Honors students write a transdisciplinary history of the capital’s architecture
In the upstairs lounge space of the Honors College Studios, nine honors students gather around a table, cracking open the spines of freshly printed hardcover books for the first time — books that they collaboratively wrote, typeset, and printed in the span of three months in fall 2022.
“Becoming Washington: A History in 20 Buildings” was the culminating product of Honors College Dean Paul Knox’s UH 3504 class, an honors transdisciplinary seminar in which these students set out to learn about the architectural history of the U.S. capital city - and ended up becoming authors of their own version of it.
The book, a coffee table-style guide to the history and cultural significance of 20 lesser-known buildings in Washington, D.C., begins with a brief overview of buildings in the capital whose histories are considerably more well-tread, acknowledging their significance to the city and the nation’s history. Instead of focusing on these buildings, however, the book charts the histories of architectural features of the city that are lesser known, but still significant within its cultural, historical, and architectural landscape. The goal of the project was to examine the difference between the original plans for the city and how it exists today as a result of material and social circumstances.
Each of the book's 20 primary chapters features a different building and provides information regarding the building itself, the circumstances surrounding its construction, and the role it holds in the broader cultural landscape of Washington, D.C. The book attempts to capture the city's character, the cultural and social dynamics that shape it, as well as how these dynamics form and influence its buildings.
The book began as a question: “What is the best way for us as a class to learn this history?” Students set out to collaborate on a project that would demonstrate and guide their learning throughout the semester. The ultimate choice to produce a book was informed by the capabilities and talents available to the students in the class.
Students each picked a building or thematic topic and then drafted a chapter based on their own research of the subject matter, showcasing different perspectives and viewpoints concerning the buildings. After their own individual research and writing was complete, they came together again, finding partners and groups that helped them edit, confirm the validity of their research, and ensure that the final product would meet the group's high standards.
The class was composed of honors students from a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds, which allowed students' indvidual strengths to inform a constantly developing dialogue throughout the semester. These conversations that engaged students and allowed the sharing of ideas from all different perspectives.
This dialogue between the students and the professor was informed by Knox’s approach to teaching. When asked about his method for teaching the class, he said “most of the work involved is posing the question and then letting the students guide their own learning.”
Students said this approach allowed them to pursue their own interests and work on a project that they were truly invested in. The guidance from Knox on the material and logistics-based aspects of producing a book allowed them to spend less time on guesswork and more time on learning.
The students’ engagement in their own learning was reflected in their enthusiasm about the project. When asked about the most remarkable part of the project for them, there was one unifying theme: Everyone was equally invested and cared about the book. Because they were all working toward a distinct goal, enabled by the project-based structure, they were motivated to create a final product that they could be proud of.
Their learning was also jump-started by the structure of the class. Because they were more invested in the quality of the final product, they weren’t as concerned about their final grades and could focus on learning what was needed to create something good. Some students were trepidatious about the project-based structure of the class at the beginning of the semester. One of the students spoke about their feelings at the beginning of the class: “I’m the type of person who enjoys structure, so I had a lot of concern and stress about the overall structure of the class, but that stopped when I got to know everyone and became comfortable.”
This feeling of camaraderie uplifted the entire class throughout the project. When some students struggled, others stepped up to fill the gaps and everyone took their turns supporting each other. As the students got to know each other, their relationships supported their abilities to collaborate effectively. They found that they cared about their peers' work as much as their own, so they put in the extra effort to help if their peers needed it. As the students chatted about the project, they also discussed arranging a group outing to breakfast - a testament to the bonds they were able to form over the course of the class.
Again and again, students spoke about how reliable everyone was, and how they were proud of the way that such a small group was able to bond and put together a book in such a short time frame. The small class size supported the speed at which these honors students were able to develop relationships and work together. One of the nine students mentioned that because it was a small class, “you knew that everyone actually wanted to be there to put in the work,” which earned a round of nodding around the table.
“What I loved most about 'Becoming Washington' was that the class felt more independent and collaborative rather than a typical lecture-exam class. We worked together to make a book that we are all proud of. It was fun to see everyone’s different talents reflected in our book,” said Hannah Nelson, an honors student in the class.
The project, like any, came with challenges. The same small class size that created a nimble and motivated team also posed struggles that might have been solved by more bodies in the room. Even in a small group, studentws found it difficult to schedule times to work together or communicate across everyone’s busy schedules.
And yet, the testimonies from students were resoundingly positive. Every person around the table spoke with enthusiasm and sought to find the words to describe the experience - one that allowed them an opportunity to collaborate on a project, take pride in their work, and be the guides of their own learning. The last person to speak, after enthusing about the abilities and reliability of their peers, sheepishly spoke about how nervous they were at the beginning of the semester concerning the unfamiliar structure of the class … and then went on, in the same breath, to say that they learned more in the seminar than in any other class because of the course structure that initially made them nervous.
Project-based experiential learning and transdisciplinary collaboration are the core values of the Honors College, and they make a difference for the student experience and their learning. Taylor Fitchett, an honors student in the class, said, “This class was a prime example of the importance I find in transdisciplinary studies. I seldom, if ever, have the opportunity to explore the built environment, let alone through research of a place [like Washington, D.C.] that is so rich in history, but by engaging with students pursuing various disciplines in their professional and personal lives I am proud to be a part of the unique journey of writing a story.”