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The Diary of an Anonymous Academic #7

The seventh in a series about the unreported trials and tribulations from the frontline of architectural education. This week: Pop(ularity)

First year student: ‘how long have you lived here for?’
Tutor: ‘a while.’
First year student: ‘what nightclubs would you recommend?’

 

For several years now, the end of the summer means only one thing… not just the start of a new student year, but the return of the X Factor. I am quite a fan.

It’s perhaps not quite the high-brow TV programme you’d expect an academic to watch and as much as I hate its banality, I can’t help but think how on earth is this show so popular?

It is this notion that intrigues me most, and the reason why I keep watching it.

I have perversely found some tenuous similarities between the X Factor and the process a student goes through as their architectural education…

  • firstly, you pitch your initial talent in front of some experts
  • practice your skills and perform in front of an audience
  • your work gets judged, harshly, by a jury panel
  • you receive guidance by some invited guests
  • once you become rich and famous, you are invited back as a judge.

This analogy uses a reference in popular culture to easily construct a scenario to get a point across.

Other linguistic tools such as metaphors, anecdotes and similes are one of the most effective ways to communicate complex, and often profound, philosophical design principles to students, which are otherwise untenable to them.

You always remember key points from your own education, often communicated with the use of such language. They may not necessarily be a particular lecture or piece of coursework. The most vivid and influential moments in one’s education are the informal modes of learning, the small hints and tips, conversations that really question your perspective on something.

For it to work however, popular culture needs to be employed because you need to open up metaphorical ‘doors’ to allow students a way in to understand something new from something you are already aware of.  For if it was that easy, then everybody would be good at it – and ‘it’ can be anything: technology, design, drawing, theory, and so on.

There are a few protagonists of this approach that I keenly take precedent on. Firstly, architectural historian Reyner Banham, entwining cultural and social shifts in urban society using pop culture as evidence (see his biopic of Los Angeles in The Four Ecologies). The other is Jeremy Till, who effortlessly cuts through all the conditions of being an architect/academic today, offering a very acute observation of the discipline.

Their writing is fluid, accessible but yet to the point. It also helps personify the authors, which makes their words more believable. A similar thing occurs when teaching.

Sometimes, a traditional teacher-pupil role is not very productive and their studies can be perceived as work rather than an education.  If students believe in you (and not necessarily your experience), their aspirations dramatically shift with an application of a simple strategy - raising your own expectations from them.

There is nothing wrong with mediocrity, in fact it should be embraced

Let me now seamlessly link this back to the X Factor. The show’s popularity lies in the ability to appeal to the largest mass rather than everyone. So this tells us that most people are into mediocrity right?  It seems like the show pervades all parts of the media, but again because the media is appealing to the largest mass.

There is nothing wrong with mediocrity, in fact it should be embraced. But crucially, we should be aware of it ‘critically’ to be able to reflect on the desires, patterns and trends of people today. Clearly this is important to architectural design – understanding popular and current* culture as well as the sophisticated stuff.

Which is why an academic should not be snobbish about what they watch on tv because purposefully rejecting such banal entertainment can and will make you feel out of touch.

When teaching a large group of students, inevitably, a large proportion will be into such entertainment. You can enter their circle with your knowledge of such culture, create a common ground to build a rapport on, then start to inspire their thinking by slowly opening metaphorical ‘doors’ to great artistic endeavors in film, music, fine art, design, and finally, architecture.

Our new intake of students started the course last week. Every year, they consistently show a lack of awareness on anything other than what popular media has fed them. This is not a criticism, nor do I believe in this argument of because they are the iPod generation. It’s just the way it is. How many of us were truly cultured when just 18 years old - even before the iPod was invented?

I feel my sphere on influence will have a greater effect with an understanding of how to advance thinking to the largest mass and not just focus on the elite – they may just become academics anyway.

Academia breeds academics, isolating others who do not want to be academics. Imagine instead if academia breeds originality in everyone. I shall be watching the next episode this weekend, whilst reading up on some obscure architectural theory.

* ‘current’ a word often used by Simon Cowell when referring to an act that fits into, er… current music trends.

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