Director’s Corner (NeMLA Blog Post #21)

Greetings from Chicago!

The start of the fall semester is fast approaching and while I will miss the more relaxed schedule of my summer days, I am looking forward to meeting the incoming class of first year students at UIC.  I often forget how unique my experience is on campus as I look out at a group of students who are truly diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, gender, and religion.  These students teach me about what “America” is actually like and what it can be in the years to come even as I help teach them the literacy skills they will need to succeed.

Fall is always the busiest semester for me and this fall is no exception.  I’ll be teaching four sections of Academic Writing I, the first class in the First Year Writing sequence, with a total of 96 students.  This year I’ve decided to focus that class primarily on genre so that we can consider how the forms we choose to write in signal to our readers what we intend and shape the ways we use language.  I also plan to consider how our language choices as writers can shift the ways in which readers understand a genre.  Stay tuned as the semester progresses to hear more on how my writing classes are going.

In this month’s blog post, I’d like to consider the role of classroom design in the way that faculty teach.  For those of us who read Inside Higher Education or The Chronicle of Higher Education, articles on the death of the lecture and the need for more active forms of student learning are commonplace.  There has also been a resurgence lately in these publications of articles on the pros and cons of using technology in the classroom.  What gets missed in most of these articles, however, is any real discussion of the actual classroom.  How is it designed?

As with most form’s of infrastructure, the physical reality of the classroom is taken for granted.  A board, some desks, a few square feet of floor space sufficient to cover max enrollment.  Maybe a TV or projector system.  But if colleges and universities want to change the way they teach, there needs to be greater emphasis on the spatial design of the classroom.

Traditional lecture halls were designed with a sloping or step down tier system.  There also tends to be a curvature to these lecture halls.  Students eyes are thus directed downward towards a common focal point–a lectern, chalkboard, whiteboard, or projector screen.  Aside from the access issues these rooms present for physically disabled students, who might not want to sit all the way in the back or right up in the front, this traditional design sends a clear message about who is in charge and how knowledge gets distributed.  Some faculty might try to counter this trend by using the room in a unique way, but the design can’t help but frustrate that intent.  Group work and peer to peer discussion will always lead back to the focal point down below.

Rooms designed for a lecture/discussion format or a lab are a little better in terms of floor design.  The floor space is flat and holds a smaller number of students.  Some have fixed desks while others have movable desk and chair combos.  Often, however, the square footage of the room prohibits a great deal of movement of these desks.  It also takes considerable time and effort for faculty and students to rearrange desks for small group activities and discussion.  The path of least resistance, therefore, is to leave them pointed towards the lectern, chalkboard, whiteboard, or projector.  Student vision is distributed in a straight line but is still directed towards the professor.  Thus turning the classroom on most days into a smaller lecture hall with a flat floor.

Of the two existing options in classroom design, the spaces allocated for lecture/discussion classes have the greatest potential for adaptability.  They often, however, have too many students in them to make movement practicable on a regular basis.  One solution, certainly controversial, is to reduce the number of students placed in these classrooms or at the very least to revisit how max occupancy standards are arrived at.  On my campus, the Fire Marshall is the main factor determining this rather than pedagogical research.  There is definitely a need for more research on the optimal number of students that should be in a room for a certain type of teaching method to succeed.  This would give student advocates and faculty interested in changing to more active learning strategies some data to make their case for much needed changes.  Right now, much of the discussion on this topic remains anecdotal and (therefore) gets ignored by campus administrators.

For those campuses lucky enough to have the money to build new classroom facilities, the issue is a different one.  Should new lecture halls be built to create spaces for an evolved version of a venerable teaching method?  Or should all new class space follow the call for more active learning (sometimes called a flipped classroom)?  I’m of the opinion that new construction should contain spaces for all types of educational method currently applied  such as lecture and lecture/discussion.  New experimental spaces should also be constructed that allow for project based learning–small group activities and discussions.  These spaces should imagine such active learning as on-going and not simply one method of using a lecture/discussion space.

This fall one of my first year writing courses will be held in an experimental classroom.  It is a traditional lecture/discussion classroom that is being fitted with new desk and chair combos as well as touch screen monitors assigned to various clusters of desks.  These monitors are supposed to allow students to work in small groups on assigned activities easier as well as discuss readings.  The monitors are connected by a wireless system to the podium at the front of the room, which will allow me (should I choose to do so) to project what each group is working on up on the main projector screen for the entire class to see.  I’m sanguine about what I’ll be able to accomplish in this set up with that group of writing students.  As I get a better sense of what is different, I’ll let you know since I’m also teaching in three more traditionally designed lecture/discussion classrooms.

What I can say before I even get started in using the space, is that I’m afraid classroom designers (and some faculty) focus too much on technology (projectors and screens) as well as desks.  The real focus (in my opinion) should be on square footage, focal points, and lighting.  There should also be some consideration on storage for backpacks and winter coats as well as access to electrical outlets.  For the experimental classroom I’m teaching in, I believe that racks will be installed under the chairs.  We’ll see how that works.  The electrical outlet set up will remain the same.  Temperature of the room and wall color are also important.  And, just as important, the room should make disability access seamless.  Too often, the design of a classroom makes it feel like disabled students are being accommodated.  They should be allowed to feel like the other students attending the class.

I hope that you all enjoy the waning days of summer.

Until Next Time…

John Casey

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