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