The puzzles and problems of Chapter 3

I’ve been poking about with Chapter 3. The central question is whether people should feel some moral obligation to individuals that surround them, and why, and whether those obligations are distinct from those of “citizen” or “human being.” This latter point is the bigger worry, at least to me, as there are some very good arguments in cosmpolitanism’s corner. On a childish note, I’ve always like the word cosmopolitanism. It is a very good word (κοσμοπολίτης) with its root in (κοσμοs), readily recognizable to us as “world” or “universe.”

These troubles are what sent me to my special study of Aristitole, which continues, and it was with some relief that I read through Suzanne Stern-Gillet‘s very nice contribution Aristotle’s Philosophy of Friendship. It was a nice book to read right when I did so, following the E.N., because I have to admit I don’t get the same ideas about civic friendship that other writers seem to have obtained; that is, in reading through the E.N. and even more so, the E.E., I got the sense that Aristotle does not expect much at all from civic friendships, only a tacit agreement for co-existence for mutual advantage–and even that agreement being troubled subject to squabbling over advantage.

Sten-Gillet’s last substantive chapter on friendships and justice come much to the same conclusion as I did. For higher forms of friendship, there seems little contraction in Aristotle between self-love and other-regard, and particular justice will obtain among individuals in primary friendships, even if that requires self-sacrifice, because the individuals involved and their selves recognize that sacrifices made based on virtue ultimately serve the self as well as the other. Very nice stuff, that. Left to the friendships of utility, like civic friendship, is distributional justice.

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Shelley Kagan reading quotes from course evals is a hoot

It’s virtually impossible, if you are a conscientious professor, not to feel bad about course evaluations. While you know full well not everybody is going to like you, it can be discouraging to discover that, no matter how hard you tried to arrange the material, some students still didn’t see the organization, etc.

It is also very hard not to listen to the one petty, mean-spirited remark even if you had 50+ glowing comments. For instance, I am still stinging about a whiney remark made about my class on planning ethics when a student complained that I had “called students out for not reading, and [she] just didn’t understand what the point of that shaming was.”

Well, the point of SHAMING IS TO PRODUCE SHAME, SO THAT YOU READ NEXT TIME. For a small, discussion-based seminar on ethics, reading is important. Without reading the material, the class is a bullshitting session, which we can do in a bar over drinks and shouldn’t cost you the gross amount of tuition money you are paying to sit in my class and get half of what you would if you read the material.

Shelley Kagan is a well-regarded philosopher who put his course on “Death” into the Yale Open Courses system. He’s a very entertaining speaker, and while you may, or may not, be interested in death, his first lecture introducing the class and trying to help students figure out if they are going to enjoy the class  is masterful. It’s very clear that Kagan has a nice healthy ego, in addition to being brilliant, and it all rolls off him. I found it inspiring. 

The party begins at about 39:11, so you might want to slide through the rest of the introductory stuff. Viz: 

Kagan says something that I’m pretty sure all professors feel at some point. “I don’t know who this person is, but this person is an idiot.” It made my heart sing to see a professor just confront students on the first day of class with the bottom line: why in heaven’s name would you work so hard to get into Yale, and spend all of this money, only to try to skate through doing as a little as possible?

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It’s long past time undergrad policy and planning degrees stopped being “gut” or “jock” majors

Are there any universities where policy and planning undergraduate majors aren’t treated like “gut” or “jock” degrees?

Now, before anybody yells at me, there are plenty of jocks who do really well in school and are very smart. I just used the term because it’s a term of common currency to describe “majors that let you graduate even if you are not particularly good at what you do.”

This is not ok in policy and planning, and yet, I think it’s fairly common for undergraduate majors across universities.

Why am I thinking about this? Well, I innocently asked on Facebook a question about how much one ought to fiddle grades upwards. I have no idea whether the problem was a glitch in reading comprehension or what, but I got people telling me not to grade downward even if I thought the student didn’t deserve a better grade (I don’t; who does? The score is the score, and for all the incompetencies a student may show, I’m pretty convinced they can figure their grades, so any fudging downward would get noticed and invite a shitstorm, and quickly) and that I should allow resubmits and ‘be lenient.’

I get that people think they are being nice when they pass incompetent performers along and give chance after chance. I must admit, I see very little “nice” about the former. The latter, I don’t have as much trouble with. If somebody keeps resubmitting until the work is right, then I’m ok. Mostly, I see how the former makes an individual professor’s life easier because there is far less grade grubbing and whining about you to the powers that be. But it doesn’t strike me as particularly nice in the world outside of your relationship with one student.

My reasons:

1. The working degrees in policy and planning tend to be *graduate* degrees. That means you have to go to graduate school in order to get a job and/or move up the ladder. In some universes, the working degree is becoming the PhD. Your shitty undergrad performance with a policy degree is,thus, just that, and little more, and won’t open the doors you need opened.

Letting low-interest, low-performing, low-commitment students stay untrained and unchallenged just so they can finish in policy can boil down to taking their money for a dead-end degree. That doesn’t strike me as being nice.

I strongly suspect that a lot of the disciplinary scholars teaching in policy schools see policy degrees as “junk” compared to their own, exalted, wonderful disciplinary degrees, and so they assume their graduate students will come from “real” undergrad disciplines, like their own. Moral hazard. You shouldn’t be teaching in degree programs you don’t believe are worthy endeavors in their own right.

2. There are really, really, really smart, motivated, disciplined students who are passionate about planning and public policy, and they deserve the very best education they can get and to be treated with the same respect as the smart people in other fields.

Failing to maintain standards that actually reflect what these smart, passionate, and motivated students can do, and granting them the same qualification as incompetent, lazy, feckless, “I’m doing this because I couldn’t cut it in the B-School/EngineeringSchool/Architecture program” is a betrayal of the talent, effort, and desire to do topnotch work I routinely see in the best students of public policy and planning.

3. Weeder classes can actually do individuals and families a favor by helping students figure out how much they really want to do something.

Our commencement speaker noted that he took and failed the SAT four times. That tells me two things. First, he really really didn’t want to study for that SAT. And second, he still wanted what the SAT promised him: admission to a college so that he could play football. Eventually, the latter won, he settled down and started studying for the SAT, and got to follow the rest of his dream.

Bingo. Sitting down and taking that test a fifth time had to hurt like a mother. But he did it because it was part of doing something he dreamed of and he’d had to learn to suck it up, the same way he sucked up running sprints and whatever else he needed to suck up to excel at football.

If you don’t care about public policy and planning enough to study, to read in the field, and to hone whatever skills people tell you you need in order to advance in the field, then you sure as shit do not want to do the job the rest of your life, and you/your parents shouldn’t be paying for that training. Sure, some university will take your money even if you are schlumping ignominiously through, but you shouldn’t part with your money under those conditions. Go find whatever it is you like doing enough to make genuine sacrifices for it.

Can’t get into the snooty b-school of your dreams? Keep honing your cv and keep applying. Or start your business anyway and make those bastards eat not admitting you. Enjoy telling them that you would give them an endowed chair but you don’t think they are qualified to use your cash at this time. Don’t just slide into a second choice slipstream and muddle there because you have neither interest nor aptitude. That’s the road to really, truly useless student debt you will regret for a very long time.

If you do that, you are competing, in your unhappy condition, with all the people who, like me and plenty of little nerds like me, dreamed about being analysts at Brookings and the Fed, etc etc because they think public policy is *important.* There are some of us who get up in the morning to think about cities and human society. There are, believe it or not, some of us in this field who, like the drummer who practices until his hands bleed, will think about politics, policy, and planning until we freaking drop.

These kind of people, even if they don’t have all the aptitude in the world, will keep trying to get into those elite policy and planning circles long after you have washed out into some dead-end zoning enforcement job where your best out will be getting your real estate license (and all that’s fine, I’m not judging, you can make a good and honorable living doing that, but I am noting that you didn’t need boatloads of tuition and student debt to go in that direction in the first place.)

4. Incompetent and unethical public policy, planning, management, and development kills and immiserates people.

There are standards, the people who know what they are doing know and enforce these standards, and anything short of that is not ok. Yes, policy formulation and analysis are often subjective, impressionistic fields compared to “hard” science. Too bad. Excellence is still the goal, and anybody in the “public” professions should see accepting mediocrity in public service as a death of sorts.

If any undergrad cheats in my class I bust them all the way the hell down. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, committed a lot of sins. I understand that a good person can do the wrong thing. But I also want to make sure that good people think twice before doing the wrong thing again. In my undergraduate classes, I have people who will a) be building buildings; b) managing health care services; c) representing government agencies and dealing with vulnerable people. I don’t want real estate developers who think a “cost-saver” by swapping promised materials for cheaper materials is ever ok just because most of the time, it doesn’t matter. It does matter when the Level 7 earthquake hits and that building has people in it. I don’t want health services managers who are going to harvest organs illegally and take bribes to move people around on recipient lists or who cover up for surgeons who do the wrong thing. I don’t want public administrators who decide it’s ok not to maintain roads in “certain parts of town” or that they can vote themselves lavish pay raises in immigrant communities powerless to stop them (Bell) or who stick their fingers into housing voucher money to steal from both taxpayers and poor people.

What we do matters to people, and of all the people to whom it matters, those without power need these competencies and standards the most, to be used in their service, for their goals. There is a giant, screeching dialogue out there that says public service doesn’t matter, that “the government” never does anything but hurt people and that there is no such thing as a “public.” Believing in that dialogue is, as far as I am concerned, the fastest way to make it true. And the people willing to engage in public service under that understanding of it are not the people we want there.

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The lingering sweetness of Aristotle’s last will and testament

I have been reading Anton-Hermann Chroust’s lovely book, Aristotle: New Light on His Life and Some of His Lost Works (Volume 1), which is sadly out of print. Chroust published this volume, a collection of his papers, in 1973, and it’s so beautifully written it makes me embarrassed for my own half-assed attempts to write.

One learns to live with one’s own failures of talent.

Anyhoodily, the book is a wonderful collection of Chroust’s explorations of the various ancient Vitae Aristotelis out there; much like other historians of ancient figures, such as Pedro Brown or Bart Ehrmann, Chroust seems to have been prolific as well as eloquent.

There is a lot of wonderful scholarship here, and for me I learned what we might know and what we really don’t know about Aristotle, but my favorite essay concerned Aristotle’s last will and testament. I expected tedious, and I’d planned to skip that chapter, but instead I found myself both engaged and enchanted. Chroust lays out, side-by-side, translations of the three texts we have of the will: Diogenes Laertius and the nearly identical texts of I and IV Vita Aristotelis Arabica from Ibn Abi Yaqub an-Nadim and Ibn Abi Usaibia.

Aristotle died in Chalcis, and as a result, Chroust notes we really have no way of figuring through what law might have governed the dispensation of the will. Aristotle never became an Athenian citizen, which is itself a very interesting part of Aristotle’s biography, and it’s clear from the will that he died a well-to-do man. There are reasons to suppose that he entered this world well-off as well, through connections to the Macedonian court–a connection that may have driven him to exile in Athens when young (as enemies of his family and their associates came to power) and then out of Athens repeatedly as King Philip and then Alexander made enemies in Athens.

Back to the will, however. Aristotle is one of the most difficult thinkers in my class on justice because so much of what he says about slaves and women sounds so terrible in modern ears, so heavily drenched in liberal notions of freedom and individual agency. I am always having to urge students past those things to see the pith of Aritotle’s ideas about justice among individuals and between leaders and subjects.

The nice thing about the will is that you see many of his principles of governing a household via gentle, thoughtful custodianship in practice. He has two children: a legitimate daughter, Pythias, whose mother has died, and a son, Nichomachus, by a concubine. I’m not sure we know all that much about Macedonian laws, but at the time Chroust was writing, he did have good information about Athenian law, and there, illegitimate children had pretty draconian limits on what they could get from an estate. Those limits are observed here, but it is clear in Aristotle’s lanaguage regarding both his son and his daughter that he expected his executors, Nicanor and Theophrastus, to treat both children kindly and with generosity. His provisions for Pythias are detailed, but give considerable latitude within the constraints of Greek womanhood: she is promised to Nicanor (a marriage that never happens because he gets himself executed about a year later), but Aristotle makes it clear that she has her choice of places to live, either in Chalcis, in her own house on the estate there, or back in Stagira, in his father’s house, which he seems to have retained there.

Similarly cared for, in detail, are slaves and students. There are apparently multiple roads where slaves could be manumitted, and Aristotle seems to use all of them here. He frees some at once, and others at the time that Nicanor takes over the estate. (Property went with legitimate children to go to their male issue and under the direction of their spouses.) Aristotle’s maid-servant, Ambracis, is freed and thanked, and given an additional large payment if she stays on to look over Pythias until the girl is married. Other, male slaves are similarly freed immediately and given generous settlements. Of the children given as slaves in the household, Aristotle tells his executors that none of them should be sold, but they should be kept on until they reach a proper age, and that they shall have their freedom if they deserve it. Here, I’d like to get my hands on the original Greek to see what verb he uses for deserve because that is a word in English that carries some baggage it may not in the original. I suspect here it conveys the idea that the children have grown into mature and responsible adults capable of looking after themselves. As vile as the idea of child slaves is, Aristotle’s was not a world kind to fatherless or landless children with no skills.

Chroust, apparently as touched by the exercise as I am, finished his essay with my sentiments exactly:

The technical language of Aristotle’s last will and testament cannot obscure its spirit of true humanity and genuine piety which forever attests to the fact that the testator was a great man. In more than one sense, this testament is the abiding memorial and the eloquent testimony of a noble human being.

(p. 220)

The EN tested my patience a bit with its seemingly endless pages about moderation, a virtue I am decidedly bad at. Nonetheless,the will, and all my explorations of the Vitae suggest to me that Aristotle himself engaged with others in the spirit of justice, with moderation and mildness. He did not have an easy life for all his wealth, given his outsider status in Athens, and he lost quite a few people he must have cared for in the harsh word Alexander and his enemies created. Moderation, indeed, must have felt like a virtue needed among leaders.

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Moses and the MFA

I noted the other day that I am not sure that there are more academic jobs in my field; I rather have the impression that there are fewer now than 10 years ago. I haven’t been keeping track, but it sure seems like the pickings are slim. And one point that rather dogs me is whether planning programs, particularly those outside of the top five, should have PhD programs at all.

These themes get echoed, to some degree, here in Marian Palaii’s piece on writing workshops and the MFA, and how, very similar to the PhD, it’s a education process that people both within it and outside love to bash. I think very little of formal education as job training, as regular readers will know. Instead, I think of just about all of life as training for something, jobs and roles and otherwise; Moses gets adopted into the royal family so that, much later, when needed, he has access to them; he has to hide in the desert because he kills a man, and thus, winds up learning how to live in the desert, a skill which comes in handy later.

I can think of no better retort to the bashing, which comes down to “people with real talent don’t need training”, than Palaii’s snappy bit here:

In the meantime, without getting too deeply into the topic of, “Who died and made any one person arbiter of ‘real deals?’” and the one or two missing boxcars that might make the “improvement by subtraction” statement at least resemble a train of logical thought (no, I can’t compel my students to do something they can’t do, but I can compel the vast majority of them to do something they hadn’t thought of, or thought they were not capable of; it happens all the time, and isn’t this what studying or teaching anything implies?), I’d just like to say that making blanket statements about MFA programs, or students, or teaching practices, is reductive and unnecessarily provocative, though maybe that is the point. And while both of these writers, among other critics, may well have legitimate gripes, one might ask for a little concreteness, a bit of specificity—as opposed to gross generalizing—as that would better support their views. Or did we (by which, yes, I do mean they) miss that particular aspect of craft, or was it not taught, in our (their) own workshops?

Wham! I want use that “who died” line on people who make snap judgments about who is an important scholar, who might become one, etc. And if being in a MFA program taught her to write sentences with that much bounce and energy in them–well, then.

Boring personal anecdote: I had plenty of letter writers for my PhD programs who said “She’s bright, but she’s not as good as This Other Guy.” And this Other Guy is now doing something not related to the academy at all, contributing in a different way. And I don’t resent the lukewarm letters because who is going to hit on something important is harder to tell than all of us think it is.

Maybe other scholars with more social perception than I have can see it, but I think this thumbs up, thumbs down business about who is going to be a “real” writer or scholar and who isn’t…it’s all speculation, a lot like the baseball scouts and the rookies in Moneyball. A young person with talent can be anything your mind can make them into–a success or failure–because they haven’t actually become what they are going to yet. Raw intelligence is great, and you can often see that. Hard work is important, and you can see that. Ambition is good, and it’s usually obvious. Sometimes, in order to square with your conscience, you have to tell a young person when you think they really, absolutely can not finish the training because they are so ill-suited to it that it is a waste of their time and your department’s resources. But I do that, at least, by also telling the student that I might be wrong and that they might succeed in another program. Because they might.

Contributions aren’t function of individuals alone. We treat them that way, but I think if we were really honest, we’d acknowledge that contributions come from a combination of individual, training timing, and context. There are plenty of brilliant people who say things long before their time and go, as a result, entirely unnoticed. It is also a function of power: don’t get me started on the way economists have decided that space matters (I’m sure the geographers are thrilled to hear it). If you can predict all those things, you are clairvoyant. I am not the scholar I would be if hadn’t spent the last 20 years of my life hanging out, for better and worse, with economists, and I am grateful for the mutual poking I have both done to them and have had done to me by them.

Mostly, this idea about any formal education speaks to my heart:

Writing while you are trying to support yourself is hard. Teaching yourself to write is hard. Doing both, and doing them long enough to produce something that will in fact be published takes an enormous amount of dedication, discipline, perseverance, and time; way more than most people have. Which is why a place in a fully-funded MFA program is an extraordinary gift, whether or not you have the good sense to recognize is as one. There is no getting around this: If you are getting paid, for two or three years, to do little more than write, you are ridiculously lucky. If you can afford—with grants, loans, your parents’ help, partial funding, scholarships—to attend an MFA program without working (or while teaching that one Intro to Creative Writing workshop), you are luckier than 99.9% of the people in this country, and 99.99999999999% of the people on the planet, if not quite so ridiculously.

Ronald Reagen spoke of the humanities as a “luxury”, and I take issue with that, largely because he treated luxuries as unnecessary (Note that I didn’t actually see him or his family foregoing any). Yet there is something decidedly luxurious about being able to have the time to step out of the hurly burly of the earning life to pause and reflect on big ideas and to discuss them with other people who have paused to reflect on those same things. It’s not a luxury; the soul needs this time, I think, as much as the intellect does.

Does taking that time make you a better person? The hell if I know. I think so, but I couldn’t prove it. Does it make you more employable? Depends on what you are employed doing, I suppose. Do you have to do this in a university, paying tuition? I doubt it, but I think it probably helps.

But there is no small part of me that suspects the lesson from Moses stands with just about anything, and that lesson drives me to do things like make real estate development students, who would be just as happy with trade school degree in finance, read and write about Thucydides. Thucydides perhaps won’t make you a cleverer real estate developer. But reading something you’d rather not makes you learn to stay inside and work on nice days, and to discipline your mind to focus on something that doesn’t, at first glance, speak to you. Those are job skills, as much as any other.

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Why doesn’t anybody want to edit JPER?

The Journal of Planning Education and Research is a nice journal. It’s the journal of the Associated Schools of Collegiate Planning, and the current, have-done-their-fair-share editors at Georgia Tech, Subhro Guhathakurta and Nancy Green Leigh are ready to step down and pass the torch, and as far as I can see, nobody wants to do it. And the question is: why?

I don’t actually have any evidence as to why other than my own situation, but I do think my situation is fairly indicative of associates in elite research universities. To wit: I’d love to help out and do it, but I can’t do so without extreme damage to my career. I suspect a lot of people are in similar situations.

Academic planning is in a weird stage, and I, like quite a few associates, are in a weird place. I am Gen Xer, and I think quite a few associates are either Gen Xers or Gen Yers, and we have spent our entire professional careers behind, and now ahead of, and thus sandwiched, between much larger professional demographics: Baby Boomers and Millennials.*

But being sandwiched as such, this group of associates has tenure, but we do not have our last major promotion the way the boomers generally do, and we exist in troubled departments and precarious job security, much like any Millennial entering in the few, precarious tenure track jobs that are opening up out there. Everybody keeps telling me that the Boomers are “retiring so jobs will open up”….well, I’m not seeing that reflected on the ACSP Job Bank. I’m seeing one year after another of a handful of jobs. Either Boomers are hanging on (for good reason; this is a group of potential retirees who have had one shock after another to retirement assets) or, when they do retire, their lines are disappearing into the giant black hole of higher education that has sucked secure, tenure-track positions into oblivion to create an army of contingent, insecure, short-contract positions. Raises are hard to get, jobs are hard to get, and promotions are hard to get.

In other words, Gen Xers and everybody after them demographically have lived in a world of precarity in higher education, and that kind of precarity means that we are bludgeoned with institutional expectations that do not include service to “the profession.” This is bad because a great deal of the academy runs on the idea of service. In the neoliberal world order of bean-counting and bludgeoning those who fail to rack up beans, however,service is for suckers.

This problem is particularly true for people like me in the elite or aspiring R1s. It might be ok to show up to a board meeting now and then, as long as that is high profile enough (like the ACSP governing board), but anything that requires time and energy? No. Because we live in universities–particularly those of us in policy schools where the economists rule the roost (period, the end)–we can’t spend our time on ‘the profession’ unless there is some obvious quid pro quo or prestige “cookie” attached that is readily understood by those outside the planning academy.

Editing inside the planning academy has its own dangers. Editing a journal is a big, time-consuming job, and it’s a job where you are likely to piss people off even as you become more visible in so doing. For those of us who still need people to write us letters for that last promotion, pissing people off is dangerous.

My own experience with something similar (though less work) is indicative. When I became an associate, friends and mentors with the Faculty Women’s Interest Group all gathered around me and got me to become the FWIG president. It was an organization that badly needed new blood, and I understood that. I’m sure they were well-intended, but I should have said no and stuck to my guns because it was way more work than I expected, and it got me precisely nothing at USC, except distracted and tied up away from my research. Perhaps a better scholar could have managed those responsibilities and my research, but for me, the job took up time and yielded me little other than “people thought I did a good job.” Swell!

Particularly wonderful was a recent experience when senior female scholar introduced me as the “Co-President of FWIG.” I wasn’t the freaking co-President. I was the president. But no. Perception matters more than reality, and in the mind of a woman whom I *need* to understand that I showed leadership all by my little self, I was a co-president.

A more assertive person would have corrected her, but I am not that person. Sheryl Sandberg is that person, and good on her, but I am not.

And poof! just like that, service contributions vanish into the wind. It’s a little ironic that, by leading a feminist organization, a woman (me) damaged her chances at promotion.

It doesn’t help that older scholars in planning don’t seem to see the reality that governs the lives of the younger people around them. When we associates and below say “I’m sorry, I just can’t do that” we are met, legitimately, with huffs that “Well, *I* did thus and such, and it’s part of the job and you have to pay your dues in this world, ya know.”

Sure, absolutely. I don’t blame older scholars for being annoyed; certainly they paid their dues and they have done a ton of work keeping organizations like ACSP and journals and whatnot going, and the refusal among younger scholars “to step up” must feel like either laziness or self-interest or both. But these scholars came up in world where the institutional expectations were somewhat different. Yes, service always displaced other publication work. But now, in an environment of such precarity given a choice between an extra paper a year in a high-impact outlet and external service, a scholar is, simply, *stupid* to choose the latter.

Fame and impact aren’t “being well-known” in the planning academy anymore. Fame and impact are now measured in Richard Florida terms. You want to be the Michael Sandel of justice, not just a scholar well-known among scholars. If you are not the Michael Sandel or the Richard Florida or the Famous Brand Name, you are not going to be among the winners in the winner-take-all world.

All this is by way of noting that planning as field exists in an academy that doesn’t appreciate it very much. My dear associate dean at USC, who is very sympathetic to me, wrinkles up her nose at me every three years or so and says “Have you thought about publishing in economics journals” or “what about health journals?” or “How about geography journals?” The upshot: urban planning is a small academic field and the powers that be would like their planning faculty yes, to teach planning to MPL students, but to publish in the “real” (e.g. higher status) disciplinary journals, not planning journals, because planning is a small field and it’s all about the impact numbers.

If these journals aren’t important enough to publish in, how do you suppose we’d get treated by taking a bunch of our time to *edit* one? Yes, if an associate became the editor of the Journal of Urban Economics, the department would have them a big old party with all the trimmings. But not a planning journal, and though I like JPER a great deal, it’s not in the top 10 urban studies journals.

All that is a recipe for young scholars to stay away, to not step up, as much as it might hurt us all to say no.

* I’m not really all that interested in essentializing either group, as I doubt the accuracy of that thinking, other than the idea that age cohorts have in common some major public events (though I doubt they all take away the same understanding of those events, and thus, I doubt those events provide much in the way of social or political unity or cohesion) and economic conditions

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Good luck, my darlings; become mightier still #USC

Go flourish. We are ridiculously proud of you graduates.

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If you love higher education, promote pants (apparently)

Ok, I am confused. Fox News has been all over this story, which is supposedly about a “naked or fail” final in a visual arts class.

Where to start? Well, nudity is apparent in about 2500 years of art history, so I kind of get where the idea is going, but it also doesn’t sound like the students are actually required to be naked; it sounds to me like they can just do some sort of “gesture” that expresses eroticism, viz:

The visual arts class at UCSD, according to the professor, involves students acting out a series of gestures the very last one they’re asked to perform, in the syllabus is labelled erotic self.

The professor, Ricardo Dominguez told a news station it’s true- students would have to get naked, in a dark, candlelit room.

“If they are uncomfortable with this gesture, they should not take the class,” Dominguez said.

UCSD’s Department of Visual Arts Chairman, Jordan Crandall released this statement:
“In part, he said “students are aware from the start of the class that it is a requirement and that they can do the gesture in any number of ways without actually having to remove their clothes.”

Can you figure out what the heck is going on? First it says that they have to be nude, then by the end he says that they do not have to remove their clothing.

So somebody’s mommy complained. Oye. As somebody who routinely causes both the mommy brigade and students to grass to administrators in outrage, I have so been there.

But still, it does have the gloss of the very best lazy tropes of the academy, some of which are common cultural currency, others of which are red meat for conservative h8trz of higher education: that proffies are slimey old gits that prey on nubile young co-eds (Donald Sutherland, Animal House), that the arts from Mapplethorpe onward has become little more than porny nonsense, and that universities are bad stewards of young adulthood.

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Nudity is a pretty common in today’s performance art scene, and I grok why the class has this aspect to it, particularly if it is an elective course. This is the sort of thing that I could see a young artist wanting to push himself/herself to do, if they haven’t already. The candlelight strikes me as odd, but perhaps that is done so that the students have light and shadow to work with as well as their bodies. Don’t you want universities putting students at the cutting edge of contemporary art, and if so, we shouldn’t let reactions dampen exploration.

Nonetheless, this sort of thing is the last thing higher ed or arts programs need with conservatives gearing up to dismantle higher education. Sometimes, the costs of something outweigh whatever benefits.

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Getting your body caftan-ready for summer

The Cut at NYMag has this lovely essay on the caftan. It’s too lovely not to share, and please note the luscious usage of the word “Pyrrhic.”

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Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco) on using Evernote for research

I, too, am a great fan of Evernote. Here, Dr. Pacheco-Vega shares some public notebooks as a resource. Highly recommended.

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