Grid-bolted Desks

The twenty-seven desks of Bunche 3117, a small UCLA classroom, remain bolted to the floor, as they have been for the last half-century. The floorplan’s enforced grid is characteristic of the entire building’s midcentury design. Forty years ago, when I was an undergraduate, we called Bunche Hall the “waffle building” for its twelve-story griddlework of square protruding windows. The nickname has stuck.

The classroom’s grid-snapped desks, t-squared into front facing rows, make real teaching harder than it should be. They subordinate undergraduate curiosity to professorial authority – a testament to mid-century modernism’s hierarchical corporatism.

Even in small seminar-sized classes of twelve or fifteen, a professor must remain at the front of the room as students direct their comments towards her rather than towards one another. The design was intended to facilitate lecture. That’s exactly how most instructors used the space in the 70s. Walking past other classrooms in the same building, I overhear a new professorial generation doing exactly the same thing.

While the bolted seating arrangements of Bunche Hall have endured, the world around them has changed. A mountain of research demonstrates that students learn best given generous opportunity for discussion, debate, group work and other forms of interaction (see here). This isn’t a new insight: “progressive” teachers have been disparaging the lecture for more than a century. For years, their evidence was merely anecdotal. No longer.

Yet lecture has its defenders. No surprise there. A synonym for a good lecture is “storytelling,” a teaching tool that’s been around since the emergence of language itself. The most militant progressives foolishly treat lecture as the enemy, an idea summed up in that toxic cliché of contemporary teacher training: “Be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage!”

Most of us want both the guide and the sage. It’s no accident that as opportunities for virtual reality and digital interactivity have exploded, audiences have also grown for poetry slams, TED talks, Moth-style storytelling and documentary films. Being a member of the audience at such events is a joy.

I’m back in Bunche 3117 as a “senior scholar,” the university’s euphemism for older adults willing to pay $150 to revisit their under-appreciated undergraduate educations. The program requires that participants agree to a code of conduct: unless the professor explicitly permits it, we cannot speak.

This vow of silence is, of course, entirely reasonable. If let off the leash, our opinions and recollections would very soon fill a classroom like foam insulation, muffling younger voices. This would cheat undergraduates, who pay considerably more for the privilege of taking exams, writing papers and earning academically transferrable credits. It’s their class, not ours.

So I spend nearly the entire two hours listening. The Lecturer (her title as well as her method) is very good, holding audience attention for the full class session – there’s not a cell phone in sight. To the extent she can, she asks frequent questions, drawing students into discussion. I think that discussion would be more intense if students could actually look at one another when they spoke. Move the desks into a circle and the “front” of the room (where the most vocal students sit) would disappear.

I fantasize about bringing a crescent wrench into the room before class and removing those bolts. But the chair-and-desk modules are held aloft on narrow metal columns – unsecured, they’d topple over.

Though I’m largely silent, I’m thrilled to be here. Along the way to my own Ph.D. in History, I murdered my other joys: literature, art, music. I’m now regenerating limbs I amputated years ago.

While it’s not always good advice to “follow your passion,” it is never good advice to bury that passion. Today, though I sit in the last stupidly straight row of a stupidly rectangular classroom, I no longer feel I have to surrender anything that’s truly mine. In the grid’s far corner, I loosen the bolts holding me to the floor.

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