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The Diary of an Anonymous Academic #2

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The second in a new series about the unreported trials and tribulations from the frontline of architectural education. This week: the crits

‘I hate this bit.’  – student just before presenting

This week I’ve the pleasure to be scheduled in for three separate reviews in just five days.

Day One. I arrive early at another university campus to what I assume is the studio for the group getting ready to present. But up to now, nobody has paid attention to me because nobody knows who I am yet. For today I am a guest critic. The anonymity is satisfying. I’m looking forward to the day ahead being allowed to criticise, sorry, critique the student’s work without having to deal with the fallout afterwards. It is a rare joy.

I’m looking forward to the day ahead without having to deal with the fallout afterwards

I say my piece after every student. I engage in the debate, enjoy flexing my cultural awareness and show off my knowledge of current affairs. I am not doing anything here for the stereotype of my fellow tutors am I?

Day Two. Back at my regular university, I join the postgraduate reviews but this time someone else is the guest. I’m relieved to get away with talking less today, I scribble down some notes instead and notionally jot down some ‘ideas’ for a grade.

I think about the crit from the day before; are my students better than those I saw yesterday? I would like to think so but it’s difficult to tell. Damn, I’ve missed what he said. I hope it wasn’t important. Must concentrate.

It’s the end of the day and the guest tutor is more interested in a drink

It’s the end of the day and the guest tutor is more interested in a drink. I already have an idea of grades, so I let him go. He would only talk more about his own students anyway.

Day Five. Today I am to critique my own undergrad students. I’m far more precise, proactive but also more easily frustrated. I need to be because I want them to do well. The day doesn’t go to plan. It’s not just my group but the entire year cohort has exposed real weaknesses in their projects. As the year leader, I feel it all falling on my shoulders.

So, three crits in five days… what can I learn from this experience? Nothing new I guess. The stereotypes of the student and tutor are too strong to find any nuances deviating from it.

It is not until we have a guest speaker talking about his practice’s portfolio where he makes the point to the student audience that it is the crit system that gives architecture students an edge over many other disciplines. Yet only days ago another recent guest speaker said he did not want to employ any more students from a ‘prestigious school’ because of their unwavering self-belief in what they do – even if, in the example given, they were clearly wrong.

How often is a crit a true debate though?

I think about this contradiction. Both are referring to an issue of confidence, one that is instilled in students during their education. The verbal offensive received by students in a crit is clearly a contributing factor in this. It allows you to reflect on your mistakes, toughens your skin, and teaches you how to debate. Of sorts.

How often is a crit a true debate though? In reality, it is far more divisive between two people’s ideals of what the architecture on the wall should be. For those who survive the ordeal, it may give them an edge, but with that, a concerning overabundance of self-importance.

Online articles, blogs, and all the comments that come with them, continues this practice.

Two examples; the reaction to Kibwe Tavares’s Robots of Brixton winning the President’s Silver Medal, and Patrick Schumacher’s review of the British architectural education system. Look at the comments…

…It gets annoying how many times a professional states how poorly prepared graduates are. It’s the equivalent of an academic ranting how offensive some of their buildings are. ‘What do they teach you at school these days?’ is the classic statement they always get asked.

Door schedules are not interesting at the best of times. We certainly won’t be devoting an entire lecture on it.

We all should remember it is an education in architecture and not just in [becoming an] architect.

The complexity of real life just cannot be matched in academia

Firstly, design is very hard to teach. Secondly, employed placements are part of the learning process – that is what they are for. The complexity of real life just cannot be matched in academia. So the issue of confidence should be to develop a belief to apply knowledge into practice whatever the situation, rather than the ability to argue the toss about something irrelevant.

Strangely I find myself defending Schumacher’s opinion though. Enforcing students as designers of dystopia and allegory is quite arrogant. But equally, preparing them to just be architects is misguided and limiting. Statistically speaking, more than half of all new entrants will do something else anyway so I see our role to do more than that.

Not everyone is naturally talented, not everyone will get it. For these students, it is simply about raising their potential.

The crit plays its part strengthening the good students. It is used far too destructively however to separate them from those who may need more supportive guidance. As a guest critic, it is too easy too ignore the responsibility of a tutor, particularly if you have been invited for your knowledge and expertise, not your empathy.

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