Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Confessions of a Pracademic

The School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University held a very interesting conference last week entitled Practice in the Academy.  It was organized by Professors Kevin Avruch and Susan Allen Nan.  The focus of the event was evident from the titles of some of the talks:  "The Strains between Theory and Practice in the Academy" (Gene Rice); "The Challenges and Self-Motivation of the Practitioner in the Academy" (Joyce Neu); "Merging Theory and Practice: Toward a Grand Theory in Conflict Resolution Practice" (Jay Rothman); "The Necessary War between Conflict Resolution, Practice and Academia" (Marc Gopin); and "The Late 20th Century Academia:  A Taxing Environment for Conflict Resolution Practice" (Christopher Mitchell).  Many of the presenters were pessimistic about the survival of what some have called "pracademics" -- scholars who try to maintain their dispute resolution practice while trying to maintain a base in an academic department or practitioners who are trying to win a tenure positions at a university.  I was probably the most optimistic person there.

My talk was entitled "Confessions of a Pracademic:  A Virtuous Cycle of Theory-Building, Professional Education and Action Research." I am an academic.  I have been teaching full time at MIT for 42 years.  I have supervised more than 60 doctoral students and several hundred professional degree candidates in the urban planning field.  I am an action-researcher -- which is to say that I document and analyze my practice as a public dispute mediator and try to build prescriptive theory.  I begin with "problems in the world" that I think need attention rather than with problems in theory.  I measure success by how well the "problem havers" think we have done, not solely by the reactions of my academic peers. I helped to found the inter-university research center called the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School and I have been actively involved there for 30 years as part of interdisciplinary research teams.  I have published more than 20 books in nine languages.  I am also a mediation practitioner, having founded the not-for-profit Consensus Building Institute that provides mediation services in complicated public disputes around the world.  CBI, a company with $3 million or more in annual reeves and 16 full time staff, is now managed by my former students.

I offered the following nine confessions:

1.  I never had a career plan. I took the opportunities that presented themselves and always believed that if the university didn't want me, I could find a place in the world practice;  and if my practice didn't work out, I would find a scholarly assignment of some other kind.

2. I didn't care very much whether the world of theory was happy with what I did. I knew I would be criticized for not being sufficiently theoretical or detached. All action-reseachers have that problem.

3. My teachers were pracademics, so I thought that was normal.  That has always been the case, by the way, in Schools of Architecture and Planning. It always seemed inappropriate to me for a professional school faculty to be dominated by scholars who were not familiar with the ins and outs of practice.

4. I enjoy teaching in all possible contexts (from elementary school, to undergraduates, to graduate school, to mid-career practitioners, to the public-at-large).  I've presented many short-courses in community, agency and corporate settings in more than 30 countries. Teaching has always been the bridge for me between my research and my practice.

5. I've never been committed to or defined myself in terms of a particular discipline. I started as an undergraduate major in sociology and English Literature (or urban studies as I preferred to call it). In graduate school I took classes in more than a dozen different departments. This may have freed me from certain narrow assumptions about what good research requires. I still don't identify with a single discipline.

6. I've always been more satisfied with doing something than with writing about what other people have been doing.

7. I don't think the path I followed would allow me to earn a tenure appointment in my current department.  Today, I tell my younger faculty colleagues that they will have to play by the prevailing rules (for at least seven years) if they want to get tenure. That means publishing in peer reviewed journals, using more traditional applied social science research methods, and focusing on questions that the academic community thinks are important.  That also means putting aside action-research and practice for at least a six year period.  But, once they have tenure, they can pursue their interests as pracademics.

8. I have always moved from practice to theory and not the other way around.

9.  I have always been cross-contextual and cross-cultural in my way of working.  We can learn a great deal by comparing the results we achieve when we try the same thing in different settings or try different ways of doing the same thing.

Here are two images I shared with my fellow conferees:

Above the horizontal line in the first diagram is the world of analysis.  Below is the word of prescription. To the left of the vertical line is the world of practice.  To the right is the realm of theory.  This creates four quadrants:  I. Where we take a first-hand look at problems in the world; II. Where we try to explain the causes of these problems; III. Where we offer prescriptions regarding the best ways of tackling the problems; and IV: Where we try to implement the solutions we have proposed.   By moving from quadrants I to IV we can link the worlds of theory and practice in a productive fashion.

The second diagram maps onto the first. It shows how pracademics make connections between their teaching and their practice in the four quadrants.  In the realm of Documentation we do field-based research, prepare case studies and encourage our students to write problem-focused theses and dissertations.  In the second quadrants we engage in Theory Building; that is, we reflect on our practice, prepare working papers and articles for all kinds of publishing outlets and attend seminars and conference.  In the third quadrant we engage in Teaching and Training, preparing teaching manuals, teaching exercises, university-based courses, on-line learning opportunities and executive training sessions.  In the fourth quadrant, we help to build Action Partnerships.  These create internship opportunities for our practice-oriented students, provide contacts through which we engage in action-research and provide opportunities for practicums, studios and other kinds of university-based consultations.

While not all university departments encourage linkages of these kinds, many do.  Certainly practice-oriented schools which claim to be training professionals value connections of these kinds.  Even in those settings, though, young academics seeking to win tenure must realize that others in the university, particularly in the social sciences, will judge them by traditional standards of scholarship.  So, for a period of time, they will have to play down or abandon their aspirations to link theory and practice while they show what they can do in more traditional forms of scholarship.  Once they have tenure, though,  they will be free to shift their style of work.  And, while seven years might seem like a long time to put certain ambitions on hold, most university faculty members will have an additional thirty years to enjoy their status as full time pracademics.

1 Comment:

punit unisense said...

hmmmm..organised by Professors Kevin, for sure would have been very successful conference!

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