Some Pedagogies of the Southland Institute
Through engaging questions of how approaches of progressive, critical, queer, and antiracist pedagogical traditions might be applied to interdisciplinary programming in typography, graphic design, and critical art-making, we are working to assemble a growing toolkit of pedagogies -- all of which are intended to be used, shared, recombined, interpreted, and questioned -- as part of the perpetual project of exploring approaches to sharing and transmitting knowledge.
A Pedagogy of Working with What's (T)here
When we come to a situation we encounter a series of givens. A location exists, a budget, available tools, the chain of circumstances that have dictated these things. This is our starting point. We observe, analyze, document, take notes. What are the conditions we begin with? These are our materials.
How might these available resources be placed in dialog with one another? Where do we end up by clearly acknowledging our starting points, the models we examine and borrow from, the existing pieces that we recombine and add to in order to build curricula of our own? When the public institutions who ostensibly provide accessible public education -- many of whom have been increasingly starved of resources over the past years -- themselves become difficult to access, can we identify those public offerings that remain truly open, where a community can gather and move between, pooling resources collectively, building the kind of education that can no longer (perhaps never could) be assembled through any one locale?
Working with limited, available resources is, in itself, a mode of learning. An assessment of what's at hand may raise questions such as: "What can we use in place of more costly tools?" "What might we be able to create with a text editor on a public computer?" "What could function similarly to, or in lieu of, a monthly subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud?" "What are tools that everyone has access to, and how can these be activated?"
In working with what's there, we practice resourcefulness, we engage a productive constraint, we examine the conditions that are given and determine what might be done with them to change an existing situation to a better one.
In the case of the Southland Institute, what exists already is an enormous city, our inclinations and interests, our prior and ongoing educations (formal and otherwise). There are institutions that we can access in various ways: public schools, private schools, museums, galleries, libraries, archives. There are living rooms, kitchens, studios, parks. We are continuously working to identify rigorous, accessible courses at area community colleges; we organize open public discussions in existing exhibitions that don't charge admission; we partner with existing institutions to hold our events. With very little in the way of dedicated resources we leverage what's available, creating connections, drawing lines, bringing together that which is already in proximity, but perhaps not yet in dialog.
In working with what's there, one method that we have available to us is that of subtraction. We can remove unnecessary elements. We can reveal infrastructures that may have been previously concealed. We can ask: "What is extraneous?" "What no longer serves us?" "What would this look like without these unnecessary elements?" "What is being obstructed / obfuscated?" Working with what's there can be an act of paring, of distillation, of identifying what's most important.
Another approach to working with what's there is that of reconfiguration. What if we don't get rid of anything, if we aspire to use everything and waste nothing? How can all that we have be put to use? How can we sequence things, compose them differently, re-sort, re-shuffle, rearrange? When we use only what's at hand, without subtracting anything, this becomes yet another useful constraint.
A Pedagogy of Proposing What Isn't
While the approach of "Working with what's there" can (and often does) reveal things that may have otherwise gone unnoticed, a complementary approach -- when what is revealed is a lack -- is an approach of "proposing what isn't." A pedagogy of proposals, of thoughtful and articulate suggestions for augmenting the existing options with things that are necessary but absent. Rather than recreate available offerings, this approach identifies gaps within the structure that could benefit from fortification. Does what you need already exist? Are you able to access it?
For all that is available, there are often things that are missing. As an educational exercise we encourage the proposal, and when possible, the implementation of that which is absent but whose presence would be beneficial.
A Pedagogy of Questioning Givens
Within education today, a number of things are often taken as givens. The necessity of quantification and assessment, for instance -- at the heart of the accreditation process, the notion that in the absence of quantifiable metrics, quality cannot be demonstrated. Another given within the United States is the acceptance of the philanthropic model, the reliance on the wealthy to determine what is of value and parcel out gifts accordingly. In higher education, a given that has begun to be questioned more broadly is the notion of federal loans as "financial aid." Indeed it is -- at least in part -- the ready access to these funds that has encouraged the precipitous rise in the cost of higher education, as well as the increase in for-profit schools, which, if accredited, are able to access this money as well. Accreditation thus becomes a mechanism through which higher costs are justified, which are then frequently only attained through borrowed funds, which are often borrowed at or above rates near 7%.
We encourage learners to actively question received notions, to question rather than accept, to challenge when necessary, to problematize that which others have left unexamined. "Could there be another way?" is a question we encourage asking, when a closer examination of what is given reveals a system in need of mending.
A Pedagogy of Making Public and Publication
If we start with definitions of publication as "making something generally known," and also of "preparing and issuing books, journals, websites, blogs, etc.," a pedagogy of publication and of making public -- collecting, editing, arranging, sequencing, composing, choosing typefaces, typesetting -- is a pedagogy that incorporates a process of research, reading, critical thinking, making connections, revising, understanding structures and systems, and sharing discoveries. The act of publication demands and brings together a vast range of skills and inquiries. Augmenting the traditional exercise of "writing a paper," this opens the process of discovery not only to the writing itself, but also to design, production, distribution, and the meaning that continues to be made via the decisions and actions that comprise these processes.
A Pedagogy of Modeling
We learn through doing, and we also often learn through observation and emulation. We learn through building physical models and we learn through modeling behaviors, enacting that which we wish to see, building at a smaller scale the dimensions, behaviors, and relationships that we hope to someday realize at full scale.
The Southland Institute itself, since its founding, has asked the question: "What would it look like to build an institution of higher education now, which costs students less and pays those contributing their labor more" than existing institutions?
A Pedagogy of Equity as Opposed to one of Debt
There are two definitions of equity that we are particularly interested in engaging as applied to education:
- 1a. justice according to natural law or right specifically :
freedom from bias or favoritism
- 1b. something that is equitable (dealing fairly and equally with all concerned )
- 2. the money value of a property or of an interest in a property in excess of
claims or liens against it
The idea that equity is what one has, and debt is what one owes, as a lens through which to view education, is one way of approaching what has become an increasingly articulated core value in public and private schools alike. In these cases, equity has become a shorthand for concerns ranging from neurodivergence and learning differences to antiracist approaches and pedagogies. If equity involves providing what's needed in order that everyone is given the opportunity to embark from a comparable starting point, the way to arrive here is not through debt.
A Pedagogy of Comparison
When we compare, we bring together matters that may already be adjacent but are otherwise distinct. Whatever conceptual distance may appear between them, this process of comparison involves an invitation to consider things not only in closer proximity to one another, but relationally as well. By posing that a through-space connects and links them, even before such a connection may be readily discernible, we -- paradoxically -- move closer to, and yet also enable a more expansive perspective to inform each. The purpose is not to stabilize similarities nor confirm contrasts, anticipate hierarchical dichotomies nor seek steadfast agreements. The comparison is the bridge we build that is neither matter in isolation. It is predicated on observing the limits of both as mutual. Comparison is a learning exercise that happens daily at a human scale.
A Pedagogy of Attention
As the world perpetually clamors for our attention, to what extent does attending to these calls bring focus, fulfillment, an actively engaged self? As interruptions escalate, some tune out while others attempt to keep up, often to no avail. Attention is an act of giving. When what we receive in return from this generosity are demands to give more, the notion itself can seem futile, abusive, laborious. Why bother? Passivity easily ensues.
How do we cope with distraction? As interconnectivity increasingly brings on a sense of isolation, the question grows more persistent. In the context of learning, how do the given conditions establish a means of situating ourselves in presence, to dispel urges to incorporate external distractions to entertain and alleviate a decidedly unfulfilling forum? This is nothing new in education. The history of pedagogy is a genealogy of the delicate, but crucial, distinction between the lost focus of a straying attention and the expansive opportunities presented by a wandering mind. Compare: "are we there yet?" and "where are we, here and now?" When we refrain from investing in the idea that critical thinking equals judgment, we can attend to why we are curious. When class begins with attendance being taken by authority, we respond: "present", "here", yet how accurate are these statements of presence? To pursue our curiosities is to take attendance of ourselves.
Genuine attention is a skill to be cultivated. Giving attention to what is going on around you, to what other people, systems, and structures are doing, how they are behaving. Attention to the ways the outwardly perceivable layers of things give clues about what is going on behind the scenes. Typography is a practice of attention: to letters, to words, to space and proportion, and to the ways that these qualities can and do affect the meaning of text and language. It is also a practice of attention to history -- how letterforms have been used to support and subvert language -- what the form of typography can mean and how it communicates.
A Pedagogy of Discussion
Critique is a technology, a tool of accounting knowledge that is widely exercised and fostered in educational contexts through the process of articulating a position on a matter--where one stands in relation to it--and cross-referencing this with adjacent perspectives.
Critique has long been a staple of arts education in a verbalized, discursive format. These days, it is less an indicator of progressive pedagogy than a curricular prerequisite, a custom, a rite of passage for cultural producers. Having "survived critique" is an odd yet common expression. It suggests the accomplishment of "getting past it." Countless approaches have been proffered. Is a critique located in the work? Is it located in an authorial position expressing itself through the work, or not? Is it what a group collectively does in consideration of a work? Is it a safe exercise in peer-review? Is it a communal airing of grievances? Is it an unsafe projection of personal opinions and judgments?...
When critique is regarded as objective and nominal, we walk around it. Attempt to circle in on it. This can also be a means of avoiding it. Keeping distance from it. Casting it at a distance from where we stand. If we hold an author accountable by extension, to what extent is this person objectified as a latent set of unknown limitations we pursue to expose? Do we account for ourselves, our articulations, in kind? Is there a joint reconciliation? When critique is isolated to a course of study, titled explicitly or implicitly as such, is it presumed automatically accounted for? Do we reserve this refinement of outward [and inward] tending to an analogical on/off switch, reserved for just such occasions? In shifting focus to the discussions individuals generate together, what is critical is no longer located in an object, but as the modifier of a diverse, dialogic engagement between and among.
A Pedagogy of [Reading] the Fine Print
"Always read the fine print." It is both an idiomatic expression and one still tethered to the legal advice it remains applicable to. The advice is sound: in attending to the specifics, however small they may be, we become informed with what is at hand. What might this mean in the contexts of education and culture? "Fine," as in the fine arts, is a transliteration from Beaux-Arts where it meant, in this pedagogical model, beautiful -- as in highest form, aesthetically sound, formally balanced, etc. -- while also carrying a cadence of refinement, as in wielding a dexterity of craftsmanship within a respective discipline. "Print" is the ordering of letters through tactile means, bound to the material page as the conduit of a multifaceted process that reaches a reader's hand after the ink has set.
In learning, we approach from a distance. Curiosity compels us to move closer, and critical comparison causes us to linger. Through this collapse of distance, a learning through observation occurs when attention accounts for the close reading of the particulars not previously visible. Attending to the fine print of culture is recognizing the multifaceted processes which often drop out at a passing glance but remain ever present -- the markings at the threshold of an infrastructural inquiry.
A Pedagogy of Self-Reflexivity
In accepting that many of the requirements of accreditation create conditions that are inherently at odds with the affordability and sustainability we seek, the responsibility of reflection, review, and assessment becomes an internal one. A degree of self-reflexivity exists already in the Southland Institute by virtue of its being a school that takes as one of its foundational elements an examination of higher education and its attendant structures and systems. Elements of reflexivity exist in attempting to enact the things we advocate, in modeling what we wish to see.
A pedagogy of self-reflexivity asks that we take self-reflection as a perpetual aspect of all that we do. That we ask of the things we make, "how is this working?" "How is it not?" We ask this of ourselves and of each other, and of those we come in contact with.
A Pedagogy of Balance, Slowness, and Care
A core belief of the Southland Institute is that how and why we do things is as important as what we do. In terms of design education, this takes a number of shapes. A culture of compulsory hyperproductivity has been normalized and co-opted by many industries and companies, so that things which can be a kind of masochistic badge of honor in school (working 18-hour days, or pulling all-nighters, for instance) become an accepted part of doing business. In certain ways this pedagogy of overwork is also built into the accreditation system. That full-time degrees can only be conferred with 60 credit-hours often means curricula that preclude the possibility of concurrent employment, family, etc. While on one hand this kind of time requirement ensures a degree of dedication to the task at hand, on the other it can be an instance of overwork taking the place of and eclipsing the value of more deliberate, slower kinds of rigor.
A Pedagogy of Sustainability
"If our department isn't growing, it's dying" is an all-too-common refrain within college and university departments. This growth-obsessed outlook is endemic to capitalism, but we want to ask, could there be other ways of thriving? What if we were able to sustain ourselves long-term? What could those models look like that don't have to do with expansion, which create structures with multiple levels of sustainability built in? That our current economic frameworks have normalized (and rewarded) entities like Uber should be a red flag. That a living wage would make a business plan untenable should be evidence of the structural failures of that model. A similar critique could be applied to the current state of higher education, where the unsustainable aspects are multiple: the cost of the education itself is unsustainably high, while the salaries and course fees being paid to the instructors are unsustainably low. What does it look like to build models of practice that have equity and sustainability built in? What is happening in the budgets of schools charging $50,000+ annual tuition that everything comes crashing down if they begin to pay their professors/instructors a living wage?
We ask what "affordability" really means, what a fair wage for an instructor would be, and attempt to build a budget around the answers to these questions. What kinds of revenue need to be brought in to pay a fair wage to those laboring on the Southland Institute's behalf?
A significant obstacle to sustainability is the cost of space. That the costs of space and housing have themselves become unsustainable creates a hurdle that is yet to be cleared. And yet the practice of the perpetual articulation of this aim remains built in to the pedagogies we engage.
A Pedagogy of Transparency
By making transparent what we are aiming to do, and the means and mechanisms by which we go about doing it, we open ourselves to honest discussion, reflection, and analysis. Whatever the resources may be -- syllabi, source code, reading lists, references -- we share rather than hoard them, in the spirit of opening things up, of making public, and of increasing access.
A Pedagogy of Modulation
In modulating something, we exert a modifying or controlling influence on it. What kinds of pressures, typographies, waveforms, and other actions can we apply to existing situations in order to modulate them? How do our presences, our activities, our questions, our decisions shape and influence the situations that we enter into? How can we affect existing systems and structures, both internal and external, by modifying or exerting pressure on them, from the outside as well as from within?
A Pedagogy of an Economy of Means
Making the most of limited means, embracing a highly reduced set of tools/ ingredients/ resources, can be a generative limitation. Whether by necessity or by choice, we can allow limitations to expand possibilities and prompt a rethinking of what's possible.
In cooking, an economy of means might be creating a dish from 3 ingredients. Surely there are many ways to merely subsist on such an approach, but there are also dishes, a good Cacio e pepe for instance, that can become something very special with only pepper, grated cheese, and spaghetti.
In architecture, an economy of means might be a fixture that does multiple things at once. A single element used to multiple ends. An idea that elegance derives from efficiency, ingenuity, economy.
In graphic terms, an economy of means might be limited access to materials, software, printing costs, computers, a single typeface. What opportunities might these limited resources afford/provide?
A Pedagogy of Systems
Understanding systems, of the visible and invisible varieties, is key to understanding how our world is structured, how buildings and networks are built, how water and electricity flow, how power operates, how systems of oppression are perpetuated. Understanding systems is required in order to design and to build, and can be learned by productively dismantling them.
A Pedagogy of Making Legible
To make something legible is to make it capable of being read, deciphered, discovered, understood (paraphrasing a definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary). These are the ends towards which typography exists. If we focus our attention on legibility rather than visibility, we open to the possibility of typographies and languages beyond, while still including, those of letters.
A Pedagogy of Typographic Literacy / Fluency
The fact that typography functions as a threshold of interdisciplinary critical practice, that its components -- letters, margins, structures, words, lines, paragraphs, spacing, grids, alignment, hierarchies, scale, weight, texture -- touch on everything that comes into contact with language, makes it an ideal disciplinary harbor from which to embark on a wide range of intellectual inquiries. Typographic literacy enables thoughtful consideration of ubiquitous systematic detail to activate, and be able to more readily absorb, frequencies of the communicative spectrum at infra and sub-registers. Placing a typographically inflected pedagogy at the core of a curriculum requires that practitioners hone a craft at once ubiquitous and under-considered, giving close consideration to the world via the way humans have translated it into visual language, and understanding how these structures functionally provide a common boundary that transcends discipline. Literacy comes with dedicated study, fluency with sustained practice. It is an ongoing aim to provide opportunities for both.
The past year has included a combination of shorter 1-2 day workshops -- on variable font design, revival type design, web typography, and writing using found material / ephemera that we keep on our devices -- along with a yearly longer-form typography course called "typographies" (in which self-directed projects are developed, with attention to typographic choices, compositions, structures, and their relationship to content), creates a framework for typographic development and guided practice. This combination of access to tools and approaches along with ongoing conversation surrounding larger projects places a focus on the macro- and micro- typography that comprises any project that uses printed or screen-based textual language.
A Pedagogy of Shared Boundaries
In "The Elements of Typographic Style," Robert Bringhurst writes, "As a craft, typography shares a long common boundary with writing and editing on the one side, and graphic design on the other, yet typography itself belongs to neither."
The Black Mountain College Prospectus at one point states: "[A base principle] worth emphasizing (it is still generally overlooked in those colleges where classification into fields, because of curriculum emphasis, remains the law) is that Black Mountain College carefully recognizes that... it is not things in themselves, but what happens between things, where the life of them is to be sought."
The Southland Institute actively seeks out the space between things, the points of contact, the shared boundaries that both Bringhurst and Black Mountain articulate so nicely.
In programming -- as well as pointing to existing -- public events, exhibitions, screenings, and opportunities, and offering public typographic workshops, in addition to our core curricular typographic focus, we work to actively create these in-between spaces, these abutments and overlaps, these resonances and frictions that can be so generative.
A Pedagogy of the Senses
A significant part of learning comes from paying attention to the world around you. While we believe in the value of a pedagogy of modeling, of learning through doing and enacting, we also recognize that close attention is often rewarded with a deeper level of knowledge, appreciation, and understanding. Sight and sound are obvious senses to dedicate attention to. For years, James Benning taught a course at CalArts called "Listening and Seeing," in which, according to the class description, "a different location (either urban, rural, or wilderness) will be visited for the purposes of listening and seeing. At the end of the visit the class will meet within the location to discuss what each has individually experienced. Attention will be given to how the experiences of listening and looking can translate into the making of images and sound."
This manner of attention is hardly limited to only two of the 5 senses. Considering an essay by Helen Keller titled "The Finer Vibrations," in the collection of her essays The World I Live In, indeed the entire collection, a reader begins to attune themselves more closely to the other senses as well.
A Pedagogy of Revealing Infrastructure
In making visible the structures that surround, contain, support, and frame the world we live in, we allow ourselves to analyze their functionality and effectiveness. In examining the infrastructures of a city -- plumbing, roads, electricity, zoning, codes -- we learn how it is put together, what makes it tick. We learn where the stresses and the fractures are. In discovering these things we are able to determine whether they can be patched or if they need to be replaced. In examining the underlying structures of other objects of interest -- from creatively generated artifacts to systems of education -- we can learn similar things. Asking questions such as "how was this made?" "where do these materials come from?" "how were they sourced?" "what were the labor conditions under which they were generated?" "where do they succeed and where do they not?" we move closer to an understanding that can influence future action and responses.
When infrastructure is hidden, inferences must be made, diagnostics based on interpretation, experience, and instinct. When we reveal infrastructure, open it up to examination, we can identify what is functioning as intended, and also look for infrastructural elements that may benefit from assistance, things that need attention. We can discern a patchable fissure from an element that needs to be updated, or one whose reduced function may itself become a productive constraint.
We ask how things are made, how they are put together, how they are built. What connections allow them to function? How durable are they? We look at plumbing, wiring, foundations. We examine grids, rules, margins. We look at funding models, income and expenses. We ask what makes sense and what doesn't. Could there be a different way, a better way, a fairer way, a more equitable way? Could things be clearer, more efficient, more sustainable?
A Pedagogy of Increasing Access
A core tenet of the Southland Institute is identifying and implementing educational opportunities that are both rigorous and accessible. We believe in increasing access to knowledge, tools, information, and the spaces and frameworks in which these tools are often kept.
1. Financial accessibility: A significant motivation for the founding of the Southland Institute was the lack of high-quality, rigorous, low-cost design education options. With the exception of a handful of thoughtfully, progressively, discerningly run public programs throughout the United States (e.g., UIC, Rutgers, UCLA, VCU -- many of which themselves derive a degree of elitism through selectivity, if not cost), many formal education programs in design, and the institutions that have been historical mainstays of forward-thinking, rigorous design education, are private art schools whose sticker price now often exceeds $50,000 / year for tuition alone. In addition to this problematic financial arrangement, at many of these schools faculty are significantly underpaid, both with regard to a cost-of-living metric and also in regard to the percentage of the education cost that they receive. In this configuration the structure of the class is accessible only to the affluent or those who have placed themselves in significant debt, while at the same time paying an unsustainable wage to the instructors without whom the classes could not exist.
2. Physical accessibility: In the absence of the resources that enable dedicated space, programming events (talks, workshops, etc.) requires coordination with existing institutions. In many cases these institutions -- themselves often operating on a deficit of resources, or at the most a shoestring -- lack accessible architectural fixtures. It is an aim of the Southland Institute to have its programming be physically accessible, and to propose amendments and alterations to partnering venues to increase their physical accessibility.
3. Intellectual accessibility: How can we make higher education intellectually accessible to the greatest number of people? How can we create a platform for rigorous content and conversation that remains available to audiences and participants with widely varied levels of formal and informal education? A continual attention is paid to vocabularies and translational strategies that can be implemented in order to open a conversation up that might otherwise be closed. Valuing the experiences and insights that varied perspectives bring to a conversation, and creating a space where many voices can be heard, is at the forefront of much of the programming that we do.
Throughout these pedagogies, we see repetition in themes of interconnectedness, infrastructure, and attention, sometimes explicitly addressed, other times implied. Points of contact abound, as do places to enter. Chosen for its specificity, its quality of being at once a tool, an instrument, a medium, and a discipline that cannot exist or function in the absence of other fields, typography has been our point of entry to these pedagogies.
Of course, none of these pedagogies are discrete, all of them are linked. We enter these questions through language; we document these inquiries by giving that language form. Working from the margins we shape the page, we compose our findings as well as that which can't be found. These pedagogies, like the Southland Institute itself, are necessarily incomplete, unfinished, mutable, non-terminal.