Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Courses

Explaining Research Proposals

I’ll try to write something substantive again later in the week – at the moment, I’m absolutely drowning in marking, which leaves me no time to have interesting thoughts, let alone pull them together into something others might want to read… For my own reference as much as anything else, I’ve tucked below the fold a sort of “Research Proposals for Dummies” piece I wrote this week for my quant methods students. It’s very, very, very simplistic – among other things, because it’s written for second-year undergrads, many of whom have no intention of going on to research careers – but some of my Research Strategies students also found the material helpful as a very basic breakdown and explanation of the strategic intent of the sections of a proposal. The piece might be useful for someone needing similar material for their own students, and not wanting to start utterly from scratch, but wanting to riff off of someone else’s basic structure.

Note that, because this piece was written in relation to a specific assessment, much of the material is obviously not relevant to a standard proposal (and I’m too lazy and too busy – hmm… can one be both? Evidently so… – to rewrite this as a more general piece right now). Note also that I wrote this at 3 a.m. – caveat emptor.

If anyone does convert this into something less assessment-specific – or improve it in all the various other ways it needs to improved – I’d consider it a great kindness if you’d share a copy of your revised version with me. Read more of this post

Lies, Damned Lies, and…

I’m currently waiting to find out whether my research methodology empire will be extended this term, to cover a quantitative research methods course for second-year undergraduates – a teaching stint that would itself be regarded as preparation for assisting with a rethink of our second-year methodology course offerings, which are currently split between one term of “quant” and one term of “qual”. No one likes the split and yet, for various reasons (some programs only want their students to take one or the other course, and some programs are still running their own independent courses, etc.) thinking through whether and how to integrate these courses will be quite complex. While my responsibility for this course is still somewhat hypothetical, the beginning of the term is rapidly approaching, and I’ve begun half-preparing – mainly by soliciting ideas from folks who have taught into the course in the past, or who are interested in teaching into it this coming term.

One of the stories that seems to crop up in relation to past iterations of the course is the difficulty obtaining an interesting dataset on which students can practice the more statistical concepts covered in the course. Past iterations of the course appear generally to have given students some overarching policy problem – drug use in youth culture is a theme that has been mentioned often – and then set them loose on a dataset to test various hypotheses against the data, and to reflect on the policy implications of their results. Apparently, however, we have struggled to obtain relevant Australian data sufficiently robust for whatever exercises the students have been asked to perform. Instead – at least one year – we used a UK dataset, but were still asking students to reflect on Australian policy concerns.

When I heard this, I grimaced a bit, and said, “No – I’d really rather, if the point is to reflect on local problems, we use relevant local datasets. Otherwise it will confuse the students – and convey the wrong message, I think, about the need to look into these problems empirically – we don’t want to give the impression that just any old data will do…”

“Oh, no -” my interlocutor clarified, “the students didn’t know they were using UK data. We went in and edited the dataset – we changed all the names of British counties to the names of Victorian communities. It took forever! So, as far as the students were concerned, they were working with Australian data. They never knew.”

Now let me get this straight: We give students a term-long assessment task, oriented to get them to test their assumptions about an Australian policy issue (I’m not clear whether this was on the drug use topic, or on something else) – but we cook the data!!! Oh sure, the data are true for somewhere – and the same sorts of skills and reasoning would apply, regardless of the dataset – I do understand the reasoning behind the assessment task. But still… I have these images of students coming out of this course, getting into debates with friends and family years from now, and going, “Well, you know, I actually researched this issue at uni, and apparently the trend is…” What will the students do, when they run into conflicting empirical data at some later point? How will they make sense of it all?

Why not just tell students you’re using UK data? Or making the data up? Surely we don’t think our students are so fragile that this would cause them to disinvest completely from the task?

Do I Have a Theory For You!

A colleague has just asked me to give a lecture to new social science research students, on the grounds that I’m “an expert in theory”, and so should be able to instruct students in the finer points of “how to choose a theory for their research”.

Requests like this, I have to admit, cause all of my inner anarchism to bubble to the surface. I want to deliver the entire lecture in front of a banner that reads: N. Pepperell – EXPERT – in theory. Or insist that students take the theoretical equivalent of one of those online tests of political disposition and bring the results with them to the lecture. Or tell students to ignore theory – don’t worry about it – just forget about it completely.

Oh wait – that last one I will actually do. Because the key isn’t the theory: it’s the question.

The research strategies course as it’s currently offered at my university has a very early section titled something like “positioning yourself on a map of social thought”. The students are terrified by it – and rightly so, because it sounds as though they have to draw this massive timeline: Plato – Descartes – Hegel – !!me!!… Some of the earliest readings tell students that they must identify their epistemological and ontological assumptions before they can do anything else – a demand that predictably causes most students to curl up into tight, self-loathing balls in the corner, regreting that they ever made the decision to undertake a research degree.

Some students, of course, will come in well-versed in philosophy or intellectual history. They’ll be quite happy to talk about their intellectual progenitors and their epistemological and ontological assumptions. And they still won’t, as a rule, be any closer to understanding how this relates to social science research than their intimidated and demoralised colleagues whom I’m still trying to coax out of their foetal positions.

So I tend to spend the first few weeks of the course teaching against the assigned materials (I don’t, incidentally, disagree with the fact that these materials have been assigned – they’re actually a productive jumping off point for the discussions I like to have at this stage). The overarching goal – but this will generally take the entire course (and, for some students, substantially beyond it) – is to get students to be centred in their questions. From unpacking the assumptions buried in the questions themselves, students can begin to tease out what their ontological and epistemological assumptions are – this takes some guidance, mainly in the form of getting students to see that other kinds of questions are possible. But this can be approached in the first instance immanently to their projects – which can then make it easier for students to understand whether and how more formal theoretical or philosophical training fits into their research process.

By contrast, starting with “theory” abstracted from a substantive question generally manages to convey the impression that choices among theoretical approaches are somehow aesthetic – essentially random and based on researcher preference, rather than having some determinate relationship to the phenomenon needing to be grasped. It also focusses attention away from what students struggle with the most, which is learning how to ask a good question, and then understanding the implications of the questions they have asked…

The strategy I’m advocating here, of course, is not something I would advocate for all students, in all contexts. It is a response to the need to communicate what are actually some fairly sophisticated theoretical skills to social science students who, due to the vagaries of the Australian higher education system, are unlikely to have, or subsequently receive, extensive formal instruction in theory or philosophy. With more time to explore theoretical traditions in detail, or when working with students where a certain theoretical background can be assumed, these issues can be explored at a more abstract level.

Still, there’s something about communicating the stakes of a theory – grasping that seemingly very abstract texts actually generally do understand themselves to be doing something very practical, very important in real-world terms – that remains important even when you have more luxury to explore formal theoretical approaches in greater detail. Theorists are driven by questions of their own – their theoretical choices motivated by the need to grasp the phenomena they are trying to understand, just as the theoretical choices of novice researchers will also need to be. This is something that I find students often struggle to grasp, even when they enjoy “theory” – that theory generally points to something, is wrestling with something, is not simply some kind of abstract symbolic manipulation undertaken for its own sake, or something that sits in a random, extrinsic relation to its object. This is the conceptual terrain I’ll have in mind in preparing the lecture.

I may still ask for that banner, as well…


There seems be this unusual theory floating around the school of social science that I might be the best person to coordinate our quantitative research methods course – a “common course architecture” course aimed at second-year undergraduates from various programs. I’m finding this theory a bit hard to believe, personally, but others seem not to share my scepticism. Read more of this post

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. Read more of this post

Mentoring and Supervision

I’ve been trying to begin to think in a more sustained way about research supervision recently – a byproduct of being involved in the research methods course, which entails an intrinsic element of short-term supervision as you work with students who are writing their thesis proposals and, in practice, also often leads to longer-term follow-ups from students seeking specific kinds of advice as they continue their research.

I’m finding it reasonably complex to think through the issue – partially because my own personal preferences for research supervision are highly idiosyncratic, and not really suitable for extrapolation (not that extrapolation from personal learning styles ever provides a very solid foundation for thinking through the teaching relationship). At the same time, because supervision is such an intense process, and tends to be restricted to a fairly small number of students at any one time, you don’t get to try out ideas with the sort of “sample size” of students that’s available from regular teaching. You don’t have as many easy opportunities to think through what works, and what doesn’t work, in practical circumstances.

Reflecting back on various bits and pieces of advice I gave to students in the Research Strategies course this term, I realise that I generally fell into the metaphor of describing a thesis as a research apprenticeship, and encouraged students to seek out supervision with someone who could mentor them through this apprenticeship process. I did this because I was reaching for a way to capture how supervision differs from most other forms of teaching: it’s more sustained, more intense, generally involves a higher degree of modelling and workshopping than most other forms of teaching, because you’re focussing on the quite individual problems that arise in research design, data collection, interpretation and writing. These problems generally take the form of an unsolved puzzle, often with “wicked problem” dimensions: supervisors might have a level of experience or wisdom that can help a student cut through complex issues more efficiently, but generally can’t rely on knowing the “answer” to a student’s question. So the supervisory relationship provides, among other things, an opportunity for students to watch how a more experienced academic muddles through the sorts of problems the student is encountering for the first time.

Looking back on the term, though, I worry that this metaphor may have focussed too much attention on supervision as a process through which specific skills are communicated – a vision of supervision that was likely to reinforce what is generally a student’s first impulse in any event: to seek supervision from the people who have the greatest knowledge in their subject area, or experience with their preferred methodology. I don’t actually believe, however, that relevant subject or methods expertise is anywhere close to being the best predictor of whether a supervisory relationship will be effective for a particular student. Students generally can, I think, seek out expert advice fairly easily via one-off or short-term interactions with academic and non-academic professionals with whom they don’t require a sustained supervisory relationship. What distinguishes particularly effective supervision, I suspect, is more likely to be a kind of mentoring “chemistry” – closely related to what one of my own supervisors describes as the “pastoral” dimension of supervisory work: can a student and a supervisor develop a sufficient level of trust that they can honestly discuss problems that arise in and around the research process, and work together to develop effective solutions?

One implication of the relational nature of supervision is that the success or failure of supervisory relationships is rarely completely one-sided: I’ve seen situations in which two students had diametrically opposed experiences with the same faculty supervisor, and situations in which a student who seemed at risk of failure under one supervisor, rapidly found their footing in a new supervisory relationship… Supervisory relationships can be quite poor without this necessarily meaning that individual supervisors or students would have experienced problems in a different relationship… This means, however, that it can be very, very difficult to generalise about what makes a “good” supervisor, since a wide range of supervisory relationships could potentially work for specific students and faculty…

What could help, though, is to foreground the concept of supervision as a mentoring relationship, when talking with students about how to think about choosing their primary research supervisor. This means, among other things, advising students to distinguish between their need for information on their subject area or technical advice on their methodology, and their need to identify an appropriate mentor who can assist them in developing into the kind of academic or professional they intend to become. I did talk a bit about this in the methods course – although I think I largely flattened the issue into one of working style (e.g., whether students prefer very structured and formal interactions, more casual interactions, very hands-on supervision, etc.). For a short project such as an Honours thesis, it probably doesn’t matter all that much. I’m conscious, though, of the number of PhD students in particular who seem to make significant supervisory changes in mid-stream, and I wonder whether some reorientation of priorities when selecting a supervisor could minimise some of this disruption, and also increase students’ ability to grow and mature as intellectuals and professionals through the supervision process.

Developing Regulation

In the postgraduate Planning Theory course, which I am currently redesigning, one of our recurrent themes was the process whereby support comes to be mobilised in favour of particular kinds of regulation. A number of our inherited readings asserted what, from my point of view, is a very artificial opposition between capitalism and regulation, and spoke as though the core, defining characteristic of capitalist enterprise is a bottom line orientation to the unconstrained reduction of the immediate costs of production – a concept that, if you take it seriously, can make it very, very difficult to make sense of the social history behind large-scale regulatory shifts (empirically, large business enterprises becoming concerned with the implications of social or environmental problems, and then throwing their weight behind specific regulatory initiatives, often heralds important policy “tipping points”).

In the course, we dealt mainly with 19th and early 20th century cases. An article by Royce Millar in today’s Age provides a more contemporary example: Millar reports on the support of several major developers for a proposal for a new “inclusionary zone” in the inner city, which would require developers to provide affordable rental housing to be managed by a community housing association.

Notable (from my perspective, at least) is the way the article draws attention to the bottom-line focus on the developers’ need for predictability, and the ways in which additional costs can be accommodated, as long as they can be forecasted. The article notes developer concern with social polarisation, and includes a few quotes from developers on the need for regulation to be implemented with sufficient clarity to enable forward planning (Rod Fehring from Lend Lease Communities, for example, proclaimed that he was “keen” to incorporate affordable housing “As long as it’s clear what the objective is, then we can cope with it”).

Developer support for the proposal is, of course, both mixed, and qualified – the article alludes several times to the ways in which developers are pushing the government for various concessions in exchange for the provision of affordable housing. Developers, however, will be cooling their heels on the issue for the time being, as the Victorian government apparently regards the issue as too volatile for the election period, and has cancelled a meeting intended to discuss how the proposal could be implemented.

Research Strategies Postmortem

I just wanted to open the “postmortem” thread for the Research Strategies course for this term. To any visiting students, just a quick note that I’ve really, truly enjoying working with all of you this term. I’ve said frequently on the blog that this is my favourite course to teach (no slight on other courses – content-bound courses are intrinsically more predictable than a course organised around individual student research interests), and this term was a particularly dynamic and engaged cohort – you all worked extremely hard, which showed in the discussions and presentations. Please feel free to leave your suggestions for how we could improve the course in the future, and please also keep in touch – I’ll be interested in seeing how your projects evolve. Thanks for a fantastic term.

How Advanced Is My Class?

I’ve just received a “graduate capabilities” survey from my university, asking me to indicate how advanced are the skills conferred by my History and Theory of Planning course. The form is divided into subcategories for specific topics and skill sets – sustainability, economics, IT skills, etc. I would imagine this sort of information is used for overall course planning, to make sure that, as a degree program, we offer students the capacity to receive advanced training in all of these areas through an appropriate combination of courses.

The trick for me is that the form requires a comparative knowledge of other courses – knowledge that I don’t necessarily have. I feel reasonably comfortable, for example, indicating that my course doesn’t provide advanced training in sustainability, because I knew when designing the course that students have other opportunities for detailed work in this area, so I didn’t emphasise this topic. I’m less sure, however, how to evaluate some of the other topics and skills – it’s harder to tell, from the information I have available, how other courses cover, for example, topics like economics, or skills like critical thinking…

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I’ve made the blank form available online, in case lurking students would like to help me out with a bit of comparative feedback. If you have time, could you fill in your personal perception of how the skills covered in my History and Theory of Planning course compare to the standards across the degree program as a whole, and email the results to me. Or, if you prefer, post comments below on the topics that interest you.

I have a couple of weeks to respond, so any feedback between now and early October would be most helpful. The form is available here.

[Note: this form is not used to evaluate my personal teaching skills, so don’t worry if you need to indicate that the course doesn’t cover something, or covers something very superficially: no course will cover all listed skills at an “advanced” level.]

Planning History and Theory: Course Renewal

As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, I taught an undergraduate History and Theory of Planning course last term – my own (somewhat rushed) design. This term, I’m teaching into the postgraduate version of the history and theory course, which now therefore shares many of the same readings and some of the organisational elements of the undergraduate version. As it happens, the postgraduate version is also due for “renewal”, and I’ve been offered a postgraduate student’s dream job: being paid to read, so that I can refresh the reading list and reconceptualise the organisation of concepts presented in the course. While I’m at it, I’ll also rethink the reading list for the undergraduate version, if only to make my life easier if I happen to be the one who teaches that course next time around…

Course readings are intended to be refreshed every few years but, in this case, the course renewal process is also driven by the introduction of a new postgraduate planning history course – the hope being that the history course can provide basic factual knowledge that will enable the theory course to delve into more complex territory when exploring the relationship between planning theory and the broader historical context.

If anyone has any suggestions, please feel free to post them here. For reference, I’ve posted the undergraduate Course Guide and PowerPoints below the fold. (The postgrad syllabus and lectures aren’t “mine”, so I won’t reproduce those here.) My temptation is to use the historical structure of the undergraduate course in rethinking the postgraduate one – with perhaps a bit more “hard” philosophy at the outset to give a firmer understanding of core concepts – romanticism, liberalism, Enlightenment, capitalism, etc. – that can then be traced through the course. Read more of this post