The design of buildings is a social act… so is teaching.

Image Credit: ‘The Design Of Buildings Is A Social Act’ opens a declaration for practice as a cooperative endeavour by Edward Cullinan Architects in 1965.

Moments of academic collegiality are all too rare. 

The social acts that are the lifeblood of a university often downplayed or silenced in the race for funds or bravado of technological solutions. Despite all the challenges presented by the reduction of face-to-face encounters through lockdown, I have been lucky to witness affirmations of how many are reaching out in innovative ways that have enriched our collegiality against the odds.

This opening image is a reminder of why this is significant. My first job after graduation from UCD was with Ted Cullinan in London, run as a cooperative practice since 1965 on the basis that ‘building is a social act’. Ted died at the end of 2019 and I am often reminded of his spirit of collegiality and how companionship and cooperation prospers between colleagues who share responsibility. Collegiality in design practice is typically prompted through a shared project where there is a sure sense of collective ownership over the outcome. Importantly, it only happens when conditions allow it to thrive. 

When I joined UCD as a part-time lecturer over a decade ago, from a background in international architectural design practice, I was challenged by my isolated position as an academic. I missed the cauldron of collegiate invention that is central to architectural design. But a few events during the lockdown phase reminded me of the best-of-days in practice, and the spark of design collaboration. 

On Friday, the 13th of March, our sense of responsibility as academics was directed wholeheartedly towards our students and their education, all set against the rhythm of timetables, deadlines and personal knocks as we adjusted to working from home. Fortunately, with one week to retrench during our fieldwork week, many innovations effervesced. A question arises, on reflection, as to whether it was possible to increase collegiality while social distancing?

During 2019, I had volunteered for UCD’s ‘Pilot in Inclusive Teaching’ run by three enthusiastic colleagues: Elizabeth Shotton from Architecture, Planning & Environmental Policy (APEP), Conor Buggy from Health Sciences, and Lisa Padden from Access and Life-Long Learning. As pioneers and novices, we openly shared our experiences of what was working well in our modules and what changes we could make to respond to detailed student feedback gathered in December. As we had established a rapport before lockdown, we had the advantage of being open about the new challenges we faced. The collegiality that this pilot promoted between academic colleagues in so many invisible ways buoyed me up. The Pilot had the delightful consequence of acting as a lift during lockdown, not only for me and my colleagues, but for our students. We gained news tools and mainly confidence to adopt more flexible approaches to teaching.

Our school, APEP, set up ‘Keeping in Touch’ as a weekly digital newsletter. On April 17th, Professor Peter Clinch offered his reflections on ‘Leadership in Crisis Management’ which drew from principles in the literature and evidence on crisis management. The thrust of his shortlist resonated with me for how it identified a critical link between crisis management and an innovation culture, in which experimentation should be encouraged, that communication needed to be ‘regular, transparent, truthful and credible’, and most memorably, how ‘bureaucracy had to be jettisoned’. These values echoed with our new and nimble reality and way of acting as the face of the university. 

The model of appointments for lecturers in APEP is towards part-time posts, with all the disadvantages and vulnerabilities of casualisation: yet during lockdown, all staff gave more than could ever be planned or presumed. Being in an unprecedented messy situation, with enough colleagues willing each other along at UCD, we felt we could get through it. But we needed a catalyst. Our Head of Architecture, Hugh Campbell, called an emergency Zoom meeting with Module Coordinators, in which he recognised the value of our shared experience, given the live and unprecedented situation we all faced. 

These Zoom meetings became regular opportunities to share challenges, as well as insights into the innovative use of Miro Boards or Rubrics for grading on-line work. For the first time, we all got to meet our Externs virtually and view the best of all module outcomes via a well-organised Google Drive. These steady steps accrued to support us as we reached out in innovative ways to our scattered students, zooming-in across time-zones. It reminded me of the creative spark of design charrettes that provides resilience through the morass of live construction projects among the best of architectural design studios. 

On reflection, these varied initiatives and conversations acted as a life buoy for so many. Student work improved against the odds given our mutual captivity: nominations for teaching excellence awards have burgeoned.

As I had a sense of success in one of my modules in urban design, and was newly organised on Brightspace, I was in a position to throw a metaphorical line out to Erasmus students, many of whom had to return home in March. While colleagues ran new studio projects, I was able to re-run my module six weeks out of sync for these returnees, which meant none of these adventurous travellers lost out on their education. Erasmus would have been proud!

I could not have done this without the various experiences I witnessed at UCD, without the shared knowledge of experimentation and knock-backs, a shared curiosity and a culture of support that reached across the school.

Against all the odds, the depletion of resources, and casualization of contracts, I recognise how these sparks of collegiality that I witnessed are the lifeblood of university life.

Against all the odds, the depletion of resources, and casualization of contracts, I recognise how these sparks of collegiality that I witnessed are the lifeblood of university life. This loyalty cannot be assumed in any repeat lockdown, as it has not been all easy.

The university is its people: it is our social actions that got us through the crisis. The lockdown has changed society in many ways yet to be articulated but when we pick-up post-pandemic, and work toward a new model of education, our governance structures could do well to learn to recognise teaching as a social act, to jettison administrative obstacles in favour of innovation, and to put people, however part-time or precarious, to the fore.

Just as the ethos of the cooperative practice where I started out valued the social act of building, trusted relationships between staff and our students will see us through. 

Dr. Miriam Fitzpatrick is an Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, UCD.