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The online tools honed during the pandemic will still serve us when it’s over

Against the Studio Mystique

The online tools honed during the pandemic will still serve us when it’s over

The following text was drafted in response to the second prompt in AN’s “Post-Pandemic Potentials” series. A previous response, by Phil Bernstein, argued that US-based educators and practitioners should embrace, and not fight, constraints and contingencies for the time being. Read more about the series here.

On Thursday, March 5, 2020, I took a late evening Eurostar train from London to central Paris, where on Friday morning I was due to hold the second class for the term of an undergraduate survey I teach every spring in a French school of architecture. The European academic calendar is different from the American: The French spring term starts at the end of February, or early March, and ends in June. There was some anxiety in the air—a few small towns in Northern Italy were already under lockdown, Italy had just shut down schools and universities (on March 4), and sporadic cases of coronavirus infection were being reported elsewhere in Europe. The night porter at the hotel where I used to check in every Thursday evening greeted me with a hint of unease—you have not been in Italy recently, he asked while handing the key to my room. Not since 1987, I answered.  That was a bit of an overstatement but it seemed to reassure him. At any rate the Brasserie Lipp, the only place in the Sixth Arrondissement where one can have a potage de legumes and a fresh baguette at midnight, was crowded as usual, and so was my class the following morning: a general introduction to the history of design technologies, mandatory for all 130 second-year students at the School of Architecture of Paris-Malaquais. I have not seen any of them since—except on Zoom.

Things moved fast the following week. Austria was, I believe, the first European country after Italy to shut down universities, on March 10. President Macron announced the closure of all French schools and universities on March 13. Throughout the week I still held regular classes at my home university in London, which in turn also shut down on March 13. But at that point the U.K. teaching term was almost over; we only had one more class to go for the entire academic year. That last class was canceled, and replaced with readings. Meanwhile, the French spring term had only just started. It continued, online, and it was successfully, I think, concluded before the start of the French summer holidays in July, only a couple of weeks behind schedule. In the process, I had to learn the art and science of online teaching, which I did by trial and error, like everyone else.

My task was relatively easy, as I only had to reinvent a cours magistral made of weekly ex cathedra lectures in a big lecture hall, with minimum student interaction; most of the time, that would have been just me speaking from a podium. It turned out that the best online replacement for that kind of delivery consisted of recorded videos of around 40 minutes each, posted shortly before the scheduled time for each lecture, then kept online indefinitely. Each week I also organized a brief “live” session of questions and answers, at the end of the regular scheduled time for each class. That session was attended by around one third of the cohort; it could have been recorded, for the benefit of those absent, but in most cases it wasn’t. A team of students also drafted and posted a weekly synopsis for each class, and at the start I also posted voice-only recordings of my talks, which eventually proved unnecessary: Most students could easily download or stream 60-80 Mbyte MP4 videos, often from their phones, through ubiquitous 3G or 4G cellular networks. The end-of-term exam was more or less the same as every year—a few questions bearing directly on topics discussed in some of my classes—and in a similar format: It wasn’t taken in school, evidently, but at home—or on park benches, for all I know, after the end of the French lockdown.

I was surprised by the pertinence, precision, and intelligence of most papers I graded: The best feedback I ever had from that class. I then realized that most students perused and parsed each video at will and at length; stopping and rewinding, listening to some crucial passages more than once, double-checking sources, names, dates, facts, and more; often researching additional references. This was of course always meant to happen, and it did—occasionally, in the past, when classes were taught in the flesh, in a brick-and-mortar setting. There may be many reasons for cramming scores of students into noisy, badly ventilated, often overheated lecture halls for hours on end, but enhancing the level of student attention during class is seldom one of them.

Other online formats I tried were less successful. In my experience, online teaching can perform better than on-site classes in the case of simple, monodirectional (one-to-many), asymmetric communication. That’s, technically, broadcasting, regardless of the technology we use—it may be a microphone in a lecture hall, radio, or streaming video: It’s still one person speaking to a crowd that can listen, or watch, but cannot speak back. Online video still works well in the case of one-to-one bidirectional communication (as in a tutorial, for example), likely because telephones have been working that way for a long time and we got used to that. Online tools can be problematic, in my view, when we need seamless many-to-many communications (as in a seminar, or business meeting), precisely because the interactivity they provide is not yet quite seamless. Perhaps the technology will get better over time and perhaps we shall get used to it, in the same way as we learned to speak on the phone to a person we don’t see. All in all, my guess is that when I can go back to school to restart teaching in the good old way—something I am looking forward to as much as everyone else—I shall keep some of my teaching online, because I now have evidence that some content is better taught that way.

But of course I teach history and theory, and words and images are the primary, if not the only, tool of my work. Design schools also have labs and, crucially, studios. More and more material tests and experiments are now carried out in computational simulations, yet labs and fabrication workshops in particular will always be based on physical manipulation and will require human teamwork in a shared physical space. Regardless, design schools are often seen today as little more than studios with something else attached, and as Phil Bernstein pointed out in his recent op-ed, studio culture tends to be alien or hostile to online teaching. The reasons for that hostility will be self-evident to anyone having seen a design studio at work in any school of architecture anywhere in the world. All the same, should we assume that studio teaching must be forever physical, for no other reason that studio education has been mostly physical to this day? Things do change, sometimes—whether out of choice or out of necessity.

Many tend to assume that human communication, which is the basis of education, requires bodily presence and physical proximity, but that is patently wrong. When we read a book we hear the voice of someone whose body we cannot see—and we may never see; we learn by listening to the speaker’s voice, recorded by means of alphabetical signs; we don’t learn by watching, or touching, the speaker’s body. And what students produce in studios, similarly to what designers produce in professional offices, are architectural notations: drawings, mostly. Since architecture became an art of drawing in the Renaissance, and to this day, architects have been making drawings of buildings, not physical buildings.

Most architectural drawings now are electronic drawings—they are digitally born and bred—so what’s wrong with showing and reviewing them all on computer screens from day one? A screen is a screen, never mind if we all look at the same screen while sitting in the same room, or if we look at the same electronic notations on different screens many miles apart. And I, for one, shall not lament the demise of the physical model, in my view one of the most pernicious trappings of the studio mystique, a perverse tool of notational distortion, which obliges us to see a building from the vantage point of a bird, or of an ant; a postmodern fetish, often worshipped and critiqued as a self-standing objet d’art, regardless of the building it should represent. In short, when all this is taken into account, I would suggest that, by and large, we can learn design without any need to dance in circles holding hands at the end of each studio session (I have actually seen that, in a school I shall not mention). A design studio is not a kindergarten, nor a scout camp.

Of course, underpinning our craving for physical proximity and our prejudice in favor of education in the flesh is an atavistic belief, which appears to be more potent in the West than in other cultures, and which Christianity inherited from various Mediterranean pagan traditions: the notion that physical propinquity and bodily contact may be endowed with some social, emotional, spiritual, or even supernatural powers—see for example the rituals of handshaking, still popular in the West, but often seen elsewhere as odd, intrusive, and unhygienic. To make matters worse, Christian phenomenologists, always overrepresented in the design professions, have merged some of these considerations with their aversion to all technology, and to communication technologies in particular: In this worldview, all media with the potential to replace the embodied dialogue between two living voices (vivae voces) are sinful—starting with alphabetic writing.

As many educators having spent time online in the course of the past weeks may have noticed, hardly a Zoom session (a crit, a board of examiners, an academic council, you name it) can take place these days without someone invoking the oracular pronunciations of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who recently claimed that educators who accept to teach online today are the equivalent of the Italian academics who, in order to keep their jobs, swore allegiance to the Fascist regime in 1931. Whoever uses the Internet today would therefore be complicit in the rise of the authoritarian state of the imminent future, promoted by international capitalism and predicated on what Agamben calls the “dictatorship of telematics,” by dint of the Trojan horse of the “the so-called pandemic […] used as a pretext for the increasingly pervasive diffusion of digital technologies.” Agamben’s piece itself was posted online, yet Agamben’s recommendation is to revert to teaching in the flesh, viva voce, and right away, regardless of the consequences.

Agamben (also noted for his flamboyant impersonation of Saint Philip Apostle in Pasolini’s 1964 movie The Gospel According to St Matthew) is known in Italy for having claimed that the “so-called pandemic” is in fact a normal flu, and that the number of coronavirus deaths has been inflated by state-controlled media to terrorize people into submission (submission to the state, and submission to the internet). Italians, who at the time of Agamben’s sorties were seeing corpses piling up in front of overflowing morgues (and they have counted 35,000 coronavirus victims to date), simply dismissed Agamben’s rants as the hallucinations of a madman, or worse. But translated into English, Agamben’s pleas against online teaching soon found an enthusiastic global audience; some of Donald Trump’s recent tirades for the reopening of schools, and against online teaching, evoke Agamben’s arguments almost to the letter (even though we may assume that nobody in the US President’s inner circle ever even heard the name of the Italian luminary).

Online teaching, which has been technically possible for more than 30 years now, was never popular with the activist left nor with the populist right, for a number of mostly ideological reasons. These ideological positions are even stronger now, to the detriment of plain factual considerations: First of all, that during a pandemic online teaching saves lives, and no one starts a career in education with the purpose of killing students and staff; people with homicidal vocations tend to choose other professions. Second, the online tools we are honing now, due to the pandemic, will still serve us when the pandemic is over. Seen in a larger context, as part of the general panoply of teaching instruments, formats, and methods, they have the potential to change higher education forever, making it better, cheaper, more environmentally sustainable, and more accessible to more people.