Alex Bitterman, College of Imaging Arts and Sciences
Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching
May 18, 2007
by Kelly Downs
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Alex Bitterman is an architect in the literal sense. He’s also an architect of learning, shaping young people’s educational experiences here at RIT. It’s those experiences that led students to nominate Bitterman for the Provost’s Award in Teaching. Recipients of this award must have three years or less teaching experience at RIT.
“It’s a tremendous honor to win the award. I think, though, it reflects more on my faculty and staff colleagues, and my students, than it does on me,” says Bitterman, RIT assistant professor of graphic design. “Without their support, without the enthusiasm of my students it wouldn’t be much of an award, so I think it speaks more to their abilities and their support more than my teaching.”
Rajat Khullar, a second-year graduate student in graphic design, says Bitterman has been a wonderful source of inspiration for his own design work.
“Professor Bitterman draws on all areas including his architecture, graphic design and administrative backgrounds,” says Khullar. “This allows us as students to think more deeply and address a design problem from not only a graphic designers point of view, but a usability and accessibility point of view. In a real-world work environment, problems are solved collaboratively. Collaboration is what Professor Bitterman is all about in the classroom.”
Bitterman just completed his second full year of teaching in RIT’s School of Design. Prior to RIT, Bitterman taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo and Buffalo State. Born and raised in Buffalo, he still lives there today, describing the one-hour commute down the Thruway as “pastoral.”
“I love being able to have a foot in both cities. I share my time between Buffalo and Rochester. They are very complementary, very different cities, with very different heritages.”
In addition to the reputation of RIT’s School of Design, Bitterman says Rochester’s architectural heritage drew him here. “I think that probably my favorite master plan is RIT, though it is the ‘Brick City,’ it is an incredibly well planned campus, maintained incredibly well.”
He points out the various RIT buildings whose designs were influenced by modern 20th century architects like Le Corbusier. “Le Corbusier is one of my favorite architects. There is only one of Le Corbusier’s buildings in North America (Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University), but we are fortunate to have architecture that reflects his influence in Rochester.”
It was a summer program at Harvard that whetted Bitterman’s appetite for architecture and he decided to apply to architecture school at UB despite being told as a teenager he wasn’t proficient enough in math and science to be admitted. He got in.
“I loved architecture school. With the fellowships I had, I did a lot of editorial work, which was more interesting and meaningful to me, than actually designing buildings. I realized then that I wanted to teach and to apply my design education and design skills in a different, thoughtful and meaningful way, and at that point I started teaching and doing a lot of writing.”
At the moment, he’s focused on scholarship and teaching, with his doctorate almost completed, or as he says with a smile, “ABD” (translation: all but dissertation!)Bitterman’s area of research interest and expertise is branding, specifically place branding, or the collective identity of a specific geographic place. His research for his Ph.D. led him to write a book, Buffalo is a Cool Place to Live, featuring a collection of photographs of the city’s architectural details along with informal interviews he conducted with current and former Buffalonians of their personal stories and experiences.
Bitterman says he brings his own experiences into the classroom as a springboard for discussion with his students.
“I believe very strongly that learning is very much about reflecting on one’s own experiences and one’s own proximity in life and being able to view the design problem at hand through those experiences. In that way, every single student and every single teacher has an inherently unique perspective on what it is they are doing, and that’s not so much their brand, but their stamp of influence on whatever it is they are designing.”