Letter to Staff 06

January 2006
Dear Colleague,

It is two years today from my taking over as Program Director. In this period I have worked with a view to make the program and the program community truly world class. My first task was to demonstrate leadership and quality in the local Australian context. The next task will be to demonstrate that the program is truly unique and at the forefront of academics in Industrial Design. This task requires that the unique contributions of all members of the community come together to form a whole that is startlingly innovative as a take on contemporary design challenges. You have done quite a bit in the recent past and I have carried your work, in that by now famous pathways presentation, to many audiences and made claims to excellence. I have seen audiences respond with admiration of the work being done by you and your students. I have seen respect in their eyes and in a recent forum, amazement at the capabilities of the students to challenge reigning paradigms in sustain-ability. I see the work, the agency and the performance and I am proud to belong to such a community of academics. Good on you all.
But like in every community it never ends. A lot more needs to be done, both in the short term and for a robust sustainable future. A significant and crucial aspect that has contributed to the change and improvement in the culture and practice of Industrial Design here is trust. I have been able to do a lot because I have your trust, and you have often showed me that you had faith in what I was doing. When I look around today I see that many of you have faith that I am working with your best interests at heart. So I am emboldened and would like to take this opportunity to place before you some of the critical challenges facing academics and the program today.

You asked me Denis for the vision and I said I did not have one. What I was saying was two things; (a) I have to silence my vision for the vision (read arrogance) of each of you to grow and flourish and (b) that as PD I was the gardener, the collector of visions, and the dreamer. I may shy away from articulating one strategic vision – but I have worked to give you something else: an honest realization of the nature of the context in which we operate, a discussion of the spirit of the academic that society today values, and a way towards a broader, more inclusive and accepting, meaning of both what we do and the community of practice we represent.

You are a teacher

As you know the program has received a T&L award for the learner centred project. This award is significant as it says that what we are doing with our students is excellent. It is in a sense a validation of what I will label here excellence in T&L practices. We are now being asked to consider propagating these practices and to train other programs and other portfolios in these practices. We will be doing this – infecting the external community with our realizations and discoveries – during the next year.

A crucial aspect of learner centredness that strongly influences the academic climate of the program is the practice of ‘letting go’ as teacher. As a teacher, when you ‘let go’ of your students, they can better gain independence and honesty in their learning endeavours. You can then see yourself as not just a ‘teacher of UG students’ but as an intellectual and academic in a university. This marks a big shift in a climate where design academies are still tied to the paradigm of training that was the norm in the last century.

I am not an advocate of education as training or one to see our task at university as that of preparing students for a work force. It will be 20 years this January from the time I first began my teaching career. In those days I was obsessed with Neil Postman, the Berkeley riots of 68, SDS and Kishore Bharati. Education was not about content – as Agehananda Bharati said in the Ochre Robe. And I practiced it – the focus upon the growth of each individual student; 65 students and just me in the class in those days. The rewards were quite heart warming and I still believe in each individual student. As Makarand (graduate from 1997) said after the lecture in Delhi two weeks ago; ‘you know, you haven’t changed at all’.

Academics do not work for money; they work for more; for awards and commendation. As people who can influence the minds of many, they have a potential power that may not be overt. Recognition of the responsibilities that accompany this power is humbling for any academic because with this recognition comes the knowledge that you have to be careful not to convert student awe into ridicule. You have a duty to protect their awe and direct it so that as students and learners they can utilize the energy for their growth. There is one constant in the life of an academic– disappointment – and you will be sorely tested for your ability to handle disappointment. In addition, your ability to sense disappointment in your students’ eyes will help you make each student’s learning experience valuable.

The ‘Three things’

Late last year I received my promotion to A/Prof from Senior Lecturer (It is another matter that I have been A/Prof from 1994-2003 in IIT Delhi). The process of applying for promotion required me to write my portfolio. The portfolio has three significant parts: the T&L portfolio, the Research Portfolio and the Leadership portfolio. In my portfolio when I had to give a relative weighting to these three areas of activity. I chose an almost equal split, that is T&L; 30 %, Research; 30% and Leadership; 40% (check this). Had I seen myself primarily as a teacher (my proportions would have read teaching; 80%, R; 10%, leadership; 10%) or as a PD (T&L; 10%, R; 10% and L; 80%) I would not have been able to get very far with the portfolio. The accepted proportion is an almost equal split between the three.

See this site (http://users.tce.rmit.edu.au/Soumitri.Varadarajan/index.htm) for the extracts from my portfolio: After a number of attempts, I chose to just do the portfolio in a way I was comfortable with. My portfolio is an unorthodox one and it was a risk not to take a more acceptable approach of claims and enumeration. I am willing to show you my portfolio for your reading and to help you with keeping your career goals aligned to the accepted notions of excellence within academia the world over.

On setting up research

The Industrial Design (ID) program group at RMIT has the academic responsibility of uniquely defining the meaning of research. This is a responsibility to the larger pool of ID. Historically many groups and universities have accepted a modified version of the science wallahs privileging of research. An adapted/ adopted form of this carried the name/ sobriquet Practice Based Research (quite a strong tendency in Nursing and patient care). This option is available to you, as is the straight scientific paradigm of research. What I would like you to consider here is what I spoke for in the CHASS committee. Industrial Design is a pluralistic profession – and some contexts of practice look like technology/science/SET, some look like business (Design for Industry – DFI), some look like humanities (ethnography in social science) and often the practice of our graduates and ourselves is akin to the professional/practitioner of art, for example, music/ painting. I have argued for the privileging of multiple meanings and paradigms. It is in pursuance of this goal that I have asked you – eg in your recent workplan coaching – to consider DEST (classical meaning), but to be more reflective and see what is natural within the practice of ID. Industrial consultancy is big as well as the scope of exhibitions and seminars/conferences. Involvement in these areas is activity you can do. But you can do also conference papers if you are so inclined. CHASS picks up your larger contribution to the community, the impact, if you define the meaning of your practices being community work. I urge you therefore to align the focus of your work so that it displays excellence and is something you believe in. It doesn’t have to be something you do because it is required. As an academic, you have to write – there is no getting away from it. I am offering to join and support you in writing your first papers, and today have many such collaborative papers underway.

Historically we have cross-subsidized research (masters, PG supervision) by allowing staff to reduce their UG teaching loads and getting sessionals to teaching our UG students. This is a workable model and is how senior staff members in architecture manage to do grants based research. In the short term we are not to be permitted this luxury – this may be an oversight/mistake in the budget planing process – or may be a genuine situation of an inability to support a research culture financially. My response to this situation at the local level is to re-emphasise the importance of your pathway based existence in the program. In this, I recognise that I have urged that you do a minimum of 12 hrs of undergraduate teaching but alongside that asked for a healthy RQF showing in your workplace , for example through exhibitions, seminars, conference, consultancy, grant applications in process, publication profile.

My advice to you is that if you attempt to do all these research activities separately from your UG teaching, you will be over extended. Therefore you need to make a clever and clean plan for integrating research outcomes with your UG teaching delivery. Many of you are doing this, the Zoo project being a most recent example. If, collectively your workplans can look good from this integrated perspective, do be aware that I am prepared to take the conversation to the appropriate people to make them aware of the implication of not supporting non-subsidized masters and PhD supervision. But that is another discussion.

I have worked for two years to set up an approach of research orientated teaching. We refer to this as staff research pathways. This model is my response to the crucial fact that most international undergraduate-dominated programs do not do research. Even within our local community you will notice that research is a luxury that only senior academics indulge in where they can give up big UG teaching loads and may do just a few hours a week of project based tutoring. Senior academics are in short supply in the program. So the challenge before us is to get the whole staff group research active.

The construction of a personal research trajectory is an interesting proposition, and in the early years involves an understanding of research culture, and only then comes a desire to be research active. At this stage there is not an ID specific active research culture in the local context. Often ID research culture has seen fit to emulate the S&T or other paradigms. But for those of you keen on your design practice being the centre of you idea of research – this may not be an option. It wasn’t an option for me. I therefore do not have a very strong publication record. My publications have tended to be reporting on projects – except for the recent public lectures and invited papers in Australia in the past two years. I can certainly help you if you want to construct projects (which could then constitute research projects) that are tailored both to your passions and practice as an academic in our undergraduate focussed program. I am collaborating with three of you in writing grant applications, and am open to more joint applications.

I have for years believed that the taking of intellectual risks is a worthwhile activity. I have also believed that the university, as described by R. B. Fuller, is an ideal place for people for who crave the rush of risk and the absolute panic about the uncertainty and acceptance of outcomes. This then becomes the strength of the designer practitioner within the university where she becomes the antithesis and is the polar opposite of the practitioner in the field who is required by social inertia to be conservative and a designer of incremental change.

As an academic, three things are important: your teaching, your research and your demonstration of leadership. You have achieved well in teaching. I am now seeking your participation in a similar performance in our research and leadership front.

I am 4 months away from the completion of my term as PD. There is so little time and so much to do. In 2004 I set out a list of things I will accomplish and I am rushing to finish them. In this letter I have attempted to give shape to and emphasize the form and shape of the academic valued in the university work context today. I hope you will take this seriously and develop a workplan that is professionally strategic, balanced in emphasis and strong in commitments.

I wish you all the best for 2006.

Soumitri Varadarajan Program Director – Industrial Design

Categorized as Community

By Soumitri Varadarajan

Soumitri lives in Melbourne, Australia - #probonodesign #codesign #sustainability #patientexperience #quantifiedself #mdg

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: