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 and Proposing What Isn't
In any given situation, there are existing conditions. A location, a budget, available tools, the chain of circumstances that have dictated these elements. This can be a starting point from which to observe, analyze, document, take notes. What is present at the outset? These can be the working materials.
How do histories -- an acknowledgment of points of departure and reference -- inform the directions in which a school (or an organization, a collective, a group) moves? How can current and past models be examined and learned from, existing pieces recombined and added to in order to build holistic design and art curricula? When state universities and other public institutions that ostensibly provide accessible public education -- many of which have been increasingly starved of resources -- become difficult to access, is it possible to identify what public offerings remain truly open and available? What does it look like to identify and foster places where people can gather, where resources can be pooled, where education can be expansive and fluid?
Working with limited resources is, in itself, a mode of learning. In working with what's already there, a productive constraint is engaged, an active inquiry: What are the tools that are most widely available, and how might these be put to use?
With a specific focus on its immediate location in and of Los Angeles -- yet in a manner that might be recreated anywhere -- the Southland Institute asks: How might learners engage the access they have to public schools, public offerings at private schools, museums, galleries, libraries, archives, parks? What learning already happens or could happen within the spaces that people live in, work in, and move through: living rooms, kitchens, studios, sidewalks?
When little is available in the way of dedicated resources, options exist to leverage whatever is at hand, creating connections, bringing together that which is already in proximity, but perhaps not yet in dialogue. The Southland Institute maintains and circulates an evolving list of excellent courses that are available for free or at low cost at area community colleges, public universities, and extension programs. Prior to Covid-19, we organized open public discussions in existing museum and gallery exhibitions with free admission, and hosted our own events in partnership with local organizations. Lacking a physical space of our own, when necessary, we rented space from community organizations to host events and classes, supporting accessible spaces with rental fees.
Working with what's there can be an act of reconfiguration, re-sorting, re-shuffling, rearranging all that is available, using everything and wasting nothing. It can also be an act of subtraction and/or distillation that raises important questions: What would this be like without these elements? What is being obstructed/obfuscated by these elements?
Working with what's there can (and often does) reveal things that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. It can also reveal what is lacking. Does what you need already exist? Are you able to access it? If not, there can be a shift from "working with what’s there" to "proposing what isn't." This prompts a pedagogy of proposals, of suggestions for augmenting the existing options with things that are necessary but absent.
In identifying a conspicuous lack of affordable, rigorous, accessible, thoughtfully implemented offerings in post-secondary design and art education in the United States, the Southland Institute sets out to propose an alternate framework, and to engage the pedagogies at work within it.
A Pedagogy of Attention
As the world perpetually clamors for our attention, to what extent does attending to these calls bring focus, fulfillment, or an 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 for this generosity is a further demand, the notion of attention itself can seem futile, abusive, laborious. Passivity ensues.
As digital interconnectivity brings on a mounting sense of isolation, the question of how to cope with distraction grows more relevant. This issue is not 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?" with "where are we, here and now?" When class begins with attendance being taken by an alleged authority figure, we respond: "present," "here." Yet how accurate are these statements of presence? To pursue one's curiosities is to take attendance of oneself.
Genuine attention is a skill to be cultivated. Giving attention to what is going on around you -- to what people, systems, and structures are doing, how they are behaving --provides many clues to what is going on behind the scenes.
A Pedagogy of Typographic Literacy / Fluency
Typography itself is a practice of attention: to letters, words, space and proportions, to the ways that these formal elements affect the meaning of text and language. It is also a practice of attention to histories, to the ways in which letterforms and systems of writing have been used to support and/or subvert language(s), to what the form of typography can mean, and how it communicates.
At once an instrument, a tool, and a medium that exists only in the presence of and in relation to other fields, typography functions as a threshold of interdisciplinary critical practice. Its components -- letters, margins, structures, words, lines, paragraphs, spacing, grids, alignment, hierarchies, scale, weight, texture -- inflect everything that comes into contact with language. This makes typography an ideal point of departure and return for a wide range of intellectual inquiries. Placing a typographically attuned pedagogy at the core of a curriculum requires that creative practitioners of all kinds hone a craft at once ubiquitous and often neglected, giving close consideration to the world via the way humans have made language visible, and understanding how these typographic structures functionally provide a common boundary that transcends discipline. Typographic literacy comes with dedicated study, fluency with sustained practice. It is an ongoing aim to provide opportunities for both.
In 2019-20, the Southland Institute offered a series of affordable or free one- and two-day workshops led by both local and international practitioners on variable font design (Dinamo), web typography (Masato Nakada), writing using found material and ephemera that we keep on our digital devices (Nicole Killian), and revival type design (Jaimey Shapey), alongside a public lecture series and an annually recurring curriculum that includes longer-form courses: cf. (Adam Feldmeth), which provides an occasion to collectively consider cultural production and praxis set in direct comparison with references of substance to advance a contextual discourse; typographies (Joe Potts), in which participants develop self-directed text-based projects with close attention to the craft and meaning of their typographic implementation; and Text/Space (Carmen Amengual), in which participants examine different dynamics between text and spatiality, develop linguistic awareness, and explore functions and modulations of the act of reading and writing.
A Pedagogy of Making Public and Publication
If we define publication as "making something generally known," as well as “preparing and issuing books, journals, websites, blogs, etc.," a pedagogy of publication and of making public is a typographic pedagogy that incorporates a process of research, reading, critical thinking, making connections, revising, understanding structures and systems, and sharing. The act of publication -- gathering, editing, arranging, sequencing, composing, choosing typefaces, typesetting, printing, programming -- demands and brings together a vast range of skills and inquiries. Augmenting the traditional exercise of "writing a paper," this opens the process of learning not only to writing 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 Revealing Infrastructure
Understanding systems, visible and invisible, is key to understanding how our world is structured, how buildings and networks are assembled, how water and electricity flow, how power operates, how systems of oppression are perpetuated. Examining and understanding systems are required in order to design and build, and to productively dismantle and transform. In making visible the structures that surround, contain, support, and frame the world, we analyze their functionality and effectiveness. In examining the infrastructures of a city -- plumbing, roads, electricity, zoning, building codes -- we can learn how it is put together, and where the stresses and the fractures are. In discovering and articulating these things it becomes possible to ask whether they can be repaired or if they need to be replaced. In examining the underlying structures of other objects of interest -- from creatively generated artifacts to institutions to systems of education -- we can learn similar things. 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? Such questions help us move closer to an understanding that can influence future action and responses.
A Pedagogy of Increasing Access
A core tenet of the Southland Institute is identifying and implementing educational opportunities that are both rigorous and accessible. This is tied to a belief in the value of increasing access to knowledge, tools, information, and the spaces and frameworks through which these may be shared.
- Increasing financial accessibility: A significant motivation for the founding of the Southland Institute was the lack of high-quality, low-cost design education options. With the exception of a handful of thoughtfully, progressively, discerningly run public programs throughout the United States (e.g., Rutgers, UCLA, UIC, VCU, to name a few -- 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 prices now often exceed $50,000 a 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 to the percentage of the education cost. 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, many of whom are themselves in significant debt from the educations that provided the credential required for these jobs.
- Increasing physical, sensory, and temporal accessibility: In the absence of the resources that enable dedicated space, programming events such as talks and workshops 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 architectures. It is an aim of the Southland Institute to have its programming be physically, visually, audibly, and temporally accessible, and to propose amendments and alterations to partnering venues to increase access towards these ends.
- Intellectual accessibility: How can we make higher education intellectually accessible to everyone? How can we create a platform for content and conversation that is available to audiences and participants with widely varied experiences of formal and informal education? A continual attention is paid to vocabularies and translational strategies that open rather than close spaces of learning. The core of intellectual accessibility is recognizing and truly valuing the fact that different experiences shape different insights and perspectives, and that a multiplicity of perspectives invariably enriches and expands everyone’s learning.
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 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 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 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.
Of course, none of these pedagogies are discrete. Points of contact abound, as do places of entry. These pedagogies have grown, and will continue to grow, out of conversations, conflicts, practices, mistakes, jobs, lives, discomfort, play, families, friendships. The questions asked here can be entered through language, documented by giving that language form. In typographic terms, the page size may be fixed, constrained to what's at hand, but much remains possible within this allotted space. In activating the margins, the area within is given definition, structure, air. A framework is put into play for documenting, sharing, and composing findings, as well as that which can't be found. These pedagogies, like the Southland Institute itself, are necessarily incomplete, unfinished, mutable, nonterminal.
This text is a living document with contributions from Joe Potts and Adam Feldmeth, and with thanks to Jessica Hoffmann for editorial suggestions and conversation. In addition to its publication on this site, an earlier version of this text was read aloud as part of the remote symposium Collective Learning / Collective Care through The University of Applied Arts Vienna. An excerpt is slated to appear in the forthcoming book: After the Bauhaus, Before the Internet; a History of Graphic Design Pedagogy, edited by Geoff Kaplan and to be published by no place press.