Onward and Upward

Screen Shot 2020-06-12 at 16.31.56There’s nothing like falling in love with the very thing you initially detested. Two months ago I couldn’t think of anything more horrid than teaching a design class through videoconference. Now I plan on keeping the methodologies I developed this semester in my teaching toolbox beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

Back in mid March, I sat in a meeting with my colleagues brainstorming about distance learning. I’ll just use email, I thought, and as if they had read my mind immediately someone piped up, “If you are thinking email, it will take a lot of time.” Yes, that’s right, individual projects means individual email threads, times twenty-four students–that’s potentially twenty-four hours or more of email correspondence per scheduled class. Plus, there’s the sometimes low effectiveness of emails relative to how long they take to write, now that the overload of information has made us all a nation of skimmers.

Then I started zooming and now I’m hooked. As host, I was the director of an orchestra of faces, giving voice to this or that section of my screen, leaving my camera on and listening attentively, adding clarifications via the chat function when needed, calling on others to add insights I was sure they had. It took all my physical and emotional energy to pull it off, every subsequent day both the same and different from the day before, new opportunities as well as new challenges. It was both exhausting and gratifying.

Teaching via videoconference intensified the teaching experience, making the good things better and the bad things worse, as I have found to be the case when new technologies are introduced. When I was working in an architecture office in the 1990s and we were all moving as a profession from paper to digital drawings, we found that the people that were sloppy in their hand drawings continued to be sloppy in their digital drawings, with exponentially worse consequences, but also with more evident solutions. Similarly, in virtual design reviews, if someone was chomping down on some chocolate with the mike on it was both more invasive and easier to fix.

But the unexpected gift of this distance teaching was the way I could deploy this new tool to make sure all voices were heard. Time was our space now, the minutes allocated to a student in the videoconference format gave them a privileged point of focus. I make it a priority in my classroom to give all voices equal time, and through the videoconference teaching I’ve developed new powerful ways to do this.

The online platform also allowed a deep dive into my students’ work, and by extension into how I teach, which allowed me to develop more effective methodologies. Looking at the students’ raw design files, rather than simply reviewing the presentation materials they would print and pin up in a physical classroom, was like reading tea leaves for how motivated they were and how well they had processed the teaching material I had presented to them.

In the near future, some things will be lost from the architecture school environment I knew and loved. The European faculty will likely forgo their customary two kiss greeting, and I will miss the impromptu shoulder to shoulder huddles on the way to teach, meet, or caffeinate–it’s impossible to share gossip six feet apart. But now we also have another tool we can put to work toward equity in the classroom; on my screen, everyone is the same size.

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