The University of Warwick was founded in 1965, and is now one of Britain’s top universities. It is on the edge of Coventry and South Warwickshire in the English Midlands, and is slowly spreading towards the small town of Kenilworth (and its famous castle) where I live. The campus has grown rapidly, through many phases of development, creating a rich texture of architectural and academic styles across a devolved patchwork of departments and services. It is a fascinating place to do design research and development, with all of the challenges presented by diversity, complexity and scale.
I have been part of Warwick since 1988, having followed Open Studies courses here, leading to an undergraduate degree in Philosophy (first class). Since 2001 I have worked in a variety of IT and academic technology roles at Warwick, leading up to my present post as a Senior Academic Technologist in the Academic Technology Team. Over this time I have developed a partnership-based approach to developing academic technology use, involving students and staff of all kinds, and increasingly using approaches adopted from professional design and anthropology (merging into design anthropology). This has naturally evolved to fit with Warwick and its campus-based, research-informed, engaged students and teachers. The Arts E-Squad project, and my work with Catherine Allen (now of BAFTA and Apple award-winning app developers Touch Press) was the most important highlight of this career so far – leading to my PhD and the development of the Fit, Stick, Spread and Grow approach. The students of the E-Squad demonstrated a powerful sense of curiosity, a willingness to experiment, an openness to all kinds of collaborators (students and staff) and a drive to complete and perfect – typical of Warwick.
In 2012 I presented a paper (as a staff member) at the British Conference of Undergraduate Research, reflecting upon my experiences of Warwick as an undergraduate. This then helped to form my PhD research project (on Design Thinking for the [Re]making of Higher Education). An extract of this paper is presented below. But first, an iconic image giving a sense of the place:
What am I doing here?
That’s a question that I have been asking myself for some time.
For a brief moment in 1991 there seemed to be a simple answer: escaping my hometown Coventry, a failing economy, and a fragmenting society. Like many young working class people at the time, I snatched at the opportunity. A doorway had swung open, almost by chance. Quick! Run for it!
I did. I jumped fast and found myself sitting in the eccentric little common room of the University of Warwick Department of Philosophy.
And then what? What was I doing there? In the abstract sense on a UCAS spreadsheet I was one of 18 first-years allocated to course V700 at institution W20. I might have even been assigned a special classification as a student from a “non-traditional” background. Perhaps I had been identified for upgrade from working class to middle class? Fortunately, my reality was both less and more than that: less determined, less codified, less simple; and more open, more malleable, more complex. It was a future to be assembled, a big black hole of undetermined possibilities, dragging me slowly towards it. And a challenge – as I accelerated into its grasp, to design and construct myself a vehicle that could carry me into that future.
I then went on to describe a constructionist reframing of the question:
The answer to my question what am I doing here? is in part answered by reframing it as what am I making here? – with the answer being: I am making my ability to make, my agency.
Three significant projects in higher education research and development urge teachers and students to perform a similar reframing: Student as Producer, Open Space Learning, and Thomas Docherty’s book For the University: Democracy and the Future of the Institution. These, and other projects (to be discussed), could be seen as the formation of a new constructionism in the study, design and delivery of higher education. A reinvigorated interest in how we do, and how we should, make our world – not an idealist or post-modern social constructivism, but a realist constructionism. In Reassembling the Social, Bruno Latour argues for a re-appropriation of the term constructivism from idealist and post-modernists to the expanded realism of Actor-Network-Theory, as “…a synonym for an increase in realism” (Latour, 2007: p.92); I agree with the sentiment, but prefer to distinguish these two constructivisms by using Papert and Harel’s (1991) term constructionism.
This began the process of reconsidering the University through the lens of the designer, both the professional designer that I am today, and the everyday designer of my student career.