A Room and a View

Terry Caesar considers the true significance of the physical spaces where professors teach.
June 17, 2005

I used to have a professor who liked to "privilege" what he termed "the scene of reading." Special consideration was due for any portion of a novel that depicted a character reading. Just so, I would like to privilege the scene of teaching. Any material place we teach is worth considering, even the most mundane generic classroom, featuring, at minimum, vaguely green concrete walls, unemphatically beige metal chairs, and a hopelessly colorless table. An old wooden lectern and a tiny wall clock are both optional. Windows of any sort become a bonus.
How to begin to consider this scene? It is difficult to imagine a call for papers consisting of a book-length collection of essays to be entitled "Rooms In Which I Have Taught." Intellectually, we may be rich in our professorial occasions. Materially, though, we are poor. The first thing to say about the rooms in which most of us teach, most of the time, could well be the last thing: they are all stupefyingly uninteresting, boring and even ugly.

But there remains at least one question: is this somehow intentional?
Granted, only the richest colleges and universities can afford to customize classrooms, although even so, some exciting, innovative plan for a teaching space could not compare with the status of a new cultural center or the wonder of the latest in recreational edifice. Nevertheless, why couldn't classroom walls at least be, say, red? Has such a color traditionally been construed to tempt us away from the realm of ideas?

Has our very ability to know been deemed to be at risk if we sat in comfortable armchairs?

I once read an essay about the 60s where the author wound up regretting his decision to hold graduate classes in his home. Students were distracted by casual surroundings, drank too much, and talked about everything but the subject at hand. The consequences were enough to revalue the commonplace material circumstances of the classroom. Its austerity seemed to make such things as intellectual content or sustained focus possible in the first place. There was, it seemed, no study worth the name not based on denial, beginning with hard seats.
Reading this essay, I thought about how hapless were those times in my own experience when I decided to bid my freshman composition students outside, so that sun-kissed sights and sounds might "stimulate" their writing. Alas, many just fell asleep on the grass. And what about, say, the semester I met at a selection of area restaurants with a grad student for a special independent study course? We did talk about the week's reading. But we also got catsup on our books as well as impatient looks from the waitress.

At a more interiorized extreme, what about lecture halls? The only experience I've had with them has been in foreign countries. In Egypt, I gave a short series of lectures in an auditorium to an audience upwards of 500. I felt like a character in a play, striding back and forth on stage, here with a suddenly jabbing finger, there with a dramatic stop and lowered voice. It felt too much like performing to be teaching and certainly too much like entertainment to be education. That is, it felt like fun. Could the main lesson of the narrow, dim, generic classroom be that higher education -- whatever else -- is not designed to be fun?

Certainly the bigger, not to say, vaster, the room, the more interiority is transformed into exteriority, thereby establishing the class as (in part anyway) a visual spectacle. Of course,  who among us has not been enthralled simply by the sight of a lone speaker -- way up front under a ceiling of lights or on the floor down below tiered rows of seats -- who proceeds to mesmerize an audience of hundreds? Trouble is, how many such times can this happen, especially if scheduled three times a week?  
Usually, it seems to me, a lecture hall just swallows us up. A few years ago in Japan, I had at my disposal for 91 students one of the most beautiful, brand-new, cream-colored classrooms I've ever seen, including a console featuring the latest technology. In theory, the touch of a button would command, say, the movie screen to unfold at the same time the window blinds would fall. But each time I pressed that button it was the wrong one. The students were deliciously amused as the blinds fell . . .  but the screen rose -- or else the video was out-of-focus, or the sound intermittent, or worse.

How I hoped to orchestrate the class! Instead, the room orchestrated me, and the technology orchestrated the room. Are lecture halls more vulnerable to the lure of technology, the better (we hope) to try to reclaim some of the intellectual focus inevitably lost when there is too much space? It does appear so. I remember meeting a man when I began teaching who told me that you can stay in intimate touch with a surprisingly large number of students in a single course, up to 50; after 50, he said, it's all theater. My own subsequent experience has acted to confirm this. Nothing necessarily wrong with theater. (And of course the smallest classroom can become a stage.) But to me, the happiest times are when the room just ceases to matter; the larger the room, the more it matters -- and is matter.

Seminar rooms, although they vary in size, constitute just about the most constricted teaching space of all. In the smallest ones, you have to keep twisting a chair just to secure enough space to move your elbows or open your own text; everybody is crowded around a long table, and there's little else in the room, except perhaps a coffee pot brewing off to one side. More is the miracle, then, when this space falls away like a veil at some moment after class begins, and the scene of teaching is revealed to be a pure idea. The color of the walls? Who notices?

At its most intense -- no intensity like that of a seminar room -- the room basks in the radiance of its idea. And what exactly is this idea? It seems to me the following: that learning can utterly transfigure the material circumstances of the classroom. Grant only that this is easier to accomplish in some rooms than in others.
In theory, though, any room can become a classroom, from one as intimate as a don's book-lined study to one as expansive as a public lecture hall with people falling off the window sills. In turn, any scene of teaching can become finally immaterial. Circumstances fall away. Could this be why what I have been terming the generic classroom is in fact so unstimulating and dreary? It is as if its construction is designed to give the moment of immateriality a strong start. Too bad, however, that learning, unlike buildings, cannot be constructed.

Once an ESL teacher in Japan told me the following story. It was late afternoon in an average-size classroom of an Osaka university. The walls were dirty, the chairs were scattered, the students were half asleep. The teacher told them to get up, took them to a window, and bid them consider the dun-colored concrete vastness of the Kansai area.
"Look at that," she declaimed. "Hundreds of thousands of people and every one speaking Japanese. It's an ocean. And here we are in our little boat of English." She paused, and cupped her hand for dramatic effect. "Don't let it sink."
Fortunately this particular room did have a window. Learning always acts in some conjunction with its material circumstances. How can it not? But the view the teacher demonstrated this day was finally only available to her students as an imaginative one, where the classroom was transformed into an idea. Not only did the particular subject -- English-- become at once something frail and precious. Even more, I believe, the scene of teaching itself partook of the same qualities. Thus, all that transpired to defeat this scene -- including even the window of the classroom. with its disclosure of vast energies outside -- could be converted, even if just for a moment, into a greater vision of learning.
A collection of essays entitled "Rooms In Which I Have Taught"? Maybe not such a bad idea after all,  provided that each room is seen with the addition of some sort of view. Of what? Of how the room opened out and even lifted away.


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