Maybe all the California HSR hot takes are confusing because there are no good hot takes to be had

Gavin Newsom announced yesterday that he was going to keep supporting HSR as governor, but that he committed to finishing the Fresno-Merced segment and is, for now, letting go of the likely secondary phases of getting the service into LA and San Francisco.  I think that’s a fair representation of what he said.


There were various hot-takes, with coverage being all over the map as “this is Newsom walking back on HSR” to “this is Newsom redoubling the state’s commitment to the project!”  It left my head swimming by the end from reading all the hot takes from Transit Twitter yesterday.  (It is kinda funny that my iPad autocorrect changes hot takes to “hostages.” So, so meta.) 

Beloved colleague Marlon Boarnet pointed us to Henry Grabar’s nice piece up on Slate about the general feasibility of HSR in the US, and how most places aren’t the disaster that California currently is. He interprets Newsom’s comments as walking back the project. I am less sure. I also don’t agree that California HSR is a “disaster.” All projects, large and small, are messy and take more time and resources than you want them to, and evaluating most in the middle is a mug’s game. I reserve “disaster” for events where people die, just like I won’t allow for their to be any “war on” language when there aren’t tanks rolling.

 I think the general problem with trying to interpret Newsom’s comments as a definitive pro or con is maybe that he doesn’t know himself, and he probably shouldn’t.  We probably shouldn’t, either. Grabar is right in that these projects can be feasible, but it requires us to make good governance decisions along the way, or at least not totally f-ed up governance, and our federal leadership right now is….entirely screwed up. And could be for another six years. California isn’t getting anything out that administration unless Trumpie’s big donors here want it.

In theory, California could finance the entire project by itself. In practice, we still don’t have a really stable, sufficient funding source for the capital.   And that adds a lot to the capital risk, especially with putting lots of up-front investment into places that aren’t likely to be big markets for the service, like Central Valley cities.

The decision made years ago to start construction in the Central Valley created some path dependencies we can’t hop out of easily now.  There were benefits and costs to that choice, and it’s useless to repeat now the concerns I raised then because that brings crying over spilled milk to new levels. It’s probably better to acknowledge that Newsom’s signaling that we are going to finish the “Valley to Valley” segment first attempts to follow through on delivering at least some of the project’s envisioned benefits: the construction work is good for the people who get it (local benefits), and if our wildest dreams come true, what gets built will be operational and inspirational in a few years, and the rest of the state will clamor for their projects.

Less optimistically, we will spend a big chunk of change and get very little in the way of riders and the project becomes a poster boy for rail boondoggle among rail’s persistent opposition.

The fact that Newsom didn’t go there suggests something important: this project is less of a governing priority than things like housing where he has come out swinging. He’s kicking the can down the road a bit on HSR, and I think not really in a bad way.

Later, perhaps, when the project starts to get finished, people may get some clarity on how the state shouldn’t fund infrastructure systems on a few bond measures and cap-and-trade money that is going bounce around from year to year. To create a statewide network, we need a dedicated, long-term funding source, period.

I can say it out loud because I have tenure and I’m not running for office. The reason why this project has been fragile from the beginning was the unwillingness of its proponents to get that question answered first.

Unfortunately, “later” in a time of climate crisis is bad, but as far as I can tell, Newsom doesn’t really have a lot of choices here. If he does, I’d be glad to hear of them.

Helping students with anxiety and managing yours

Twitter had an upset last week when a professor of dubious decency wrote an ill-advised email mocking students’ disability accommodations that were designed to help a student with anxiety during an exam because great professor bro felt like his “exams were intended to cause anxiety.”

There was a lot of shaming this dude, which he deserves, but social media is often not very good at anything past that, and if there were long threads on the issues that I missed, I apologized–I am also sad because I probably could have learned from them. If you have any to share with me, please do.

In planning, it’s very hard to move up the career ladder with social anxiety, so you have to learn to cope or you will be stuck hard; the more you move up the ladder, the more public the job becomes. (Ditto with professoring). We don’t want a field to be nothing but extroverts who love to be the center of attention, talking and performing, though Lord bless them, I have hidden behind many of them. Quiet, shy people have a lot of give if we make space and help them occupy it.

I dealt with my social anxiety over the years as a consultant and teacher by powering through, and it was difficult. And it also leads to me an understanding: you want better answers to helping students learn to function with anxiety than “SUCK IT UP BUTTERCUP” and “Oh, you poor dear thing, you aren’t capable.” The latter is not what student accommodations do, but I do tend to think that some profs, once they see the anxiety in a student, tend to withdraw. It’s messy, and if they don’t push they won’t be guilty of anything, but they won’t be responsible for anything either.

To wit, students with disabilities need mentors just like everybody else does, and just because a teacher has or has not experienced what a student has does not release them from their responsibilities to help raise up other people. There’s far too much of this damn “I can only mentor young white male geniuses or pretty pretty little white girls with pleasing manners” nonsense from white male scholars. Sometimes things get messy, and that means when you have been fortunate to have a life that has allowed to thrive, your duty is to pull others along with you, best you can. (That last rider is important).

This is different from assuming that you as an abled, white or cis-male mentor can meet a students’ needs. Students do need people who understand their struggle, and cis-white people in particular don’t get it and there’s no reason why oppressed students should trust them. I try anyway on all sorts of dimensions; there are things that all people need, regardless, and that I can help anybody with. You need somebody to promote your work? I can do that. You need a little loan to get home to see your people so you don’t go cray? I can help with that. Need a coffee? Broke but craving a princess-y lunch? I love princess-y lunches and am happy for the company. Just because white people can’t understand everything a black student goes through doesn’t mean they are off the hook for supporting and loving in ways that they can.

You don’t walk–buts lotsa dudes do, as evidenced in this bullshit headline: Another Side of #MeToo: Male Managers Fearful of Mentoring Women. I knew this was coming. There’s been a lot fixing that headline to great effect, but my fix is “Some men can’t mentor women unless they hold all the power.” Power between a student and a mentor need not be an all-or-nothing endeavor, and it’s wrong to act that it is.

More pragmatically, mentoring people with *difficult* struggles (not just, hey-hook-polished-me-up-with-your-high-powered-buds) takes time. It takes time from you being the glorious you you can be when you don’t help your brothers and sisters pick up their load. That means two things. Those of us who feel this duty, especially mentors of color helping students cope with oppression, get overloaded. And it means students often get short shrift from the most “famous” faculty mentors because one way you get famous is by investing in yourself constantly rather than investing your time in other people. Striking this balance is a tough one in the academy: you can do more for students externally the more famous you are, so if you *dont‘* take care of that side of things, you will be a well-intentioned support without entry to the elite professional networks students need to get ahead. Go too far that way and you become useless in other ways, cherry-picking easy students who are likely to get where they are going anyway.

This is all by way of saying that I’m really grateful for student accommodations. They give me a place to start with students when, without them, neither the student nor I may know how to best go forward. With learning to live with anxiety or anything else, you take things in small doses, controlling the situation so that you can learn to adapt as you go. With every student, disability or no, good teachers recognize where a student is and work from there.

BONUS Story: David Sloane has been a wonderful mentor to me. Once he asked me to go grab dinner at a new place on campus he liked. I thought I was pretty good at hiding how I lose it when my routine gets disrupted, but we got upstairs to the place and it was Lemonade, which is cafeteria style. OMG I HAVE TO MAKE CHOICES FAST AND IN FRONT OF PEOPLE I WILL PROBABLY DIE. So I am standing there hating myself for being worried about something normal people just get on with doing, and David starts in explaining what is there, what he usually does, and I find myself getting like entirely pissed that he is treating me like a five-year old, like I don’t need help, like I can do this…and then after I get over that rush of anger at him and myself, I felt so cared for. I had been seen when I had spent so many years covering up my problems–these situations were prime moments of emotional abuse in school and in family (because who for chrissakes can explain Maxwell’s electromagnetic field equation when she is 10 but can’t freaking manage a cafeteria?)–and he just made everything all right with simple, loving leadership. No wonder USC makes him do every leadership thing it can.