The Case for a Humanities and Social Studies Complex
Over the past century, much of Grinnell’s academic life has transpired in Alumni Recitation Hall and Carnegie Hall. Built in 1905 and 1916, respectively, the buildings date from an era when knowledge was largely imparted: Professors lectured; students listened.
Today’s Grinnell faculty teach in much more dynamic ways. Many have moved from the unidirectional concept of “teaching” to a more dialogic concept of “teaching and learning.” Whether the coursework involves reading and critiquing Renaissance poetry, analyzing and interpreting data on income inequality, or scrutinizing Stone Age artifacts, a Grinnell education today is a partnership: teachers helping students learn to pose critical questions and rigorously evaluate claims and evidence.
Pedagogical approaches may shift even within a single class session. Students may start by listening to a brief introduction from their professor, then break into small groups and use online tools to work with peers at another institution, before returning to the full group to report on their findings and conclusions. Students in the halls between classes may meet up and head to a semi-private breakout space to do project work—the so-called “intellectual collisions” that greatly enrich a student’s education.
Excellent teaching and learning of this kind naturally requires different types of spaces. It requires:
- Spaces that can be easily and quickly reconfigured with mobile furnishings.
- Rooms that support new technologies and the fluid integration of different technologies in a single space.
- Common spaces that facilitate informal collaborations.
- Student learning 'laboratories' for the social studies and humanities (similar to the labs we traditionally think of in the sciences) to enable innovative research and foster interdisciplinary thinking.
But the underlying vision is about more than bricks and mortar, desks and chairs. It is about making possible a new kind of teaching, attuned to emerging research about how best to support great learning.
While both ARH and Carnegie have been retrofitted with technology over the years, their core design is deeply rooted in the past. If it is true that, “one’s pedagogy is instantiated in one’s architecture,” then a tour of Grinnell’s humanities and social studies spaces today can feel like a trip backwards in pedagogical time.
Faculty are now leading efforts to design a new Humanities and Social Studies Complex suited for the way we teach and learn at Grinnell today—and flexible enough to accommodate techniques still to come.
We have already taken similar steps in the Sciences and Fine Arts:
- Opened in 1997, the Noyce Science Center’s design was informed by emerging research on how well-conceived facilities can support effective science learning.
- Opened in 1999, the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts supports active approaches to arts teaching and student creativity by combining performance, rehearsal, and studio spaces for music, art, and theatre classes and performances, all under one roof.
Grinnell’s best next move is to create comparably flexible spaces that support excellence and innovation in the humanities and social studies, as part of our commitment to educational innovation for Grinnell as a whole.