curriculum-as-lived

Today we hear from Associate Professor Suzie Attiwill, Deputy Dean Learning and Teaching in the School of Architecture and Design. Suzie offers us a response to a reflection by Professor Peter Corrigan, around curriculum-as-plan vs curriculum-as-lived.

The following article is composed of two parts. The first is a reflection by Professor Peter Corrigan, a distinguished professor in the School of Architecture and Design at RMIT University. The School’s Dean, Professor Richard Blythe invited him to “prepare a short reflection on his view of a university, calling on his own experiences as a student and also on his extensive experience as an inspirational lecturer and professor”. Richard then invited Peter to present his reflection to the School’s senior leadership group as part of the School’s strategic planning. Following this, each member of the group was asked to write a short response.

The purpose of this process, Richard notes, was “to remind us all of the core values of tertiary institutions and what it is, above all else, that we should be striving to achieve”. It is an important time for these kinds of reflections because universities are in a period of rapid change and every one of us, students included, need to be thinking about the consequences, what we value, and where we would like to end up.

The second part is my response – an inflection as Deputy Dean of Learning & Teaching and an associate professor of Interior Design. As the academic year draws to a close – almost! – this article is poised as an extended invitation to other colleagues to reflect on what we are trying to achieve.

University Reflections: a paper by Professor Peter Corrigan   

Recently when I was approached to consider my university days and reflect on my teaching method, I was reminded of Vladimir Nabokov’s remark that “MEMORY IS MERELY A TOY SOLD WITH A KEY”. All I can offer are opinions which are entirely personal.

At this year’s Venice Biennale, the question was asked “has neo-liberalism caused architecture to lose its moral mission?” In other words, have the architects lost touch with the responsibilities of yesteryear and thrown in their lot with developers, entrepreneurs and multinational corporations? Is the architect simply pursuing a narrow aesthetics at the expense of history, culture and context? We recognize that this is the world of cost–benefit ratios, of public interest versus the private gain. My education led me to believe that ideas would shape the world I would come to inhabit.

As a young man, I received a Commonwealth Government Scholarship and travelled daily by tram from St Kilda to the university (where I was surprised to discover that some students owned cars). Then, the undergraduate architecture degree was a six-year program. The Student Union possessed a very large room containing twelve billiard tables where I spent many dreaming hours sitting in the shadows on banquettes watching what I took to be mature men (often law students who play football) engrossed in competition beneath clouds of cigarette smoke. In this building there was a room given over entirely to the reading of magazine and newspapers, another room was dedicated to the game of chess, and yet others enabled students to listen to recorded music. Rooms were set aside for the playing of musical instruments and a very large space called The Student Lounge allowed for private discussions and the playing of cards. An enormous cloakroom with attendants guaranteed the secure daily storage of personal items and also enabled luxuries such as cameras and cricket bats to be borrowed. Shoes would be cleaned upon request. The engine room of the Union was a vast cafeteria which provided three cheap home cooked meals a day (with daily specials) and incidental home cooked snacks for between times. Above the cafeteria sat an equally large ballroom which was given over to dancing, concerts or large and splendid dinners. There were of course generous-sized toilets, wash-rooms, a laundry and showers. There were meeting rooms, a 500-seat fully operational live theatre-cum-cinema with a fly tower containing twenty five lines and a capacious workshop in the rear, with large dressing rooms located below stage. Students took all of this, plus an art gallery and a bookshop, for granted.

The next academic institution I attended was Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and here the facilities available to the student body quite shocked me. The Beinecke Rare Book Library (by Gordon Bunshaft of SOM), the Colleges, the Gothic gymnasium (with its competitive swimming pools and basketball courts), the hockey rink (by Eero Saarinen) and the art gallery by Louis Kahn were just the start of it. But these and other extravagances, however, were trumped by the eighteen-hole golf course which I found hard to believe even existed, until I visited it and was told by the resident professional (in a luxurious nineteenth hole shop) that on a busy day, at least 12 students played the fairways. In my first year in the Architecture and Design building, I was surprised by the generous service in its cafeteria and the existence of a nurse in a medical room.  But I did occasionally nap on a lounge on the roof terrace and I marvelled at the size of the in-house library. In my first year I became ill (from the excessive consumption of food and drink) at a Thanksgiving dinner given by an exuberant Italian American family. I was taken to the Yale infirmary, a boutique hospital exclusively given over to students, where I remained for three days. The following year I badly gashed my leg, while crossing Central Park at night, after attending the Rockefeller Center. I was returned to the infirmary where the ugly wound was treated with antibiotics and the latest technology, including a sterile staple gun fresh from the killing fields of Vietnam. Again I was put to bed for three days. All this care was again free of charge. The food, the clean sheets, the peace and quiet, still shine in my memory. I felt a duty of care being enacted.

Lately I have noticed that when I’m under my morning shower and thinking back over this particularly unsettling incident, the scar on my right leg, below the knee starts to throb and I realize that I have turned the key in that particular memory box. These buildings and their floor plans can still be recalled; they remain part of the furniture of my mind. At the time they offered security and identity; they gave promise of a future.

But in the end, it was the intellectual communities that shaped me. At Melbourne, I still vividly remember the political activist and poet (and there did seem to be a natural confluence between politics and culture then), Vincent Buckley. He was a small man with a large head and a commanding presence, who was often to be seen striding across the campus to his room in the Old Arts Building, trailing a retinue who hung on his every casual judgement on “how should we live”. Buckley haunted Carlton’s hotels, its student parties, and academic conferences.  He couldn’t resist a racehorse (“Peter, in Ireland they race around in the opposite direction, and there are no grand stands”). He revelled in life’s contradictions but always seemed at ease. But his relationship to his wife and children, however, always puzzled me. As if intimacy was always a vulnerable and enigmatic thing for him.

Vincent Buckley and his circle, those public intellectuals, those men and women of letters who lived in the service of ideas, seeded ideas into our young lives for us to reflect upon then. Was life really a meaningless experience or not? How do we make sense of the implausible? Students were encouraged to take on intellectual lives in order to prepare for responsible futures. Knowledge, (and ideas) were not simply designed to improve us in a practical or commercial sense. It was valued for its own sake; there was no essential justification for the life of the mind. Our values were informed by our exposure to better minds, minds that knew more than we did, from whom we could learn. And eventually experience would bring our values into sharp relief. These hard won values would eventually form the basis for our life’s decisions, the personal and professional, the good along with the bad.  

An elite university training in an ivory tower confirmed my sense of VOCATION. It also sharpened my CLASS HACKLES. It identified a circle of FRIENDS. It informed my TASTE. It firmly established a sense of SELF. And to this day, these attributes for better or for worse have shaped my architectural practice and my teaching. My university education of yesteryear was designed to prepare me to enter a SOCIETY. Today, our universities prepare students to enter an ECONOMY, and what a world of difference there is between these two things.  

My university education taught me to understand that we think with words and that we need to develop an expansive vocabulary to gain entry to the world of letters and conversation, if we aspire to have minds that can deliver content with authority. Nowadays, conversation seems to be in decline while we inhabit a pictorial world of short attention spans.

My university education gave me a sense of boundaries which also, provided me with a reassuring sense of identity. Today, boundaries and the security that goes with them are far less in evidence.  

My university education encouraged me to develop an inner life: an inner reflective life, that sometimes gave pause, and perhaps even, on occasion, the beginnings of patience.

A CODA

Today’s universities are engaged in an amenities arms race. The University of Technology Sydney in New South Wales recently built a Frank Gehry building, and it is hard not to see this as a public exercise.  

Those employed in university administration now outnumber those employed in teaching and research, which is unnerving, particularly as the bureaucratic burden on academics has also increased.

We live on a large island (considerably larger than Europe) that is remarkably endowed with natural and agricultural resources and we have a small diverse population. With reasonable management and a degree of good fortune, we should have a bright future.

But to fulfil this promise, we need to reconsider the University Project and its present priorities should be examined. We need to look at the values that underlay these priceless institutions otherwise our universities will lose their way. They cannot afford to lose the respect of the society they are meant to serve.

Thank you.

Peter Corrigan

16th December 2014

some notes in response to Peter Corrigan’s text

Suzie Attiwill

An idea of life courses through Peter’s writing. He remarks, in conclusion, “my university education encouraged me to develop an inner life. An inner reflective life, that sometimes gave pause, and perhaps even, on occasion, the beginnings of patience”.

Much of his paper discusses spatial and temporal relations with rooms (many of which are described as vast volumes). These encounters make close distant events (such as “the sterile staple gun fresh from the killing fields of Vietnam” that was used to repair an “ugly wound” and continues to “throb” in the present when he thinks back). There is also reference to an intellectual engagement with questions of “how should we live”.

This focus on life connects with something I was reading recently: “The question of how a life might go is intimate to the fundamental problematic of education …. The word ‘curriculum’ relates to currere and is implicitly concerned with the ways in which the course of ‘a’ life might be composed”.

Experience also permeates Peter’s text. Smells, sounds, volumes, people, programs, numbers of things (billiard tables, lines in the fly tower). Atmosphere. Experience continues to be significant in relation to education, and student experience is a key priority for RMIT.

There is a tendency to understand experience as produced by a centred subject. I’m interested in thinking experience as coming before the individual, through a concept of experience that does not limit experience to the individual but instead addresses the experiential world, an art of pedagogy that is more-than-personal (a quote from the reading I mention above), an approach that opens up ways of thinking and attending to student experience other than placing ‘you’ at centre.

be true

Be true to you Latrobe Street building scaffolding, RMIT University, 4 February 2015. Photograph: Suzie Attiwill Enrol Now / Rule Your World Melbourne Polytechnic advertising, Montague Street under City Link Bridge, 21 January 2015. Photograph: Suzie Attiwill

This involves a shift from a subject/object dichotomy to one focussed on relations; an ecological thinking which attends to social, mental, spatial, temporal, material, immaterial relations. This brings in the idea of institution as a process of instituting – attending to the set-up within which relations can be made.

There are different kinds of set-ups, and a distinction in education can be made between the curriculum-as-plan and the curriculum-as-lived.

These thoughts make another connection with Peter’s reflections – in particular, his critique of the shift from a social to economic model in education. In the move to a business model based on an economy of commerce/ commercial/ commercialization, there is an emphasis on standardization and normalization where everything is testable and assessable, where every attempt is made to erase the unpredictable and unknown.

The curriculum-as-plan is a product of this shift from the social to the commercial. Curriculum-as-lived is another matter. The “question of how a life might go” courses through our learning and teaching and the lives of our faculty.

Reference: Jason Wallin (2013). Morphologies for a Pedagogical Life. In I. Semetsky & D. Masny (Eds.), Deleuze and Education. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press