Thoughts Out Of Season

In the past year I fell in love with prob­lems, which is to say, any trou­ble that you can define well enough to mean­ing­ful­ly address it. Teach­ing seems at the begin­ning to be an unfa­mil­iar place you’re ill-equipped to nego­ti­ate; late­ly it seems like I’ve lived in it enough to pick out the prob­lems in it, or at least to pick out the prob­lems I’d like to at least have a crack at.

Some prob­lems in teach­ing land­scape archi­tec­ture are gen­er­al at least through­out the Unit­ed States. First and fore­most is that the vast major­i­ty of stu­dents are not already in love with land­scape design. Some want to use it as means to an end, and oth­ers have gone with it through process of elim­i­na­tion. This would not be a prob­lem if they were sign­ing up to be podi­a­trists or some­thing. But being that this field is expen­sive to study, and not very lucra­tive or reli­able as a job, there is no point in doing it if you do not love doing it. Since you don’t want to waste anyone’s time or mon­ey, it becomes impor­tant to show stu­dents how they could love it. As a teacher, you may or may not have a usable mod­el on hand of how some­one else did the same for you. You might also, like me, be frus­trat­ed to find that what felt like your favorite expe­ri­ences learn­ing have been the ones that seemed the least use­ful and the least per­ti­nent to address­ing prob­lems; and you might just­ly won­der if those are the ones to be repeated. 

With­out falling into the woe-is-land­scape pot­hole once again, it has to be men­tioned that after the past few years it gets hard­er to extol with a straight face the approach of land­scape archi­tec­ture as some mod­el means of pro­ceed­ing toward cli­mate jus­tice, or social equi­ty, or even civic beau­ty. It would be a waste to let irrel­e­vance stand as the judg­ment on the field – no one wants land­scape archi­tec­ture to stop try­ing to deliv­er on its largest aims. But as a prac­ti­cal mat­ter, it hurts to tell stu­dents, always – we haven’t done it yet, but we sure are trying. 

Oth­er prob­lems in teach­ing land­scape are more par­tic­u­lar to Colum­bus. We are lucky to teach a group of stu­dents with real pres­sure on their time and finances. And so we are end­less­ly press­ing our case against your shift at Rais­ing Cane’s, your broth­ers and sis­ters in the next room. We press our end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties of what the field could be when you want a job, and the job is close enough to your par­ents in Akron, and the man with a job wants you with CAD and Revit. And in our pro­gram, we have a scant three years and change to make that case. 

What is the case for love of land­scape, over and above hav­ing a place at the work­sta­tion? The first thing to turn to is the author­i­ty of designed land­scapes them­selves: not the slide, but the proof of one space unrolling after anoth­er. As a coastal inter­lop­er, I don’t find the lofty ref­er­ence points that I had at hand out­side Gund Hall. (But then, I’ve always had my doubts if there was any­thing worth­while about the Tan­ner Foun­tain.) There is one grand resource I do have, which is that my stu­dents love Ohio. I do not under­stand why my stu­dents love Ohio, but they do, and that is why they are here, by and large. So then, I always have the in of learn­ing why you love Ohio, or express­ing your love of Ohio, or con­tribut­ing to Ohio, of giv­ing Ohio and its peo­ple some­thing worth sharing.

Last, there are the prob­lems of teach­ing in the most gen­er­al sense. You under­stand that it could be a bet­ter mod­el for rela­tion­ships is soci­ety as a whole; that you have the chance to mod­el a dif­fer­ent way of relat­ing to one anoth­er. Your first impulse is to throw out author­i­ty alto­geth­er, only to find that no one seems to want that, not even you. So you look for skill­ful means of mod­el­ing a stance, or of seed­ing cul­ture; or maybe of har­mo­niz­ing the incli­na­tions that are already there, Fourier-style.

In our last fac­ul­ty meet­ing, as we talked about try­ing to put the pro­gram into a nor­mal bear­ing again, that same ques­tion of inher­ent moti­va­tion – or love for the sub­ject – came up. How do we spend less time hound­ing our stu­dents, less time telling them exact­ly what to look at, exact­ly what we want, exact­ly how to do it? How do we spread the world­view of the lucky few stu­dents who pour them­selves into what they are doing, who make com­mon cause with us? My col­league Tame­ka Baba made the wise sug­ges­tion that a miss­ing fac­tor for us was sim­ply in giv­ing stu­dents time and oppor­tu­ni­ty to just make things with their hands; that the embod­ied expe­ri­ence of craft was a nec­es­sary part of keep­ing that moti­va­tion afloat. 

We are lucky to have the pos­si­bil­i­ty of Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi-style flow close at hand, giv­en only that we don’t lose it in a bat­tery of quizzes, search­es, and tuto­ri­als, inter­filed with every­one else’s quizzes, search­es, and tuto­ri­als. I didn’t waste the time I put into read­ing tuto­ri­als on how to make Can­vas work bet­ter, I think – but what stays with me, instead, is the Black Moun­tain Col­lege show at the Wex, and how, beyond the snap­shots of stu­dents dig­ging and plant­i­ng, beyond the snap­shots of dirty stu­dents throw­ing clay, the art com­ing out seemed itself to always be point­ing you back to your­self and the world – that Ruth Asawa’s work, for exam­ple, does not swal­low you into her, but prompts you to take up her mod­el. There are three ques­tions being asked at once in the work: how do I, how do you, how do we?

(July 2022)