Again, another profile of a colleague, Karen Cordes Spence, Ph.D. who serves as professor of architecture at Drury University. Amazingly, I have known Dr. Cordes Spence for over 25 years.

If you are an architecture student or planning to pursue architecture, reading this profile may help you better understand your faculty; or it may help you think about becoming a faculty member.

During your education, there are many opportunities to teach — as a teaching assistant. If truly interested, connect with your faculty about how you may pursue teaching.


Karen Cordes Spence, Ph.D., AIA, LEED AP, Professor / Associate Dean

Drury University

Springfield, Missouri

Why did you become an architect?

I was interested in architecture because I liked art but wanted to pursue a career other than in the fine arts. I was good at math, so architecture seemed to fit. Once I was in architecture school, it opened my eyes to the built environment and how it shapes our societies and lives. I saw that it can honestly make a difference in the success of a community or the quality of a person’s existence. I also enjoyed the challenges of the studio projects and history, theory, and other courses were of great interest to me.

Why did you decide to choose the school(s) that you did?  What degree(s) do you possess? Why did you continue your education and pursue the Master of Science and Doctorate of Philosophy in Architecture?

I attended the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas for my undergraduate studies because it was my state school and it had a great reputation. After receiving my Bachelor of Architecture, I moved to Washington DC to serve as the AIAS National Vice-President for a year before working for a large, established firm in that city.

After I became licensed, I taught for a year as a visiting professor then pursued graduate work in order to study design further. The Master of Science from the University of Cincinnati offered a great post-professional program in writing and theory, which were subjects of particular interest. I explored these topics in greater depth with a doctorate in theory and criticism at Texas A&M University. While I love many aspects of architecture, the thinking that supports and drives the activities of design are especially intriguing to me.

Professor Karen Cordes Spence, Ph.D. with student, Drury University.

As a faculty member that coordinates a first year studio, how do you teach fundamental design ideas and skills to entering architecture students?

I believe first year design is the most challenging studio to teach because there are so many things that beginning students must absorb and assimilate, beyond simply adjusting to studio. My overall approach strives to raise their awareness of the variety of ways design can be accomplished as well as introducing many basic strategies and principles that are typically identified in design. My hope is that this enables the students to see a larger framework from which they can identify or devise design approaches that fit their values and allows them to work on the issues that they feel are critical or are important to them.

I am not particularly interested in indoctrinating students. I refuse to teach only one method of design but instead strive to open the discussion, making the activity of architecture something that is explicit and an inclusive conversation. Within this approach, I focus on teaching the ability to see space instead of form. I believe experience is shaped by the quality of space, making this a most critical consideration of architecture, yet too often students prioritize the form. By introducing ways to see and comprehend space, the design is able to create a stronger experience.

What are your primary responsibilities and duties as a faculty member?

As a faculty member, my primary responsibilities are teaching and advising students, serving the university and community by participating in a number of committees and projects, and continuing my research in theory in order to help illuminate design thinking in the field. Much of this work ties together, as the focus of my research regarding design and theory helps my teaching while my service commitments allow me to apply and test this knowledge.

Day to day, I spend the majority of my time striving to teach architecture clearly and effectively, communicating information in ways that help students express their ideas and views as best as possible. Month to month and year to year, I reflect on the teaching, service and research to see how I can ensure that my efforts have a positive effect. I am a harsh critic of my own work, so I am constantly assessing and revising to make my academic activities better.

How does your work as a faculty member inform your architectural practice and vice versa?

Because my research involves theory and writing rather than building, I have not pursued an active architectural practice while I have been in academia. I would rather do a few things well than many things with mediocrity, and I choose to focus on teaching and writing because I believe I owe that to the students in the theory and studio courses I teach. Some academic positions are well-designed for people who teach and practice, yet the areas in which I am engaged are not necessarily areas that need an outlet in the form of building. This is not to say that I have not or do not practice; I have as many years of experience as many of my colleagues and absolutely loved my involvement in the profession. I still enjoy engaging in small projects when time allows.

How does teaching differ from practicing architecture?

For me, teaching and practice are more similar than different. Teaching and practice are alike in that both involve the design of something that is communicated to others. In teaching, there is the need to design how to communicate a body of knowledge to students. In practice, there is the need to design how to communicate ideas or issues about a project to the public. Both require considerable effort in reflecting on the desired outcome of particular actions and critically working to improve them. Teaching and practice differ as I believe teaching can have a wider influence, impacting many future designers rather than only those individuals who experience a specific building. While the effects of teaching can be argued to be more abstract than that of practice, but I believe they can also be seen to be more powerful.

What has been your greatest challenge as an architect or faculty member?

There are always situations that involve obstacles, whether these obstacles are time constraints, budgets, professional requirements or even experiencing the entrenchment of the profession’s dominant social structure. However, I think any good designer learns to see these challenges as a chance to design a way that not only meets but exceeds these parameters. I like to look at apparent limitations and determine how to both abide by and surpass them, designing an even better solution for my activities and career. Everyone has setbacks and rejections, but it is how you learn and continue to raise your own expectations that make these challenges work for you. In this way, I am not sure if I could identify my greatest challenge—instead it has been a process of continually designing a more effective way to move beyond these supposed limitations and achieve something that is even better.

What is the most / least satisfying part of being an architecture student?

The most satisfying part of being an architecture student is learning about your own values and how they can be identified and expressed to address difficult problems. There is something really powerful in examining what you believe and offering it as a solution that can make the world a better place. It’s not about personal expression but about being able to help in some way. The least satisfying part of being an architecture student is the separation from non-architecture students, other classes and the isolation of the studio. However, I think architecture students today are more involved in campus life than in the past, which is a great development to see occurring.

Who or what experience has been a major influence on your career?

I have been fortunate in that my career has been influenced by an amalgamation of amazing people and experiences. Every institution I have attended has provided a host of great professors and colleagues who are eager to share their wisdom and every firm has included a number of great mentors and co-workers that relay their knowledge about the profession. I remain in contact with many of them.

Opportunities have transformed into great experiences that accumulate to provide a background that I feel fortunate to have. Out of all of my influences, the people and places of the Ozarks have been especially powerful in shaping my views and work—the region where I was raised and now live provides a rich and meaningful context that continues to inspire my activities.

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