From the Academy to the Institution

Over the last two months I have been teaching more than ever and it has been rewarding to discover how much I love it and all that I learn. I think many teachers relegate themselves to one institution or another but there is a rich perspective to be gained teaching across a set of disparate conditions that so far this year has taken me from the Ivy League academy to the institution we know as the prison industrial complex.

At The Academy the January Term is an opportunity for students to learn something completely knew in a condensed format. I taught a class called Retrofitting Suburbia over two days with my Loeb colleague Lynn Richards. We were fortunate to have 14 engaged diverse and brilliant students that showed me how amazing it is to teach when you have students who throw themselves completely into the work with confidence. Many were there to understand how they could transform the suburban environments they grew up in and others were seeking to expand their already extensive knowledge on urbanism.

vanburenrichards 7805 Retrofitting Suburbia Harvard Class

Over two days we had support for the class from staff that helped us set up the room for power points and they brought in large tables for working in teams on large format drawings with trace, pens of every kind and scale rulers. Every student had a laptop so they could work with digital models that complimented their designs of Sandy Utah’s new town center.  Access to the internet and other graphics software allowed students to put together montaged perspectives and place presentations into drop box so we could project their work on the screens around the room. Overall the two days were dynamic and vibrant.  The students enjoyed themselves, learned a tremendous amount in a short period of time and gave great feedback on how Lynn and I could do it better next time. I was exhausted, pleased that it had gone well and surprised at how easy it all was.


As the spring semester began I woke up at 3:30 AM and traveled by train to Pennsylvania to teach in the second of two very different institutions. My co-teacher this time was Barb Toews a brilliant social scientist, restorative justice practitioner and PhD candidate at Bryn Mawr . Barb picked me up from the train station and drove us to the state penitentiary where we were teaching a class with 9 incarcerated men and 9 students from a local liberal arts school.  As we waited to be screened I was nervous but also excited.  Both sensations increased as we were escorted by a corrections officer through a series of locking doors until we finally reached the family waiting area where we would have our class.

Tucked in a corner we had plastic chairs and tables for children that we put together in a circle and waited for the men to come. No laptops, projectors or access to any digital media was allowed and any pens we brought had to be counted in and out. When the men arrived they were late due to a lock down earlier in the day. They  were mercifully unshackled but still in the standard brown uniform. Each man politely moved around the circle introducing themselves and eventually all sat down. As I looked around the room I noticed that while most of the outside students were white almost all the inside ones were black. The outside students were there to get a different classroom experience but the inside students had a range of reasons like wanting to get off the block, some never had an education and really wanted to learn but there were more who were actually interested in design.

Over two hours we had icebreaker exercises, learning  what we had in common and how we were different though architectural imagery.  It helped the class to start talking about design right from the start, planting seeds that everyone knows about design and how to design to meet their needs and to create safe way to talk about personal things.



As we worked in small groups a program staff official hissed in our ear telling us the students were too close and we hastily moved them apart.  When we came together again I introduced our first tool that would have them using a sketch book to begin thinking visually about the spaces they lived in. I asked if anyone had any exposure to design and most of the students raised their hands to say no. I tried to encourage them but as the class drew to a close I looked around the room noticing that the inside men and outside students ( 8 women and 1 man) seemed nervous, insecure , perhaps a little excited.

I on the other hand felt overwhelmed in way that I had not after two days teaching the J term class.  The race and class contrasts between the privileged and the under privileged was staggering. How could learning about design and restorative justice improve the lives of the students inside who had experienced so much trauma? How were we going to teach a class with such disparate levels of education around a topic they knew nothing about? How could we create a design studio atmosphere like the J term class at Harvard with  no access to the  digital and analogue tools that had facilitated such rapid learning over two days. Barb and I had been working on the curriculum and authentic architectural tools to adapt to the strict rules of the institution for over a year but I still wasn’t sure if it would work.  We also weren’t sure if the staff would change their minds about what we could use.

As we left the penitentiary I left somewhat energized since the class had gone well. I knew despite the challenges we would just have to do what we could with the tools and time we had.  One thing I was sure about is that I was going to learn more than I was teaching.