I’m a Hostage Negotiator Now


There are these online “Master Classes” that have been making the rounds on social media for a while, even before our COVID 19 situation. They are a peculiar thing indeed, but even more peculiar was the one that popped up on my screen this week, one taught by a hostage negotiator. And I thought, that’s it, that’s what it feels like now. I am a hostage negotiator and my success this semester depends on acting accordingly. Some new beings have taken my students hostage and they are not to be trusted. They appear on my screen as smiling video images or more worryingly, as single letters in a rainbow of happy colors. Don’t be fooled by their cheery appearance–you might just be speaking into a void. I have weekly distance-learning therapy sessions with a friend who is distance-teaching lecture classes of 200+ students and who has no sympathy when I complain about keeping a dozen of active participants on my screen. My actual students are being held hostage by these fickle image and letter symbols and I must tread carefully lest they are eliminated forever. On my negotiating skills depends their surviving this situation and feeling like they had a worthy class this semester, but in order for that to happen I must keep their captors’ attention and trust. I’ve prepared and shared and documented an enormous amount of teaching material but I have limited ways of checking if the hostages, if the actual students, are getting to see it, or if the hostage takers are making the decision for them that it’s enough to skim.

I found out the other day that one of my students was raking leaves during “class,” but maybe this is not a bad thing, that “architecture in a state of distraction” thing again. I’ve started embedding little mistakes in the teaching materials I’ve prepared, something small and obvious that once encountered would immediately prompt a question like “Did your really mean “moose” or is it instead the mouse in the maze?” The results are not encouraging; let’s just say that moose-sized mazes appear to be perfectly acceptable right now…

And who can blame them. Who hasn’t forwarded an eight-hundred word email to their assistant and ask, “Could you please take a look and tell me if there’s anything here I need to  worry about.” And those dreaded four little words, “you are encouraged to…” I looked up “encouraged.” It means “give support and advice to (someone) so that they will do or continue to do something.”

Looking up the precise meaning of words is a habit I formed when AS Byatt came into my life after I got my first “real” job (i.e., one that came with health insurance), in an architecture office. She, and James Joyce too, were my companions in the commute to work. The Dubliners‘ stories were just long enough to read the first half in the morning, think about it all day–will Eveline be okay?–and read the second half on the way home. I’ve been thinking a lot about that time, the years right after graduate school (right after I graduated from the kind of program that I’m teaching in now, duh, that makes sense). I find myself remembering random details, like the mixed nuts bowl in the bar that my architecture office and the landscape architecture office upstairs used to frequent for Friday night happy hour.

Maybe it’s because I’m watching my third year students quietly reeling and my teaching instinct is making me look for some way to empathize with them, so I’m thinking back to my own graduation experience. What would it be like if it had to happen in a vacuum, no walk on the stage, no hugging of friends or meeting of students’ parents. At my own architecture school graduation Anne Tyng and my father shook hands and I thought, wow, here are two worlds colliding. How could I explain to my father her incredible significance in architecture in general, and to me in particular, because the response to “what did she build” is complicated. And how could I explain to her how it was his stories about the cargo loading operations he had to lead as the boatswain in bulkers, the merchant ships that carry grain, that first made me curious about the relationship between architecture proper and engineering.

They might have found common ground in plywood though; hah, the two of them in some carpentry heaven, making stuff.

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