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Tuesday, May 02, 2006
A month or two ago, after a visit to Grad School City, I promised a post on classroom space and our attitudes toward and understanding of the educational experience itself.
Below is the first room in which I taught at INRU, and which is entirely typical of the classrooms for most seminar-size classes or discussion sections; typically the classes in such a room would number around 18, but the room could seat 25 in a pinch. Notice the big windows (which go up nearly to the ceiling), the rich woodworking, warm-neutral paint colors, and the simple but handsome (and probably very expensive) chairs and table:
Below is the classroom at Big Urban in which I taught my seminar on Author #1; the room is also identical to that in which I taught my two survey sections (it's the same room, just on a different floor):
The photo makes the space look nicer than it actually is--you can't see the big gaping hole in the wall beneath the whiteboard behind the instructor's desk, or how truly battered the tablet desks are; it's also hard to tell how small the room is. Once upon a time, it was a seminar room with a single big table in the middle, and now there are 30 desks crammed in there (the space is actually only slightly larger than the room pictured above).
Nevertheless, the differences between the two are apparent, and I'm quite sure that the latter room would not appear in a college viewbook (unless it were full of smiling, engaged students of all races). It's not at all a bad room--except for the hole in the wall--and indeed in many ways I preferred having my 30-person surveys in a fairly tight space rather than in the much wider and deeper rooms in better repair in which I taught the same class last semester: in those rooms I felt more removed from the class, and the silent students at the back of the class could sometimes drop off my radar screen in a way that simply wasn't possible in this tiny room, where the front row of desks was three feet from the front of my instructor's desk. This semester, we made jokes about the room; the students got to know their neighbors well (because they were always, literally, rubbing shoulders with them); and I could easily tell who was paying attention and who needed to be brought back into the discussion.
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. Wandering around the INRU campus the last time I was in town, I was struck all over again by how picture-postcard-y the place is. When I was an undergraduate, the place had a lovely luster, but was actually rather dingy around the edges: the classroom building that houses the room from that first photo is one of the oldest buildings on campus, and when I was in college it hadn't yet been renovated. Aside from the gawdawful fluorescent lights that had been installed at some point along the way, the building probably hadn't had a thing done to it in a century: the tables and chairs were hideously beat up and scarred with generations' worth of graffiti; the radiators hissed and clanked aggressively all winter long; the treads on the marble interior staircases were worn down, unevenly, like the stones at Canterbury, making for treacherous climbing. Sure, there were some new buildings, and some slow renovations going on, but the campus as a whole was shabby-genteel in a way that, after a while, made the place feel authentic in some way. No fancy new high-tech, wall-to-wall-carpeted buildings here! Save that for you Johnny-come-lately universities with parking lots.
This was, of course, a delusion (most of the buildings on campus were actually only some 60 or 70 years old--they just hadn't had anything done to them since), but there seemed to be virtue as well as snobbery in our affection for the pretty but crumbling structures around us.
I don't know what the living conditions are like now, and I'm sure that the dorm room are still too small, that they occasionally have mice, and that many of them are still saunas in the winter. However, nearly all the classroom buildings have been renovated along the lines of the room you see above; the campus has been sculpted and landscaped with new paving stones, pretty fences and benches, and fresh sod in the springtime to replace the barren patches in the grass. The dorms and libraries are also getting drop-dead-gorgeous makeovers: burnished woodwork, wrought iron gates; the whole nine. It's probably prettier than the campus ever was, even back in the patrician days that the makeover is clearly meant to evoke.
And that's the thing: if the campus was always a movie-set fantasy of what the Hallowed Halls of Academe look like, and of course it was, it was something one could ignore when the facilities actually looked as though they might well BE 500 years old. But now, as truly gorgeous as every corner of campus seems to be, there's such a stink of money and privilege about it that I find myself deeply conflicted even while, as a (somewhat) loyal alumna, I'm pleased to see the place doing well. (It's possible that that stink was always there, but that I was less sensitive to it when I was trying to be worthy of it.)
Walking around campus now, I'm aware of what a luxury good the place is marketing itself as. It's not just the World! Class! Education! that's being promised, but the appearance and the trappings of that education. The students and their parents are sophisticated enough consumers to know that what they want isn't just a four-year degree, but a liberal arts education. Anyone can go to college and then to business or law school, but if you want to move in the right circles, you want to be the kind of person who has season tickets to the opera and subscribes to The New Yorker and who can talk about The Waste Land and Salman Rushdie at company dinners or when wooing European clients.
And of course, I'm torn by this. I do think that the education that INRU provides is a great one, and that its students are usually genuinely excited by the intellectual life; sure, some of them are careerist, and will fuss about their B-pluses, but those same students are usually at the same time really engaged by the ideas that they encounter and really want the kind of education they're receiving; they want to be challenged to some degree, even if they also want their work to be validated with an A at the end of it all.
But I hate the fact that this education is being sold as an ultra-exclusive product that students get--along with those hushed stone passageways and vaulted ceilings--because they're in the know in one way or another: either they were born into a life of privilege (monetary or intellectual), or they've been tapped by their high school teachers and the admissions committee as worthy of entering that life of privilege because they have the right interests and talents.
And I hate the fact that this is what a liberal arts education has in many ways become, whether it's at a school like INRU or in the honors program at a big state school: a luxury. Everyone else gets pre-professional or glorified vocational training--since that is, in fact, what many students and their parents want. I'm not blaming students for the fact that most jobs now require a four-year college degree, and that their friends and family members tend to regard a degree in accounting as a more sensible project than a degree in English. And I'm not saying that I don't understand that the pressures on many students are acute. But when we talk about consumerism in higher education we're not just talking about students treating their instructors like service providers, demanding results (i.e., good grades) for their money, and attempting to dictate the terms of their education. We're also talking about the prestige economy that such a situation creates, in which some students not only get to show off more exclusive labels on their car bumpers or workout gear, but also get a different kind of education.
No one needs a well-appointed seminar room in a building with leaded glass windows and marble staircases to get a liberal arts education. Frankly, I prefer teaching students like those I've had a Big Urban, who don't come to my classes with a reflexive respect for the dead white males I teach. It's much more satisfying, and I think more valuable, to catch students by surprise, and to see them develop both analytical skills and aesthetic pleasures they didn't anticipate deriving from the stuff they "have" to study because they're English or Education majors--or because, if they're non-humanities majors, they took a flier on a class that met at the right time and fulfilled a distribution requirement.
But I worry that, increasingly, this kind of broad-ranging education, where the student is given the leisure to discover his or her own interests serendipitously, to debate ideas passionately, and draw connections across a disparate range of subjects, is coming to be seen as the province of those who can, in both sense of the word, "afford" it. And if they can afford this kind of education, well, it had better look the part while they're getting it.
link | posted by La Lecturess at 3:28 PM |
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