When Texas students return to college campuses in the fall of 2016, many will arm themselves with pens, books and, yes, guns. Perhaps design, or rather design thinking, should be part of the arsenal as well.
How will we focus on the real business of the university where we learn, teach, explore, invent, make friends and form communities, against a backdrop of the new Campus Carry law and memories of the Charles Whitman shooting and images of more recent acts of terror?
Design can rise to the challenge.
Fear constrains us and limits our capacity to think expansively. So let’s forget fear for a moment and focus on the future: a positive one.
We need to redesign the first day of school to support the primary mission of the university. We can make places feel safer and thus allow us to focus on the business of the university.
Designers look to the past and assess the present in order to anticipate the future. They use design thinking strategies, partnered with co-design approaches, to engage all members of a community in the process of developing future-focused proposals.
Designers are well versed in negotiating complex problems with poorly delineated boundaries, enmeshed in controversy and in the process educating clients who expect simple, elegant solutions that will please everyone.
Most importantly, when old ways of doing will no longer suffice, designers can present visualizations, models and prototypes to test alternate paradigms. This allows the public and policymakers to imagine more sustainable and perhaps substantially different existences.
We are told that our campus communities will adhere to the law: no signage banning guns, no grade inflation and please don’t ask, or tell. The sense of forced compliance is creating resistance and fuels thoughts that academic freedom itself is under fire.
We will necessarily experience some changes to our physical and psychological environment this fall, but what if we refuse to retreat or teach everything via online.
Designers can shift the conversation from “oh no, there are guns on campus” to how we might build more resilient communities that can absorb such shocks — embracing the implementation of this new law as an opportunity to reimagine the future.
For starters, we can redesign the first day of class. One student designer, for instance, focused on interrupting the “othering” she states is inevitable when campus carry takes effect. She has proposed that “syllabus day” might become an opportunity.
What if everyone, in every class, on every campus in Texas simultaneously gathers together four strangers, educates them about campus carry and initiates a statewide classroom discussion about the law and its impacts, both real and imagined.
The avenues for debate need to remain open if our universities, and by extension our society, are to remain free and able to resist the looming bunker mentality.
A decentralized, Texas-wide university debate for the first day of class is a start, but what next? We need to create designs that transform our institutions to support transgenerational and cross-disciplinary discourse. We need to create flatter hierarchies and closer connections on campus.
What if all administrators, staffers, faculty members and students were on first-name terms and decision-making were more collaborative? We could reuse outmoded lecture halls and classrooms to create spaces that facilitate cross-disciplinary work and embrace analogue and digital skills to create a place for both young and old to contribute.
We might grapple with the fact that loneliness, fatigue and grief affect everyone, yet compassion and maintenance of a healthy life/work balance are not yet priorities in our society. We might breach the silos that impede us, both disciplinary and social, and in doing so become a more inclusive community because of campus carry.
Imagine the university of the future where the ontological impact of policy is studied in real time and where the university becomes a test lab for the implementation of new political, technological and social practices. If we can resist the immediate urge to retreat, perhaps we can craft imaginative and positive responses to situations that challenge our status quo.
We must build a more confident, resilient and relevant academy while helping to reshape a culture that is increasingly controlled by divisiveness, fear-mongering and violence.
Kate Catterall is an associate professor of design in the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Contra Costa Times and affilated newspapers.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
Like us on Facebook.