Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Romancing the Course

While the rest of Melbourne visits the Cup today, I thought I’d come in to a gloriously empty office and get a bit of systematic work done. The first task on the agenda this morning is thinking about the organising principles for the postgraduate Planning Theory course, which, as I’ve mentioned previously, is currently being redesigned to (1) update the reading selections and (2) expand and deepen the theoretical material taught through the course, given that the creation of a new mandatory planning history course means that the theory course no longer needs to double as an intro to planning history.

In its current incarnation, the course is organised chronologically and thematically, with representative themes from each era chosen for each week, and with weeks gradually moving from the late 19th century toward the present. The course reader includes four or more reading selections for each week – one “common” reading, which all students must read, and a selection of other readings from which each student must choose at least one. Prior to each class, students submit brief reviews of that week’s readings to an online discussion forum, and then come to class to discuss those reviews and other reactions to the readings. The course also requires students to submit a larger essay at the end of the term.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been involved in an undergraduate version of this same course, which I redesigned this year. Since the course covers such a sweep of history, I thought it was important to “hang” the course material on an overarching metanarrative that would enable students to orient themselves in intellectual and social history as they engaged with specific theoretical works. For the undergraduate version of the course, the metanarrative I used was, essentially, the story of how planning – emerging as a discipline out of the transformation away from laissez faire capitalism in the late 19th century – came to be closely bound with the broader discourses of “planning” associated with the rise of the welfare state – and was then caught in the undertow created by the crisis of the welfare state, leaving the planning discipline struggling to redefine its identity and purpose in a more market-centred era.

I think this narrative was servicable – certainly for the undergraduate course – but I’m not sure that this is the narrative I want to build into the postgraduate version (or, for that matter, into the undergraduate course when I teach it next term…). I may retain it, but I’m also playing around with the notion of tracking a few overarching philosophical themes through the postgraduate course (particularly given that there is some desire that this course be a “hard” course – one that stretches the students intellectually). One preliminary thought (and I’ll apologise in advance here for what is likely to be a somewhat cringe-worthy over-simplification of several centuries of intellectual and social history…) is to organise the course as an exploration of themes of liberalism and romanticism as they play themselves out through intellectual and social movements from the late 18th century – an approach that would seek to give the students at least an introductory knowledge of these concepts, and sufficient experience to track the ways in which these concepts run through major intellectual and social conflicts in different historical periods.

I am not, however, the sole decision-maker on the course structure and content (among other things, this is not “my” course – I’ve taught into it, but the course is coordinated by a much more senior staff member, who will need to feel comfortable with the material, as they will be primarily responsible for delivering the course and dealing with any problems that arise from it; the coordinator for the postgraduate coursework program also has a vested interest in the direction in which this course develops). This collaborative situation has led to some interesting and generally quite productive debates on what we are trying to achieve through this course. Somewhat surprisingly – given the range of different issues on which we needed to achieve some consensus at the start – the most persistant debate has revolved around the prospect of including explicit discussion of a romantic intellectual and social movements in the course: it was an easy sell that teaching students about liberalism was important; romanticism, however, has proven quite contentious.

This debate has had some amusing consequences – among them that I think I’ve managed to get myself perceived as someone who particularly loves romantic movements. I suppose this isn’t an illogical conclusion to draw: why push so hard to include something when you disagree with it? (Regular readers of this blog, of course, will know my answer to that question…) I find it strangely dissonant, however, to have these hallway discussions where other staff are casually referencing “my” romantic “mates”… (I’ve also gotten a couple of “Awww… give us a kiss then!” responses…)

Thus far, the proper intellectual debate has progressed in three stages.

The first stage was, essentially, “why teach this stuff – no one thinks this way any more”? This objection is actually quite easy to address: it’s not difficult to run into contemporary political and academic discussions that, consciously or not, are channeling something with a romantic bent. Once I had planted the seed for this idea, the argument won itself: now the course coordinator keeps dropping into my office with new examples he’s run into in his readings…

From here, we went to: “well, even if you can see examples everywhere, people aren’t consciously aware that they are drawing on some formal philosophical tradition”. This is of course true – but it’s also true by and large for liberalism, and we’re happy to teach that…

So now we’ve reached stage three, which goes something along the lines of: “romanticism isn’t really a philosophical tradition – it’s just a reaction to everything else that is happening around it – a desire to go back to what came before”. I disagree with this interpretation of romantic intellectual and social movements, but this argument is more difficult to make, for two reasons. First because romantic movements tend to see themselves as reactionary – as movements that desire to revive something that existed before (or, perhaps as often, as movements that believe that it is impossible to go back, and therefore adopt the perspective of modernity as historical tragedy). If you want to argue, as I tend to want to argue, that these movements are as intrinsically “modern” as what they oppose, you therefore have the additional burden of explaining (and disproving) their self-understanding.

At the same time, many quite compelling critical views of romantic movements also adopt the stance that these movements are fundamentally regressive – that they hearken back to something that is not fully modern. Habermas would be a good example. My difficulty with these sorts of critique is that, at base, I think they require a form of dehistoricised thought – something for which I’ve criticised Habermas at some length. A fully historical theory can’t really view any contemporary form of thought as somehow not of this time – it needs, instead, to look for those dimensions of modernity that are refracted by these movements, such that they can plausibly perceive themseves to be pointing toward a past that need never have really existed, and can plausibly understand themselves to be anti-modern, by collapsing modernity into only one of its many axes… As an assertion, of course, this kind of critique isn’t terribly meaningful: the fact that I prefer to think of contemporary forms of thought as all equally modern don’t make it so – I’d need to demonstrate, ultimately, that I can make sense of more of our shared world by thinking this way than, say, Habermas can through his framework. And as interesting and important as it might be to try to do this, the task seems a bit… vast when all we’re really discussing is what readings to include in a course… ;-P

Unfortunately, the theoretical complexity required to answer the “stage three” objection manages, I think, to make everyone worry that the students will need to understand these sorts of meta-issues, if we’re going to include material on romantic intellectual and social movements. This of course isn’t the case, but the perception is contributing to a general sense that this theme is more trouble than it’s worth.

And the funny thing is, having spent now several weeks arguing the case for including material on romantic intellectual and social movements, I actually haven’t fully resolved myself whether this is the best approach to take to the course. It might in fact be better to use the metanarrative I’ve already worked out for the undergrad course – or develop something else entirely. But the debate has now taken on a life of its own, and will therefore probably continue to cast at least some kind of shadow over the course design…

On a less theoretical level, we also need to make some key decisions about course requirements and assessment tasks. My preliminary thought is to stick with the format of having one “common” reading that all students are required to prepare – and to have this reading be something that provides sufficient background for students to begin to grapple with one or more key concepts. I have then suggested that we divide the remaining readings into several “tracks”: one track, for example, may be geared to students who want to engage with the philosophical concepts at a deeper level, and might therefore feature some of the theoretical or philosophical material lying behind the common reading; another track may help students relate the philosophical concepts directly to some kind of planning or policy practice case study; a third track might open some kind of theoretical debate with the common reading; etc.

The idea behind “tracking” the optional readings is to make it easier for students to choose their second reading selection according to their intellectual interests (in the current iteration of the course, the other readings were not organised in any specific way, and students were therefore often choosing the shortest, or the most visually attractive, etc.). Tracked readings also introduce some interesting assessment possibilities, as they allow more structured thought about the relationships between readings, and they make it easier for readings to build on one another over time… This approach, though, requires a lot more work upfront (but that’s why they’re paying me the big bucks, right?) – and there is always the risk of not being able to find appropriate readings in any specific track for every week of the course…

Happy as always to take feedback and suggestions…

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2 responses to “Romancing the Course

  1. Joseph Kugelmass November 7, 2006 at 5:45 pm

    I’m sincerely hoping to write something along these lines for the Valve soon; in essence, I’d like to argue that not only are “reactionary” movements nonetheless of their actual historical moment, but that there are cases where the “doubling-back” to a certain vision of the past is a powerful act, because it is history resurrected consciously, instead of lived forward blindly. While I can think of certain points of reference for this argument, such as Foucault’s Use of Pleasure, I’d be delighted to hear of anything you’d recommend on the subject of the historical status of Romantic movements and their ilk.

  2. N Pepperell November 7, 2006 at 6:21 pm

    One of the reasons I keep leaving little piles of Benjaminian detritus everywhere I post, is that I actually think he offers something quite substantial on this issue (so, so many things I really, really, really need to write up in a systematic way…). One of Benjamin’s targets in the Arcades Project materials, for example, is Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious: Benjamin is concerned with showing, e.g., why you can get widely-shared “archetypal” images for purely historical, rather than metaphysical, reasons. Benjamin is, of course, the quintessential author if you’re interested in the notion of consciously resurrecting history (as, of course, is Marx – although here the “dead weight” of traditional interpretation makes it almost more trouble to use Marx than it’s worth…).

    In terms of more contemporary authors: depending on when you’re planning your Valve piece, I might be more helpful to you in a few weeks than I am now – both because I’ll be further into this course redesign, and because I’ll be touching (somewhat tangentially – focussing on nostalgia and “community”) on these issues in a paper I’m meant to be presenting in late November.

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