I Desired Dragons
This school year I’m teaching five unique courses. I teach six different groups of students but that’s not what I’m talking about. Teachers refer to each course they teach as a “prep,” a different set of lessons, activities, projects, and assessments they have to prepare. So if I were to teach six class periods and all of them were Algebra 2 I would still only have one prep.
I have five preps this year, which is down from the seven preps I’ve had for the last few years. My first year of teaching I had three preps then they escalated to seven over the next few years. This is the first time they have decreased.
Don’t pity me. The things I get to teach are amazing and fun. A decade ago I would have described teaching architecture, engineering, and graphic design to high school students as a dream career. Now that’s exactly what I do.
It does get overwhelming at times to come up with fresh ideas for projects and assignments for so many classes. And grading is a bit of a nightmare. But the variety of things I get to teach keeps me on my toes and I never get bored.
As the number of preps I was teaching increased I began to get confused in my classroom. Posting objectives and agendas on the board (things administrators love and most students ignore), managing undifferentiated stacks of paper, and maintaining and updating multiple class web sites befuddled me daily. I found myself editing the wrong website, projecting the wrong instructions on the screen, and just generally being disorganized. I needed a system.
So I started where every class starts: the syllabus. I had the syllabus for each class printed on a different color of paper. My district offers five pastel colors, pale blues and yellows and lavenders that would have perfectly matched the polos and oxfords I layered in the 1980s. I wanted to use these colors more broadly throughout the classroom but I couldn’t in good conscience afflict my students with these particular hues. So I came up with a richer palette of five colors in the same family as the copier papers.
The color difference between classes wasn’t quite enough. I wanted to use these to set the tone for my classes. Specifically I wanted them to be a little goofy. Having never experienced being a student in my own classroom I can’t be sure what that feels like, but I think I come off as professorial: brainy and stuffy and a little intimidating.
I want my students to feel comfortable enough to explore new things, to take chances. They should be willing to try designing things that seem strange. Way too much of their schooling involves seeking the correct answer in order to get a good grade. My demeanor could easily reinforce this. Plus my training as an architect taught me to value the simple, the neutral, the subdued. I neither wanted to deny who I am nor did I want to go all baroque in my classroom design. But a little color and whimsy couldn’t hurt.
So I matched the five colors with five odd animals. Cute, strange, endearing. Here’s the first round of class images:
These are an echidna, a pangolin, a loris, a sloth, and a tapir. In subsequent years I had talented graphic design students come up with different illustrations of the animals and develop new color palettes. Along the way a hoopoe got added to the mix and the tapir got replaced by a tamandua. Here are some of the variations:
Last spring I saw several changes to my classes coming for this school year. The state standards for some of my classes had changed the course names. I would be dropping graphic design classes and adding more engineering classes. And I was bored of the animals.
In conversation with some of my classes I decided to change to dragons. Because dragons are awesome.
I explored different kinds of dragons and looked for some logic as to which class got which kind of dragon. The list expanded to mythical creatures in general. Then I had a new system.
The three years of architecture classes got, in sequence, a dragon with no legs, a dragon with two legs, and a dragon with four legs. Only the ones with four legs are truly dragons. If they have no legs they’re “amphipteres” and if they have two legs they’re “wyverns.” (I don’t watch “Game of Thrones” but all the clips you fans have posted of it show wyverns, not dragons. Sorry if this upsets your universe.)
My class that’s a hybrid of engineering and architecture got a griffin, half eagle and half lion. In another engineering class students spend most of the year on a single group project so they got a multi-headed hydra.
I ended up spending a little time over the summer updating the color palette, sketching these creatures in various poses, and gradually developing my new classroom graphics, which led to two discoveries:
Discovery 1: There is a reason these creatures don’t exist in the real world. Nothing about their anatomy actually works. I tried to think through the skeletal and muscular structure that would make lizards or snakes or lions fly and they just didn’t work. I made the wings larger and the shoulder structure more pronounced with each iteration. Then I stopped worrying about it and just had fun with it.
Discovery 2: People liked these things. On a whim I took pictures of some of my sketches and posted them on social media. They were blurry pictures of works in progress but people really dug ‘em. I got plenty of likes online but I also got lots of comments in real life. Both the process and the creatures themselves were interesting to many.
Here are some early sketches:
And here are some further developments from the early sketches:
I struggled a bit with the griffin. The head tended toward a cute little sparrow rather than an eagle. I don’t encounter a lot of eagles in my yard.
The dragon is for a class of all seniors and I wanted it in a pose where it was about to take off into flight. It ended up looking quite a bit like my dog about to jump up on the sofa.
Writers are told to “write what you know,” which is what I try to do. Maybe I unconsciously follow the dictum to “draw what you know” as well.
I remember entering architecture studios my sophomore year of college. I had been a top student in high school and entered college to be an engineer. I did well in my math and science classes but really loved my humanities classes and ached for something more creative.
Architectural education is built on the design studio, a longer-than-normal class where critics (professors who are themselves designers) assign design projects and then coach students through them. These studios thrilled and baffled me. I got to explore ideas and make cool-looking things at the same time? For class credit? And it would lead to a career? I couldn’t believe all this was possible.
And yet when I created and presented my projects I struggled mightily to figure out the right answer to the problems my studio critics gave me. I was a master at deciphering test questions or calculus problems. Couldn’t I solve these design problems the same way?
For my first year the projects were strange and abstract enough that my quest for the correct answer didn’t interfere with my design process. But the next year it became a serious problem. The buildings I designed were stiff and I had no idea how to explain the reasoning behind them. I was just trying to do it right, to make the normal building I was supposed to make. What else was there?
Half way through the semester my studio critic asked me to meet him in his office. He let me know I was headed for a “C” in his class. I didn’t even know what that looked like on a report card. Plus, this was the class that was central to my chosen career. Was I on my way to becoming a “C” architect? I was devastated.
I watched what my friends were doing in studio when they got positive responses from their work. They seemed to be free of the hangups I had. They had ideas and pursued them. They sought good solutions to the problems rather than correct solutions. This seemed to make all the difference.
Our final project for the semester involved designing a building for a legendary piazza in Rome. In retrospect this was a pretentious assignment for a bunch of kids in a small college town in Texas. But it was the 1980s, which in the architecture world meant everyone was talking about history and precedent and context.
The import of the site stirred up in me an even greater sense of obligation, a need to get it right. I tried to push past this ingrained response and simply explore an idea. It felt rebellious, illicit. I still have an image of that design in my head and it was remarkably boring. But it was a small step forward.
It would be several more years before I found language to describe the differing logics behind “correct” and “good” solutions to problems. I had been making a conscious effort to explore ideas wherever they led regardless of what was normal or accepted. And not just design ideas. I had taken to reading far afield of the discipline at hand when trying to find resolutions to complex concepts.
When I was in graduate school getting my Master of Architecture degree I ended up meeting regularly with a group of Christians exploring the relationship between Christianity and political theory. Given how perverse the popular connections between Christianity and politics were then and are now, these meetings could have gone badly. But this ecumenical group of thoughtful grad students studying international policy, philosophy, and ethics (and who graciously accepted one lonely architecture student) looked past the inanity of the current discourse. Instead we looked to the historical traditions and the current conversations for which contemporary American conservatism and liberalism looked like two young siblings fighting as if who gets to ride in the front seat is the most important issue in the universe. While the car has no functioning brakes.
In our conversations I came across a distinction between deontological ethics and teleological ethics. Roughly, deontological ethics provide norms for what people ought to do while teleological ethics provide forward-looking norms for what people should become. Do we think of ethics as the things we should do or avoid as we go about our daily lives? Or do we think of ethics as providing a shared set of virtues that we can each live into to become good people? It’s a distinction between obligations and goals.
Those that were writing about this, especially Alasdair MacIntyre but many others as well, pointed out the incoherence of our modern deontological ethic and sought to recover from Aristotle and Aquinas a teleological virtue ethic. This thinking dovetailed into postmodern theories of the time because it pointed to how radically embedded we all are in diverse communities that provide us with differing standards for how to live well, even if we deny or ignore the narrow particularities of the communities we inhabit.
In the distinction between deontology and teleology I had found reasoning similar to what I had discovered in the design studio. In my experience as a student I found that a deep concern for doing what I am obligated to do and avoiding what I am supposed to avoid is deadly for design. I see this played out in the work of my own students now, especially those who are obsessed with getting good grades. Alternatively, working forward to some vision of the good can provide a much more open and positive framework for design, though how open it is depends a great deal on the content of the good being sought.
Though I found teleological thinking helpful I wasn’t quite sold on the virtue ethic. It remained too individualistic. The shared stories of what a good life can look like were fully acknowledged but the goal or telos remained the virtue of each individual in the community.
Not only did I find this individualism insufficient for building an ethic, I found it insufficient for conceptualizing design norms. You can’t make a building that pushes individuals towards the goal of a virtuous life. But you can make a building that works towards the goal of a good life together.
I find the distinction between seeking a good life and seeking a good shared life to be subtle but important. We can’t seek a good shared life while ignoring the content of our individual lives (though I’ve seen people try, such as “social justice warriors” who are jerks to the people around them). But the pieces of being a virtuous individual fit together much better when subsumed within a vision of a virtuous community.
For instance, if I live in a community that holds them as virtues I can seek to be a just person, a forgiving person, and an honest person. In daily decisions these virtues can easily come into conflict and I have no tools to navigate between the three if they are simply a set of individual characteristics. What do I do when it seems like lying may be an effective step in righting an injustice? When is forgiving simply denying an injustice?
But if I am seeking a just life for us together, a space where our entire relationship is set right, the connection and hierarchy between the three fall into place. As I seek a state of justice between us I can’t be dishonest about wrongs you’ve done to me but I also can’t hold these wrongs against you indefinitely. Forgiveness is dependent on honesty.
If I imagine justice as resting in me alone I can leave you out of the equation entirely and seek justice over and against you. If justice is us together this makes no sense at all.
Though many advocates for a virtue ethic claim that a Christian ethic is a virtue ethic I don’t think it is. We could list certain virtues promoted in the bible, such as humility or faithfulness, but we quickly begin to notice how radically relational these virtues are. And the biggies, like love, forgive, serve, and trust, are active verbs rather than nouns. Fitting biblical narratives and norms into a virtue ethic requires quite a bit of squeezing and leaving parts hanging out.
The goal Jesus taught his followers to seek was a good life together. This life goes by many names: the kingdom of God, shalom, the beloved community, the life of the age to come (AKA eternal life), the household of God, etc. All of these attempt to paint a picture for us of a life together that’s difficult for us to imagine because it’s so unlike the world we inhabit. Sometimes we get glimpses of it, though. Sometimes the kingdom of God comes near.
But I was talking about dragons, wasn’t I?
In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien described being drawn into fantasy stories:
I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighbourhood, intruding into my relatively safe world, in which it was, for instance, possible to read stories in peace of mind, free from fear. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.
Tolkien sought the object of his desire as he wrote stories that created modern fantasy literature as a genre. Yet as I read his essay on fairy stories or “Leaf by Niggle,” his allegory about extravagant making, I felt his need to explain, even justify, why he would spend so much time and energy building elaborate fictional worlds. He addressed questions that were likely nagging at his own conscience: Was his work just escapism? Was it a meaningless waste of time? Maybe his concern came from overt questions and challenges he received from his Oxford colleagues. Maybe they came from within.
I’m grateful that Tolkien pursued dragons so lavishly. The margins of all my seventh grade notebooks were filled with drawings of Smaug. My little summer project of drawing dragons for my classroom took me back to those days. Those were emotionally tumultuous days. As I tried to navigate the ugly transition through puberty I wanted to live in a more wondrous world, a world with giant spiders and a greedy dragon, a world with curmudgeonly dwarves and a self-sacrificing little hobbit. The story Tolkien told helped carry me through a time of crisis. I could imagine a bigger and better world, where the paralyzing self-doubt and the constant bullying would become small, distant memories.
Seeking a good life together includes treating each other well — being honest, seeking justice, serving those in need. Seeking a good life together also includes luxuriating in delight — telling thrilling stories, inhabiting sublime spaces, dancing with abandon. For me, at least, it can mean suppressing my nagging sense of obligation and responsibility and just spending an exorbitant amount of time creating colorful dragons.share: by