When a student dies

I virtually never see this subject discussed, which is strange granted that it happens, not as a matter of routine, but often enough. I have no idea why the topic is not discussed more openly. I see there is a Reddit thread on it, but I’ve decided the Internet is basically just a place where Men Explain Things To Me (and, more wonderfully, cat pictures) and I don’t want to see the likely unkindness on display in comments when somebody exposes a vulnerability on Reddit..

I think the reason it’s so seldom discussed is that teachers are supposed to have, I suppose, some clinical distance. You aren’t their <em>parents</em>, after all, so getting attached in such a way that a student’s death actually leads you to grieve sounds like a lack of boundaries. It’s modernist holdover, maybe, in a profession where you must care for somebody in what is an intimate and important transformation–learning–but not care, so that any indicator you have gotten too close is weakness. It’s a high wire.

And yet, I feel a student’s death keenly. I love students, as friends and co-adventurers, and I really don’t think there is anything wrong or icky about feeling those feelings or admitting them openly. I feel a special bond with the students who have come into my life and classroom and shared our experiences there. I care about them as individuals as well as students. I am now nearly 12 years into my faculty role so I doubt that time is going to make me jaded.

My first real experience with student death is nearly indescribable: it was in 2007 at Virgina Tech, where 32 of our students and colleagues were killed in a mass shooting. I have never really written much about Tech simply because I don’t have the words. I had accepted the position here at USC about a month before it happened, and I had already handed in my resignation, and so things went very quickly: the shooting happened in April, the end of the semester, and it was one rush after another: the memorials, the final week or so of school, and then limping through commencement. There’s very little hope of explaining what it feels like to be part of a community when a mass shooting takes place: it feels like I imagine a war zone feels like, only with less warning–a stealth attack on an ordinary day when all you expected to have happen was another boring day at work, and then becomes an experience that will always make you feel grateful for every other boring day you get.

Then the rush of the house sale, packing up, coming back to Los Angeles. When I finished moving and had room to breathe, I came to USC enclosed in a fog of grief, barely able to get up in the morning, dragging myself through classes completely unable to write or work. Los Angeles, with its relentlessly sunny weather, gives the grief-stricken little excuse to stay inside and curl up into the tiny ball of pain grief turns you into.  My colleagues had no clue. Most of the time I simply walked around like zombie, shriveling up inside every time I ran into yet another senior colleague who had little to say to me except that I Must Publish Or Be Fired. I don’t know how I got through it: imagine wanting desperately to work, being unable to work, and having all your colleagues do little besides bark at you about getting work done.

To wit: any (usually male) writer that tells you writer’s block is a myth, or a self-indulgence, or what have you, is full of crap. Grief doesn’t let you back up until it’s darn good and ready to, and if you can work through it, bully for you. But lots of us can’t, at least not very well, and if you are one of us who can’t, then you aren’t alone.

Even to this day, over a decade later, I think about that terrible April day every time I walk on campus. I always wonder if that day will be the day it happens at USC. These thoughts come to me every time I walk into a classroom.

More recently here at USC, we lost a student who was in my planning theory class, and she was just a very sweet, special lady. She was so helpful to me when I had another student who was facing a housing crisis. She loved her family so; I enjoyed seeing her pictures on Facebook with them where she always had a broad smile on her face. She and I weren’t especially close, but she made it a point to stop by my office and check in when she could, and she was grateful for any little thing that you did for her. That alone made her standout. She was very helpful to me when another student faced a housing emergency.

Whenever one of my students dies, I am dreadfully sad verging on heartbroken. It is sentimental and perhaps self-indulgent–there surely others more entitled to sympathy and their own grief than me. And yet it is not as though grief is a cake where if I have some, others get less.

I am sure that doctors and nurses have their own way of making sense of it all–they are in caring professions and must have patients die, too–and carrying on. I guess that’s all you have, this carrying on. When one gets to be my age, one is used to one’s role models fading from you and leaving, and yet I have yet to become accustomed to losing those so much younger. I hope I never do.

I wish I had some wise words for anybody who got here via a search looking for help with grieving over a student. I have little other than to take care of yourself the best you know how, comrade, and to keep having the courage to care about students as whole people, not just educational units, even though it hurts sometimes.



My urbanist Twitter is alight with CA SB827 instead of Donald Trump, and it’s very good news

You can read the bill’s sponsor, Scott Weiner, discussing it here on Medium, along with how it fits into the other pending or passed California State Housing Bills. California YIMBY is the bill’s sponsor. Here’s a blurb to get you going:

SB 827 creates density and height zoning minimums near transit. Under SB 827, parcels within a half-mile of high-connectivity transit hub — like BART, Muni, Caltrain, and LA Metro stations — will be required to have no density maximums (such as single family home mandates), no parking minimums, and a minimum height limit of between 45 and 85 feet, depending on various factors, such as whether the parcel is on a larger corridor and whether it is immediately adjacent to the station. A local ordinance can increase that height but not go below it. SB 827 allows for many more smaller apartment buildings, described as the “missing middle” between high-rise steel construction and single family homes.

Here’s my favorite bit:

California Needs a Housing First Agenda My 2018 Housing Package

Parking minimums are terrible, and it’s long past time we got rid of them. They raise the cost of new construction, they hamstring adaptive re-use, and they force developers to put money into what is likely to be unproductive land. Let developers figure out what they want to offer and forget about it, and if there is a parking externality, deal with it later using a parking district.

This is a revolutionary bill. CA YIMBY groups are going to work themselves to death trying to get this passed. I hope it works.

The only part about this I don’t get … why the wonky insert language here:

a minimum height limit of between 45 and 85 feet, depending on various factors, such as whether the parcel is on a larger corridor and whether it is immediately adjacent to the station. A local ordinance can increase that height but not go below it.

Great that locals can’t downzone on this thing, but why not just throw the lid off zoning entirely, require housing, require some public housing set asides, and let the land markets do what they are going to do to signal to developers?

I don’t know that it matters all that much, but there are likely some instances where developers just aren’t going to want to go all that high, but where they would develop more intensively than they can now, but not quite mid-rise levels yet.

This isn’t a particularly important point, but I am curious. I’m sure there is an answer.

I got nominated for a Streetsie! That’s so cool!

I’m not sure I deserve to be listed with real journalists like Peter Flax and Steve Scauzillo, but I am awfully flattered for the nomination. Go get yourself familiar with their work, and you can vote here via this link.

There are other categories for the Streetsies and please do vote there if you have opinions.

Another year, everybody. I have some cool things coming up on the blog. I’m hoping to get a few guest posts up from my students on their research, and Grace Peng reached out to tell me that I’m misguided worrying about water in Southern California if we build right.

Here’s to all of us!

Still doing my station-area sketching (badly, but hey)

I’m still pretending I can do urban sketching. Regular readers of this blog have heard this a dozen times: I think it’s important for teachers to devote themselves to lifelong learning, including–especially–acquiring new skills as one advances through life. Otherwise, it’s too easy to lose to touch of how much of a struggle the initial stages of learning can be, and I personally just do not want to lose that empathy with my students.

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We are all in process.

I hope all y’all had a nice Christmas, and lovely Hanukkah, and for those celebrating, I hope you have a super Kwanzaa.

As a full proffessor, I have become a lazy slug part of the establishment, and I am displeased

Why did none of you warn me about this?

Some of you will know that I have recently been promoted to full professor. I am not really whining about that. I am whining instead about my apparent inability to be normal about anything.

Academic promotions are weird in that even once you get them, you pretty much have the same job you had the day before the promotion, only you have a different title. This is true until you have some administrative duties, which I don’t have, thank God. However, subtle things shift when you move from assistant to associate and from associate to full. The first move is a the big one; getting tenure is a big deal. The move to full professor, for me, was less fraught, and I tried to make things easy on the people around me by not focussing on it, treating it like it was no big deal, etc. I would have been sad to finish out my career as an associate, but it wouldn’t have been the end of the world as long as I was doing work that I like and believe in.

And yet.

I can feel that things have shifted around me in some way, but I don’t really understand how. It took me awhile to understand that getting tenure changed a lot about my relationships between me and my group of fellow assistant professors; we had all been working together, supporting each other, and now suddenly they had changed toward me, and one of them was kind enough to clue me in: I now how the power to vote on their tenure, and they felt like they had to tread lightly. It was devastating in a way; didn’t they know me well enough to know that I was supportive? Didn’t they know me well enough to know that I would never use a tenure vote to indulge a personal grievance? No, they didn’t, and it’s because you can never really know those things.

So I had to grow up and start to wear my new status in a way that reassured them.

I also, after tenure, had such a major physical and emotional breakdown that I couldn’t function for the month of June that year. It took me about a year to sort myself. Get started on this long book project helped save my sanity. I just felt despair at having achieved a goal. I was tired and burned out.

Now, however, after this promotion, I’ve noted two things:

1) People seem to be less nice to me than they were before; there’s been even more coming at me with “This lady says shit and I’m going to try to start an argument with her and get others to pile on” and “Your academic junk doesn’t mean shit” flung at me on social media this week than before, which is hard to believe given how much of that garbage I’ve had to put up with before.

2) I have no f***** motivation at all. I’m useless, useless, useless, useless, useless. I’ve been blogging ok. Lots of ideas there. But I owe two reviews on papers I really like. Can I get myself to write ’em? Nope. I have a book chapter due at the end of the month with a wonderful co-author. Can I get myself to even look at it? No. And I’m not skylarking or meditating upon it. I am just a lump. I watch tv. I read a fun book. I sketch a bit. I play with the dogs. I try to sit down and work and I just feel revulsion.

What is happening here?

I *hate* being late with reviews, and I *hate* being late on deadlines for other people (and the book chapter is for two very, very sweet people I admire madly–Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Tridib Banerjee) and WHY CAN’T I GET MYSELF TO DO ANYTHING??? The old horse won’t budge, not even for me.

Part of the problem, I think, is that USC is super-duper secretive about the case, so I guess I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished all that much. There hasn’t been a big reckoning with myself on what I’ve really done to deserve to move up the ranks. It feels more like I’ve randomly pleased some random Illuminati somewhere and they have granted me their favor.

I would prefer it if people weren’t mean to me, but I have spent enough of my career rubbing authority figures and higher-ups the wrong way on purpose (because I have a butt where my head should be) that I should be ready enough for the young turks to come at me. But the “can’t get myself to work thing” has only really happened to me twice before in my career: a) after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech and b) right after tenure. It’s scaring me, badly.

In my head, I don’t feel any different from the graduate student walking up and down the stacks at UCLA, finding books at random and reading Xenophon during the summer break when I was supposed to be reading Herbert Mohring.

But I am. That person had one responsibility; to write a dissertation. I have students, a lot of them. This new standing should enable me to help students and more junior colleagues more than I have before. That’s good, right? It has to be. There isn’t any other point to it if not.

What’s next?

Maybe I’ll watch a Lifetime movie. Sigh.

Can we mock Elon Musk but maybe stay real about transit at the same time?

So by now everybody has watched the feud between Elon Musk after his dumb comments about public transit, and transit consultant/writer Jarrett Walker, who noted (politely) that Musk was speaking from an elite perspective, and then Musk turned around and called him an idiot. Walker has made good PR out of this, as he should: consultants and writers, like academics, require building up your reputation/brand/platform in this rotten world, and being St. Michael defending transit from Musk-the-dragon is pretty good grist for that.

Between the Coates-West and Walker-Musk spats, I feel a little like we’ve been watching dude feuds all week.

I want to tread lightly because Walker doesn’t deserve the feud moniker because he’s always been pretty polite as far as I can see. But as much as I appreciate it when transit experts like Walker caution us against “elite projection,” I kind of think all of us and our love for transit itself constitutes an elite projection–not just the where and whens and hows of transit, but the idea that transit itself is all that wonderful.

Story time!

One of my favorite students of all time was an African American lady who was returning to school to finish her degree after decades of raising kids and working. I loved her; she sat allllllllll the way up front, she had tons of opinions, readily contradicted me, and never ever hesitated to make me repeat something if she missed it. (Good-o, please do that! If your professor doesn’t like it, who cares? Education is about you, not them.)

In my 245 class, which is called “The Urban Context”, I go through a bunch of standard topics and the rhythm is usually something like “Tuesday, the topic” and “Thursday, the counterpoint, details, the critique.” So one Tuesday I was going over transit, the various vocabulary that students need to start participating in discussions about transit, what urbanists hope transit can do in cities, etc.

She and I were chatting after that first class, and she gave me a tentative look. “Are we going to talk more about transit on Thursday?” She asked.

“Sure” I responded. “Transit has problems, we have a whole bunch of things that are hard to do with it, and we’ve got financial problems, service problems, a whole bunch of things yet.”

“Good. Because all you professors, you seem to love transit so much, and it makes me feel so bad to say anything because I’ve ridden transit my whole life…and” she hesitated, then went ahead, “and my brother gave me his old car when I was about 30 or so, and it was the best. The first time I was able to just drive to the laundromat instead of begging somebody for a ride, after all those years…it just felt like I’d won the lottery with that crappy car.”

We had a discussion after that: among the the things she listed about car ownership was “not having a bunch of old goats leering at my baby girl” and “getting to work in 15 minutes instead of an hour and a half.”

Musk’s serial killer comments are silly–super-elite silly. But urbanists’ devotion to transit is kind of an elite projection, to use Walker’s phrasing, too. Don’t get me wrong: I love transit, I’ve studied it, and patronized it, for decades now. But I’ve always had choices about it. Most of us in the field do, and transit is a lot different when you have the money to take a taxi when you are having a bad day or when you can afford to send your laundry out instead of dragging it to a laundromat (with your children acting up because they are both bored and tired.)

After Musk made those comments, Brent Toderian started a Twitter hashtag called #GreatThingsThatHappenOnTransit. The link is to a story about it, but please don’t stop there if you are on Twitter–go read the stories that have appeared under it. The stories are both charming and informative, and they will make you smile.

The thing is…transit is all those things, from the things my student related to the great things appearing under Toderian’s hashtag. The Hillside Stranglers did target young women who were waiting for the bus in Los Angeles.

Transit is everything human beings in cities are, good and bad, because transit itself is public. And it has its problems as a mobility service that are taking us a very, very long time to resolve. (As I pointed out earlier, we hardly need Musk to inform us of them.) I think we have to be ready to embrace that reality even as we join Walker to clap back at Musk.

Walker is a successful man who has a good Twitter following (and a very nice book; pick it up if you haven’t) in field that many, many people never think about. Musk, by contrast, can throw hundreds of people out of work with a single decision and meets with heads of state.

The dangers that men like Musk pose are so much greater than a disdain for public transit. His remarks reveal a fundamental contempt for public life, rather than private consumption, and that contempt for public life portends terrible consequences when held among political elites like Musk. That should both chasten us and motivate us.