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John Barton: Running the architecture program was a literal dream

The director of the Architectural Design Program says he works hard to help students feel comfortable being authentic and vulnerable by sharing his own challenges and views.
John Barton: “I love working with students!"

In a recent conversation with the author, John Barton, director of the Architectural Design Program at Stanford School of Engineering, reflects on his experiences and learnings over a decades-long Stanford career, including asking for what you want to help open the door to new opportunities, how and why he’s evolved his teaching approach, and what it’s like to be a Stanford Resident Fellow. Here are excerpts:

A dream of teaching at Stanford – literally

My dad was a law professor here, so growing up, I always felt a powerful connection to the university.

Then, in college, I literally had a dream that I was asked to run the architecture program at Stanford. It was the one and only time something like that came true – though it did take more than a few years! I was practicing architecture through my own firm based in Palo Alto and I wrote to Len Ortolano, then the director of the Urban Studies program, because I was really interested in teaching some architecture courses. Len agreed, so in 1998, I started small with just one course a year. Then one became two, and as funding became available, two became three.

A few of us architects then began to develop a series of courses – like studios and portfolio development – for students interested in the field. At the same time, the Civil and Environmental Engineering department wanted to develop an architecture program to align with its sustainability practice, so we got picked up there. I had an opportunity to chat with Patti Walters, the director of the Architectural Design Program at the time, and she asked me what I wanted to do next. I said I’d love to have her role once she was ready to move on to something new.

When she did, I became the director on an interim basis while they considered opening a national search. Five months later, they said that wasn’t necessary and I’ve been here ever since.

The real lesson here is to always ask for what you want. If I hadn’t written to Len or told Patti what my goals were, I wouldn’t be here today.

For students, another example of how to be an adult

I love working with students! My wife and I are Resident Fellows – for us, it’s a lifestyle that keeps us connected with students. Our apartment opens directly on a lounge area, so when I get home, I unwind for about 45 minutes. Then we open the door, students drop by, and we go eat dinner together. Sometimes they’ll come and watch a baseball game or we’ll go out in the dorm and deliver a birthday gift to one of them.

It struck me recently that for students, we’re a model of what being an adult can look like. They watch us as we agree and disagree. They like hearing how we met and looking at our wedding album. They ask us about our first jobs. It’s really bringing education into the dorm – living and learning together.

As a couple, it’s fun and keeps us young. As a faculty member, it’s helped me become much more aware of how the non-academic parts of students’ lives carry over into the classroom. When a normally talkative student gets quiet or someone who typically never misses a class doesn’t show, I reach out now and say, “I’m checking in, hope all is well, and I’m here to talk if you would like.”

The classroom can be a performative space for students, but in the design world especially, you need the real person sharing their ideas and values; that’s where the best work happens. I work hard to help students feel comfortable being authentic and vulnerable by modeling sharing my own challenges and views. We start every class with a check-in to see how people are doing and we talk through their challenges. Those few minutes help us get ready to get down to work because we know each other a little better.

Giving students more agency within the class community

I’d say my memorable moment was when I realized that I needed to change my teaching approach. About six years ago, I started to do that in earnest for various reasons. Mostly, it was because I realized that despite never being happy with the traditional way of teaching architecture, I had fallen into a classic trap: teaching like I had been taught, which was less conversational. But my students really craved the opportunity to take more of a leadership role in the community of our classroom.

Realizing that helped me learn to explain why I gave the assignments I did, what success would look like, and why I designed the work the way I did. When I backed up, lectured less, and let students take more of the lead in driving the conversation, it became really eye-opening for me. I got to know the students more directly than I would have otherwise because we built more trust and they gained more confidence. I’ve worked to be supportive – so if students need more time on an assignment, it’s built into the structure of our course. If they get sick, they feel confident I’ll be there to help them catch up.

Giving them consistent support is important to me.

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