Who Is the Global? Part 2: The Meaning of Your Last Name
“Who is the global?” a colleague asked me recently. The context was a workshop concerning teaching the history of world architecture. I answered, “the global is my classroom.” In a previous post, I explained my reasons for the answer. In this post, I explain how I craft writing assignments for survey courses in light of these realities.
Every undergraduate and graduate student in the professional programs in architecture at the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York is required to take the four-semester survey of world architecture. Over the years we have developed a parallel curriculum in writing and research because many undergraduate students (and some graduate students too) have been poorly served by previous instruction in these subjects in New York City’s racially segregated, uneven public schools. My colleagues, Sean Weiss and Cesare Birignani, the graduate students who lead discussion sections, and I are determined to redress that wrong. We teach basic writing skills in Survey 1 and 2 and adopt a Lefebvrian frame of analysis for writing assignments in Survey 3 and 4. By Lefebvrian I mean that we ask students to analyze the production of space, from physical, social, and discursive perspectives; to wrestle with everyday life and lived experiences in architecture; and to admit everyday architecture into the history of the built environment.
The penultimate undergraduate writing assignment is the research paper, “House Histories,” assigned in Survey 4. By now, you’ve probably figured out that the editors of PLATFORM decided to borrow this title for one of the columns in this digital forum. “House Histories” (the paper) asks each student to analyze the production of space in a family residence, and to research the history of this house using interviews, fieldwork, and other primary and secondary sources. I have shared the full assignment here, but to summarize, it calls on the counsel of the late Oscar Hijuelos, son of Cuban immigrants, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989), and honored City College alumnus. I heard Hijuelos lecture in the college’s renowned Great Hall as I was crafting this assignment. He told the audience, full of Latinx students, to “honor your family history,” to “know where you come from … the specialness of being who you are … to learn the meaning of your last name.”
“House Histories” challenges Spitzer students to do as Hijuelos directed: “to learn the meaning of your last name.” This means that they need to learn to be objective about their subjectivities and subjective experiences (hard lessons for architecture students). They also learn to keep “the reality-check called history in sight” as they insert the everyday, the migratory, the impermanent, the ephemeral, the biographical, the domestic, the maternal, and the paternal into their research papers. In the end students appreciate this assignment, difficult as it is. It honors them; it says that they, who constitute the global, have important stories to tell. It says that they matter. It emphasizes that the architectural history of Harlem, New York City, and the U.S. are part of world architectural history. World history happens wherever we happen to be. It isn’t only found someplace else.
Last spring (2019), I encouraged students to write in their language of origin as well as in English, following the insights of my colleagues at the CUNY Graduate Center, where I also teach. I’m learning about translanguaging, a way of describing the epistemology of bilingual students, and I’m eager to apply new insights as I work with colleagues to refine the survey curriculum and assignments. JiaJun Liu is one student who took up the challenge, to write in his language of origin. He analyzed the meaning of the character for home, applying it to the two houses that his family lives in in China (figures 1, 2, video):
In Chinese, the word home is represented by the character “家” (Jia), with a “宀” on the top, which means caves in oracle bone script; “豕” representing pig on the bottom. During the ancient time, people would raise their pigs inside the house, which forms the character 家. Meanwhile, the word house is represented by the character “屋” (wu), with a “尸” on top representing a dead boy and “至” on the bottom, means finally landed in a place; connecting these two words mean a house is a place where people dwell. The difference between the house and home in English must be explained verbally while the Chinese character already defines these differences in the character itself. In other words, the premise of the home must be a house, but a house doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a home.
When I shared JiaJun’s analysis at a recent workshop, I saw a member of the audience nod in recognition. It seemed as if he were reading the characters in his mind’s eye as he heard me speak. JiaJun addressed many other aspects of his family homes, including the spirit tablets displayed in each setting (figures 3, 4). You can read the full paper here.
Ashley Singh wrote about her home in Little Guyana in Queens, one that her parents struggled to buy and renovate using Guyanese motifs; Paola Ruiz discussed one of her family’s houses in Medellin, Colombia, and Manuel Francisco Cifuentes told the story of the immigrant community that’s taken hold in his cooperative apartment building in Fort George in upper Manhattan.
I could go on.
One question I’ve faced regarding this assignment is how it could be used in places where origin, race, and class are homogenous, meaning more homogeneous than they are at City College. Homogeneity is a deceptive concept. I do tailor this assignment to the Spitzer audience, but when I shared this concern with the graduate students who lead discussion sections, they responded like this. They said that Hijuelos’s counsel, “to learn the meaning of your last name,” is as pertinent to an architecture student in Lincoln, Nebraska as it is to one in New York City; in fact, it is important to each one of us with forebears who were once perceived as the other in the United States.
A sobering coda: My first pass at “House Histories” included a public history component. I wanted to map the houses, with each dot linked digitally to the student’s paper, interviews, and illustrations. I hoped to publish this digital map on the Spitzer website, and I hoped it would grow each year, augmented with information from the new house histories that Spitzer students wrote. I had to abandon this idea immediately: some students didn’t want to share where they lived—a homeless shelter, a public housing project, a friend’s couch, or even the street. Others couldn’t reveal their residences because their situation was precarious.
I hope we can make the map one day. It would show us who we are at the architecture school. It could show the world.
Author’s note: This post is based on a short presentation made at “Teaching the Global,” a workshop held during the Society of Architectural Historians 2019 meeting in Providence, R.I.
 Ofelia García, “Translanguaging,” Multilingualism & Diversity Lectures (MUDILE), Elke Montari and Joachim Griesbaum, coordinators, Stiftung University, Hildesheim, 2017.