University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Memory Palaces

Architecture Professor Thomas Fisher on what an increasingly hybrid world means for college campuses.

For more than 40 years, University of Minnesota architecture professor Thomas Fisher has been at the forefront of research on sustainable architecture, design ethics, and design that serves communities. In his most recent book, Space, Structures, and Design in a Post-Pandemic World (Routledge, 2022), Fisher focuses on the implications of our new hybrid world, including what it will mean for college campuses. We asked Fisher to describe how he thinks this emerging trend will play out on campuses across the country.

Minnesota Alumni: The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way the world works. How will our new hybrid reality impact American colleges and universities?

Fisher: Land grant universities arose after the cholera pandemics [which came in three waves from 1832 to 1866]. The community college system arose after the 1918 [flu] pandemic. Every time there’s a pandemic, there is also an impact on higher ed. And, typically, it forces higher ed to become more affordable, accessible, and equitable. So now the question is, after this pandemic, what does that mean in the 21st century? What does a more affordable, accessible, equitable, higher ed system look like?

I think there’s no question that it’s going to be some balance between what happens physically and digitally. We know from the workplace that we’re in a hybrid world and that people are going to be working in more flexible ways going forward. And if nothing else, we have to prepare our students for that work world. So, the University itself has to be in a hybrid mode. It can’t pretend that, "well, everyone has to come to class, show up in person," because that’s not the world of work anymore.

A study group gathers at Bruininks Hall

What does that mean for the actual buildings on campus?

We probably have too many big lecture halls that I bet are sitting mostly empty. I have a class I teach right now that has about 80-some students in it—two-thirds to three-quarters of whom remain remote.

The University requires all faculty to be in person in class, and I’m in person, although my office hours are virtual. But I give my students a choice about whether or not to attend class in person. And a large number are choosing to be remote. Sometimes they’re in the same building— that’s what’s interesting. It’s not like they’re all home. I can tell from the background [on their Zoom screens] that they’re just upstairs. But they would still rather be remote than to come downstairs into the room, which I find fascinating.

I think campuses have to think of themselves in the way the office space is now being thought of, which is it has to be able to do something that the online world can’t. Just as people’s homes will become more officelike, the office needs to become more homelike. There’s still a very good reason to come to campus, but it’s not going to be to sit quietly in a lecture hall. A university is going to be a space of interaction and of collaboration and doing things that are really difficult to do online.

We had this idea from the 20th century that students concentrate more in these blank spaces. It turns out that the campus serves more effectively as a memory palace, as a mnemonic device, where you remember things based on all your senses. The sense of smell, the sound of the place, the light quality of the place. It actually helps us remember things more than these fluorescently lit spaces that are all alike.

Before the pandemic I taught a class that was nomadic, meaning I had the students decide where they wanted to meet for each class. They never picked a classroom, ever. We went to the Caribou Coffee on Washington Avenue and had a coffee as we talked. We went to a lounge overlooking the Mississippi. We went to the Weisman Art Museum and sat down in one of the big rooms. And what’s interesting is pedagogically, I realized they were remembering the content more because they could remember the space where we discussed it.

What about the nonacademic ways students use campuses?

That’s huge. And in fact, one of the main drivers to come back to campus is [to have] fun. Online fun is through social media and you’re isolated. And young people, particularly as they’re building their social networks, just like young employees, really want to connect. And the campus needs to really facilitate connection. 

One of the things we’re talking about is this idea of curating interactions. I once cochaired a committee at the University called the Serendipity Committee. And the idea was that we would choose two faculty members who didn’t know each other, take them to lunch and introduce them and say, “We think that you two need to know each other.” And we did it over food and it was fun. And there were all sorts of new research ideas and new connections that came from just using the campus for serendipitous interactions.

Is there a space on the Twin Cities campus that you feel points the way forward to the future of campuses?

The newly renovated Industrial and Systems Engineering department in Lind Hall is, I think, a model for what higher ed space will look like in the future. It’s got really small faculty offices because they aren’t there as much, and a lot of hangout spaces for students. It has a big lounge with coffee and food and places for people to eat. The student spaces have a lot of the windows. The students have comfortable furniture and there’s a Starbucks downstairs. And it’s a fun, really zippy place. It’s the kind of place you want to go to.

The other place I find fascinating is the lobby of the Graduate Hotel in Stadium Village. There’s a huge table there and it’s full of students all the time. I learned from my students that some of them actually like working where there’s a lot of other activity. There’s a restaurant on one side, a Starbucks on the other. It’s cozy, quirky, soft lighting, comfortable chairs, fireplace going. And the students are doing their own thing. It’s not like they’re having conversations; they’re all working on different stuff, completely contrary to what we typically think of.

This interview was condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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