Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Courses

Eggcorns of Planning Wisdom

Readers of the delightful Language Log blog will be familiar with their periodic posts on “eggcorns” – the often poetic alternative words and phrases that sometimes result when someone hears a new term, but has never seen it written – like the spelling “eggcorn” for “acorn”.

The teaching environment is primed for eggcorn production, since students are bombarded with new terms in lectures and discussion. Since eggcorns often provide far more insight than “canonical” spellings into how students interpret terms, they can also be useful (if inadvertent) feedback for the instructor.

I unfortunately neglected to make a note of some fantastic (but now, sadly, forgotten) eggcorns from earlier in the term, but have collected a few from the final set of papers for the term.

My particular favourite is “physical list planning” (in place of the “physicalist planning” so often criticised during the term). I love the association it gives of planners blindly applying some list of rules and regulations to the planning process – a proceduralism that was also often criticised in the course, but has here apparently been assimilated to the slightly different critique of planners who focus primarily on the physical environment.

Honourable mentions go to:

“falls sense of security” – I love this reinterpretation, which shifts the emphasis of the phrase from the state of overconfidence, to the sinking sensation that might strike, once one realises that one previously suffered from a “false sense of security”…

“high and sight” – I liked this one for its metaphorical spatialisation of what is normally a temporal phrase – thanks to our heightened elevation, we can now see so much more clearly…

Science and Public Policy

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’d been asked to put together a very schematic course proposal, for a potential undergraduate elective in Science and Public Policy. The pro forma for the course proposal, which I’ve attached below the fold, didn’t allow for much detail – it basically just provides a brief description of the overarching course concept, and a bit of scaffolding on the structure of the course and assessment activities. I’ve just been told that the course concept has been accepted, and that a detailed course guide will need to be developed by 30 June. This requires much more work – and carries the additional wrinkle that I’m not sure whether I will be the one who actually delivers this course, so I need to design the course so that it doesn’t rely on my idiosyncratic disciplinary background…

So, with this in mind, I need to develop the detailed week-by-week course guide, complete with readings and activities, around the scaffolding provided by the pro forma. This process may require reworking or casting out some of the concepts from the course proposal. I’m personally not all that committed to the specific themes I used for the course proposal, and I’m more actively worried about the assessment tasks – whether there are too many of them, whether they assess the right skills, etc. So there is still a lot of conceptual work to be done, in addition to identifying readings and choosing activities.

As before, all suggestions are very, very welcome (and special thanks to Russ for his suggestions from the last round of discussion, some of which have already been expressed in the proposal pro forma, and still others of which will likely make their way into the more fleshed-out course guide). Read more of this post

Placebo Defect

I’ve been invited to design a very rough draft for a course on Science and Public Policy over the next couple of weeks. It would be an elective course and, since the course won’t have been offered previously at this university, it is uncertain which students would attend – it might attract students from the sciences who would like to learn more about communicating to policy makers, or students from the social sciences and humanities who would like to learn more about science, or some combination of the two.

I’m looking forward to designing the course, and would appreciate any suggestions for topics and/or readings appropriate to undergraduate students in their second year or higher.

While I’m thinking about popular perceptions of science, I wanted to pass along this anecdote, from an Australian morning TV show – Channel Ten’s 9 a.m. with David and Kim.

The show was discussing the recent British clinical trial of TGN1412, an immunomodulator developed by TeGenero. The trial, organised by PAREXEL, recruited eight volunteers, of whom six received TGN1412, while the remaining two received a placebo. Although the drug had appeared safe in animal trials, including primate trials, all who received TGN1412 during the human trial rapidly became critically ill. The incident has sparked an intensive review of this clinical trial, as well as questions about the protocols for human clinical trials more generally.

On 23 March, Dr. David Ritchie had been invited to explain the trial to the morning show audience. After hearing Dr. Ritchie’s breakdown of the trial, host David Reyne was apparently confused why, given the life-threatening reactions experienced by six trial participants, the two participants who had received the placebo fared so well. As ABC’s MediaWatch reports:

David Reyne: Some of these guys were given a placebo.

Dr. David Ritchie: Correct

David Reyne: I don’t really understand what a placebo is, but it seems to have, to have saved them! And wouldn’t it make sense that every time a trial like this takes place, that there’s a placebo on hand.

@” Channel 10, 9am with David and Kim, 23rd March, 2006, quoted by MediaWatch

Dr. Ritchie does eventually set things right – you can check the transcript or the video to see how.

Libelling Liberalism

I’ve just written “the liberalism lecture” for the History and Theory of Planning class. Since planning is not, by and large, a trade that holds exceptional attractions for those who lean libertarian, I don’t expect most students to have more than a passing familiarity with liberal political and economic thought – even though their profession has now been strongly shaped by a couple of decades of neo-liberal reform. Based on my experience last year with the Australian Politics class, it’s not only the planning students who lack this background: several of my politics students expressed indignation that politicians like Thatcher and Howard should claim to be liberals when, the students believed, it was obvious these people were just conservatives… Read more of this post

Hiatus: Advanced Australian Politics

I hadn’t intended to go so long without posting. I was unexpectedly offered an opportunity to design and teach an undergraduate course in Advanced Australian Politics – unfortunately, the offer was somewhat last-minute and, to do justice to the unfamiliar material and to the students in the course, I’ve deferred posting to the blog to focus on putting together and teaching the course. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity, and have learned an immense amount – hopefully I’ll have an opportunty to feed those learnings back into a revised, improved course next term.

What Theorists Do

I haven’t posted much this week, as classes have begun, and I always require more preparation time when I haven’t seen my students yet, and am preparing lectures or tutorials for an unknown audience. The first teaching and tutorial sessions are always a mixed bag – some flat moments; hopefully a few successful interactions to build on over time. But I did enjoy some of the exchanges in a Planning History and Theory tutorial in which the goal is to assist the students in thinking more theoretically about their planning practice – which necessarily means first getting them to think more practically about their planning theory.

In this case, I started the tutorial with the question of whether the students (who have all completed at least a work experience stint to provide them with some practical background in the planning profession) could provide an example of planning theory in relation to their professional work. I would have been happy if someone had provided an example, but I was much happier when no one did – the best reaction, from a pedagogical point of view, is the one I received: students looking back and forth at one another, laughing out loud at the thought that planning theory could have some immediate resonance in their workplace.

We moved fairly quickly to a discussion of actual practice stories – what is right, what is wrong, what they would improve if they could, who (if anyone) had the power to make improvements, and how. Once in this realm of the familiar, the students were articulate, incisive, and insightful. They were also theoretically-savvy – although the trick is to get them to see this.

The goal of the session – which will continue to be the goal of the course – is to communicate that theory isn’t something that philosophers do behind ivory towers: it’s a general proclivity, for which “professional” theorists have developed a specialised vocabulary and set of shared concepts to assist them in elaborating and communicating theoretical ideas.

So, every time a student says, “This is how x works”, they have generated a theory.

Every time one says, “This is how x ought to work”, they have generated a critical theory.

(Self-reflexive critical theory is probably a bit more specialised – it’s a bit harder to find a spontaneously-generated practice story where someone says, “I believe that x ought to work this way, and my belief can be explained by the following historical or social potentials generated within my own social context.” But anything is possible… ;-) )

The goal will be to keep pushing that theory really is this basic, and to get the students to keep this in mind as they read academic theorists, so that they grasp how these theorists are actually engaged with their own practice stories (however technical and abstract their descriptions of them), and so that the students can then interrogate the usefulness or shortcomings of these theorists with reference to practice stories and counter-theories of their own.


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