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.