June 12, 2019 by Melissa Russell

The methods by which architectural design is taught to young people have long been unique. For decades, the rigor of the architecture studio has inspired awe and shock among those on the outside looking in. This has become a source of pride for architecture students; the reverence (or so it would seem) in another student’s eyes when they hear you are an architecture major gives you a sense of satisfaction. We all have horror stories of staying up so late we deliriously slice our hand open with an Xacto, or working so hard we forget to eat dinner. One such horror story forced schools of architecture to take a harder look at themselves. In the late 90’s, a student who had stayed up for two days straight to finish his final project fell asleep at the wheel on his way home and was killed in a head-on collision with a truck. This caused many to decide that architectural education had finally gone too far.  Action needed to be taken.

The AIAS has been studying the topic of Studio Culture in contemporary architectural education since 2000, with the creation of the first Studio Culture Task Force. The 2001 Studio Culture Task Force Report caused major ripples throughout the education and profession of architecture. In 2014, the National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB) began requiring that schools of architecture demonstrate a commitment to a healthy learning environment.

Since its conception, Studio Culture has been a confusing, controversial, and loosely defined topic. We all agree that it’s important to have and maintain a Studio Culture Policy, but we rarely seem to agree on exactly how to implement it, what it should include, or how much power it should hold. The rigorous nature of our education is important and unique, and yet you would be hard-pressed to find an architect anywhere that regrets how challenging it was. How can we balance these experiences with enough control and safety to create the best educational experience possible in terms of all aspects of life- not just academic? The social and cultural resiliency of architecture schools has been lacking, suggesting that the advancement of our education, profession, and society is up to us.

The Oklahoma State University School of Architecture has recently begun the task of redefining and rewriting its Studio Culture Policy in order to ensure the continued betterment of the education we are providing. In order to aid other schools and individuals going through this difficult process, we have elected to share our entire process with you below: what we did, what we didn’t do, what was successful and what was not. We hope it will inform and inspire you as much as it did us!

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Volunteering

The first step we took in the process of rewriting our school’s Studio Culture Policy was in volunteering to rewrite the Policy. This may seem like an obvious step, but it’s a very important one to note – the last time our Policy was edited (in 2014), it was done by a professor. This professor took student views into account, but as the Studio Culture Policy is one of the greatest contributions students can make to their schools, we believe it is important for students to head up the process. Our advice on this is to be sure Studio Culture is a subject you are passionate about before volunteering – it is a long process, so whoever volunteers should be able to stay with it. Secondly, don’t do it alone! A single student writing a document based on the views and needs of the entire school can often go astray, no matter how connected or knowledgable they are.

Research

We don’t know about you, but we had never written one of these things before. Your own school’s existing Policy is, of course, a necessary precedent for this process, but don’t be afraid to go deep into the Studio Culture lore of other schools. Some schools may have encountered issues or successes that have never even been thought of at your school, so a robust and well-rounded research session is a great place to start when rewriting a Studio Culture Policy. All schools of architecture should have their Policy posted somewhere on their website, but if you’re having trouble finding what you’re looking for, don’t hesitate to reach out to other members of the AIAS. Networking is what it’s all about!

Surveys

At this point in our process, we knew what we thought of Studio Culture and what our statement should contain, but we weren’t sure about the thoughts of the general student body. In order to gauge our fellow students’ understanding of not only our school’s Studio Culture but the implementation of the Studio Culture Policy at large, we created and sent out a survey (using surveymonkey.com). This survey asked questions about what students thought of the culture at our school and how it could be improved, and it also inquired about students’ knowledge of our Studio Culture Policy (did you know we have this) and how effective they think it is (does this work or no). Past the official survey, we also strove to bring up discussions on Studio Culture whenever possible. Students are typically far more receptive to an open and casual discussion than an email containing a link to a survey, so in the end, these conversations proved more useful than our survey. The lesson to be learned here? Don’t get too caught up in the process! The people you’re writing this Policy for are your friends and classmates, and if you just start a conversation with them, you could learn about the issues in your school from a whole new perspective.

Town Hall

We wanted to write a Studio Culture that accurately represented the entire student body, and felt that the next step was to connect and have that conversation with the rest of the school outside of our friends and classmates.  So we decided that hosting a Town Hall would help to create this dialogue amongst the entire student body. Oh, and no professors allowed! We wanted all students to feel safe and free to voice any concerns or complaints they had.  Once we had set the Town Hall in motion, it was email blasts and flyers from there. We stressed the importance of the Town Hall, and if that wouldn’t entice them to come, we hoped cookies would. Understanding how easily discussions like these can go astray, we came up with a game plan that would keep us on track, and before we knew it, the day of the Town Hall had arrived.  Equipped with more email blasts, cookies, and the help of our chapter officers, we encouraged as many people as we could to attend. We felt that the most productive way to conduct the Town Hall was to have one AIAS leader present our school’s current Policy by section and another AIAS leader take notes. After each section was presented, students were given the opportunity to ask questions, discuss, and voice any concerns they had.  Even as prepared as we thought we were, we quickly realized that not all of the concerns being discussed were relevant to the Policy. We decided that, regardless of the specific nature of the concern, all were worth hearing and taking note of. After only a few redirections, we were able to go through the current Policy with plenty of discussion and feedback from students. The Town Hall was a success! We were able to gain so much more valuable input from the student body than we ever could have gathered alone and this was a crucial part of the process for us.

Faculty Discussion

Encouraged by our success at the Town Hall, we requested an opportunity to bring what we had learned to the faculty and have a similar discussion with them. We were invited to come and speak to them at the next all-school faculty meeting. We viewed this as a fantastic opportunity to form a stronger connection between our students and faculty, and to ensure that the voice of the students was being heard. Based on that notion, we decided that we would not censor any issue the students had brought up. While some of the discussions at the Town Hall followed tangents that took us away from Studio Culture, all the discussions we had were based on valid issues or questions, and we hoped to extend the purpose of this discussion past Studio Culture and create a more transparent flow of information between students and faculty. Ensuring that the faculty were aware of our intent, we plunged into the discussion. We read off each point the students had brought up and asked for discussion on them.

Quickly, we noticed a disconnect forming; while most faculty members were receptive to the issues and suggestions of the students, a few seemed to interpret the discussion as a way for students to demand different teaching methods and an easier lifestyle. These professors were especially unsettled by the concerns students had brought up involving the curriculum. While we attempted to explain the goal of the discussion and the point of a Studio Culture Policy, the discussion quickly devolved into these members of the faculty explaining to us the way things are and giving little thought to our views on the matter. The issue here was that these professors misinterpreted the discussion on and writing of the Studio Culture Policy as a way for students to make demands of the faculty, and the discussion broke down once the divide between students and faculty was prevalent in their minds.  They decided that their role in the situation was to tell, and not to discuss. This was a blow to our process, which had been successful and well-received up to that point.

After the faculty meeting had ended, one of us personally reached out to some faculty members to discuss the disconnect. The first discussion was with one of the more receptive faculty members to understand where the disconnect had begun and how to resolve it, and the others were with professors who had taken issue with the discussion. After taking more time to go over the purpose and background of the Studio Culture Policy and to explain the specific goals we had in bringing the student issues to the faculty, these professors were fully supportive of the Policy and of forming the connection between the students and faculty we had envisioned. Had we taken more time to explain our purpose at the beginning of the discussion these problems may have been avoided. In the end, it is important to remember that the faculty at your school want success for the school and the students, and in that, we all share the same goal.

Writing, Discussing, Editing

This is the point in the process we are currently working on. FYI, this process takes a long time! Any good student knows how to put together a good document, so we won’t bore you too much on this point. The key to this part is not in the actual formatting and writing of the policy, but in the discussions, you have while doing it. Writing the Studio Culture Statement will bring up points and issues in your mind you may not yet have thought of, and it is important to discuss those issues with others! The person at the desk beside you may have a revolutionary point of view on something you have hardly thought about. Let people read what you’ve written, because they may see problems or mistakes you missed. This isn’t an essay for a class, it’s a document that will affect your school for years to come- make sure it’s well written, understandable, and covers a wide range of topics.

Ratification

The final step in the process is ratifying the completed document. You should make sure that all students have access to the document and know to bring any issues they see with it to you, and request that all faculty members and student organization leaders give their approval. You may have to go back and forth between this and the previous step several times before everyone is able to agree on the final document, but that’s what a Studio Culture Policy is all about: an agreement between all students and faculty to improve life in architecture school.

This process is long and arduous, but when done correctly, a Studio Culture Policy can make amazing changes in a school, and in the lives of everyone in the school. If you feel that your Studio Culture Policy is lacking, don’t hesitate to start a conversation about it! And of course, never forget that you have an amazing nationwide network of experienced students willing to help you.

If you have any questions about Studio Culture Policy or how to change yours, feel free to contact Scott Cornelius (scott.cornelius@okstate.edu), Melissa Russell (melissa.russell@okstate.edu), or any member of the AIAS Board of Directors.