I am the worst teacher known to humankind, yesterday proves

Ok, so well yesterday was the first day of teaching and to say I am off my game is a bit of an understatement.

Something is going on with me, and I don’t know what it is. Part of it is a depression that seems to be coming and going, related to my chronic illness. It is hard to work through depression, but it’s not like I haven’t done so before.

Part of it is becoming a full professor, and not really knowing what that job is or what I am working for at this point, even though I should by now know what the job is and what I am working for, granted that I am a full professor and the dealio on that is that you get it once you establish that lots of people think you know how to do the job well, I guess, even if you yourself don’t think that.

Part of it is being jerked around on classes, and not being jerked around on classes. If I teach the same class in the same way for too long, it can get boring for me, but constant updating takes time. Then there are new course preps, forced on me by bad decisions that other people have made. New course preps are often awful, and I’m feeling super duper out of my league teaching Urban Informatics this semester on the one hand, and a class I’ve taught for nearly 10 years on the other. The new course prep sucks up the time I should use to giving the established a spruce-up make it interesting. If I give time to that class, it takes time from getting myself together for the new prep.

Then, of course, there is the fact that USC feels like a powder keg, where some leaders are trying to get us to get our act together but meet a solid brick of wall of old men who want their status and prestige maintained, no matter what, and who run off to their pet billionaire if they don’t get their way. The thing about abusive places and people…you begin to understand them and what you can and can’t do. It’s solid ground to stand on, even if it’s mean, and even if it is wrecking you, fast or slow. But right now it feels like we are trying to stealthily move out of the apartment on an abusive boyfriend/father who could reappear at any minute and destroy the tiny dreams of selfhood we’ve been bold enough to nurture.

Yesterday, the first day of teaching, then, was a terrible mess, in both classes, but in my Urban Informatics class in particular. I have struggled and struggled with the syllabus, and finally, I decided that I was overthinking it. I decided I needed to run the class like a workshop. Just give them data, show them how to do things with the data, reflect on what we are learning with the activities, and on the way they learn how to do stuff in R and Python and–what matters most to me–they begin to understand how to learn from and communicate with data.

I tried to explain that yesterday. I showed them visualizations I’ve had my other classes do, told them you can work with visualizing data using everything from R to magic markers, showed them some of my R work and some of my hand-drawn, learning graphics. I asked them if they’d like to do that in the class, and I got blank looks.

And a group of international students came up to me at the end of class and one very politely asked–and I quote: “What are you going to teach us in this class?”

Ouch. I went back through the spiel: I want you to learn to how to think about data and measurement, its validity, and how to use data to learn about cities and communicate about cities, yada yada.

Student blinks, and asks, still very polite. “But what are you going to teach us in this class?”

I sighed. “I will teach you R and Python.”

General jubilance.

Jesus wept. Or if he didn’t, I did because I really, really am not communicating while I tell other people I would like to help teach them to communicate. In my defense, I was talking about *data*, which I am generally pretty good at, and not human being speech which I am not so great at.

What am I doing?

Kafka on patience (from Mark Pianalto’s @mpianalto lovely book On Patience)

I have ben reading Matthew Pianalto’s excellent On Patience the past week. It’s philosophical exploration of the virtue, and I’m finding the book both intellectually worthwhile and emotionally nurturing.  In the first chapter, he has an extended quote from Kafka’s biography that I found particularly inspiring: 

[p]atience is the master key to very situation.  One must have sympathy for everything, surrender to everything,  but at the same time remain patient and forebearing…There is no such thing as bending or breaking.  It is a question only of overcoming, which begins with overcoming oneself. That cannot be avoided.  To abandon that path is always to break into pieces. One must patiently accept everything and let it grow within oneself.  The barriers of the fear-ridden I can only be broken by love.  One must, in the dead leaves that rustle around one, always see the the young fresh green spring, compose oneself in patience, and wait.  Patience is the only true foundation on which to make one’s dreams come true. 

 There is an activeness to Kafka’s patience, and that’s one key to Pianalto’s argument.  Patience does not mean acceptance or inaction, particularly vis-a-vis injustice.  It is something else entirely, something active, that holds you together while the rest of the world is what it is and while change creeps along. 

Avital Ronell and A Bunch of Dudes

So to get you normal people caught up, the scandal surrounding surrounding Avital Ronell at NYU, here’s a description, along with (PAY ATTENTION PHD STUDENT AND NONFICTION WRITERS) the point of the entire essay stated in the first sentence from Fordham’s Leonard Cassuto: 


It shouldn’t take a case like Avital Ronell’s to make us pay attention to graduate advising. Ronell, a professor of philosophy at New York University, was recently suspended from teaching for a year for the sexual harassment of Nimrod Reitman, one of her former Ph.D. advisees. Reitman, who had brought a Title IX complaint against Ronell after he graduated, has further claimed that Ronell’s lukewarm recommendations have hindered his search for an academic job. Ronell disputes all the charges.

This case is strange for many reasons. One is that Ronell is female and Reitman is male — an inversion of the usual pattern for sexual-harassment cases. Further, Ronell is a prominent scholar. And the kicker: Ronell is lesbian, and Reitman is gay. The two have been flinging he said/she said barbs at each other since his accusations went public. More than 50 scholars signed an open letter of protest of NYU’s investigation, and now that the university found that he was sexually harassed, Reitman has sued NYU for damages.

“What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist Is the Accused?” asked The New York Times.”Groping professor Avital Ronell and her ‘cuddly’ Nimrod Reitman see kisses go toxic,” said Britain’s The Times. The public fascination is no wonder. This is bizarre stuff.

It is, but it isn’t.  This has the feel of a “Man Bites Dog” story, and thus we have it in the BLOODY  New York Times which has apparently lost its mind again:  What happens to #MeToo When a Feminist is Accused? 

Well, bloody nothing.  First of all, just being queer doesn’t mean you are feminist, and just because you are feminist—and I have real questions about whether Ronell is or isn’t one—doesn’t mean you will never abuse your position.  Even posing this headline this way pisses me off as how it illustrates the NYT’s desire to have it both ways, to be the grey lady, while also dog-whistling to the worst in us. Har, har. This’ll give those feminists their comeuppance and douse some fires on this whole #MeToo thing.  

I have to start by saying I personally have not found Ronell’s work particularly useful over the years, at the same time that her advisor, Derrida, who has some big coattails, was pretty important to my own ways of thinking about the world.

 I’ve generally considered Ronell to be one of those few women who could gull their way through the university’s star system, which, by the way,  is actually one of the villains here (SEE STUDENTS, I’M NOT NEARLY AS GOOD AS CASSUTO, BURYING MY LEAD HERE.)  Post-modern universities give most of the work to adjuncts and then use media to flog a small number of their “stars.” Who are these people?  Who can explain this?  They look good, they are stylish, they write their own Wikipedia pages, they get on great with deans and higher-ups, they network like crazy,  and they in no way REALLY challenge existing social or economic relationships. And, notably, they get their work done.  Avital Ronell fit this bill very well, with her pixie-ish looks (not a criticism) and her connections to one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, and, in turn, her control over a department at one of the exclusive privates just outside the Ivies. 

If there were a recipe for this academic scandal to get into the mainstream, it’s this one with Ronell: Man bites dog, yes, but then 50 other superstar academics did her the great “favor” off condemning the investigation—let’s repeat this, condemning the investigation–in an openly circulated letter arguing (REALLY BADLY) that because she’s such a precious little genius and so playfully queer that her behavior somehow can’t be judged by the rest of us (puke)–and thereby making the holy bejeezuz damn sure that the WORLD was doing to pay attention to Ronell’s disgrace granted their own star status. Like, somehow, they don’t know how this works, only they do, because they’ve done every play in the star playbook to get where they are.

Honestly, with this set up, why are we surprised that malignant narcissists make their way into these star positions then make others miserable, which is exactly what it sounds like Ronell did.  I have no doubt that some of the people on the 50 scholar list were well-intended but oye what were you thinking? 

The key to understanding this is 1) the man bites dog story of the malignant behavior in  question coming  from a queer woman versus the 2) everyday story of the malignant narcissists in star positions is that men dominate in high-status, perk-laden positions and women don’t. It’s not that feminists are immune (though I would hope our training would make us more reflexive leaders, nothing is certain). It isn’t that men are swine, and women are naturally more moral. It’s that our structures make it unusual for a woman for Ronell to make into the star space in the first place because of patriarchal suppositions about who is allowed to be on top of anything.

The reason for the “Bunch of Dudes” in the title is that I want to point out, without any real sympathy (or derision) for Ronell (as i don’t know what happened beyond the structure that allowed it because that structure is everywhere in research universities), that male privilege is even at work here. Her disgrace follows her by name because of women’s oppression in these spaces. Her uniqueness means her name and her face are imprinted. But when you are a sexual harasser amongst a big, long list of dudes, you’re just another one of the dudes. You might face some consuquences–you might–but the NYT won’t be all over you the same way, nor will there likely to be one salacious, score-settling article after another one denouncing you. Because the male harassers’ field is crowded, and womens’ is not, well, stand-outs in the second get the full measure of public censure.

It’s important to point out that plenty of us in the academy have both tenure and accountability. As Cassuto points out, the answer is institute genuine post-tenure reviews and systems of accountability that disallow the nonsense that Ronell’s dean let her do–both in graduate advising and everything else. Granted, my dean knew me from when I came up as an assistant, but I can’t imagine in a million years pulling what Ronell appears to have done (and that I have seen white het cis male scholars do all the time) just on an everyday basis without getting hauled over the carpet for it, either by my dean or my senior colleagues.

Regardless of the various salaciousness of the details, students deserve better than the nonsense of hot-and-cold advising, which is at the very least what happened here. If you have a problem with a student’s work, it needs to *be worked out* with you and the rest of the committee. Students should have *multiple mentors* they can rely on for support and advice, including the advice that the academy maybe is not the place for them if they really don’t fit in it, for what ever reasons. And it’s not just students. The rest of us need these things,too.

Even, and especially, stars.

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

Academia is a giant white mansplain, and thus, a manifesto

Recently I upset the whole world by telling somebody who mansplained all over me to knock it off. I am sure this person is wonderful in lots of ways. I’ve read some of his papers, and I think they are super.

But really, my statements are not about him. It’s about me and what I deserve.

It’s about how people get to talk to me and about me professionally.

My confronting him, and the group, has lead to a bunch of to and fro about whether I’m making something out of nothing, whether this was all just a little personal contretemps, and that’s all bull crap. Nobody else gets to have an opinion.

It’s not about “the team” or “why the team needs unity.” It’s about me and what I deserve.

Academic currency is smartness, and male academics–in particular–condescend to female academics and scholars of color and pretty much everybody else all the time, it’s bad behavior in reality, but it’s rewarded behavior in the academy. It should not be, in an environment that tells itself that it is about inquiry.

“Let me begin by assuming I know shit and you don’t…” is the way people begin communicating in the academy. Even when, in this case, I am an award-winning social science researcher in my own right with 30+ published papers to my credit.

So here’s the deal.

1. My competency will not by undermined in any conversation that anybody gets to have with me. Nobody gets to assume I am operating from a handicap known as my gender. If somebody starts there, they get corrected. Why? I deserve better than that.

2. My work and contributions will not be reframed and erased according to what suits your agenda for a conversation. I control how my work is discussed. Why? I deserve to.

3. I shall dictate the terms by which I am spoken to and treated. You can have an opinion, of course, but don’t expect me to care about it or defer to it. I don’t need to be treated according to my academic rank; you needn’t even really call me Dr. or Professor. But I shall be treated like an equal in conversation, in every conversation, or I will correct that.

Now if you haven’t, go watch Beyonce’s Lemonade, and actually pay attention because it is not about what Jay Z is doing with his penis.

The hard is what makes it great…

Every year, I watch A League of Their Own when baseball season begins. It’s a remarkable film, and it is exceptionally timely for me now, with my recent struggles for meaning. Usually the part that gets me going is “There’s no crying in baseball.” But this year, this scene spoke to me:

So I have to figure out how to go forward, out of my free fall. No clue how.

But as sentimental as sports movies usually are, in this case, they are right. The hard is what makes it great.

When you have lost the ability to be constructive in race/class/gender discussions

This has never really happened to me before, but I think I may have become so alienated and hurt by the misogyny of the academy that I am no longer constructive.

One wants to work for change, but after getting kicked in the teeth so many time by so many clueless dinosaurs…one just resents every single action or gesture or conversation as either fake, self-serving, or both.

So I sit on the sidelines, rolling my eyeballs all over my head, as people who have no clue what oppression is or how it works talk about how we’re gonna be all diverse now, for sure, that’s the ticket. We’re having conversations. We are making plans.

I’m supposed to clap and support and cheerlead these conversations and plans. This conversation freaking needs me. And I am too tired and too burned out to do it.

How do we fix my heart? How do I cheerlead with a broken heart? Because my heart got broken the last time my male colleagues demeaned me in front of our students. I have no idea why that day was the last straw–Lord knows, I’ve been dismissed and undermined in one meeting after another–but something just broke in me that day, and I can’t get past it.

How does that get fixed?

How do we fix the confidence that I’ve lost because they are always trying to wrest it from me and I just ran out of strength to hold on to it? I just ran out. I should do better; I should ‘lean in’; I should ‘not let anybody hold me back.’ I should be strong.

But I’m empty. I got nothing to give to them or to me, and I am in a free fall. And you’re always telling yourself, when you are focussed on justice, that you have to make the most of those key opportunities, those key windows that occasionally open up to change an institution, however marginally, for the better. And if you don’t have the energy to move when those windows happen, you’ve lost a moment, let the side down.

Marty Wachs on Harvey Perloff

I was over at UCLA last night to see my colleague, Gen Giuliano, give the annual Harvey Perloff lecture. Marty introduced the lecture series with some recollections of Harvey Perloff, who was one of the Luskin School’s early deans, and terribly important to its development. Dean Perloff was unfortunately passed by the time I went to UCLA, but his widow, Mimi, was still there–she lived to 91, and she was wonderful.

I’ll do my best to capture the Harvey Perloff story:

Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, was visiting UCLA, and Harvey was having a conversation with her on the front steps of what is now Perloff Hall. A student called to him from across the courtyard “Hey, Harvey, I need to talk to you about my thesis.”

Dean Perloff–Dean Perloff–turned to Margaret Mead (MARGARET MEAD!) and said, “Excuse me, I need to go talk to a student.” And left her to go talk to his student about his thesis.

Most academics are cut of a different cloth now, I’d say.

JAPA session at #APA16 had a nice turn-out with tough questions asked…

Ok, in full disclosure: everybody else on the panel was super: Rob Olshansky, Michael Holleran, Karl Kim, Jennifer Minner, and Sandi Rosenbloom were all awesome. I generally sucked and rambled about the special issue I have coming out (our target in Spring 2017), but one of my authors, Bonnie Johnson, did a stellar job of discussing her paper on city managers and urban planners.

We got some push-back from the audience, however, about how none of them can access the Journal of the American Planning Association unless they cough up another $50, and they are right. When I used to belong to JAPA regularly–years ago, I admit–the Journal and Planning magazine were available to members, or at least it was a significant discount. Multiple members of the audience said they would like to have the information in JAPA, but subscriptions were too high for them given that they weren’t interested in whole issues. Oh, wait, the fee for members, I just looked, is an addition $38 if you want digital, and $48 if you want print.

One gentleman made the point that I, and a zillion other academics, review for free, I provide content for free…it’s “part of my job” for sure, but Taylor & Francis and Elsevier do not pay me…USC pays me. And then USC has to pay for the journal I provide content for.

This is all by way of saying that people, particularly APA members, should be able to buy single articles for a nominal fee, like $5. Why not? What does it cost publisher, really, to do that once the material has been prepared?

I am not sure. I am largely ignorant of the business of academic publishing, but $30 per article seems pretty high to me, granted the APA is the organization that contracts for the journal in the first place.