JAPA’s Planning Perspective pieces and our profession’s recent losses

I’m just going to say it: I really have not been a fan of the “Perspective” pieces that the Journal of the American Planning Association has taken to publishing instead of the “Longer View” pieces that we used to have. The Longer View essays were thought pieces, usually by well-established scholars on a field, who used the essay as an opportunity to try to write about what the research in that area means for the professions and cities. Some of those were well done, others were less so, but they were, at least, about subject matter. The “Perspective” pieces are meant to be somewhat similar, but have a more personal bent to them. They are memoir, with reflections about the profession and the individual’s life in the profession. I say this even though I am quite a fan of a number of the people who have penned these pieces: I like the individuals, and their scholarship, but these particular essays have made me squirm.

I am torn. I am usually among those who will happily say that far too much of the academy tends to focus on very limited modes of communication and storytelling. Let’s have more of all sorts of ideas and expressing them, I always say.

Except when I am not. I am an avid, avid reader, with one major weak point: I hate memoir.

There are some people who *kill* this genre. David Sedaris comes to mind. Memoirists like him are brilliant prose stylists with a truly exceptional capacity to look at themselves with both tenderness and good humor.

Academics are too often neither.

Academic memoirs tend to be a lot like academics themselves: narrow and way too full of self-congratulation. Or score-settling. Or both.

And I have to say, the first “Perspectives” of JAPA have not made me happy to read them. My first thought was OMG: the Boomer scholars, who maintain their grip on the profession, have given up entirely on using evidence and doing the actual bloody work of scholarship as a means to promote themselves and have skipped merrily forward to simply talking about themselves.


We have also just lost Ed Soja and Jackie Leavitt at UCLA, my alma, and I find myself rather wishing now we’d had a “Perspective” column from each of them. Ed leaves a bunch of books that changed the way theorists discuss space, along with many students who remember how very kindly and inspiring he was. Jackie leaves behind a legion of students, colleagues, advocates, and projects she transformed with her support and vision.

One of my students after the Virginia Tech shooting said, in tears as I held her: “I hate that I only know how wonderful these professors are now that they are dead.”

Perhaps victory laps are ok.

Death (Ranier Maria Rilke)

Our fate held close within his quiet hands.

When with proud joy we lift Life’s red wine

To drink deep of the mystic shining cup

And ecstasy through all our being leaps—

Death bows his head and weeps.

Before us great Death stands