Why I Teach: Part 2: To Transform

Aseem Inam:  I’m getting back to my blog after a while.  I was offered and accepted, a terrific new position at the Cardiff University in the UK as Professor and Chair in Urban Design, where I’m working across the School of Architecture as well as the School of Geography and Planning.  Over the past year and a half, I’ve also been invited to give talks, including keynote speeches, at various professional and academic settings.  I take seriously and enjoy quite a bit these talks because I see them as important parts of the public discourse on urbanism.  I’ve also been working on multiple research projects which will lead to two more books, one on Las Vegas and the other on informal urbanisms.  I’ve posting about some of these things on Twitter and on LinkedIn, so please do take a look at those if you're interested. 

Here, I want to return to why I teach.  In the previous blog post, I talked about teaching to learn.  In this one, I talk about teaching to transform.  To transform means to change radically.  To change radically means to try to get at root causes.  So, transformation is one type of change, but it is fundamental change that is deeper that surface appearance and even structural.  Transformation is very hard to do, but it is the most important kind of change and it is very much worth the challenge and the effort.  The good news is that history is replete with transformations, both deliberate and circumstantial.

Of course, my specific interest is in urban transformation.  To understand deeply the nature of cities is to begin pointing to the possibilities of urban transformation.  In fact, I spent several years researching the nature of urban transformation, its relationship to design and practice, and the critical and creative ways to design urban transformation.  My book, Designing Urban Transformation, was published a few years ago.  The term "transformation" is used quite frequently, often in lazy ways, so I continue to delve into understanding it and designing for it.  The ultimate goal of urban transformation is radical social, political and economic change [in addition to being spatial] in ways that affect people lives in cities and beyond.

Transformation happens at the intersection of theory and practice, simultaneously learning about the field and constantly redefining it.  A key aspect of this approach to challenge the theoretical foundations of the design fields that engage with the city on an everyday basis, such as architecture, landscape architecture, urban design and city planning.  Attempting to radically change the world with existing assumptions and design methods is a guarantee for failure, as has been demonstrated millions of times.  So, when I deploy terms such as urbanism, urban practice, urban practitioners and urban transformation [rather than urban design, design practice, urban designers and project implementation], it is to advocate for a fundamental shift in not just terminology, but more importantly a fundamental shift in attitude towards something that is far more critical, transdisciplinary and engaged than what the conventional fields embrace.

What better venue than the university to engage in such deep questioning, such persistent investigation and such forms of collective inquiry?!  The relationship between teaching and transformation is that teaching becomes a method of joint conversation—including debate and argument—rather than conventional notions of transfers of knowledge.  I have always felt free in front of students, especially graduate students, to share not only my ideas, knowledge and experiences, but also my doubts and questions.  For example, some of the best discussions follow from rhetorical questions.  In this manner, genuine transformation becomes a collective inquiry, a collective effort and ultimately, a collective accomplishment.

We, and our cities, need and deserve nothing less than that.  AI

The scholar-practitioners [i.e. graduate students] at the Parsons School of Design in New York City engaged in a collective exercise to inquire into and redefine the field of urban practice, coming up with a series of questions and issues that this newly-defined field addresses.  Source:  Sara Wallis Minard.

The scholar-practitioners [i.e. graduate students] at the Parsons School of Design in New York City engaged in a collective exercise to inquire into and redefine the field of urban practice, coming up with a series of questions and issues that this newly-defined field addresses.  Source:  Sara Wallis Minard.

If one looks carefully and critically enough, one can find many sources of inspiration from collective actions that led to transformation throughout history.  A brilliant example is when nearly 400 million Indians threw off the oppression of British colonial rule through nonviolent political strategies under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and others.  Source:  Wikipedia.

If one looks carefully and critically enough, one can find many sources of inspiration from collective actions that led to transformation throughout history.  A brilliant example is when nearly 400 million Indians threw off the oppression of British colonial rule through nonviolent political strategies under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and others.  Source:  Wikipedia.