellectual interrogation. Maybe dozens of online Gertrude Steins will find their voices in this new normal, and maybe — just maybe — we will get used to this new method of conducting education.

Matias del Campo

In a 2013 essay on the digital culture of design, Antoine Picon argued that “landscape appears as production more evidently than it has in the past. Whereas the pictorial gaze … suggested ideas of stability and permanence, digital tools accentuate the dynamic and instable fields and forces that shape the earth and constrain human interventions.” Such tools, he wrote, help us see landscape as an “emergent rather than static reality.” The same is suddenly true for design education.

The new reality compels better storytelling, and we are taking inspiration from how filmmakers and literary artists arrange and synthesize information.

In my thesis studio, there is a real sense of grief that capstone projects won’t be celebrated through reviews and exhibitions. But in the other course I’m teaching — an intro to visual communication for first-year masters students — we are practicing core skills that will be relevant throughout the students’ careers. Now there is greater emphasis on constructing narrative. Often student presentations are put together at the last minute, with an unrehearsed script that presents a lackluster “biography” of a project (first I did this, then I did that). But the new reality compels better storytelling, and so we are taking inspiration from how filmmakers and literary artists arrange and synthesize information. Also newly relevant: the medium of time. Animations help us see change. A single drawing can show cycles of wet and dry; day and night; past, present, and future. We can add sound. We can pan, rotate, scrub, and zoom in and out of scale. It’s long been possible to move beyond the analog drawing in design studios, but the screen advantage of being online pushes us further. A third shift is the connection to real-time data, as students add layers of information about atmospheric conditions, traffic patterns, or live visual feeds of remote places.

Deeply inhabiting a digital world reminds us that we are drawing in infinite space, in multiple dimensions, on a screen with pixels. “The screen is intimately, vibrantly connected to the world,” Sam Jacob wrote in 2017. “It’s how the world — or much of it — comes to us.” Hopefully, not all of it; not forever. But being here helps us understand “the architectural drawing not as a window onto the world but as a way of making the world … [and] as a primary site where an architectural idea is staged.”

Fadi Masoud

As we scramble to convert classes intended for face-to-face interaction to remote teaching, it might seem that concern for equitable practices is a luxury we can’t now afford. But I would argue we can be both equitable and expedient.

Too often ‘fair’ or ‘best’ is likely to be what works for ‘most’ — for members of the dominant culture or those who benefit from traditional types of support.

A guiding principle of equity is the assumption of good intent. Faculty are doing their best to uphold the integrity of learning objectives, to work with available resources, to do what they think will be fair for students. This is all good. Yet too often “fair” or “best” is likely to be what works for “most” — for members of the dominant culture or those who benefit from traditional types of support. Indeed, a widely suggested equity practice is to use surveys or focus groups to get input from all students and then to set expectations clearly; we can them assume that in choosing (say) a course, students are agreeing to its terms. But now that COVID-19 has forced us all to depend upon remote instruction, there is no choice at all. No opt in, or opt out; it’s just what we are doing. Meanwhile there are profound negative implications — delayed graduation, slower progress to degree, lost tuition, etc. — for those who cannot, in effect, agree to the new terms.

From the Facebook page of the College of Built Environments at University of Washington.
From the Facebook page of the College of Built Environments at University of Washington.

Here is an example of the kind of problems that are emerging. Many online classes are keeping their pre-pandemic time slots. On the one hand, this seems fair; it’s what was originally planned, it works for most instructors, and it maintains the order of the overall school schedule. On the other hand, it might be problematic for students now living in different time zones, or now caring for young children at home. So what to do? One equitable solution would be for an instructor to explain: “I’m maintaining the original time slot because it’s hard for me and our other classes to all move to different times. But please let me know if you need an accommodation. I can’t promise to make everything easy for everyone, but I want to know what you are going through.”

In working across differences, we are not seeking the perfect solution, or even the solution that works for the majority. Ideally, we want solutions that work for those who are most vulnerable or have the least flexibility and fewest options. And it’s critical for us to understand the impact of our decisions — to understand who is being disadvantaged, who is needing to make an extra effort simply to remain in school. And we need to express appreciation to those students who are struggling; that appreciation — a form of care — can make the difference between a student dropping out, or staying engaged.

Renée Cheng

Rendering of the new Aarhus School of Architecture, now under construction.
Rendering of the new Aarhus School of Architecture, now under construction. [Aarhus School of Architecture]

In this time of extraordinary uncertainty, we are being challenged to deliver and ensure a high level of remote but engaged teaching within our studio-based educational model. This large-scale experiment in online instruction may be daunting, but it has helped to clarify what is truly crucial in our design pedagogies and semester plans. The fundamental concern is peer-to-peer learning.

The current situation has illuminated the irreplaceable importance of this form of learning not only in transmitting knowledge but also in inspiring, motivating, and supporting students. In an attempt to emulate these interactions as much as possible, we are using online platforms where students can share and interact, and comment on each other’s work. We are organizing large group discussions (with about 30 students) and weekly recaps in an effort to maintain opportunities for the cross-fertilization of ideas.

This crisis has inspired new appreciation for the luxury — or is it the necessity? — of shared physical spaces.

Digital teaching might require more effort from us as teachers, but it is the students who have shown an impressive level of resilience to creatively engage with what has quickly become their new normal. Of course, I need to acknowledge our comparatively privileged position: our students have access to safe spaces in which they can study, and to computers and broadband speeds fast enough to connect and participate. Still, this crisis has inspired new appreciation for the luxury — or is it the necessity? — of shared physical spaces. Our experiences with remote learning may prove to be a positive experiment, and we may gain new appreciation for digital tools which can support our regular pedagogies. But there is no place like studio.

Elizabeth Donovan

Collage created from students’ sketches at the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, in response to the move to remote instruction.
Collage created by Carl Smith from students’ sketches at the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, in response to the move to remote instruction.

As my contribution to the discussion, I want to share a letter and a drawing I sent to my undergraduate landscape architecture studio here at the Fay Jones School.

All students were asked to share their thoughts and feelings about the move to online teaching through quick, gestural drawings using pen, pencil, charcoal, and paint. I use non-representative image-making and conversation as a method to communicate complex landscape situations in my studios, and I imagined this to be an analogous exercise, with the students’ mind-set standing in for a physical place. I then used the students’ sketches to create an eidetic collage-drawing that attempts to capture their mood; it also informed my letter to them. Over and above the specifics, I needed to convey — in the image — the goal that we continue to be a collaborative, with great creative potential and capacity — working alone, but especially when working together. Although this situation is far from ideal and in my view compromises the critical and authentic interactions of design studio, the students’ responses were warm and grateful. Here’s the letter.

Dear Kobee, Rodrigo, John, Isabelle, Lillyan, Aaron, Whit, Joiner, Jordan, Zane, and Winnie:

Thank you for your frank and honest reflections on the shift to online studio. Much of what you shared was — I think — common to many design students and faculty across the world right now. Our branch of education is so specific and intimate that — inevitably — we have fears related to isolation, disconnection, loss of energy and motivation, and a loss of some kind of shared creative capacity. In your drawings, many of you identified a stark break in your psychological, personal, and educational circumstances around the outbreak — a contrast between a before and after condition.

Nevertheless, I also believe that there is hope — most especially in taking what was manifestly good about the studio before the outbreak and applying it to the rest of the semester: your resilience; your creative and emotional intelligence; your optimism and good humor. My drawing takes aspects of all your drawn and/or written feedback: although we are cognizant of the duality of the semester, we shouldn’t let it define us; although there are challenges, there is also much to be proud and optimistic about; and although we are separated geographically, we are bound by a single mind and purpose, and we should all continue to look forward and not turn our back on what is ahead.

Although we are now working as individual project designers, we will continue to have at least one group desk crit a week. I would strongly encourage you to keep in touch with one another outside these scheduled meetings. In studio, it’s rare that we only talk about the design work at hand, and so it might be with our time together online. Feel free to use our time together to discuss whatever is on your mind. It is also important that you know that I am reachable ANY time via WhatsApp to video chat or exchange messages. If you are worrying about studio or class — or anything else for that matter — reach out and talk to me and each other.

Carl Smith

I believe that the move from in-person to on-screen interaction in higher education is not only inevitable but also welcome.

While I appreciate and even share the prospective yearning for what will be lost, I find it consoling to relate that loss to the losses associated with our past shifts from horses to horsepower, from acoustic to electric, from social gatherings to social media, and from manual to digital in so many other ways. In all these cases, what went away never really went away but merely became more precious. And in the process our views toward what lay ahead shifted from fear and disdain to acquiescence, acceptance, and even appreciation with remarkable speed and consensus. Why? It was not because of what was lost but because of what was gained

In this case, the potential gains are both apparent and enormous. Consider them from the perspective of a student: lower costs, greater convenience, increased control over both lifestyle and schedule, the opportunity to become either invisible or conspicuous, ever-improving learning material, and on and on and on. Compelling, huh? If not, try this. Check out your nearest institution of lower education — in fact, the lower the better. You’ll be blown away at what’s already being done by those are teaching our youngest with new tools and techniques that are nothing less than magical. And keep in mind that these are our future clients.

Dana Tomlin

Zoom class at University of New Mexico.
Zoom class at University of New Mexico. [Aaron Cayer]

Zoom solidarity

The rapid shift to online instruction has prompted the production of countless images portraying individual resilience and techno-capitalist ambition. Around the world, institutions and faculty members are filling their social media feeds with scenes from the new world of remote instruction: students taking notes while lying in bed as they log in to lectures; the kitchen tables where adjuncts are trying to teach; classes with multiple live-screens boasting sophisticated technology and global reach. Yet on my first day of Zoom-based instruction at the University of New Mexico, I confronted a radically different reality. No longer living on or near campus, many of the 90 students in my world architecture history course were not able to attend class by video; they could not hear or see my lectures in real time without disruption or disconnection. Some were connecting to class from Native American reservations with uneven access to high-speed internet; others were trying to join in from rural communities with impossibly limited bandwidth; and still others were sitting in their cars, trying to find the wi-fi hotspots in parking lots. In short, my Zoom screen looked nothing like those I saw circulating around the internet.

Students were connecting from Native American reservations with uneven bandwidth, or from their cars, looking for the wi-fi hotspots in parking lots.

To make it possible for everyone to fully participate within the deceptively homogenized Zoomscape, our class organized itself quickly. We realized, for instance, that if all of us muted our microphones and disabled our videos, the reduction in collective bandwidth would allow us all to listen and participate at once. But the overall meaning was clear: the contrast that was evident on the screen — the beaming faces, the silenced voices — was underscoring the structural inequalities that already limit access to higher education in America. Yet at the same time, and albeit unintentionally, the new interface was offering lessons about the power of cooperation and solidarity — not unlike those understood by activist organizations in our field. The shift to online learning is making me keenly aware of my own privileges as a tenure-track educator within a public institution; it is also inspiring my history students to examine their own constructed histories, and the various privileges they represent, in newly materialized ways. More than ever, Zoom is reminding us that each voice matters and that no proprietary platform should dictate the terms of our discourse or the frameworks of learning. Indeed, I hope, post-Zoom, that our institutions of higher education will be measured not by access to the latest tools and technologies but rather by our newly energized commitment to equity and justice, empathy and cooperation.

Aaron Cayer

A Bard Prison Initiative student studying at the computer lab at Coxsackie Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in New York State.
A Bard Prison Initiative student studying at the computer lab at Coxsackie Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in New York State. [Karen Pearson]

We were unable to pivot to online learning, because incarcerated people in New York State don’t have internet access.

The Bard Prison Initiative operates in six prisons in upstate New York, offering Bard College coursework and degrees to some 300 current students. When the prisons closed to us, we were unable to pivot to online learning, because incarcerated people in New York State don’t have internet access. Nor could we expect to be able to write back and forth regularly with our students, so we couldn’t reconstruct our small, discussion-based seminars to a correspondence model. Instead, we asked our 60 professors to reconceive their courses — within two weeks — essentially as independent studies, producing materials that would guide students through the remainder of the semester on their own. The collaborative learning that is central to our pedagogy was also suddenly in question: At some of our six campuses, students might be able to confer or congregate with others, at least for a while, but we couldn’t be certain of this, either in the short or long term. So we asked professors to shape syllabi for both possibilities — what students should do if they could meet or consult with others, and what to do if they could not.

From the Instagram feed of the Bard Prison Initiative.
From the Instagram feed of the Bard Prison Initiative.

Inspired, I believe, by the commitment and intellectual energy of their students, faculty worked with tremendous focus and will to identify central goals for their courses, to draw upon the learning community that had emerged in the first six weeks of class, and to challenge and support their students to stay connected to us — and to their lives as students — through the work. Relying on thinking-through-writing assignments like reading journals and question logs, on peer and/or self-revision templates, and on imaginative work such as describing a discussion or lecture that would have happened had the class been able to convene, our faculty poured themselves into these revisions. They also sent their students concrete encouragement in the form of feedback on the work they’d seen in the weeks they had together. As a body of work, the adapted courses they devised are magnificent. Counterintuitively, what these curricula do is to reinforce the power of in-person instruction — irreplaceable, evanescent, transformative.

Delia Mellis

On Sunday March 22, at 10 pm, the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced measures for limiting the spread of COVID-19 through restricting large gatherings. Close to midnight, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg announced on Twitter that, from Monday, all classes on campus would be suspended. Later that week, we entered a complete national lockdown.

Throughout this uncertain period, we at the university have been teaching remotely. We ran our first online review on Monday March 23. And recently colleagues Sarah de Villiers, Claudia Morgado, Eric Wright, and I organized a “quarantine marathon” called Dialogues with Dust, a 12-hour online event quickly set up in response to the cancellation of planned field trips to Egypt and Namibia — two dusty places — due to travel restrictions.

Kgao Mashego, from Dialogues with Dust.
Kgao Mashego, from Dialogues with Dust. [Huda Tayob]

Nina Barnett and Jeremy Bolen, from Dialogues with Dust.
Nina Barnett and Jeremy Bolen, from Dialogues with Dust. [Huda Tayob]

Yet the university’s insistence that teaching should continue, online, with no break or hiatus, has been impossible for many to obey. For tutors and course conveners, there was no cognizance of added caring responsibilities, or how the time required for preparation affected our personal lives. For students, the lockdown notification allowed less than two days to move out of university accommodations; traveling at short notice had financial implications, and it put many students in situations lacking access to consistent wifi — or, indeed, computers. Students have struggled to connect from rural areas in Kwazulu Natal, Limpopo, and the Eastern Cape. A WhatsApp audio tutorial conducted on an unstable line will never be equivalent to a clear Zoom conference call discussing studio work.

Across time zones, all of us in isolation, the dialogues suggested how we might attend with care to stories of exclusion and invisibilities around the globe.

Yet it’s also true that Dialogues with Dust revealed possibilities for collaboration across geographic boundaries. The marathon was visited by architects, activists, and researchers who shared perspectives from their homes in South Africa, Cape Verde, Egypt, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Italy, Sweden, Turkey, the U.K., and the U.S. Across time zones, all of us in some form of isolation, the presentations and dialogues suggested, albeit briefly, how we might attend with care to stories of exclusion and invisibilities around the globe. Endriana Audisho, joining from the University of Technology Sydney, reminded us that — given connections to surveillance, militarization, and the mediation of such forces through television — the history of onscreen interfaces is far from neutral. Meanwhile Sara Salem, who is based at the London School of Economics but joined from lockdown with her family in Cairo, recalled the liberatory potential of hauntings. Conversations touched on the ghosts or absent presence of the sites we had intended to visit with our students, and on the hovering structural and racial violences being rendered starkly visible through COVID-19. Thinking with dust, we embraced both our fragmented realities and alternative assemblages for the future.

Huda Tayob

On March 10, 2020, the first COVID-19 case in Turkey was confirmed. After just two days, on-campus education in the country was suspended at all levels by order of the Higher Education Board, and on March 23, distance education started via both asynchronous and synchronous instruction. Students were given the option to freeze their registration; the Higher Education Board defined a framework allowing universities and students to make some choices about the process. Continuity was a primary concern, as breakdowns in instruction would affect graduation adversely and, further, would make the social environment look more chaotic than it actually is.

From the Instagram feed of Dogus University: "Happy World Health Day to health workers working day and night during these difficult days."
From the Instagram feed of Doğuş University: “Happy World Health Day to health workers laboring day and night during these difficult days.”

Across all faculties and schools, it was suggested by the HEB that theoretical areas of study be pursued remotely. For applied study, we were given a second option: rather than finishing a course in the spring term, an intensive summer school could be developed. This attitude toward hands-on production results from the dominance of a “natural sciences” perspective on the Board, which cannot accommodate the needs of design studios.

Many studio instructors across Turkey nevertheless chose to finish the spring term on digital platforms, although almost all would argue that design studio requires face-to-face relations that cannot be carried out solely on computers. At Doğuş University, only the urban design studio — which requires direct engagement with urban environments — was suspended.

There is no longer room for freehand sketches — the most naïve and yet most fruitful phase of a design process.

The quality of an online studio turns out to depend on the quality of the internet connection. The pandemic exposed unexpected social vulnerabilities regarding access to personal computers and even internet access in some cases — though alumni associations, individual volunteers, and the government have sought to provide free internet access and laptops to students in need. The digital transformation has been significant especially for the 1st year design studio, where analogue tools are prioritized to a great extent. There is no longer room for freehand sketches — the most naïve and yet most fruitful phase of a design process.

G. Pelin Sarıoğlu Erdoğdu

Imperfect Analogs

One set of questions is about craft. The design school studio environment is an open space of individual production and communal cross-pollination. Students learn from watching others at their workstations, from seeing drawings and models on walls or desks, from informal conversations. How can this creative, collective space be accessed from home? The challenge of learning craft is especially acute for first-year students, who don’t yet have a good handle on the basics of tectonics, representation, and materiality. If the campus shutdown continues next fall, we will need to reassess the foundational tools of design. How do we support the practice of drawing, for instance? Zoom’s annotation tools are blunt instruments, even if we are getting better at sketching on a shared screen with a mouse or stylus. One encouraging sign is that we are starting to draw on top of one another’s projects more than in the studio, where physical drawings were sometimes treated with more preciousness than necessary.

From the Twitter feed of the Weitzman School of Design at Penn.
From the Twitter feed of the Weitzman School of Design at Penn.

Another set of questions is about how we discuss student work. I have found no better teaching method than one-on-one conversations with students about their projects. This semester, online critiques aimed at one student, but which allow others to listen in, have actually seen increased participation. Shyness and language fluency seem to be less of a barrier in the chat box. But the protocols for convening and steering group discussions in an inclusive and productive manner are still forming, and my students and I already knew one another by the time we made the move online. This would all be more difficult if we were meeting remotely on Day 1, with no pre-existing community.

What about reviews, those performative exercises involving public speaking, self-curation, intellectual rigor, and time management, not to mention the quality and intention of the design projects?

And what about formal reviews, those extremely performative exercises that involve public speaking, self-curation, intellectual rigor, and time management, not to mention the quality and intention of the design projects? Reviews allow faculty to visit one another’s institutions, hash out ideas through public discussion, observe others’ teaching methods, take stock of other programs’ inclinations. While online reviews are theoretically more open to visitors, the work itself is less visible and opportunities for cross-pollination more limited. Will the soft thud of a final review season without any work on the walls lead to a summer blossoming of DIY design publications that spur wider discussion outside of traditional academic networks? Or will investigations of this semester’s work get buried amid the ongoing distraction of coronavirus response and planning for the next semester?

So much of that planning is about digital tools and workflows, rather than the housing stability of vulnerable students and their access to medical care, a safe working environment, and a strong internet connection. We have students who face barriers to learning or focusing at home, who now have to care for family members, who must look for alternative sources of employment. Do instructors have a responsibility to inquire into the personal situations of their students, or do we prioritize privacy and professionalism? It was always a myth that the university design studio is a place of detached inquiry without personal entanglements, but remote teaching forces us to negotiate new boundaries and build new expectations for our professional relationships and collaborations.

Nicholas Pevzner

On Time, Gesture, Obsolete Definitions, Practice

The revelatory quality of speech and action comes to the fore where people are with others and neither for nor against them — that is, in sheer human togetherness.
— Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958

I began the day giving a lecture to a group of university students. I said, “_____” and made a certain gesture with my hand. … I made the “Let’s start again” gesture with my eyebrows, and calm was restored. … We were getting to the heart of the matter. I said, from the head of the class, “This is really good,” and smiled grandly, with so much love falling from my cheeks I worried that Alex Peters, sitting in the front row, might explode with grief. Everyone else grew sad, too. But, we were approaching something that was perhaps new for all of us.
—  Renee Gladman, Calamities, 2016

I have been thinking about the time of teaching and learning, about our social distance and human togetherness. Academic education is relocating to bedrooms, home offices, kitchen tables, couches, the steps of institutions with free wi-fi (in San Francisco, at the now-shuttered public library), to cars, to basements, in a variety of states, countries, time zones.

I find myself with at once more and less time, turning in winter grades, turning around to re-imagine my spring courses as online incarnations of eight-and-a-half rather than ten weeks. “Incarnations” is an odd way to describe them; it is the body that will be absent.

The last couple days, in between times, I’ve been reading about Aby Warburg. In The Surviving Image: Phantoms of Time and Time of Phantoms: Aby Warburg’s History of Art, Georges Didi-Huberman writes:

By having the Greek word for memory (Mnemosyne) engraved in capital letters above the entry door to his library, Warburg indicated to the visitor that he was entering the territory of another time. The name of this other time is “survival.”

The author climbing a tree, trying something new, near her home.
The author climbing a tree; trying something new, near her home. [Kristin Hofso]

Before I sat down to work on this piece, I went for a walk in the chill air of Bernal Heights in San Francisco, where I live. I ran into a man taking photographs of a tree, and by tracking his point of view, I saw a nest. I asked if it was a crow’s, and he told me it was a raven’s; that ravens are, generally, larger than crows, have diamond-shaped tails, can soar because of their large wingspan, and are often solitary. I wonder now what kind of tree the nest was in? Eucalyptus? Some kind of pine? Note to self: next walk, look again.

Yesterday I began a different version of this piece:

As I ate breakfast, my partner was fixing a door between the dining and living rooms. The sound of sanding was grounding. Often thinking and writing don’t make sound, though there is the keyboard or pen scratch, the in-take of breath, a murmur. I was thinking about shifting part two of my two-quarter sequence “Communities and Rhetorics” online, work that must be done this week. C. expressed frustration with the poorly laminated glass, the imperfections of seams and paint job. I couldn’t see them until he pointed them out. Sometimes, I said, recalling (and not without reservation) D.W. Winnicott: “good enough” is enough.

So, I find myself in this in-between: In addition to my regular teaching, I have for years taught one online summer course, in preparation for which I received ten weeks of training that included a small stipend. As a skeptic, I have found myself surprised by some of the possibilities of the online platform as an exceptional space; that is, its own form of extremity. At the same time, the various settings I’ve taught in confirm the importance of what I might call the body and gestures of the classroom.

One of my favorite definitions of essay (verb), now obsolete according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “to try by tasting.”

Have you had that experience of standing next to someone and feeling emotions that you recognize originate elsewhere? Like lightning in a sky. Though they land in your body? Percussive. Plosive. Vibratory. Renee Gladman writes:

I began the day in a room with Antonioni’s Red Desert and thirteen students, some sprawling on the floor, some sitting in desk chairs as I was, and we were moving toward a horizon that only I knew about, because the rest of those in attendance had not yet seen Antonioni’s Red Desert and didn’t know what was coming to them or what would open.

I want to give my students something in this dispersive space/time. I want to acknowledge that what we’ll do is not what we would have done.

I want to give my students something in this dispersive space/time. I want to acknowledge that what we’ll do is not what we would have done. We’ll be generous, we’ll do what we can, but we’ll not pretend that these Zoom conferences or discussion threads or even films can compare to what happened in our class when we sat next to each other in a circle; broke into small groups, experimented; listened to each other attempting to say back what another had said. We began each class with “free and glorious private writing,” writing that was based on a constraint — five minutes of the pen (no keyboards) moving uninterruptedly, writing as thinking, not thinking and then writing.

Another obsolete definition, this time for practice: “(transitive). To frequent or habitually visit (a place); to be intimate with (a person).”

I am afraid of how students might assess their online versus in-person experiences. For some of them, the online version might appear “good enough.” For now? Forever? Maybe some will come away from this time — so mixed as it is and will be — with differential losses and trauma and various degrees of hardship and safety, proximity and distance — having felt a greater desire for the in-person, socially intimate experience of learning in both its discomfort and pleasure. But, in truth, the space of the university and the time that unfolds there is more fraught than my descriptions of circles and experiments reveal. As Gladman reminds me in Calamities:

There was a sign that talked about the university, how you might find it, which button to push …. You waited, perhaps for days, perhaps in a timeless way, and suddenly felt a jolt. It was a different feeling from the bus, which jolted, but horizontally. This was a free fall. The body fell in a cage through darkness, sweating and inhaling the core of the earth. The core called out to you in a torpid voice .

I am not sure what’s on the other side of this. How we might be with each other anew.

Robin Tremblay-McGaw

I’d argue that the two most important challenges right now are, first, how to meet the material needs of our students/colleagues, and, second, how to maintain/build/rebuild our social lives and communities. The former is an institutional (and, at any real scale, governmental) challenge that ought to include finally adopting long-needed reforms that many universities have been woefully slow to adopt. Most critically these reforms include making genuine accommodations for students, faculty, and staff that would allow them to attend to their personal and domestic lives as they attend to their professional and academic lives.

A game of virtual Green New Deal bingo, organized by the McHarg Center at the Weitzman Penn School of Design
A game of virtual Green New Deal bingo, organized by the McHarg Center at the Weitzman School of Design at Penn. [Billy Fleming]

We need to get creative in building digital (and socially distant IRL) communities at many scales.

To note the most obvious and crucial reform: until a few weeks ago, remote learning had been considered a non-starter in most design schools because it was deemed incompatible with design education. What else might we now permit that would make our institutions and our fields more inclusive places? Another much-needed reform would be to abolish the “merit aid” pools of money wherever possible and to focus instead on need-based aid. Design schools — and thus the profession — are already socially/culturally/economically much too homogeneous. So why not invest our resources in those who need them most — and in the process build a more just, equitable, and diverse academy and profession?

The second challenge is going to require that we get creative in building digital (and socially distant IRL) communities at many scales. Social movements, the professional left, and the broader digital organizing world have been doing this for a while, and have been thinking imaginatively about how to build healthy (and fun!) cultures on Slack and Zoom and the assorted other platforms we are becoming familiar with as this pandemic persists. It would be impossible to do too much on this front.

Billy Fleming

Kadambari Baxi, Matias del Campo, Fadi Masoud, Renée Cheng, Elizabeth Donovan, Carl Smith, Dana Tomlin, Aaron Cayer, Delia Mellis, Huda Tayob, G. Pelin Sarıoğlu Erdoğdu, Nicholas Pevzner, Robin Tremblay-McGaw, Billy Fleming, “Field Notes on Pandemic Teaching: 6,” Places Journal, April 2020. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

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