“Walking on the Grass: Using Campus as Source Material”

Monmouth University’s Department of Art and Design offers majors in studio arts, photography, graphic and interactive design, animation, and a minor in art history. As part of art foundations our majors must pass two sections of the History of Western Art—Part I (Prehistoric to Gothic) and Part II (Renaissance to Contemporary), plus one or two additional art history courses. Students from across campus enroll in surveys to fulfill their general education “aesthetics” requirement, and all history majors must take at least one art history class. At Monmouth I have arranged the Survey I curriculum to encourage students to connect our historical studies to their experiences today. For the purpose of this brief paper, I will describe how I ask students to use campus as source material for one of our assignments based on our theme of “Social Order and Power.” Under this topic, we consider how society is organized. How are power and order maintained through cultural beliefs and practices? And how do the works of art and architecture in our study help uphold social hierarchies?[1]

When I introduce the Gatehouse of Xerxes (518-460BCE) from the ancient Persian palace complex at Persepolis, I first show students a reconstruction drawing of the gate and guardian figures. I ask them to write a first person narrative about what they imagine their experience would be like to approach and enter this space. Some students elect to read their responses out loud. After studying additional details and noting how the complex’s plan and relief sculptures help create Darius’s and Xerxes’s authority, I take my classes on walking tours of Monmouth’s campus.

The majority of Monmouth’s classrooms and administrative facilities sit on the south side of Cedar Avenue with the dorms, library, and health center to the north. Once a private residence, Wilson Hall dominates south of Cedar and serves as the physical and symbolic centerpiece of our campus; this building houses the President’s, Provost’s, and other administrators’ offices as well as an auditorium and a few classrooms.[2] I ask the students to start walking from our building as we head across the large lawn in front of Wilson Hall.

I stay back and let them lead. Even in a group of thirty or so students, they will stay off of the grass. After a few minutes of them leading, I pose questions about what guides the direction of our travels, which they can attribute to the sidewalks that crisscross the lawn. Additionally, unlike other campuses, you will not find students lounging, playing Frisbee, or partaking in other activities on this yard. When pressed for reasons why, some comment that campus looks so nice that stepping on the grass feels wrong to do.

In this moment, students begin to consider many ways the built environment reflects and confirms campus’ power dynamics, just as they imagined their experience approaching Xerxes’s gatehouse. For instance, we discuss what it does to house the main administration in the upper levels of Wilson Hall and not, say, in the basement of one of the nearby buildings, which has no windows; this is where multiple departments house their faculty offices. No longer is Xerxes’s historical gatehouse a ruined site from long ago; it has the potential to operate as a point of intersection between the past and present for students. In turn, they gain greater awareness of their agency within their particular moment and setting, especially because, when weather allows, I lead them across the grass.

Next, while we are still outside, I give them a short paper prompt. Their task is to pick any area of campus besides Wilson Hall and the lawn, describe it using the visual elements and principles of design they have learned, and analyze how the site they selected participates in maintaining campus hierarchies. Most importantly, they must connect the function of their selected site to an object or site from our survey. Here is a brief example from last term.

One student assessed dorm assignments because they are based on social status—that of class level and wealth. Only sophomores and above can request particular buildings, which range in their age and amenities and cost different rents. The student compared Hesse Hall, one of the newest and nicer dorms, to the Flavian Amphitheater (72-80CE).

They described how both the dorm and arena provide gathering places for entertainment—Hesse Hall screens movies for residents and non-residents of the dorm, and the Flavian Amphitheater housed gladiatorial combats. Event seating in Hesse Hall is first come-first served, privileging the upper-classmen who pay more to live in the hall. The Flavian Amphitheater had a particular seat for the emperor, and the lower your social status, the higher you sat in the arena. After the student acknowledged that they would never pay extra for amenities, such as a cooking space or a rec room with a pool table, they concluded, “[N]o matter what institution you go to, there will always be someone or something trying to establish a hierarchy, often without you ever realizing it.”[3]

The version of my assignment I described today is specific to Survey I, but I have conducted walking tours of other schools in Art Appreciation and the History of Western Architecture. I also created other assignments in Survey I that engage campus as source material. For instance, an unannounced take-home section of Survey I’s first exam asks students to locate five architectural terms we learned about in class on campus, then photograph or sketch and label them correctly. With these types of exercises, I intend for students to engage with their environments—on and, by extension, off campus—instead of passively moving through. For, what do we want our students to be after they leave our classrooms, if not engaged observers and critical thinkers? At Monmouth University, this begins by asking students to walk on the grass.

 

 

[1] Mark Getlein asks, “How can a stable, just, and productive society best be organized? Who will rule, and how? What freedoms will rulers have? What freedoms will citizens have? How is wealth to be distributed? How is authority to be maintained?” Mark Getlein, Living with Art, 10th Edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013), 53.

[2] In 1929 construction was completed on the once-private residence. The house fell into municipal control during the Great Depression when the owners failed to pay taxes owed. The house served briefly as a military academy, military hospital, and private school for girls. Eventually, in 1956, Monmouth acquired the building and renovated it in the 1980s. It remains on the National Register of Historic Places and is also recognizable for providing the set for Daddy Warbuck’s mansion in the 1982 movie Annie. See Michael deCourcy Hinds, “A Mansion for Daddy Warbucks,” The New York Times (25 June 1981): C1.

[3] Here I will provide another example. Many students wrote about the Guggenheim Library, the former summer home of Murry and Leonie Guggenheim. After describing how the library sits away from central campus, but is still very visible from Cedar Avenue, one student described the library as a showcase for research and study. This is furthered by centrally housing the Honors School on the second floor. However, the student noted the secondary status of the Library vis-à-vis the power within Wilson Hall and connected this relationship to the citadel and palace complex of the Assyrian ruler Sargon II. During the Sumerian era ziggurats stood centrally located in city centers with a temple on top. In Sargon II’s later complex, the religious architectural form was moved to the side for purely symbolic use (c. 721-706BCE), emphasizing the ruler’s power over religion. The student analyzed how this parallels how the administrators hold more—and different kinds of—power relative to the library faculty, who still serve a vital role to campus’s well-being.

 

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