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Hot Topics Conversations: Autumn 2020 Recap

In Autumn 2020, members of the CBE community (including faculty, staff and students) gathered four times for conversations on some of the ideas and language central to our College work. The goal of these Hot Topics conversations is to identify the differing perspectives that exist within our college and to practice engaging in productive dialogue around these differences. Over the course of the term we experimented with different approaches and tools for facilitating dialogue – including progressive stack, mentimeter, polleverywhere, and Google Jam Board.

Through this experimentation, we learned that there is more than one way to have a community dialogue. We also learned that practice as a community does us good in discussing difficult topics. While the conversations were at times stilted and awkward, with each conversation, our community showed a little more fluency: a greater willingness to open up about our perspectives and a greater willingness to pose questions of one another and emphasize differences in perspectives. Still, there is space for us to grow in this work. In several conversations, the group showed a tendency toward finding a middle ground in our meaning or accepting the broadest, most inclusive definition. So there’s been signs of growth but also there remains room for improvement. We will have the opportunity to continue this work with more Hot Topics conversations in 2021.


What does profit mean in the built environments? What does it mean to our College? Is profit distinct from flow of money, economic value, wealth or value? Is it a driver, an outcome or something else? Are there disciplinary differences in how we teach about or talk about money? Are these similar to other disciplinary differences or does money trigger more deeply held differences?

This conversation was facilitated by Gregg Colburn (Assistant Professor of Real Estate) and Jen Davison (Assistant Dean for Research).

Most attendees were on the same page in defining profit in traditional economic terms (“net economic value created” or “revenue minus expenses”). Differing perspectives emerged when asked to consider the role of profit, particularly in the context of the built environments. Some highlighted its role as an important driver of activity (“drives resource allocation–returns to investors are necessary”; “without profit, it’s harder for professionals and firms to solve the Big Problems”), while others saw the role of profit as outsized and a detriment to other priorities (“favors private gain over long term public good”; “has outsized weight in terms of societal values”; “it is inherently exploitative”).

In thinking about profit in relation to CBE, the distinction above was significant as was College’s position in educating students for professions in the built environments. Despite differing perspectives on the role of profit in society, most felt it was important to equip students with a functional understanding of profit so they can work in industry, if an understanding that contextualizes profit and acknowledges factors outside of monetary value (“equity, environmental wellbeing and care”; “impact on climate change”).


What does craft mean within our departments, curriculum and fields? Is there overlap in these definitions? Is it a modern term, historical or something else? In thinking about the role of craft in pedagogy, should we teach it? How do we teach it? How does craft relate to technology? To history?

This conversation was facilitated by Catherine De Almeida (Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture) and Jack Hunter (Digital Fabrication Tech and Lecturer in Architecture).


Much of this conversation on craft highlighted a few distinct definitions of the term. Definitions of craft varied from the specific act of physical creation to those that considered the term much more broadly (e.g. “expertise in a given area of endeavor, particularly associated with physical making but also applies to activities that look to making as a model (writing, assembling code, skills”). These viewpoints were relevant as the group discussed how and where we talk about craft in CBE. Does “craft” occur primarily in the fabrication lab and design-build studios or is it embedded in many aspects of our work in the college?


Design and design thinking were central components of the 2012 draft strategic plan, yet in this planning process, were rarely mentioned by the task groups. Was the omission due to an assumption that design is ubiquitous in our College? Is the omission a sign of success, that the college has changed, an indication that we agree on what it means, a way to avoid past unresolved conflicts raised by the term, or something else? Do we have a clear agreement on what design and design thinking are and the role they play in our college? We want to explore what has changed, if anything, and discuss the import of this word in 2012 that may not be useful to our planning process now.

This conversation was facilitated by Susan Jones (Affiliate Associate Professor of Architecture and Founder of AtelierJones, LLC) and Laura Osburn (Research Scientist at the Center for Education and Research in Construction, CERC).


Continuing in the vein of the craft discussion, CBE members have different perspectives on the meaning of design, from the specific interpretation in the built environments (e.g. “Design is a phase in the life cycle of a project where new ideas are introduced and written down. Often considered to happen after planning and before fabrication and construction.”) to a broader mode of thinking (“It is a process that bridges the practical and the imaginary”; “creative problem solving”; “intersubjective conversation – between people, places, materials, histories and future”). Despite these contested meanings and the limited discussion of “design” in the recent strategic planning process, participants in the conversation see it as a core value at CBE.


What does it mean to be a professional? What education prepares graduates to enter or lead professions in the architecture, engineering, construction (AEC) industries? When our classes take on community projects where the community has a clear need, do we take on a commitment of a profession-quality deliverable? What if the open-ended explorations of the course take the work in a different direction? What if circumstances change, such as in the ways we accommodate students in Spring 2020 to opt-in to final projects? Are we modeling behavior that is unprofessional?

This conversation was facilitated by Branden Born (Associate Professor of Urban Design and Planning) and Rachel Faber Machacha (Academic Advisor & Graduate Program Assistant in Construction Management).


In this conversation, we used Google Jamboard as a space for participants to anonymously post “Record Scratch Moments”—experiences that challenged their notions of professionalism—and to post questions on professionalism in the context of CBE and the professions. The wide-ranging conversation touched on the role of ethics in professionalism, the relationship between professionalism and identity or culture, and the balance of setting up students to be professional while recognizing the concept itself perpetuates certain structures of inequality.

Winter 2021

Looking ahead to Winter 2021, we will continue these efforts to understand differing perspectives in the College and to practice engaging in productive dialogue based on these differences. Learn more about our upcoming discussions here.