Originally Posted: May 31, 2016
Fort Burgwin wasn’t much to look at in 1973 when Southern Methodist University (SMU) took over the independent research facility that was solely focused on archaeology. But four decades later, SMU-in-Taos is a full-fledged campus. With a slew of renovations in the past two years, the campus is starting to cultivate the community feel it has long desired.
SMU-in-Taos is a multipurpose educational facility that sees a rush of energy during the summer as Dallas-bound SMU students come to Taos for one of three summer terms.
But for years, the campus didn’t have the physical layout befitting a community of learners. The old cafeteria was built in the 1970s and always served as a de facto student center for SMU students who make the summer trek from Dallas to Taos. It had the open space. It had the TV.
That all changed with the opening of a new student center — the Miller Campus Center — last summer.
Though only a wall separates the new building from the old cafeteria, they’re worlds apart in terms of contemporary amenities and construction. In addition to a classroom and gym, the new center is also the campus living room, replete with couches and a wraparound porch that bring students that much closer to the outdoors that brought them to Taos in the first place.
“So much of being here is being outside,” said Max Gunther, a health psychology professor. It’s the little things — watching the dramatic change of color and clouds at sunset, the forest abuzz with life, while finishing a midterm essay — that make the SMU-in-Taos experience what it is,” he said. “You can’t get that in Dallas.”
Steps lead down to what is essentially the new campus plaza — a hallmark of the Hispanic and Pueblo communities the students study — which also serves as an outdoor amphitheater. A newly constructed chapel anchors one side of the plaza, while a handful of casitas and classrooms round out the other.
“This moves the center of gravity of the campus up here to the casitas, to where they live and study,” said SMU-in-Taos Director Mike Adler, who has been a professor with the university for 25 years.
Adler stressed the importance of informal spaces — those places where students can be absorbed in their surroundings or even just sit with the unsettled feeling of “quiet,” so foreign from Dallas noise. “It’s the osmosis between the indoors and outdoors that’s very important,” he said.
And that’s something professors are beginning to take advantage of, too, by “teaching naked,” abandoning the classroom altogether and taking the class – and learning – outside.
“Out here, you can learn stuff you just can’t learn in the classroom,” said Gunther. “They remember stuff in a different way.”
A trip to Williams Lake — “or as close as we can get,” he said — is supplemented the day before with a lesson about the cardiovascular system (“why they can’t breathe”) and the day after with a lesson on the body’s pain systems (“which they’re all feeling”).
Beyond all the elements of learning and development that aren’t in the curriculum — like self-confidence from climbing a mountain or the ability to sit still in the calm of nature — the campus directly supports the academics of the school, said sociology professor Sheri Kunovich.
“The Taos campus is inherently interdisciplinary,” she said. It’s commonplace for an environmental history professor to take a walk with a botanist and students, striking up conversations that would have never happened without two steams of thought having the time and space to simply meander together, she said. READ MORE