Welcome to Fall 2023 from Dean Sarah Whiting
Dear GSD community,
It was wonderful to see so many of you last Thursday afternoon for our all-school event to start the semester, and a big thanks again to faculty members Danielle Choi, Toni Griffin, Eric Höweler, Dana McKinney White, and Andrew Witt for their incredibly thought-provoking presentations, and to Student Forum president Cory Page for doing such a fantastic job as program emcee.
The fall semester is now in full swing, and as we become more deeply absorbed in our coursework, research, student organizations, and everything else that fills our semesters, I want to take this opportunity to emphasize a point I made in my remarks about the importance of conversation.
With any project—and by “project,” I mean a proposal, an argument, a discipline, a practice, a design, a text…—there is only so far you can advance on your own. Working in isolation, or only with people with whom you are in complete agreement, is admittedly a very comfortable place to settle. Being in total agreement with oneself and those around you makes for an easy and happy existence, and yet doing so essentially seals you off in uncritical affirmation of your own ideas. Without critical dialogue, without conversation, you will eventually bump up against the limits of your own experience and perspective. You will, in short, ensure your own irrelevance.
It is difficult to overstate how crucial conversation is to the success of our work, but what really qualifies as a constructive conversation? Conversation at the GSD isn’t always verbal. Design traffics in the verbal, the visual, and the textual, in speculative realities and realities of speculation. But the best conversations—those that help ground our work in relevance—are centered around making an impact, strive to connect to the issues of the day, or, better yet, help define the critical issues of tomorrow.
Constructive conversation also means opening oneself up to productive disagreement. Hearing disagreement can be difficult, and focusing on and finding the value in it takes some practice. But in being challenged by disagreement, we’re able to refine, edit, hone, rework, and reformat our ideas to fix a point of weakness or fill a blind spot, all toward making them stronger—more relevant—as a result.
And it’s equally important to pay forward the benefits of such constructive feedback by letting your curiosity take you in directions that you might not predict, paying close attention and offering your own constructive criticism to the work and words of others around you, and by striking up conversation with people you may not agree with but whose judgment you respect. For everyone to benefit from and be supported by constructive criticism requires a shared commitment to intellectual generosity, respect, and trust that our feedback is always in the service of advancing each other’s work. Graduate school is quite unique as a place where we have the opportunity to build for ourselves an intellectual community of friends, colleagues, and faculty whom we can count on to share genuine, honest criticism, and disagreement. The GSD is a place where, as I mentioned on Thursday (referencing an upcoming article by Diane Davis to be published in this book) you can make room for constructive conflict. The design of rooms, we all know, requires specificity—materials, dimensions, details—so I encourage you to make the “rooms” of your time here at once specific and open. It’s a process of making that will carry you throughout your time at the GSD and in all the years beyond.
With that, I look forward to all that’s coming up over the next few months and can’t wait to find myself in conversation with all of you.
Sarah M. Whiting
Dean and Josep Lluís Sert Professor of Architecture
Harvard University Graduate School of Design