Cart Before the Horse(?)

The recent flurry of activity from NCARB — and the requisite mixed bag of reactions from the architectural community, complete with hand-wringing that comes with the idea of changing something about the process — has had me thinking a lot about change, change for change’s sake, and how we as a culture react to it. It’s certainly not the first time NCARB has made modifications to their programs and policies, and I doubt that it will be the last. In honor of the now-ubiquitous Throwback Thursday, here’s an example from my own personal experiences.

Confession time: I graduated from college — and entered the workforce — in June of 2000. (Yes, again, another reminder that I’m getting old.) It was a simpler time — Facebook hadn’t been invented (much less gone mainstream) just yet, Twitter was even further off, and a “smart phone” was one that had a camera. I also walked uphill to the office, both ways, in driving rain and snow… (I’m only kidding about that last part. It was a bridge, not a hill.) But I digress… Back in my day, an intern had to complete IDP (filling out Experience Reports BY HAND) before being they could even consider starting the ARE.

I know what you’re thinking: Facebook hadn’t been invented yet!?! Stay with me, here…

When I began my internship, taking my first steps on my path to becoming an architect, candidates had to complete IDP first (earning your minimum amount of experience while doing so) before receiving their Authorization to Test. Under that model, the exam became a rite of passage… it was something that you worked toward, the culmination of your education and training, a palpable threshold that could be crossed. The ARE tested not only your ability to hit the books, but also the things that you had learned along the way. The experience became part of your preparation for the exam. (For the record, I completed IDP in early 2004, started testing — under ARE 3.1, mind you — in December of 2004, and finished nearly one year later, in December of 2005. Seems like only yesterday, but the fact that it’s been nearly ten years is staggering to me.) As most candidates know, that’s all changed now. Most jurisdictions allow their interns to take any (or all!) of the seven divisions of the exam as soon as they graduate from college, concurrent with earning IDP credit.

As NCARB has been quick to point out, taking the ARE concurrent with IDP has provided a great deal of flexibility in the internship process, allowing emergent professionals the chance to take a particular exam when it’s most convenient for them (even if they are out of work, which has been a major issue for our profession in recent years). It also eliminated some of the frustration inherent in IDP, which can drag out for years due to difficulty in gaining particular blocks of experience. Pennsylvania adopted concurrency in 2007, long after I was registered, which meant that I never had the opportunity to experience this in practice.
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Full disclosure: I’m not a big fan of concurrency, which to me feels like putting the cart before the horse. I feel that it has diluted the exam process, and in doing so, has taken some of the “oomph” out of licensure. It’s still no small feat, mind you — earning one’s license still requires 5,600 hours of experience and seven passing scores, no matter what order you decide to tackle them. But there was something about the significance in completing IDP before starting the ARE, meaning that you had earned the experience and were ready to be tested on it. Then came scheduling the different divisions, each one a milestone in its own right, and getting those score reports, one by one. That last “pass” letter was a powerful thing — it meant that you were DONE. Without it, and this is just my opinion here, it would seem to me that your internship ends not with a bang, as T. S. Eliot put it, but with a whimper.

It’s has nothing to do with the time factor — it’s just that I don’t feel that the test was meant to be taken by someone fresh out of school, someone who hasn’t yet experienced many of the things that are meant to be tested. More to the point, without the proper context, some candidates might not even realize why a particular question was even important. The exam loses its heft when it’s nothing more than a chore, something that just needs to be gotten out of the way.

Case in point: I can remember, very distinctly, sitting in on a construction meeting where the word “contingency” was mentioned. I was 27 years old at the time, and will openly admit (just as I did then) that I didn’t know what the term meant. The owners’ rep explained it to me, practically giving me a dictionary definition, but in the context of the project, I understood it. Two years later, while preparing for the ARE, that same definition showed up on the back of a flash card… and, later, a question about contingencies came up in my Contract Documents exam. I remember feeling that I had achieved some holistic understanding, that my study and experience were both informing my performance on the exam. I felt… well, I felt exactly how I think you’re supposed to feel in that situation. Confident. Composed. Collected. Without the experience to back it up, it would have just been another vocabulary lesson, a piece of architectural trivia. I don’t believe that interns are going to look back on the test, after completing IDP, and say something to the effect of “so *that’s* what that question was on my test!” Some will, I’m sure, but many won’t.

Again, these are just my opinions on the matter, which are deeply rooted in my own personal experiences with the exam and my internship. That said, opinions can change. In the time that I’ve spent talking with exam candidates and recently-registered professionals, I’ve come to appreciate the freedom that concurrency has offered in the process… particularly in recent years, when practical experience (you know, the kind that came with a paycheck) was hard to come by, and I certainly do not discount that. The point here is this: if I had vehemently opposed concurrency for those reasons, expecting every architect that came after me to have the same exact internship experience as I did, countless interns would not have benefitted from the more streamlined process. The sum of the requisite parts is still the same, just the order in which they’ve been undertaken is slightly different. Those who are opposed to the currently proposals for changes in the system, without allowing them a chance to develop, are in danger of putting an overturned cart in front of our collective horse, a roadblock that is potentially more damaging to our profession than it is helpful.

Some parting thoughts: The pending changes to the ARE, as well as the idea of sweeping changes to IDP, offers an opportunity to revisit our attitudes toward concurrency, as well. The proposed overhaul of IDP, aligning the experience settings with the ARE 5.0 exam divisions, is a game-changer that I hope also will have some influence over how interns (or whatever we will be calling them at that point) approach the test, which I will elaborate upon later. Under the current model, though, my preference for concurrency would be some sort of a hybrid — earning a minimal amount of experience (say, 1800 hours, the equivalent of one year, in any experience setting) before being allowed to sit for the exam; the test would then be taken while the candidate continues to earn IDP hours. Maybe that one year will empower and embolden some, giving them the confidence to charge ahead. Maybe it will show others that they might not be quite ready just yet, that there are still too many questions to which they don’t know the answers. (By the way, that will never change… it’s your confidence that you will find the answer that makes you a professional.)

The best part? The inherent flexibility of concurrency would still be part of the process. Finish the ARE before IDP if you want — that’s your choice. Or allow yourself the chance for that last “PASS” letter to be the oomph at the end of your internship, letting it go out with the bang it deserves. Again, just my opinion. Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.