Student-Driven and Immersive Learning in the Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures Field School
Esmé Barniskis, English
The Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures Field School offers students an unconventional mode of learning through immersion in the everyday life of a neighborhood. The 2014 BLC Field School program took place in the historic neighborhood of Washington Park, Milwaukee. The immersion of students in the neighborhood’s history and current reality gives students a unique perspective on the realities of everyday life within the neighborhood. Complex social issues, or what social theorist Horst Rittel calls “wicked problems,” present in Washington Park challenged students to co-create “resolutions” in partnership with neighborhood residents. Working in tandem, the BLC Field School students and neighborhood partners sought to give a voice to this Milwaukee neighborhood.
Active and Social Space
For the purpose of this research, I operate within the framework of space as defined by Lefebvre’s statement that “(Social) space is a (social) product.” The notion of space as a social product is a necessary underpinning to the concept of a neighborhood and community. Lefebvre complicates the traditional and sterile definitions of space and moves the idea of space away from being “a void packed like a parcel with various contents” and into a conceptualization of space as “social character” that is an active member in any relationship.
Lefebvre both rejects the division of space into discipline-specific spaces and performs his own divisions. Lefebvre splits space into three overlapping and mutually constructing categories of perceived spaces, conceived spaces, and lived spaces which “sit in dialectical relationship to one another” and deny complete separation from each other. Each form of space creates the other categories and thus also supports itself; no form of space can exist independent of each other. Space is thus real, imagined, and lived simultaneously.
Lefebvre’s use of the “triadic dialectic” of space gives new life to notions of social space. It is precisely due to Lefebvre’s overlapping and co-constructing spaces that the “complexities of social reality” are able to be explored. The concept of a neighborhood as a social space comes alive in the context of Lefebvre’s characterization of space as an active agent operating upon and with other social actors.
A neighborhood as a place (let it be noted that in this paper I use space and place almost interchangeably) that is not a “passive locus of social relations” but an active agent necessarily changes how we view the social reality of that neighborhood. Introducing another active social agent not only complicates the preexisting relations within the community residents, but also adds the relationship of the residents with the neighborhood itself to the social network present.
Writing on the issues of social problem-solving and systems, Horst Rittel tackles the considerable issue of professionalization in public service and planning. He posits that the professional “was hired to eliminate those conditions that predominant opinion judged undesirable” and that the “accomplishments of the past century” are testimony to the triumph of “professional prowess.” However, Rittel makes it clear that he does not categorically condone the actions of professionalized public servants. Rather, he strives to deconstruct the cycle of professionalization and structural inadequacies of “goal-formation, problem-definition, and equity issues” that have, in the face of a pluralized society, led to “public protests” against prescribed and top-down “solutions.”
Rittel’s end goal is not to critique the professional, but rather to explore the nature of societal problems and the systems in which these problems operate. Rittel urges us to consider not “‘what are [the systems] made of?’” but rather “‘what do the systems do?’” and “‘what should these systems do?’” in terms of solving social issues (e.g. poverty). Though he remains vague on what precisely those systems are, it is understood that they are social in nature, and complex to operate with or in due to their open nature. Rather than a closed circuit, such as a mathematical problem, social problems have no closing strand, instead having many strands that connect to other social problems.
Rittel then moves to consider the ethics of systematic planning and resolutions by noting that “even if we do happen to know what aims we seek” the “where and how” of planning remains ambiguous. Noting that “many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions” Rittel comes to the crux of his argument: that social problems (“wicked problems”) have no simple map of those involved and of possible resolutions. He notes that all problems are interconnected and support one another.
What this tells us about social networks within neighborhoods is that, whatever conditions present or absent in that neighborhood, the improvement on or betterment of the community is multi-faceted and operates in an open system. No resolution ends the problem definitively, and no problem truly disappears. Looking at the issues of neighborhood improvement and sustainability, Rittel argues that “the aim is not to find the truth, but to improve some characteristics of the world where people live.” Here he reminds us of the humanistic work done by planners—those same professionals who might use prescribed resolutions to another’s issues.
Knowledge as Practice
Yet another framework is the notion of knowledge as practice. Scholars Edward Weber and Anne Khademian couch their definitions of knowledge in terms of sending, receiving, and integrating. They note that in “wicked problem-based network settings” the individuals involved are highly diverse, thus “the information flowing through the network is likely to have different meanings, different uses, and different values for the individuals and groups receiving and using it.” The complexities of knowledge present within a social network further complicates the search for social realities within a neighborhood.
Weber and Khademian focus their definitions of knowledge not as “a thing or object that can be captured, stored, transferred, and managed” but as individualized and situated action “deeply embedded in what they practice.” From this, Weber and Khademian assert that “knowledge must be understood in the context of practice that is situated in a geographic setting, a particular point in time, or within a particular set of relationships.” This specific definition of knowledge is highly applicable to the work of the BLC Field School within the Washington Park neighborhood.
Any other approach to knowledge “may be sufficient…if there is an understanding of the kind of knowledge that is required for a particular task.” The assumption of prior understanding and problem definition links back to the challenges that Horst Rittel outlined when dealing with wicked problems versus tame problems. Rittel writes, “The information needed to understand the problem depends upon one’s idea for solving it.” The approach of knowledge as practice instead of an object is therefore necessary to conceptualizations of wicked problems, which have no set of simple information necessary to solve it. Knowledge as practice acknowledges the difficulties of dealing with wicked problems, and also heightens awareness of individual knowledge practices.
Interviews and Reflection
For the remainder of this paper, I will use interviews of three first-year Field School participants to examine the content for evidence of knowledge formed through immersion. In addition, I use the interview of a second-year participant and teaching assistant for the Field School and the interview of a non-participant who nevertheless analyzed the Field School data in terms of public and private spatial uses. These primary sources give practical context to the theoretical frameworks examined above.
Analysis of the Field School interviews shows that while students participated in and engaged with several forms of learning, they were not always readily aware of their own learning gains. Unconsciousness of learning gains points to a preoccupation with other activities. As Student C notes, “this is the most exhausting class.” His preoccupation with the stress and busyness of the class overshadows his ability to recognize that his cognitive conception of a neighborhood was being challenged. While he repeatedly mentions the stress of the class, he mentions only once, and with prompting, that “the most substantial thing that happened for me was…it really changed my view about how things work…both in say a neighborhood and in a community.”
Student A understood his own learning gains in terms of practice. When asked about the labelling of the Field School, he answered that “a large part of it was ethnographic. You go and you ask and you observe, but in the end you take it and analyze it. You do something with it.” His open acknowledgment of his learning gains as something that he “did something with” points to his conceptualization of knowledge as practice. Student A also acknowledged the presence of wicked problems in his own work. While he notes that “I can’t say we witnessed [poverty], we just saw something that might look like it,” he also states that “there are structural problems that are much larger than neighborhood-based” issues of poverty. Thus Student A was reflective and deeply critical on his own primary research in Washington Park.
As to be expected, the non-participant interviewee, Student B, revealed very little explicit learning in terms of immersion. The separation between his applied research and the direct involvement of the Field School creates a layer that is hard to bridge. Yet Student B does reveal some implicit understanding of learning goals and gains. He states, “I kind of understood why the Field School would want to look at that area of Milwaukee,” yet goes no further into the why of his own meta-research. He likewise does not speculate on the why of the Field School’s research, thus pointing to either a lack of certainty, or ambivalence towards higher-order questions. He dances around the heart of his own research precisely because it dealt with meta-research. The two layers of research from the primary source—that is, from Washington Park—here clouds the active agent’s ability to see his own gains.
Similar to Student B, Student D treated much of her learning as implicit rather than explicit. However, Student D did frame her learning as practice. When asked about how she would describe the Field School experience, she answered in terms of learning and activities. She answered the question with the statement: “We learned how to take interviews with people…documentation and photography.” So while Student D remained concrete in her conscious learning, she did see the link between action and knowledge.
The interview with the second-year Field School participant contained more reflexive statements and increased cognitive awareness of knowledge practices. The increased cognitive reflection is most likely due to the dual roles the interviewee had been in, as both a participant and a teaching assistant. Her succinct description of the Field School points to a deep consciousness on what her own learning goals were. She described the Field School as:
An exercise in holistic preservation and applying that to Milwaukee neighborhoods. Specifically Washington Park and collecting information about the history, the change, the people, and the stories, and finally the goal is weaving a deeper narrative than could be collected through blueprints to ultimately empower the neighbors.
This prepared and polished description speaks to two points: that Student E has both answered the question “what is the Field School?” before and that she has reflected enough to phrase this answer in satisfactory terms. Her own description of the Field School also points to what she considers most relevant. By phrasing the description in her own words, Student E points to her own interests within the context of the Field School.
Conclusions and Moving Forward
The scope of the BLC Field School is a three-year endeavor to experience and learn in the context of a Milwaukee neighborhood. The summer of 2014 was the first year in the Washington Park neighborhood. In order to record and provide a forum for the stories and the social reality of Washington Park residents, participants in the BLC Field School must be willing to have their preconceptions overturned. The learning gains of Field School members takes secondary importance to the support and advocacy that is the Field School. However, if we operate within the framework that knowledge is practice, all actions performed by the Field School are knowledge, and the learning gains made by participants occur in tandem with the support given to the Washington Park neighborhood.
Co-construction of resolutions to issues faced in the neighborhood points to direct applications of knowledge. The individualized responses to the neighborhood likewise reveals the importance of acknowledging the neighborhood space as a unique and active member in the search for resolutions. In the years to come, the BLC Field School will need to continue to incorporate space as an active agent in the learning and creation processes. However, it is most important to remember that while the direct goals of the BLC Field School are to record and communicate the stories of Washington Park, the indirect goals are to find resolutions to social issues.
 Rittel, Horst WJ, and Melvin M. Webber. "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning." Policy Sciences 4, no. 2 (1973): 155-169. 160.
 Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Maldan, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1991. 26. Original Emphasis.
 Ibid. 27.
 Leckie, Gloria J., Lisa M. Given, and John Buschman, eds. Critical Theory for Library and Information Science: Exploring the Social from Across the Disciplines. ABC-CLIO, 2010. 228.
 Ibid. 229.
 Lefebvre. The Production of Space. 11.
 Rittel. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” 156.
 Ibid. 155.
 Ibid. 157. Original emphasis.
 Ibid. 159.
 Ibid. 163.
 Ibid. 167.
 Weber, Edward P., and Anne M. Khademian. "Wicked Problems, Knowledge Challenges, and Collaborative Capacity Builders in Network Settings." Public Administration Review 68, no. 2 (2008): 334-349. 338.
 Ibid. 337.
 Ibid. 338.
 Ibid. 339.
 Ibid. 339.
 Rittel. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” 161. Original Emphasis.
 Student C. Interview by the author. UWM, Milwaukee, WI. October 30, 2o14.
 Student A. Interview by the author. UWM, Milwaukee, WI. October 20, 2014.
 Student B. Interview by the author. UWM, Milwaukee, WI. October 23, 2014.
 Student D. Interview by author. UWM, Milwaukee, WI. November 3, 2014.
 Student E. Interview by author. UWM, Milwaukee, WI. November 7, 2014.
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Maldan, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1991.
Rittel, Horst WJ, and Melvin M. Webber. "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning." Policy Sciences 4, no. 2 (1973): 155-169.
Weber, Edward P., and Anne M. Khademian. "Wicked Problems, Knowledge Challenges, and Collaborative Capacity Builders in Network Settings." Public Administration Review 68, no. 2 (2008): 334-349.
Leckie, Gloria J., Lisa M. Given, and John Buschman, eds. Critical Theory for Library and Information Science: Exploring the Social from Across the Disciplines. ABC-CLIO, 2010.
Esmé Barniskis is completing her second semester at UW-Milwaukee. She is majoring in English and minoring in Latin. Her interests include history, classics, literature, political theory, and critical theory of all kinds. She aspires to become a college professor and researcher with a focus on the intersections of critical theory and the everyday. Her personal interests include reading, spending time with friends and family, and binge-watching shows on Netflix. Esmé is very pleased with her academic situation, and would like to point out the necessity of higher education. #SaveOurUW