The Campus as Laboratory: Teaching Students to Think Historically About the Built Environment

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by William Scott, History

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2004

The Teaching Problem: History R1, The Practice of History, is an introduction to the discipline of history and its theoretical and methodological underpinnings. Students demonstrate their knowledge by completing a research paper on the history of the University of California, Berkeley. My section chose to research the history of architecture. Their initial thinking about the subject was fundamentally antiquarian — concerned with the past for its own sake — rather than historical, which treats the past as fertile territory for social analysis. To them, the history of architecture meant telling the story of the construction of a building, rather than thinking through the ways that campus spaces produce and reflect changing ideas and practices of education, gender, engineering, race, memory, ornamentation, and the environment, to name but a few subjects. At its core, the problem was this: students didn’t know how to think critically about the history of the built environment and, hence, couldn’t develop compelling topics for their research papers.

Teaching Method/Strategy: Having taught middle-school for seven years before graduate school, I brought to the position of Graduate Student Instructor a wealth of teaching techniques that I quickly found could be adapted to make concrete the complex, abstract concepts at the core of university-level teaching. When I encountered difficulties teaching students the fundamentals of thinking historically about architecture, I dug into my teaching background and realized that I needed to take my students on, of all things, a field trip.

On the day of the lesson, we walked past Doe Library and gathered in front of Moffitt. After giving them some background on the buildings, I modeled some historical observations and questions: Doe Library sits on top of the ground; Moffitt is built into a hillside. How do these buildings represent changing conceptions of the relationship between a building and its environment? What does the memorialization of the Free Speech Movement in the form of a café tell us about the political history of Berkeley in the 1990s? Quickly, students chimed in with questions of their own. One student noticed that Moffitt was mainly built of concrete and wondered whether this reflected an attempt at a democratic form of architecture. Another continued that Doe, then, probably represented a claim to elitism in its use of classical elements like older, Eastern schools. As we continued walking around the campus, simple observations about architecture began leading to sophisticated historical questions that often formed the basis of the students’ later research. Throughout, I kept a low profile: occasionally modeling, prodding them when necessary, pointing out the kinds of questions that might have historical answers, but mainly allowing for a lot of silent observation and student-led discussion.

Assessment: That day, students returned to the classroom and used the skills honed on the campus tour to think about the ways the design of the seminar room itself contained social meanings and relationships. Their observations and questions were outstanding for their breadth and sophistication. The real measure of success, though, was the students’ research projects. One student examined Bowles Hall to historicize masculinity, linking rearrangements of the men’s dormitory to changing ideals of manhood. Another paper looked at Asian ornamentation on buildings to examine Orientalism on campus. A third examined students’ and faculty members’ reactions to Wurster Hall to trace the history of aesthetic judgment. In these, and other papers, students developed compelling and sophisticated topics on the history of space and design linked to their own academic passions.