Consciously Incompetent

5-08

Building Mortality

November 14, 2019

On a typical Tuesday evening, in the 4th-floor pit of Rudolph Hall, Nancy Alexander, founder of Lumenance Consulting LLC, drew in a crowd of about forty students curious to learn about the steps the AIA is taking to promote equitable practices in the architecture profession. Phil Bernstein (a supportive spouse, responsible pro-prac professor, and dunkin’ munchkin-appreciator) could be found in the crowd as well.

The talk focused on how the AIA Guides for Equitable Practices began and how they are currently manifested. Nancy, alongside Renee Cheng, the dean of the University of Washington, has been working on the Guides for the past 18 months. We learned about the extensive research, partnerships, and interviews that informed the material for the Guides and the structure and frameworks through which the AIA expects organizations to use these Guides within professional settings. Rather than focus on the content of the various sub-guides and definitions of key-terms, the talk demonstrated an example of how language and design can be combined to create the tools we are missing and need in order to create a more equitable culture. Identifying a problem is a hard first step, but knowing how and with what tools to address the problem is an equally difficult second step.

Toward the end of her presentation, Nancy described the levels of competence that firms progress through as they address their culture and ethics. They start out unconsciously incompetent-unaware of cultural problems with no skills to address them. Then, employees speak up, pressure comes from the discipline or a firm self-assess, and they become consciously incompetent-aware of problems, but unsure what to do. After moving through conscious competence-working hard to make change, a firm is unconsciously competent-respect and equity are built into the firm’s culture. It’s second nature. When asked where we would place YSoA on this ladder, we looked to our neighbors, shrugged our shoulders, and offered, “Consciously incompetent?”

If we are, in fact, consciously incompetent, then as students, faculty, and administrators we have to decide what to do about it and whose job it is to act.

We came to YSoA for the culture: close-knit studios, group summer projects, weekly social gatherings. There are aspects of our culture that make YSoA YSoA, but they’re malleable.  Is YSoA still YSoA if we hold final reviews in a completely different format? Probably. If the curriculum changes? Yes. If everyone stops playing badminton? Maybe? What is fundamental to YSoA’s culture is ultimately up to the two-hundredish students that happen to be living in Rudolph Hall at any given time. (Is YSoA YSoA without Rudolph Hall? It has been.) YSoA maintains its identity even as it changes over time.

As part of the School’s long-range strategic plan, Nancy shared with us that preparation has begun for a survey of the YSOA community to help determine the strengths of the School’s culture as well as goals for improvement. The School plans to release the survey before the end of the 2019-20 academic year. Although Phil may offer us pizza (fingers crossed) in exchange for a high survey completion rate, we hope that our peers each feel that they have a role in the continued evolution of YSoA’s culture, rewards aside. Communication with the administration about what’s going on, and how we feel about it, is one crucial vehicle for evolution and an important first step. However, the administration will need to address how and with what tools they plan to act on that information.

It is the administration’s obligation to shape an inclusive and representative cultural framework with faculty hires, admissions decisions, and curriculum choices. They also have the power to choose which rules they articulate to faculty and students alike. The School takes clear stances on health hazards like smoking and chemical use, and this could extend to a code of conduct. While Phil can’t personally punish students for using Zap a Gap in unventilated spaces, the administration’s guidelines create a framework for us to make decisions about our personal health (and our deskmates’). Likewise, the administration can’t police social values, but they can and should guide them. We recognize the agency we students have to decide which YSoA traditions make the cut, and we know it will take the entire community to maintain a day-to-day culture of mutual respect and equity. However, progress will require small structural changes, led by the administration, that begin to open up the conversation, transcend student-faculty dichotomies, tie generations of students together, and raise the level of consciousness of the community as a whole.