I'm thinking about the future of humanities classroom design. Wired magazine offers a short piece on the "evolution of office spaces," where it is obvious that they typical classroom follows a Taylorist design model: desks in rows. No one is surprised by this. The familiar tactic of moving desks into a circle or small groups would seem to be reflected by office design innovations of the sixties like the "office landscape" and the "action office" (see the Wired article). Really though, office design doesn't have too much to tell us about university classroom design, simply b/c the office workspace represents a kind of personal space where one sits repeatedly day after day. It is your desk… and certainly classrooms don't work that way.
And yet there are some similarities, and fundamentally the design of the classroom or office is intended to promote certain behaviors and interactions over others.
So we know (or I think we know) that the future of the classroom as lecture space is fairly limited. Secondly, while you can bring students together to have them work independently (e.g. working on individual writing assignments), that doesn't seem to make much sense either. The classroom, like the office, can be an opportunity for surveillance, but in my view that's not a particularly productive use of time/space. It seems to me that if we are going to bring people together in a room we are going to do so in order to accomplish goals not easily achieved without real-time, face-to-face interaction.
So what might those goals (and related activities) be? And more germane to my topic, how would one design a space for them?
- Small group or classwide discussion
- Presentations–while I think lecture as a primary mode is out. Presentations that build in audience participation would be a sensible purpose for gathering in a classroom.
- Project collaboration–an opportunity for students to meet with one another and faculty
If I thought that way, I guess I'd have to say my current classroom is not a bad space: computers along the outer wall, large table in the center, projection system and whiteboard. Students can turn away from the computers for class discussion or to watch a presentation. They can work in groups either at the computers or at the center table. It's a cramped room though if one has the full 20 students in their. It's probably optimal at 15. One could accomplish the same design with larger numbers in a larger room; there would probably just be several tables in the center rather than one large one.
But maybe I'm not thinking big enough here. Tell me again why we are meeting MWF for 50 minutes? It's not so I can stand there and talk. Is it so I can stand over the students and make sure they do their work? Is it because the students lack maturity or self-responsibility? Is this MWF business baby-sitting twenty-somethings? Because really the students don't need to come to class to work on a group project or workshop drafts, do they?
The classroom ends up being a fairly particular space where students gather to interact with faculty. Other traditional classroom activities like listening to lectures or working collaboratively might be better accomplished elsewhere, online or ftf. If I were to worm my way back to the office space metaphor, then the classroom would be like a meeting room and I suppose faculty would be more like project managers.
Now I don't really want to go very far with the office analogy. The pedagogical relationship is quite different from the managerial one. However as we begin to think about hybrid courses, telecommuting and so on, I think we need to recognize how work gets done differently. If the classroom becomes an important place to build relations among students and faculty, then perhaps it ought to be designed with that specifically in mind.