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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Classroom space

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 |


Blogger kermitthefrog commented at 5:54 PM~  

Re: the renovations at INRU,

I had a very similar reaction returning to my (private) high school during my younger sister's time there. In between the two of us, there had been an enormous fund-raising campaign, and extensive renovations that eliminated a lot of the crumbling but endearing interiors (the crumbling, endearing exteriors were carefully preserved, but supplemented with new wings of bright-pink brick). Now, there's very little possibility of false consciousness about exactly how much money many of the students and families at the school actually have, and are willing to donate to make the school look good (literally). I'm not sure whether that's a good or bad thing, but if I, as a non-financial-aid but non-millionaire student turned alum, feel uncomfortable about the ostentatious luxury of the facilities, then surely other students and alumni must as well.

Blogger Bardiac commented at 8:53 PM~  

Those pictures really do say worlds about the different schools, not only inside, but the view to the outside in the INRU pics.

I really felt hit over the head when I returned to school at a community college, and then to a regional state school, and then visited an R1 state school campus. Marble floors in the administration building; comfortable seats in the teaching building hallways (and none in the office wing, because obviously, no one was supposed to be IN those hallways).

Going from a school that hadn't been able to purchase books for the library for 5 years to one with marble hallways, in the SAME state, just seemed somehow criminal.

Blogger Oso Raro commented at 1:15 AM~  

OMG! Doll, I think we went to the same INRU, Hello! The view out the window looks *awfully* familiar, and your description of this particular building is spot on, right down to the radiators and worn steps. All I can say is, don't do it in platform Doc Martins tied with ribbons! (Ah, the eighties!) A girl could lose her lunch! If it is true, then we really are sisters in the struggle.

I think this is a really smart post, especially your observation on the changes to INRU and the ambivalence you feel about them.

My INRU, perhaps the same, Prestigious Eastern U, went through a similar process of renovation and glam/sham in the nineties, like many places. When I was an undergrad there in the eighties, the place was literally falling apart, and part of that slow entropy contributed to the quality of questioning I felt we as undergrads were engaged in at the time, which manifested itself in seminar rooms, dining halls, student organizations, and social life. Unlike our "sister" campuses, we felt at PU that our proximity to the fecundity of life (as much about the town as well as the ripped gown), as well as being fully aware of the sham of the viewbook, contributed to a more grounded realpolitik that distinguished us from others in our educational class (the fact that plenty of folks still went on to sell their souls to Mammon notwithstanding; we were 20, after all :-).

I haven't returned often to PU, but took a group of visiting Spanish friends on a tour in 2002, and was shocked at the changes. Streets had disappeared, replaced by malls, you could see the shocking Victorian colours of the buildings again, after so much 19th century dinge, everything seemed shiny and new. Hell, the even moved a Au Bon Pain into the old bar we used to jokingly refer to as the Nightmare... It was hard to imagine having a similar collegiate experience amongst the wealth and privilege and *comfort* of the surroundings, and I sort of mourned the loss of that vision we had in the eighties (which was temporal as well as spatial), the acquiescence to Capital which, as you imply, was probably always there, just obscure.

Even though my current classrooms have none of the quiet drama of the privileged (if beat up at the time) seminar rooms at PU, with their aluminum ashtrays (another anachronism) and their shabby round tables, I actually prefer modern spaces for the mass teaching I do; it doesn't bother me as long as its maintained, which Cold City U is. Simple, Chic, and Elegant! Classes, and their success, are so dependent on space and spatial relationships, but sometimes even the most intime and precious classroom won't save you from a pack of wolves.

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 1:47 AM~  

OR: For real! I've often thought your PU was INRU, and now--with the Demps/ABP reference--I know it's true. Looking back, I know that gentrification was on the way in as early as my freshman year (I think Demps was out by my sophomore or junior year), but it sure didn't feel like it, and returning a couple of years post-college the town & university looked totally different.

And although I know we're all inclined to "back when *I* was your age" reminiscences, I do feel that something is lost when the choice to go to INRU isn't made as a part of a willing embrace of the weirdness and shabbiness of the surroundings, but rather in the complacent assurance that there'll always be a J. Crew and an Urban Outfitters in town and a prettily appointed room with high-speed wireless right there waiting for you.

(As for the steps in that building: I sprained my ankle, no joke, when I lost my footing and fell down the back interior staircase after class one day. I've often joked that I had to go back there for grad school once I saw how gorgeous the building had suddenly become--it just wasn't FAIR after all I'd endured there!)

Anonymous Rachel commented at 3:59 AM~  

The University I'm from is almost 800 years old, and it's authority comes from having old buildings in appropriate disarray. Who cares if there is no central heating during a freezing British winter -- the room was built in the 17th century! Who cares if there are no powerpoitns in most of the University Library -- it's already an abominable example of horrid Victorian architecture, absolutely too modern! No rooms open after 5 have LCD projectors, but that shouldn't be a problem as why would a scholar need to rely on visuals or a - heaven forfend -- a laptop anyway? UGH.

The Uni I'll be teaching at next year was combined out of two colleges in 1975. Every classroom is a smart room. The heating actually works properly. The libraries are more or less centrally based and one can return all books at any of them. Hyper-modernity here i come!

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