Roddier “ZOOMONTOLOGY” Essay Published in Places Journal “Field Notes on Pandemic Teaching” Series

Mireille Roddier, an associate professor of architecture, recently published an essay in Places Journal as part of its “Field Notes on Pandemic Teaching” series, in which educators around the globe share their thoughts on the challenges of abruptly moving to online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. She joins Dean Jonathan Massey and Associate Professor Andrew Herscher, who also have contributed to the “Field Notes on Pandemic Teaching” series.

Roddier’s essay is excerpted below.


 Not a month ago, a student was flying me through a Rhino file in response to a “three-dimensional study” assignment. I wanted to say, “If you are not aware that this is a two-dimensional representation, on a very flat screen, of a rendered projection of a model, then you should maybe exercise your sensory apparatus before you lose it.” But I’m told that I’m old-school, that the future is digital — which is probably why I’ve been holding on to outmoded notions of the real lately. (Not the pseudo-essentialism of precious things, but actual materials with texture and heft.) I guess I asked for it: For the past decade, I have repeatedly undermined students’ adoration of Peter Zumthor’s Atmospheres (2006) with Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981), and called out the delusion of immediacy by deconstructing ideological apparatuses of mediation. After all, ’90s education demystified for my generation any presumption of expressive material presence, so why would Gen Z Zoomers get to enjoy blue pills off the shelf? Well, I now spend the quasi-entirety of my days in spaces perceived through a two-dimensional interface, whether it’s my computer screen or the window through which I stare down at street life (or the current lack thereof).

I’ll recognize that online studio-teaching has quickly transcended the limitations of our traditional physical format. Digital drawings created on a 1080p screen 20 inches from the eyes of their producer benefit from being viewed under analogous conditions, rather than printed too small and hung too far away to be seen past the front row of (hierarchically seated) reviewers. And, speaking of reviewers, increased online accessibility has enabled a geographically diversified pool of guest critics for my courses — and here’s a shout-out to friends and former students who have participated from across the global slice of our time zone. The easily shared links by which we declare this learning space “public” have reshuffled attendance; lectures, reviews, even desk-crits are better attended than ever, albeit not always by the students originally enrolled … This highlights the obvious consequences of relaxed disciplinary mechanisms and increased self-organization: the playing field has never been so uneven. The students’ formatted presence on my screen conceals more than ever their disparate material conditions of production. They are especially polarized in their capacity to manage the resource that is time

The design studio, however panoptical, offers more than a physical infrastructure that allocates equal desktop space. It offers common hours through which skills sets, expertise, energy, motivation and/or inspiration are in constant flux, and are thereby permanently redistributed. A shared studio impedes sorting into the haves and have nots. (Those who work at home rather than in studio tend to either exceed all expectations — unnecessarily — or fall short — unfortunately.) The very physicality of studio space enables regulation of common standards against the logic of competition — which we know is anything but free and fair — just as the fixed parameter of 12 studio-hours per week can help level the ground between those rich in hours and those disadvantaged by day-jobs or dependents.

Two weeks after the shift online, it is this absence of common ambient studio time that is most reflected in the students’ diverging rates of progress. They’ve given Zoom a fair chance: I have seen them leave it on for hours to keep one another company; organize peer reviews; enjoy happy hours; virtually blow birthday candles from one frame into the next; and rediscover the simple joy of parlor games. But the interface flattens one thing that most requires depth, which is the fluctuating range between foreground and background — not only in space but also in one another’s presences; we lose the dynamics between working on a computer and stepping away from it; between pinning a print out on a wall and backing up to observe it; between focusing on one’s project and wandering away to a peer’s desk to inquire on their progress; between layers of chatter that demand different tuning frequencies.

I look at my students, their work, their (intra-)virtual backgrounds, their pets roaming in and out of the frame; they filter in at a steady 40Mbps and land at a numbingly uniform 128 dpi on my screen. At the end of the day, I turn the screen off and stare at the black glass for an extra second. There is undeniable relief in the release from mediation to the immediacy of matter.

— Mireille Roddier

Read essays by other Taubman College faculty in the “Field Notes on Pandemic Teaching” series:

Dean Jonathan Massey

Professor Sharon Haar

Associate Professor Matias del Campo

Associate Professor Andrew Herscher

See the entire “Field Notes on Pandemic Teaching” series here.


Places Journal provides public scholarship on architecture, landscape, and urbanism. Learn more here.