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Cecil (on teaching)


Being outside the loop is one thing. Being unaware that the loop exists puts me in a class by myself. So it isn’t surprising to learn in the last few weeks there is a proposal coming down the pike that will shift the nature of architectural education dramatically. I have almost literally seen the writing on the wall. Shades of Balshazzar.

For reasons that I fail to understand and that I may find equally difficult to accept, leaders in the profession have decided that graduation with an accredited degree in architecture should be equivalent to receiving a license. Whether the ARE (Architectural Registration Examination) will actually be administered by faculty or soon after graduation by state licensing agencies—and presuming that today’s test will remain essentially intact—I wonder what incentive there will be to teach anything beyond the knowledge required to pass the test. Given general trends in elementary and secondary education (“No child left behind”; Common Core, and their pedagogical kin), I doubt that there is a place at this table for me. Indeed, I’m far more likely to be waiting this new table, rather than dining at it.

For at least two decades, I’ve watched academe embrace the Business Model, which understands the student as consumer, faculty like myself as Sales Associates on the showroom floor (working on commission, no doubt), and administrators as the CEOs and upper management of Higher Ed, Inc. Indeed, I was thrown off the board of a local arts organization because I expressed reservations about the Business Model in cultural organizations. Fired by a board president, by the way, who was himself the Libertarian developer of a software startup company suckling at the teet of Socialism in a business incubator providing low rent and subsidized business services; precisely the sort of “creeping Socialism” that he had suspected me of harboring and whose benefit he would be loath to admit.

I wonder what Elliott would have made of all this.


Though he was primarily an administrator at NDSU, Cecil’s academic career had been a blend of teaching and management, and I’m of the opinion that he was exceptional at both.

In the coffee room, at the end of a long thin corridor in the shoebox we occupied in the E&A complex, Cecil and I often spoke about teaching—and a hundred other things. I knew only what I had learned about teaching techniques during the first five years at NDSU; trying to become an architect—silly as that idea may seem to me now—is very different from preparing to teach it. If I had known in 1963 what I knew in 1975, my world would have been a very different place.

I recall one afternoon when we attained some sort of consensus; a basic understanding of teaching as a fundamental, foundational activity. “Teaching,” Elliott said, “is essentially indistinguishable from vaudeville” because success at either depends upon only three things: you must 1) know the material; 2) read the audience; and 3) play to the back row. Knowledge is well and good, but its effective delivery depends largely on sensing the mood of the class (it changes from day to day and shifts even within a fifty-minute class period) and it’s probably the people in the back of the classroom who need your attention the most; indeed, reading their faces will tell you how the presentation is being received throughout the room. In the forty years since that conversation, I’ve continued to believe in its truth.

Whatever academic house of cards I inhabit, its foundation is strong. And its soundness grows from the experience of Cecil Elliott. We do stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.

On the initial question of this piece—that our programs in architecture and landscape or any academic discipline, for that matter, ought to be taught toward the test—I’m also convinced that CDE would be highly critical of a process that would seem to value training over education. Where, he might ask, is the place of critical thinking in all this? And when did we agree to prepare graduates for a profession, rather than equipping them to change it?


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