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Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of The Cooper Union, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
by Nader Tehrani, Dean

REIMAGINING PEDAGOGY IN THE AGE OF COVID-19

Dear Members of the Student, Faculty, and Administrative body:

As we all see our way into Spring Break, please allow me to share an update on what promises to be an extraordinary, if not historic, turn of events in the coming months.

As you have all read in prior emails from President Laura Sparks, the spread of the COVID-19 virus will have a significant impact on the way in which we imagine our daily interactions for the remainder of the semester. During the Spring Break, I will ask each and every one of you to check in on your Cooper Union emails regularly. Since the situation remains fluid, it will prompt us to send out communications as needed; thus, I would like you to have the benefit of getting our messages as soon as possible.

In addition to that, I want this particular message to focus on the pedagogical mission ahead of us. Indeed, while this pandemic was not a planned part of our pedagogy, it is a mechanism that will test our resilience, focus and creativity to re-imagine our pedagogies and intellectual projects by way of a different medium. Much is still not known about the COVID-19 virus, but it has been recommended that everyone practice good ‘physical distancing’, remaining at least six feet away from others, washing one’s hands rigorously, avoiding public gatherings, and many of those daily practices that we generally rely on for the “studio experience”. I remind you, the studio is not merely a place of work, but for us it is a public space, a place of social gathering, exchange, dialogue and peer communication. As we transition these very social interactions to online platforms, this is a good moment to reckon with the idea that physical distancing brings even more emphasis on how we may bring social cohesion into a well-calibrated orchestration. If we cannot rely on the public realm to do that for us naturally, then we need to prompt it through good communication, care and daily messages. It is important for us to remain a community through this entire affair, and it will sometimes take added effort—but in my mind, well worth it!

As we navigate this new terrain, I would ask Academic Advisors and students to reach out to each other on an ad hoc basis, as necessary, to help with any questions, needs or additional support as issues arise. This is precisely what the mentorship program can do for us in such times.

I want to thank you all for your flexibility this past week in attending hasty workshops, generously provided by Professor Ben Aranda, to get us all oriented towards ZOOM, TEAMS, and MEWE platforms. Those were introductions, and I trust that anyone who needs further tutoring can rely on studio professors to expand on their technical abilities. Cooper Union’s IT division will also continue to support us, as they are working around the clock to help us all with our individual needs. What remains to be determined is how we translate the many lacunae in our intended pedagogies into the online medium; that is what I want you to consider throughout this process, not through lament, but rather as a positive prompt, challenge and a project of inventiveness.

I have just spoken to the Deans of Architecture at Cornell, Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Columbia. They are all going through many of the same questions with which we are confronted. Thus, we are not alone, and all of them are as determined as we are to create opportunities for speculation during this passage of time. What is different about our situation remains important to reckon with, and a vital part of our Cooper culture. We have team-taught for many years, and that stands to amplify how we discuss things online, supporting each other in dialogue and across time zones. We are a small school, so even when a student is in another time zone, we stand to be able to communicate with them on an alternative time-slot to be able to include them in the ongoing exercises of the day. We are not afraid of testing new models, speculating and embracing experiments: this particular experiment is not one of choice maybe, but certainly one to absorb as part of our culture.

I would like you all to consider a few salient aspects about the transition we are about to undertake. Since the online platforms will impact the way we work, the spring break might be a good moment to dialogue over how it stands to change the syllabi as conceived:

  • How do we communicate with each other, verbally and visually in tandem?
  • What is the right scale of a conversation? How many students are part of an online conversation? How do we revolve students so they can benefit from a wider array of projects and questions?
  • What are the right protocols for online interaction and how does online etiquette stand to change the way we speak to each other?
  • How is the online format a platform that allows a faculty member or student to break down the elements of a presentation? To pedagogically reveal its parts, to demonstrate its techniques, to use presentations as opportunities for presenting the narrative of a process, not just an artifact.

In short, I would like us to think about how we do not merely accommodate the difficulties of a new medium, but instead radicalize its use and opportunities.

Invariably, many of our pedagogies address the very redemptive qualities of the public realm, the importance of civic engagement, and the role of the social in architecture. How do we maintain those values while knowing that we will need to deploy many other tools, beyond architecture and urbanism, to address the very same questions?

The world is ironically experiencing a radical decrease in pollution and energy waste, the result of COVID-19 and a significant reduction in flights and vehicular travel, to name a few. How can we learn from this extended event about how we can rethink the way we live in face of larger questions about climate change and our daily consumption of energy? How to do stand to identify those irreducible aspects of what we achieve in a more critical light?

As part of this effort, I will ask all faculty to reconsider the expectations of their courses, recalibrating homework, rethinking dialogue, and reimagining creativity in the event that we do not have access to the shop and AACE lab on the 4th floor, nor the Computer Lab on the 7th floor. Physical models of a certain size may become challenges to achieve, but paper models remain inexpensive and something that anyone, in any location can build with very limited resources. How do we rethink scale and exploration under these new constraints? This stands to be a new design problem in itself.

I imagine that we will all need assistance to navigate technical issues. We should remain vigilant to our peers and help them along the way, but also be reminded that IT at Cooper has been working on overtime to help address some of these issues in advance. Thus, continue to contact IT support with questions. They are here to help.

As part of this transition, I will also remind students and faculty alike, that I am available to help on all aspects of the various courses they are confronting. My cell phone is 617-233-3632. I am a text message away, and I tend to respond at odd hours of the day and night. The next two months will be no different, except that I will be anticipating more traffic than usual. Hayley has been an exceptional partner in these past months, and I will continue to copy her on the many issues that we stand to confront together. Monica Shapiro and Robyn Fitzsimmons are our backbone, and they will continue to hold us together from an administrative perspective.

I want to use our inevitable physical remoteness as an excuse to bring us together like we have never had the opportunity before, indeed to communicate better; this is a time to engage the screen. Some will do it through twitter, Instagram and Facebook, others will do it through rhino, grasshopper and illustrator. Others will continue to confront pencil, charcoal and paint. And of course, through Skype, ZOOM, and TEAMS. I would like all of this to come together in a new format of communication that shares with clarity, seduction and persuasiveness. Let’s communicate daily and weekly, if only because we do not know with any precision what the long term has in store for us. What we do know is that the necessary separation that has been our key counsel may also stand to be the very instrument that brings us together before long. So, let us become experts at the very medium that will bring our creativity to another level!

Best,
Nader Tehrani

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