Practitioners in the academy are often an awkward fit. Professional education (e.g., landscape architecture) sits alongside natural science, social science, and humanities disciplines in university settings, and yet the culture of academic programs in the professions can differ sharply from the rest of the campus. Longer hours spent in studio classes, more time spent on outreach/service to communities, and research focused on applied problems are typical differences for faculty in professional design programs. Research productivity differences between practice-oriented faculty and faculty in other academic disciplines can be significant. On university campuses across the U.S., there is increasing demand by administrators for greater research output by all academic units, and these demands have created consternation in some landscape architecture circles. How do we maintain the traditional culture of professional education in landscape architecture and also begin to resemble more our research colleagues in natural science, social science, or the humanities?
The answer for some landscape architecture academics has been to adopt the research strategies of either natural science, social science, or the humanities, in some cases aided by Ph.D.s in a traditional research discipline. Urban and regional planning programs are largely populated with Ph.D.s in political science, economics, and other social sciences (usually with a lawyer thrown in for good measure), but with few faculty who have ever practiced planning. Could that be the future of landscape architecture education too? Some clues to another possible future after the break.
Creating a strong community of practice
Is there another route for increasing research productivity among landscape architecture faculty – a route that respects the practice-oriented nature of the discipline (or, speaking in a more limited sense, the practice-oriented nature of many faculty)? Answering that requires dwelling a bit longer on the current models of success. One over-simplified categorization might be the lone wolf researcher focusing most of his/her efforts on the publication of a book (perhaps THE book that is supposed to lead to tenure) versus the “research team” common in the natural sciences. On my campus, dominated by biological sciences, there are hardly any solo-authored publications produced in any given year; publications at ESF are almost all the result of team efforts, including work with graduate students. There are limitations, in my opinion, to both of these models. The lone wolf model requires an investment of time that can be incompatible with long hours of studio instruction. The team model conceivably lightens the load for the individual, but it requires getting on the team in the first place – harder if your practice-oriented discipline does not look like the others on the team. (Perhaps this is why I keep being asked if I am a social scientist, because those are in high demand now by for federal grant-seeking teams.)
A different kind of model, one that is not based on this solo vs team simplification, is one where a common activity of landscape architecture academics – service to communities – is refined in a way that makes peer-reviewed publication more possible. Participatory action research is the umbrella for much of this work. That is a step in the right direction, in my opinion, because it (searching for the right word) validates? and refines the contribution of what practitioner/professionally-oriented faculty do. It also can provide a mechanism for the kind of peer review that is so valued in the academy. There is some risk in this approach, though, in that there is not yet widespread acceptance of the idea of service-as-research, no matter how the work is conducted or the findings are packaged.
And that leads me to an emerging opportunity afforded to all of us through technology, but perhaps especially significant for design academics given their sometimes awkward fit as university researchers. The opportunity is to build “strong communities of practice” for landscape architecture academics with shared interests. An article in yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed, forwarded to me by my colleague Susan Dieterlen, advances the idea of communities of practice created through new approaches to electronic publication and, most importantly, refinement of research through dialogue with a broad range of reviewers, an interaction afforded by the Internet.
Zombies? That is the metaphor that Kathleen Fitzpatrick, author of the soon-to-be released Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, uses to describe the scholarly monograph. Fitzpatrick has some standing to critique the traditional approach to scholarship; she is the Modern Language Association’s director of scholarly communication. The article gives a good account of Fitzpatrick’s argument. Among her provocative assertions:
The scholarly press book, she writes, “is no longer a viable mode of communication … [yet] it is, in many fields, still required in order to get tenure. If anything, the scholarly monograph isn’t dead; it is undead.”
Here are two ideas Fitzpatrick proposes to kill for good: Peer review is necessary to maintaining the credibility of scholarly research and the institutions that support it; and publishing activity in peer-reviewed journals is the best gauge of a junior professor’s contribution to knowledge in her field. (S. Kolowich, Inside Higher Ed, 9-30-2011)
It is this notion that has resonance for me – the idea that new modes of scholarly communication can create “strong communities of practice,” fostering the development of landscape architecture research beyond the limited models we currently use.
If we are going to take full advantage of the new ways of working that digital technologies make available, scholars will have to consider the possibility that we can accomplish more collectively than we can alone. This is not to say that the individual voice [valued in the humanities] will be wholly subsumed within that of the Borg. Instead, it is meant to suggest that that voice will very often be found in more direct dialogue with other scholars, an interconnectedness that will make clear that, in fact, the individual voice that we so value has never been alone [it has always been built on the work of others].
The argument is for an “open, post-production review process” that “focuses on ‘how a scholarly text should be received rather than whether it should be out there in the first place’” (Kolowich). Fitzpatrick used such a process in the development of her own (maybe not zombie) book by placing the draft online for review using CommentPress. Fitzpatrick writes about this in the Journal of Electronic Publishing:
On July 25, 2007, the Institute for the Future of the Book released version 1.0 of CommentPress, a theme for WordPress that facilitates the web publication of lengthy documents in a fashion that is both internally and externally networked, and that allows for reader commenting and discussion at a level of granularity ranging from the document as a whole to the individual paragraph. The goal of CommentPress, as the project’s “about” page presents, stems from the desire“to see whether a popular net-native publishing form, the blog, which, most would agree, is very good at covering the present moment in pithy, conversational bursts but lousy at handling larger, slow-developing works requiring more than chronological organization—whether this form might be refashioned to enable social interaction around long-form texts.” (About CommentPress)
To the junior faculty member: don’t wait until after you have achieved the safety of tenure to take a chance on a new way of working; it might not be easy, but effort spent educating your senior colleagues about innovative modes of scholarly production will be effort well-spent. Seek out mentors and supporters, both within your institution and outside it, build a strong community of practice, get your work into open circulation, document the effects that work is having – and then teach the folks who are going to evaluate your work how to read it, and how to read the evidence of its effectiveness.