School of Built Environment & Development Studies

Chalkboards as Participatory Research Tool

Architecture lecturer, Ms Bridget Horner, has positioned chalkboards in strategic locations across the Howard College campus in a bid to understand students’ comprehension of the spaces that they occupy on campus.

The project, which forms part of Horner’s PhD research titled: Students knowings of food, accommodation and transport spaces in the Higher education environment, is a means for students to actively speak their mind about the spaces they occupy as well as their thoughts.

‘It (the project) offers an opportunity for dialogue; not only with the questions posed on the board, but with each other,’ said Horner.

The idea for the project originates from Candy Chang, an American artist famous for her participatory public art projects, specifically: Before I die

In Horner’s project, three chalkboards were erected in three different locations on campus; namely Shepstone Building, Scully Hall and the bus stop. The chalkboards will be up for five weeks.

Each board poses a different question for students to respond to. In some instances, questions posed on the chalkboards are ignored and students’ own agendas come to the fore. Responses have ranged from comical, political, to somethings in-between.

Comments on the board outside Shepstone which asks: ‘I sit here because…?’ have shown that people are watching this space. The bus stop chalkboard asks: ‘While I wait I think about…?’ and comments tend to be more philosophical such as: ’Quitting school’, ‘Why am I not at UCT?’ and a touch of comedy such as: ‘While I wait I think about the food I left in the fridge.’ The third chalkboard at Scully Hall reads: I dream of becoming…? To reach this dream I need…? Responses reveal that most respondents want to be wealthy, and some are prepared to work for it while others will ‘hustle’.

In her interaction with students, Horner found that students seem to enjoy having spaces in which to express themselves. ‘The purpose of the boards has gone beyond their intention to gauge how students feel about the spaces they occupy. They have, in some instances, been a means for students to speak out about issues such as lack of Wi-Fi, NSFAS limited support as well as gender-based violence. In this way, students have become an important sounding board for student opinions, concerns and thoughts to be heard by their peers,’ said Horner.

As part of the project, creative workshops are also held every Friday at 11h00 outside Scully Hall for the remainder of this term. The workshops focus on using or developing skills in visual methodologies; mostly with photography.  The first workshop was on turning a cellphone into a pinhole camera in order to take portraits of fellow students. Further workshops will include interactive mapping exercises. ‘These workshops are evolving with the interactions and responses that we are getting from the students on the chalkboards,’ she said.

Horner would ultimately like to work with a core group of students with whom she will delve deeper into the topic of her PhD study.

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