Architecture, the Campus, and Learning to Become

Kenyon

Last semester, I was responsible for more than one existential crisis, I fear.

If you’ve followed this blog for any period of time, you know that I don’t only enjoy confusing my students, I feel that it’s essential to their education. I believe that disorientation requires re-orientation and that is what learning is all about. My post about the Bernard Malamud story “Angel Levine” should explain what I mean.

Another essential element in the alchemy of education is, of course, curiosity. In fact let’s call it Curiosity, with a capital C. It where education begins (and possibly ends).

The crises I set in motion were related to an assignment I gave my freshmen. I asked them, in short, to be curious about their surroundings. I assigned a paper in which students were to write about their own campus. It is their temporary home after all, so I thought it was appropriate that they thoughtfully consider what the experience means. They were to choose a single place on campus, and it could have been any place, to analyze. I wanted them to consider the location of their chosen space and its prominent features.

My hope was that they would pause at particular spot and observe, noticing how the space functions. Who has access to it? What pragmatic goals does it serve? And most importantly, what kind of person is the space supposed to create? This is the question that caused all the ruckus.

The difficulty was simply that my students had never considered that spaces might be supposed to do anything. To many of them, places are strictly constructed to walk over or sit in. My asking them to find meaning in their built environment was paramount to Jesus asking the Rich Young Ruler to sell all his possessions.

My students’ difficulty with the assignment (and thus me) is not unique. For so many people, it’s unnatural to think with any depth about how places shape our desires and conceptions of ourselves. To me, this is apparent in the mad rush toward online learning and things that are, for some reason, called “MOOCS” (no, Bubble Boy, not the Moors). My good friend Danielle Nielsen is currently writing about her experiences with these things at her excellent blog http://dnielsen2.blogspot.com/. I wish her all the luck in the world and am enjoying reading her updates.

Education as Baptism

The idea behind this distance-learning initiative suggests, whether intentionally or not, that education is as simple as the transference of information. It denies the possibility that education might instead be a special immersion in a specific environment to create and expand a student’s experience. I use the term “baptism” loosely, but I think it works as a metaphor for what I’m getting at. Just as the devotee is submerged (in some traditions) and emerges a new person, the student immerses him or herself in their chosen institution, an act which will ideally change them for the better. Becoming is, therefore, a spiritual experience.

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In the act of destroying the physical campus, the movement toward distance in education destroys this spiritual aspect of higher learning as well. And, ironically, the e-learning philosophy bears remarkable similarity to my students view of campus space. Both physical space and education itself are simply landscapes to be traversed, not experiences to be savored.

Jeff Selingo recently defended the campus experience in an insightful article that I hope you will take the time to read. His sentiments echo my own. I fear that in the rush to provide information to students, we are too willing to ignore their humanity. What is passing for education is really merely credentialing for industrial purposes. Education is something different than that.

Education, like humanity itself, is about becoming. This means that it’s every bit as spiritual a process as it is technical. It therefore extends beyond the information transmitted in the classroom and out into the campus space. Yes, we learn who we might be by studying the facts of George Washington’s life, but we are also offered visions of our potential selves by the spaces in which we abide. Take City College of New York, for instance:

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This magnificent campus was built to educate New York’s poor and decidedly un-privileged (Bernard Malamud is one prominent example out of many). In fact, it was so much thought of as a place for the children of the city’s Jewish immigrants that CCNY was jokingly said to stand for Circumcised Citizens of New York.

Yet take some time to experience the details of its buildings and plazas. This is a campus space that values its students and their potential. Notice the promise the design offers the working-class student. The Gothic design immerses the urbanite in an educational tradition that extends through the ages, forcing them out of their immediate environment, backwards through history. By walking these halls and sitting in this plaza, students are placed in virtual conversation with the best that’s been thought and said. Great architecture is access to something currently out of reach, and this campus grants that access.

Also, note the prominence of the windows. Their size and sheer number certainly bring light into CCNY’s classrooms, but they also narrow the distance between the learning going on inside the classroom and the experiences of life outside. It’s as if students are encouraged to understand that the things they learn in these rooms are meant to be permanent and portable. This empowers education and suggests that there is a future to be forged outside these walls. It screams “Be Something Great.”

I have only emphasized architecture in this reflection, but the social is equally vital in the college experience as Selingo articulates in his article. Human beings are social by nature, for better or worse. By occupying physical spaces with other people, networks are possible. Long-lasting, meaningful friendships can be forged. Mentoring that passes down a tradition of wisdom is available. Education can be, at its best, deeply and broadly imagined. Students can be encouraged to become in a way that distance-learning simply cannot replicate.

Or I suppose that efficient, cost-effective, and icy cubicles will work just as well.

I’d love your opinions about this, so please share them either here or, even better, on the Arnoldian Project Facebook page (link is to the left of the page). Do your experiences match my mushy idealism? How much hot air am I full of?

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Learning Through Teaching

First, a sidebar. If you stopped by here last time because of the sudden attention the great singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell gave this blog on his Facebook page, thank you! (I seriously don’t think I’ve ever been given a greater compliment). I hope that you stick around and feel free to share your thoughts with me. This posting is about another topic, but I don’t think it’s entirely unrelated.

I want to make sure everyone appreciates how much I love my students. I truly have fun in class with them and I frequently find myself knocked-over by their insightfulness. Getting the Ph.D was quite often a drag, but it was totally worth it.

This past week, we discussed three short stories, each wildly distinct from the others. I was purposefully trying to disorient them and worked all week to keep them in that state. Please don’t call the authorities on me, but I’m convinced that this is the heart of education. Constructive confusion is the way to enlightenment. I believe this deeply and I cherish the struggle it brings.

In the middle of the week, we read and discussed Bernard Malamud’s great short story “Angel Levine.” I feel a special duty to make my students read at least one thing by Malamud each semester. His legacy is sadly eroding and if English professors don’t make people read him, no one will. A couple of malamudyears ago, I went to a major literature conference and attended the Malamud panel. I was the only member of the audience until some elderly gentleman joined us, I think out of pity. From that moment on, I decided to keep his work alive as much as my limited ability would allow.

At any rate, “Angel Levine” is a lovely tale about Manischewitz, an elderly Jewish man who, like Job, falls upon inexplicably hard times. He prays for deliverance and lo and behold an angel appears. The problem is that the angel is a former Jewish man named Alexander Levine and is now an African-American angel who lives in Harlem and is in a probationary period. Thus, the protagonist has doubts, as you might imagine. This angel contradicts his expectations in every imaginable way. Yet, he must overcome his doubt in order to believe before the angel can help him. This is the story’s central dilemma.

I always like to start with a question, so I had my students write for five minutes about why we suffer. Their answers were quite intelligent and often profound and they found the connection to the story themselves. We had great discussions about this fine piece of literature. I was happy that they had experienced the story in the way that I had hoped.

As the day went on and I taught the story in my subsequent classes something dawned on me. They were also seeing the story in ways that went beyond my hopes. The story came alive through their eyes and I was seeing it anew with each class that had engaged with it. Their unique perspectives had brought something to the tale that was new for me and, in turn, made it richer.

By the second class, I began to see the story as not only a modern Job-like morality tale, but also as a literacy narrative, much like Malamud’s great story “A Summer’s Reading.” Manischewitz’s dilemma is one of broadening his mind. His “sin,” if he has one, is that he sees the world only as it exists in front of his face. When he has to leave his neighborhood and make the arduous journey to Harlem to find the angel, he is, in essence, beginning the process of opening himself up to new experiences. In the end, his world is richer not only because of his faith, but because of his willingness to explore it.

Then I became aware, to my horror, that I was Manischewitz! I was the one who had come to class already knowing what I knew about this story. In leaving my own certitudes and following the bread-trail my students were leaving, I found new meaning in the story. Like our downtrodden hero, I too had grown. It was wonderful. But, like all wonderful things, it was also scary.

It was so wonderful, that I went all mushy with my class. I confessed to them the impact the story has had on my life. I had unwittingly scheduled this reading for this week 2 months ago and had no way of knowing that it would be waiting for me at a special moment in my life. As I shared with some detail in my previous post about Rodney Crowell (if those readers are still with me, thank you!), I’ve reached a point at which I’m starting to feel the gravity of my move from Cleveland. Like my re-discovery of Crowell’s music, re-reading this great story really meant something to me. This time, I felt the suffering in a new way and, more importantly, I felt the conviction that belief is risky. To believe in something, anything, is to risk something. Manischewitz risked his perception of the world and the afterlife to believe in his angel. I’m left to ponder what it is that I am willing to risk. I, like my students, am still disoriented and struggling to right myself. I suspect this is a life-long condition. I am still learning.

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