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Political Correctness often isn’t

Several years ago fifth-year thesis projects at NDSU were distributed more or less evenly among all available faculty. This meant a spring semester commitment to five or six students, helping them design what were not yet known as “capstone” projects. For certain administrative peculiarities, the thesis still isn’t our departmental capstone. But that’s another story.

The matching of student and faculty was a mystical, even kabbalistic, process so complex and arcane that I seriously believe it would have defied the folks at ITS. Yes, it was that complex, though perhaps only due to its organic nature. Milt Yergens and I served on the Thesis Committee a couple of times, so I can only tell you how we did the divvy.

At that point students had submitted a thesis proposal, already screened for appropriateness and degree of difficulty; sounds like the Olympics, doesn’t it. So there was on file a summary statement of what the student wished to design, why s/he wished to undertake the project, and where it would be located, plus a summary of their previous design studio experience. Faculty had also posted a one-page statement of  interest and ability, in case students were unfamiliar with any of us; fat chance of that. So far, so good.

Students were then polled for their faculty preferences and asked to rank at least half the available staff on a scale of, say, one to six if there were a dozen of us. A ranking of one was the most highly preferred. While students undertook this triage, faculty reviewed student proposals and indicated one of three possibilities: yes, I would welcome the opportunity to work with this student/project; maybe, it will be OK to establish a relationship here; or, no, for unspecified reasons I would prefer to work with others. Milt and I were then left with two piles of opinion and charged to maximize the ensuing shot-gun weddings.

Very quickly the process evolved into an enormous spread sheet, with students across the top and faculty down one side; each cell represented the potential for relationship and was then filled with a letter and number taken from the expressions of preference. There were eighteen possiblities ranging from 1/Y (for a top-ranked and enthusiastic faculty member) to 6/N at the other end of the spectrum. There was also a nineteenth option: N/0 (which looks seductively like “no”) for the unranked faculty member who would rather die than deal with a particular student/project type. It was amazing how well these pairings made our job easier than you might have expected: The 1/Ys and N/0s took care of the extremes, so that it remained only to work toward the center and fill everyone’s dance card. Surprisingly few dipped “below” a 3/- or 4/M. And only twice did we have to contact anyone privately to negotiate a change in their original rankings (once for a student and once for a faculty member, who shall both remain nameless). It was a logical system that worked and seemed to satisfy all concerned.

I only mention this as a context for two thesis relationships from my own experience:

  • One was effectively a smallish office building, a project type and size unlikely to pass muster today without some complicating or enriching factor. The site was Denver, Colorado; the client, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, an organization currently located at Colorado Springs (not incidentally, the city ranked “Most Religious” in a recent Men’s Health survey). Why that student was willing to work with me remains a mystery, since James Dobson had already gone on record, saying that all Gay people should be rounded up and put in concentration camps as a matter of public health and safety. I never asked–it would have been politically incorrect to have done so–what the student felt about that policy statement from his very real pseudo-client. So, for a semester and a half, I dutifully met and (dare I say it?) collaborated on a project whose ersatz client wished to strip me of all civil rights and lock me up. Habeas corpus can get f**ked.
  • A second project involved rebuilding the Temple of Solomon on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Never mind that a significant number of Pentacostal Christians then, and a hugely increasing number today, believe that the Second Coming can occur only when Solomon’s Temple has been rebuilt and the spotless calf (which is currently being bred on a ranch somewhere in Kansas; no, I’m not kidding) is sacrificed there–at Jerusalem, not Kansas, I mean. Once again, I endured several months of daily inculcation with Christian eschatalogical claptrap that guarantees I will sauté in a friggin’ lake of fire for eternity. Apparently Armageddon can’t happen soon enough for some.

Why do I do this? I could have said “No” to either project. But there is something about the practice of architecture by my generation that says, simply and unequivocally: I am a professional and will to the best of my ability serve my client’s needs within the bounds of accepted ethical standards and personal behaviour. Albert Speer is the only architect who seems to have pushed the limits of this definition. [See Abraham Flexner‘s 1915 article on the complex sociological process of professionalization. I’ve got a copy here somewhere if you can’t find it.]

One of my colleagues Mark Barnhouse quotes Stanley Fish who says that “critical thinking” is redundant. Thinking is, by its very nature, critical. After forty years in the business, I fear that critical thinking is an endangered species, driven into hiding by the PC Police. There will be inevitable, perhaps ugly, consequences for my present shift in attitude, to the degree that I express it openly. Shall we find out together?


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