Campus as text: a faculty workshop.
Because we designed the workshop for participants who considered themselves intimately acquainted with the space we would be exploring, the challenge was to build in one of the key components of CAT: the sense of disorientation that allows one to look at a place from a new perspective. At NCHC Faculty Institutes or conference walkabouts, this disorientation is achieved by virtue of participants being in an unfamiliar city. In this case, however, we were starting with a group of people who believed they already knew the topic, and shaking them out of their sense of complacency, to defamiliarize the familiar so they could be open to looking in a new way, was imperative.
We planned several elements of the workshop set-up to achieve these ends. First, we engineered the groups who would be working together to include people from different disciplines, ensuring that each participant be exposed to fresh viewpoints while they worked. Next, we arranged for the workshop to be held in a different location on campus on each of the four days. This provided disorientation both in the sense that it did not allow anyone to approach the learning space in a habitual frame of mind and also because we chose unusual spaces that faculty seldom inhabit, including the on-campus convent and the cavernous, underground facilities office. Third, we designed the on-campus explorations to begin from points off campus, driving participants into residential neighborhoods, loading docks, or the convent and having them enter campus from these novel directions. Finally, we asked participants to spend a night in the residence halls, to step outside their customary roles as professionals and view the campus from within this intimate space as residents. These four factors contributed to a productive disorientation that made participants receptive to experimenting with new paradigms as we completed our CAT explorations and reflections. Ours is not a very large campus, but it was revealing that people who described themselves as knowing the campus well reported after this workshop that they had been paired with someone they had never met before, explored a building they had never set foot in before, or discovered a corner of the campus they never knew existed.
With the dual purposes of modeling a CAT-based course and working to assess the campus, we designed the workshop as a four-day lesson on the sociology of space, using Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City. We examined physical space (the layout of the campus) and social space (how space shapes human interactions). At the beginning of the workshop, participants wrote down their first impressions, what they thought they knew, as a point of reference. Then we disoriented them through the novel experiences described above and asked them to map the physical space of the campus. We instructed them on Lynch's concept of "legibility" and asked them to identify structures that create signification in the space. These structures include paths through the space, both natural and artificial; edges that define the boundaries of the space; districts, or areas of homogeneity; nodes, or centers of attraction, both planned or natural; and landmarks, or points of reference. The campus is small enough that each group had enough time to explore the entire outdoor space during a ninety-minute walkabout. After collecting information using mapping, listening, and observing, groups reconvened to share what they had found.
The CAT experience is best exemplified by the group who never made it out of the commuter parking lot where they were dropped because they got so busy doing their work. This is a space that few faculty or staff ever have occasion to visit, but it is the primary entry point for the majority of our students. The group's insights about the first impression for students arriving on campus included observations about the inadequacy of signage, the confusing traffic flow patterns, the lack of landscaping, and the backdoor feel of the primary portal through which students arrive. We quickly realized that what is literally the backdoor for faculty and staff needs to be reconceptualized as the front door for students and visitors. These and other observations became part of a larger campus conversation when participants in our workshop were later invited to sit on the new president's commission for college vision.
On the second day of the workshop, we reconfigured the groups and sent them out to explore specific interior spaces on campus. We tried to send people into spaces they do not normally inhabit, again disorienting them and demanding a fresh perspective. We asked them to think about the social uses of interior spaces using Edward T. Hall's notion of proxemics (The Hidden Dimension). Hall describes intimate space, social-consultative space, and public space, where inhabitants feel comfortable being personal, professional, or anonymous, respectively. Teams looked at offices, classrooms, dormitories, the sports complex, the chapel, the cafeteria and kitchens, the subterranean tunnel system, and other specific-use areas. In addition to their open-ended observations, they were asked to consider which aspects of the space's design promote a sense of community and which hinder it. So, for instance, groups came back with the surprising observations that the most robust social space could be found in the dark, underground facilities office, where natural nodes or gathering places invited both social and professional congregation during the work day and, according to the facilities director, more efficient work. Meanwhile, one designated social space, with its carefully arranged chairs in the lobby of the athletics building, was untouched by human habitation, suggesting that declaring a space available for social use does not make it a natural node if it does not have other elements that make it inviting. We learned about the actual use of space by observing proxemics, and this information will be useful to the newly convened college committee on space utilization.
To get a full experience of intimate space on campus, faculty and staff stayed overnight in the residence halls, students' most intimate space but one that faculty never enter. To make this visit possible, we scheduled the workshop during the week between the end of spring semester and the beginning of summer session when the residence halls were vacant. Participants found this experience profoundly disorienting, and it allowed them to step out of their habitual roles and engage differently with their peers. In one suite, a normally reclusive faculty member ended up leading the rest of the group in a tai chi exercise that had everyone laughing. In the other suite, a malfunctioning thermostat required a visit by the residence life staff, who were tickled to be of service to the resident professors. While the ostensible purpose of the dorm stay was to study the space, an unintended benefit of the exercise was a renewal of the sense of community among the participants, who had seldom, if ever, interacted before outside of their professional personas but who were able to form relationships that they could carry back into their work. As interdisciplinarity is an important component of CAT, the dorm stay proved fruitful in paving the groundwork for future collaborations.
After the two days of hands-on exploration, participants met to synthesize a sense of place. While the walkabouts are fundamentally data-gathering exercises, the synthesis phase allows for knowledge to be constructed as sense is made out of the data. After writing private reflections about their experiences, all the participants gathered for a conversation about what they had observed. Listening to others report on their walkabouts, participants became aware of their own personal and disciplinary biases, the particular lenses that constrain how they see things. So, for instance, a nursing professor acknowledged her "inattentive blindness" to the classroom space she used every day after a sociologist and an artist observed the discrepancy between the starkness of the space and the compassionate healing arts that were supposed to be fostered within it. Several participants reported firsthand on the state of the campus's handicap accommodations, something they had never paid attention to, after accompanying one participant in her wheelchair over the hilly terrain, into restrooms all over campus, and through the awkward tunnel entrance. In the conversations that emerged, disparate pieces of information were gathered, examined, merged, and given new meaning as differing perspectives ensured a rich and multifaceted picture of our campus. Already, some lessons learned are translating into both personal and institutional action to improve campus spaces.
As a tool for campus assessment, the CAT workshop was fruitful. At core, however, the objective was to get CAT into our classrooms, to create hands-on learning experiences for the students. On the final day of the workshop, faculty designed syllabi that would adapt CAT for their disciplines. Since our honors program is small, and not everyone has the luxury of teaching a field-based course, we focused on how to apply CAT in regular courses, to create metaphorical places as text if we could not have geographical ones. The following examples offer a sense of the possibilities: the human body as text in a nursing course; museums and paintings as text in an art history course; network space as text in a computer science course; text posited as place in a literature course. Since this workshop, two new CAT-based courses have been developed for the honors program, and one interdisciplinary general studies course has already used the CAT methodology during a travel course to Belize.
As our college adapts to changing needs, including a major revision of our core curriculum, a capital campaign, and a new generation of students, having a cadre of faculty who have experienced our campus as text is beneficial in so many ways. Whether in their committee work, their teaching, or their increased sense of collegiality, these faculty members bring fresh, informed perspectives to students, administrators, and their peers. CAT has applications beyond the honors program, and I am excited to see how it will be used as it finds its way into different sectors of the college.
Hall, Edward T. The Hidden Dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966.
Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Boston: The MIT P, 1960.
MOUNT MERCY COLLEGE
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|Title Annotation:||CHAPTER 1: CAMPUS AS TEXT|
|Publication:||Shattering the Glassy Stare: Implementing Experiential Learning in Higher Education|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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