This semester, a very generous classroom coordinator scheduled me (intentionally) to teach all my morning classes in one room and all my afternoon classes in another. So I have five classes this semester, but only two classrooms, and no hurry to get between them. I’m quite thankful for it. But it also gives me a fair bit of down time in each room to analyze the room itself between classes.
Architecture and design, of course, encodes cultural assumptions about use, value, and power relationships. Classrooms are no exceptions. And that’s why I enjoy analyzing the rooms I teach in. And this isn’t an idle experiment. Analyzing classrooms helps us understand how the spaces we work in affect our pedagogies and our relationships with our students.
Like many people, I’m in a classroom for the first time since March 2020. It feels a bit weird. So of course I’m noticing things.
The classrooms I teach in the building that houses my department haven’t changed. They’re still poorly ventilated, overcrowded spaces with actual chalkboards. That’s pretty normal for English departments. One of the reasons I’m a flexible teacher is because I’m used to having to design lessons for classrooms with nothing more than a chalkboard ranging to classrooms with all the smart tech.
But my other classes are in the business school’s building, and analyzing business school building rooms is always a treat. And they’ve made some changes since 2020.
This is the teacher’s station.
Something my students and I have been discussing is the amusing design choice to have every room in this building have an accent wall, but that wall is a different color in each room. Seriously, the room next to this is teal; the one down the hall is dark blue. Red? Well, ok, that goes with the school colors, which would seem to explain the design choice, but the other rooms make it clear that it’s just for this room, so it’s not a school spirit thing.
I suspect the color choice has something to do with the fact that each accent wall also carries the logo of a local business. It’s a business school building, so the advertising makes some sense. We would expect to see capitalism encroaching into the classroom. I have to wonder how much such advertising costs.
Like most classrooms, the desks are in rows that face a front space for the teacher. The usual assumption that learning happens when students are in a submissive sitting position, quietly listening to an instructor placed in a stage space to perform and declaim is present here.
What fascinates me about this room, though, is the teacher’s station off to the side at the front. This is present in the other classroom, the one with the chalkboard, as well, but not as pronounced because the room is narrower. In this case, the white board and the projection screen are several feet away from the teacher’s station, making it impossible to operate the teacher’s station in any way while also interacting with the boards/projections without the aid of some remote device, such as a laser pointer.
The result is I do a lot of hurrying back and forth, honestly. But this is also not really the way that the classroom suggests it wants to be used.
Notice the plexiglass shield. This is clearly intended as a hygienic improvement in response to Covid-19. But it’s functionally useless for my teaching style, which is very mobile. I am constantly floating through the room, moving around the front when working with the boards, and so forth. I will not stay behind that shield.
But let’s look at what all the design of that station is suggesting the role of the instructor actually is in the classroom. It’s not surprising in a business school that it assumes instructors are presenting slides. But this one is pushing the instructor into an even more marginalized and removed space, and I’m not talking about the plexiglass shield (which is just one element suggesting this intended use).
It’s important to note that the desk in the image does not have any way to adjust the height. Aside from the accessibility issues of not being able to adjust the height (so that, say, an instructor in a powered wheelchair might struggle to use the station), this means that the station is intended to be used while sitting. That is, the instructor is encouraged to be immobile in the classroom.
It’s evident that this teaching station expects the instructor to sit at the desk and operate the media tools. This puts the instructor in a corner, while the student desks are oriented to the screen in the center. The instructor becomes a mere presenter or a perhaps a projectionist. That is the only way the plexiglass shield makes sense, and the rest of the space encourages it.
This renders the instructor a little like the Wizard of Oz, tucked away while students are intended to look at the spectacle they create apart from themselves.
Which leads me to another question: If we see the role of instructors as mere presenters of digital content, able to be physically remote from the content while teaching with it, why are we even pushing for in-person classes? If I am not floating among my students, using the physical space to embody my lessons, why am I in the classroom at all? If I can sit in a corner and control a computer to accomplish my teaching (which is certainly possible!), wouldn’t I be better off on Zoom anyway?