Hacking the Academy: On the Physical Space of Education

In Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities edited by Daniel J. Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt, interesting claims are made about the physical space of the educational institution. In “Dear Students,” Gideon Burton writes: “The campus for your education isn’t made principally of buildings and books; it’s made mostly of microchips and media. Any other school is a satellite now, subordinate to the main, digital campus where you reside and thrive.” Burton de-emphasizes the material classroom by labeling it “subordinate,” drawing attention instead to the way technology has created a seemingly limitless virtual place of learning, which we reside in long before entering college, and never escape post-graduation. In his justification of what he believes will be the timely demise of the resume, he goes on to claim that: “Cyberspace is already more real to you than the physical space of your college campus—and it is becoming so for your future employers.” By using this rhetoric, he continues to establish a structural hierarchy in which the digital clearly trumps the material world by being “more real” and thus, presumably, more valuable.

While I agree that cyberspace plays an increasing, and often beneficial, role in education, I find myself hostile to the idea that it could ever outweigh or replace the physical environment. I believe the material classroom, as well as the wider college campus, is still pivotal to the learning process – providing elements that get lost when translated into cyberspace. There is still something to be gained from interacting face-to-face with peers, professors, and material objects that cannot be replicated through online learning. I’m wondering why Burton feels the need to pit these two worlds against each other as opposed to allowing one to complement the other. I would not consider cyberspace “more real” than the physical space of a campus, nor would I try to claim that cyberspace is irrelevant to education. What I’d prefer would be to discover a more helpful way of linking the material and immaterial worlds that would allow students to envision the direct consequences their online activity has on the physical environment and vice versa.

In this line of thinking, I am seconding Michael Welsh in “From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able” who, instead of labeling the physical campus obsolete, suggests: “we need to start redesigning our learning environments to address, leverage, and harness the new media environment now permeating our classrooms.” It’s not that the material environment has become useless, or will soon be discarded, but that we are no longer utilizing it to its fullest potential. Welsh explains that “there are many structures working against us” and that “Our physical structures were built prior to an age of infinite information.” Considering the age of our educational institution’s architecture, it is no surprise that it could now use some updating. As technology changes our lifestyles, it also alters the ways we interact with our environments – especially those we have built ourselves. Thus, how we construct those environments also needs to change. The question that remains is how to do this. How do we best integrate technology and the digital world into our classrooms? Is there a way we can orient the physical space of a campus towards these goals? How would this alter the aesthetics of education?

One thought on “Hacking the Academy: On the Physical Space of Education

  1. Michael Druffel

    Hey Sarah,

    Your good post got me thinking. Today I worked in Columbia’s library. (Brief interpolation: I don’t know if anyone else has applied for the MarLi card, but it’s very convenient. Columbia’s library is way bigger than ours and has a very fast delivery service. It’s also closer to my place in Harlem. The library will often deliver offsite books w/in twenty-four hours! The MarLi application is very easy and seems to take about 5-6 business days to process. When I applied I didn’t use my GC email and had to send my GC email address as verification later in the process. So if you apply, use your GC account. End interpolation)

    Working in another library got me thinking about your question of architecture. I don’t have any answers, but I’d just like to think out loud about how the library experience differs in different schools. I worked in Columbia’s main library called Butler Library. It’s one of several on Columbia’s campus, and even that (the choice to have multiple buildings for libraries) changes things, I’m sure.

    In Butler there are two main areas where books could be, and, I guess where you could work. There are the stacks and the reading rooms. Butler library is shaped like a giant Lincoln Memorial (sans Lincoln statue) and the stacks are its heart. The stacks extend who knows how many floors and are ringed by layers of rectangular hallways that have multiple doors leading off to little reading rooms. When you look for a book you’ll be told that’s it’s housed in the stacks or the reading room.

    The stacks are your typical poorly lit, eerie rows of books. Usually the lights are off save Fire Marshal mandated emergency fluorescents. The main lights appear to be motion activated. The lack of light and the confusing nature of the library call number system (you know PR orPS is here, but then it somehow cuts to the other side of the room–after a while it seems so simple, but the first time you have no idea where your books is) make the stacks an uncomfortable place. While there are folding tables and chairs for reading, I can’t imagine anyone would want to sit at them.

    This got me thinking that in this case there is a definite trade off between environmental sustainability and comfort. The stacks are dark and the air seems poorly circulated, but I’m sure it takes little power to create such a space. Sure, their could be huge windows shining light into the stacks, but (if say we were to use huge sheets of glass as the sides of our building to steam light into the dingy stacks) then we would have to get rid of the little reading rooms that orbit the stacks, as they would take all the light.

    Perhaps it would be good to get rid of the reading rooms. Some of the more popular books are housed in the reading rooms. The books line the reading rooms and give them an old timey feel. The rooms are all packed with students. This is anecdotal, but they seemed to be involved in hard core studies, which was not always true of the undergrads who worked in my undergrad library, a Brutalist four story building with two curtain windows and “scholar studies” for honors students and visiting professors. My undergrad library was much more open, and I’d like to toss out a theory that because it was, there was more socializing and playing around. The small reading room puts everyone in close quarters. If you were to talk or listen to your headphones loudly, you could easily see the face of the person you were disturbing. The open space of Mudd (my undergrad bibliotheca) ate up noises and disturbances and allowed more collaboration in theory, which often meant more youtube in practice. It also allowed for hidden screens. The cramped reading room pretty easily displays whatever’s on the computer.

    This leads me to conclude that even if the internet is a major or even the main factor in our education, Sarah was right to still look at the physical structure. The privacy a building affords us determines how we use cyberspace. It also determines how we talk to others. I don’t have any prescriptions, but I’d just like to point out the way that an older form of library changes the social and digital space in different ways than my good old Brutalist wedding cake of a building changed the social space at my alma mater. And that’s not even considering the environmental factor!

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