One of my new tasks this semester in my academic position is to be a member of the departmental committee for lectures and exhibitions. This committee is tasked with creating the annual lecture and exhibitions program for the Department of Architecture. This has turned out to be quite the conundrum for yours truly. While I do not have any issue with being on the committee or being an active member, I find myself questioning the premise as a whole. Are lectures or special series of presentations relevant anymore? Or are they more relevant during the Covid crisis than ever before? I honestly can see it either way, but I think I might lend more to the latter.
So the idea of this committee is to first determine a “theme” for the lecture series which occurs in the fall and spring. Fine-tune this theme into a series. Adapt the theme into new delivery methods and then find speakers to fit those conditions. For example, we want to have several trajectories-focused presentations in areas of history and theory, technology, engagement, etc., etc. Within those areas, a speaker or two are hopefully determined and pursued to then speak within that area about the chosen “theme”. Let’s just say that “theme” is Clarity. So we need to find an architectural historian or theorist to come speak about how that area of architecture can speak to a notion of Clarity. Whew! But in reality that seems like a fairly standard practice for lecture series, keynote speakers, presentation gurus, and the like that would be on the list of hopeful candidates.
Then this is where things to me become very confusing. Academia is usually low in the funding area. Well, at least most publicly funded schools in the state of Texas. (another issue) But I am learning that many academies work in a similar manner and I am almost flabbergasted. Yes, flabbergasted. The typical stipend or honorarium seems for many institutions of higher education to solicit speakers to visit their university is very low. So I often wonder how some schools get “top” speakers to their university for a lecturer. I am sure there are favors and friends of friends that make some of that happen, but also I see that many decide to partner up with corporate sponsorship to help fund these higher-profile lectures. I can see how that can make some sense. But for many of the universities and the lecturers, the financial expenditure and gain are what I would say is on the lower end. Knowing the amounts provided to keynote speakers for several professional events, it just confuses me as to the reason for the lower value or the idea that this is commonplace among education institutions. But really that is another matter altogether.
The bigger question to me is do these kinds of events matter? Do they serve a purpose other than self-promotion or self-adulation? I can say with absolute certainty, I am not sure. On one hand, I often enjoy these as a professional because I can hear from “colleagues” that are leading interesting professional lives. Sometimes they have more success than most in the field or other times they are just out on the bleeding edge of ideas. Granted sometimes they make me want to crawl under my chair and take a nap. I mean I know we have all gambled with that proposition at one time or another during some lecture that you attending that did not meet your expectations. Those, to me, are the most disappointing. But then other times, they are truly inspiring and make me want to do better, try harder, or see the world differently in my professional pursuits. Other times I just get my mind blown by the things these people are doing professionally. I mean I have seen Neri Oxman twice and both times she was mind-blowing on some level. But do they really serve a purpose? Do we need to spend more time listening to ourselves talk about our profession? Should we be listening to other people in other professions who are at the “top” of their game or leading their industry forward? Would that serve us better as Architects? I mean I know what architects do. Don’t we all know? Yes, there are different ways to approach it, view it, and understand it. But at the end of the day, we all basically do the same thing. There is just a different level of skill. And it is not like these lectures are tutoring or instructional. It’s not like having a professional athlete gives private lessons to my child and show them how to do it. At least typically they are not of that nature. It is more like a highlight reel of all their best plays with maybe some unique commentary.
But the one thing that COVID has done is make it possible for me to actually view so many more of these events. I have seen more architectural lectures this year than in any previous year. I sit at my computer and watch or I play them on my television via my iPad. They are easily accessible and quite abundant. I have been able to attend lectures from design professionals at Universities around the country. This of course was not possible in the past. Well, it was possible but rarely implemented. There was a bit of prestige in having a top name come to your university and the exclusivity that came along with that. I hope the open accessibility does not disappear in the future, but I feel as though it most likely will. I am not confident that this atmosphere of community sharing will last. Yet since I have been viewing more, does that mean they do have value? Are they important? I am not sure. While I enjoy them, I am not sure they are impacting me in some profound way. I am definitely learning from them, well most of them, but is that absolutely the only purpose of these lectures. Should there be more that comes from the event? How can that be truly implemented? I am struggling with these questions at the moment. While I truly enjoy and relish in an informational and inspiring lecture, do they force me into a different course of action? That is my question. Should that even be a consideration? Is it simply “enough” to sit and absorb the ideas, work, and mastery of others and store it for possible application to my life at some point in the future? Or am I just sitting there listening to someone basically brag about their life and work?
I am trying hard not to come across as cynical here or even somewhat disenchanted with the ideas of lectures from other professionals. At the moment I am simply searching for their meaning. This is something that has come to the forefront of my mind since being on this committee. How does this work in other professions? Do doctors, lawyers, or mathematicians having these same types of lectures? Or are they more directed at learning new methodologies, new ways to practice, or specific techniques? I would enjoy hearing from our readers about their thoughts on this matter. Even more so from those who are not in the profession of architecture. Now I have to log off because there is a lecture I need to virtually attend tonight. Seriously. (Charu Kokate, Principal and Director of Safdie Architects in Singapore)
Until next time,