On writing about evil

One of my early, arm’s-length mentors at Virginia Tech, the exceedingly kind Ed Weisband, took me out to lunch and got on my case, a little bit and deservedly, about being too timid in my early writing about justice. I remember him saying, with genuine anguish in his voice, “I don’t like writing about evil, Lisa. It breaks my heart writing about evil. But I have to.” At the time, Ed was writing about genocide, and while it took me a really long time to buck up the courage to write explicitly about justice, I have finally started doing so.

Ed is right; it’s hard to write about evil. I blew things up with my book about a month ago. I did so for several reasons; one was simply that this spring has been one hit to my scholarly confidence after another. After one particular incident sent me into a pretty bad tailspin, I got to questioning the basic premise of the project: Whom was I actually writing this book for? For me? That seems like a narcissistic answer. To get promoted? Like most people, I’d love to attain status and prestige, but not enough to do work I don’t believe in. I did that when I was a consultant, and it broke me a little each time.

The other contributing factor was the extreme difficulty of the data collection, management, and analysis of some of the empirical parts of the book. There are some ambitious analyses in the book, and they have required copious amounts of programming in Python, a language I do not know well.

Yes, I could have produced a book in a year if I’d been less ambitious. If there isn’t any risk of failure, it’s not any fun, not really.

And then there is one chapter that I have been writing about Trayvon Martin and Black Lives Matter. This chapter has subjected me to what Ed Weisband told me years ago about the emotional pain of writing about evil. It’s breaking my heart. When I walked away from the book, my biggest feeling of relief–one I didn’t disclose to anybody asking me questions about why I’d leave the book after I had invested so heavily in it–was the possibility that I wasn’t going to have to read one more racist comment about Martin or his parents and that I wouldn’t have to read and sort through stories such as this newest, about Zimmerman selling the gun he killed Martin with for $100,000+.

I still hate touching that analysis every time I touch it. I hate that my neighbors have to worry about their children the way black parents have to worry about their children. I hate that my black students might get hurt or killed because of the hate I am reading in the tea leaves. This is looking straight into American evil. And it hurts me every time I do.

It felt good thinking I wouldn’t have to do it anymore.

But not doing it didn’t feel right either. So I am back, working away on that chapter, and hurting every time. But if it hurts me to look at it, living it is a million times worse. There comes a point where your realize that your feelings don’t matter, and that if you have information that might wake people up, you have to use it.

“as empty as an unremembered heart”…reading Mervyn Peake

Ay ay ay ay ay–

I am supposed to be starting up my summer work, but all I want to do is keep reading on Titus Groan. Such amazing prose work. Amazing.

“Half-way up she was able to lift her bundle above her head and push it on to the balcony, and then to swarm after it and find herself standing with the great stage below her as empty as an unremembered heart.”

There is something so artful about the word choice here, and in particular, “unremembered” rather than simply “forgotten.” Forgotten is so many things. It suggests perhaps unintentional failure to keep somebody’s affections in your mind, or a momentary lapse, a pre-occupation with other things. Unremembered, however, suggests an act of will on the part of the memory-holder, perhaps even a rejection of the memory—a knowledge love offered, but so painful and unwanted that the person refuses to even allow the memory to enter her mind.

Tim Gunn on needing to be a student to be a teacher

As regular readers of the blog will know, I am a great fan of second acts and taking on new challenges at every stage of your life. One of my favorite popular mentors, Tim Gunn, just took up fencing. The video is utterly charming, but it also shares some great insights about the relationship between learning and teaching:

But it’s not just the sport that has added so much to Gunn’s life. He found a relationship with Morehouse built not just on fencing but their shared love for teaching.

“Tim and I have so much to talk about. I spent 29 years in a classroom, about to do my 15th season of Project Runway, plus ancillary, related things. We talk about the challenges of communicating, directing, guiding, correcting,” Gunn says.

My favorite part is the section where Gunn describes his moments of frustration and loving how he is hating fencing, when it gets hard, and when it feels like he is not making any progress. Research projects should be like this: they should stretch you so far and hard that you are ready to quit a dozen times. That’s one way research helps with teaching: it reminds a teacher of what it feels like to learn, of trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and failing–and the utmost necessity of trying again.

Is a C+ really that much worse than a B-? Please explain

What is it about C+ grades? I turn in my grades, and the email deluge begins roughly 5 minutes after I do so: “Can I have a B- instead of a C+? Of course you will be rounding my C+ up to a B-, right? It would mean the world to me.” (No, I shan’t.)

There’s something psychological about the C versus B and I don’t get it. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about my own GPA, so maybe there is a big difference numerically, but I can’t recall that being the case; the difference between a B- and C+ is pretty marginal. Both can keep you out the elite graduate programs. Perhaps they should.

I’d understand this if were in the D+ versus C- range. At a D+, you wind up taking most required classes again, and that is an expensive and time-consuming proposition. But a C+ means you don’t have to take the class again.

I really don’t like letter grading. Let’s face it, I don’t like grading. By the time you are in graduate school, you should be self-motivated and self-evaluative enough to do your work in collaboration with a professor.

Robert Moses follow-up

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: The real lesson of the Power Broker isn’t about urban planning or even centralized planning, both of which have their own internal problems and contradictions the way everything in grown-up life has. The lesson from Robert Moses’ career, and The Power Broker book that details it, concerns public institutions and the power of the state, which anybody associated with the state would do well to approach with fear and trembling if they want to be an ethical practitioner in ANY of the public-serving professions. (That means…all the professions.)

So I got people unsettled over the weekend about Robert Moses by noting that his academic background was in political science, and by putting some fighting words out there:

The whole narrative strikes me more as a lesson power and rationality: If something goes wrong, then the planners did it. If something goes right, the engineers/city managers/real estate developers/economists/architects/community did it right, despite all them dadgum planners.

Well screw that. Robert Moses wasn’t ours and it’s time another intellectual tradition took responsibility for him.

The post had the predictable effect with Twitter debates ensuing, with people telling me that Moses was a planner because he “functioned as planner” and assertions that “Caro or no Caro, Moses was a planner!”

And the debate was the point. People are awfully emotionally and intellectually invested in the idea of what Moses stands for in planning.

But not a single argument convinced me, and I stuck to my guns. Why?

Because my major goal here was to shake people up by exploiting the theoretical ambiguity that surrounds planning to do the *opposite* of what people usually do: reject blame cast on the planning profession rather than project blame onto the profession (Aaron Wildavsky, any one). My argument is that people use the field’s indistinctness to make it into anything they want, and if they want to cast all of government’s and market’s ills onto the profession, there is precious little to keep them from doing so. If something goes wrong with development, it was an urban planning problem–not a problem inherent to liberal progressive politics and managerialism, not a problem with capitalist real estate development, not the wholesale abandonment of the welfare state functions of government institutions that people now expect unregulated markets to provide even though they have never done so in the past (solutions for externalities, for one).

So if a PhD in political science becomes the chairman or director of a bunch of powerful commissions in New York with precious little public oversight, then that must be planning. (BTW, the title of Chairman or Director is a signal to me that you’ve moved into public management. It doesn’t mean there is a Grand Canyon of distinction between planning and public management as they are plenty connected, but still, exploring the connections between public management and planning is a fruitful exercise.)

The argument: he drew lines on a map and planned projects. He didn’t manage or build them.

The response: Engineers, architects, and developers also draw lines on maps and build projects. And they also manage them. So did he.

The argument: He traveled and consulted on planning and infrastructure projects. That’s planning.

The response: If that’s what makes a planner, then there are an awful lot of engineers drawing an engineering salary doing planning all over the place all the time.

The argument: Planners promoted his ideas…

The response: Planners promote Andres Duany’s ideas. Does that mean he’s stopped being an architect and has become a planner? Planners promote Don Shoup’s ideas. Does that mean Donald is no longer an economist? (I’d argue that Donald’s intellectual life, moving from economics and delving deeply into planning produces exactly the sort of fruitful insights that interdisciplinary research should.)

The argument: But planning has become even more technocratic (sends me a link to a gillian-page EIR)

The response: The planning profession is hardly technocratic anymore, and that gillian-page EIR likely employed 10 engineers for every 1 planner, optimistically on the planning side. Engineering has rolled forward out of urban renewal and highway-building (something else blamed on planners rather than engineers) largely unchastened by the failures of the era to market themselves as the *competent* technocrats, unlike planners. Reflexive modernism in play.

The argument: Jane Jacobs was against central planning so planners must be wrong to plan.

The response: Okey dokey, Jacobs-follower, then stop planning. Go right ahead on. Don’t do it anymore. Swear it off, like donuts and cigarettes.

The argument: Have YOOOUUUUUU read the entire Jacobs corpus?

The response: Yes, yes, I have. And I still challenge you to go ahead and start your urban libertarian utopia. Go get ’em, Tiger. Far be it from me to hold anybody back from bold social experiments. But in the end when all that goes ‘phut’ you might find Hobbes was right and Jacobs guilty of exactly the blame projection that I described above. (I think Jacobs wrote very fine books and made really important contributions. I think she was right about a bunch of stuff. I also think she was wrong about a bunch of stuff, too, that people seldom talk about because they are too busy cherrypicking what they like. That’s fine as far as it goes, but plaster saints bore me.)

If Robert Moses was a planner by the standards of “functioning,” Jane Jacobs was, too. She made big normative claims about how cities should be. Planners do that *all the time.* And people like me argue that those normative claims are central to the profession and to the practice (two separate things).

Does it ultimately matter if Moses was a planner? Or Jacobs? I do not know. Labels really are not important, except to the degree that they come with a set of assumptions, and it’s those assumptions that make me squiggly.

That said, if you get a Robert Moses question on Jeopardy! you should say “urban planner” just to be safe.

I think the real lesson of the Power Broker isn’t about central planning, which has its own internal problems and contradictions the way everything in grown-up life has. The central of the power broker concerns institutions and the power of the state, which anybody associated with the state would do well to approach with fear and trembling if they want to be an ethical practitioner in the public professions.

Why, exactly, is Robert Moses urban planning’s fault and not public management’s fault?

I’ve been reading through the Paris Review’s Interview with Robert Caro, as you should, too. I am a great fan of Robert Caro, but I do have to admit I am confused as to why Robert Moses is conflated with urban planning (and everything that was/is wrong with it) when he was never trained as a planner.

In this interview, Caro rather gratuitously decides he knew better than his professors about where highways get built–it’s self-aggrandizing story, in some respects, and granted who was probably teaching at Harvard at the time, I’d like to point out that, once again, instead of studying with urban planners, he was probably studying with civil engineers who were showing mathematical arguments for where highways *should* go–not where they do go. But anyway, my question remains: Caro never, not once, as far as I can tell, took a degree in urban planning. His background is in political science, in which he obtained a PhD from Yale. So he studied political power and went out and got it, and not surprisingly, he figured out one of the easiest places to wield a great deal of individual influence is in local politics and in institutions with copious bureaucratic discretion.

If anything, he was a public management guy, not a planner.

But somehow, nonetheless, the things he did became a lesson to one and all about how urban planning shouldn’t be done. Ok, but he didn’t learn that stuff in planning school.

The whole narrative strikes me more as a lesson power and rationality: If something goes wrong, then the planners did it. If something goes right, the engineers/city managers/real estate developmers/economists/architects/community did it right, despite all them dadgum planners.

Well screw that. Robert Moses wasn’t ours and it’s time another intellectual tradition took responsibility for him.

Qualitative research is not doomed, aka movie deals.

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: The qual versus quant distinction that old timers have grown up with is dated, and it probably wasn’t even useful back in the day. Most of us academics are dinosaurs, so be humble when you throw poop around the dinosaur cage.

This piece by Stephen Porter crossed my desk via Twitter the other day from Noah Smith (@Noahpinion, who is wonderful, and you should follow), and at the time I shot back some opinions on Twitter. But it’s bothered me ever since, so I thought I would write a fuller response here. I don’t know Stephen Porter or his work, but that said, I did read his bio and a couple of his papers after this blog post.

Let’s start with the overall snarky tone of the piece. As somebody who is frequently snarky, it raises a red flag. I know full well when I do it, and it’s not good scholarly behavior on a blog or anywhere else. When somebody is snarky about a topic that shouldn’t normally generate anger or condescension, it’s a warning sign, and the warning sign is simply that the author’s ego is at stake in the writing. If you really have the full force of both soundness and validity in your argument, you don’t need snark to bully the reader into believing you or to frighten dissenters from challenging you. I’m as guilty of this as anybody.

From that onward, the argument is cherrypicked, overreaching, and blind to the overall research context we all live in.

Let’s start here:

Banners and Alerts and Speaking truth to power about qualitative research Stephen Porter

His response to this tweet was:

Of course, the whining and outrage was predictable. More here:

I assume BMJ is the British Journal of Medicine.

So whining and outrage go together, and reactions to a medical journal’s business model of scholarly research dissemination is mere “outrage” instead of legitimate critique of a journal that is extracting from scholars free content to sell at exorbitant prices…about inconsequential matters such as health. Okaaaay.

There actually are some pretty damn good reasons that medical research absolutely needs qualitative research, and some of the most important medical studies ever done have been qualitative. We know a lot more about the effects of toxins on the human body because of opportunistic studies of rare events like industrial accidents or London’s “killer fog.”

And, btw, what does shunning qualitative research mean for bioethics research? It should bother us when a medical journal is not interested in the casuistry of field practice. It’s one thing if BMJ intends to specialize and expects those researchers to go to specialty journals, but that’s not the same as the “it’s a low priority for us because it doesn’t sell” rationale.

The next point that strikes me as incorrect is this one:

Let’s face facts: it’s a quant world now. Policymakers and stakeholders don’t want to hear stories about the lived experience or any other such nonsense. Funders are increasingly adopting a similar mindset

The facts are, there isn’t any evidence to back up this assertion. The facts are…policymakers and stakeholders–an amorphous, ill-defined group of people, so God only knows who they are, but they of course agree with what Porter thinks…are often not terribly interested in any research of any kind unless it supports their interests.

But before I get too far into that, let’s deal with “don’t want to hear stories about the lived experience or any other such nonsense.” So if market interest is your measure of worth, then fine, but you should probably note that in the list of New York Times Best Sellers, historians outnumber economists roughly 8 to 1 (where economists would be doomed without the not-strongly quantitative Thomas Piketty), historians routinely win the National Book Award (year in and year out, actually, where economists have never posted a win, not ever*), and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks–a qualitative book on bioethics and history–just landed a feckin movie deal. We should probably note that Freakonomics would not have been what it was in terms of runaway best sellers if it hadn’t had a research collaboration with a qualitative social scientist and a writing connection with a journalist. (And a platform in the NYT).

Matthew Desmond is currently tearing up the book sales with a book of “stories.”

I kind of think people are interested.

If your idea of qualitative research is that it is just about the “stories of the lived experience” and “nonsense”…then you aren’t qualified to make assessments of qualitative research because you don’t know what you are talking about. Yes, there are ethnography and interview studies still out there, and I find them often to be quite valuable (Henrietta Lacks, and many others). I’ve obviously done a fair amount of them in addition to my quantitative research because I’m not an ideologue about methods. I care about questions and getting answers.

But more than that, big data are–or should be if you are awake–entirely changing the distinction between quantitative and qualitative. With digital technologies and social media, you are getting millions of data that confound the traditional tools of econometrics. Later on, Porter says qualitative people are “dinosaurs” but with his characterization of qualitative research here, I guess I have to question about whether Porter is as cutting-edge as he thinks he is.

And I don’t know about the rest of you, but one of my econometric instructors, a brilliant econometrician named Joel Horowitz, and I once had a really interesting discussion about whether Bayesian approaches are inherently qualitative, and that wasn’t one of your typical sniffy-snooty, looking-down, pissing-on-the-wall, I’m-ever-so-much-more-rigorous-than-thou academic discussions. People like Horowitz, who are genuinely secure in their work, don’t have to do that: it was just the two of us chatting about where ideas come from and how people use them to formulate theory, and getting into some pretty interesting epistemological waters as we went.

The part here that pains me to write: research and higher education do seem to be in process of changing, but it’s not strictly a data revolution where quantoids like Porter stand astride the earth while the silly dinosaurs die. Instead, the star economy of the academy means that there are global academic darlings, who get all the sunshine, and then the rest of us–the Help–who get whatever crumbs are left.

Funding, particularly that for social science, is consolidating and drying up for just about everybody, not just those dummies who tell “stories.”

And if I were a betting woman, I’d guess that the university Porter teaches at, NC State, stands a good chance of either being the only state university in North Carolina…or being closed in the next 30 years. And since UNC at least has a sports dynasty on their side, I’d bet the latter.

I hope I am wrong. But I don’t think I am. I think some aspects of higher education are, in fact dying, and lot of what I see in Porter’s argument is the anxiety that all of us have about the changes going on around us: I’M not the dinosaur or the Help. YOU OTHERS ARE.

Then he goes on to say that quantitative dominance is only going to get worse because:

1. Statistics is now prominent in the K-12 math curriculum; it was nonexistent when I was a kid. Students at a young age will now be learning quant methods, not qual methods.

This assumes that students don’t learn qual methods, and I don’t think he’s right about that. I agree that we are seeing more statistical literacy in K-12 (and thank heaven), but we also seem to be seeing things like expanded service learning, visual ethnography in addition to data literacy.

2. The media has gotten much more data savvy, and now regularly present charts and graphs based on quant data. This is creating a culture where we tend to talk and view issues in terms of what the quant data tell us.

Yes, but the media also show us word clouds, videography…text mining appears regularly in the media, etc. It’s not like you can’t graph various aspects of qualitative research.

And, um, “This is creating a culture where we tend to talk and view issues in terms of what the quant data tell us”…go read some media effects research before you make sweeping conclusions like this based on your impression. The tail can wag the dog in terms of what media shows us.

3. Number 2 is especially true for academic research. The Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed report predominantly on quant studies. The major media outlets, like the NY Times, tend to report on work done by economists. When was the last time you read about an anthropological study in the national media?

And yet Matt Desmond got a six-figure book deal just telling stories, and we didn’t, with our big, giant, better-than-his data.

4. More and different quant datasets are continually collected, as we use more electronic devices and the cost of data storage continues to drop to almost nothing. So it’s becoming much easier to study a wide variety of topics using a quant lens than it was 20 or even 10 years ago.

5. Statistical and visualization software is easier to use every year, putting more tools in the hands of people who might normally never crack open R and run a regression analysis.

I’m currently doing a project with about 5,000 images from the web. Quant? But it’s coded images and text mining. Qual?

Porter’s approach seems to be “everything that is new and emerging is quant and everything old and lousy is qual”–and it’s an easy way to frame an argument you wish to win–but that doesn’t make you right about your basic definitions. Just because you have a lot of data doesn’t mean your approach isn’t qualitative. If I measure every single thing that happens every nanosecond of an individual’s life…I might have a lot of data, but not necessarily generalizable research conclusions. And it could still be interesting and useful as all hell.

This last point, to me, just suggests that old binaries like “quant” and “qual” are going away because they aren’t useful, not that Porter is right in his characterization of them.

The rest of the essay is academic posturing: my discipline does things in a rigorous way, education doesn’t, and so forth. Everybody knows that there are good studies out there and weak studies out there, and there are plenty of examples of weak quant and weak qual studies.

His link to an editorial targeted to qualitative researchers on how to get their work published strikes me as good advice for academic writers in general, though nothing here strikes me as particularly earth-shattering for those of us who get our work published. But here it is, for those out there who can use advice.

*Leontief and Galbraith were both nominated, but didn’t win. Always a bridesmaid.

“I blame women for not being more confident” and other things that you should not do

Yesterday one of our very accomplished adjuncts and alumni and I were having a conversation about how different the male and female students were as presenters during their comp exam. We had young women with really great work who undersold it so that it looked merely adequate, and young men with acceptable work who acted like they had just invented the internet. Now, I am proud of all of my students, and my characterization here is a generalization. But it happened enough during the day that my compadre noticed it.

We discussed how lack of confidence affects young women’s careers in consulting. In my case, it lead me to stand behind a much more voluble man for years while I produced analysis after analysis for him. I never learned to sell myself the way he did, and as a result, people credited him with the originality and technical skill that I had actually contributed.

This obviously has consequences for pay, and my compadre said to me, as we were drinking coffee, “You know, I think the pay gap is really women’s fault, for not being more confident.”

Um, no.

You can’t just expect somebody to be confident when they are told from the minute they enter this world that they can’t be any good at anything besides being pretty, taking care of other people, deferring, or being nice. And you can’t expect them to be assertive when every time they are assertive, they are punished either socially or professionally, and usually both.