How Buildings Learn

The product of skilled scenario work is not a plan but a strategy. Where a plan is based on prediction, a strategy is designed to encompass unforeseeably changing conditions. A good strategy ensures that, no matter what happens, you always have maneuvering room.
–Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built (1994:178) as cited in Tim Ingold, Being Alive (2011:75) and from the Herb Childress review.

All buildings are predictions; all predictions are wrong.

After 18 months tasked with trying to figure out the relevance of a liberal arts curriculum, I’ve segued onto a taskforce charged with something like strategic planning and visions for Hartwick College.

Strategic planning is all the rage these days in higher education. From nearby Ithaca College, recently received a job advertisement which sells their strategic plan: “Our new strategic plan, IC 20/20, positions us to offer a truly distinct integrative learning experience that allows us to graduate students who are ready for the personal, professional, and global challenges of our age.”

New strategic plans are sprouting everywhere, and they usually tout similar things–integrative learning, experiential learning, practical learning, learning-in-action. And of course it’s all about getting students ready for new jobs, new professions, global challenges and global changes. The means are also often the same, by encouraging internships, service learning, study abroad. The strategic plan fad seems to produce such cookie-cutter standardization that Benjamin Ginsberg suggests (only partially tongue-in-cheek) they could be a candidate for Massive Open Online Administration, or MOOA: “Ginsberg pointed to the realm of strategic planning. He said that thanks to the best practices concept, hundreds of schools currently use virtually identical strategic plans. Despite the similarities, however, these plans cost each school hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to develop. The MOOA would formalize the already extant cooperation by developing one plan that could be used by all colleges.”

That said, I’ll put in a plug for Robert Corman and the Applied Concepts Group who have been guiding this process. From the beginning, Corman has been intensely interested in the particularities of place and history. What does it mean that Hartwick College is on Oyaron Hill? What does Oyaron mean? [Note: Please see the follow-up Oyaron Fictions.] What does it mean to be in this place, Oneonta, in this region? Such thinking can lead to local synergies, like the feasibility research on hops conducted by Professor Carlena Ficano and Hartwick College student Dawn Rivers.

The particularities of place, the specificity of history, the development of skilled experience–these are all not so easily MOOCed or even MOOAed away. Certainly the history of capitalism can be read as an attempt to impose a Geography of Management (Trouillot) which homogenizes places in an imagined spatial hierarchy. Through mechanization technology, the stuff of life can then be put into containers and shipped from anywhere to anywhere, a literal containerization perhaps most fully realized by Walmart– “Save money. Live better.”

And yet, as in the previous post on skill, life is always overflowing those containers, boundaries, plans, and predictions:

The essence of skill, then, comes to lie in the improvisational ability with which practitioners are able to disassemble the constructions of technology, and creatively to reincorporate the pieces into their own walks of life. In this ability lies life’s power to resist the impositions of regimes of command and control that seek to reduce practitioners to what Karl Marx (1930:451) once called the “living appendages” of lifeless mechanism. Thus skill is destined to carry on for as long as life does, along a line of resistance, forever undoing the closures and finalities that mechanisation throws in its path. (Ingold 2011:62).

It is therefore with thanks to Robert Corman and to Professor Mark Wolff, whose first-year seminar is digitizing the Hartwick Hilltops student newspaper, that I reproduce below two passages about the meaning of Oyaron.

The assignment for my first-year seminar is to read through these passages and come up with one thing–a source from the library, something online, an object, a picture–which will help us explore and reveal more about the meaning of Oyaron. The goal is to reanimate college, to infuse it with

the sense of wonder that comes from riding the crest of the world’s continued birth. . . . Those who are truly open to the world, though perpetually astonished, are never surprised. If this attitude of unsurprised astonishment leaves them vulnerable, it is also a source of strength, resilience and wisdom. For rather than waiting for the unexpected to occur, and being caught out in consequence, it allows them at every moment to respond to the flux of the world with care, judgement and sensitivity. (Ingold 2011:75)

And maybe this time, we’ll make it to Table Rock!

Selection 1: True Meaning of “Oyaron”

[Update: Please see the follow-up Oyaron Fictions.]

The first selection Roland B. Hill, Noted Archaeologist, Explains True Meaning of “Oyaron” appears in the February 12, 1937 issue Hilltops of Hartwick:

I am inclosing a brief article regarding the correct translation of the word OYARON, which I submit for publication in the “Hilltops of Hartwick”. This article was inspired by the fantastic meanings given to OYARON by several educated people with whom I have come in contact while acting as the unofficial guide of the Yager Museum. It has been a very difficult task to condense the reams of data available on this subject into a brief article for publication and still express the true meaning. I sincerely hope that this article will create a better understanding of the word OYARON and would like to see the term OYARON HILL become a standard name in Oneonta, and directly associated with site of Hartwick College.

As so many of the Indian names in this vicinity have been corrupted both in spelling and meaning, it will be very pleasing to retain the correct spelling and translation of OYARON. If you wish reference regarding this work, see Morgan’s History of the Iroquois League, also Bulletin No. 30, Bureau of American Ethnology. I thank you very kindly for considering this contribution for your college publication.

Very sincerely yours,
Roland B. Hill

By Roland B. Hill**
The term OYARON is the common Iroquois name of the personal, and sometimes the gentile and tribal, tutelary, guardian genius, or guiding spirit believed to protect and watch over the destiny and welfare of every person or kindred. The doctrines connected with the concept of the OYARON lie at the base of the activities comprehended under the rubic totemism, the key to which is the idea of guardianship or voluntary protection, based on the concept of primitive man that the earth and all that it contains was brought into being by the primal beings of his cosmogony solely for the welfare and glory of man, and that therefore these owed to him the duty of voluntarily making provision for his welfare.

In the belief of the Indians, all things are animate and incarnate . . . men, beasts, lands, waters, rocks, plants, trees, stars, winds, clouds and night. It was a dogma of this early philosophy that the OYARON was revealed or manifested itself to the subject in a vision or dream. OYARON could be acquired in the following manner: At the age of puberty, the boy under the tutorship of an old man, usually a diviner or prophet, and the girl under that of a matron, withdrew to some secluded spot, in which the tutor and pupil lived in a lodge built for the purpose, from which all persons except the novice and the tutor were rigidly excluded. During this period of strict seclusion, the novice was subjected to rigorous fasts, the face and breast were blackened to symbolize mental darkness and often delirium was created by the absence of sleep.

The initiate was directed to carefully observe his or her dreams or visions and report them in the minutest detail to his tutor, whose duty it was to give attention to the behavior of his charge and determine what had been suggested in the dreams and visions as the tutelary or guardian genius of the initiate, on which would in the future depend the welfare and security of his life, his OYARON, and lastly, what vocations he should choose to be successful in after life.

* OYARON is clearly segregated from charms, fetishes, talisman or medicine. OYARON could not be bought, sold, traded, loaned or inherited.
** Member of the field staff of the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences.

Selection 2: Oyaron

Unfortunately I have as yet been unable to verify if there is anything related to Oyaron in Lewis Henry Morgan’s classic League of the Iroquois [Note: Please see the follow-up Oyaron Fictions for why I couldn’t find any verification from Lewis Henry Morgan!]. The second selection comes from the Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Vol. 3, which seems to be what Roland Hill refers to as Bulletin No. 30, Bureau of American Ethnology. In fact, the first passages are almost word-for-word identical to Roland Hill’s submission to Hilltops (we might today call that plagiarism, although it seems that the research and writing may have been done collectively for this entry). The selection continues from where Hill’s article ends:

The oyaron revealed in one of these mysterious dreams or visions consisted usually of the first trifle that impressed the imagination of the dreamer–a calumet, a pipe, a knife, a bow or an arrow, a bearskin, a plant, an animal, an action, a game: in a word, anything might become, if suggested in a dream or vision, a tutelary or an oyaron. But what is fundamental and important is that it was not believed that the object itself was in fact a spirit or genius, but that it was its embodiment, the symbol or outward sign of the union subsisting between the soul and its tutelary or guardian genius, through the guidance and potency of which the soul must know and do everything; for, by virtue of the oyaron a person could transform himself in shape and size, and could do what he pleased, unless checked by a more powerful orenda (q. v.) guided by a more astute oyaron; it was the subjective being which was the means of his metamorphoses, his enchantments, whether he regarded these changes real or whether he was persuaded that it was the soul alone that detached itself, or the genius that acted in conformity with his own intention and according to his will.

Tutelaries had not the same efficiency, nor the same scope of action. There were persons more favored, more enlightened, than the common people, through the guidance of genii of superior potency, enabling the souls of such persons to feel and to see not only what concerned their possessors personally, but to see even into the very bottom of the souls of other persons, to pierce through the veil which covered them, and there to perceive the natural and the innate desires and promptings which those souls might have had, although these souls themselves had not perceived them, or at least had not expressed them by dreams and visions, or although so expressed in this peculiar manner, those revelations had been entirely forgotten. . . . But beyond this occult knowledge of hidden things, they professed the further ability to perform still other wonders by means of certain chants, songs, and dances, through which they were enabled to put forth their own orenda. . . .

Those having powerful orenda and possessing the protection of a potent and resourceful oyaron were regarded as wise men, knowing both human and divine things, the efficacy of plants, rocks, ores, and all the occult virtues and secrets of nature; not only could they sound the depths of the hearts of other persons, but they could foresee what would come to pass in the future, read the fate of men in the signs, wonders, and omens of the earth, claiming to maintain intimate intercourse with the gods, a favor of which less-gifted persons were quite unworthy. These reputed favors of the gods added to an austerity of life and a well-regulated code of manners, at least in appearance, and a conduct above suspicion, or at least censure, gained them the respect if not the fear of all persons, who consulted them as oracles, as sources of truth, and the favored mediators between man and the gods. They could foresee the success or failure of war or a journey, could divine the secret source or cause of illness, could suggest what would make a hunting or a fishing trip successful, could discover things lost by theft, the source of evil and of spells and enchantments, and they could apply their art to exorcise them, to drive them away and to apply the proper remedies to thwart their purposes. They were also adepts in making their calling one of power and authority, and a source of profit and remuneration. (178-179)

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