Two tribes: Why design teachers are second class citizens.

As universities have become global marketing machines in search of students the architecture schools within them, have I think, suffered. Architecture schools are now embedded in corporate entities with slick brands, advertising campaigns, and strategic statements and so-called KPIs. As a result, our architecture schools are now stratified by two classes, or tribes, of knowledge workers.

Tribe 1: Travelling in First Class

University rankings and brands are these days built on reputation usually linked to research outputs and some notion of reputation. There are various ranking regimes and national processes and metrics differ from country to country. The problem is those research outputs, in my country at least,  are linked to traditional academic activities. Creative works or anything outside of this doesn’t get a look in. If these works do count they are certainly harder to count. Of course, writing a blog like this accounts for zilch or as we used to say in the bogan suburb: Jack Schitt. Moreover, I always suspect that anything cross-disciplinary, or from the sociological (especially ethnography), or the organisational sciences is viewed with suspicion by athe first tribe.

Brownie Points 

In many architecture schools the research brownie points mostly go to the historical or technical research (especially around sustainability)  and  sometimes, but less so, architectural theory gets a look in. There are lots of architectural historians (myself included I guess) and technologists in architecture schools. In regards to the brownie points anything related to design is often put into the too hard basket.

As a result the people who do well in these university systems are not the architects or designers or even the design studio teachers, teaching in the sludge of the undergraduate studios , it is very often the tribe of “traditional” academics. These academics find things to study, they ask research questions which more often than not they answer; they produce papers and they arguably, and demonstrably, contribute to knowledge. Their outputs unlike the design outputs are highly valued and easily counted in university systems.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this tribe and many of the people in it.

A few people might read their papers including other architects. Sometimes members of this tribe will produce books about architects and these are very often great. We all read the books and revere the authors. But in my experience few of these people, because of the enormous effort needed to develop an academic career, can design or even teach in the design studios. Some don’t even want to teach in the studios even though they have devoted their lives to the discourse canons and traditions of architecture. Sadly, a few have been so consumed by this struggle that they have forgotten about architecture; for these, the pedantic practices of textual research is all that matters.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

In the current university systems these are the people who have solid and enduring career paths. They are in many respects the model citizens who benefit from the institutions status and prestige. The good ones go up the food chain. Many of them made into first class when the earlier layers and regimes of metrics and KPIs were easier and softer; less brutal than they are now. It is probably too harsh for me to say that the Dunning Kruger Effect is at play here.

How to identify members of this tribe

So what do these people look like? There is no need to dehumanize them in the above paragraphs. So, what is this tribal first class actually like? I once made contribution to a short film on Boyd. I was a little overweight, stuttering and hardly able to make eye contact with the camera. Uncomfortably, spitting out the words about Boyd and his relationship to Japan with difficulty. The other academics, the first class tribal travellers, casually dressed, smooth talkers, patrician and relaxed as if they had just stepped out of the country club. Turtlenecks and Zegna jackets. It’s hilarious to see the comparison between myself and the others.

New Directions from Jacques Sheard on Vimeo.

Tribe 2: The Underclass 

There is however, in the graduate architecture schools and universities across the world, another tribe. These are the people who actually teach in the undergrad and post-grad design studios,  are a different class entirely . Mostly, they are sessional staff working on the run, part-timers, emerging practitioners or the handful of academics who can teach design and research.  Even these academics are on the run as they juggle design teaching with the traditional research outputs. In many universities these academics are thrashed because they are usually pretty good at teaching and they are constantly faced with working against diminishing resources, pointless organisational makeovers, increasing class sizes and all too lax entry requirements. Some of these people academics are, or were, practitioners, large and small, and many continue to practice and design and build.

Incentives and the Research Quantum

But what this tribe designs and builds or gets published is not often counted in the research quantum. It doesn’t necessarily really help your academic career, or as a sessional practitioner, to produce creative or design research outputs. Firstly, no one in the upper class tribe really knows how to measure creative and design outputs. Worse still I fear that the upper class tribe don’t have an incentive to help the underclass get the Research Quantum points based on design or creative outputs. Why should they? That would undervalue their position. Much easier to cast aspersions on the value of design knowledge because it is hard to quantify and is not technical or textual based research (Even I have been guilty of doing this).

One contradiction 

But as with the existence of all underclasses, in organisational contexts, there are contradictions.

One contradiction is that the first class tribe loves the second class tribe when when it comes to the impact metrics and surveys. In my country we have ERA, but this is an incredibly opaque process, which tries to capture impact. I have never been able to figure out the ERA process and how it works. I assume ERA is not that transparent. Conservative governments are always trying to put in place KPI measures of impact but they never quite get there.

These types of impact assessment exercises always help the university or school, but not the design orientated researcher on the ground.

Two tribes 

The under class are too busy trying to juggle everything, families, practices, projects and research that doesn’t fit into the neat categories of the upper class tribe.

Every design teacher whether they be in architecture, graphic design, industrial design, landscape or urban design has the dilemma of how to make their research count. How do we convince the first tribe that running a studio, doing competitions, or doing speculative projects designs or making a building contributes to knowledge? Broader research is harder to sell. Even research around industry structure of the profession, architectural innovation, or sociological studies of architectural practice. If its applied research then it’s somehow flakey.

But the first tribe love it when the citizens of the second tribe win awards and accolades. In fact when that happens the first tribe goes nuts and use these to bolster whatever institutional brand they need to bolster.

Consider the architecture school you know best and ask yourself how these two tribes relate. In some schools these two tribes are at war and in others they tolerate each other in a dysfunctional fashion. In some schools one tribe dominates over the other and this leads to all sorts of problems and research imbalances. Some schools are single tribes.

Guess who is making the money?

Oh and I forgot to mention another contradiction: The crazy thing is that it is the design studio teachers who are making the money for the universities and this money subsidises the research of the first tribal class. So at the end of the day it’s not about the knowledge or the discipline of architecture it’s all about the money. Unless resolved by the universities, and profession itself, notions of civility will be abandoned as these two tribes battle it out for resources.

In great architecture schools, it is not just about the money,  these two tribes collaborate, debate and have enough respect for each other by seeking to understand the other.



Categories: architectural education, architecture and research, design teaching, univeristies policy, Universities

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