Monday, 30 January 2012

Coming out in the classroom

So, before I leave work and head home to finish my marking, I thought I'd make time to say what happened today.

In the Social Sustainability course I'm teaching I introduce dimensions of equality, specifically gender, ethnicity and race, disability and sexuality. My students had to choose one of these four topics and from this they had to read a journal article and comment on it in a class seminar, write a mini-essay and more substantively write-out an Equalities Impact Assessment based on this dimension of equality. Students could sign-up but spaces under the four categories were limited and sing-up was on a first-come-first served basis.

So, students started to sign-up. But no one signed-up for sexuality. I apologetically appealed to the class to sign up for the topic as the article was actually really interesting (it is, by the way). I persuaded two students. But it seemed from the actions of other students that they were actively avoiding choosing the topic. This all came to a head last Thursday when I had to forcibly put some students in this particular topic group.

On reflection over the weekend the whole thing seemed a bit of a stupid pickle. But I was hurt by the actions of the class. And I realised my apologetic attitude belied a continued discomfort myself in being honest and open about my sexuality (particularly in front of a very international and diverse audience). So, I started this morning's class by coming out as a gay man to my students and explaining how much their behaviour had hurt me and I did perceive it as homophobic. I was absolutely terrified and almost in tears. They were flippin' fantastic about it.

And also, I got one final, very good reflection, from a student. I ended up emphasising to them that there probably are not gender or sexuality issues for them to consider when doing their Equalities Impact Assessment, but I want them to demonstrate why there are not. If I had made this clearer in the first place then they would have felt less of a need to choose a dimension of equality they empathised directly with and would have welcomed the challenge of another topic.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Middle class community activism

Through this blog I've been discussing my interest in the side of my main research interest - spatial patterning of economic inequalities - that is largely ignored in most of the literature: affluent, or middle-class, communities and neighbourhoods.

For example, I discussed the growth of Edinburgh's New Town as a middle class "ghetto"; the likelihood of middle-class parents chasing schools that recieve the "people premium"; and the general problem I percieve in researching what are considered "normal" neighbourhoods.

This was in the midst of doing a research project - a sort of literature review - with my old supervisor at Glasgow University Annette Hastings. This project reported to the AHRC in October and we have the report to them and a paper (hopefully) to report on in coming months. But, right now, we've begun revealing our findings through the CLES New Start blog site: Understanding middle class community activism.

The main finding - that the middle classes are more active and get more from it - almost seems too obvious to be worth saying. Yet there is not much out there that evidences this assertion and, as we discuss here, there are important implications for public policy, and particularly regeneration and enhanced services for deprived communities, if we accept this.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Reflections on teaching practice

I take my teaching responsibilities very seriously. So far my experience of students here has been absolutely fantastic - they're bright as buttons, enthusiastic and really enjoyable to teach (you can tell I'm early career, can't you?!). I've been doing things like making videos on study skills for my students and the like.

As an early-career lecturer I have to complete the Post Graduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PGCap) which I started last semester. I had to submit two pieces of work for it and I had the marks back on my first and I passed. So I thought I'd put it up here, in case someone was interested in it.

To reflect on my reflections on my reflections (go up my own arse?) I know this is very ropey. I really don't have the time to devote to PGCap that I would like, so I did what I could do to pass - just like my students, really. I've edited out names and three of the appendices for ethical reasons.

Occupy Heriot-Watt? Reflective commentary on developing your teaching practice
In this commentary I want to reflect particularly on one incident that occurred to me this semester – attending voice skills and presentation skills training at the University of Edinburgh (taken because of reflections on my microteach [appendix 4]) – along with the appendices to this reflection. I shall bring these together to problematise and get at the very idea of “teaching practice” and learning (Fry, Ketteridge et al., 2009) and what it means to me. Specifically, I will reflect on teaching as performance within a broader discourse of modern higher education and the bio-politics of teaching and learning.

Teaching experience
So far my teaching at Heriot-Watt has been limited. However, I have experience as a learner on the programme on which I am teaching, MSc Urban and Regional Planning. On my first day as an academic in January 2011 I was given two course outlines and told I had to produce teaching materials for both courses by the following January and that the courses were to be delivered as independent distance learning. I have prepared the vast majority of this material and also prepared and delivered two lectures on associated subjects (governance) to MSc Engineering students. I have also successfully supervised one MSc student in their dissertation, nearly completed the distance supervision of another MSc student and am currently supervising two undergraduate students through their dissertations. As well as these direct teaching responsibilities, I have also been a mentor to undergraduate students, supported a cohort of students on the new MSc programme I lead and helped with a collaborative project with the Edinburgh College of Art at the beginning of semester 1, 2011.

In turning to reflect on this experience I was struck by the insights of Haggis (2009) and Ashwin (2008) on the lack of critical perspectives to teaching and learning in research on higher education. In my reflective blog entry (28 October 2011; Appendix 1) I could not help but focus on the latent power within the classroom setting and how the very act of being a “pupil” in a PGCap class led me to act very differently. In the rest of the course we focused on how to get students to move towards “deeper” learning, yet when we are in the position of learners were are as strategic and shallow in our engagement as we decry of our students. In my observation of a peer (appendix 2) one of the problems they had to deal with was classroom behaviour, specifically talking. In my feedback to my colleague my immediate comment was that, firstly it was something I dreaded in my own teaching as it was difficult to deal with and secondly I suggested that they might want to consider the tactics of secondary school teachers, or highlighting the poor behaviour, to get the students to be quiet. This response utterly failed to bring in the insights from my own reflections on my own behaviour in a PGCap class. In this light this behaviour can almost be expected and responding as a secondary school teacher would probably reinforce the role of pupil in classroom. Furthering Foucauldian insights, what is actually required in this situation is to disrupt the power relations of the classroom, either through reinforcing a governmentality through tools such as learning contracts, or more radical alternatives, such as unstructured curricula and student-led learning and teaching.

What does this mean for my teaching and learning? What does it mean for teaching and learning more generally? The main comments from my microteach (appendix 4) were that I spoke to quickly and when I got flustered I hummed and hawed and lost my place. It because of this, and from feedback from conference presentations, that  I jumped at the opportunity to take part in training on voice and presentation skills led by an actor at the University of Edinburgh. This highlighted the performative nature of public speaking, which for me includes lecturing and teaching. It let me into skills in holding my voice back and speaking slowly and clearly, emphasising points in what feels like an overly dramatic fashion, and using the dramatic pause to great effect. I used these in my first two lectures on governance for the MSc engineering courses and appendix 3 provides the feedback from my peer on this.  The implicit idea of teaching as performance was also in my mind when I was judging other’s performances during the microteach and when I was observing my peer.

When viewed in this way, the criticism of some that the focus on teaching and learning is too competitive, gains traction (Trowler, 2001). We can suggest teaching becomes like the X Factor, where we’re all trying to perform better to capture the student’s attention. The modern managerial discourses of higher education support this view. The focus comes to be on the student experience; rather than learning being a process of exploration it becomes something the students experience, like a Hollywood blockbuster. To use employ a lazy cliché, the medium becomes the message. The dangers of this are apparent in the feedback from my microteach and peer observation.
In my microteach I used a rhetorical device employed by Michael Sandel a Harvard Professor, great orator in the Platonic tradition, and 2008 BBC Reith Lecturer – this was working the class through the thought experiment the “switch problem” and the “footbridge problem”, to which there is no solution (Sandel, 2009). Having used this in the microteach and now in class I recognise its use as an interactive lecturing tool; it easily breaks down the barrier of the invisible proscenium arch that can stop students interacting. It also highlights the contingency of our knowledge in a pragmatic, rather than a relativistic way, but I am left with a feeling of: what does it actually offer the students in terms of knowledge. This problem of delivery over content is even more evident in my peer observation where my observer rightly notes that I should have spent more time trying to get the students to apply their knowledge of water resources management to the very theoretical context I was providing on theories of power.

This could be dismissed as simply the prioritisation of delivery over content, but it does seem to be more generally symptomatic of the broader discourses of higher education (Trowler, 2001) where we compete for students and then have to compete for their attention. Looking back on my teaching philosophy statement this is a discourse I do seem to have internalised: “I want students to sit-up and be alert in lectures they’re enjoying; or at least not yawn too much… To do this in my teaching practice I will: In lecturing – use an active lecturing style”; as have others in my PGCap cohort: “[i]f the teaching is delivered in an effective and appropriate manner, then the learning from the student perspective can be enhanced, successful and interactive”; “the best teachers were the individuals that appeared to be enjoying what they were doing, made a subject matter interesting and were able to captivate the students even with a rather boring topic”; “It is quite important that both students and I enjoy what I am teaching and what they are learning”. Is good teaching thus just a good performance? Are my colleagues who get poor student feedback just struggling to compete with X Factor contestants?

Although I, and arguably we, seem to have internalised this discourse, looking through our teaching philosophy statements demonstrates a similar tendency to that found by Trowler (2001). We have internalised this discourse but it is not constitutive of us, we hold onto other, prior discourses, as suggested by McNay in his analysis of the changing cultures of universities from collegiums to enterprise (McNay, 1995). For example, a very swift content analysis shows that across the statements words or phrases with the stem “crit-“ (i.e. critical thinking, critical analysis) appear 15 times and we want students to have a depth to their learning which really is not reflected by a discourse of performance and enjoyment: “In assessments – to use a range of assessment techniques…to develop deeper understanding of topic areas” (myself);  “I aim to help students … understand each aspect in depth”; “I want students to think conceptually, to explore patterns and relationships between concepts”. We also strive for our students to gain independence in their learning, which again is not captured by a discourse of performance and passivity: “My role as a teacher is to provide a nurturing learning environment” (myself); “One of the main goals is to ensure that students are … motivated to learn”; one of the cohort even asserts that these are basic learning skills developed by primary school teachers: “it is interesting to see how primary school teachers keep their children’s interest alive…Encouraging independent study whilst also giving them practice”.

It seems that, in Foucauldian terms, we are actively resisting the managerial discourse of higher education as we ethically believe it to be somehow wrong (McHoul and Grace, 1995). We do believe in deeper learning as this is what we have all experienced. We realise there is a link between a good performance in teaching and positive learning experiences but realise that this isn’t necessarily the most important thing. Students sometimes might have to have a bad or difficult learning experience to achieve the outcomes that the institution desires to see in them. Michel Foucault was challenged in an interview in 1978 as to the nihilistic ends to which his philosophy led; that is was very good critique but then did not offer a way forward for the social workers in the audience. He responded by arguing: “my project is precisely to bring it about that they “no longer know what to do,” so that the acts, gestures, discourses that up until then had seemed to go without saying become problematic, difficult, dangerous” and that critique is “a challenge directed at what is” (Foucault, [1980] 2003: 256). This is certainly true in this reflection. I’m left with a sense that to produce truly deep, empowering and liberating learning we may have to implement something like edupunk, “working in opposition to ‘the decline of higher ed into a series of feeding lots for the private sector job market’” (Cunnane, 2011); occupying higher education with a radical dialogue and discourse as protestors are currently trying to occupy the places of global capitalism in their flimsy tent.

On my reflexive blog I rejected Foucault’s insights for the same reason I reject his work in my broader researcher, and for the same reason the social workers rejected his arguments – their inherent nihilism (Barnett, Clarke et al., 2008). Instead, I prefer the insights of Habermas and treating us as communicative actors (Finlayson, 2005). Habermas’ broader project of critical theory also offers us an analysis to the problematic discourses of modern higher education, above. Habermas suggested that when the public sphere of modernity first emerged in the eighteenth century it was “perfect” – people had equal access to it, it explored concepts of the lifeworld (of everyday experience) and it was not corrupted by the System of capitalist exploitation and technocratic, rationalist thought (zweckrationalitat) (Bernstein, 1985; Habermas, 1989; Cook, 2005). This is the world of Immanuel Kant, teaching at Königsberg and supported by Frederick the Great of Prussia. As the System has developed it has corrupted this public sphere; so in this case the discourse of competition and student experience in higher education has detracted from the higher ideal of deep, independent learning. Unlike Foucault’s nihilism, Habermas sees the public sphere as always present and a force to rail against the System and keep the Lifeworld flourishing (Bernstein, 1985; Cook, 2005). If we accept this, then I can save my teaching a philosophy statement from itself and recognise what is positive about it, namely:
  • the focus on dialogue in teaching and using this to create a public sphere that can challenge discourses and allow students to develop themselves and for me to be honest and open;
  • the focus on deeper learning and enabling students to be communicative actors themselves and critically analyse and understand the world around them;
  • the focus on the practical and experiential and linking the scientism of the System (i.e. what I teach) with the lived experience of students.
A key challenge is to deliver this dialogic description of learning through new technologies and distance learning. Whether this can be achieved through new information technologies is something I want to explore both through my research and my teaching. To end, rather tellingly, although Kant was lecturing during the first flourishing of the enlightenment (or Aufklarung as he knew it) and the rise of the public sphere, when he lectured in Königsberg he left a bucket at the door and students threw in as much money as they thought the lecture was worth as they left. In terms of student feedback, you could not get better; and in terms of my place and my teaching within broader socio-economic structures, I don’t think much has changed in two centuries.

Ashwin, P. (2008). "Accounting for structure and agency in "close-up" research on teaching, learning and assessment in higher education." International Journal of Educational Research 47(3): 151-158.

Barnett, C., Clarke, N., Cloke, P. and Malpass, A. (2008). "The elusive subjects of Neo-Liberalism." Cultural Studies 22(5): 624-653.

Bernstein, R. (1985). Introduction. Habermas and Modernity. Bernstein, R. (Ed.). Cambridge, Polity Press: 1-32.

Cook, D. (2005). "The sundered totality of system and lifeworld." Historical Materialism 13(4): 55-78.

Cunnane, S. (2011). "DIY, says 'edupunk' star. Distortion and sell-out, say critics." Times Higher Education(17-12 November 2011): 20-21.

Finlayson, J. G. (2005). Habermas: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Foucault, M. ([1980] 2003). Questions of Method. The Essential Foucault. Rabinow, P. and Rose, N. Eds.). London, The New Press: 246-258.

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S. and Marshall, S. (2009). Understanding student learning. A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Enhancing Academic Practice. Fry, H., Ketteridge, S. and Marshall, S. Eds.: 8-26.

Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Oxford, Polity Press.

Haggis, T. (2009). "What have we been thinking of? A critical overview of 40 years of student learning research in higher education." Studies in Higher Education 34(4): 377-390.

McHoul, A. and Grace, W. (1995). A Foucault Primer: Discourse, Power and the Subject. London, The UCL Press.

McNay, I. (1995). From collegial academy to corporate enterprise: the changing cultures in universities. The Changing University? Schuler, T. (Ed.). Buckingham, The Open University Press.

Sandel, M. (2009). Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? London, Allen Lane.

Trowler, P. (2001). "Captured by the Discourse? The Socially Constitutive Power of New Higher Education Discourse in the UK." Organization 8(2): 183-201.

Appendix 1 – Critical Incident Blog

The classroom is a powerful place. The serried ranks of tables all facing the whiteboard and projection screen create the social experience of learning – sitting, trying to maintain attention and drifting off quite often and trying not to let the lecturer see. The critical incident for me was the first PGCap class in Course one where the power-full nature of the classroom became blindingly apparent.

I’d say virtually all the class, myself included, didn’t want to be there. We were there because successfully completing probation depended on it and in the present job market that’s quite an incentive. I went into the class knowing I was now a teacher; an adult. As such I didn’t have to behave like I did as an undergraduate. I wanted to resist the teaching space and have an adult relationship with it. By resisting the power of the space I fell back into another role framed by the classroom – the naughty child. I whispered and giggled with my colleagues while the lecturers were talking. I even rolled my eyes when other members of the class didn’t get things I’d already noticed by flicking, bored and aimless, through the course folder – just like I spent my school years doing. I noticed my colleagues falling into their taught roles: the belligerent swot; the giggle girl; the attentive swot; the jock, jotting down every word so they pass the exam with minimal effort later in semester when their sports team takes precedence.

What does this mean for my teaching? Is the classroom a space of Foucauldian governmentality that needs to be continually resisted to subvert its power? (Foucault, 1977; Cruikshank, 1999; Foucault, [1978] 2003; [1982] 2003) I don’t think so. This leads to the nihilism of the secondary school classroom where all the pupils turns their desks around to face the back of the class before the hated supply teacher arrives. The classroom is socially constructed within the wider tradition of the university and our education system (Berger & Luckman, 1967). In our teaching practices we recreate these traditions every time we stand in front of class. If the traditions are meeting resistance then we need to reflect and change those traditions and it is incumbent on us to go a large part of this. In the increasingly international classroom this is going to become even harder work. Not everyone has enjoyed the liberal education that the UK classroom offers.

So in our teaching practice we are continually socially constructing the classroom and the learning of our students, trying to reach a shared horizon of understanding between everyone in the classroom. Reflecting on my critical incident as the boy misbehaving at the back of the classroom makes me realise what a laudable, but ultimately unachievable, aim that is. Myself and my students come to the classroom loaded with prior tradition, knowledge and experience. It will probably take a semester to get over the fact that I’m not just “a teacher” but a fellow human as well. If I manage that I can feel quite proud. And then I will probably never see the students in the classroom again.

Berger, P. and Luckman, T. (1967). The Social Construction of Reality: a Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. London, Allen Lane.

Cruikshank, B. (1999). The Will to Empower: Democratic Citizens and Other Subjects. London, Cornell University Press.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Foucault, M. ([1978] 2003). Governmentality. The Essential Foucault. P. Rabinow and N. Rose. London, The New Press: 229-245.

Foucault, M. ([1982] 2003). The subject and power. The Essential Foucault. P. Rabinow and N. Rose. London, The New Press: 126-144.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Why I'm not attending a consultation event

Tonight the City of Edinburgh Council (CEC) are holding a consultation event at the Thomas Morton Hall regarding the proposals in the Main Issues Report for Leith Docks. I've had an interested in what goes on in my local dock lands since my Masters here in 2005. See my journal article here (non-Uni people, comment or email me if you want a copy).I'm down to attend the event, but have decided not to because a) I'm tired, b) I need to cook my tea and c) well....

The proposal back in the heady days of the property boom was to redevelop the docks as a new suburb, Edinburgh's new New Town. Forth Ports (at that time a PLC listed on the LSE) spent a lot of its own money writing the lovely Leith Docks Development Framework for CEC. The CEC planners, to give them their due, turned glossy pap into a workable plan that would have created a good place. The net effect was Forth Ports assets shot up in value and by 2004 it was effectively a property company, not a logistics company.

Fast forward to the property slump and Forth Ports had to write off most of its assets - nobody wanted to live in those poky two-bedroomed flats in Leith and Dundee anymore. This meant in May last year Forth Ports were taken over by these people - Arcus Infrastructure Partners. I think the state of the UK's railway rolling stock is testimony to their attitude to long term asset management and investment. Forth Ports has, then, in 30 years, gone from being a nationalised company, to being a PLC, to being a line in an asset book hidden behind the smokescreens of a non-listed investment fund.

Before this takeover, Forth Ports had realised that their Ports were now worth something as industrial land - especially since the UK and Scottish Governments were doling out subsidies to the burgeoning renewables industry. Pelamis Wave Power and the French subsea engineering group Technip are now major tenants or users of Leith Docks. Forth Ports had even spun-out Forth Energy to promote biomass power plants on their docklands - a proposal for one on Leith Docks has been fought superbly well by Greener Leith.

However, the CEC Local Development Plan Main Issues Report states, quite bluntly, the quandary Edinburgh's planners are in:
"Over 18,000 homes are proposed at Leith Docks as part of existing regeneration plans. These will make a significant contribution to meeting future housing needs over the next 20 to 30 years. It has been assumed that most new homes in Leith Docks will be provided outwith the LDP period, after 2024. However, Scottish Enterprise’s National Renewables Infrastructure Plan promotes Leith Docks as a potential location to support Scotland’s offshore renewable energy industry through manufacturing and maintenance. In preparing the LDP, we need to decide on the future role of Leith Docks." (pp.19-20 watch out, MAHOOSIVE pdf)

The "preferred option" in the MIR is to stick with housing-led regeneration. Although as things have developed since then, it seems that the CEC's position has changed and they're coming on side to the idea of a "gateway" (what else is a port?) and renewables hub. Greener Leith, again fantastically, have managed to get the Memorandum of Understanding signed between Scottish Enterprise, CEC and Forth Ports. This sets out that they will create this vision of a renewables hub, with investment from Forth Ports and the public sector partners, with returns to both of them.

But, I'm sorry, I have to get all lefty about this. If this happened before Forth Ports were privatised, this investment would automatically be returned to everyone through increased profits. Even as a PLC, the investment would have increased the company's asset values and helped fend off foreign takeover. As it stands, the company is owned by a private investment fund. As soon as this plan goes through their assets will leap in value. They can then sell off the company, leveraged to the hilt with all the debt they've built up based on the plan, and the asset can then sit and rot as every last penny of income is siphoned off to pay the creditors. Frankly, to be more transparent CEC and Scottish Enterprise might as well just write a cheque for £200 millions to Arcus Partners now and be done with. So, I'm not attending the consultation because it's a farce. In the effort to achieve "partnership working" with Forth Ports CEC and Scottish Enterprise are writing-off Leith Docks for the next 50 years. And nothing I say will change this.

CEC should plan for bloody agricultural land on the site, reduce the value to nothing, compulsorily purchase the lot and plan for something that will help Leith and Edinburgh and bring the profits right back into the CEC's coffers. Treat Forth Ports the way Glasgow City Council have treated Margaret Jaconelli.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

"Technology assisted learning"

The subject line is in inverted commas because I have a lot of sympathy for people who are quite sceptical from the point of view of all learning is technology asssisted in the modern classroom. See the hilarious, and ongoing, twitter tag #pencilchat.

Anyway, as I've mentioned before I'm course leader for a course D41SS Social Sustainability. When I was given the course outline approved by the School I did not really have an idea what social sustainability was, except a term used by the old Lab/Lib Scottish Executive to justify environment destroying developments because they'd deliver jobs. So, I worked from my own definition, but also it would be fun to get my students in class to tweet (@SocSus) or email from their laptops/smartphones, or text me with their definitions.

Here is the Wordle created from their definitions:

Wordle: Social Sustainability
And here's what I said on Blackboard when I posted it for the students to see:

If you click on it it'll take you to the wordle website where it should be clearer. I actually came up with this as mainly a bit of fun interaction and hadn't really considered its pedagogic value. But. your definitions were so good I'm definitely going to do thisnext year. The interesting patterns I see are your focus on "social" and "society" (I deleted all references to "social sustainability" and just left your actual definitions) and also people. I think this links to Habermas' communicative action we were discussing in the lecture on Monday. This is especially the case considering how strongly inclusion and opportunity feature as well - the question then becomes who's norms are we talking about? And are all included equally in discussions about those norms? You're also clearly concerned about resources and services and how they're distributed - this will be a key thing to consider in the rest of the course and really gets at the heart of the issues about norms and equality.

One thing I had not considered when writing this course which you have mentioned is inter-generational equity and equality - see how big future is. I'd really like to hear what you think of this wordle, so feel free to comment, or for those who do, tweet to @SocSus.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Do rail users have anything to complain about?

Like many people I did my first train journey of the New Year yesterday and was met with a fare rise. The little bit of my commute I do by bike (from Edinburgh Waverley to Edinburgh Park) had gone up a whopping 5% from £2.20 to £2.30. I'm a lucky one. My poor mother's unregulated off-peak older persons fare from Shipley to Leeds has gone up a whopping 100% from £1 to £2. 

One thing that's widely acknowledge about train travel in the UK is it's predominantly a mode of transport for the more affluent, the middle classes. The working classes use the bus. From what I vaguely know of the debate, the last Labour government used this social justice argument to lead to the fare increases we're now seeing and a reduction in government subsidy. This got me thinking - how have bus fares compared to train fares? Luckily for me a quick firtle on the interwebs revealed that the Department for Transport has been compiling an index of bus fares since 1995, hopefully available here. The index has gone from 100 in 1995 to 193 in 2010 - an almost doubling of bus fares over fifteen years. 

I went in search of the Rail Fares Price Inde. The UK National Statistics page that comes up in Google for this search, of course, doesn't include the stats themselves.I did a bit more searching and found that the Guardian, that great opener of data, had popped the Office of the Rail Regulator figures into a Google spreadsheet. Ahh, but that index had been re-indexed in 2009, so the data is not comparable. But, the spreadsheet includes a link to the original data and the ORR archive which includes a report (pdf) which reports on the index from 1997 to 2008. Page 47 of this report shows this index stood at 104.6 in 1997, which suggests that like the bus index it was reindexed in 1995. This means that the increase in rail fares over the period 1995 to the year of re-indexing (2009) was 51.2% (the index rose from 100 to 151.2). The Bus Fares index rose to 171.7 over the same period.

Well, this does suggest that in the period 1997-2008 rail users did not have anything to moan about and were being subsidised. This makes sense, since apart from in London and in very special circumstances, it is basically against the law for local authorities to subsidise anything but concessionary fares. But of course, we are in no way comparing like with like. Bus companies get a rebate on their diesel from the Treasury. They also gain a massive indirect subsidy from the upkeep of roads by local authorities and trunk road authorities. Railway companies need to pay Network Rail to keep the tracks in good working order.

So, what does all this mean? Well, as far as I'm concerned nothing. What is actually important is that we massively increase spending on public transport. We need to achieve massive modal shift in transport use, and if subsidising the middle classes to use trains and light rail as they don't want to be with the hoi-polloi on buses, achieves this, then I reckon we should get on with it.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Call For Papers - Planning as a collaborative act / the plan as a collaborative actor - IPA2012 Tilburg 5-7 July

Colleagues Janice Barry, Andy Inch and myself have pulled together the following panel for the International Interpretive Policy Analysis conference in Tilburg at the start of July. IPA is a great conference - this will be my fourth - very friendly and welcoming with some very interesting work. The journal Critical Policy Studies is aligned with the conference.

Spatial plans can be understood as both a representation of complex urban and regional phenomenon and relationships, and as a reflection of the deliberative process through which different governance actors animate desires, make sense of different interests, and come to make decisions. This panel takes as its starting point this notion of spatial planning practice as an interpretive act. A key question the panel will explore is how plans should be conceptualised as documents: as expressions of clear principles, or as sedimented conflicts and compromises, and how the act of ‘publication’ or ‘adoption’ can obscure the contingency inherent to their production. Further, we seek to extend existing work by focusing on how the interpretations embedded in existing spatial plans are brought into being and themselves become actors in the collaborative process.

We are seeking papers for a themed panel session at the Interpretive Policy Analysis Conference, Tilburg 5-7 July.

We invite papers that focus on the political work that plans do and that critically analyse:

  • A plan, or group of plans, that represent and interpret a particular place and how it has changed and reacted to the plan as actor over time;
  • A plan, or group of plans that embody and signify a particular planning culture or epoch in plan-making;
  • A plan, or groups of plan that are suggestive of differences in place, place-making and/or planning culture.
Abstracts can be submitted through the conference website at

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Review of the year - the job

Possibly the worst blog post I've ever written where I accidentally digress into an extended discussion of marine spatial planning.

Exactly this time last year I started my present job, Lecturer in Urban Management, at the School of the Built Environment, Heriot-Watt University after spending 15 months as a Civil Servant in the Scottish Government. My employer has been fantastic at easing me in gently and I'll be at full tear-out hair stage in about three weeks' time. 

First of all, I have to say this was the best job move I've made in my life so far. Much as a lot of the work in the Scottish Government was interesting the organisation was seemingly glacial about things that mattered and worked ridiculously quickly and hard over the most minor of details. The thing I missed most in the Scottish Government was being able to think, especially to think critically. As my bizarrely popular post on the National Performance Framework testifies, I'm finding the freedom fantastic.

The trouble I'm still finding is that of my academic research identity. I think I'll always be a researcher on urban inequalities and public policy. The trouble I feel is, what is there to add? I'll have a couple of articles out in the New Year on urban regeneration. The first asks whether, in the rush to mainstreaming regeneration through neighbourhood management, have we lost what regeneration is/can be all about in terms of transforming neighbourhoods? The second highlights how the continued stigma and stereotypes of neighbourhoods prevents regeneration policy ever being considered a "success" no matter how successful it is. I managed to dash out my contribution the theory we a re-assessment of the application of Habermasian critical theory in planning research and got that submitted. However, much as I can wax lyrical on Habermas, I have an inkling it's going to be knocked back by the journal. I suppose, on reflection, that given the long lead-in times for academic publishing, this blog has been a big bit of developing my research identity. 

One thing I've really not blogged about on here was my continuing minor interest in marine spatial planning. For those of you who don't know (and I wouldn't blame you for not doing so) the UK Government and Scottish Government are implementing their separate and complementary marine spatial planning and marine development licensing systems at the moment. The Scottish Government consulted on their national marine plan earlier this year. In my response I helpfully pointed out that is was a description of what was already there, not a plan of what Scotland would like the marine environment to look like. 

Three things really interest me about marine spatial planning. Firstly, MSP as an implementation act. This is the first time the UK has implemented a brand new spatial planning system since 1947 and we've over a century of learning from land-use planning to call on to produce a system that is efficient, effective and responsive. And it looks like we're ignoring all of it. Secondly, with the development of offshore wind, carbon capture and storage and marine renewable energy devices the marine environment is going to become increasingly pressured. And, quite obviously, what's interesting here is that these new developments are fixed, whereas most things in the marine environment float. 

Lastly, being fully imbued in the ways of interpretive policy analysis, I find the way the marine environment is understood and imagined within marine planning to be utterly fascinating. Countless historians and planning theorists have explained how the UK planning system that emerged in 1947 came from discourses of the "New Jerusalem" and also the continuing discourse of the imagined rural idyll, constructed by the CPRE, constantly under threat from rampant growth and modernisation. Yet among all this, there was an acceptance that development had to occur. One of the stupid things about the NPPF debate earlier this year in England was that since 1947 there has been a presumption in favour of development anyway. In the UK the state takes away your right to develop and then has to justify this. Anyhoo, it has struck me that the marine environment in essentially just imagined by marine biologists and if their concerns reach the general population then it's all about cetaceans. The only other people who know about the marine environment are fisherwomen and men. Marine biologists always want to create marine protected areas, so this puts the groups in conflict. This is what depressed me about the lack of a plan in the draft Scottish Marine Plan. We need to imagine what we want our seas to look like. As a sceptic, I think most imagined futures in plans are pretty shonky, but at least it's there. It's something to hold onto. I want to study the emergence of this new image of our marine environment and how it comes about.

Trouble is, my research so far has been about as far away from environmental planning as you can get...

And this, my readers, is what happens when you start writing a blog post without thinking about what you're going to write. So, on the job front, I think the big thing will be the ramping up of the teaching load in 2012. And I'm looking forward to blogging my reflective writing on the likes of edupunk which I've had to do for postgrad certificate in academic practice.

Finally, if any of my colleagues do read this, thank you so much for making me feel so welcome at the School of the Built Environment. I feel very lucky to be working with you all.