Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Reflections on teaching practice - disciplinary and departmental context

In a previous post I posted my first assignment for my PGCap (postgraduate certificate in academic practice) course. The good news is, I've completed the first course, so I'm a quarter of the way there! As promised then, here is the second assessment - this time, reflections on disciplinary and departmental context.

Again, I've censored it to remove mentions of colleagues explicitly, but I do say some fairly political or controversial things about my School and Heriot-Watt. But that is not to say I do not enjoy working here - loving it so far. But it is important that we reflect honestly on these experiences, and it's not as if you don't hear these things being said around most universities

A weak discipline in the neo-liberal multiversity – reflections on planning as an academic discipline

I am a lecturer in urban management within the urban studies discipline in the School of the Built Environment. More specifically, my research and teaching focuses on spatial planning. This creates two specific issues from academic practice that will be discussed in this reflection. Firstly, is the question of what is planning and what are we teaching our students? (Davoudi and Pendlebury, 2010). Secondly, and linked to this is the wider context of the entrepreneurial university in a global market for higher education. In sum, the reflection highlights the precariousness of an unconfident discipline within a hostile environment at a local and global level.

What is planning?

In my reflective blog (24/11/11) I began by commenting on how I felt my disciplinary culture was one of survival. This was a feeling I got on the first day of my appointment – as noted in my reflections on my colleague (appendix 1).  

This sense of fighting for survival is reflected in the wider disciplinary history of town planning, or urban planning, as Davoudi and Pendlebury argue: ‘while planning in Britain has evolved into an academic discipline in social and institutional terms, its epistemological position has remained ambiguous’ (2010: 617) which has left it relatively weak, especially now in the neoliberal multiversity (Shore, 2010). 

While the development of towns has been planned for millennia, the discipline of town planning only emerged in the late nineteenth century through the work of pioneers such as Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Geddes (Cherry, 1996; Hall, 2002). The first university town planning department was founded in 1909 with the University of Liverpool’s School of Civic Design, sponsored by Lord Lever – of Sunlight soap fame – who had developed the model village Port Sunlight for his workers. The Planning School at Edinburgh College of Art, which became the part of the School of the Built Environment I am now in, was the first in Scotland. The Town Planning Institute was founded in 1913 and in the early 1930s it had developed a basic syllabus for a town planning education and a system of accreditation which exempted graduates from institutions (including ECA) from the entrance exams to the RTPI (Davoudi and Pendlebury, 2010).

The postwar years led to consolidation with the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act creating the planning system we have today and the TPI gaining a Royal Charter (Cherry, 1996). The RTPI is still a major structuring power on planning as an academic discipline in the UK. Although by the late 1990s, the practice of the Institute providing a curriculum that had to be taught was recognised as outmoded and replaced by learning outcomes, the RTPI are still closely involved in structuring teaching and learning. The other key external structuring power is the statutory planning system and planning policies as developed by the Scottish and UK Governments. 

As well as the institutions of planning being new, a key fragility recognised from the very early days of town planning as a discipline is its fragmentary and inter/multi-disciplinary nature (Davoudi and Pendlebury, 2010). As such I identify three approaches to teaching and learning in my discipline as it is taught at the SBE: studio/reflexive ; professional/practical; academic/theoretical  As the name of the UK’s first department – Civic Design – testifies the idea of town planning as design-based, “city-beautiful”, or architecture writ-large has a long history (Hall, 2002). Although dismissed as subjective environmental determinism for many decades in the UK, the importance of urban design is again being recognised in planning as an academic discipline (refs). This has not, in our School, led to a return to studio-based learning, but from appendix 1 it is notable that teaching urban design does involve the sort of practical criticism and reflective practice of studio-based teaching, as epitomised in Donald Schön’s Quist (Schön, 1987).  

The practical orientation of planning teaching is exemplified by my colleagues, and the learning outcomes of the RTPI, for example that students should be able to “Generate integrated and well substantiated responses to spatial planning challenges” and “Recognise the role of communication skills in the planning process and the importance of working in an inter-disciplinary context, and be able to demonstrate negotiation, mediation, advocacy and leadership skills” (RTPI, 2012: 3-4). This is a contested space in itself, as Sarah recognises as “employers ... expect students to know about everything”, whereas our professional orientation is to provide students with the skills so they can look up the General Permitted Development Order, or understand how to analyse a local plan policy and put this into practice through development management decisions.

The final orientation is the more theoretical learning – dismissed as “the city of theory” by the great planning academic Sir Peter Hall (Hall, 2002). This recognises the increasing role the social sciences have had in urban planning, particularly economics, from a free market and Marxian perspective; sociology; and the insights in place and space from human geography (Davoudi and Pendlebury, 2010). This has increasingly supplanted the systems orientation of planning as a technical discipline that had emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, which as Sarah notes (appendix 2) some students still believe to be the case (Cockburn, 1977; Davoudi and Pendlebury, 2010). 

I position myself between these last two approaches to teaching and learning in the discipline – trying to give students the practical skills they will need as planners and professionals in the workplace, while providing the theoretical underpinnings so they understand where urban planning has come from, the political nature of planning as a state activity and to critically understand and analyse policy problems. 

To return to my opening point of urban planning as “surviving” both as a broad discipline and within my School, much of this, I feel, comes from the multidisciplinary nature of the subject and the agnosticism regarding ontology and epistemology. A key challenge told to me by a colleague is just getting colleagues in much more cohesive disciplines, for example civil engineering, to understand what planning actually is. This is even true of our neighbours in urban studies in real estate. This has a longer academic tradition rooted in land economy, estate management and economics and seems more academically secure within the academic environment of the SBE. The practical results of this weakness for teaching and learning are shown in the interview with my colleague, where she highlights that much of the most innovative practice emerges from the urban planning teaching team because this is the only way we can achieve learning outcomes. We are often criticised for this, or made to change our course content – for example, by including more examinations and less group coursework – by colleagues in other disciplines who, we feel, do not understand the subjects being taught. Our colleagues, on the other hand, get lauded for innovation they introduce merely to make their teaching load easier to manage. 

Teaching and research in a commercial multiversity

This weak discipline finds itself within a broader structure of global higher education that is increasingly internationalised and commercialised – as affected by the roll-out of neo-liberal reforms that have characterised public policy since the mid-1970s (Peck and Tickell, 2002). In her analysis of this change in New Zealand, Chris Shore suggests that although these pressures for change have been applied to higher education it is still within a context of policy-makers wanting universities to remain in the liberal/humboltian tradition, and the changes are ‘not the death of the traditional liberal idea of university so much as a shift to a new multi-layered conception in which universities are now expected to serve a plethora of different functions, social and symbolic as well as economic and political.’ (Shore, 2010: 19).  

This is very much true of Scottish universities. In 2010 the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning launch a consultation document on higher education (predominantly the question of funding) Building a Smarter Future (Scottish Government, 2010; see also: Joint Thinking Taskforce on Universities, 2007) seeking a “Scottish response” to the challenges faced by higher education. The strategic direction set out for higher education within the document seems to be only Scottish because that adjective, or the noun Scotland, is applied. In line with Shore’s analysis of New Zealand’s experience (2010), and experience elsewhere (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2004; Hoffman, 2011; Shore, 2011) The Scottish Government recognise and appeal to the long tradition ‘so-called “ancients”’ and their contribution to the enlightenment, describing ‘a centuries old commitment to excellence in teaching, research and knowledge exchange’ (Scottish Government, 2010: 1). However, this is in a context where universities must contribute to the Scottish Government’s “Purpose” of sustainable economic growth as a ‘mainstay of our knowledge economy’ (ibid.). Similarly, Scottish universities are encourage to ‘extend their work abroad’, ostensibly to promote Scotland overseas (ibid.: 4) but predominantly to increase income from international students. 

Heriot-Watt has been, in many ways, at the vanguard of creating itself as the Scottish multiversity. The posters around campus proudly proclaim the institution as “Scotland’s most international university”; our campus in Dubai is cited as a best practice example by the Scottish Government; we subject ourselves to the rigours of accountability, so that I cringe every time I send an email knowing that I am announcing to the World that we are “the Sunday Times Scottish University of the Year 2011-2012". 

These pressures have an impact on our teaching and learning. From the first day in my job (appendix 1) I have been made aware how important teaching quality is and how we need to maintain and improve our scores on the National Student Survey. This is also, I feel, reflected in the peer observation forms (appendices 3 and 4). The comments on each other’s distance learning materials are predominantly presentational and focus on the student experience, their journey from the start of learning to the end. While neither of us are specialists in each other’s subjects, there is limited engagement in the content of the material. This could reflect the quality (there was nothing to comment upon), or the professional tradition of a collegial or liberal university where academic expertise is expected, respected and not commented upon (McNay, 1995; Shore, 2010).  

However, reflecting on my observation of my colleagues material (appendix 3) I think it is part of a wider impact that the neoliberal agenda in higher education is having. As a discipline we have been pressured into delivering our courses by independent distance learning to meet income targets set by the SBE and the University. I think, implicitly, we have taken on that the materials produced should be of presentational standard – effectively marketing materials as much as teaching materials – for what a good University we are. 

As in my previous assignment, it is important to recognise that although ‘academics now reside within a university culture where research and teaching and assessment have produced a culture of performativity and an institutional obsession with research ratings and rankings’ which creates our subjectivities leading to self-censorship (Shore, 2010: 27) we still have the space to make our own subjectivities within and around the contested discourses of higher education. To link this back to the perceived weaknesses of urban planning reflected upon above, I believe this could put planning teaching and learning in a uniquely strong position. As an outward-facing, vocational, multi-disciplinary subject it ticks many of the boxes of the modern multiversity . The key challenge is to deliver the type of teaching and learning I want to deliver within the broader structural and financial challenges of the present time.

Cherry, G. (1996). Town planning in Britain since 1900. Oxford, Blackwell.

Cockburn, C. (1977). The Local State: Management of Cities and People. London, Pluto Press. 

Davoudi, S. and Pendlebury, J. (2010). "The evolution of planning as an academic discipline." Town Planning Review 81(6): 613-646. 

Hall, P. (2002). Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century. Oxford, Blackwell.

Hoffman, S. G. (2011). "The new tools of the science trade: contested knowledge production and the conceptual vocabularies of academic capitalism." Social Anthropology 19(4): 439-462.

Joint Thinking Taskforce on Universities (2007). New Horizon's: Responding to the Challenges of the 21st Century. Edinburgh, The Scottish Government. 

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.

Peck, J. and Tickell, A. (2002). "Neoliberalizing space." Antipode 34(3): 380-404.
RTPI (2012). Becoming a Chartered Town Planner: A Guide for Licentiates. London, Royal Town Planning Institute. 

Schön, D. (1987). Educating the Reflective Practitioner. London, Jossey-Bass.

Scottish Government (2010). Bulding a Smarter Future: Towards a Sustainable Scottish Solution for the Future of Higher Education. Edinburgh, The Scottish Government. 

Shore, C. (2010). "Beyond the multiversity: neoliberalism and the rise of the schizophrenic university." Social Anthropology 18(1): 15-29.

Shore, C. (2011). "How commercialisation is redefining the mission and meaning of the university: a reply to Steve Hoffman." Social Anthropology 19(4): 495-499. 

Slaughter, S. and Rhoades, G. (2004). Academic Capitalism and the New Economy. Baltimore, John Hopkins Univeristy Press.

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