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Doing vs Reflecting – thoughts on academia and the subtle art of change

A bit of a rant.

I’m in the process of putting together a proposal for an internship. It’s a super-exciting project, one that’s sure to stretch me at least a little bit. It’s been in a bit of a limbo as my digital film class, work, papers and so many other opportunities too good to pass up have swallowed up anything I had resembling a normal life.

On the one hand, I’m being advised to keep things manageable — scoping what I want to do quite specifically. This is an internship, not a thesis, and the intent of the exercise is to really get me confident in practicing the skills of a planner. I was advised to have it be perhaps more literature based, and to not even think about collecting data — too much hassle for something that’s supposed to be rather brief. And given my quantitative skills are quite untested, descriptive statistics only. I was hearing exactly what I wanted to hear, in fact, because I’d spent a whole month tearing myself to shreds about what I could possibly do with this opportunity. Even if this strays on the research side of things, it took me all that time for me to realize this myself: this is a planning internship. I’m not necessarily required to make a contribution to scholarship with the report I write for it. (Breathing…) So the real aim is to focus on the skills I want to practice, and what I want to say I did at the end of the four months. How awesome — I pretty much get to define exactly what I want out of it and all I have to do is write it up. That said, I’m really way too used to being told what to do for this to be entirely comfortable. But that’s OK too.

Yesterday I had a meeting with the people working in the project itself. I’m a big fan of action and participatory research, because it involves actually doing something rather than observing from afar. I like to get my feet wet and my hands dirty, what can I say, though I’m still a bit new to it. The most important thing I walked out of that meeting with was that there’s several different heights: the theoretical height that planners do most of their work from, looking at things 10, 15, 20, 30 years down the road. The impacts of a land user planner’s decisions may not manifest for ages! And yet, this project involves people who are planning for actions in the next 6 months. Their concerns are a little more, shall we say, quotidian, and they have to find ways to make things work with what they have right now — which is often an urban form that’s not conducive to active transportation (cycling or walking), despite the mountain of evidence that’s piling up about how much benefit doing these things yield.

So my issue right now is picking the right ‘height’ from which to do my internship. I don’t necessarily want to be right on the ground — that’s for the people I’m working with. But I don’t want my work to be at an abstract height so far above that my work is completely irrelevant to the project, either now or in its future. I’m fortunate, because the project does have data collection happening on its own, so I can have data to play with. My advisor was also OK with me doing interviews, so maybe that’s where I can do something a little more rich and interesting on this topic.


This is exactly the conversation I need to be having with myself and I’m pretty sure one any researcher doing work with communities must have, so if nothing else, I’m glad I actually wrote it down this time! Now to pump out that proposal for next week…


  1. Hi Karen,

    I like your page more and more. How are you finding the planning education (professors, staff, students, educational approach) at UBC? I’m curious to investigate if PhD out there would be something for me…

    I didn’t see you at CAPS in Guelph. But I’m glad you had a good time, and we’ll absolutely meet in Waterloo next year! :o)

    Also, how was the Resilience Symposium? Was Buzz a good speaker? We’re in the process of securing keynote speakers…so just wondering if we should try to get him here…?

    Take care,

    Posted March 26, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  2. Hi Kent,

    Thanks for the kind comment. I knew there was something I forgot to do in Guelph! I’m sure we passed each other, and we now definitely have some common acquaintances via your colleagues at UWaterloo.

    Your question about how I’m finding SCARP is very well-timed — we just had visitors from the CIP come and accredit us last week, which means I heard from 15 first-year students and 1 second-year student on why they chose SCARP over other schools. A few of us (me included) only applied to SCARP and would not be in a Master’s program if we weren’t there. I think some of that has to do with just being in Vancouver, but also because a lot of us aren’t all that set on being planners, but see it rather as a vehicle for the manner and kind of change we are interested in affecting. Others mentioned that the program has a focus on sustainability that sets it apart from other places. Others still mentioned the quality of the faculty — something that is bafflingly odd to me because I’ve read no planning literature and pretty much had never heard of Leonie Sandercock, John Friedmann or Lawrence D. Frank before my first day at Orientation.

    I was unfortunately not able to make the first half of Buzz Holling’s presentation so I’m not really qualified to comment on his bit. That said, if you’re interested I can put you in touch with members of the organizing committee who can comment on whether he’d be appropriate for the event you’re putting on.

    Let’s hope I get out to Waterloo. Also, if you’re a student member of the Canadian Institute of Planning, I’d love to get your thoughts on what you’d want to see the national Student Representative for CIP do from your vantage point. I’ve thrown my hat in the ring for that position, and it was definitely the sort of thing I would have had never considered doing had I not been fortunate enough to make it to Guelph.

    Best for your semester-end,


    Posted March 29, 2010 at 3:18 am | Permalink
  3. Nice to hear from you Karen!

    “Being in Vancouver” is indeed a powerful pull factor. I can feel it in my mind these days, generating emotions and visual poetry silently deep in the back of my head where dreams start their journey. I’ve had this happening before, pulling me to destinations without knowing when or how to get there. We’ll see, but I do like the feeling of walking against the wind.

    Thank you for your SCARP commentary. Waterloo has strengths as well, but I hear what you’re saying. UW and my advisor was my only application and request, and it has been a good year. But the student life and community is probably what forms the core of the comradeship carrying us through every student’s individual and collective journey.

    I’ve never heard of Leonie Sandercock, John Friedmann or Lawrence D. Frank either, and I’m very glad you brought them to my attention. It’s almost kind of funny, but they’re all focus on topics of great interest to me. I have an international development studies background, I find planning/development theory more interesting than technicalities of planning/development praxis, and I’m currently writing my thesis on public space and equity. With your help, this little bit of ‘dream fodder’ makes my day. Thanks. :)

    Concerning CIP; you got my vote. Seems like you have passion, which may fall short to other competitors’ pragmatic approach, but passion is to me worth a vote. As a planning student, I would like to see more work on (1) better student rates at conferences, (2) more international network alignments (i.e. planning students-to-planning students communication channels), and (3) more internal planning student networking…i.e. an active communication between all the planning schools’ student organizations, which would make CAPS and other conferences and scholarships information and research-sharing/ ideas-boosting more transparent and interesting.

    Best of luck!
    We’ll stay in touch.
    It’s a John Butler Trio and their “Valley” song kind of day! :)


    Posted April 14, 2010 at 10:34 am | Permalink

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