The Eyes Have It

Professor Teaches A New Way Of Looking At Things

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to take a class at Harvard, you're about to find out from one of the university's most distinguished and popular professors. But don't worry, he doesn't teach advanced calculus or nuclear physics or ancient Greek literature.

In fact, if you were the kind of student who spent all your time staring out the classroom window, then Professor John Stilgoe's class may be just for you -- because looking around is exactly what he teaches. Correspondent Steve Kroft reports.

"I just like to meander along, with or without my students, and just look," says Professor Stilgoe, who teaches the art of exploration, and discovering the built environment - everything from architectural history to advertising and design. He introduces his students to a method of discovering a hidden world that's always been right in plain view.

"I start by showing slides of things that they think they have seen, and it turns out they haven't seen. The white arrow that's on the side of every Fed Ex truck is a nice place to start. Almost everybody's seen a Federal Express truck, almost nobody's seen the white arrow," says Stilgoe.

If you don't see the big white arrow there's a reason for it, says Stilgoe. It's because your eyes and your brain have been conditioned to read the letters.

"Before they've learned to read, toddlers will see the arrow. And I've asked toddlers, 'Do you see the arrow on the truck?' And they usually do," says Stilgoe. "The arrow is between the lower half of the capital E, and the X."

Stilgoe says the arrow is just one of millions of things that are right in front of our eyes that we never notice.

His title at Harvard is professor in the History of Landscape. But his classes don't have much to do with bushes and flowers. He's more interested in the urban ecosystem that has been shaped and repaved over the centuries -- like the vast underground world beneath our feet.

When Stilgoe took Kroft for the kind of walk through Cambridge he takes with students, it turned into a march through the American industrial past – a relic from a long-extinct trolley company, a memorial to the American steel industry.

How long does it take him to get from one place to another?

"It takes me a very long time, and I've started out in perfect confidence to drive to California and I've wound up in Tennessee because things were interesting along the way," says Stilgoe, laughing. "And if you just kind of wander along like that, following your nose, I mean, you find all kinds of neat things."

Even if all of this stuff is a world that nobody sees or nobody thinks about.

"I think people see it. But most people, when they learn to read, stop looking around," says Stilgoe. "I try very hard in this university, which selects students based almost entirely on how well they do with words and numbers, to teach them that there's another way of knowing."

This "other way of knowing" is simply using your eyes. The power of acute observation is one of nature's most useful tools for learning. But Stilgoe says the constant blur of the speed of modern life has caused us to lose it over the years.

"I think there are good reasons we've lost it. I mean, I don't tell people to start looking 360 degrees while they're driving a car. But if you were jogging along in a horse and carriage, horse and buggy 100 years ago, you could look around," says Stilgoe. "I have people now who lead such high-speed lives, they really have never been told to slow down, look around, take a nice walk. Instead they go jogging or running to increase their heart rate. And I tell them, 'Why not look around while you're doing it, increase some kind of rate in your mind?"

Harvard, he says, has some of the finest students in the world, but he believes most of them are visual illiterates. Their academic lives have been programmed around verbal and mathematical tests that will get them into a good college, but he says they lack a sense of spontaneity.

"I think they've missed a kind of self-guided, non-organized activity, non-sports activity growing up. Wandering around, getting into things. And the assumption seems to be nowadays is if a child isn't in an organized activity, the child is a criminal," says Stilgoe. "But as far as I can understand, most of my colleagues I work with seem to have found their careers by being slightly disorganized. Lucking into something, you know."

And this is exactly what happened with Stilgoe, who grew up in a small town south of Boston. His father was a boat builder, and Stilgoe was the first member of his family to ever graduate from college. He came to Harvard 30 years ago to get a PhD, and he's been there ever since.

Stilgoe has written a number of scholarly books, on subjects ranging from the development of the seashore to the impact of the railroads on the American landscape. But it's his eccentricity and accessibility that have made him so popular with Harvard students.

Sara Rotman, Lisa Faiman, Agnes Chu and Chris Hunter have all taken his classes.

"As he gives his lecture, it's sort of, can appear as though this is just coming out of nowhere or coming off the top of his head," says Chu. "But if you read his books, you realize that they're very academically rigorous."

"And he calls into question so many things that you take for granted on a day-to-day basis," adds Faiman. "I kind of thought he was just crazy, like the first week of class I was there."

"Rather than making you a better lawyer, or a better doctor, or teaching you how to be a good accountant, it's a way of living," says Hunter.

Stilgoe, who teaches in the school of design, devotes a lot of time to the visual media, and to advertising messages that he believes have subconsciously shaped his students' perceptions.

One example he points to is an advertisement for pantyhose. "I can't imagine how it sells pantyhose. And I've given a good deal of thought to the fact that the most atrociously sexist images of women that I can find are in magazines that are aimed only at women," says Stilgoe.

Another example shows a woman out in a sun-baked arroyo with a nice sink full of water in front of her, while a freight train rumbles behind in the far back. She's wearing a locomotive engineer's hat.

"How does an ad like this sell sinks? Does it sell sinks to women? What does the nation's railroad industry think of being depicted like this, right? I haven't a clue. But if you put an ad like this for an hour in a final exam with one direction, discuss, you'll force students to do something," says Stilgoe.

"I don't think I'll ever be able to look at a fashion magazine again without thinking of him," says Faiman, laughing. "I used to be able to flip through a fashion magazine in maybe about, oh, half hour tops. Now it will take me several hours. I just can't look at images the same way. I can't just sit down and enjoy my magazine anymore."

"This generation of Harvard students gets into Harvard by doing exactly and precisely what teacher wants. If teacher is vague about what he wants, they work a lot harder to figure out what they want, and whether or not it's good," says Stilgoe. "The vaguer the directions, the more likely the opportunity for serendipity to happen. Drives them nuts."

Every year, Stilgoe sends his students into supermarkets to study product packaging and product placement. The marketing people leave nothing to chance. And they start going after them before some of them can either walk or talk.

"The design of a package is incredibly important. I tell them to duck walk down the cereal aisle at a supermarket," says Stilgoe. "And they'll realize that the eyeballs of the figures on the cereal boxes are looking down to the place where a toddler meets the eye, if the toddler's in that little seat in a grocery carriage."

Stilgoe pays great attention to the psychological power of color in manipulating moods and images. Take, for example, the color of his kitchen, which is apple green.

"Apple green was thought by a number of turn-of-the-century psychologists to be a calming color. And many of them told husbands to have their kitchens painted in that color so that their wives would be happy in the kitchen and not want to be, not want to register to vote and so on," says Stilgoe. "And nowadays, if you go into the basements of old police stations and mental hospitals, you'll see the apple green color."

He says that research on the effect of color on emotions continues, but it's now become a secret science.

At his farmhouse outside Boston, Stilgoe receives junk mail under a number of phony demographic profiles he's created for himself. He wants to see how direct mail advertisers tailor their message if they think he is an African-American or an Asian. He got the idea from two of his students.

"I had two students who were living in sin, and who were seniors, and discovered that the American Express company had sent each of them a catalog. The interior of the catalog was identical. But the covers were different," says Stilgoe. "The man got this cover. Every man's dream - a space cadet woman hanging on him and gazing off into La La Land. Her thoughts are his. The woman got this...every woman's dream, a horse. And the males are on the other side of the fence."

It's all part of Stilgoe's scheme to instill in his students the power of discovery and deduction – to notice unseen things that tell them what's really going on.

All you have to do is go outside, move deliberately, and relax. Do not jog. Forget about weight reduction and blood pressure, and look around.