Ceding Control of the Syllabus: Notes on How I Struggle with Teaching, by Arijit Sen

October 7, 2020

I am weary of equity statements and reading lists, handed down from Ivy League schools, making their rounds in architecture departments across the country. Every day new lists appear in my mailbox with the promise of addressing issues of racism and inequity! While it may be enlightening to read from the Dean of Princeton University School of Architecture on how to transform our world,1 the time has come to turn the spotlights inward and examine how we—teachers of architecture—can contribute towards a fight to reduce current conditions of inequity and discrimination in our classrooms. And that task is a bit more difficult.

First, it is time for us to make a distinction between racist actions and systemic racism. The latter includes practices that are so habitual and taken for granted that we barely notice them or even stop to question them. As Hannah Arendt said, evil is perpetuated by our everyday banal actions, and often, we are not even aware of it.2 Fighting embedded practices requires introspective reflections, painful sacrifices, and difficult choices. For faculty and students in architecture schools, plans to address systemic racism can be stymied by our narrow focus around the design of architectural forms and building systems — a perspective from which deeper and bigger political systems are difficult to comprehend.

Second, it is necessary for all of us to examine enduring practices of systemic racism that remain hidden, invisible, and unquestioned in our studios and classrooms. We are teachers. Our operating system is built around our curriculum, where we set criteria by which we may impart knowledge and then decide how to evaluate if knowledge is successfully absorbed by our students. Our learning objectives, grading schemes and classroom rules are based on what we value as knowledge. Here we find, often unspoken, a deep relationship between what we teach and the larger political and social systems that devalue certain perspectives.

Safely ensconced in studios, we repeatedly feed a cult of ocular-centrism by producing jargony visuals and maps. We create esoteric drawings that most people outside our narrow circle cannot comprehend. We work on crafting formal objects or designing forms popularized by elite theorists, often divorced from the realities of the social and physical worlds around us. I am not just referring to our inability to acknowledge larger social or political realities in our studio projects; I am talking about actively devaluing buildings, neighborhoods, and places that don’t fit our narrow definitions of beauty and elegance.

Curriculum and pedagogy are roosting places for systemic injustices. Therefore, it is not merely the number of people of colour we admit into our colleges that matters. Also important is the way we evaluate the content of their portfolios in order to operationalize our admission system. It is not merely the number of BIPOC bodies we have in our seminar rooms that counts. Rather, it is how we teach, what we teach, how we grade, and what we grade that should come under scrutiny because these are taken-for-granted practices that produce persistent inequities. It is not the elimination/repair of licensure that will eradicate systemic racism in our universities but a critical overhaul of the studio reviews and a true reexamination of the way we teach connoisseurship in our classrooms that will mend our ways.3

We can no longer hide under the position that the ambit of curriculum and the content of the syllabus remain a professor’s prerogative. It might be so, under normal circumstances. Yet, just as patriarchal actions and systems might normally be the prerogative of men with power, our current goal is to question that “normal.” So, we should challenge, change, transform, and experiment with our curriculum. And we should acknowledge that we can’t do that ourselves, singlehandedly, alone! We are implicated in the current paradigm, in the current system of injustice. We are so deeply “infected” that we can’t really see what we are doing wrong. THAT is the very definition of systemic injustice! Therefore, changing the system will require a collective purpose. We need to involve community members, scholars from other disciplines, and most importantly, our students in experimenting with our syllabi, course content, evaluation criteria, and aesthetics benchmarks. Doing so doesn’t mean that we will lose control. It simply means we will cede control to collaboratively create a better curriculum.

I have struggled to change the way I teach. In 2012, I began asking community partners to help me understand how they value, remember, and create architectural spaces. Every summer, selected students, scholars, community partners, and I gather in a neighbourhood in Milwaukee to organize a month-long fieldwork school. Our goal is to listen, document, and collect stories of people and places that matter to them. We return to these neighbourhoods every fall with architecture and performance studios, collectively exploring with community members ways to make and reimagine places outside the classroom setting. On the ground, alongside other types of experts, we encounter different kinds of constraints and learn different ways of seeing. Our models, drawings, and design programs differ from other architecture studios, and we learn to avoid jargony language, overlays, and visuals. We appreciate the built environment as a complex ecology of sounds, smells, languages, and scenes reproduced by living organisms, including humans. Often we are stunned by the complexity of the empirical scene before us —wicked problems as Horst Rittel would call them — and we cease yearning for a solution to a problem and instead gaze into the intricate workings of a process.4 In spring, we return to a classroom to conduct public-history research on how the built environment is a site of injustice in marginalized and overlooked communities where we work. Community partners such as Camille Mays and Reggie Jackson reenter as co-instructors, setting the agenda, evaluating the goals, and contributing to discussions. In 2019, our painstakingly long collaboration produced an exhibition and a series of zines that went back to the community to begin another round of conversations.5 Our work borrows from the concept of co-theorizing – used in collaborative ethnography — during which “collaboration converts the space of fieldwork from one of data collection to one of co-conceptualization.”6

Camille Mays, a community organizer and designer of Peace Garden Project MKE, repeatedly reminds us that inequity and injustice are reproduced in the ways we construe, produce, and value what we define as “beautiful.” Discursive practices around “beauty” and “refinement” sort our world into binaries — on the one hand, those objects, landscapes, and people whom we prize and on the other hand, leftover people, decrepit places, devalued practices. Contemporary architectural education is built on the cultivation of connoisseurship, and our pedagogy is organized around explicit and implicit appraisal of aesthetics.7 Ways of seeing and interpreting the visible landscape have become a part of an aesthetic practice that promotes injustice and inequality, says Jacques Rancière when he uses the term, “the distribution of the sensible,” an aesthetic order with implicit rules and conventions that marks “the division between the visible and the invisible, the audible and the inaudible, the sayable and the unsayable.”8 Led by our community partners and students who grew up in these neighbourhoods, we learnt to question our ways of seeing and devise new methods of analysis and design to disrupt this taken for granted order.

Collaborative learning produces new systems and webs of relationships outside and beyond the classroom. Students return to the project as collaborators and co-instructors, as did doctoral student Chelsea Wait. They craft new spin-off projects, as did Teonna Cooksey, dive deep in research as did Bella Biwer, or return to start new community-engaged work, as did Milan Outlaw. Ceding control of the syllabus and the classroom to students and community partners offers opportunities to critically reexamine what I teach, how I teach, and why I teach. It has taken me out of the classroom in order to explore the rich world of problem-based learning where co-creation of knowledge with others offers me new ways to understand the material and social worlds around me.9 What the equity statements and reading lists miss is this important reality about systemic inequities: Often, when the system is infected, we need to move away from the canon to delve into the collective lived wisdom of those very people our disciplinary knowledge has carefully erased.


Arijit Sen writes, teaches, and studies urban cultural landscapes. He directs the Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures Field School, a collaborative research project focused on storytelling, heritage preservation, and civic engagement.

Contact: senA@uwm.edu


1 Monica Ponce de Leon, “Hearing the Call for Structural Change,” June 11, 2020, https://archinect.com/news/article/150202214/princeton-s-monica-ponce-de-leon-to-overcome-injustice-in-architecture-licensure-should-be-eliminated-or-radically-transformed.

Lyndsey Stonebridge, “Why Hannah Arendt is the philosopher for now,” New Statesman, March 20, 2019, https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2019/03/hannah-arendt-resurgence-philosophy-relevance ); Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin Books, 1994).

3 Granted there is a trickle-down logic to the goal of changing licensure requirements. If we change the gatekeeping rules of the profession, we may teach differently. But I doubt that such relaxation will make a difference to the issue at hand. My argument that appears elsewhere is how we visualize, encourage a certain aesthetic taste, design sensibilities, and rampant jargon-filled elitism that underpins our work.

Arijit Sen, “Walking the Field in Milwaukee,” Platform, July 13, 2020, https://www.platformspace.net/home/walking-the-field-in-milwaukee; Arijit Sen, “Stories from the Flatlands,” Platform, September 28, 2020, https://www.platformspace.net/home/stories-from-the-flatlands.

See p. 392 in Horst W J Rittel, “On the Planning Crisis: Systems Analysis of the ‘First and Second Generations,’” Bedriftokonomen 8 (1972): 398-401.

This exhibit was a collaborative project with the Newark-based Humanities Action Lab called Climates of Injustice. We worked with 20 other frontline communities, scholars and students to create our exhibit around environmental and climate justice in Milwaukee.

Joanne Rappaport, “Beyond Participant Observation: Collaborative Ethnography as Theoretical Innovation,” Collaborative Anthropologies 1 (2008): 5, doi:10.1353/cla.0.0014.

I use the word aesthetics to refer to ways by which we perceive the world with our senses, how a sensate world is felt, imagined, experienced and evaluated by our sensory bodies.

Gustavo H. Dalaqua, “Aesthetic injustice,” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 12:1 (2020): 1-12.

The concept of aesthetic justice may help explain how we are complicit in fostering inequity.

Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, (New York: Continuum, 2007 reprint): 3; Gustavo H. Dalaqua, “Aesthetic injustice,” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 12:1 (2020): 1-12; Hanna Mattila, “Aesthetic justice and urban planning: Who ought to have the right to design cities?” GeoJournal 58 (2002): 131–138.

Maggi Savin-Baden, Claire Howell Major, Foundations of Problem-Based Learning, (New York: Open University Press, McGraw-Hill Education, 2004); David Boud, Grahame Feletti, The Challenge of Problem-based Learning, (London: Kogan Page, 1999).


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