'Walkshop' Explores Urban Campus Instruction

The morning of Tuesday, April 2, started off cool and slightly overcast. Standing on one of the walkways between Fifth Avenue and the Cathedral of Learning, Tom Morton, a lecturer of the history of architecture and urbanism in the History of Art and Architecture department, and Tahirah Walker, a manager of learning design at the University Center for Teaching and Learning, asked a small group of people where the center and edge of Pitt’s campus are.

All pointed in different directions.

The exercise wasn’t meant to definitively answer either question so much as to encourage participants in Morton and Walker’s “walkshop” to think about what it means to be on an urban campus that is often called “porous” — and how to incorporate that idea into their courses.


What’s a walkshop?

Morton and Walker met through a yearlong faculty teaching workshop. Over the summer of 2018, Walker contacted Morton to suggest a collaboration on an educational experience that would move participants beyond the traditional formats of lectures and slides in a classroom — a walkshop.

As Walker explained, a walkshop is “a walking workshop where we talk about the space that you can see around you.”

The idea for their walkshop tour was “not discussing architectural pedagogy, but architecture as pedagogy,” said Morton.

“For us, we were thinking if you have this built form, how can you incorporate this into your courses regardless of what you’re teaching?” Morton said, referring to physical constructions like buildings, classrooms and other architectural features.

The Walkshopping Our Urban Campus tour began at Alumni Hall, where Morton pointed out features that harken back to the building’s history as a Masonic Temple. He noted that on the eighth floor, where the Center for Teaching and Learning is located, judicial gavels serve as door handles — but he didn’t take the tour up to see them.

That’s by design. “Part of it is sort of planting the seeds and encouraging people to go explore and look. This tour is not about taking everybody to every last thing,” Morton said.

An accessible campus

A quick walk across Fifth Avenue brought the tour to a walkway on the Cathedral’s lawn. Morton encouraged participants to consider the Cathedral – which, at 535 feet, is the tallest educational building in the Western hemisphere – from physical and social perspectives. It’s a grand building, he acknowledged, but is it welcoming? Approachable? Open?

Accessible learning

It’s good to remind students that the University can help with accessibility, said Walker. Here are some ways faculty can promote accessibility in courses.

  • Build in a credit to encourage students to visit a library and use its available resources.
  • Don’t assume students’ prior knowledge of topics. Starting a course with a survey can help measure students’ level of familiarity.
  • Consider that accessibility includes topics and ideas beyond physical spaces and resources; consider digital technology, for example.
  • Incorporate classroom details into course design. Think about spaces and the used environment, including white boards and staging.

One resource Walker suggested is the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, which aims to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn. Visit the UDL website for more information.

He tied this idea of openness to his question about what people consider the edge of campus, and contrasted Pitt with other universities. “Some campuses are very contained. Some are truly physically removed. There some within cities that are, if not contained, inward-looking,” he said, noting that the University of Pennsylvania (where Morton earned his doctorate) had, for many years, been an example of this.

“It almost feels like Pitt is part of a public space,” said Tony Kerzmann, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at the Swanson School of Engineering, and one of the walkshop participants. “It’s almost museum-ish.”

Morton led participants through the Cathedral’s Commons Room, then outside and around the Stephen Foster Memorial, highlighting a construction project intended to make the latter building accessible to people with disabilities. As participants climbed stairs, rounded corners and traversed busy city streets, Morton encouraged them to think about accessibility.

The tour itself can accommodate any special accessibility needs; registrants need only contact the office in advance to make those needs known.

“There’s physical access and there’s digital access… It’s good to remind students that anything that hinders them is something the University can help with,” Walker said, referencing the myriad resources the University can make available to instructors and students to help with accessibility.

The sound of silence

After passing Hillman Library and Wesley W. Posvar Hall, Morton ended the tour in the cloister within the Frick Fine Arts building. It’s Walker’s favorite part of the tour.

“Not only because my feet hurt,” she joked, but because “We go in there and those doors close, and you are essentially in pure silence.” It’s a way to remind participants to engage the five senses in their courses.

“We tend to hear a lot about how students learn,” Walker said, mentioning that we tend to think people are visual, auditory or tactile learners.

“The truth from all the data we’ve gotten… is yes, they are all of those. We can expand that, and offer [students] experiences that are not just listening to me talk inside this room — we can offer them experiences that are built on a more enlarged sense of what learning is.”

Continuing the tour

For some participants, there has already been desire to continue the tour beyond the cloister. Following the initial walkshop in September 2018, Walker worked with two ecology instructors on a spin-off tour.

“Both of the new lab courses have a local ecology focus, and we want to make sure we maximize opportunities to connect students to the Pitt campus and the surrounding community,” said Nancy Kaufmann, senior lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences, noting that they hope to repeat the session with all of the lab instructors in the future.

“Students often list living in this city as one of their favorite parts about Pitt, so finding more ways to connect with the community should help with student engagement,” said Kaufmann.

Walker agreed. “Community-engaged learning has proven itself over and over again to be one of the most beneficial ways to get students involved and intrinsically motivated in learning,” she said. “So that [the walkshop] offers instructors an opportunity to think about what are some of the other ways that the physical space we’re in here communicates with the larger community.”

For more information about future walkshop tours or to work with others to develop one, contact the University Center for Teaching and Learning.

  • Tom Morton and Tahirah Walker developed the Walkshopping Our Urban Campus tour. Walker said her biggest goal was to get people thinking about where learning occurs. “I love design that flows from goals, but along the way when we figure out what activities will support students in reaching those goals. What we wanted to do with this was open up the possibilities of [instructors] thinking about spaces on campus where students could go and explore.” (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • “Scale is a great way to teach abstract concepts,” Walker said, using an example of comparing how many city buses would fit inside the International Space Station. Morton referred to the ideas of expansion and contraction, noting that the Commons Room feels like an expansion from the Cathedral’s doorways because it “literally opens up in front of you.” (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • “One of the things we try to do is encourage people to really open up their eyes to see things that are there that they just haven’t seen,” said Morton. He cited the example of opening up the front doors of the Frick Fine Arts building: “You see this amazing axial alignment between the huge Mary Schenley fountain in front to the small fountain in the middle of the cloister.” (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Walker said that one of the highlights of the walkshop was that it attracted participants from a variety of disciplines who could make connections with each other. “The urban campus space is one of the few places where that can happen so easily, instantaneously. You have this [idea of] let’s see what’s important to all of us and how that comes together.” (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • While crossing Fifth Avenue, Morton encouraged participants to look down Fifth and consider the myriad universities along it and Forbes Avenue: Pitt, Carlow, Duquesne, Carnegie Mellon and Chatham. Other buildings might predate the Cathedral, Morton noted, but due to its unique placement, "That tower becomes representative not simply of Pitt, but of higher ed.” (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • After an initial walkshop tour took place in September 2018, a spin-off session was developed with two members of the Department of Biological Sciences. They invited a learning space development manager, who could point out places on campus where there was opportunity for planting. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Morton highlighted places where updates had altered the functionality of original features. Here, new fixtures that better illuminate the entrances of Alumni Hall mean that the most-external doors no longer close. However, the interior doors offer updated accessibility features like push-button opening. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Morton speculated that these blank shields in the Cathedral’s Commons Room could have once been used for signage display or other customizations for special events. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)