Opinion | Classes should not be held in Nationality Rooms

By Allison Dantinne, Senior Staff Columnist

In my first college class ever — about five minutes after I walked in and half a minute after my professor walked in — I was instructed to throw out my peach greek yogurt, which was almost entirely uneaten, before we began a recitation for a class none of us had had yet.

And yes, looking up at the sign above the trash can in the Japanese heritage room and seeing that my peach greek yogurt consumption was in fact wrong in this environment washed the bewildered look right off my face. However, many years and many peach greek yogurts in classrooms later, I still wonder what was so wrong about eating in class.

This is one of the various perils I’ve run into when taking classes in Nationality Rooms.

Typically, one either has a professor who’s very excited to teach in a Nationality Room or who walks into the first class promising they put in a room change before they even introduce themselves. I, of course, tend to agree with the latter. Nationality Rooms, while beautiful, are typically unsuitable for class, as they pose far too many issues for effective instruction.

The furniture — while representative of the region or nationality the room is dedicated to and oftentimes aesthetically pleasing — is not practical for teaching. In rooms with long tables and various chairs, such as the Swiss Nationality Room, discussion or group work, which many classes require, is nearly impossible. The tables often cannot be moved, as they are bolted to the floor. You can’t always look at the person who’s speaking or move chairs to form small groups or even create a circle to hold a workshop. The furniture is limiting in terms of instruction.

And then there are the chairs with small desks attached, which feel far more suitable for a first-grader with nothing to balance on their postage stamp desk beside their subtraction worksheet, a pink eraser and the dream of becoming a doctor or possibly an astronaut. These desks, however, in the Czechoslovak Nationality Room, Welsh Nationality Room and others cannot balance the laptop, handouts and textbooks which a college student may be using all at once. Without that accessibility, a student cannot keep up with the references a professor is making during a lecture while also taking notes.

Further, the chairs — and I’m looking specifically at you, African and Israel heritage rooms — are not made for the extended sitting required in lectures and seminars. The chairs are stiff and unsuitable for anything longer than a 50-minute lecture. I would say I have a young, strong back, typically not subject to pain. I could only imagine they must be worse for older students or students with more chronic pain. For a literature class in the African heritage room, which was thankfully not full enough to necessitate the use of the squat little stools dotted around the center of the room, we were told our winter coats made good cushions between us and the chairs. It did work fairly well. While I appreciate the cultural and aesthetic value of these chairs and understand their place in the architecture of the room, the chairs were still a distraction from the class itself. They aren’t practical for students.

While the winter coat trick is useful for softening the hard-backed chairs, they might also need to be used when in a Nationality Room during the winter months. Many of these rooms experience drafts from the outside air, leaving the climate of the classroom subject to the climate outside. Because this is Pittsburgh, and the temperature during any given semester can range from below freezing to the muggy high-70s within the span of a week, this makes it difficult to predict the classroom temperature, which makes it difficult for students and faculty to mitigate the effects of temperature on the learning environment.

As uncomfortable as these other facets of Nationality Rooms may make the students within them, very little compares to the outdated or dysfunctional AV equipment often found in Nationality Rooms. During a class in the Swiss room, we found that though the projector did work, the HDMI cable must be plugged into “input one” and the professor had to select “input two” for their laptop to display. This was one of the better, often comical examples of dysfunctional technology.

Other times, the room is outfitted with a TV, which due to size or location is not visible to all students in the room. Sometimes required cables are missing from the rooms. This creates an issue when a professor wishes to display a PowerPoint or a video — two common means of displaying information within lectures — causing either a delay in class time to solve the multimedia issues or the inability to use these resources at all, leading back to wasted class time and inefficient learning.

“The University is upgrading Nationality Rooms with AV equipment and media cabinets based on feedback from students and faculty,” according to Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick. “The facilities management team has updated six Nationality Rooms with new AV equipment and is currently working on an additional four.”

That still leaves 23 Nationality Rooms without updated equipment and no discernable plans to update 19 of the rooms.

I do believe the Nationality Rooms are a beautiful display of diversity within the University and am proud to go to an institution that displays a rich and varied fabric of cultures. The tour is wonderful. I would recommend that all students walk through all the rooms at least once during their college career — there is truly fascinating information inside these rooms. I am in no way arguing that we should not have Nationality Rooms at all.

However, these rooms in their current state are not functional enough to be classrooms. Part of the majesty of Nationality Rooms is that they provide a glimpse back into the educational practices of the past. They allow us to travel back to lands and times we’ve never known in our lifetimes. But while I’m in a PSYCH 0010 recitation or junior literature project seminar, I’m not looking to enjoy the aesthetic of carved wooden chairs and a curio cabinet of artifacts. I’m looking to learn as effectively as possible — to be a student rather than a museum patron.

Allison Dantinne primarily writes satire and humor for The Pitt News. This, however, is a serious article. Write to Allison with your serious thoughts at [email protected].