Intervention 0: Following an evening social event, the couches were already arranged in a living room style, facing the television. The long couch acted as a room divider and was backed by a long fold-out table with a few chairs near to the entrance. I wondered what class would be like in an informal living room setting and contemplated moving the couches to face the blank wall with the white board rather than the television set. I was given permission from the directors to leave the setup for the Wednesday class, but Tony Hall disagreed and removed the tables completely, fixing the sturdy blue chairs in the usual large circle. Two program students later mentioned that the couch setting would have been too comfortable anyway and they wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on the lecture. This prompted the question: What is more important, comfort or effectiveness? Should a classroom have a balance of both? Is this factor decided by the user or the environment?
[The image above was made in Illustrator. It took the time and patience of my friend Nathaniel, a Trinidadian graphic design student, to teach me how to use the program to this extent. I will also be experiementing in photoshop and learning the uses of Picasa to complete this project.]
Intervention 1: So for the next session, I put the tables together by long sides to form a square in the typical college “round table” discussion style. This would allow us a surface to write on, equal view of the professor and the white board, and the ability to communicate more effectively with each other. There are plenty of windows to light the setting and enough table space and chairs to accommodate the group. It look much more like classrooms we were used to at home and I thought it would lead to more intellectual and intimate discussion. The couch was turned away from the classroom to act as a room divider again, but made it seem like the entrance came into a living room.
What actually happened during the class struck as powerful and unusual.
This class was the first time Tony Hall used the physicality of the classroom layout to transition into a topic for class discussion, which happened to be about the oppressed, the oppressor, emancipation from mental slavery, and cultural mind sets. In other words, this more institutional setting changed Tony’s class lesson approach to one more strained, trapped, and defensive. It was as if the arrangement was equivalent to some type of human bondage- which I was definitely not expecting. He noted that the setting was good for a university class where debate is preferred, but not for his course in Trinidad, where the object is creativity rather than attacking ideas and defending mindset positions… or at least, that’s what I understood from the high-powered class. I’ve never seen participants become so vulnerable or hear voices rise in dual argument or felt such sarcasm tension the conversation. I never knew a table arrangement could do that to such a group of intellectuals and learners. I ended up staying very objective from the arguments, simply taking in the mood of the moment and questioning my role in the tension. Who was to blame for the outcome? Why did this setting impact the student-professor relationship so strongly?
Intervention 2: The following week I thought it best to find a hybrid of the two configurations, to give equal view to each other and keep the focus on the professor. I did not like how the “college setting” affected the mindsets of everyone in the class and I suppose it makes sense why the clearly institutional setting was unsuccessful in our multi-use house anyway. The classroom cannot be informal or too serious. So the tables took on an “L” shape facing the blank wall. I pushed the long couch closer to the entrance to give more space for movement, but kept it as a room divider, backing the class. The smallest couch (one person) joined the blank wall as a focal point and the large table for the professor was replaced with the smaller one from the kitchen to prop the white board against, but not take up as much space. Can I create a classroom to please everyone?
When Tony Hall arrived, he looked at the formation and unassembled the tables himself. Of course, I quickly snatched up my notebook and began to ask him questions about this decision. “What is wrong with this formation?” “Why do tables make you feel trapped or constrained in the space?” “Why did the ‘college-style arrangement’ change your lecture approach?” His response was not what I expected to hear and yet…I was not surprised either. He explained that the configuration changes the lesson because of how people are forced to be in a space. Having the tables in a square encourages opinionated conversation and people play minds games because o vulnerability. In class, students are supposed to experience and consider thought while in the space, not attack me for the statements I am suggesting. I would prefer not to talk at all. So the only way to create a different mindset this week is to completely change the setup because there are politics about the self we can’t even comprehend, especially not in an institutional setting. It was a lot to take in.
So when class began he sat in the small couch, palms down on the armrests, and takes a few minutes to gather his thoughts about what to do next. He asks us to take time to breathe and create “create space within the silence”. That was an interesting notion to contemplate. Then we suggested words and phrases which were inspired by our journeys in Trinidad. Words like “heritage,” “music,” “boundaries,” and “change.” Later we learned that the activity for the class session was to find a space within the house to create something… anything… related to or inspired by the words suggested before. (Given that the house is in a state of ‘remodeling,’ I was thrilled to see how people were going to use the space) Some students made posters, some created costumes for themselves from things found, Andrea taped off a doorway, posting phrases to answer the question “What would you do if the world was going to end tomorrow?” and I created a journey about learning throughout life by using dishes and found objects (locks, screws, money, chains, utensils, etc) along the countertop. Nikki made a paper blindfold with ear covers to continue on the notion of creating your own silence within the space. It then occurred to me how much deeper versatility of the space is to the objects in it. It’s not just about the tables and couches. It’s not just about the wall colors and fabric textures. It’s about individual connection between the all-encompassing idea of the ‘House’ itself and the generations of users.
How can I make this House timeless? How can I make this House a home for everyone and is it possible to do that? Where does “home” begin and end? Where does my part stop?