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Thursday, May 04, 2006

Classroom space, take two

In response to my previous post, a reader-friend emailed me these comments:
I thought you were going to go in a very different direction. I completely agree with you when you write: "What I'm interested in here is not whether my classroom space this semester provided an adequate learning environment, since it was more than adequate; rather, what I'm interested in is the effect that classroom space has on students' perception of their learning." But from my perspective, the issue is not how wonderful or how burnished [INRU] has become. Rather, my interest is in how the functional, if barely, classrooms affect your present students. Or the filthy, disgusting, airless, windowless classrooms affect mine. My point is that when you are in a classroom like the one you reproduce at [INRU], sure, you feel the luxury, but you also feel that you matter, and the material you are talking about matters (I had similar classrooms at [School 1] and [School 2]). But at present, my students are in classrooms that scream at them that they don't matter. Consider the effect of a classroom with a gaping hole in the wall, a hole that is never repaired, has on them, and on their sense of importance. I don't mind the patina of luxury at [INRU], because [INRU] still deeply values its faculty, and its students. It's the places like [my current school] that drive me up a wall, because they don't.
I wrote back briefly, but he makes some good points that I'd like to explore further--and I'd be interested in engaging anyone else who might be interested as well.

My first thought is that, yes, classroom space does send a message to students about themselves and their worth and the worth of the educational enterprise; the rooms my reader describes sound appalling, and whatever message students might take away about themselves from such a room, they're probably not leaving with the impression that learning, in and of itself, has great social worth.

However, my rooms at Big Urban really don't meet that description (the hole in the wall, by the way, was repaired a month into the semester, although the patch itself--more than two feet square--remains entirely and glaringly visible). The worst rooms I've taught in aren't much worse than simply a neutral backdrop against which to stage whatever it is that's being taught, and I don't have a problem with that: it's a big public school, but it's also an R1 with a good faculty and a diverse and pretty smart student population--they're paying much less than students pay at INRU, is what I'm saying, but I don't think that the quality of the education they're getting is significantly less, although it's necessarily patchier.

I also wrote my previous post in part because, as a student at INRU, I always did feel that the rich facilities were somehow a tribute to the learning experience itself. Many's the time I'd sit in a graduate seminar in that renovated building, on an upper floor, with a view of trees and sky and faraway spires through the leaded glass windows--and then I'd look around the room full of handsome faux antique chairs bearing the university crest (chairs that retail for more than $300 each), lovely wood panelling, earnest students, and think, "Ah! The intellectual life! This is what it's like!"

And yes: in part the university spends money on its facilities because it genuinely values its teachers, its students, and the life of the mind. But I've gotten more cynical as I've gotten older, and as I've begun to compare the gloss of the new facilities and their insane expense with the old facilities (not to mention when I compare these expenditures with the way the university treats its workers--but that's a whole 'nother post), it's hard not to feel that there's an excessiveness there that's all about trading on the school's name and reputation and constructing a movie-set version of the college experience, the better to reel in well-heeled suburban students who might be scared off if the campus didn't match their Dead Poets' Society fantasies.

But laying all the variables aside, and if it were just a matter of the facilities--wouldn't I myself rather teach in a room like the one pictured in my first photo?

Of course. But that doesn't mean that I'm not a little disgusted with myself for it.

link | posted by La Lecturess at 3:06 PM |


Anonymous What Now? commented at 5:26 PM~  

Such an interesting discussion this has been. On a slightly related note: A professor we both know at INRU once told me that she always felt that students really started to take her seriously when they came to her office. This office is incredibly gorgeous, much like the classrooms you describe, and apparently students would quite obviously react with "Whoah, I guess you must be pretty important after all to have such an office!"

When she told me this, I no doubt reacted not as she'd anticipated, but of course it immediately made me think of my own dismal, tiny, window-less, cinder-block office. Students often react to St. Martyr's professors with something approaching pity when they first see the offices. I've had students actually say, "It's terrible that they put you down here. Why are you treated like this?" Quite a different reaction than from the INRU students!

What would be interesting to know is to what extent the difference in professors' offices changes the dynamics of professor-student relationships. My gut sense is that, after the initial assessment of the office wears off, not at all, but it would be interesting to know more about this.

Blogger Inside the Philosophy Factory commented at 1:24 AM~  

I've noticed a difference between my office which has no window and had crappy furniture and my current office with a floor to ceiling window and nice furnitre..

I've also noticed a difference in student attitude between the classrooms I teach in on the same campus. One room is spacious with comfortable tables and chairs. The other holds the same number of students in 2/3 the space, with those nasty tablet chairs etc... My students in the big room take their work more seriously and we have better class discussions. In the small room it is like I'm on TV -- and they are one mass of humanity. It is sad.

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 12:30 PM~  

Ooh, I hadn't even considered the office question--these are both great observations. My own office at Big Urban is pretty ugly, but all the offices in that large, hideously 1960s building are ugly (GWB, upon seeing them, said, "no offense, but BUU has the most ghetto offices I've ever seen"). The t-t faculty are often able to do very nice things with them--paint, lay down nice rugs, bring in their own furniture--but they're still small, oddly-shaped, and with what appear to be concrete walls and industrial flooring.

What's funny to me is that several of my students have actually told me how NICE my office is. Why? Well, I'm on a very high floor and I have a stunning view of the downtown city skyline just a couple of miles off (even though one of the windows through which this stunning skyline appears has a permanently broken set of blinds encased in it).

Also, apparently the history department has even uglier offices.

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