Wednesday, June 26, 2019

College is for the connections . . . and the architecture


After the recent college admissions scandal in the United States, many people were left scratching their heads. Who would pay half a million dollars just to secure a place for a child at the University of Southern California? Sure, USC comes in at a respectable 22nd place in one national ranking of American universities, but one of the perspective undergraduates had already posted a video on her YouTube channel in which she explained: "I don't really care about school, as you guys all know." She went to college for the connections, not for the academics.

Such an attitude is not new, even if the medium, YouTube, is. One of the key themes in Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory is that since the 1600s Americans have imagined the collegiate experience as an opportunity to socialize. It’s not that academics were unimportant, but they were not the main event. In 1741, Ben Franklin hinted that a good reason to attend college was to make a good marriage, which was especially necessary because the colonies did not have the long-standing social registers that were built into the British class system.

Soon, Americans were constructing dormitories on the Oxford and Cambridge model as a means of cementing relationships among young men of a certain social class. And thus the quintessential form for an American dormitory, lifted from Oxbridge, became the quadrangle.

Credit: Ayla Lepine

In 1903, Charles Van Hise, then-president of the University of Wisconsin, stated that if one were to name the most fundamental characteristic of English universities, it would be "the system of halls of residence." He then went on to make an astonishing claim: those residential colleges gave rise to the British Empire. He wrote that "the college system may seem absurd, but for some reason these universities have produced an astonishingly large proportion of great statesmen, writers, and scientists. The men of Oxford and Cambridge have been largely instrumental in extending the empire of Britain over the earth; they have contributed liberally to the greatest literature of the world; they have furnished many fundamental ideas to science." This rather extreme endorsement demonstrates the intense affection for the dormitory as a space that shaped student character.

Credit: Carla Yanni

But why the quadrangle? The quadrangle looks back to the traditional shape of the cloister in a monastery or an Italian Renaissance palazzo. Although a series of linked quadrangles is typical in the UK, the sequential type is less common in the US. Demonstrating characteristic brashness, the members of America’s ruling class took the British examples as bland suggestions to be improved upon with Yankee wealth and extravagance. The quadrangles at Yale are far more elaborate than their British forbears—no Yale student had to go the men’s room in a cold dark basement. In addition to the romantic associations with English elite universities, the geometry of the quadrangle creates an enclosed, private outdoor space, like a room that is open to the sky. The square donut reinforces the smallness of a community within the larger university and sets a firm boundary that prevents possible encroachment by the outside world. It is a laboratory for forming friendships, creating networks, and socializing.

The study of one building type over time allows us to see different architects solving the same problems in different contexts. In my research, I study the social history of college residences to reveal the way designers and patrons tried to shape the social lives of students. Architecture is implicated at every level of the social and relational environment in which students live.


Carla Yanni is professor of art history at Rutgers University. She is author of The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States (Minnesota, 2007) and Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display.

"Living on Campus is an outstanding contribution to the research literature on student life and college residence halls. Carla Yanni’s rigorous scholarship and captivating writing style invites the reader into the lives of students and the places they live from the early colonial period to present day. She skillfully uses students’ life experiences and her deep historical and architectural knowledge to show how student life, architectural design, and educational philosophy interacted throughout history to shape the collegiate experience. This is a must read for anyone interested in student life in college residence halls."—Gregory S. Blimling, author of Student Learning in College Residence Halls: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why

"What a lively and fascinating study! Living on Campus offers compelling looks at architectural plans, façades, and interiors of residential buildings for college and university students. Attentive to the myriad issues of college life, the work links the history of dormitories to the diverse lives lived within—and without—their walls and to the changing goals of campus administrators and donors."—Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, author of Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s

"In clear, elegant prose, Carla Yanni tracks the 350-year architectural history of the college dormitory and exposes its contested social meanings, marked by inclusions and exclusions on the basis of class, gender, and race. This is a remarkable achievement—a welcome addition to the architectural history of youth, higher education, and institutions."—Marta Gutman, author of A City for Children: Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland, 1850-1950

"In Living on Campus, Carla Yanni interrogates the social history of college residences to map the struggles between inclusion and exclusion that frame the daily life of the American campus. From the development of moral character to the creation of a democratic citizenry, these buildings go hand in hand with the libraries, classrooms, and laboratories that make up the pedagogical space of higher education today."—Sharon Haar, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

An Interview with Helene Uri, author of CLEARING OUT


As the translator of Clearing Out, I’m delighted to be able to introduce the Norwegian author Helene Uri and her marvelously written and moving novel to a North American audience. Clearing Out is a novel of losses (languages, histories, and parents), but also of discoveries and rediscoveries (heritage, memories, and love). In asking Helene Uri the questions below, I’ve focused largely on the Sami elements of Clearing Out. Yet the strength of the novel is that it succeeds on many levels, parallel and overlapping, in telling two stories, one autobiographical (Helene) and one fictional (Ellinor): two contemporary Norwegian women, both linguists, both dealing with the loss of an older parent.

Uri is one of those authors whose work spans many forms: literary fiction, young adult fiction, popular nonfiction about language, and academic work on linguistics. She has a PhD in Linguistics; she has appeared frequently on Norwegian television (including a past stint as host of the travel-bicycling reality program Girls on Wheels); and she writes a regular column on language for Aftenposten, one of the country’s main newspapers. Her most recent book, Who Said What: Women, Men, and Language (2018), won the country’s prestigious Brage prize for nonfiction for its witty and intelligent take on the issue of gender in speech.

Language, including the linguistic phrase “language death,” which occurs when a language loses its last native speaker, plays a large role in Clearing Out. In Norwegian the title Rydde ut means, in its most direct translation, “to clear out,” and can describe the efforts adult children make to deal with the accumulated possessions of their elderly parents, which sometimes spark questions and reveal secrets. But the term can also have more sinister, active meanings: “utrydde” means “eliminate, eradicate, obliterate, wipe out, exterminate, kill off.” An “utryddet språk” is a language threatened with extinction.

There are nine Sami languages in Sápmi, which covers the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, as well as the Kola Peninsula in Russia. The Sami language with the most speakers (estimated at around 20,000) is Northern Sami. Over the past decades, numerous programs have been created to help save and promote several of the languages, with success. Yet other Sami languages are edging closer to extinction. The character of the linguist Ellinor has much of interest to say about dying and dead languages from around the world but until she arrives for a research project in Finnmark and engages with the men and women who speak or don’t speak Sami, who remember when they stopped or why they never started speaking Sami, Ellinor doesn’t fully engage with the pain of language loss. Helene, as Ellinor’s creator, is not unlike others in Norway with a forgotten, often suppressed knowledge of a family tree that includes Sami grandparents or great-grandparents who decided for various reasons to “pass.”

For millennia the indigenous Sami people hunted and herded reindeer, fished, and built boats along the coasts and in the mountains and valleys of inland Fennoscandia. Often coexisting peacefully with settlers from the south, their existence became more precarious in the seventeenth century with the advent of missionaries and colonists, who dislodged them from their age-old grazing, hunting, and fishing territories. Punitive laws followed, including sending children to boarding schools and forbidding the Sami language. Many Sami resisted and fought back in the courts and engaged politically; others intermarried or assimilated and hid their old identities. Some emigrated to North America and, in doing so, erased their Sami backgrounds

There’s currently a resurgence of interest in the United States and Canada in Sami heritage. The Minnesota-Finnmark writer Ellen Marie Jensen, author of We Stopped Forgetting: Stories from Sámi Americans (2012), is part of a new wave of Sami-American researchers, organizations, and cultural events dedicated to delving into family connections and celebrating new forms of engagement. In Norway the issue of Sami identity and rights is complex and often painful. Along with cultivating pride and a renewed exploration of culture and language, the Sami grapple with continued prejudice and the “shame” that Uri refers to below (as well as ongoing struggles against resource extraction from corporations that threaten their land and livelihoods). In 1997, King Harald V of Norway made a formal apology on behalf of the state to the Sami parliament. Norway’s parliament recently instigated a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to investigate and attempt to heal past injustices and abuses against the Sami and Kven (ethnic Finns in Norway) population.

One of the things that sets Clearing Out apart from much of contemporary Norwegian fiction is the inclusion of Sami history and Sami characters, not just as window dressing but an integral part of the narrative. Anna and Kåre are fully realized characters, intelligent, complex, and generous individuals—far from the stereotyped Sami figures that have appeared on the margins of Norwegian literature for two centuries. Ellinor’s relationships with them add depth to the story, and Anna and Kåre’s irony and insight also intensify the themes of historical displacement, political conflict, and renewed interest in Sami culture (Anna was and is an activist and Kåre’s grown children take pride in their Sami background). The novel also casts a welcome light on the coastal Sami society of Finnmark.

Beautifully constructed, Clearing Out is both a clearing out and a gathering together of old and new stories from Norway’s past history and current preoccupations. For many Norwegians (and readers of Norwegian fiction in translation) the far north is a strange country. In this novel Helene Uri bravely takes a step toward acknowledging what has been lost of language and memory, as well as what can be recovered and remembered.


Novels that combine fiction and autobiography seem to be gaining currency, in Norway as in other countries. How do you see Clearing Out fitting into this literary genre?

I was surprised when I discovered I was unable to write about language death and the Sami language without writing autobiographically. It took me a long time to realize I actually had to include myself, as myself! I’d never done that before. In my earlier novels, the "I" has always been someone else. Now there was a close, if not completely overlapping, relationship between the novel's first-person narrator and the novel's author. I didn't want to write an autobiographical text, but it couldn't have happened otherwise.

There are relatively few novels in Norway that include Sami characters such as Anna and Kåre, characters who defy certain stereotypes. What was in your mind as you created them?

Generally speaking, I suppose I thought of them as I always do when I create my literary characters: I want them to be alive and believable. People are people regardless of ethnicity, social class, gender, and age. A human being is first an individual, then a member of a group. But after having said that, it’s obvious that the certainty of your own background is one of several factors that shape you as a human being. And when a group of people has been oppressed, the certainty of belonging is something that characterizes the people of that group. And I wanted this certainty to be reflected in the characters.

One of the main characters, Ellinor Smidt, has a PhD in linguistics and so do you. You’ve also published a number of popular books about the Norwegian language. Can you say something about your choice to look at language through the prism of a character studying “endangered languages” in Norway itself? Was your intention in part to educate the general Norwegian reader?

When I write nonfiction books on language, I want to inform, and yes, "educate," my readers. When I write fiction, nothing could be farther from my mind! I wanted to write about language death because the theme has enormous narrative power. An image that popped into my head early on was this: A grandmother sits with her newborn grandchild on her lap. She bends over the child and sings a lullaby that her mother and grandmother sang to her, and she knows that the child she holds in her arms will never understand the words in the song.

But if my readers end up thinking about language death­—that around fifty languages ​​disappear every year—then that’s a good outcome as well.

What has been the reaction from the Sami community(ies) in Norway to Clearing Out?

I’ve only heard positive things. I’m telling my story and others must tell theirs. In any case, many feel it’s a relief to read a narrative where the shame is lifted.

The search for buried family histories is a resonant one in North America, where many immigrants often shed their names, language, and even ethnicities in order to fit in. A number of Sami-Americans have had no idea they had Sami ancestors. Do you think this phenomenon might be more prevalent in Norway than many have thought?

They say that if you have family from the north of Norway, then it’s likely that Sami or Kven (a Finnish ethnic minority) forefathers and foremothers will turn up. So, yes, this is common—and it’s also common that one does not know because the shame of it has been covered up. I recently visited a library in Nordland where they had blown up a huge photograph of two older people sitting on stone steps in front of a house. In itself, the photograph was beautiful, but the most interesting thing about the photo was what a later relative had done with it: He had scratched off the footwear of those depicted. Both of the elders were wearing komagers (traditional Sami shoes), but where the komagers should have been, there were only lots of angry, white lines on the image.

Have you continued to learn more about your family since your novel was published a few years ago?

I’ve gotten to know several relatives—and I hope to continue to learn more about them. And about the family. And about the Sami people. It will probably turn out that I have some relatives from that side of the family in the United States as well.


Helene Uri is a Norwegian novelist whose writing has been translated into more than a dozen languages. She is a trained linguist and the author of thirty books, including Honningtunger and De beste blant oss. She was awarded Norway’s 2018 Brage Prize, determined annually by the Norwegian Book Prize foundation, and has served as a board member for the Norwegian Language Council and the Norwegian Writers Union and was on the jury of the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. She is vice president of the Norwegian Academy of Language and Literature and lives in Oslo.

Barbara Sjoholm is an award-winning translator of Norwegian and Danish and the author of many books of fiction and nonfiction. She translated the Sami stories collected by Emilie Demant Hatt in By the Fire: Sami Folktales and Legends (Minnesota, 2019).

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Turbulent Thoughts of a Peaceful Mind


"Who am I? A vortex. A dispersal that comes undone." —Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics

An extraordinary philosopher of science has passed away.

Michel Serres was a Henri Bergson for the fractal age. He combined a precise grasp of the sciences with a philosophical appreciation of its lack of understanding of time and history.

His philosophy may have seemed “incomprehensibly French” to an Anglo-analytic eye, but Serres was a true polymath in a classical vein that has gone extinct in a world of institutional specialization. He was a philosopher of science who eschewed the dominant languages of both philosophy and science, and for this reason he was more incisive and relevant than most.

Deeply erudite in mathematics, physics, history, philosophy, and literature, Serres witnessed scientific revolutions first hand that transformed his thinking: the invention of topology in mathematics and that of quantum mechanics and cybernetic systems in physics.

At the turn of the 1900s, Bergson tried to speak across an emerging divide between philosophy and science, but half a century later Serres realized the widening gulf had made such a task impossible. Philosophy was fundamentally unable to account for the new directions of science, and science no longer had any use for philosophy (unless it served a legitimatory function). He had to blaze his own trail.

One of Serres’s key insights was that both philosophy and science were stuck in a framework of thinking in terms of subject and object relations: representation vs. reality, theory vs. experiment or observation, scientist vs. nature, etc. He tried to show a “third,” usually invisible, element at work in any such relation—a mediator or an excluded middle. Serres proposed philosophy in terms of prepositions rather than subjects or objects, theorizing relations between beings rather than beings themselves.

From this arose influential concepts like quasi-objects, exemplified by a football in a game, which is neither subject nor object but rather confers subjectivity on the player who has it. A quasi-object is a relation that structures the game. Serres’s ingenuity of thinking inspired, among many things, the development of actor-network theory in science and technology studies.

In The Parasite, he weaves together fable, history, and science to describe a logic not definable as subject or object, or within a certain space, but in terms of a host-guest relation. As a hidden “third” actor, the parasite works as an operator of change, a “thermal exciter,” on all scales, including humanity itself and its relation to the environment.

The parasite is intrinsic to the system as an operator of change, a disruptive tendency, a chaotic variable introduced to a smooth flow. In The Birth of Physics, Serres shows how the same logic is found at the heart of an ancient idea of Lucretius and Archimedes.

In the vortex, Serres finds a leitmotif of nature and thought itself.

What is readily apparent in rivers and clouds is also present in all dynamic behavior, from the double helix of DNA via parasitical disruptions to cosmic scales. For what are spiral galaxies if not vortices of force?

As I show in my own work, inspired by Serres, the metaphysics of the vortex resurfaces constantly in the history of science, as an early cosmology (Descartes), as atomic ether theory (Thomson), as implosive dynamics (Schauberger), and in other forms. But this qualitative understanding of the relation between energy and matter is always eclipsed by a framework of quantification—mechanistic or probabilistic—that tries to purge the chaotic element from the system. Despite its explanatory simplicity, the vortex remains “but a metaphor” to the physicist, who has inherited a certain language of science introduced in the era between Archimedes and contemporary chaos theory.

Serres’s abandonment of the traditional languages of both philosophy and science came at the price of not always being understood. His distinctive style resisted academic jargon and used ordinary language (playing with the French in the way Heidegger played with the German, often making him eminently untranslatable into English). He combined a poetic sensibility with the logical precision and erratic (sometimes frustrating) swiftness of a brilliant mathematician. If he does not leave behind a school of thought, his legacy is consonant with his style of philosophy: inspiring unorthodox thinkers and opening new pathways across divides.

But inspiration still flows, and the vortex keeps spinning.

Rest in peace, Michel Serres.


Bjørn Ekeberg is a philosopher of science and author of Metaphysical Experiments, published by University of Minnesota Press.