9th September 2021

Research Journey, Lessons Learned and Survival Tips

Resilience, healing and growth in a university environment:
Do I always get it right? No I don’t!

Amira Osman, Professor of Architecture and SARChI Research Chair in Spatial Transformation, Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria

Thank you for this opportunity to share experiences. I am humbled and honoured to share this space with my colleagues and the other two research chairs. I hope I use the opportunity well and deliver something of value.

Firstly, who am I? A short version is: I am Amira Osman. I share my story and lessons with no claim of moral superiority. It is my own story, experience and heritage in the hope that it resonates with some. I have been immersed in architecture and architectural education all of my life.

The long version will emerge in the telling of my story.

I have titled my talk: Resilience, healing and growth in a university environment: Do I always get it right? No I don’t!

I start with a PowerPoint presentation that offers my academic background and the principles that drive my work. I then offer a few lessons that I have learnt over the years – in no particular order. While sometimes I do not get it right, I believe that I mostly do! The important thing is that these are the principles that guide me on a day to day basis.

1. Build up your research project and profile – it takes years. What are the beliefs that guide your research work? For me, every design solution, every technical decision, every spatial interpretation is based on an understanding that the built environment can wound and it can heal. Our work is a reflection of our values. It is not neutral. Design is not neutral. Technical decision making is never neutral. What are your professional beliefs?
2. Have the courage to write and submit research for review – accept that critique and rejection is a part of the process
3. Negotiate – you need time to grow – young researchers get burdened with teaching and administrative tasks – I like the expression “manage your managers”
4. Balance authority with humility in your writing and your verbal communications; engage and share knowledge with an open mind, with generosity and integrity.
5. Use simple language – I do not care who you are or what your discipline/project is, you can communicate it simply (for the architects, avoid archispeak)
6. Teaching, learning and research needs courage. I encourage myself by reminding myself that learning needs courage – and sometimes learning needs that we step out into the unknown to be challenged by new ideas and to grow. And sometimes learning means to we need to be willing to leave our spaces of safety and to put ourselves forward to learn how to teach.
7. Become a reflective practitioner: block out time for research – treat it a sacred – writing and documenting is an ongoing process – devise strategies that work for you. Learn to pause.
8. What is your research message, identify it, refine it, perfect it – it takes years; what we do in our professional lives is a reflection of our value systems
9. What is your purpose? When I approached Prof Dharini frustrated at some work difficulties and said that my life would be easier if I didn’t have the Chair position, she said to me, “but this is an opportunity to help so many people”. I believe that is a reflection of her values. We bring our values and ourselves to our work environment in different ways.
10. Point 9 leads me to another important point: our words count! Chose them carefully.
11. Our personal and professional lives are not so clearly separated. The interface between the personal and the professional is ambiguous however hard we try. How we present ourselves in the professional space is a reflection of who we are in our private lives. However hard we try, the armour will fall in one way or the other.
12. Don’t take on a management position before you are ready – it is a trap! Ask yourself always: is it ego/status-driven, financially driven? Do you have the right qualifications? Yet at the same time,
13. Everyone has learnt on the job – do not be deceived or discouraged by people saying you do not have knowledge, skill or experience – say yes to every (teaching/research) opportunity that is presented to you and learn on the job
14. Develop the skill to know the difference between 12 and 13!
15. Some people won’t like you – learn to live with that, don’t spend your energy convincing people you are good – just do the work and always remember Berne Brown – if someone is not in the arena their opinion doesn’t count; at the same time,
16. Remember Maya Angelou: “I come as one, but I stand as ten thousand.” Build up an ecosystem of allies/partners
17. Stop trying to fix others – fix yourself; know when to move on – some people need to be left behind/dropped – others need to be with you on your journey – know how to distinguish between the two – it is not always so evident! We are human with human emotions and our judgment is blurred with emotions
18. You will be subjected to various forms of bias and discrimination; it comes with the territory: what I teach has many times been labeled as non-architectural. Indeed, some were concerned that it is not in line with the image of the university – that was before community engagement became popular. (My project then went on to be considered a flagship project and celebrated). I have often found that some people would saunter in, unprepared and speak the obvious – yet be treated with the utmost respect and reverence. I constantly have to prove myself as I am first met with suspicion. And when I do speak, I get praised in a rather exaggerated manner because not much was expected from me in the first place. Be prepared for this as you cannot change it.
19. Difficulties do not make our character – difficulties expose our character. Academics are not very nice people – I do not exclude myself; Architects are even worse – again, I do not exclude myself. Yet, these experiences remind me daily to work on myself – to fix myself from the inside out. However hard we try, we cannot put forward a “good front/facade” unless we have fixed ourselves from the inside. At some point, the armour will fall and we will be exposed for who we truly are.
20. Make every move based on your values and integrity; integrity is what we do when no one is looking
21. Let collaboration drive you – forget about competition
22. Acknowledge your power: 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.
23. Always centre students; my way of doing it is 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. What is yours?
24. You will fail – devise strategies to deal with that – one of my favorite is listening to a podcast titled “The art of having a bad day”
25. Self protect, do everything with kindness towards yourself and others
26. Remember Stephan Covey’s 3 balls: family, health, career – the latter is a rubber ball, it bounces back after a fall; family and health are glass balls and if neglected they shatter to pieces
27. Remember borrowed wisdoms: our small actions change the world, the way we do anything is the way we do everything, the way we live our day is the way we live our life.