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The Diary of an Anonymous Academic #6

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The sixth in a series about the unreported trials and tribulations from the frontline of architectural education. This week: Research

  • Hairdresser: ‘So what do you do?’
  • Tutor: ‘I’m a lecturer.’
  • Hairdresser: ‘That’s good. I’d love to have all that holiday.’

Such banal conversations while at the salon can reveal preconceptions of what people think of your profession.

Contrary to my hairdresser’s belief, we don’t spend all our summer on holiday but I am writing this article just before I leave for my vacation – for a modest two weeks. Hence the haircut.

I wonder where this stereotype comes from. In my (relatively short) time as an academic, I’ve not had any extensive periods on leave and neither do my colleagues. I feel the answer lies in with the students’ hearsay.

It must seem like we are always away

Our working hours are flexible. When we are not teaching we are researching. And when we are researching, we tend not to be in our office. We ‘research’ anywhere but our office, so to a student it must seem like we are always away.

It doesn’t help that research as an activity is so ambiguous, a student will puzzle over why we are out of office so often. I know I did when I was a student.

Research remains a pre-requisite for most academics for two reasons: firstly, to continually improve and update the curriculum; secondly, to provide income which helps the department to build their teaching resources – or remain afloat in some cases.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) allocates funding to all universities based on their output in the previous five years. This allocation follows an assessment exercise to underline the standard of research achieved in peer-review journals, conferences, books and exhibitions amongst other outlets.

We can use the money allocated to elite sports for the Olympics as a timely analogy. The more successful the return is (in gold), the more funding that sport receives in the subsequent four-year cycle.

However, while the 2012 Games have been on, debates on Newsnight attempt to address how this funding does not just remain in elitist circles but influence investment in grass-root sports.

If it takes a global event and £12billion to start this debate in sport, then there is no chance for the same questions to be asked in academia.

The REF ‘Olympics’ include how many pieces of paper we can push around

Our research ‘Olympics’ is called the Research Excellence Framework (REF) with HEFCE as the host city. The next one is in 2014. Sports include: how many pieces of paper we can push around, counting how many times our work has been referenced and quickest time for writing the 200-word bio. We have already started our training for it (form filling).

The research funding allocation model is rigid and completed as a retrospective assessment, which tries to categorise the quality of your research. It does not help institutions to actually improve their research, more a self-appraisal.

And it doesn’t do much to break the stereotype of academics in a cupboard (office) - you are assessed as individuals regardless whether the work was a collaborative project. No team sports here please.

One of the most difficult things to get your head around is that not all research is selected for review; only ‘world leading’ or ‘international standard’ categories are submitted for assessment.

So my research for a lecture I am to present to my undergrads this forthcoming year, one which I have been working on for a considerable amount of time, does not count as official research –because, it will only be used for…teaching [shock-horror, clasp hand around mouth].

Designing and delivering a curriculum is a time consuming job on its own, so we are forced to be creative if we want to remain research active. Thus, many schools of architecture are moving away from elitist research outputs, particularly those in institutions as former polytechnics.

Instead, a new form of research has begun to rise in popularity – applied research. It is well suited to our discipline because it reflects the nature of the discipline in a profession context. If you are unsure of examples of ‘applied research’ then I imagine you would have heard of ‘live projects’.

Live projects are popping up all over the place, with pop-up as an apt term. Temporary architecture is one of the main typologies for such projects. An academic can generate a significant amount of research from a live project, even if nothing gets built.

And, if they are anything like me, academics need a creative outlet to soften the frustrated architect/designer within them. A cynic may interpret this as using students designs for an academic’s own gain. Jeremy Till apologises for this in the acknowledgements in Architecture Depends and rightly so.

Students should be made aware of why academics use and abuse students ideas or skills. Part necessity, part desire to have a working relationship (rather than a conventional teacher-pupil one), part efficiency – if a resource is waiting to be tapped into, then tap it.

But to justify Till’s acknowledgement, research need to be clearly defined - demystified even, to both students and professionals outside of academia to articulate why research is necessary and how everyone benefits from it.

Research is the one thing that universities can afford to do, and specialise in providing knowledge, understanding and innovation. Applied research may be the way forward.

The danger is if we start to see this as a revelation in architectural education and start labeling the practice of architecture as research.[1] Take this too far and it could turn the curriculum into a rehearsal for time in the office.

But overall, I see this in the most positive way. There is another benefit; this trend can provide an opportunity to start reconciling the divide between academia and practice in dealing with the common ground they share. We then may be a bit more appreciative of each other’s strengths, and work together on our weaknesses.

[1] Austin Williams (2005) The academics of the madhouse, AJ no.12 v221

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