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Things, a seminar

I invested the 1993-1994 academic year in graduate study at the University of Delaware. Others will have to weigh in on the value of that year for the course of Western Civilization. From my perspective, it was intimidating but fruitful.

As many of you will know, graduate programs are often on a two-year cycle, with some required courses appearing in the catalogue once in every four semesters. So there were offerings that I could only dream about. One of the courses I positively lusted for was titled “Things,” a seminar in material culture.

Imagine a once-weekly seminar with probably fewer than 12 or even 10 students. Between 2:00 and 5:00 Thursday afternoon, the instructor enters the room bearing a medium-sized cardboard box. The box is placed at the center of prying eyes–perhaps preying eyes–as an object is revealed. I imagine all this happening deliberately but without ceremony. Our prospect for the next three hours is to examine the object, perhaps silently, for several minutes, and then to begin a discussion. The instructor in such a graduate level seminar is a guide and facilitator (which is very difficult for me to be), an observer whose role is to provide balance while simultaneously expanding the limits of our thinking.

On the surface, the process is simple, straightforward. Answer these basic questions:

  • What task did the object perform? What did it do?
  • How was this tool an improvement over other, earlier ways of accomplishing that same task?
  • Why has this object disappeared from common usage? Is the task no longer necessary or is a better tool available?

It’s possible that the anticipation of such a course could be better than its experience. I doubt it.

In retropsect, I’ve approached the Agincourt Project this way, trying to understand the dynamics of architecture; of how buildngs are produced; why, for whom and what purpose? Every building, no matter its great- or humbleness, tells a story. Conversely, each engaging story I’ve read conjures an environment for its narrative, a setting for the living out of our lives. If Agincourt is successful at any level, it will be from the symbiosis of those two ideas.

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