First Day of School

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

So it’s my first day of school, again. For the last decade or so that has meant updating syllabi, uploading course content to Blackboard, and preparing to greet a new flock of freshmen. After struggling to make adjunct academic life work for longer than I should have–long after I fell out of love with what I once thought was my calling–I find myself on the other side of the dais, a student once more. In contrast to my earlier pursuits in the humanities, the degree in planning I am working towards is oriented to things more than words. I suppose it’s deliberately paradoxical to invoke Foucault at such a moment and to question the opposition of the theoretical and practical. But these are the sorts of thoughts that bubble up this morning as I pass some time before my first class begins. My classes today are Quantitative Methods and Foundations of Planning. I’m not really nervous per se but anxious to get started and be in the thick of things, to know what the programme is and have solid goals and objectives in mind.

Last week most of the entering class met for a four day “boot camp,” to get oriented to the faculty, facilities, and key software. We listened to faculty talk about the profession, this specific program, the host of opportunities and specializations available, research interests, and advice for successfully navigating the program and landing a job. The bulk of the remaining time was devoted to learning ArcGIS, Excel, Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign by putting together a simple poster presentation. It was stimulating and enjoyable experience acquiring some new skill–as well as brushing up on very old ones–and getting to know the diverse students in my cohort. The range of interests and backgrounds provided a nice contrast to the shared progressive values of the group. I look forward to hearing and learning more and will report on my classes later in the day.

Well it turns out that first paragraph was a kind of prescient as the opposition between theory and praxis was central to one of the introductory lectures today. The professor teaching Foundations of Planning soon to be rechristened Planning History and Theory, offered some definitions of and connections between theory, history and planning. He framed his discussion by reacting to the notion that planning is a practical field, and a practical because the jobs are out there and people get things done in them. He stressed the essentiality of theory: practice doesn’t happen without it. They are part of a dynamic, dialogic relationship and ultimately inseparable. He defined theory very broadly as the way we narrativize our experience of the world, in other words one’s worldview. Theory, he said, is derived from history and from examining the evidence of history. I would add that the theories we embrace tends then to color the way we make sense of history; these too are profoundly intertwined.

Said professor made the case for the importance of history and theory to the practice of planning. While it is future-oriented, good planning needs to critically engage with the past and not simply adopt the dominant stories (history) and the sets of assumptions that accompany them (theories). He used the example of liberals dismissing tea partiers as idiots. That attitude won’t work for planning. You have to work to understand the history that created the deep ideological fault lines we deal with today. Planners don’t have the luxury of writing those folks off; understanding where their views are rooted is key to inviting them into a productive coalition. That one example is a huge challenge, one that I gestured towards in my last post which was admittedly not kind to the conservative champions of New Urbanism. I’ll revisit that post with a follow-up with that goal even more firmly in mind. I thought all of his points were great but I wondered if he perhaps had defined theory and history so generally that it was difficult to make a distinction between them, but that’s meant less a criticism than a way to keep thinking about the relationships among theory, history, and planning. The take-away here? The theory and the big visionary ideas are as important–and more so in the long run–than the “practical” skills like making GIS maps. He underscored the point by pointing out that Planning is an Enlightenment profession–in that is seeks to use rational science-based idea for change and reform–but that it also deeply Romantic in it’s concern for aesthetics, human emotion, and radical democracy. Again, a synthesis or dynamic interweaving of two ways of thinking. The general tenor and focus of his opening lecture resonated with a few remarks made by the professor who’s teaching the Quantitative Methods (statistics) course: When we’re working with numbers we’re really working with people and policy. It’s never just numbers. It’s never just rational method or scientific data. Those skills are key but not the raison d’être.


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