Randy Crane and academic preparation at the hands of economists

Randy Crane, editor of Journal of the American Planning Association, UCLA luminary, and my much-beloved-on-his-good-days advisor has got some new blog posts up. Since Randy is both an excellent writer and a sharp wit, it’s always worth stopping by to read. He is also a smart alec, and it was fun to read his take on the overblown rhetoric from a leading New Urbanist about the rigors of architecture studio education:

Architectural training involves getting past years of withering assaults by very articulate, arrogant opponents, each telling you that your ideas are weak if not shamefull, and indeed now that they think about it, you too are weak if not shameful. An architect can only survive by learning to successfully defend each and every idea they put forth, evidence be damned. Laypeople might well think that successful architecture is about who has the prettiest pictures, but it is more about who can convince others that their pretty picture is the best solution to the design problem at hand. Architecture is therefore fundamentally about (a) subjective originality and (b) the ability to sell each vision, based on little more than the individual architect’s personal strategy and personality. Those who survive either have popular ideas, or learn to defend their unpopular ideas. In the end, successful architects have immense confidence based on little more than a popularity contest favoring their subjective take on the issue at hand. More than many other professions, each architect has survived both American Idol and Survivor. So, yes, they do think quite a lot of themselves. Why shouldn’t they?)

Randy’s response is classic Randy:

When architects and social scientists debate a policy issue, any disagreement is among unequals. On one side is the American Idol winner; on the other is just some untrained heathen, no matter their credentials.

link: urban planning research » Blog Archive » Smart Growth and One of Its Mad Men

Therein resides the hubris of just about every academic or professional discipline unless we are careful to stop and think. It’s way too easy, when immersed in your own discipline, to decide based on the intro gen ed courses you are required to take as undergraduates that other disciplines are soft food while you yourself are being forged into the toughest of steel progressing through yours.

To wit: many people who have their doubts about the New Urbanism are products either of engineering or economics PhD programs, or some ilk thereof. In case you haven’t checked in, these are not academic programs known for being particularly nice to graduate students.

In case anybody needs proof, I would like to describe one such lovable economist who taught me at one of my various graduate programs. I shall not name names, as she is still in existence, and I still fear her, frankly, more than I fear death.

This woman–who I suspect isn’t really a human but an alien from, like, another planet inhabited by cannibals–is an eastern European economist who is not entirely unknown in game theory circles. Now, I am sure there are many fine eastern Europeans in the world; gentle, soft-spoken, reasonable souls every one. She was not among them. She had no concept of the term “inside voice.” She possessed every single bit of the Mediterranean temperament prone to causing minor car wrecks just so that one can have a good, pore-cleansing, fist-shaking argument over it.

She was the instructor for the second semester of game theory at the PhD level, which for the initiated is *wickedly hard* for people who have not won their country’s chess championship at the age of 15, as I believe she did. Even for those of us who enjoyed game theory, this class was steeped heavy in the lore of the university as a soul-crushing amount of work coupled with the very high likelihood of public humiliation at her hands.

Week after week, enclosed in a small, hot classroom, we small band of brothers came together for our weekly public, pants-down flogging conducted in a voice so loud it split your eardrums, carved the proof of your incompetence into your brain, and carried down the halls of the department for all the world to hear.

I was a special challenge to her, too. I was the only woman in the class, and I was mouthy as all hell (yes, I know that wasn’t exactly a brilliant strategy, yes, but… I was young). She Who Must Crush Students had a special apparent desire to put her heel on my temple and stomp as hard as she could.

The first time it happened to me, my urbane, kindly super-famous econometrics instructor, after hearing me get dressed down and seeing me with my head down at the local coffee shop, sat down, put his arm around me and said “Well, kiddo, this class is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer. It feels good when it’s over.” He stopped and gave me his dazzling smile: “At least if she’s yelling at you guys she’s not yelling at me.”

I have many of these stories–as many as any architect. My nonlinear optimization class. Holy Shit. Taught by an absolutely wonderful man, a German mathematician, who was very kindly but who nonetheless saw no need to pass you if you weren’t qualified, no matter how sad your story was or how hard you tried.

So, no, architects don’t get to claim that they are special in the toughness of their apprenticeship process. There are a lot of smart, well-trained, very persistent people in the world coming from a variety of perspectives. That’s the great thing about scholarly debate when it is taken seriously.

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