This spring, I’m teaching a course that is based on Montgomery Hall which one of the oldest buildings on campus and slated for demolition this year. I have 10 students in the 1-credit course which does not have a syllabus, does not have pre-defined learning outcomes, and does not map clearly onto any particular curriculum or program.
In part, the class is inspired in part by David Staley’s Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Higher Education (2019). In his book, he proposes a future university based around the open-ended experience of play. To put this into practice, I let the students loose in Montgomery Hall and let them explore the building without any preconceived ideas of what they were to see, encounter, do, or understand. To be fair, I did frame this with a short bibliography, but I also did not require the students to read or digest this bibliography in any kind of rigorous way.
The results of our first day in the building were pretty amazing. When I met with the students the week before in a classroom, the atmosphere was quiet and the students looked to me to do or say something. When we met in the building, however, the students quickly dispersed and talked eagerly and boisterously among themselves was they explored the building. In fact, they seem almost uninterested in what I had to say and much more eager to discover things on their own. Another happy change that occurred during this open-ended encounter with Montgomery Hall is that students were much more willing to argue with me about what they’re seeing. It’s almost as if my authority dissipated once I stepped out from the front of the classroom. This was a very pleasant surprise!
Engagement is one thing, but getting that engagement to actually produce something that leads to learning is something else. At the end of the class on Thursday, I asked the students to send me a question that they had after exploring the building. These questions are really good and sharp. Not only do they reflect the varied interests of the group of students, but they also are almost all interpretative questions rather than just “factual” ones. In other words, after 90 minutes in the building, the students managed go beyond the simply questions of what it this or that and reach for the more difficult questions of “why” this or that.
Finally, the proof, of course, is in the pudding. Right now, we’re still at the stage of curiosity and wonder and this is great and the engagement is intoxicating. The next step is when things get real. We have to think about how to do some research that produced evidence for them to build arguments to answer their questions. This will likely mean trips to the archive, conversations with people across campus, and research into architecture, the university’s history, and the larger culture of higher education over time.
We also have to discuss how to present what we’ve learned this semester to a wider audience. Stay tuned!