about risd, as an educational institution, that limits that ability? I can point to very specific professors at risd, who I feel do instill a sense of agency in their students—whether instilling is the right word or not—encouraging agency, opening space for agency, I don’t know quite what the language is yet. But there are very few professors that can do that. We have this discourse continuum that we do at Clark that runs the gamut from what we call orwellian discourse through polemic, pronouncement, debate, discussion and dialogue. The architecture students in our class took one look at the continuum and they just went, “Oh yeah, our professors? Orwellian.” Emily and I were sort of like, “What? Wait a minute, take another look at that. Orwellian is really suggesting that someone is manipulating you or lying.” And they were like, “Yeah.” I was like, “You think your professors manipulate you?” And they were like, “Yeah, absolutely.” But knowing that, they seemed to have very little sense of agency in what they could do about it. So when three of the students (from our class) in the architecture department told us that they had proposed a collaborative, community-based thesis at the beginning of the year—and they’re very smart, so I have to believe that their proposal was probably a good one—they were rejected and simply moved on to something else. Emily and I just sort of looked at them and went, “So your professors said no, and what did you do?”
ESW: Did you do anything? Like, that was it? I think we may have been told “no,” but we just said, whatever! (laughs) JA: We just kept going! I mean what were they going to do? You know? SS: Well they’re alienated, among other things; they’re alienated from the institution. Because if they weren’t, they would say, “Why? Why can’t we do this?” They would feel, as you say, agency within the institution. But they’re alienated from it, and they’ve learned alienation—I mean privilege and alienation are old friends really, and I haven’t thought this completely through, but I think part of the mechanism is that you don’t want to let go of your privilege and you know that the system fundamentally serves you. JA: That’s very good. SS: So you accept alienation and you make judgments. That’s different from saying, “I’m as much a part of and in control of the future of this institution as you are, as you are, as the dean is… I was out at the Exploratorium at a conference there, and they talked—I think there’s a gap between their talk and their action, in a way—but they talked about the assumption of what they called “radical participation,” in people that come to the Exploratorium. I liked the term. JA: Yeah, what does that mean? SS: I’m not sure what it means in that context—there are questions about all that for me, but I like the term. And I struggle— I’m very interested in what you’re doing, because I struggle with this exact problem. How do you get a learner, a young person,
to see themselves as a learner and to take responsibility for learning. My feeling is that people—I think a lot in terms of high schools though it can be played out anywhere—if you come into the learning environment and you perhaps don’t feel you have the capacity, you’re cooked. And since most kids, from not supportive elementary schools are coming into high school thinking they don’t have the capacity, what are they doing with their time? The next piece is, do you feel that you have responsibility—that you have and take responsibility for your own learning. If you don’t, you can think, “Oh well I’m smart enough to do this, but it’s up to her to teach me this, or it’s up to…” So those are linked. And the third one, I can’t remember. Lets see if I can. (laughs) Oh! Whoa, I haven’t thought about this stuff for a long time. I was trying to get money to do a project about these questions, and I couldn’t get it, so I kinda had to let it go. It still remains important and it’s really really interesting the one I couldn’t remember… So capacity, responsibility, and a vision of your future. That you have a future. And I think that what your students are doing is saying, “I have a future, it’s part of what privilege gives me, but you’re a roadblock to me. You rejected our proposal, I’m going to make my future somewhere else.” It’s not that they don’t think they have a future. So back to radical participation. Like I have students in my class, who when something’s happening that’s not the conversation they wanted to have, they’ll just opt out. They’re sitting there, but they’ll zone. And I’m like, well, okay… So I was thinking the other day about what does radical participation mean in the context of my teaching? I never zone out for
one minute! I don’t think I’ve zoned out for more than seven seconds when I’m teaching. Why would they assume—and they assume it because they accept it—that they’re not taking responsibility. And they’re paying for this! Or they’re going to pay for it or somebody’s paying for it. So if somebody else is paying, that’s an interesting dynamic. But why would you waste your own time? SS: Okay we have to wrap up, but I’m totally interested in what you’re doing. It sounds to me like the stuff about the both the physical, visual space and the space for dialogue stuff that you’re doing—I’m really curious about what you’re finding. And the idea that two designers are thinking about education in this way. You know these guys at Reggio, they live and breathe for these physical spaces and what you see and how you—I mean their theory of mind is so connected to the senses, which from studying young children, of course, is all about how we take in knowledge through all of our senses. There’s so much to talk about. ESW: There is!