© Graham Larkin 2013
In Ottawa, where I live, the bottom has fallen out of the job market in my area (art historian/curator) in the wake of radical restructuring at my former place of work and other federal institutions. So I’m suddenly having to get very creative in mid-career, and like many people I’m hoping to weather the new cultural and economic reality with some socially, financially and ecologically sustainable work.
An opportunity to try something really new arrived in November 2012, when a last-minute cancellation allowed me to teach a winter term history and theory seminar for all resident first-year graduate students at Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture. The pay was modest, but on the upside I was granted a degree of freedom I hadn’t enjoyed since teaching my last art history seminar at Stanford University in 2005. Plus I had my first opportunity to teach in a place where the students had serious maker skills.
I quickly conceived a broad-based design class that had components of both seminar and studio. The first month was a history/theory seminar where students would gain a solid grounding in design principles based on my presentations, some collections visits, and readings from the work of by my design mentor Edward R. Tufte. Next they would apply that knowledge to some real-world problems in an informal studio setting. The aim was for students to expand their toolkits by applying their design skills to non-architectural projects. I insisted that the emphasis not be on marks, but rather on making one’s mark in the world by developing projects that could help the world and continue to flourish after the class was over.
When I described the whole scheme to a friend about a month into the course, she said: “So it’s basically an incubator.” Later that day I shelled out $4 for the domain designincubator.info, and–since every student permitted at least a description of his or her work–the results are now posted here on the Projects menu button and tag cloud.
It would have been a lot safer for me to have stuck to what I knew. Some trusted friends and colleagues were nervous at the prospect of an art historian suddenly teaching architects how to design maps, diagrams and web sites. I reassured them that even though I had never taught a class on the subject I happened to know quite a bit about design, which is true. It would have been more true–and considerably less reassuring–to have added that I had no intention of setting myself up as any kind of expert. On the contrary, I was very consciously giving myself and the students permission to act as amateurs–which, strictly speaking, means people who do things for the love of it. In the introduction to my doctoral dissertation I quoted the a-word in the original French, claiming that “it is only the attachments of the amateur that can protect us from the pathologies of expertise.” A decade later I believe this more than ever.
I changed the inherited course title from Contemporary Theoretical Perspectives in Architecture to Adventures in Multimodal Design–a tactic that moved us away from architecture and fostered experimentation. Students were encouraged to cook up design projects based on something they loved (such as a subject or place) and also on some frustration (such as the lack of a succinct guide to that same subject or place). Crucially, they were required to launch their projects into the world by the end of the class, which meant giving it away if they could not find some ready source of remuneration. I asked that they be open about their methods, sharing and assessing their techniques on a common platform so they could learn from each other’s successes and failures. In that same spirit I will do my best, in the sections that follow, to explain how the class was orchestrated, beginning with an explanation of my role as a design producer.