The reflective “professor of protest”: architecture, space and the built environment
Amira Osman | BLOG 14.12.2016 | amiraosman.co.za
The title of this blog plays on two references. The first being the well-known book ‘The reflective practitioner’ by Donald A. Schon: “When a practitioner recognizes a situation as unique, she cannot handle it solely by applying theories or techniques derived from her store of professional knowledge”. Reflective practice means learning in practice and through practice.
The current situation at South African universities has forced us, as academics, to reflect and re-assess our methods of teaching, engagement in the classroom and in the broader community as well as deeply question the content of what we deliver. For someone who has been teaching for many years, entrenched in a particular way of ‘doing’, this has been something of a refreshing and welcome shock. As a colleague said “#feesmustfall has been my education” (Claire Rousell at a STAND, FADA, UJ workshop titled “The possibilities of multimodality in a decolonized art/s education” (14.10.2016)
Another reason for the use of the word “reflection” is a deliberate aim to pause. Berg and Seeber say: “Working at corporate universities, professors often become “beleaguered, managed, frantic, stressed, and demoralized.” It is important every now and then to stop and “insist, unapologetically, that reflective inquiry is the heart and soul of the university. And reflective inquiry can’t be done in a distracted rush, without uninterrupted time to focus.”
Yet, this insistence on time to reflect is not always supported nor encouraged in a more corporatised and administrative university setting: “why should faculty be able to criticise their department chair’s views on the curriculum, the dean of the faculty’s views on hiring, or anything else? There goes academic freedom. Since academic freedom is essential for innovation in research or teaching, there goes the core mission of the university. Lip service will be paid to academic freedom, but deanlets and deanlings are everywhere drawing up codes of civility and respect so that administrators can squash any real resistance to their decisions.”
The second part of the title makes reference to an article in the Mail and Guardian by Prega Govender, in September 2016, which angered many academics. Titled “Profs of protest: University staff accused of ‘fuelling’ plans to destabilise campuses”, the article led UKZN staff to responded in October 2016, concluding that: “Although we find the article untrue and full of spurious claims, we embrace the designation “Professors of Protest”, despite the slanderous intent. If it means that we offer a space for free and critical dialogue about academic and financial exclusion; if it means decolonising the curriculum; if it means fighting, teaching and writing for social justice; if it means we put our bodies between students and security services to defend the right of our students to register their dissatisfaction, alienation and marginalisation; and, finally, if it means we defend the public university as a space for critical dialogue and exchange, then we are, proudly, Professors of Protest.”
There is no easy way to navigate this debate. Davis claims that some academics have “suspended ethics and criticism” in addressing the “fallist movement”. UCT academics have since rejected and responded to this. While many academics have chosen to remain quiet, others have come out courageously in defending the right of students to protest and against increased securitization of campuses. Our colleagues from UJ held a press conference where they spoke what transpired at the UJ Bunting Road Campus and how peaceful protestors were met by force and aggression.
WITS, UJ, UCT, UKZN academics have all held various forms of protest or pickets calling for alternative approaches to address what is happening and against the securitisation of campuses. Numerous statements have been issued by faculties, departments and groups of concerned academics. The statement from the Faculty of Humanities, UCT calls for a “new normal” to emerge.
Discipline-specific responses to #feesmustfall – the creative disciplines
Our own statement by concerned academics @ FADA/UJ issued in October 2016 said: “As a creative community and a Faculty committed to community engagement and social justice we are deeply concerned that the right to free expression and dignity is compromised on our campuses, and we can no longer stand by and be silent. We believe that the arts and design disciplines present unique opportunities for fostering dialogue, as we deal with the practical, political and symbolic elements of space, media, identity, and culture.” The statement asked that “our campus spaces need to accommodate all, in all of our diversity, welcome all and be accessible to all.” And that “The art professions and expressive disciplines, hence FADA, have much to offer in developing a deeper understanding for the cause of the students extending academic freedom and freedom of expression.”
#feesmustfall and housing
My architecture background means that I look at #feesmustfall and the call for free education in comparison to the call for free housing. The South African, award winning, national housing programme is a massive success in terms of the numbers of houses delivered, yet has inadvertently reinforced Apartheid spatial patterns, disadvantage and segregation. Identifiable housing for the poor, in peripheral locations, is no doubt the unintended consequence of some noble ideals. For these reasons, I have serious reservations about “free houses”; a give-away house reinforces the notions of “government as provider”, rather than “government as enabler” – ignoring important paradigm shifts in housing over the years.
I can also draw parallels in thinking about housing and education where increased government funding is crucial – it is the manner in which that funding is used that can lead to success or failure, spatially in the built environment or in our educational systems. Others have better studied the importance and validity of free education.
In my own teaching of housing and urban policy modules, I aim to encourage the sharing of the students’ personal backgrounds in their diverse living spaces and unique spatial encounters in cities and rural area. I also try and emphasise that all experiences are legitimate and that there are always multiple meanings/interpretations to space and the built environment. I also aim to encourage interdisciplinary investigations and sources of information are diversified as far as possible to allow for different viewpoints and to avoid a one-sided view of the complex topic of residential components in cities.
There is also a design focus to the topics – while acknowledging that design considerations must influence, and are influenced by, policy, procurement and management processes. The courses aim to expose the students to alternative visions for South African built environments. The visions presented address “…the whole housing “eco-system” reinforcing the idea that there can be no solution to low-cost housing if it is not acknowledged that it is integral to the city – and thus the debate on low-cost housing should be integral to any debate about the city as a whole, including the wealthy suburbs. The aim is towards achieving mixed residential environments in terms of tenure, typology, income groups, functions and densities. It is believed that this would generate vibrant, attractive, integrated environments in which the pedestrian is the priority.” 
The housing and urban modules are premised on the idea that there are economic, psychological, cultural and social disadvantages because of the spatial realities of South African cities and living environments. The students are encouraged to think beyond free houses to considering sustainable human settlements that include houses + socio-cultural amenities and job opportunities at neighbourhood level + buildings and the ‘in-between’ spaces. By rethinking the use of diverse funding streams in housing it is possible to allow for balancing individual needs with collective needs and allowing for housing to be an integral part of all city developments in well-located, mixed income, mixed function, mixed community settings.
The dangers of sloganeering and the unintended consequences of noble ideals
At a recent meeting titled: “The role of the Socially Engaged Academic” held at the University of Johannesburg on 31 October 2016 (summarised by Razia Mayet), I compared the struggle of the #feesmustfall movement to the Arab Spring – while being aware that there may be differences in protest being driven by socio-economic and/or political freedom issues. I expressed my concern that events, more so the uncompromising calls for “#feesmustfall or the #governmentmustfall may result in unknown consequences.
Swilling explains the dangers of “a power vacuum without a clear political project to fill it.” He explains that “South Africa has become part of a much wider pan-African dynamic commonly referred to now as Africa Uprising – the third wave of major popular uprisings since the 1950s… led mainly by urban youth… demands for democratic decision-making, an end to state capture and greater redistribution. The first wave took place in the 1950s/1960s which led to the end of colonialism. The second was in the 1980s/1990s which got rid of dictatorships that followed the growth years of the 1960s, reinforced by Cold War dynamics. The third wave has affected over 40 countries over the past decade, and the outcome is as yet unclear.”
Contextually-relevant and evidence-based arguments rather than ideological-based slogans are much needed in this current environment. Some caution that: “democratic advances are now at risk from a political-business complex that seeks to destroy fiscal accountability, marginalise committed and honest bureaucrats and weaken state institutions. Such a regressive politics, which strikes at the very cohesion of South Africa’s fragile state and society, is given a fig leaf of progressive respectability by a today’s radicalism. It would be unfortunate if the FeesMustFall movement wittingly or unwittingly served this nihilism.” Others argue: “#FeesMustFall demands reflect sound fiscal logic” by calling to address wasteful expenditure and poorly considered mega infrastructure projects.
As academics, we have more power that we realise
There is incredible power wielded through academic authority. I have sat in meetings where respected academics have managed to sway opinion and influence decision making merely by the authority they held and their perceived academic reputation – on some occasions purely subjective opinions have been taken as gospel. We can decide to act with academic arrogance, grandstanding and enforce questionable notions of excellence – or we can decide to ethically add our voice in debate and facilitate for other voices to emerge.
We have great power in the classroom, in the boardroom and in society.