Stuff Engineering Students Like: Episode 2 Dangerous Minds

The final part of this two-part post on the Politics and Ethics of Global Practice is about ambivalence: my uneasy feeling that trying to teach what you have learned through practice (a.k.a. blunders) may not be possible or desirable.

This first struck me when I started showing, in lectures and seminars, some of the films made by Alison Killing as part of our RIBA-funded project (re)constructing the city.

This film, in particular, was one that I used to transition from the ethical (how do you evaluate? what variables? what values? what formulae? what trade-offs? what consequences?) to the political (is it you that should evaluate?).

Learning comes about: it is not an outcome

I find this film both incredibly compelling and incredibly troubling (see for yourselves). But others seem more compelled than troubled: where I was expecting shock and criticism, I've had people ask how to get a job like the ones in the film.

So, I stopped showing it. Although I wanted students to learn through practice and exposure to alternatives, when that exposure was via the medium of film, I did not like what was being learnt!

The responses it provoked - like Frankenstein's monster - were unintended and uncontrollable: producing very different, unpredictable and emotional reactions to those of my beloved diagrams and exercises. This all fits in with a particular idea and format of teaching: learning outcomes are decided ahead of time, delivery is didactic and, while I may be accountable, I am also somehow in charge. INGO-ers will be familiar with this rubric... and with the participatory alternatives that are supposed to remedy it.

Privileging the familiar

The original intention of making the films was to show heavyweight Haitian urbanists and politicians challenging the action and legitimacy of the organisations that had entered Port-au-Prince after the earthquake. Instead, the stories were told by our compatriots or thirty-something peers. It shows just how difficult it is not to privilege the familiar when there is limited time to build the trust needed to get other voices on camera.

This privileging of the familiar is a paradox not only of professional practice but also of pedagogy: we do it and our students do it. It's not enough to rely on peer-based learning, project or scenario based learning to address all the exploratory and social aspects of professional practice. We also need to create opportunities for students to observe and question the gender, class and race dynamics that play out in the lecture room.

Privileging the protagonists

My sense is that the reactions to this film are not only about familiarity. There also seems to be a tendency to identify with the apparent protagonists.

This might just be me - after all I wanted to be an engineer because of MacGyver, the A-team, AirWolf and Maggie Philbin - quintessential heroes of eighties TV. Or, it might be that people who choose engineering assume that being an engineer will satisfy some kind of protagonist urge.

To fixate on the talking heads might be a pathway to empathy and alternative perspectives but this depends on who is talking and what excites the viewer. And it needn't be people. Technology provokes the same hypnosis. Last term, first year students had to build mini-hydro-electric power stations. Their final task was to work out the flow rate of water through the system using a measuring jug and stopwatch. When a digital flow meter was unveiled to repeat the tests, they discarded their measurements in favour of the laptop screen: this had to be better than their own hands, right? We said over and over again that the device had not been calibrated because of an equipment problem. It would show a pattern but no quantities. Like an untuned guitar, even played perfectly it would churn out nonsense.

This magpie instinct to privilege the shiny, the innovative and the heroic seems to be at the expense of trusting hands, eyes and just clunky, everyday stuff.

Privileging the written

Speaking of clunky, you might notice that my previous post - built around images and diagrams rather than text - was a bit more fluent than this one. By sketching out an array of teaching materials, I've been trying to show:

  • how much I love to "taxonomise" the world before writing anything
  • that the habit and joys of ordering help some people feel fluent and might even mean more or different types of people are able to share and then challenge an idea
  • that this way of trying to organise things gets messy when we're are told stories, when we're hearing narratives rather than tracing out systems

This is not an argument for stories over diagrams or vice versa. It is an argument that having recourse to only one way of knowing is narrow. This narrowness, though, seems to permeate academic and pedagogical formulae and to privilege the written.

Our discourse analysis work suggested that urban and humanitarian professionals also appear to do this. When asked to draw, some workshop participants, even those for whom drawing was a profession, rejected it as a way of coming to know things. Participants talked about drafting written policies without flinching but would not countenance drafting a drawing. While there was an unconcerned professional illiteracy with forms of information other than text, expecting 'beneficiaries' to draw maps was the participatory tool of choice. Curiously, when participants did examine aerial photos of a neighbourhood they had to forget, in some way, the assumption of their prior knowledge and expertise.

To ponder this, I like to go back to Matthew Crawford's suggestion (2012) that drawing requires

"that you short-circuit your normal mode of perception, which is less data-driven than concept-driven"... "trying to attend to the visual data more directly" (Crawford, p91-93).

It makes me think that maybe there is room for any discipline to accept other ways of coming to know and to become more comfortable or open to knowing nothing.


Practice makes....

Discussions on the theme of urban practice and pedagogy are due to follow this first UCL Urban Lab session on politics and ethics. These are intimately and ambivalently intertwined around how we collectively generate and pass on knowledge. And how, more mysteriously, we seem to lose track of our mistakes along the way, as they are wrapped into the rote of our own disciplines.

When I say that the production of films made me feel like Frankenstein, it's because the whole enterprise of working with an urban designer showed me that making, for other disciplines (designing space, producing a film), is, necessarily, also a commitment to the possibility of making mistakes.

My ambivalence is that, obviously, if you love to get stuff done, stuff is made. This seems to lead to a brand of mischief that is anathema to both civil engineering and the project cycles built into humanitarian response:

“Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent -- he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.” (von Hammerstein, 1878-1943).

While some engineering disciplines are placing renewed emphasis on design though iteration, prototyping and agility and the humanitarian discourse is preoccupied with innovation, the concern, it seems to me, is whether these procedures can avoid the narrow, privileging processes that start much earlier.

Appetites urge...

"When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail"

Throwing the 'diligence' out with the bathwater, however, disguises a deeper protagonism problem: it is the very sense of power and of works to be accomplished, that reveals a certain set of seemingly surmountable problems.

My ambivalence is that I can't believe this is all bad! I've felt and, I think, shared the compulsion and euphoria associated with design and making in the rising after disaster. And I've come to wonder whether critics from text-based disciplines overlook the joy, commitment, mistakes, concerted imitation and dignity in the human appetite for technological fixes and expertise...

Maybe, it's ok to get stuck in if we try to be actively conscious. Or, we could keep reminding ourselves that being keen or feeling potent makes us see (only) problems we think we can and should (by virtue of being potent) solve.

But is it enough to "pass the stick", observe the room, reflect on the discourse?

Or should we leave the room?

Is it enough to be told or reminded that interfering in things or places that were already made is an intervention into a social and political process? Or do we need a closer examination of our discipline and the people bound to pursue it?

So what to do?!

I look at our curriculum and the way it is organised and I think our students are really lucky. They are taught by a dedicated, diverse staff. They get to work on safe, simulated projects that force them to apply what they know, work with each other and produce all sorts of written, drawn and spoken material.

The two things that nag at me are that all the scenarios and contexts don't necessarily get us away from 'solutionism' and a strange, unquestioning confidence in "the algorithm", especially once it is hidden in a computer and can churn out results.

What I'd like is to be able to model, through teaching, a professional ethos that:

  • is ready to do nothing or shut up;
  • questions the 'why' of its categorisations and realises these are political as well as technical;
  • accepts what cannot be known and
  • acknowledges what is missed, unsatisfying, inconclusive or tragic - inherently contradictory (from Daniel Miller's chatper on housing in the book Stuff)
  • can sometimes resort to narrative but acknowledges whose stories are interwoven and whose evidence is being marshalled;
  • somehow uses observation and discussion, images and exercises to unearth and confront disparities of power during professional encounters, distracting people from what they assume to be their own prior expertise and know-how

And I keep coming back to this thing about making mistakes: making, as in getting our hands on actual material; and mistakes, as in failing to find the right answer or recognising there might not be a right answer that we - because of where we come from and who we are - can or should find.

Only modest repairs to teaching and practice then!

Something along the lines of Matthew Crawford's 'stochastic art' (after Aristotle):

"Mastery [of a stochastic art] is compatible with failure to achieve its end....This experience of failure tempers the conceit of mastery ... In diagnosing and fixing things made by others, one is confronted with obscurities, and must remain constantly open to the signs by which they reveal themselves."