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)