Failure and the Self: Writers discussing failure in the Guardian

We are entering that portion of the semester when things are insanely busy and I am buried in both class prep and grading and grading and grading and in all my wisdom, I decided to have a departmental seminar on a paper that perhaps I shouldn’t be writing. So this bit from the Guardian chatting with writers on failure seems to be pretty apt to me, as I grapple with thinking about myself now as a bit of a middle-aged failure.

Diana Athill:

“Success in old age, when things have stopped really mattering, has a frivolous sort of charm unlike anything one experiences in middle age. It feels like a deliciously surprising treat. Perhaps as one advances into second childhood one recovers something of first childhood’s appetite for treats. Whatever the nature of the feeling, it allows me to state that it is possible to recover from failure: to digest it, make use of it and forget it. Which is something to remember if you happen to be experiencing it.”

Margaret Atwood:

But such adolescent slippages come within the normal range. Something more epic, perhaps? A failed novel? Much time expended, many floor-pacings and scribblings, nothing achieved; or, as they say in Newfoundland, a wet arse and no fish caught.

There have been several of those.

Julian Barnes:

I went to the funeral. Some of his early, highly skilled poems were read out, and I was saddened again by the subsequent offence against his talent. Then others spoke. Finally, his son and daughter addressed the small gathering. They had turned out well; both were charming and intelligent. They spoke with proper roundedness and affection for their father; the daughter described how he had coached her to get into Cambridge, how patient and helpful he had been. It was very touching. And I had been wrong, or had only partly understood. As I left the crematorium for the wake, I was saying to myself – and to him – “No, you didn’t fuck up after all.”

Anne Enright

“If you keep going and stay on the right side of all this, you can be offered honours and awards, you can be recognised in the street, you can be recognised in the streets of several countries, some of which do not have English as a native language. You can get some grumpy fucker to say that your work is not just successful but important, or several grumpy fuckers, and they can say this before you are quite dead. And all this can happen, by the way, whether or not your work is actually good, or still good. Success may be material but is also an emotion – one that is felt, not by you, but by the crowd. This is why we yearn for it, and can not have it, quite. It is not ours to hold.”

Howard Jacobson

Success for him didn’t mean making money or excelling at anything in particular – it simply meant being at home in the world and fearing nothing. So it wasn’t because he wanted me to be a footballer or a cricketer that he objected to the notes my mother wrote every Wednesday, requesting I be excused from games. He would just have liked me to be everybody’s friend, the way he was. And I failed him. I failed my mother too by taking far too precocious an interest in sex. And I failed myself by not knowing how to get any.

Will Self

“On the contrary, it often occurs to me that since what successes I do manage are both experienced and felt entirely in solitude, there must be many others who are the same as me: people for whom life is a process to be experienced, not an object to be coveted. There may be, as Bob Dylan says, no success like failure, but far from failure being no success at all, in its very visceral intensity, it is perhaps the only success there is.”

Lionel Shriver

“Yet most people fail. In the big picture, few of our careers live up to the dreams we nursed when we were young. In fact, one underside of success is that it’s nearly always penultimate, and so every accomplishment merely raises the bar. Each new success conjures new standards we can’t meet, thereby inventing ingenious new ways to fail.”

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David Perry’s post on research progress is too awesome not to share

David Perry does an excellent, and very polite, job of responding to this piece in the Chronicle by Mark Braude. Perry’s description of the whole genre Braude is entering is refressing:

Higher Ed pubs, in general, publish many of these essays in which the author takes his or her individual academic experiences and generalizes them as “here’s how I did it” advice. They “bootstrap,” telling a story about how with just hard work and good spirit the author faced down the odds and made his or her own American dream possible. hey aren’t my favorite genre. Too often, they ignore privilege and other unseen factors (like luck, especially luck) that made the positive outcomes possible. For example, this “Confessions of a Prolific Academic” is the worst kind of bootstrappy writing.

Already, you gotta love Perry. Comrade. Yes, yes, yes, just be like and you’ll succeed like me. Only it doesn’t really seem to work that way, and there seem to be different rules for different people, if you are fat or thin, black or white, pretty or not, have family money and WASPy manners, and yeah-fck-all.

(I’m not nearly as polite as Perry).

Perry’s discussion is well worth reading for yourself, but he winds up here, on a wonderful note about us wanderers:

I want graduate school to reward and encourage the driven people, like Braude, who have a plan and the means to execute it, even if his plan did develop over his six years.

But I also want room for the wanderers. Go talk to your colleagues and you’ll find many scholars who you respect, whoever you are, who did not have a clear plan and a narrow vision when they entered graduate school. Instead, they constructed it slowly, with many mistakes, over the years.

Too much emphasis on speed would remove those scholars – would have removed me – from the profession. So let’s be clear about the consequences of that emphasis as we move forward, re-designing graduate studies in an ever more fraught academic environment.

There is more than one way to be, as a scholar, and in the world. Don’t let anybody tell you differently.

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Kareem Abdul Jabbar documents the sickening exploitation of college athletes in Jacobin

Kareem Abdul Jabbar discusses the conditions of college athletes in this piece in Jacobin: One key point:

Life for student-athletes is no longer the quaint Americana fantasy of the homecoming bonfire and a celebration at the malt shop. It’s big business in which everyone is making money — everyone except the eighteen to twenty-one-year-old kids who every game risk permanent career-ending injuries.

And the part that really sets me off:

  • The NCAA rakes in nearly $1 billion annually from its March Madness contract with CBS and Turner Broadcasting.
  • The NCAA president made $1.7 million in 2012.
  • The ten highest paid coaches in this year’s March Madness earn between $2,627,806 and $9,682,032.

Jeez, people. Do the right thing and pay the kids creating the value you are selling.

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In the afternoon of your life, cum dignitate otium

I’m in my 40s, and starting the slide down the hill, and at times I seem, to myself, to be handling it well. At other times, I am not handling it well. In the first few years of my professorship, I scrambled, as everybody does, for the tenure bar. I’ve been keeping this blog since before that time, so my younger self is on display here if you care to look at it.

After tenure, I tried various gambits to take on leadership roles in my department, all of which were thoroughly rejected among my colleagues. They just didn’t and don’t see me as somebody they care to have lead. I have grieved this reality, and accepted it, and instead I turned in the afternoon of my career to idea of what to do with all that extra energy and problem-solving verve I thought I would bring to whatever challenges the institution put before me.

I decided to retool and try to invent a new field, or a new way of thinking about urbanism–hence urban ethics–and read and write books. I do not know how well I am doing this, and I won’t until I either finish the book or die from trying to write it, both of which are possibilities. But I do enjoy working on it, and the work matters to me, redefining and changing.

I have been reading in my free time Alan Rusbridger’s Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible , the memoir of his time trying to learn to play Chopin’s breathtakingly difficult Ballade #1 in G-Minor. It’s an inspiring book; Rusbridger is the editor of the Guardian, and there are times when his casual name-dropping gets on my nerves, but he’s an elite, so, of course, he has elite friends, and well, even elites need friends, and elites are likely to be friends with other elites because that’s what makes them elites.

There is so much to love about this book, but one of the most important quotes that appears comes from Carl Jung, early on:

The afternoon of a human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage of life’s morning. The significance of the morning undoubtedly lies in the development of the individual, our entrenchment in the outer world, the propagation of our kind and the care of our children. This is the obvious purpose of nature. But…whoever carries over into the afternoon the law of the morning must pay for doing so with damage to his soul. Moneymaking, social existence, family and posterity are nothing but plain nature. Culture lies beyond the purpose of nature. could by any chance culture be the meaning and purpose of the second half of life?

The book itself is lovely, with Rusbridger’s frank account of going forward, going backward, getting swept up in the many, many major news stories coming out of the Guardian at the same time (Wikileaks being one), having meetings from breakfast until 2:30 am, and squeezing in 15 minutes here and there. If Rusbridger has time to do something that feeds his soul, well, the rest of us probably do, too.

When my colleagues rejected my overtures to leadership, I rather stepped back and decided to see what would develop with what Cicero referred to as otium cum dignitate. Otium in Latin means leisure, but it’s a particular kind of leisure–a stepping away from the worries and hurly burly of offices. Cum dignitate is what it sounds like–with dignity. Of course, Cicero is imagining the country estates of his fellow moneyed friends when he thought of productive leisure, but for me, it’s been a matter of simply letting go of ambitions that, for whatever reasons, were never going to happen for me. I no longer want what I don’t have, and the silence created by the end of yearning has presented me with its own magic, and its own challenges.

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Eric Jaffe (@ericjaffe) rounds up the results on Tuesday’s transport initiatives so I don’t have to

Given what a lazy bunny I am, I can just sit back and link to his discussion. Just a couple of points of dissension on his discussion:

1. The Massachusetts governor’s office going to the GOP is not necessarily a big deal or a blow to transit. Romney when he was governor wasn’t mean about transit, and we do have instances of GOP guvnors who are actually quite supportive of transit. Much depends on their base. Schwartzenegger, for example, was supportive of transit in the state of California when he was governor. The Maryland loss is a big deal because anti-transit, pro-road themes entered into that campaign, the way it did for the Fords up in Toronto.

And, at the risk of being a scold, this is the problem with the way transit advocates, particularly the rail fanboys, have marketed and sold transit politically for decades. You can’t treat political topics as binaries of good/evil without somebody, at some point, noticing and taking your binary and using it to bludgeon you with as they get tired of being framed as “lazy/evil/stupid.” If transit is part of the culture war, it’s because advocates have put it there with endless associations between transit and the environment rather than treating transit as a mode like any other. There’s no avoiding urban/rural fights over distribution–those can happen over road money as well as transit money.

But there is absolutely positively no reason why plenty of Reagen-voting real estate developers won’t support transit if they see what’s in it for them. So a little less assuming that Republicans are going give transit the short end of the stick might be a good idea.

2. Scott Walker and Rick Scott might have taken their races, but that’s certainly not the end of the HSR program that Obama so cherished. We re-elected Governor Brown again, and he loves HSR with a love that is more than love. California’s project has finally gotten clear of the lawsuits it set itself up for, and they are building and people are excited. Obama can come jam up traffic in California and visit. It’s not the same as rolling out the beginning of a whole system, but it’s a start, and it took decades for the interstate system to get off the ground, too.

3. I am a party of one on this opinion, and I am unencumbered by actual evidence to substantiate my opinions here, but I am not a great believer that dedicated funds for transport (or anything else) are a great idea. Voters love to tie their taxes to specific things they think can’t get screwed up, but I think dedicated funds exacerbate multiple problems, including construction cost inflation and overcapitalization (the money’s there, everybody sees it, everybody wants a piece of it, etc etc.) Whereas if they had to duke it out of the general fund, it would be a different ball game.

Yeah, everybody hated pork. But Congress actually functioned when pork was on the table and look where we are now.

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Pavlos Eleftheriadis on Greek misrule in this issue of Foreign Affairs

I always try to point people to the good free content that pops up over at Foreign Affairs, and this issue, it’s an essay on Greek politics from an Oxford law, Pavlos Eleftheriadis. Go read. Here’s a teaser quote:

Yet the recent comeback masks deep structural problems. To tidy its books, Athens levied crippling taxes on the middle class and made sharp cuts to government salaries, pensions, and health-care coverage. While ordinary citizens suffered under the weight of austerity, the government stalled on meaningful reforms: the Greek economy remains one of the least open in Europe and consequently one of the least competitive. It is also one of the most unequal.

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#acsp2014 recap Planning as Practical Reason session

I was asked to be a discussant for a session called Planning as Practical Reason: Theory and Applications for Engaging Community. We had five presentations and three completed papers.

by Orly Linovski (assistant professor, University of Manitoba)

By Sangmin Kim
KIM, Sangmin [University of Southern California]

by Karen Umemoto at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Tai-An Miao [University of Hawaii at Manoa]

Wound up being a really nice session.

Orly Linovsky started us off with a discussion on her wonderful dissertation work examining differences in urban design between Los Angeles and Toronto. Her work focusses on designers who seem to make a strong distinction between what is “creative”–and the purview of the private sector, and what is “managerial”, the purview of the public sector. This is one of those moments in the idea of practical reason that gets me nervous about the concept; that is, the self. There’s a temptation to “I, me, mine” in drawing on experience and intuitive ways of knowing that really does require disciplining among others to temper it, and those others really can not be an elite echo chamber in order for it to work. Otherwise, as Linovsky finds here, there are many branding and self-interested reasons for asserting and replicating the idea that only some are allowed to be creative. The private sector is innovative, the public sector is regulatory, etc etc. Charlie Hoch noted that that “those days” of Great Man designers are over; I’m not convinced, actually, that those days are over. The star economy of designers seems to be alive and well to me, only now played out at a global scale. That spatiality and staging strikes me as important to Linovsky’s problem–the dichotomy of “who is allowed to innovate, who is allowed to create v. who is allowed to regulate” seems to me to be more reflective of LA’s neocorporate city governance that aligns nicely with market hierarchies.

Sangmin Kim, who is one of my students, also discussed her research on community-scale governance in different locations in Korea examining the capacity of government-sponsored, top-down attempts to create community programs versus instances where community members organize themselves around ideas that matter to them, which suggests the positive aspects of the “I, me, mine” and self in practical wisdom: people will volunteer for what they care for.

Karen Umemoto discussed work she is doing with her colleagues at the University of Hawaii at Manoa on restorative justice with juvenile offenders, trying to bypass the traditional, punitive methods of public institutions and keep the kids in their communities. As *everywhere*, the criminal justice system in Hawaii has terrible reach and consequences on impoverished, indigenous communities, and institutional modes of being just are not working for anybody. They aren’t working to prevent crime, and they are not reforming youth. Umemoto and her colleagues worked with public institutions and communities through the Ho‘opono Mamo Civil Citation Initiative, bringing indigenous knowledge into juvenile justice.

My critiques mainly had to do with place and spatiality in all the papers; juvenile justice, like everything else of course, has a deeply spatial and place-based influence on these children’s lives. Umemoto, in particular, is bumping up against public administration, which is a field that in my (not) humble opinion, desperately needs more spatial thinking. Linovsky is grappling with a world where the public sector has its own defined spatiality–the city, the region–and where designers themselves operate in markets well beyond that, or at least, many hope to.

Blargh–Ed Soja, you won! One of your most rebellious and insubordinate students is now spatializing all over the place. :)

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#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #26 #ascp2014: Lauren Garott

In keeping with my theme to highlight the work of women who write about urbanism and planning, I have a couple more awards to write about. This year’s Ritzdorf award winner is Lauren Garott from Kansas State University, for her master’s project on physical activity among African American women. According to ACSP’s website, the Ritzdorf award is a student award. I am a big fan of awards for students, unlike most awards, which are, as Sartre noted, always corrupting for the rest of us.

From the ACSP website, a description of the award:

This award recognizes superior scholarship reflecting concern with making communities better for women, people of color and/or the disadvantaged. Submissions may be based on student work submitted in the pursuit of any urban/city/community/town/regional planning degree, undergraduate or graduate, at an ACSP-member school.

You can download a pdf of the report here of Lauren’s award-winning master’s project. Her abstract says:

In the United States, minorities are less physically active and in turn at higher risk for heart disease, diabetes and obesity. The purpose of my study is to examine the factors that influence physical activity in neighborhood parks and to answer: What aspects of park design and programming discourage physical activity participation in African American women? My goal is to identify barriers to physical activity and make recommendations for improving design and programming of a neighborhood park. The results of my research are relevant to the planning profession because planners can use public policy to combat inequality in the built environment.

Many studies have related recreation access to socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, age, and gender. While African American women are not the only disadvantaged population when it comes to access to recreation, they do have a higher risk for obesity. In trying to answer why African American women have higher rates of obesity, some studies have found that while willingness to participate in physical activity does not differ in white and black women, duration of physical activity does.

My research employs a mixed methods approach to understand the barriers to physical activity experienced by African American women, in context of a neighborhood park. This study uses a physical assessment of James Mulligan Park and the surrounding neighborhood within Alexandria, Virginia. Following the physical assessment I piloted a survey to gather information on the barriers to physical activity. The pilot guided a final survey of seventeen participating African American women in the neighborhood.
I hypothesized that the perception of park safety will have an effect on the rate of physical activity in African American women. This hypothesis points to a general barrier for all women. Based on literature review, I also expected to find barriers unique to African American women.

The study concluded that African American women in this neighborhood share some barriers with all women and they also expressed some barriers unique to African American women. I found that personal barriers like “exercise tires me” was the most common, rather than perceptions of safety. In addition, I found culturally specific barriers, such as “exercising is not my cultural activity” and “I avoid exercise to protect my hairstyle.” Based on my analysis of the setting and surveys I make several recommendations for the park and neighborhood.

Errrbody needs to follow up on Garrott’s project with reading This Bridge Called My Back , which is an anthology of feminist theory writing from feminists of color.

Black women are tired, and they are tired for good reason, and if the rest of us would like to save money on health costs of obesity and this and that and yada…maybe it’s time to pay attention to the tiredness of black women and start there.

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#ACSP2014 Deleuze and Planning

So one of the sessions I attended today came out of a reading group at the University of Washington, which I think is a really cool idea–get your faculty together, have them work with the same texts, and then see where you go. And then, if you get somewhere, go out and give some talks on it so that the rest of us benefit. We had:

Keith Harris: Doing Well by Doing Good: Comprehensive Planning and Seattle’s Kindler, Gentler War-Machine

Cheryl Gilge: Citizen Participation as Microfascism: The Darker Side of Creative Austerity

Mark Purcell and Branden Born: Planning, Deleuze & Guttari and the Food Movement


James Potter: Assembling Developmental State Cities: The Oil Crisis, Democracy, and Korea’s Two Million Houses Policy.

To say that I am not qualified to weigh in on these would be a massive understatement as I haven’t read any Deleuze and Guattari, nor have I read the manuscripts, but the presentations made me want to learn more, which is the point. Robert Lake’s discussion also got me excited and interested in the ideas.

Mark Purcell’s paper is done and published at Planning Theory and Practice.

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#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #25 ACSP Week: Linda Dalton

This week we are off to ACSP, where I must wear a badge of shame for failing to finish my paper. However, that means that I drop out of a five-person theory session, and that means everybody else gets more time, and that’s needed in a five-person session. I’m not sure what I was thinking when I proposed 5 people in the session, but I am sure I had a theory. Ha! See what I did there? Bad theory.

Anyhoodily, this week the organization is handing out awards and that fits nicely with my #ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 theme. This year’s recipient of the Margarita McCoy Award is Linda Dalton. I can’t find a web page for her; she’s listed in the program as being at Cal Poly East Bay, but I can’t find her on their faculty page. If somebody has a lead on that, please shoot me the link in the comments.

(Ask the internets and ye shall receive. Here is a link to Dr. Dalton’s page.)

From the ACSP website, here is the write up of the McCoy award:

Recognizes individuals who have made an outstanding contribution toward the advancement of women in planning at institutions of higher education through service, teaching, and/or research. The Margarita McCoy Award is made by the ACSP Faculty Women’s Interest Group.’

Here is the committee’s write-up from the program:

Linda Dalton was selected as this year’s McCoy Award recipient due to the exceptional leadership qualities she has demonstrated during her distinguished career and, in particularly, the outstanding mentorship role she has played for many women in higher education in planning. In addition to her own distinguished career in planning, she has worked tirelessly to improve faculty diversity in planning programs and serves as a role model for women in higher education. ~ Hilary Nixon, Chair, FWIG Award Committee, 2014

The paper I thought I’d discuss here is a paper from 1986 entitled:

Dalton, Linda 1986. Why the Rational Paradigm Persists — The Resistance of Professional Education and Practice to Alternative Forms of Planning. Journal of Planning Education and Research April 1986 5: 147-153, doi:10.1177/0739456X8600500302

First of all, we need to comment on the throwback three column format and HOW MUCH I LOVE IT.

That said, the motivating question behind Dalton’s paper is a good one: by 1986, we’d loads and loads of planning theory that had reacted to the mistakes of rational modernist planning, like urban renewal, and had tried to reformulate planning in alternative terms. This created quite a bit of disjoin between theory and practice because rational planning still dominated most forms of practice. I think that’s true today still.

Dalton’s explanation is a good one, too:

Taken together, utilitarian and logical positivist notions of rationality constitute both a process for making decisions and a set of underlying characteristics or assumptions upon which choices are made: objectivity, analysis and efficiency.

The emphasis is in the original.

That is, the question of the public interest is a real thing, and the process of trying to suss it is an important thing, and while the particular methods and values embodied in logical positivism might have problems, the need to explore the public interest never goes away, unless, like Maggie Thatcher, you just up and decide there is no such thing.

Dalton develops this argument by examining both the practice and the profession of planning, noting the various ways in which rationality and its attendant themes drive the market for professionals that in, turn, influences the culture of the practice. Ulrich Beck, Scott Lash, and Anthony Giddens later work through how these themes play out in larger sociological processes way beyond planning in their description of reflexive modernization.

Dalton warned that planners’ adherence to rationalist principles contains the seeds of the profession’s destruction in that despite all the claims and production of technical material, problems persist and undermine the credibility of the claims to technical expertise. In the place of rationality, Dalton suggestions the practice of public reason.

In the decades following, we would have a lot of planning theory that grapples with the problems: Flyvbjerg would connect rationality to power, and the process of rationalization, for one important contribution.

But planners still have this problem: if we aren’t producing technical material, what is the role of the profession? Planning as something people rather than professionals, do, well, that’s a thing, and it does not promise outcomes necessarily. Planner as something a person can be, as a professional who can be paid because they are doing something special in planning…that’s a different idea entirely. The persistence of social ills can hardly be laid at the foot of rationalist planning; modernist planning might have been overly ambitious in its claims, but it’s not like any revision can necessarily solve the problem, as it’s just way too much of a straw man to expect any one approach or profession to alleviate the ‘mirage’ aspects of Enlightenment thought that set up the idea of social perfectibility in the first place. Let’s not plan, then, and let things go, since social ills can’t be ‘solved.’ Or let’s revise the notion of the profession: hands up, who wants to be small and marginal and claim dominion over the easy-to-implement and socially stabilizing things (bike lanes) so that we can boost our prestige as a profession, and forget about things like poverty since that’s hard?

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