Speed versus developing young faculty

Recently I got into a disagreement with a journal editor over the way a manuscript of my student’s was adjudicated. The reviews were negative, which is what it is, but they were also…not particularly insightful or useful reviews. I hate to drag on reviewers (jk I actually love it), voluntary service and all that, but as every good nonprofit director knows, not all volunteer contributions are worth having. And with these reviews, the sum was less than its parts, and the parts were pretty lame, too. Now, again…this happens with reviews: we’ve all written lame reviews, and it’s a statistical probability that at some point in your career, three useless advice trains will arrive at the station at once.

Honestly, there have been times when I have gotten all the referee’s reports in, with mine and everybody else’s, on somebody’s manuscript, and my response is: “well, we sure sucked. Sorry, anonymous author person.”

That’s when I hope the editor has stepped up and made us sound smarter than we did, so that the author doesn’t walk away with steaming pile of poo for feedback.

But this editor just sent a “Hi, the reviewers want it rejected and so I am rejecting it and isn’t it swell of us to get this back to you so fast? Please don’t be discouraged from submitting again!” letter.

Now, does anybody owe you feedback? No. But duties aren’t the only reason to sack up and provide a little feedback. If we want a field of excellent scholars and excellent scholarship, we better be giving good-quality feedback, and not just for the “I, me, and mine” of student development. It takes a village to make a field.

So, I objected; I know and respect this editor and I said “Come on…is this what you are sending to young scholars who submit to the journal?”

And the response from the editor was, in essence, I am too busy to waste time on papers that have a reviewer consensus that it should be rejected, you’re mean for criticizing me, now grow up and learn that peer review is “a crap shoot.”

In fairness, most people with any sense when confronted with the possibility of debating anything with me run in the opposite direction. When I come swinging out of a corner, it’s going to be rough on the person I’m poking at. So short-circuiting any debate with such a defense perhaps served survival instincts. Or maybe the editor was just having a bad day. It’s not good to go quoting out of context, so don’t judge too harshly.

But boy that “crap shoot” metaphor, from an editor, really isn’t sitting well with me.

If peer review is a crap shoot, why do journal editors exist? Some are just doing the job with no compensation, and it’s all service, and I do empathize, but some of them get paid, and decently enough. If peer reviewing is just a crap shoot…what’s the editor’s role? Are they like Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, and they get a percentage off the top simply because they preside over the space?

And if it’s a crap shoot, then why the hell are any of us doing this? All we got to do is get some low-paid administrative assistant a Magic Eight Ball with “Accept”; “Revise and Resubmit” and “Reject” on it.

Better yet, just have a randomized algorithm deliver an immediate decision as soon as the “submit” button is pushed. Hell, it’s a crap shoot.

Just think of the time we’d all save! (I’m rather tempted.)

I’m not disputing the decision: papers get rejected. I am well past the point of my career where I need anybody to tell me about JK Rowling’s rejections or the like. We all know the good stories of papers that got rejected only to win prizes.

In reality, peer review is a deliberative process with a stochastic element to it. (the crap shoot part). But it should be more than that stochastic element. There’s all sorts of ways where worthy work and piss-poor work don’t wind up with desert. We live with this because the process of deliberation serves, when it works, as process of research and faculty development, and do you have a better idea? Nope, not perfect. But it can be decent if we approach it from the perspective of development.

So there’s the general principle of: if we want the field to exemplify good work, we need to help authors develop the work. And when the reviewers piss all over themselves, it is a good idea for an editor to step to some degree.

And then there is simple self-interest. Go ahead and reject me with a paragraph. I should know what I am about by now. But young scholars should walk away, ok yeah, stinging from a rejection, but with the belief that the journal wasn’t a waste of his/her time. In this case, with this journal, this submission was a waste of the kid’s time.

Now, if you are the editor of AER, then no. You don’t have to put in the time to foster relationships or submissions. You’re sitting on top of a valuable asset, and you have market power. That means people are going to keep coming back because the lottery shot of getting in there is worth something. And chances, your reviews will be decent, if not nice.

Field journals, however, are a different smoke.

Just about all field journals are hurting for submissions. You need to wade through a lot of stuff before you get gold, and since field journal editors are already not at AER level, they are getting people’s dodgier submissions anyway. So that means they need an even bigger submission pool than the elite journals–which the field journals won’t get because they are not really elite–if the field journals hope to gather some quality hits.

Or they just accept lower quality to fill pages, which means they stay mediocre.

Field journals have to really work to court submissions, IOW.

If a field journal editor gets a set of bad reviews, and they don’t do work on the submission themselves, a young scholar walks away with nothing but a lesson in resilience. Now, if you are an editor of big-deal journal, like AER, the scholar comes back. With a field journal, the young scholar doesn’t need to: journals with IFs of around 1 to 2 are thick on the ground. Fast decisions are one way to compete, and that’s good, but fast isn’t everything.

The communitarian case for zoning that planners do not talk about

If you are not reading Better Institutions by Shane Phillips, you should be. Shane is one of my former students, now graduated, and he’s very smart and passionate about cities. He’s one of LA’s leaders in planning, and Better Institutions is always worth a read.

Shane has been, like many of us in LA, concerned with the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, and he’s been one of its leading critics, and he also writ land use is important in urbanism and urban reform. One of his pieces has gone viral, here, and I has some things in it I want to poke around with a bit, in which Shane castigates self-interested home-owners who oppose growth to leverage speculative gains in land value by contributing to a shortage. For those interested in reading about where this thinking comes in, you can learn more about it if you read about Homevoter Hypothesis by Bill Fischel.

This supply-side argument to favoring growth embodied in these assumptions is a favorite among market liberals and libertarians, and I’m generally ok with this part of the argument, mostly, save for a few quibbles. Back in the heyday of growth boundaries and anti-sprawl, I was one of those people who kept saying “Um, if we don’t build on the fringe, which I know is bad, terrible, and wrong, but if we don’t do that, we are going to be constraining supply and potentially putting upward pressures on housing prices.”

The answer was: “Oh, that won’t happen because we’ll do infill. Lots and Lots of infill. There’s plenty of excess capacity.”

Yes, yes, right of course, but where is that excess capacity and who is going to be dealing with it?

I responded: “But infill is really, really hard, and the places most likely to be subjected to redevelopment first are going to be lower income neighborhoods, Black neighborhoods, Latino neighborhoods with renters. What do we do about that?”

The answer was: “Oh, that won’t happen! That could never happen because people will understand the need to save the environment and include people who otherwise can’t afford to live close in to urban opportunities! And gentrification is *just a myth.*”

So I went away, worried. I’m not a land economist, after all, though I was trained by some damn good ones, and I have great faith in policy to alter the way the markets function and in social marketing’s ability to alter tastes. And if there has been one thing that New Urbanists and their high-density growth peers have been good at, it’s social marketing.

But now in some respects in LA (and the rest of the coastal California), here we are.

There are multiple reasons why I think planners and market liberals like Phillips need to back off a little bit on assuming anti-growth sentiment stems from mere homeowner self-interest. I don’t buy that it’s an “evil Baby Boomers versus Wonderful, Urbanity-Loving Millenials” conflict either, as gratifying as it is for this here Gen-Xer to watch those groups blame each other. American suburbanization started long before the Boomers showed up. Nor am I convinced that homeowners necessarily just have one interest, financial, in zoning. Given that I am likely to get raked over the coals for this post, I want to repeat: the Homevoter Hypothesis is important to understanding urban politics and development. But it’s partial. That’s my argument.

At some point we should stop being shocked that people have interests, and then, gasp, seek to optimize on them in politics. Why it’s ok to both a) have market interests and b) act on those, but not okay to have political interests, let alone act on them, is a bit beyond me. I don’t see anybody else turning down dividends or profits, and I’m not sure California homeowners fall into problematic luck egalitarianism the way that their critics assume they do, but that’s a long, drawn-out land valuation argument that takes me too far afield to sort today. And I’m not sure of the reasoning. But still.

Anyway, while home voters might indeed be voting their financial interests, there is a lot wrapped up in zoning that isn’t necessarily about speculative gains to real estate. Renters, too, tend to oppose new development, and while we can try to act like they don’t know what’s good for them, I think they share concerns about neighborhood changes, residential stability, and place identity with homeowners, and that coalition is much, much tougher to beat than simply assuming that zoning conflicts are strictly class-based conflicts about assets between owners and newcomers.

If you look at ‘exclusion’ as a big, social and political phenomenon instead of just in terms of local zoning and development spats, the arguments for exclusion combine both communitarian concerns about identity and stability and self-determination with economic concerns. Just as with zoning conflicts, conflicts over immigration can be reduced to spats over economic self-interest–the “you took my job” and “your kid requires I pay more for the local public school.”

But those not the only objection made to immigration. They may not even be the most commonly held objection. Other objections, important ones, are the desire that individuals have to maintain a specific culture and make-up of the political community. Now, in the US, there are strong racist underpinnings to resistance to immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, but America’s history of immigration has always been contested. The Irish and Italians were opposed because they were perceived, among other things, as labor agitators and Catholics, etc. etc. Immigrants change things, and change is, for the average progressive, a natural part of the world. For the average conservative, change is not necessarily desirable nor good.

Thus communitarians’ arguments for exclusion occur at just about every level of political community, and those communitarian arguments probably deserve more attention than they get in discussions over zoning.

Spelled out more explicitly, the communitarian arguments, which in planning have paralleled the cheerleading for infill and leading to rather major conflicts internal to the development process, have assumed that neighborhoods should have some level of self-determination in democratic conflicts over development. As it turns out, unleashing democratic preferences means you may not like that preference, and one of the strong preferences people have seems to be that their neighborhoods stay much as they are right at the moment, or with changes that they, themselves, guide. If neighborhoods have self-determination, why can’t they they use that self-determination to use zoning to enable the exercise of freedom of association? The ability to exclude is a pretty big deal in communitarian frameworks because it enables the formation of specific associations that are essential to individuals’ ability to a) exercise liberty, conscience, and self-expression and b) form intimate attachments of their own choosing. (This is thinking of Stuart White, btw). Exclusion may be more than justified from public good perspective to the degree that it enables those things. Christopher Heath Wellman notes that group membership determines a major part of self-conception and identity, and thus changing the members of any given group changes an essential part of identity. Exclusion for communitarians is necessary to preserve distinct group character, group trust, and mutual identification. To the degree that place is part of group identity, the ability to exclude others from that place supports group stability in crucial ways.

Apologists for exclusion have the burden of trying to show that these things they see as essential to human life and community hinge on being able to keep people out. Opponents of exclusion have a similar evidence burden to show that the things that communitarians prize about exclusion do not, in fact, require the ability to pick and choose what group membership changes occur and which do not.

Urbanists and those who argue against exclusion usually do so based on justice or efficiency arguments. Other than the inherent difficulties of separate-but-equal arguments, why can’t people who wish to control their own associations discharge their duties to distributive justice by doing everything required to help outsiders where they currently live? Justice might obtain in many ways. (I personally am not convinced by separate-but-equal arguments, but those are still out there being made, and there is a good core of commonsense value in stemming the movement into particular places by resourcing other places and making them great, too, along with the demands of global justice.)

Libertarians fall back onto the idea that zoning is an illiberal intervention into personal property rights and freedom of movement. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about libertarianism and freedom of association and I can’t reconcile the conflict from within that paradigm. My ability to limit who has access to me may be a strong preference, and the dictates of liberty and self-ownership mean that I should be able to exercise exclusion if I so choose via voluntary associations and contracts. Liberty of movement simultaneously requires that I should be able to move wherever. (I mean, not in your house, but in your general area). There are, in other words, dueling liberties and I see no credible argument for siding with one over the other that doesn’t fall into simple assertions of market power.

These debates can quickly become circular and irresolvable, but I’m worried that planning and urbanism are not really taking on communitarian claims and neighborhood self-determination arguments *at all* in contemporary zoning debates. Instead, it’s urbanists with personal preferences for urbanism saying “But cities are great and we have to save the environment by not sprawling!” and the market liberal followers of Ed Glaesar making supply-side arguments for affordability.

Trust me, as somebody who reads Glenn Beck’s Agenda 21 novels so that you don’t have to, not everybody sees the environment or justice as sufficient public policy rationales for trying to force people into accepting changes they don’t want or living in neighborhoods they don’t like. Dismissiveness vis-a-vis the communitarian arguments risks making planners seem like clueless progressives who don’t value families or communities at the same time they purport to value neighborhoods–but only certain neighborhoods, the ones that meet their approval. This is a chronic problem in planning, and it’s one we should probably be thinking about.

Pedagogical theory and practice versus increasingly shriekyy emails

State-of-the-art student-centered pedagogy theory preached at me with every “excellent teaching” seminar I attend: You must center on the students’ goals, come up with individual work plans, have them assemble the learning goals, and thus, create their own unique, special-snowflake syllabus.

University rules enforced by the university’s Dolores Umbridges as informed to me several weeks before the start of classes WHERE IS YOUR FALL SYLLABUS YOU MUST SEND US YOUR FALL SYLLABUS EVERY SYLLABUS SHOULD HAVE CLEARLY STATED LEARNING GOALS and OBJECTIVES (how are goals different from objectives?) AND UNIVERSITY-SANCTIONED LANGUAGE FOR PLAGIARISM, DISABILITIES, HARASSMENT. And enforced by weekly emails from staff members remind you that they need your syllabus weeks and weeks before any aforementioned student-centered learning goals might be developed with said students.


Revisiting your young scholarship as an older scholar, learning what matters

I spent a good part of the summer reading Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. My edition came from 2000; I see there is a more recent edition out. It’s a long haul of a book, buoyed most by Brown’s marvelous prose, and I was lead there, by Brown’s spectacular recent book, Through the Eye of A Needle, which I had read last year.

This is my little reading chart.

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The book was originally published 45 years ago, and my edition includes two afterwards: New Evidence and New Directions. The first discusses the exciting new evidence about Augustine that has been found since the book was published: the Divjak letters and the Dolbeau sermons. These new items, in addition to the formal corpus of Augustinian output (enormous), had Brown rethinking his young man’s views on Augustine at multiple phases in his life. It’s important not to get too sentimental: with his suppression of the Donatists*, Augustine cemented, if not laid, the intellectual foundation of forced conversion that in the hands of less moderate men would immiserate many.

Nonetheless, the sermons illustrated just how much of a fight Augustine had on his hands in north Africa at the time; bishops then were not the just stuff of silks and fancy hats. They had hostile and vigilante landowners, corrupt administrators, and others who abused power all around them, as well as a populace that remembered, all too well, the fun of pagan rituals, circuses, and celebrations relative to the austere language of sacrifice and personal redemption the Christians were peddling. The threats that may have seemed to a young biographer as minor were not: Brown admits throughout the addenda that he was, at times, too hard on his subject, too ready to ascribe to Augustine an unbending adherence to his authority of office rather than what, in retrospect, seems to Brown as Augustine simply trying to develop and use his authority to stem the worst abuses by a landed elite, his fellow bishops, and a greedy colonial administration. Augustine, as Brown notes, lived long enough to see all his hard-won victories in Africa fall apart around him after all was written and done. It is a sad ending for the man, if not for his lingering influence on Catholic theology.

As an older scholar, Brown recognizes also his willingness as a young man to write off Augustine as an old duffer who simply tried to sink Julian of Eclanum’s more reasoned positions about sex and human nature. Instead, the letters show Augustine a decent man who, in his old age–where he was highly venerated as a scholar and bishop–takes time for the smallest acts of teaching and ministering (largely the same things in my head):

It is, above all, the Divjak letters that have made me change my mind. In them we are bought up against a very different, more attractive, because so poignantly painstaking, side of the old man. Not only do they show Augustine acting always, if with a constant sigh of resignation, as the loyal colleague of his fellow bishops, when they struggled with endless cases of violence and the abuse of power among the clergy, land owners, and Imperial administrators. His letters are marked by an inspired fussiness and by a heroic lack of measure when it came to the care of endangered souls. There is nothing ‘burnt out’ in the seventy-year-old man who would spend the time to interview a young man terrorized by slave-traders** and who would go out of his way (as part of an effort to encourage the father to accept Christian baptism) to ask to see the school exercises, the rhetorical dictiones, of a teenage boy.*** The letters make plain that the old Augustine was prepared to give his unstinting attention to any problem that might trouble the faithful, no matter how busy he was, no matter how trivial or how ill-framed the problem seemed to be, and no matter how remote from Hippo,o show eccentric its proponents were.

The beginning of a new school year always has me thinking about the question of time and painstakingness. Research and teaching are really two jobs if you do them with the passion that I do, and in a place like USC, you are always encouraged to put research first. That’s where the painstakingness is meant to apply. And then there is my animal rescue work, which takes time and emotional resources, and where life-and-death decisions have to made; painstakingness, too, is required. The mistake of a day; the wrong medical choice; a failure to notice a limp, or a certain behavior, can result in tragedy.

How do you carve out a life when you have so many demands? Parents scoff at me, naturally: you have to when children in the picture, or if you don’t, you soon regret not doing so.

But this little bit at the end of Augustine reminds me that taking time for the small things, the small nudges to goodness and betterment that the old teach the young, matters in ways we ourselves do not often see. Taking time to visit and be present, and taking time and care over a student’s work…those distinguish scholars from those who merely wish to be stars.

*My auto-correct will keep making Donatists into Denists. I feel somewhat badly for the Donatists, though they certainly seemed to have been able to dish it out, but dentists deserve everything that is coming to them. (JK)

**Ep 10

***Ep 2

St. Augustine on Writing

I’m done reading Aristotle and have moved to St. Augustine, and I am currently reading Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo. In some places, it’s so, so great. In other places, I feel like he’s digressing, badly. Even so, I’d consider myself lucky if I ever finish a book half as beautifully written. Amazing prose stylist.

I am, however, very unclear on the citation protocal he is using. I just don’t get it. I think it might be unique to Augstine scholars. I’m just not familiar with many of Augustine’s writings. Thus, I am not clear as to where this comes from. The citation is: de cat. rud. ii, 3.

No. Clue.

But this is a lovely quote anyway.

“For my own way of expressing myself almost always disappoints me. I am anxious for the best possible, as I feel it in me before I start bringing it into the open in plain words; and when I see that it is less impressive than I had felt it to be, I am saddened that my tongue cannot live up to my heart.”

Comrade. I, too, have ruined many, many good ideas by trying to write them down.

So what, exactly, is anybody, GOP or Dem, supposed to do for the rural white working class now that we have globalized and de-legitimized the welfare state?

In the latest entry among “let’s rationalize Trump’s appeal by using rural white poverty The American Conservative has an interview with JD Vance.

In it, Vance returns, again and again, to the “plight of America’s rural poor whites”, all of which boil down to concerns that, when raised among black Americans, conservatives like Vance pooh-pooh as “divisive” and “paranoid” and “self-pitying victimology that prevents blacks from getting ahead in a system that works fine, just fine.”

Yes, rural America is poor. It’s been poor a long time.

I don’t buy what Vance is selling. It’s an intelligent interview, but it strikes me as being a stretch. My “I am from poor people in a poor place” bona fides are about as good as Vance’s, so let me give a different view.

Now that people like Vance are once again writing about the structural poverty of the countryside (because as problematic as it is, Michael Harrington’s The Other America preceded Vance by decades), eeeeee-lites are supposed to be chastened by the bloviating Mr. Trump who is taking down those politically correct elites because saying “chairperson” instead of “chairman” is so burdensome it’s ruining America and stopping all that would completely change economic outcomes in places in the US with neither the financial nor human capital to compete.

Political parties have forgotten about them; shame, shame on political parties. Of course they have forgotten about these places. Because these places are not economically or political important just because people who would like to be economically and politically influential live there.

The other major question for these disenfranchised rural residents: for people who are supposedly so disenfranchised are disproportionately represented in Congress. Their vote for Senators counts way, way more than mine, urban eeee-lite though I am. I am not disputing the wealth and political clout that exists in cities. I am asking, pointedly, that if what rural white residents want are job opportunities and greater political voice, are they using that clout to put like Steve King in office. King’s major policy stances have been in favor of dog-fighting (yeah, there’s the economic future, right there. Silicon Valley, look out) and keeping Harriet Tubman off currency in favor of genocidal maniac Andrew Jackson. That’s not using influence to generate hope and economic opportunity. That’s social conservatism. These places have consistently voted for TEA Party types. Now, you can bemoan the fact that rural voters aren’t voting their economic interests, or they are dumb, or whatever, but it seems to me that their social conservativism matters tremendously to them and that’s what they are voting on. Marriage equality is not keeping economic opportunities from them.

Maybe immigration is. But I’m less sanguine about that because economic migrants from all over are primarily moving major metro areas, both within and across borders, not places in the countryside (with a few exceptions). I’m sure some displacement has occurred, but the one economic strategy that immigrants use–moving to cities–is one that rural whites in the US have rejected. They have stayed put.

(I’m not advocating they move; I did and it worked out for me, but it was a struggle, and not necessarily a pleasant one. I gave up a lot that people who stay in place retain. I’m just pointing out that moving to cities, which is what just about all but a handful of agricultural workers do, is not something the rural whites have done or wanted to do, so the idea that those urban jobs aren’t going to them because an immigrant took them does not seem to hold.)

This is capitalism and political economy without Polyani’s welfare state as the brokered deal to redistribute a bit among classes and among places. Capitalism concentrates wealth both among individuals and places. Engels pointed this out. Political economy follows from capitalism, and here we are.

If Vance is right and I am wrong, the ultimate tragedy of putting their faith in Donald Trump is that he’s a liar who will say anything to play to whatever crowd is cheering for him at the moment. He does not care about anybody else and the whole “he’ll stick it to the elites” is utter baloney. I toted up how much I am going to save in taxes under his plan, and it was eye-popping.

Boy, that’ll sure show those eeee-lites.

*BTW, I think the term “Human capital” is gross, but commodified labor is commodified labor at some point.