Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Observe deeply and respond with meaning

Yesterday I participated in the third annual International Conference on People, Places, and Cities in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This was my third year at the conference, not such a big deal except that Sri Lanka is on the other side of the globe and in previous years I've had to carve out a week from teaching to travel the distance, participate in student workshops, and present at the conference. 

This year I presented on one of the online courses I teach at Boston University, a core undergraduate course on landscape analysis. There are several features of the course that go beyond the fact that it's online and designed for adult learners who are working to complete their BA. First, almost all of the coursework is designed by the students. Apart from some questions that I throw them, there are almost no assigned readings or lecture material. I designed the course this way because I want the students to define and deliver their own meaning to the course material. I could lecture on the California drought but coming to understand it in their own terms is, I think, more meaningful. 

Second, all of the deliverables for the course are submitted through social media. Twitter is our primary vehicle with slightly longer writing assignments done using Flickr. More than being strongly visually-based I use these media, especially twitter, to encourage spontaneity, brevity, and frequent communication. This in response to proprietary online platforms that BU uses that are clunky, ugly, anti-intuitive, difficult to upload into, and overall limiting. I want the openest and most frequent possible communication in class. In fact, the 50 students generated some 5000 tweets over the eight weeks of the course. My goals of very high engagement and high student enthusiasm were met and exceeded. 

Finally, and this is what I forgot to mention in my talk yesterday, I want all of my students to observe closely, deeply, their landscape. This includes their personal landscape and their learning landscape. 

Close observation affords us with insights we can work with. As we observe we gather data. We can operate with that data to do meaningful work. 

This week as I worked with students at Moratuwa University, which sponsored the People, Places, and Cities conference I evaluated work that was the result of various levels of observation. Mostly I gently prodded the students (and my colleagues) "how many site visits did you do?" From most of the work I saw, I suspect it wasn't many. Architects, planners, and designers are prone, like the rest of us, to throw their "good ideas" at a project with perhaps too little observation, too little supporting data. Potentially, in the wrong hands, this can affect people's lives adversely. 

All of my students, whether here in Colombo or back home in Boston, need to observe more closely, more thoroughly, and more deeply. Gather data that you pick up with your own eyes and ears. Feel and smell the data. Make the data meaningful to you. Then act with meaning. What you produce through your own deep experience will change the world for the better because you have worked to build it and you have felt it. 

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