What do you do when a student hurts your feelings?

The answer is, of course, suck it up.  Randy Crane, before I left UCLA, gave me the best advice on teaching I have ever received: students never really understand what you are trying to do for them. They understand their own goals, but often do not understand how to achieve those goals or how the context works.   Students often do not have a lot of power, especially graduate students, and they generally do not know how much they can harm others during job talks, classes, or in other contexts.  Professors OTOH have way too much power over the lives of graduate students. We should be reviewed and acceptable for our mentorship, not in any bean-county way but in the “are you being an abusive jackass?” kind of way.

That’s all by way of saying I’ve usually been pretty good about limiting my emotional responses to students, being patient, and getting over things quickly.  It’s something in my teaching performance over the years I’ve been relatively proud of. 

So….weirdly, in the past few weeks, I’ve had something happen that logically I can say is not a big deal but is *sticking* with me in ways things have never stuck before.  It’s me: students have said far, far worse things to me and I’ve not thought anything of it. 

But for some reason, this one, stray comment really hurt me, and I’m worried it’s going to affect how I relate to this person. It’s a comment I’ve heard over and over and over in my scholarly life from economists, from engineers, etc.  I’ve brushed past it a many, many times.  But this time it landed home, and I’m utterly shocked at my own reaction and my own inability to just let it f*cking  go already. 

I feel like I’ve been good to this particular student, and that I deserved better. But…things like this have happened many, many times before. 

Am I finally vested in my dignity as a scholar? I’ve always been plenty thin-skinned in other contexts, but never with students.  Whatever it is, I don’t like it.  Advice? 


How is one to be a full professor?

I had one of those reminders yesterday that I am not very good at taking care of myself, even as I often do quite well at caring for others. 

1) I was late for my morning class because I went to take a shower, my husband went to buy paint, and the painters showed up and began working on the hallway outside my bathroom. I was naked and needed to return to my bedroom for clothing, and all I had was a washrag and a cellphone. (I finally managed with broken Spanish to explain I needed them to go downstairs.) 

2) I hadn’t eaten any breakfast since I was running late, and during class I started feeling weaker and weaker.  I told myself I’d go get something during the break, but students came up during the break and wanted to talk about their projects, and so I figured I could wait until later to get something.  By the time lunch and the end of class rolled around (class runs from 9 until 12:20), I was disoriented and weak; I was so weak that pushing the elevator buttons seemed hard and I was having trouble thinking.   I had some rice crackers in my office that worked nicely enough as a boost to get me over to the cafe for an actual lunch. 

I’ve never actually pushed things to where my thinking clouded. It was un-good, and it happened much faster than I thought it could, and I’ve not felt fear like that in a long time.  I am unused to feeling my mind not work. 

I asked for help from the wrong people, and I was afraid to ask my students for colleagues or help.  You are supposed to be strong and in charge for students.  If you ask your colleagues for help at a place like USC or any academic workplace, you risk…a lot. 

3) I have no idea where  any of my medication is after I traveled and I haven’t take it in some time. This is dumb and dangerous and yet I still can’t find it.  I know what I would say to a student or colleague who engaged in such nonsense, but here I go. 

4)  I am, once again, being backed into my data monkey corner, and it’s causing a lot of anxiety.  I started out in professional life as data person, a person who made a living because other people couldn’t program, didn’t know how to handle data, or didn’t have my gifts with it.  That moved into my assistant professor life, with plenty of senior faculty who wanted to “collaborate” (aka take credit for what I could do). By then I was twigged to it, so the people I did collaborate were cool.

 I wrote a theory paper out of my dissertation and one of my senior colleagues at USC sniffed when they hired me “well, at least you show some potential for thought in THIS ONE paper.”  It hurt so much and reinforced my belief that I was an empiricist, a decent one, perhaps,  but not one that would ever change how anybody thought about anything, nothing really super duper special like our departmental darling. 

Then after tenure, I got nice roundhouse kick in the face as my colleagues chose somebody else for a leadership position I wanted, and I went into a tailspin, doubting everything about myself and the value of my scholarship. Why give me tenure if you don’t think I’m capable of leading? I decided, after a year, that I was tired of data, tired of the same old tropes in transit and transportation research. I didn’t have any questions there. And I began reading political philosophy, from the pre-Socratics onward. I loved it. New ideas, new challenges, lots of new books to read. 

I got pushed into teaching planning theory, and I was good at it.  I got ideas above my allotted station as data monkey. I began writing about theory, sometimes getting published even. I decided to wander a bit.  I started writing a book that turned into three books because it got bigger, as is the way of my projects. 

I even got promoted to full doing that, which surprised nobody more than myself. 

And yet, the box comes back, and it comes back in a major way.  Each time I think my teaching schedule settles, it doesn’t.  I prep and prep and prep and prep and prep.  This was supposed to get better as my career went on. It hasn’t.

I decided to try to move some of my time over to USC’s gender studies department.  They are a reborn place, with tons of bright people, and if the forces hostile to planning in *every* university finally win at USC, I wanted an exit option other than retirement or being shoved back in with the economists.  More than anything, their classes fill fast, and they need another horse in the harness.  

But the reality is, our new little planning department can’t afford to let me wander off, either. I am, I believe, the only one of us who isn’t a director of something or whatnot that serve to lighten teaching loads. I teach and teach and teach, and I understand why. I’m good at it, I mostly enjoy it, and the department has to have full-time faculty teaching required things. 

Our chair, Marlon Boarnet,  rightly frogmarched us through curriculum reform for several years, and we have a really nice curriculum as a result.   We have committed, however,  to urban data in a big way, and I’m the only one on the regular faculty who can program.   They need me to stay put, teach two new classes centered on data, period. That leave me with my undergrad teaching and the mass transit, another class my colleagues are unlikely to be able to teach. 

Part of me says that now I can go back to my data monkey life entirely differently; I can bring the critical theoretical capacity I have developed and teach about urban data like few other people do, and I might be able to write from that perspective, too. Every other time I’ve taken up new teaching challenges for any length of time, I’ve always done so. Ideas come;  I have always been able to trust that, and I’ve been itching for a new challenge here late. 

But the old warrior is tired. My body is taking its revenge for years of neglect I gave it as I obsessed over building a career.

I am now a full professor, something that in my mind always carried with the possibilities to get more free to do the things one wants to do, the way one wants to do them.  And yet, my relationship with privilege or power is not like that, innately.  I am full professor, something I have worked my entire career for, and instead of feeling like I’ve find motored my way onto easy street, I just see unmet needs around me, needs I may have some capability to meet. 

How does one “full professor” ? I thought I knew and I didn’t. 







I really like this book: Help Yourself City by Gordon C.C. Douglas

I’ve been dipping into the DIY urbanism research, which I like very much, for my research on Little Free Libraries.  I picked up this book by Gordon C.C. Douglas some time ago,  and I wanted to pass along my recommendation because it’s well written and very much worth your time reading. It’s published by Oxford University Press. 

His take on DIY is very much like my own, and so it’s saved me a bunch of work.  The idea behind DIY is that people in neighborhoods have begun, vis-a-vis the postmodern, neoliberal, and when it comes to community needs rather than business needs, hollow state, to just alter things themselves with guerrilla bike lanes or benches.  In my planning theory class, we had a long talk about how diy fits (or doesn’t) within the informality research, and I tend to think it doesn’t belong there, for a bunch of reasons I might save for another blog post. Today it might get us too far into the weeds. 

One critique of DIY is that it’s secure, white  people doing things that people of color would get arrested and endangered for (an argument we had (needfully) during the waxing street art movement),  and I think that’s fair, but I also think that is a description of daily life in apartheid America. It’s not special for DIY, and I don’t think somebody who provides a bench for their neighbors really epitomizes white privilege in a way that really moves the dial. It’s certainly reflective of privilege, but what about affluent white life isn’t?  

So for me a great deal of the DIY research that wants to make more or less of what people are doing a little misguided in that no, it’s not a grand, transformative political statement for a suburbanite to put a bench in their front yard, but it’s also not nothing for somebody to go and do something nice for themselves or their neighbors. I put one out because I saw my elderly neighbors struggling to walk the long block up to the bus stop on Washington.  Then as my disability got worse,  I found it was a nice place to take a break when working in my front garden.  The guys that help me with my garden eat lunch there.  It’s not the revolution. It’s just nice. 

Douglas does point out instances where things stop just being “something nice to share” to being more overly political, and that’s a useful distinction.  Douglas’s main interest is on DIY design, and I am finding myself inspired by the idea.  Design is one of those areas of making that experts guard jealously. Planners are not designers unless they have a design credential, designers lecture me routinely, but then they feel free to lecture me on economics.  One of the reasons I’ve been looking at Little Free Libraries is the idea that kits allow for women, in particular, to participate in creative making and changing the way their spaces look on the exterior of the house, much like front gardens,  without having to have woodworking or other design skills that they are frequently excluded from. 

Douglas is an assistant professor at San Jose State, and if this very nice book is any indicator, I’m looking forward to more wonderful things. 

Glah I screwed up my ACSP round table

So I was asked to be part of a panel on smart cities and environmental justice. I normally do not love being part of any given panel; just let me do a research presentation (which I will also probably dislike doing, just because I hate talking in front of people), but whatever. The autism means I have bad social cue reading so I don’t know on a panel when I’ve annoyed people, talked too much, seemed surly rather than just uncomfortable, etc, and the whole time feels awful.  I should say no to these things. 

I brought what I think is the most important question about sensors and information, and that is: the future of work. Being unemployed in a world without social safety nets is a health issue,  and economic justice is, for me at the heart of environmental justice.   The audience was interested.  One person said that driverless tech, according to his mentor, was going to be good for truck drivers/bus drivers because there is always a shortage (I have trouble believing this; I really can’t think of many capital investments made that don’t in some way substitute for labor. You may make individual truckers better off and more productive, but as a group, I don’t see this, but I hope he’s right and I’m wrong.” The discussion seemed to be taking off, and then: 

Old White Dude (OWD) chimed in and did that thing they do: “well, let’s just get back to the topic at hand. The future of work, the macroeconomy.  This is a panel about Smart Cities. Planners are so ambitious  that we get too broad.” 

Now, I am sure OWD thought he was being kindly, but it was patronizing, and I just didn’t know how to respond right way.  I struggled, and continued on, and at one point just outright asked the question: “why did people want me on this panel if we *don’t* want to take on broad issues like justice?”  Yes, I can program and do math and did one of the first machine learning papers in planning. I’m technically competent. But that stuff? I feel the same way about that stuff as I do my pencils.  They are tools. And of course our tools are important, but they aren’t more important than the social constructs we make.  WE make. 

Here’s the bottom line.  Yeah, we could use environmental sensors to improve environmental justice but please let’s not act like measurements are the issue with environmental justice. 

It’s exactly this “let’s talk about the tech and nothing else” stuff that leads us into trouble with justice.  We have to start with justice and work outward, not the other way around.  Geographer Julian Agyemon refers to “joined up thinking” as being able to avoid that tendency to pretend like our actions in one domain *don’t* have consequences in another that allows injustices to propagate.

So I left the thing confused and annoyed with myself and the OWDs on the panel, and I’m not sure what to do about it.  I always say yes to the “planning and tech” anything because I want to keep fighting for space for women on that stage, but perhaps we have now reached a point where, unlike a few years ago, there are plenty of women with better social skills than I have can occupy that spot and deal with a) less angst and b) less disruption and c) less later self-recrimination than I cause or get. 

Because in the end, I’m just not sure anybody got anything out of that discussion with my disruptive presence there. Maybe OWD was right and I was wrong.  Things might have gone a bit better if OWD had tried “let’s focus more on these justice issues specifically on smart city censors, so we can go deeper.” But just like I don’t have all the answers, OWDs don’t, either. 

If people wanted to have a discussion about how you can use sensors to turn on street lights! Oh my! Then jeez Louise don’t ask me to be on the damn panel. Capitalism won’t be satisfied until we have technology for anything and everything—that ’s the benefits from the structure as well as the cost. 

HOWEVER I also feel like I have to a duty to point out that there are people out there marketing facial recognition software to identify if somebody “looks gay” or not.  How wonderful, say the marketers. We can target a demographic! How wonderful, say Russian surveillance officers. I wonder why.

Stupid autism.  I think I’m done doing these roundtables as I don’t know how to manage the flow of ideas. 


Planning epistemologies and Harry Potter: Trelawney versus Umbrage

I have a student in my planning theory class who is focussed on finding one, unifying theory for planning. He’s of the “If planning is everything, then it’s nothing” school, and it’s bugging him. I think the whole “if it’s everything” logic applies to any topic, and I’ve never needed a unified theory of anything, let alone planning.  But it’s important to him, and far be it from me to discourage somebody from trying something ambitious. You never know where they’ll get to, and it could be very interesting. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and re-watching the Harry Potter movies, and I have insights, y’all! Sybll Trelawney versus Dolores Umbridge pretty much captures the conflict.  Sybll is kinda useless—until she isn’t. She’s presented in a very clever way, and in the hands of a lesser actress than Emma Thompson, she wouldn’t have the charm along with all the irritating aspects of her personality. One of her most irritating traits is to force predictions that are utterly wrong. At the same time, she does make real predictions, but she has no control over when it happens, and she doesn’t remember doing it when she does it. 

Dumbledore has given her a job a Hogwarts not because he believes divination can be taught, but because he wants to protect her from the Death Eaters and Voldemort, as she has made predictions about him he would very much like to get out of her.  The result is a rather useless and boring class she teaches on divination.  But it’s clear Dumbledore wants her close, not just to protect her, but because he sees some value in her whitterings and full prophecies. 

I have a great deal of sympathy for Trelawney.  First of all, as Yoda tells us, “Always in motion, the future is.” Sybll’s tendency to fake predictions that turn out wrong happen, at least in part,  because the rest of the us demand the impossible of her: to be a vending machine of info about the future.  Modernist, instrumental approaches to knowledge want future states nailed down, and nailed down *now*.  Humans crave predictability.  If she were a stronger and more principled person, she could just say “Hey, it doesn’t work like that, goddamnit” but I get it: she’s afraid.  If she’s not a vending machine of knowledge about the future, she will get shoved aside, and it’s hard to make a living as an itinerant practitioner of an art that you can’t command and can’t teach. 

The series’ other big faker, Gilderoy Lockhart, is another commentary on fakery and self-promotion. Sybll is trying to stay alive; she has nowhere to go besides Hogwarts.  Lockhart, by contrast, is a celebrity via relentless self-promotion and the willingness to take credit for others’ accomplishments.  As bad a teacher as Trelawney is, she’s nowhere near his level of fakery. 

And she’s often *right* even when she’s wrong. The tea leaves exercise to me epitomizes so much. If you remember, she asks Ron to read Harry’s tea leaves. Ron says he sees a cross (Where??? Look at the picture below; there’s nothing even remotely cross-like). But there is a very clear image of a black dog.  Black dogs are all over lore as being harbingers of death, and so, Trelawney, in her usual, overly dramatic way, tells Harry that she sees….”The Grim!” 

The real story behind the black dog is coming, however, and it’s actually accurate. A black dog is coming into Harry’s life. And everything else about the black dog is unknowable from tea leaves. Our desire to *overknow*, *overinterpret* and *overthink* is apparent here.  These leaves are supposedly signs and portents rather than literal images, but instead, it’s a literal image: it’s a dog, it’s coming, it’s important, and that’s all you get to know right now. Anything else you say at this point is likely embellishment or projection. Period.  Our thirst for knowing more than we can know is what gets us into trouble as we fill in details we can’t possibly know. Sybll is very, very susceptible to this because it’s her trade to know what’s coming, and nobody is going to do backflips over “A dog is coming.” (And our world requires backflip-level revelations from professionals.) 


The grim Google Search

So the question becomes: are we better off with Sybll than we are without her? What’s the point of trying to divine the future if we can’t?  Dumbledore, who is pretty wise, thinks he’s better off with her; I don’t think he’s made space for her at Hogwarts merely to protect her. 

Perhaps the best way to see Trelawney’s value is in contrast with Dolores Umbridge when she arrives. Brilliantly embodied by actor Imelda Staunton,  Umbridge is a public manager of the very worst kind.  Now, in fairness, some of my best students over the years  have been public management students who honestly believe in good government. But for all of those, there are pettifogging little bureaucrats who, like Umbridge, never grew up from being the nasty little tattletales they were when they were little children and who, once they get a taste of power, become even nastier martinets taking power and control over other people wherever they can. 

And that’s the rub. For Umbridge, knowledge is only useful insofar as it is *controlled*.  Umbridge epitomizes the idea that “nobody will give you the education you need to overthrow them.” She simply refuses to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts because doing so might empower students as individuals, thereby suggesting that the government doesn’t have all threats handled, and if all threats aren’t handled, what’s the point of the government?  And what’s the point of her power over others—the thing Umbridge cherishes most—then? 

There are two Hogwarts faculty members that Umbridge has her knives out for: Hagrid and Trelawney.  Part of the reason she hates Hagrid is that she’s a racist, but Hagrid and Trelawney have a lot in common.  In particular, Hagrid doesn’t understand his gifts the way Trelawney doesn’t really understand hers. In his case, Hagrid is such a simple, good soul, and so unusual, that he doesn’t realize his gifts are actual gifts that other people don’t have: Hagrid has a facility with animals and monsters that come naturally to him because of who he is.  Now, he’s a pretty good class instructor except for boneheads like Malfoy, but the truth is, most of what Hagrid knows is uncontrollable and thus, not sufficiently instrumental for the managerial mind. 

That is, you can’t wrap into neat little statements about course objectives: 

—handle a hippogriff without getting your face ripped off; 

—learn to fly with a hippogriff and have a fabulous time exploring Hogwarts from the air. 

Those are magical experiences that students can only dream of—transformative experiences. But they aren’t reproducible in the modernist, managerial sense.  And thus, Umbridge hates it. 

Just like Umbridge hates Trelawney, for the same reasons. Umbridge is the most obvious in her desire to treat Trelawney like a cosmic vending machine, obnoxiously so, and Trelawney tries, in vain, to satisfy the rapacious need that Umbridge has for instrumental knowledge.  She can’t, of course, and Umbridge knows that more than anybody. She never asks a question she doesn’t know the answer to (demonstrated in the brilliant scene between Umbridge and Snape. Umbridge:  “So you originally sought the Defense Against the Dark Arts post, but you were unsuccessful in this attempt.” Snape: “Obviously.”) She’s just interacting with Trelawney in order to get “the documentation she needs” to get rid of Trelawney. There is no room in Umbridge’s world for the unpredictable, the visionary, or the imperfect because those might emancipate instead of control, and Umbridge only wants knowledge insofar as it secures her control. 

So whither planning?  Umbridge-style: it’s good to make the trains run on time in a managerial way,  but not if it involves horrible treatment of workers or the environment, or other important things.  Trelawney style: the future is largely unknowable except through vision and imagination, and it’s important not to conflate imagination with knowledge. And it is also important not to demand knowledge where imagination, disciplined by context and the past, serves us better. Imagination requires humility that knowledge does not, and humility is not something professionalized activities accommodate well. 

But future vision might be, like the black dog, just what it is, with all the rest that has to be taken on faith.  




Dispatches from human rights conference and New York

I know it’s a train town, but so far on my visit to NYC, I’ve ridden the bus four times, and each time I’ve hit the “great trip” lottery button. Except for one, the buses haven’t been crowded at all, and I’ve been able to do what I like to do most: look out at street level and see what people are up to. 

My visit to the UN human rights consortium has been great; unsurprisingly, Yemen and Myanmar have been the topics of discussion, with climate refugees and South Sudan as well.  I have been learning quite a bit: one hopeful, impressive thought has been that unlike the US, Bangladesh has been willing to accept refugees from Myanmar, and they seem to be doing okay with relocation efforts. 

Otherwise, not much good news.  Lots of speculation about what US’s bilateralism means now.  Everybody here is willing to grant that post-WWII world order and multilateralism needed to be rethought, but…Trumpism is incoherent and ad hoc, and it’s accelerated an erosion in civic institutions that will take a very long time to rebuild. The one point of hope there seems to be that perhaps what we might rebuild could be better and most just than what we have had in the past. 

My favorite quote from yesterday, after a very good question from one of the student participants: “Yes, well, the UN Security Council is useless…until it isn’t.”  

After we were done with UN yesterday, I joined a small group of people yelling at the US for sending both doctors and bombs to Yemen. I know the people are really tiny, but the setting was too lovely to miss, and I never want to show people’s faces in protest photos because we have apparently decided to become a fascist nation. 


IMG 2579

Perhaps it is time to replace provosts with algorithms

And all their vice-provosts, too.  

USC has been in a tough time for a bit now,  and without a president, and after the president we did have, who was very hierarchical, we have entered a weird phase where everybody in administration is a bit adrift.  Certainly there is leadership, but mostly, I’m noticing a hardening of the bureaucracy—a frantic, sticking-to-the-handbook, I-didn’t-break-any-rules-so-don’t-purge-me mentality.  The default position—at least in my experience—at the university is always “no” anyway, and it’s just gotten worse. 

Recently, I was thinking about all this when the provost’s office overturned a departmental decision to admit a student into our degree program based on the student’s undergraduate GPA. I had written this student a glowing letter because I have tremendous faith in her; she has a ton of ideas, very creative, super insightful…and a student of color.  GPAs are one metric. When my beloved chair called over to the provost’s office to question the decision, we were told that the office has only granted waivers on the GPA twice in 10 years. 

What the actual …F? 

If you are going to have this decision come down to one number, then please let’s stop it with all the nonsense we put students and faculty through.  Submit a request via a short web form, have the algorthim check the GPA and deliver an instant decision. As it is, we’ve wasted this student’s time and energy, and we wasted *my* time writing a letter of recommendation that clearly means nothing to our provost’s office. 

Seriously, I write letter after letter after letter after letter, trying to help students get opportunities they want. Is anybody besides me reading these things? I write letters for junior faculty seeking tenure. I write letters for associate professors seeking promotion to full.

This sort of ranny-gazoo is all over the academy. The University of Michigan recently disciplined a professor who refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to do a study abroad in Israel. Now, I dunno what I think of that professor’s choice.  I am not paternalistic enough to decide what opportunities I’ll support my students in seeking, but that’s me.  But I do know these letters don’t mean a damn thing if university higher-ups are going to disregard them on the one hand and punish professors for saying “no” to writing them on the other. The fact this particular student made such an issue of the refusal to write the letter gives me an abundance of reasons for why a professor might have refused to do so, other than the reason he or she gave.

If students are entitled to study abroad in Israel regardless of what proffies think about the deal, then have the students submit their request through a web form and have an algorithm rubber-stamp it.

Our provost office, like many others, have launched one initiative after another to systematize tenure and promotion decisions, deriving rigid rankings of journals and setting up expectations for how many hits one is supposed to have in those journals. Google scholar cites, ISI rankings, Alymetrics, Bubbametrics, rah rah rah.

The impulse behind making the standards more transparent is not evil.  But I think the endgame, pursued as we seem to be doing, means that even tenure decisions could be made by an algorithm. Think of the lawsuits it would save. 

And provosts are expensive, universities. Plan accordingly.