Interview with Roger Clemence

The following excerpts are from an interview conducted on August 11, 2006 with a former professor from the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture who was deeply involved with service learning. The interview was conducted by Ben Ptacek.

On his early influences:

At the University of Pennsylvania I became acquainted with Carl Lind and Ian McHarg. They had come to Penn realizing that the fine architect really needed to understand the breadth of physical considerations and to get more broadly into community issues and how those affected the design you might make. Most people wanted to know how to design the cornice. At the University of Pennsylvania I became acquainted with Carl Lind and Ian McHarg. They had come to Penn realizing that the fine architect really needed to understand the breadth of physical considerations and to get more broadly into community issues and how those affected the design you might make. Not that the cornice wasn't important, but gosh, if you focused all your attention on that you didn't hear what the community was concerned about. And architecture and landscape architecture are social arts, are they not. They serve the community.

Carl Lind was heading up the first year of the landscape architecture program at Penn. He said to us, guess what, we're going into north Philadelphia. We're going to work with people up there and we're going to get ideas about redesign in the alleys. . And one of my student colleagues who had come from Scotland , said, “I didn't come from Scotland to study here to learn about alleys I came to learn about how to do fine gardens for rich people.” And we all sort of pulled back, I mean most of us were willing at least to look into this. The reason I tell you that part of the story is this man went on to teach at Berkeley some years later, he's no longer living, but when he taught at Berkeley he headed the program in which all the students went out into the community. Michael had been converted by the experience that Carl Linn brought to us.

On teaching his first service learning course:

When I came to teaching, which I did at the U of Michigan, I had an opportunity to work with small communities in Michigan. And they were concerned with, “What do we do with our downtown. We're losing business, what can we do?” And we thought at that time, a collaborative studio with architecture and landscape architecture students. There was a wonderful little stream running through the community. We started working with that and those students came up with some of the most amazing ideas and people in the community who thought “architect? What's that?” said “ good heavens. We never would have ever imagined being able to do these kinds of things.”

On working at the University of Minnesota :

I was hired by Minnesota and Ralph Rapson was the head of the school here at that time. Ralph said, “we want you here. And this is what we will pay you and this is how we will have you involved and we are fascinated with your community involvement activity.” So I came at the right time and quickly found other people who wanted to do the same kind of thing that I had felt committed to doing. I came here in Dec of 1966. By 1970 we were really much involved with a new unit of this University which was called the Center for Urban and Regional affairs. And that was really exciting because prior to that, even though I was very glad I had come to Minnesota to teach, I found Ralph Rapson in a way a voice in the wilderness to the rest of the universe saying “we all need to work together on these things.”

On early projects in community engagement:

And we found ourselves getting into a variety of types of projects. I mentioned model cities when we were doing sort of our preamble. A lot the early projects we did in the 1970s were urban in base. And then you've got the student who says “yeah, but I live out in Bird Island in Renville County and I really want to see us working out there.”

On collaboration among faculty, professionals, students, and the community:

In the early 1970s and beyond we had a lot of practicing professionals who wanted to work with communities. I was fundamentally overseeing a community of teachers and learners who were working with one another, in collaboration with the teachers and learners in the community. I spent 8 or 9 years where I never taught a single class in a university classroom building. I was out in the community working with people.

On what communities can gain from student design assistance:

“We come to you wanting to learn. We hope collaborating with you to do some teaching as well. But, if you want to build something, you really want to involve the professional, who is qualified, to participate in that.” So we are often a hinge between, ”well gee we've got some problems here in the community we really don't know how to start, we really don't know what to do.” And “Hey, now we know better what to do. Let's bring in some professionals. We've committed $800 to CURA, to the college—or at that time to the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture—and it's students, to get us started on something. Now we recognize, not only that we have a problem but that we can see a way toward a solution. Let's commit in next budget $12,000, let's commit $15,000, let's hire a professional and let's get something going here.”

On the different names of service learning programs in the 1970s:

We called ourselves the first time we started doing this the experimental studio. That was a good name, why not? The experimental studio. And then, as we went a little further, Urban Education Center, because we could work with other disciplines, we offered the opportunity for people depending upon their varied backgrounds, and their sense that I want to learn more about something different, or I want to carry forward with something I've already known, we found ourselves helping to create a great range of learning opportunities for students, for faculty and for communities. Later we changed the title from Urban Education Center, which seemed a little too constricting, to CCS, Center for Community Studies.

On service learning and collaboration within the newly created College of Design :

We're on two separate campuses, buildings on the St. Paul campus, students on the St. Paul campus, students here. You say “well, that's a challenge.” I know that's a challenge. I told you earlier. I had a period of time where I didn't teach any classes in this building. Did students learn something? Yes, I think they learned a lot. Will students learn having to commute back? Of course, they will commute back and forth between the two campuses. It isn't that difficult to do. And service learning typically takes you off whatever campus you're on anyway to do this, so, if we will recognize that for awhile we'll be learning how to live with one another, collegiately, and at the same time not say “well, let's put service learning on the back shelf. Let's put it in long-term storage. Uh oh, let's recognize we can have collaborators who were part of the previous college of Human Ecology who have shifted over to another place. Let's look upon them as the first line of discovery within other parts of the Univeristy where they have gone. And let's see what we can draw out of that.” If the University has been reconfigured in the short term that gives us some things to stumble on but in the long term it refreshes us. It challenges us. And it ought to make us better. Be sure that you celebrate the collaborative opportunities with the new people who come into your house, be polite, be curious, be interested in listening long enough to hear a possibility that you don't hear in the first 15 minutes of conversation. Politeness at a cocktail party takes you a short distance, but to really get to know what you can do together, requires multiple lunches. It requires chances to go together into the community. It requires collaborative learning.

On learning form new experiences in the community:

You learn if you're open to learning and if you are and something good happens and you feel differently about yourself in connection with a group of people you're working with, you can go on to bigger and better things. Not necessarily bigger, you can go on to better things. You can go on to a better opinion of yourself.

Formal education is such a short part of what we hope is going to be a total lifetime. I studied from the time I was five until I was 26 and then I left and got involved in education at a higher level. But I have learned far far more in the years since I finished my formal education, which included nine years of undergraduate and graduate level work—have learned far more than I did in those years because of the kinds of people I've met, because of the kinds of questions they've asked me, the kinds of learning that have occurred as I've worked with students.

On resistance to service learning:

The faculty who were resistant were generally people who said “look, when we hire you at the end of your schooling we'd like you to know quite a lot about how to make good architecture. We're not at all sure that you're getting as much education as you should if you're going out the and doing some stuff in the community where the community doesn't challenge you in the way that we would challenge you if you were in another design class with us. It was a cautious challenge. But, over time—and I want to give credit to these faculty—even those who were most suspicious eventually, in most cases, said “I can see how there is value in this.” Service learning's not a panacea, Ben. It's not perfect for everybody. But commitment is essential for everybody. Whatever you're going to do, put yourself in to it with all the energy you can muster and you'll never stop learning.