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How’s the Water?
Marc J. Neveu
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Around graduation for the past decade or so, I reread David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon commencement speech from 2005. It begins with a quick story: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”

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One of the most salient points of the speech is that we have the ability to choose how we see the world, but it is often the most obvious things around us that we do not view critically or even at all. According to Wallace, one reason for this is our default setting that we are at the center of the world. A good education can adjust this default setting by developing the ability to see from another perspective—to have empathy. Writing this introduction close to final reviews and after a lot of discussion of how it was to teach remotely for two months, I am struck by how embedded this default setting is within our academic culture. How often in reviews do you hear “my site” or “my building”? Even with faculty, we hear “my class,” “my studio,” and “my students.” Administrators are guilty as well. It is “my program” and “my school.” In many ways, this makes criticism and praise very personal. But, as Wallace made clear, we do have a choice.

As educators, how do we “adjust our default setting”? How can we teach students to do the same?

History is a good place to start. Understanding why some buildings are significant, how meaning has changed over time, and how values have also changed allows students to see the world and their world in different ways. It is important that our contemporary prejudices, and those of our historians, are recognized and that we can synthesize multiple histories around the same building. In this way, we challenge what we know to be certain. I would argue, like Wallace, that this ability to understand another’s point of view is really the value of an architectural education. But of course I think that; I teach history. What about studio?

There are a lot of ways to teach studio, but the historical model of one faculty member and twelve to sixteen students, each working on an individual project, persists. What if a studio were not a collection of autonomous acts of singular genius but a radical act of othering? How might we rethink our studios to focus less on the individual project and more on skills of reframing problems, collaboration, and listening—all of which will help recent graduates navigate their first jobs just as much as will a solid knowledge of Revit. I would propose further that empathy, the ability to listen, and the ability to ask good questions are all as valuable, if not more so, than “being a good designer.”

We live in an incredibly divisive environment. To wear or not to wear a mask in public, during a pandemic, has become a political statement. Medical advice from experts has become fake news. It is very easy to think the “Other” is a stupid, misinformed, arrogant lemming following what their unfact-checked and/or fake news feed is telling them how and what to think. And, to be clear, this is happening on both sides of the political divide. It is May, and I cannot understand why so many businesses are rushing to reopen. This is easy for me to think as my summer is about to begin, and my paychecks will continue even if I don’t have to be on campus for the next three months. Of course I want everyone to shelter in place. I also don’t run a small business that has been shuttered for two months and employs people who need the job to care for their families. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to have to make the decision to stay closed knowing that your employees are counting on the paycheck you sign for their rent and food.

We try to be untimely at the JAE. The present theme, however, of the Journal of Architectural Education could not come at a more appropriate time. It is a reminder:

This is water.”

This is water.”

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