The Making of the “Hello Modernists” Podcast:
An Experiment in Academic Necromancy
→ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, ARCH
As of late, our “post”-pandemic world has witnessed a spate of academic obituaries and preemptive eulogies declaring the imminent demise of Higher Education or one of its liberal appendages.1 With the prolonged “death” of Higher Education’s essential organs—English, Philosophy, and History—and the freefall in enrollment of non-STEM majors, there seems to be a growing consensus that Higher Education is witnessing a peculiar terminal illness. Diagnoses vary widely: the uncertainties within a global economy, the effects of COVID-19, the widespread availability of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), the asymmetrical rise of tuition over inflation, neoliberalism, generational malaise … TikTok. “Declarations that entire fields of thought are ‘over,’” writes theorist Jack Halberstam, “are bad enough when one of two of these reasons for being declared dead and dusted are provided; they are especially annoying when all these reasons are given at once.”2 As Halberstam continues, “Treatises on the death of this or the end of that […] want to add a punctuation point to a set of rapid developments and acquiesce to the status quo. They want to declare change, transformation, and the new as resolutely over while indulging in nostalgia for earlier, more dynamic moments.”3 In short, they mourn the end of a status quo to maintain its significance.
Jack’s critique, I believe, can be extended to the eschatology of entire methodologies of instruction and learning, which have similarly witnessed their own premature postmortems that may ironically hasten buy-in for their oblivion. The “college essay” and the “college lecture” are two methodological species that many educators have long considered endangered if not outright extinct due to irrelevancy following Higher Education’s short-lived (for some) “Zoom University” era.4 However, it is within this (perceived) academic necropolis where “the lecture,” “the essay,” and the waning of interest in and the relevance of the dusty humanities are laid to rest that “Hello Modernists” was conjured.
I came to RISD as a two-year term appointment tasked with being part of ongoing, collective efforts to (re)think the history and theory curriculum and its relevance within the RISD Architecture department as well as architectural education broadly. This task, while enticing, was also daunting given myriad expectations: better link history courses with design studios; provide a clear foundation of architectural history while simultaneously “decolonizing” that very foundation; formulate a lecture course that serves both undergraduate and graduate students; and resuscitate the college history lecture from its dusty model that many considered to be dying.
During my term, I taught the first of two required history and theory lectures in RISD architecture, Modern Architecture. The course examined the advent of modernism and its relationship with the built environment through multiple lenses. The lectures were consciously designed to avoid the status quo of dividing a series of case studies across one linear timeline of an eternal narrative suspended outside time and space. Instead, each lecture “began again,” as Edward Said might say, with questions about the past grounded in the present that (re)paced across the same two centuries each week.5
Since the lectures consistently “began again,” we decided to reenvision the culminating assignment so that each was a form of beginning. In the first iteration of the course, which I co-taught with Germán Pallares-Avita, students were given the freedom to produce documentaries, comic books, or installations. Upon reflection, the multimedia range of these different producibles, especially those that required more than one of the human senses, required different durations of production and refinement. In the second iteration of the course, which I co-taught with Namita Vijay Dharia and Lasse Rau, I invited students to produce a series of podcasts on a shared topic—to conceptualize a season related to the themes of the lectures, producing in pairs in-depth episodes that respond to the collective theme. The assignment offered students an opportunity to contribute their own narrative(s) on a shared conversation by deploying both historical content (how dates, places, and peoples are linked together) and historiography (how that linking has been situated and rationalized by others through tools such as genre, mood, socio-political interests/biases). Podcasts were a great middle ground, focused on one sense, hearing, but open to many acoustic and literary design possibilities. The podcasts published on v.1 stem from the second iteration of the course.
At RISD, the Architecture faculty have generally been split regarding the purpose and value of architectural history. On the one hand, some believe the required lectures should offer education in design precedents geared towards students’ core studio courses; on the other, they are primarily viewed as a means for engaging socio-economic meta-critiques that may often feel irrelevant to students’ immediate design interests. Flatly, hand one fails to prompt critical reading skills, methodological criticism, and a general interest in the past beyond its “usefulness” towards design ideation while the other hand does not necessarily take advantage of the analytical visual and design skills students build in their studios. My two years here have been directed towards finding some form of reconciliation between these two perspectives on architectural history, cognizant of the fact that historians have long considered History to be a design project—albeit not always put in such words—and that architecture, since its modern inception, is always involved in historical and social critique even when designers purport to be working autonomously or phenomenologically.
If historians considered the project of History to be a design project, then why not approach the canonical producible of history courses—the essay—as a design challenge? Under this charge, architectural history lectures became less about reciting specific facts and rather about examining the project of History through the lens of the built environment. Rather than over-emphasize the stories that are often told in our textbooks, or glorify specific buildings, history lectures could strive to analyze the design and intention of such narratives. At RISD, our lectures were occupied with the ways in which histories are told, remembered, and ultimately designed—never free from the intentional agendas or unconscious biases of the designer, the builder, the financier, the historian, etc.
The supposed necrosis of the college lecture and essay provided my students and me the critical space to perform a postmortem analysis to determine their cause of death—colonialism, imperialism, class biases, patriarchy, nationalism/jingoism. In other words, if there was a general belief that history lectures and their essay outcomes are increasingly becoming irrelevant to younger student populations, their interests, and their pedagogical goals, we approached the Modern Architecture course with the critical paranoia of a mortician aiming to understand how such bodies died and the design behind them. In terms of designing the essay, students were encouraged to look beyond their historical objects and focus on the narratives in which they were set, to formally analyze them for what they include as well as what they exclude. The canonical producible of history lectures, then, became a means for students to explore methods of storytelling, authorship, voice, genre, and tone, as well as question how supposed historical facts or design precedents have become canonized.
While any lover of the literary arts will argue that there is a lot of capacity to design with words, also a part of the supposed academic necropolis is the death of reading replaced by viewing media. This shift opened us to the possibility and flexibility to play around with different media formats for telling stories, namely the aural. Taking from the literary tropes of genre—comedy, tragedy, thriller, folklore, romance—and tone—sarcasm, nostalgia, deadpan, cheerful, serious—students utilized soundscapes, sound effects (FX), and speaking inflections, among other audio strategies to affectively tell their histories. Students were asked to envision how their episode’s narrative might be performed or enacted, whether there was just one speaker or many, and how certain speech acts aurally build out relationships between host(s) and audience/public. In many ways, then, the podcast was “the college essay,” but orated, and complemented with the play of sonic landscapes, sound effects, and audio play. Crucially, the sensorial focus on aurality helped us destabilize the many presumptions associated with “the college essay” and the myriad reasons for its pending expiration—its authoritative genre, its objective tone, its placeless perspective, its reliance on specific evidentiary forms—by revealing them as being elements of design; writing sentences became equivalent to speaking them. The podcast was neither an effort to supplant “the college essay” nor a nostalgic paean to it. Rather, in designing the audio narrative, students built the skills not only necessary to create their own understandings of history and its telling but also to identify the structures and tropes they encounter in historical writing every day.
When faced with the presumed ruins of an academic necropolis, my hope was not that we, faculty and students, would accept and mourn it, but rather dig up its corpse and adopt some of the madness of Victor Frankenstein in order to assemble new and revivified chimerical histories/futures from their viscera.6 If the ethos of Modern Architecture was to be skeptical of the design of historical narratives as facts then one of the narratives that it brought into question were the declarations of the death of the essay, the lecture, and the history course itself. Probably put best by RISD Assistant Professor Jess Myers in a summer course planning meeting, architecture tends to only speak in one tense—I make, I build, I do. The podcast became a means of introducing an alternative tense, the compound tense; one that reflected on the processes of history-making while students were simultaneously narrating their own histories with various viscera. The course and podcast consequently helped to broaden this disciplinary vocabulary and destabilize its conventional modes of presentation, opening up spaces for students to explore their myriad capacities as designers.7
Bret Stephens, “This Is the Other Way that History Ends,” New York Times, 30 August 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/30/opinion/history-sweet-aha-academia.html?smid=url-share; Nathan Heller, “The End of the English Major,” The New Yorker, 27 February 2023, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/03/06/the-end-of-the-english-major; Michal Goldstein and Kaitlyn Tsai, “Humanities and the ‘Battle of the University,’” Harvard Crimson, 3 March 2022, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2022/3/3/humanities-scrut; Steven Mintz, “This Is How the Humanities End,” Inside Higher Ed, 12 September 2022, https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/higher-ed-gamma/how-humanities-end; Frank Bruni, “The End of College as We Knew It?” New York Times, 4 June 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-college-humanities.html.
Jack Halberstam, “Nice Trannies: After Andrea Long Chu,” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 7, no. 3 (August 2020): 321.
Christine Gross-Loh, “Should Colleges Really Eliminate the College Lecture?” The Atlantic, 14 July 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/07/eliminating-the-lecture/491135; Daniel de Vise, “Colleges Looking beyond the Lecture,” Washington Post, 15 February 2012, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/colleges-looking-beyond-the-lecture/2012/02/03/gIQA7iUaGR_story.html.
See: Edward Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
Trans studies have brilliantly raised the question of whether monstrosity is necessarily a negative thing. See: Susan Stryker, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage,” GLQ 1 (1994): 237–54.
A special thanks to Germán Pallares-Avitia, Lasse Rau, Namita Vijay Dharia, Amy Kulper, Ijlal Muzaffar, and Aaron Tobey, all of whom participated in and/or helped structure and ideate the Modern Architecture history lecture during my two-year term appointment
Malcolm Rio is micro-dosing their queer manifesto on social media and across various academic publications.