Some time ago, I stumbled upon some glass-plate negatives in the archive of the small college where I was teaching. One of the negatives showed an interior view of a building taken in the 1870’s. “Science Hall” contained a large diorama of taxidermy. A stuffed cassowary in the corner of the image caught my attention. I had recently photographed the same stuffed bird. I stared across a 140-year gulf of time and found a specimen that I knew from the biology lab down the hall.
Classroom learning spaces contain decorative traces of epistemologies. Charts of chemical elements or stuffed cassowaries are meant as aids to teaching. Traces of math problems erased on a chalkboard testify to a moment of engagement. Chalkboard drawings by a professor’s child form evidence of the lived experience of working at a small college.
Classrooms also betray an institutional aesthetic. My small school was on the verge of a program of academic renewal. Rooms built in the 1950’s seemed tired and decrepit. Student labor was free, and walls were painted with awkward murals to personalize a space. Money was tight; nothing was thrown out, and everything was left casually in laboratories and studios. A 140-year-old cassowary was amazing. It was also moth-eaten and kept in a corner because there was no storage space.
Classrooms constitute a dialog about power. They are spaces where I keep students under surveillance. They are spaces where I grade and assess. In that sense, structures of power in these spaces are explicit. The spaces are also places where power is exchanged and contested. Access to restricted laboratories and studios is given away to favored students. Leaving equipment in a space constitutes “squatter’s rights” when faculty are building empires. Students answer power with graffiti and vandalism, reminding the rest of us that power is given and not taken.
I hoped to catalog the learning spaces at my small college before they were upgraded. More importantly, I hoped to eavesdrop on a discussion. These spaces were the site and evidence of arguments about who had the right to access. The spaces constituted an architecture of power, conferring the ability to observe and grade our students. The spaces recorded a conversation about learning and bodies of knowledge. The spaces were a 140-year-old connection to past colleague and students. They were institutional memory and institutional identity.