Shaking up the Professional Practice Course at MIT

We recently sat down with Finegold Alexander Principal Rebecca Berry, AIA, LEED AP and Shepley Bulfinch Associate Bob Mohr, AIA to learn about their experience leading the MIT Professional Practice Course. They have been teaching the course since 2019 and 2016, respectively. The course gives a critical orientation towards a career in architectural practice. Through intensive case studies, critical discussions on urgent topics, and role-playing exercises, the course challenges students to explore a range of legal, ethical, political, and professional questions they will face in practice.

Keep reading to learn why Rebecca and Bob decided to get involved, their goals for the curriculum, how things have shifted due to the current environment and what they’ve enjoyed most about teaching the course!

What is the goal of the Professional Practice Course?

Bob Mohr: The professional practice class is a required component of architecture curriculum in the U.S. for those pursuing a professional degree and is meant to provide an introduction to everything that happens after students leave University. We are here to help demystify the architecture field because there is a big difference between what their life is like in university and what it’s like out in the world.

Rebecca Berry: As Bob mentioned, the class focuses on what actually happens once you’re a practitioner, in other words, things like contracts, fees, clarifying why these things matter. For example, why does it matter how you structure a practice? How does that affect how we can practice and the differences that we can make in our communities and trying to turn it more into a question of looking at the big picture issues within the profession. And I always love the way that, Bob for instance, says “let’s not talk about fees, let’s talk about how you make a living.” That’s the real question – how do you get paid for your work? How can that be fair? How does that affect how we compensate our employees and the bigger picture questions, rather than it just being about purely the nuts and bolts of the profession?

Why is this type of course important? Do you think students are shocked during their first job after school?

RB: Oh, we all were shocked. It is a real disconnect between architecture school and the practice of architecture. I think this is changing, honestly. There are architecture schools that are focused on practice, like the Boston Architectural College where students are fully engaged and working in offices all the way through school. You come out of school and work on stair details – ‘I have to do what? Why do I have to deal with this? And, why am I stuck over here in the corner doing this? I’m a designer, I want to do big picture things.’

BM: Yeah, I think it’s definitely changing. I think more students are more interested in actually going out there and doing architecture. MIT Architecture, as a department, has changed too. You are more often reminded how this might be implemented in the world, and there’s a focus on the reality that architecture is an effort that results in things for real people. That’s who we’re doing it for. We’re not just creating art, we’re creating things that are occupied by humans. How do we serve the people that are going to be living, working or playing in our buildings? That’s been a nice evolution to witness and play a small part of it.

How has the course changed to meet the needs of today’s architecture students?

BM: This is the third year that Rebecca and I have taught the class together, and I’ve been teaching it since 2016. We, along with the department, wanted to reinvent the class. We flipped it upside down and started asking the kinds of questions we’ve been talking about – what are the things we need to give people? How do we introduce the students to things and give them resources without flooding them with a singular picture on ethics, project management, fees and contracts, without contextualizing it or making it relevant to the work that they understand architecture to be. The curriculum didn’t create a conversation about how you take your design interests, passions for social equity, or whatever may be your environment, and help turn those aspects into a career. That’s kind of where the class started – creating a class that’s about helping architects do what they want to do.

And it’s changed and evolved a lot in five or so years. Now we’re in a rhythm where we built in a lot of the real core necessary stuff, and we throw everything at them at the beginning of the class. Then the classes become more about giving them as much as possible, with the understanding that architecture is multi-dimensional, and not monolithic. There are many different ways to practice architecture, there are many different acts that can be called architecture. Architecture may extend to community organizing, or activism in the service of the people who need good architecture, or urban design projects.

Why did you get involved in the program?

RB: Andrew Scott, the interim department head at MIT, explained that the department had shook up the class and they were looking at it in this entirely different way. Andrew Scott was literally my first studio professor at the Institute and someone who I had a lot of respect for. The answer to being involved was going to be yes. Especially as I knew that I wouldn’t be involved in just having to stand up and run people through the nuts and bolts of an AIA contract for 12 weeks, which is my memory of professional practice.

What Bob and his previous fellow lecturers had done was to take multiple steps back and talk big picture and issues on what was happening in the profession. And then how new practitioners could really change it and make it their own which was interesting to me. As someone who had been removed from academia for an extremely long time, this is not a place I had been. Stepping in as someone who had gone out and practiced architecture, it was interesting coming back into the fold, if you will, of academia in this way. The fact that the point of the class was to focus more on integrating real issues and talking frankly about problems of society and how the profession interfaces with that – was really interesting to me.

How has the class pivoted again?

RB: I still remember the conversation that we had – it was probably around June 2020. Where we – Bob and I – basically said, we can’t not acknowledge what is happening in this country around race, the pandemic, and its effects on society. So, we shook the course up again, and went all in on focusing on those issues. What was really interesting, since we were remote, we were able to engage with people all over the country. Bringing people from New Orleans to Minneapolis. Bob has fantastic connections on the west coast, because he worked out there with firms that are doing socially oriented work. Though it was challenging to teach remotely, what it gave us was this opportunity to connect with people in a way that was previously difficult, because we didn’t have kind of endless money for travel to bring people to the Institute.

Have you taken a similar approach this year with virtual guest lecturers?

BM: Yeah, that’s the hope. We’re in person but have added three virtual sessions to have tours of offices. One upcoming session is with Moody Nolan, who are based in Ohio, which will be an amazing presentation and discussion. They would have loved to come in person, but it’s easier to get them this way. We wanted to include them because well they are on fire at the moment, , but it’s also learning about architecture in Ohio. We’re having people from the west coast talk about community engagement – which is something they’ve been dialed into for years.

DREAM Collaborative Principals, Greg Minott and Troy Depeiza, speaking at Rebecca and Bob's MIT Professional Practice class. Image credit: DREAM Collaborative Instagram

What aspects of hybrid teaching will or should remain in teaching?

BM: I think ‘zooming’ people in is going to stay. Another mission of the class is to give them what they can’t get themselves. They can walk down the street and go into any local architecture office. Let’s show them people who are working in the south as an example – because architecture is happening there too.

RB: I think one of the things that’s been interesting for me was the use of the chat function during virtual classes. I’m not sure how you feel Bob, but it almost felt like for some people it was easier to engage that way in discussion. Like ‘hey, if you have a question, just put it in the chat.’ Not everybody will raise their hand and speak out. You know, when there’s 30 people in a room, it just speaks to people’s different comfort levels around that.

BM: Yes, the chat feature is helpful. Sharing resources, something is mentioned during the lecture, and the students put it in the chat, so everybody’s has access to it and looking at it. It would be great to hybridize that.

Speaking of engagement… how have the students shaped the curriculum?

RB: Since this is not your typical professional practice class, we do get more engagement. And we do get deep questions. I mean, some of the questions that the students ask are fantastic. One question I thought was just an excellent discussion point was the student that asked how we justify taking as much money as you do as the designer when the people who make the buildings are out there laboring in the cold and the dark? And there’s danger involved in the making of buildings and everything, and how do you square those two things together? This is such a tangled topic about buildings and their impact socially on the environment, on the people who make them and what’s the value that we bring. I thought ‘This is an entire session, right?’

So, Bob and I always end up doing this kind of wrap up class at the end of the semester where we try to cover the questions and things that the students bring up. I don’t feel like we would get those kinds of discussions if we weren’t approaching this class in a completely different way.

What do you enjoy most about the course?

BM: For me, it’s about fanning the flame of excitement about making architecture. A dirty little secret is that we benefit from the class too. One of the things I get out of the course is just enthusiasm – they get excited by what we’re presenting to them. The students always have a new way and different way of thinking about things, and I benefit from that like that.

Today’s generation is saying architecture should be about this, and I’m going to figure out how to do that. If there’s enough of them saying that, then they will change it – which is exciting to help foster.

RB: It’s nice to step away from the cynicism a little bit, right? I mean, it’s so easy to get kind of beat down with, to be frank, with difficulties that we do have in architecture. It’s stepping into roles that you never expected to have to do when you came out of architecture school. I spend time on the phone with lawyers and accountants. I do have days where I’m like “I’ve got to do some of the punch list items in my house,” so I feel like I’m doing something relating to design.

And on a personal note, earlier in my career I went back to AmeriCorps, worked for Habitat for Humanity, but was also working full time at the time. It was my way of kind of getting back to my community-oriented roots. But I had to quit that because I wasn’t making enough money to make ends meet, and I was totally burnt out. I got cynical about the not-for-profit world. But then I, unknowingly in the back of my head, went to a firm that was focused on institutional work and work for mission driven organizations designing projects like schools and libraries. And I think it took me a little while to figure that kind of work does make a difference in people’s lives, even if it’s not traditional community work.

I think what’s different with this set of students – is this concept of community and work for the social good. It’s more deeply embedded within their notion of practice. So having it more integrated, I think, will ultimately enabled change to happen at a different rate. I think, in my mind, it kind of gives me–I don’t want to say hope–but it makes me kind of enthused and excited about where the profession can go.