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Desire Lines: The hidden ways students maneuver higher education

By: John Hannah
January 17, 2020
Image by wetwebwork on Flickr

Image by wetwebwork on Flickr

You’ve seen them - the well-worn footpaths through stretches of grassy fields, or openings in fence-rows where folks have pushed through in shortcut, or trails made visible in the flattened undergrowth through thick forests. It’s evidence of people’s movements, visible feedback about peoples’ route choices through space that violate the designed options presented before them. It’s hard to say exactly what they may represent - the obvious being simply the collective desire to travel according to the most efficient pathway. But I think there’s more to it. Desire lines can be an expression of conformity - humans, like other organisms, taking their cues about movement by the traces left behind by others. The subtle imprints of what may be a random route choice by one human, one day, become magnetic to the travelers who come after. And so it goes, the trail becoming hotter and hotter according to that phenomenon whether it is a good trail or not. It’s a concept known as stigmergy, a kind of herd mentality. 

Perhaps these desire lines simply represent a kind of obvious logic, the clear and most efficient way from point A to point B - something missed by the architects or designers of that space. Or, more interestingly, they could be manifestations of defiance, a kind of collective middle finger to the authority of whoever said the path must be here, the stairs must be there. Designers are (or should be) interested in this evidence, whatever it may represent. The architects of the world think deeply about the principles that lie at the root of their designs, things fundamental and important about the human condition and our place in the world and the meaning of our built environment. And so, to some extent or another, our spaces have these echoes inside them as they are created in the minds of thoughtful designers. And when they are actually created in the world as real places, people are released into them like gerbils in a block maze. The choices we make inside those spaces say something important about the extent to which those lofty, spiritual architectural goals were true, or met, or understood. And the spaces demand either a kind of compliance with the rules of that space, or acts of defiance, acts that express alternative desires. Desire lines -  such a poetic concept of human movement and choice. 

But what about other spaces we design, the less concrete but no less real spaces humans also navigate - like a higher education. Consider the language of higher education that is rooted in architectural language - learning platforms, scaffolding, curriculum (literally from the latin for “pathway”), instruction, course of study, etc. This is designed space - the actual physical places where teaching and learning take place, yes, but also more abstract space, the internal architecture involved in teaching, in learning, in credentials, in curriculum, in instruction. Like architects, we also root our conceptions of designing these things in lofty and spiritual principles of the human condition, and we try to make our higher educational enterprise according to principles of universal design so that it is accessible to all. But, I’m not sure you’d get anyone to declare we’ve been wholly successful in that endeavour. It can still be an inaccessible situation, an authoritarian, rule-driven place, with many forced pathways, and routes that privilege a select few, are not hospitable to some, make no sense to others, or are downright barrier-ridden for others. And in that restrictive place, people make choices, route-choices. They push their way through in ways that express their desire - some try hard to comply with the architecture we have designed for them, whether or not it makes sense. Others are driven by a sense of conformity perhaps, following the traces of those who have come before them. Still others express acts of defiance by intentionally deviating from the pathways set out before them in order to expose the flaws in our designs. And some are just simply finding the quickest and most efficient or comforting routes between point A and point B in ways that fit with their own experience. 

I think these choices are important - the desire lines of students making their way through the spaces of higher education. The challenge, of course, is that these desire lines are not visible in the way that paths through grassy fields are. But could they be? Perhaps we should be trying harder to find ways to identify these traces left behind by students that express something important about what they need, and what barriers they are encountering. Perhaps we should start asking students more questions about the “routes” they take, the ways in which they creatively navigate our various curricula, and then use that testimony to design better spaces. Or we could be better about telling our stories to students, letting them know about the deeper virtues of our good and thoughtful designs so they may be more inclined to bend towards them.  

If an architect builds a set of stairs over here but people decide that they will ascend and descend over there, the architect has three possible responses: a) to become exasperated at peoples’ ignorance and try simply to force them towards her staircase; b) to surrender to the newly chosen route choices and move the stairs to accommodate that; c) by contextualising and making known the principles underlying her design, try to convince the people that her choice for the stairs is actually the better one. Choices b and c are clearly the better ones. One can imagine a similar response from us, the designers of educational spaces. When we notice that students are choosing routes that deviate from our designs for them, we should not simply double-down on those designs. We should either get better at helping students understand the deeper virtues of those designs by simply making known the motivations that inform them, so that they are not perceived as simply arbitrary. Or we should recognize when students are choosing their routes because something in our design is flawed. Period. Sometimes we need to explain the reason for the stairs. And sometimes we just need to move the stairs.