Fall 2021 Welcome Address from Dean Sarah M. Whiting

Hello and welcome to the GSD, Fall 2021! I’m Sarah Whiting, your dean, and I’m so excited to be back in my office. I very much look forward to seeing you all.

This welcome back address was in the back of my mind the other morning when I was out for a walk, listening to a podcast—The Ezra Klein Show—he’s a very sharp journalist and political analyst and, it turns out, a great podcast interviewer. This particular episode happened to be a rerun, featuring one of my favorite writers, George Saunders, who’s a master of the short story genre, a terrific essayist, and who received the Man Booker Prize in 2017 for his haunting novel Lincoln in the Bardo. So here I am, walking while listening to two smart people, and very quickly I was struck by resonances between their conversation and the school. That happens to all of us, I suspect: when you’re in the middle of something, everything around you seems to come into relevance, sometimes quite directly and sometimes in a roundabout manner. For me, that’s one of the real luxuries of this school: Because so much (arguably everything) intersects and overlaps with what we do here, it’s very easy to find such parallels.

The first resonance was a quote from George Saunders that “kindness is the only non-delusional response to the human condition.” He’s written more extensively about kindness elsewhere, but this short sentence captures a great mindset for all of us, as we return to being in person together in a world that is still beset by anxiety regarding the pandemic and endlessly troubling news regarding the environment, the economy, the hard work we all face in ending systemic racism here and abroad, and additional challenges that riddle our newsfeeds. There is a lot going on in the world out there.

We have many ways of responding directly to all that is going on through what we do in here, in the school, as you can see from the huge range of courses that we have this term, many of which take on issues of equity, health, climate, infrastructure, re-use, and migration. Our courses focus on the specificity of where design intersects these issues. For example: the specificity of, how housing design impacts our individual health and our collective equity—the forms and spaces of each apartment, as well as the shared spaces for getting to apartments, and also housing’s outdoor spaces. We also have many courses that look at a whole host of other topics, ranging from Michelangelo to insects to social infrastructure to finance. We will, in short, have our hands and heads full this semester as we dive into a remarkable range of intelligence and knowledge, and we’ll be doing it together again in Gund, 485 Broadway, the Kirkland and Sumner “houses,” our backyard, and our other GSD campus spaces.

After a year and a half of having our computer monitors mediate our encounters, we’re going to have to get used to being together again—we can’t hit mute so easily anymore! Can’t cook a boeuf bourguignon or bake a sourdough loaf while still attending (or teaching) class anymore! Can’t sit barefoot anymore or Zoom from a Peloton anymore! My advice? Keep George Saunders’ quote front and center: kindness is the only non-delusional response to the human condition. It’s a fantastic default both for engaging one another and for responding to the world at large, which is more than a little tough these days.

The second resonance I took from that episode of The Ezra Klein Show was Saunders’ description of how he revises his work. He describes the process as training your intuitions so as to improve your ability to make your own choices—for him, choices of word or phrase; for us, choices of design and research. As Saunders explains, “part of the trajectory of becoming a better writer is just to start listening to those little opinions you have in your head, believing in their existence, getting better at discerning them, and then getting better at instantaneously acting on them.”

He continues: “So the kind of amazing truth, in my experience, is that that’s the whole game for a writer: you have a lot of opinions that most of the time you override or miss. Can you slow down a bit in your revision process and find out what those are and then radically honor them? That’s what makes a writer distinctive, I would say. So there’s not much to that really, except cultivating that state of mind.”

Cultivating that state of mind—hand it to George Saunders for finding such a great phrase for describing what an education really is. It’s hard work to shepherd all those opinions in your head so that you can build in yourselves the confidence to determine which opinion, which choice, will take your work forward. I encourage all of you to cultivate a state of mind to enable you to be open to what you’re being exposed to here in your courses, and in the opinions and contributions of others, and to hone your own opinions so that you can constantly revise and improve your lines, whether drawn or written. That cultivation happens here, and it will continue throughout your lives.

I don’t want to imply that that cultivation is simple; and yet, it’s something that every one of us can and should do. Let me turn to another of my favorite writers, Hannah Arendt, to find some tips for paving the way. I use that expression “pave the way” deliberately, because Arendt, who was a political philosopher who wrote perhaps most famously about totalitarianism and humanity, also wrote about thinking and did so often by relying upon built analogies: like “hitting a brick wall,” or “the path paved by thinking,” and one that really struck me: “thinking without a bannister”—her expression for how one can forge thought after the horrors of World War II, the horrors that removed the shared bannisters of reason that one thought one could always count on in the world. After the war, in other words, it was as if everyone found themselves having to climb up and down rickety stairs without the safety of a shared sense of reason because with the war, reason had disappeared from the world. That’s not dissimilar to how we find ourselves today in a world where reason and certainty seem gone—we have to tread carefully up and down stairs without bannisters.

Arendt condemns thoughtlessness. As she puts it, thoughtlessness is different from stupidity, for, as she says, “it can be found in highly intelligent people. And it is nothing rare (she continues) but quite ordinary, especially in our everyday life, where we hardly have the time, let alone the inclination to stop and think.” Arendt wrote this almost fifty years ago, in her final and unfinished book, Life of the Mind, but it sounds like she’s describing our own world. Finally, and importantly, Arendt notes that thoughtlessness can lead to the same horrifying results as evil motives might: in short, thoughtlessness isn’t just a benign selfish removal from the world; it can be dangerous.

So how do we avoid thoughtlessness? How do we cultivate our state of mind? Arendt explains that thinking should not be understood as a withdrawal from the world; instead, she says, thinking requires us to enlist the past and the future, to engage with them and against each other, and to try to make sense of them.

In sum, Arendt provides a valuable lesson in her writing about thinking: while you’re here at the GSD, you should all follow her advice: take time to stop and think. Make sure that you contextualize what you are thinking by looking to the past—history—while also positing the future. Make sure that you engage others: Test out your opinions by talking with your peers in and outside of your classes. Take full advantage of the informal conversations that being together again allows us all to have. And try to design your own bannisters.

We have unique reasons to be optimistic as we contemplate the beginning of this new school year, not least of which are the impressively high vaccination rate at Harvard and the GSD, as well as the steady, reassuring guidance from Harvard University Health Services director Dr. Giang Nguyen, and others informing our return here at Harvard.

But we also have reasons to remain guarded. Needless to say, the rise of Covid’s Delta variant this summer has reminded us that, even as we do everything we can to mitigate risk, this pandemic carries with it a great deal of inherent uncertainty—and, as we have seen, it is an ongoing challenge in which individual decisions and collective responsibility are intertwined. As we reconvene, regather, and reassemble, I am confident that we will ably balance these seemingly conflicting impulses. Simply entering Gund Hall or walking across Harvard Yard—daily routines that once were unremarkable—now feel utterly transformational. Now is an exciting moment, for certain, but it’s also certainly one that is complex.

So, while the start of the academic year bursts and flourishes with adrenaline and color, I want to encourage an expansive, George Saunders-ian kindness, and also patience. We will need to be patient with each other as we continue gauging Covid’s evolving impact on our daily lives and near future. We also need to be patient with ourselves. Self-care may be a well-worn cliché at this point, but I mean it when I say it: give yourself the individual time, freedom, and mental space to do what you need to do in order to situate yourself comfortably and confidently for this semester and this year. Add time and space around even the most rudimentary moments of reconnection—like literally reconnecting your technology, a task that may take more time and patience than in semesters past.

Patience will also beget patience with ourselves. I share with you each the eagerness to get “back to normal,” but I also feel wonder, and yes, some anxiety, around how this is all going to play out. I commit to taking this day by day, reaction by reaction, and I hope we each allow ourselves the elasticity, and the patience, to navigate this term and this year with the awareness that it is a shared moment, a shared experience, and a set of shared reactions.

One thing that allows me some more of that all-important mental space is knowing how tirelessly so many of our staff and faculty have been working over the past several months in preparation. We have organized our efforts in order to have the best of all worlds: collaborating in person again, but doing it safely enough to ensure that we can continue doing so. I again encourage you to take some extra time now to process all the information you’re getting, and to acclimate to some of the new ways in which we access our campus and work together.

Let me take a moment now to remind us of some key points. Our campus buildings will be accessible only to Harvard ID holders, and we are closing Gund Hall and our other GSD campus buildings for a few hours each night—between 2:00 and 5:00 am. This nightly closure will, in part, enable building cleaning, but will also, I hope, help put some brakes on the unproductive culture of “24/7” work, an impulse that is so endemic to the design fields and so counter to intelligent outcomes. Note I’m not saying that you should only leave the building for three hours, but I’m hoping that this schedule can accommodate both our night owls and our early birds.

I also want to remind us all of the obligation to wear face masks while indoors (except when you’re alone in your office, like I am now), and to refrain from eating in shared spaces (go outdoors to eat, please). There is plenty of other information available on the “Reopening” menu on our homepage. Please review this information frequently, and ask questions if you have them. We will all need to remain flexible around shifting policies.

I want to extend a huge thanks to all of the staff and faculty who have worked hard over the summer to ensure our smooth return to campus, and an equally huge thanks to the students, staff, and faculty who’ve been so patient and flexible throughout this ongoing process. An added thanks to our Building Re-Entry Committee, made up of faculty and staff: their work and insight has shaped and informed almost everything we are doing this term. I am also so thrilled about some of the physical improvements that have been made to Gund Hall: we rewired and updated the fire alarm system, pulled up the worn vinyl tiles in the Trays, which now have gleaming polished concrete floors; the lounges now have cork floors. The entrances to Gund now have new 10-foot doors and improved card swipes; the studio roofs (all 120 of them) are new; you’ll also see new paint; and refurbished restrooms (though please note that the first floor restrooms, which include a new, accessible non-gender restroom, will not be complete until next week). We have three new tents (two at Gund and one at the Kirkland houses) and additional outdoor furniture to enable outdoor (maskless) teaching. You can schedule these spaces through SERT. Outdoor video screens are coming soon—they are on backorder. And last but not least, the new basketball hoop will be installed mid-September—you’ll be able to sign out a basketball from the Donut.

Many of you don’t know how changed these spaces are; you may not even know what the Donut is. We have two classes worth of students who haven’t studied in our buildings and even some faculty who haven’t yet been here, despite having started teaching already last year. Those of you who are old hands here at the GSD, please share your insider intel; those of you who are new, don’t hesitate to ask questions and develop your own new traditions.

While our return to in-person collaboration is thrilling and long awaited, some of the digital pathways we carved over the past year and a half have been impressively constructive. We should continue not just making use of them, but building from them. As an example, I encourage you, especially our faculty, to use our internal website GSD Now’s “Trays”, either as a space for collaboration within courses or for sharing conversations and projects with the rest of the school. And students, especially student groups, will find GSD Now a simple and effective way to promote student events, or to curate Trays on topical projects, group discussions, or ongoing research.

Likewise, the virtual setting of our public programming last year proved valuable in its reach as well as the depth of discourse it enabled. While virtual lectures, conferences, and exhibitions are fundamentally different from their analog cousins, the upside is seeing how many people from around the world can join us at each event this fall.

This semester, we can watch these events together even if our speakers cannot come here to give these events in person. We will be holding several spaces—Piper Auditorium, Gund 111 (aka “The War Room”), and two seminar rooms on the 5th floor—for watch parties for this semester’s online public events. I look forward to seeing how these watch parties fuel some exciting and profound internal conversations. One of the things I love most about the GSD is the variety of perspectives we have: just consider the number of our academic programs—we’re clocking in at 23 this year, thanks in part to our overlap of the previous MDes tracks and the inauguration of the new MDes domains. These aren’t 23 individual camps of people who only talk among themselves—instead, it’s over a thousand students who bring very different perspectives and areas of expertise to one another.

You all bring to the school some extraordinary opinions, some amazing thoughtfulness. If you need any confirmation of that, just tune in to The Nexus Podcast, a collaboration between the GSD’s African American Student Union and the Frances Loeb Library. Yesterday’s episode is a riveting conversation between MArch students Tara Oluwafemi and Darien Carr with Dmitri Julius, CPO of ICON. Tara and Darien’s probing questions guide a conversation that moves from 3d printed housing, to Afro-futurism and Sun Ra, to collaborations with NASA and what constitutes context when designing on the moon, among many other topics.

I encourage you all to jumpstart your own conversations by checking out the current exhibition A to Z in the Druker Design Gallery (the lobby of Gund Hall for those of you who are new). Showcasing student work, A to Z offers an evocative way to return and reconnect with our school and each other. There are a LOT of students here this year—every desk in Gund and 485 Broadway will be occupied. On the student front, I want to applaud the entire incoming Student Forum—and wish Student Forum president Stephanie Lloyd a very happy birthday! Student Forum organized last week’s fantastic (and fantastically named) “Offline” events, which introduced and reintroduced the GSD to the student community.

And speaking of reintroductions, let me say that I really wanted this address to kick off a joyous and delectable in-person celebration for us all—a backyard bash behind Gund. As you can tell, we concluded that now is not the right time for that, but I commit to holding that party, in person, at a point in the near future. We all deserve it. For now, our optimism for a continual return to campus and all that the on-campus experience can entail depends on our shared, collective care and our consideration for one another. Please don’t be stupid or thoughtless: please follow the testing regimens with care, please wear masks inside, and please take care outside.

In closing, let me reiterate the four key points from George Saunders and Hannah Arendt:

  • kindness is the only non-delusional response to the human condition.
  • cultivate your state of mind
  • stop and think
  • and enlist the past and the future, engage with them and against each other, and to try to make sense of them.

And, finally, do remember to pause to take the time to enjoy being here: while this talk may have been a little long, time generally goes by fast at the GSD. I’m so very excited by this return and look forward to seeing you all: Welcome home!