On losing your “nice” in the academy

How do scholars develop? I think I have hit a new stage.

In general, I have tried to be a departmental good guy. I go to the things where we give our time to recruit students. I give my time to program directors. I say yes when self-interest says no. I sincerely have treated this work as part of my job.

Friday, I hit a wall. I lost my nice. I think, perhaps, forever.

I got up three hours earlier than I normally would have for a meeting. When I arrived, sick and bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, I was told my assignment for the meeting was to “meet somebody I didn’t know.”

Something cracked in my brain.

You’re not entitled to my time, people.

I have enough friends. I meet hundreds of people a month, going to conferences and meetings around the world. I realize that not everything is about benefitting me, but…does any of this really benefit anybody?

I behaved abominably at the meeting, offending one of our excellent staff people. I wasn’t sure at the time why, but I do now.

After that meeting, we went into a two-hour faculty meeting where new departmental policies on cell phones and space planning *were read to us*.

If there is anything that having a PhD should say about you, it’s that YOU ALREADY KNOW HOW TO READ.

I realized that I was doing this for people who are not, in fact, using my time well, and, since they know they are not using your time well, they don’t respect you for showing up. It’s a bad cycle. They don’t use your time well because they don’t respect your time because, it seems obvious to them, you’re not using your time well because you showed up. And those people who do use their time well? They never show up. Because these things aren’t a good use of time.

And on it goes.

Prior to last Friday, I used to think that my showing up sent the following message:
I’m very busy, but I made time for your activity because I value what you do. I am here to support you, the collective and the endeavor.

In reality, nobody respects you for showing up. For one, senior people just want junior people to shut up. People just want you to comply. They talk at you. You’re supposed to sit and listen. And clap.

By giving your time to students and colleagues, they read that message as:

I’m not doing anything important. If I were doing something important, I wouldn’t be here.

So of course they treat you like you’re not doing any research–or if you are doing any research, it must be lower in impact than the people who never show up or–if they show up at all–flounce in a half hour late. These are the people who will get constant praise and attention and salary increases for every time they go to the bathroom.

For students and people outside the academy, they tend to blame research for the fact that some faculty don’t bother showing up for them or giving them time and attention.

But the only real tradeoff is in culture and mystique.

And in salary. It’s much better to never show and be considered a hot commodity, in demand, and on the move, than it is to be nice.

One of my colleagues, Richard Green, is fantastic about showing up and doing great work, but he came to USC as a star. For people like me, being nice is, simply, a bad career move. You will lose hours you could have spent on your own work, and you will lose the respect of the people around you and they will instead give their respect to the people who put themselves first.

I am not in a position of understanding what putting yourself first all the time means in terms of your own development. For all I know, it may be beneficial intellectually as well as in the culture of the academy. It will probably yield me more sleep, more hours with my beloved data, more time for reading and reflecting, more time for learning new things, and more leisure time. Works for me.

Rail, power, Peter Coyote, and Bay Area HSR

Rail advocates love to write and say victim-y things about how cars have all the advantages. This is a bit like Donald Trump whining that Indians get all the breaks*. Rail development today is backed and pushed by extremely powerful coalitions of real estate and construction interests, just like highways were a generation ago. And rail coalitions have an additional ace–the coalition includes environmentalists.

The real second-class citizenry in transportation = bus riders. Followed by walkers and bicyclists. But bus riders are treated terribly, by the agencies who are meant to serve them as customers, politicians, and the electorate. People in LA love to complain about the Bus Riders’ Union, but without them, the bus riders who have supported LA’s transit for years would be treated like they matter not at all.

Rail advocates will argue that they want to serve bus riders better by giving them rail. It’s probably an argument that works better in theory than in practice. Rail and bus service have to work together and in tandem for good frequency, geographic coverage, and, ultimately, customer service. When you are focused entirely on building rail, and bus service operates as a mere hey-you, it’s not likely that anybody will take the time to harmonize the transfers and go to the considerable work it takes to serve bus riders well.

Where are the *transit* advocates? Is bus transit is second-class because of its inherent limits as a technology, or is it second class because everybody treats it that way?

Here is a movie of the Transbay Terminal redevelopment, narrated by Peter Coyote. The Transbay is meant to be the terminus of the the HSR for San Francisco. When was the last time a new bus line got a celebrity to narrate? Oh, the money that is going to be made here–and it will happen even without the HSR. You can build and sell anything you build on the peninsula.

I have no objections to making money. But.

I have a friend who bought her loft last year. She got $9,000 in tax credits for it. On a place she was going to buy anyway. That’s bad pubic policy. Just like it’s bad public policy to chuck money at projects like Transbay. Let the developers develop–don’t make them more miserable during the approvals process than necessary–but don’t hand them any public candy, either.

In the end, I doubt the HSR will get into Transbay. It will stop somewhere on the edge of the region and passengers will be expected to transfer to BART or Caltrain.

And that would be fine. The Bay Area has a lot invested in transit. So what if the transfer point to regional rail network occurs in a suburb rather than downtown?

Right now, the board is committed to getting HSR into Transbay. They will get sued a lot, incurring much higher costs than necessary, and then they will settle on a peripheral location.

*Trump once complained that Indian casinos in NY state had an easier time of it than his own casinos did, at least in terms of public approval. Oh, my, how Donald does understand why the caged bird sings. Idiot.