SAH Blog

Four Questions for a Community College Architectural History Instructor

Sarah M. Dreller
| Sep 05, 2019
Welcome to The SAH Data Project’s process blog, a series of short-form reflections and interviews about the Society’s study of architectural history in higher education. By Sarah M. Dreller, Postdoctoral Researcher in the Humanities. #SAHDataProject

Just as the SAH Data Project was starting up in earnest this spring, journalist Yashar Ali invited Twitter to help dismantle the widely held and eminently problematic notion of the slacker community college student. “You should never be embarrassed that you went to a community college,” Ali declared in the first of two tweets that together have garnered over 75,000 engagements so far. “Community colleges are the backbone of our secondary education system.” He continued, “Did you go to a community college? Quote tweet this and say which community college you attended and what you’re doing today. I’ll retweet as many as I can. People who attend community colleges deserve to be as proud as people who attend Harvard.”

As someone who attended community college, I’m happy to report that scrolling through the enthusiastic responses from so many accomplished people—award-wining journalists, policy experts at the highest levels of government, business leaders-turned-community college instructors, tenured scholars from across the humanities—is the heartening experience I’d expected/hoped it would be. And I was especially glad to see fellow architectural historians joining in the conversation, among them David Rifkind, who recently completed his three-year stint as a member of SAH’s Board of Directors.



All of this is to say that the SAH Data Project’s proactive community college outreach may not surprise you today quite as much as it might have, say, a few years ago. To be sure, it still seems relatively rare for a scholarly society to go out of its way to solicit community college-related input in each phase of a project. But on the other hand there also seems to be something about the current social justice-informed zeitgeist that is yielding both Ali’s grassroots crowdsourced call for contributors and SAH’s systematic search for perspectives that are as widely representative of our field as possible, despite the differences in methodology.





What are some of the things we’re doing to bring more community college voices to the project? We’re asking students at community colleges, both in the humanities and pre-professional architecture programs, to tell us why they’re studying the history of the built environment and what they hope to do with that new knowledge. We’re inviting community college faculty and administrators to contribute data about their architectural history interests, backgrounds, course offerings, and so on. We’re partnering with the Community College Humanities Association and the Coalition of Community College Architecture Programs to spread the word about the project and surveys. And we’re adding an architectural historian to the SAH Data Project’s Advisory Committee, Ashley Gardini, who can speak to what studying and then teaching at community colleges is like so that the rest of the project team can benefit from those perspectives.



As you’ll see below we’re dedicating our first process blog interview to Gardini, currently an adjunct instructor at Diablo Valley College, so that you can hear directly from her, too. The SAH Data Project warmly welcomes her and all of her community college colleagues to the table.

Ashley Gardini, Adjunct Instructor, Department of Architecture/Engineering, Diablo Valley College


SMD: In the past you’ve told me that teaching architectural history at a community college is one of your career objectives. Is that still the case? What do you find compelling about the community college setting?

AG: It is! Community college is a pivotal point in a student’s academic career. It can be a “make or break” moment for many students.  I was once a community college student who had no idea what she wanted to do or why she was taking classes. Because of a handful of engaging and supportive instructors, I found my path. Now I want to be that instructor for my students. As for teaching architectural history, I feel incredibly lucky to teach classes within the field that I love.  

SMD: Tell us a little about the kinds of students who take architectural history courses at the community colleges where you teach. Do they have choices about which humanities courses they can take and, if so, what brings them to your classroom? What seems to grab their interest most during the course? And can you offer examples of students doing something specific with the architectural history knowledge they’ve gained after the course is over?

AG: While there are students who take my architectural history courses solely to fulfill a humanities course requirement, the majority of the students enrolled intend to transfer to four-year colleges to pursue degrees in architecture. This creates a fantastic classroom environment, as I’m engaging students who are passionate about the topics I am discussing. This passion can be contagious and it also helps me connect with students who have never thought about architecture in the way it is presented to them in an architectural history course.

My students are very interested in building materials and sustainability—two topics that greatly interrelate. Architecture students today recognize that in their future careers they will need to consider outside forces, like the changing climate and limitation of building materials. This is a discussion they want to have now. For example, when discussing Brutalism, an architectural style that heavily uses concrete, we analyze not only the form and stylistic advantages of Brutalist structures but also the impact of concrete on the environment in terms of its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Recently a student of mine utilized an analysis of 1960s and 70s avant-garde architecture and building materials to help develop his pitch for an entry to the annual Design Village competition at California Polytechnic State University. This student used the inflatable architecture of Ant Farm and Archigram as the foundation to develop his own design ideas.

SMD: You’ve been an adjunct instructor at various community colleges for years. How do you describe adjuncting to people outside academia? And what would you like your tenure-stream colleagues to know about your experiences of our field?

AG: Adjuncting can be difficult to describe to people who are unfamiliar with academia. Instead of referring to myself as an adjunct, I normally describe myself as a part-time instructor who works at different community colleges.

I would want tenure-stream colleagues to know that those who adjunct are truly passionate about teaching and their research fields. Actually, one aspect of being an adjunct instructor at a community college that I find particularly encouraging is that many of the tenured instructors—and often department chairs—were adjuncts earlier in their teaching careers. This means they understand the difficulties and stresses of adjuncting, and try to give adjuncts as much support as possible. I am fortunate in that regard.

SMD: You’ve just agreed to help advise the SAH Data Project over the next eighteen months. Which aspects of the project are most exciting to you?

AG: SAH has made a real commitment to understanding the whole of the field through this project. This can be seen in the focus on diversity and the desire to hear from voices across the spectrum of architectural history experiences in higher education, including adjunct instructors and community college faculty/students. This is really exciting to me because the data collected will not be meaningful if we are neglecting a selection of those practicing or studying in our field.

The SAH Data Project is gathering quantitative and qualitative information about the status of architectural history as a field in higher education. The study is supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and scheduled to be completed in December 2020. A full report of the findings will be available on the SAH website in early 2021.



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    1. Carol Krinsky | Dec 13, 2019


      In discussions of pedagogy at SAH annual meetings, it would be good to welcome those who teach at community colleges and adult education facilities.  Perhaps, given the terrible salaries that many adjuncts earn, SAH could modify the registration fees. 

      One reason for the lack of interest in architectural history among architecture school students is that now, many of them have had little or no exposure to history of any kind in high school. In a commendable effort to go beyond old models of history that focused on famous males in western Europe and the USA to the exclusion of the rest of the world, high schools now seem to be teaching history as topics that can be addressed by various cultures. The topics may be unrelated, and there is apparently little emphasis on sequential developments over long periods of time. My undergraduates' lack of historical knowledge and my questions to them and to my grandchildren make me think that is the case. 

      Another reason may be that the instructors are architects who are not historians. Perhaps they learned architectural history from manuals such as old editions of Banister Fletcher's history that had abundant images but boring texts and little contextual material

      A third reason is that instructors may have forgotten to explain why architects need to know what happened in the past. The information may not be immediately practical, though some of it could be,  but it should be presented as more than just a way to pass part of the professional exams, or as a source of ornaments.  Without understanding the reasons for knowing history, generations of architects will disdain it and lack an understanding of their own positions in time.

    2. Sarah M. Dreller (post author) | Sep 12, 2019

      Thank you, Diane, for the comment. We at the SAH Data Project have been thinking lately about the place of architectural history within the context of architecture schools, so I will certainly share your thoughts with the team.

      Do you think the way current headlines influence student/professor priorities has increased, decreased, or stayed the same over time? I ask partly because the history of the architectural press happens to have been the subject of my PhD dissertation. But I am also asking on behalf of the SAH Data Project to inform some of the survey questions that are in development right now. My email address is on the project website if you'd like to continue this conversation that way.

      Also, I agree that continuing/professional education programs can draw students with real interest in architectural history. I taught two such courses a few years ago and the engagement level among my (mostly older adult) class was extremely high.

    3. Diane Kane | Sep 11, 2019

      I have spent my entire architectural history teaching career as an adjunct professor in various architectural programs in Southern California.

      I found a shocking lack of interest in architectural history or in ways to integrate the subject into other corners of the architectural curriculum. Both students & professors wanted to create new stuff that conformed to whatever was making headlines in the current architectural press. I have, however, found a receptive audience in extension and continuing professional education programs, particularly among older adults who have traveled and have some knowledge of history.  Many didn't take humanities or arts courses during their earlier educational careers and are enthusiastic about the subjects later in life.

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