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...until i sketched it

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Ignite talk for Teaching IA workshop at the Information Architecture Summit

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...until i sketched it

  1. 1. …until I sketched it An ignite talk on theory and practice in information architecture education Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt thomas@srsg.co srsg.co
  2. 2. Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Thomas Wendt Design Strategist and Researcher ! Teacher, Speaker, and Writer ! Founder of Surrounding Signifiers, a strategy and design consultancy ! Background in continental philosophy, psychology, and literary theory ! !
  3. 3. Theory and Practice Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt While the question of balancing theory and practice is certainly not specific to information architecture education, IA is in a unique position to show how the dichotomy of theory and practice is perhaps not very productive. As instructors, it is easy to obsess about balancing theoretical frameworks with practical applications. My goal is not necessarily to answer the question but to approach it in a different way.
  4. 4. Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Theory from Theoria conception, contemplation, look at ! from Theoros spectator, a view (theater) It is helpful to refresh ourselves on what theory and practice actually mean. Theory is usually associated with detached speculation that results in a mental conception that lives “in the head.” We teach theory because it ostensibly lays a foundation for practice, which generates understanding.
  5. 5. Theory Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Understanding Theory emphasizes reflection as a necessary means for understanding. We cannot simply parrot actions of “experts” and expect to understand anything.
  6. 6. Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Practice from Practicare to do, perform to acquire a skill https://www.google.com/url? sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&docid=Q5xhcSUT1_XRCM&tbnid=QLhiYgRqxjzhjM:&ved=0 CAYQjRw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fmikeschultzpaintings.wordpress.com%2Fcategory%2Fstudio %2F&ei=lO0gU-ziAYqZ0QHimoHwBA&bvm=bv. 62922401,d.dmQ&psig=AFQjCNHnZUzKmCJU1jEsk5wFyJaflqGX6g&ust=1394753141510537 Practice is associated with action. In the context of IA education, we teach practice because it’s what students will eventually “do.” Practice builds upon and enacts theory to generate knowledge.
  7. 7. Practice Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Knowledge Practice emphasizes action as a means of knowledge acquisition.
  8. 8. Theory or Practice? Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt So the question becomes how much theory versus how much practice. This was one of the prompts for this workshop. I want to argue that this question leads us down the wrong path. Asking the question assumes that understanding is always theoretical and knowledge is always practical. I’m not sure that’s the case.
  9. 9. Dualism Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Theory and practice are not always mutually exclusive. There are plenty of situations in which theory and practice blend together. In terms of IA, practical activities like sketching and system flows are less about the artifact and more about theoretical reflection that happens “outside the head,” or what Donald Schon might call reflection-in-action.
  10. 10. Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt http://newyorknatives.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/new-york-subway-map-cropped2.jpg For example, consulting a map is wrapped up in navigating, and vice versa. Reflection on the artifact cannot be disconnected from the acts of navigation and way finding. Looking at a map is an action designed to facilitate understanding.
  11. 11. Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Mapping the flow of a system is the same as reflecting on the system. We map things in order to understand them, not for the sake of the map itself.
  12. 12. Should we even make the distinction? Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt So should we even distinguish between theory and practice? What good is it doing us? I’m not sure I have the answer, but I might know where to look.
  13. 13. Praxis Philosophy Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Praxis philosophy, usually associated with phenomenology, was born out of a dissatisfaction with earlier dualist philosophy beginning with Rene Descartes. Praxis philosophy aimed to break down the separation between mind and body, and show how bodily engagement with the world is what shapes knowledge and understanding.
  14. 14. We can’t learn without action Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt For our purposes, we can’t learn without action in context. This is pretty easy for educators to understand: this is why we have in class activities, homework assignments, etc.
  15. 15. Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Design-as-practice Lucy Kimbell describes this phenomenon as design-as-practice. She says, “Design-as-practice cannot conceive of designing (the verb) without the artifacts that are created and used by the bodies and minds of people doing design. This way of thinking of design sees it as a situated and distributed accomplishment in which a number of things, people, and their doings and sayings, are implicated.”
  16. 16. Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Or as Paul Dourish states, “Embodiment does not simply mean physical manifestation. Rather, it means being grounded in and emerging out of everyday, mundane experience” ! To become an information architect, one must not only perform the physical actions of the profession. One must also become embodied in the everyday experience of information architecture.
  17. 17. Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Understanding-as- practice And this means practicing a form of understanding-as-practice. Through the active engagement with information architecture, the student embodies both theory and practice. The question, then, is not necessarily about how much theory and how much practice to include in education but rather how to properly frame the combination.
  18. 18. Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Praxis… The problem is that we don’t have a good word for the coming-together of theory and practice. Praxis is about as close as we get, and that still doesn’t completely embody the entirety of the concept.
  19. 19. Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt “I couldn’t talk about my idea until I sketched it.” Former Student Perhaps one of my former students put it best when she said “I couldn’t talk about my idea until I sketched it.” Our challenge is to name this concept without using obscure Greek words and incorporate it into our teaching.