Text and Texture

Award-winning teacher builds communities in and out of the classroom

by Peta Owens-Liston

"Why are you in love with buildings?"

She laughs at the impossibility of answering a question so much a part of her nature that the response doesn't come rehearsed. "It's like asking why do I like chocolate?" says Martha Bradley BA'74 PhD'87, an assistant professor (lecturer) in architecture who has spent countless hours and words teaching and writing about architectural history. But her thoughts go to work, almost visibly. "I'm one of those people who can't resist going up to a building and dragging my fingers along its surface. I want to feel it as well as see it," she says, her hands mirroring her words as she runs her fingers along what might be a turn-of-the-century facade. "It's the same reason I used to love to quilt—it's tangible, textured, and the materiality of it is so rich in stories." Through buildings, Bradley can piece together the lives and times of the people who occupied them. She believes they are the most revealing documents of our past.

If architectural history is her first love, then language is a close second. "I love language and helping young people learn how to read more critically and examine their own ideas," she explains. The combination of these two passions have not only resulted in six published books, but have also made Bradley a sought-after teacher. Her warm-hearted nature has even the shyest students raising their hands. "No question is a stupid one; her personal response to students creates a positive learning environment," says senior Natalie Nelson, who has adopted Bradley as her mentor. "She has inspired me to pursue my master's with the goal of becoming a professor."

In the last two years at the University, Bradley's teaching has been recognized by faculty, administration, and—perhaps most importantly—students. These awards include a Distinguished Teaching Award, the Bennion Center Service Learning Professorship, the ASUU Student Choice for Excellence in Teaching, and the University Professor rank for 2000-2001, along with Professor Tom Kass. The two of them attracted attention when they teamed up to create and teach an architecture class that combines Kass' expertise in design with Bradley's more text-driven approach. "It will be fun to see the dynamics that take place as we explore the relationship of image to word, and word to image," she says.

Innovation in teaching is nothing new to Bradley. In 1994 she was one of three professors who collaborated on the University's first LEAP curriculum—a one-year program that immerses students in liberal education courses. "We had a lot of creative power," says Bradley, who helped develop classes around the theme of community, such as "Definition of the Other in Communities" and "Community as an Idea and Practice." She has since created a LEAP class for pre-architecture majors, her favorite class to teach. "It's all about how we build community in a more physical sense," she explains.

Community-Based Curriculum
Community is the foundation of Bradley's teaching, from the simplest definitions to higher ideas and dimensions of what creates community. "We need to help students realize the connection between what they learn at the U and how it can serve the community." She points out that the web of relationships found within a community are patterns that need to be recognized and understood.

It is no surprise that Bradley has incorporated the U's service-learning component into her classes. "I want my students to develop a new consciousness of people who are different from themselves and to forge new relationships and connections with the community." She refers to current students who are working with refugees. Rather than merely reading about the effects of displacement, these students are associating faces and emotions with those who have been uprooted. She has found that the one-dimensional theories in textbooks or on classroom chalkboards take on many dimensions through service-learning.

"Just by watching her and following her example, she has helped me become more involved in community service," says sophomore Tiffany Hunter. "She teaches us to reach beyond ourselves to help others, and in the process it has made me more aware of what is going on around me."

"We need to help students realize the connection between what they learn at the U and how it can serve the community."

With Bradley's guidance, many of her service-learning students have become involved in the Gateway Community (encompassing North Temple to 900 South, West Temple to 700 West). It is perhaps the most ethically and economically diverse part of Salt Lake City, and Bradley has a keen interest in it. "I've been writing the history of the Gateway neighborhoods in the back of my mind," she casually mentions, as if all of us have a prolific scribe tucked away in the library of our minds. But Bradley notes that Gateway's diversity has been stamped out by development. She is emphatic that "a sense of the past should always be present in the plans for the future."

Earning Degrees, Changing Diapers
Originally, an academic career wasn't in her plans. "I didn't really live in an environment where people went into academia," says Bradley, who grew up in Holladay, Utah, as the only daughter of four children. She notes that her father, a strong and stern German-American, put a lot of pressure on his children to excel.

Just as Bradley was discovering her voracious appetite for art and architectural history during her sophomore year at the University, her first child arrived. By the time she graduated with her doctorate, six children wanted her attention. When asked, "Did you ever sleep?" she laughs and leaves the answer to our conclusions. "I read a lot of books," she offers instead. "A lot of books with Crayola drawings and scribbles in them." Her children, who range in age from 13 to 26, are perhaps her biggest fans. "I'm proud of her; she is my role model," says daughter Elizabeth, who remembers piles of books and notes spread throughout the house while growing up. "She is compassionate in everything she does, whatever she is working on, including being a mom and a grandmother. She gives it her all."

"Even though I had a house full of children, I had a support system that kept me going," says Bradley. She recalls professors who took her under their wings and mentored her. "They made me believe I was capable of more and to expect more of myself. They made me think that it was possible for me to be part of the academic community."

Mentors have been like stepping stones through Bradley's life, creating a path that has lead her to the present. People like Brigham Madsen BA'38, emeritus history professor, whose passion and energy for teaching were contagious. And Delmont Oswald, former director of the Utah Humanities Council, who shared Bradley's love for reading. And Lowell Durham BA'69 MA'70, a poet and humanist, who taught Bradley not only a love for language and the power of words, but exemplified the importance of showing common decency toward all human beings. "I carry what these people have taught me into my classrooms," says Bradley.

Realizing the pivotal role mentors played in her own life, Bradley is conscientious about being a role model to her own students—especially women, since she feels there are not a lot of female role models in Utah. "I take this on as a great responsibility I am careful with and respect. It's an act of trust when a student looks to me for guidance."

Just as Bradley's beloved buildings have stories, so do her students. She encourages them to take an active role in creating their own stories, their lives. Her lectures are laced with the underlying message that it does matter how they live their lives and how they make their choices.

"I always hit on personal integrity near the end of classes," says Bradley. "I want these 18-year-olds to know they need to be making conscious decisions, not sloppy decisions, about how they live their lives."

Then, as if talking about raising her own children, she adds, "I want them to be good people."

—Peta Owens-Liston is a freelance writer and photographer in Salt Lake City.

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Copyright 2000 by The University of Utah Alumni Association