Nezar AlSayyad
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Teaching Philosophy

I am an architect and a planner whose scholarship is mainly in the field of urban history, but when people ask me what I do for a living, I simply respond by saying that I am an educator. I could also respond to this question by saying that I am a university administrator. For the past twelve years, I have served in various capacities on this campus. Since 1995, I have served as chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. I have also served as the Associate Dean for International Programs for the College of Environment Design since 2004. Despite these demanding administrative responsibilities, I never stopped teaching full-time during the two decades I have been on this campus. I am first and foremost a teacher.

I cannot claim to have a singular teaching philosophy. My teaching has always been inspired by one important educational principle, the belief that the study of other cultures and peoples is a necessary exercise that is fundamental for understanding the self. I teach different groups of students at different levels, ranging from sophomores and first year transfers to advanced Ph.D.s. I teach large undergraduate lecture courses, advanced graduate seminars, and professional design and planning studios. Hence, I must use different teaching strategies for each of these groups and employ different techniques of motivation. I challenge my students and encourage them to challenge me in return. I inculcate in them a strong sense of discipline to ensure that they abide by the most rigorous standards of the discipline and the strictest rules of debate. I have a tendency to plan every aspect of my lectures and seminars in advance, but my years of teaching have also taught me how and when to let go of the script and appreciate the spontaneity of classroom exchange.

The one overarching motivation behind my teaching is a desire to share as much of what I know with my students. I always labor to explain the relevance of my larger research agenda. I frequently organize and participate in many conferences and I always report back to my students about what I and others presented and how it may be relevant to them. Sharing my scholarship with my students has been a key to my own success. I have authored, edited, and co-edited eleven books during my time at Berkeley, many of which started as graduate seminars with regular course listings. Among these are: Forms of Dominance (1992), which resulted from my Colonial Urbanism seminar; Hybrid Urbanism (2001), which was a special version of my Housing in Developing Countries course, but with a focus on identity; and Cinematic Urbanism (2006), which developed from an urban history seminar dealing with cinema and the city. I am proud of the fact that many of my former Ph.D. students who attended these seminars are now leading educators in the U.S. and around the world. Their first published papers are often chapters in a book that I edit or articles in peer-refereed journals on which I may serve as a guest editor or on the editorial board.

In 1988, my first year as a faculty member at Berkeley, I co-founded the International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments (IASTE), a scholarly society constituted of academics and practitioners from the fields of architecture, planning, geography, anthropology, and folklore, who are concerned with the study of tradition and its impact on the built environment. The association has grown over the years to include a thousand individual institution members in almost fifty different countries. The association holds a biennial conference in places as different as Cairo, Paris, and Hong Kong, and it publishes Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review (TDSR), one of the most respected journals in the field of vernacular studies today. I am proud of the fact that all of the IASTE conference coordinators for the past twenty years have been Ph.D. students of mine who were pursuing their research at the time of the conference. The experience they gained from this exposure to various facets of scholarship has proven very valuable in their professional development. Similarly, TDSR was managed for its first two years by some of my students. Today, the journal’s managing editor is a former M.Arch. student, the journal’s book review editor is a former Ph.D. student, and the journal’s graphic designer is a former B.A. student. All of these former students are now accomplished professionals who are highly paid for their work.

I always employ innovative and multidisciplinary methods in my teaching. In my undergraduate housing seminar, I introduced a simulation game some ten years ago. It has been a very successful exercise and has replaced the midterm exam because of its dynamic and participatory nature. After eight weeks of lectures and sections about various housing topics, I assign my class a problem that simulates a real life housing condition. In previous years, the games dealt with a housing situation after a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or tsunami, or issues of reconstruction following a civil war or a political conflict. The objective is to devise policies that attempt to ameliorate a substantially damaged housing stock. Students are divided into smaller groups that are assigned role sheets with different political orientations. Using the material taught in the first eight weeks of the class, these groups prepare position statements, engage in negotiations, and draft elements of a housing program. This exercise teaches them how to apply the principles taught in class within certain political limitations and negotiate with other partners and adversaries. The exercise is recorded and I later translate this material into short video clips that serve as news reels used to debrief the groups on their performances.

In my graduate thesis studio, which I taught continuously for eight years, I also introduced a one-week exercise asking students to edit a feature film down to a three-minute video clip that represented their architectural proposition as a spatial narrative. I then asked the class to watch the individual clips and we collectively engaged in figuring out the individual design proposition without the student speaking a word. It was a very effective exercise in visual translation that improved the quality of projects and the students’ ability to communicate their ideas. A decade later, this exercise inspired me to offer a course entitled, “The Cinematic City,” in which I attempted to narrate the history of the twentieth century city using film as the principle frame of reference. This has been one of my most successful courses ever.

I am grateful for the handful of students who initiated this nomination process because I would never have sought it myself. While it is always gratifying to be recognized by one’s peers, no award can ever capture the appreciation and the pleasure I get from any of my students when they finish a paper, a project, a dissertation, or a program. The privilege of teaching itself is my greatest reward.

Nezar AlSayyad

Past DTA Recipients
Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning
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