I am the worst scholar in the world, the very worst.

Soooooo yesterday I had a big block of time to do research. Took out the book I am working from and found: ACK. I have two index card left.

Briefly consider going to the bookstore to get some, but they will charge $400 per card. So no.

So I decide to start cleaning my drawers looking for cards. There have to be some in here somewhere, right?

Nope. Old, dead packages of mustard, check. Cords and little dongle things from long-dead computers, check.

Pull everything out of the drawers in a fit of pique, tell self I am going to organize the drawers.

After a half-hour of pulling stuff out of drawers, become overwhelmed by the job, get filled with despair at the mess I have made.

Begin reading The Letters of Peter Abelard and Heloise.

There is no scholarly reason for doing this.

Finally manage to work up the gumption to throw away what needs throwing away, put away what needs to be put away, and….

Get a call from somebody. There is a doggie emergency. Spend all last night dealing with a dog who has a ruptured eye (poor thing) and obsessively checking California primary returns.

Spend this morning arguing about politics on Facebook about how Sanders’ loss might be good for the far left, remember after multiple hours that it is not technically my job to argue pointlessly about national politics, but rather, my job to argue pointlessly about URBAN politics;

Sit down to work.

Realize I have no index cards.

But Hillary Rodham Clinton is historic, and that does make me smile.

The Showtime Lakers, Muhammad Ali, and my early education on race

I grew up at a time and in a place where the word n*ggr was said, often by people I loved and respected. In the late 1970s, early 1980s, and even today the only encounters that some of us, whose families never could afford to travel anywhere, were going to have with black America was going to come through our television sets. (You can tell when I grew up, simply because I use the term “television set.”)

Muhammad Ali Ali was on the television set, as were a group of men known as The Showtime Lakers–Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and James Worthy. There was also Julius Erving. And Arthur Ashe. I was interested in these men. How could you not be? They were handsome. They were famous. They did beautiful, athletic things.

My fascination with them led me to ask questions, read things, and ask more questions.

In Ali’s case, he was roundly described, by many in range of my little ears, as a “mouthy n*ggr.”

Hey! I was told I was mouthy all the time, too! I had something in common in this magnificent, adult man. What did people mean when they said he was mouthy?

He talked about race. He didn’t know his place.

What was his place?

Don’t ask questions.

I read more things, from the library. I read a book by William Faulkner where the word “uppity” appeared.


But why did people around me seem to dislike Ali so much? So what? What investment did they have in him being subservient if they didn’t even know him or have to be around him?

(This took me a long time to understand; I had to shelve it for years and years, but I did get there.)

Some people were not racist, they said. They just disliked him because he dodged his duty in Vietnam.

Oh, that was bad. It was bad to do that. Why did he do that? He couldn’t be a physical coward; he was a boxer. Why did he do that? More reading, in my school library, and the quote that has been making the rounds since Ali’s passing:

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

That didn’t strike me as ‘not knowing one’s place” or dodging anything. It struck me as valid reasoning. (One of the curses of being a little Asperger kid is that for me at least, you are swayed by valid arguments well beyond what those in your social circle want, and thus you risk being reviled when you take the side of reason against traditions or norms, which generally have to do with how people view the soundness of the premises. This is the biography of my entire life in two sentences.)

And why did Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar have such cool names? Those names were lots cooler than my name. “They changed their names from their real names.”

Why did they do that? Can I do that, to a name I like better? (This is, along with cutting one’s own hair and thus, risking not being pretty, apparently a huge sin as it meant you weren’t entirely defined and controlled by your parents, which you should be. Obey. Obey. Obey: the drum beat of a working class kid’s childhood. Even when there is no sound reason to obey, obey, dammit.)

So I did some more reading. Cassius Clay and Lou Alcinder. I had to admit, I thought the name Cassius was cool, too. But I could understand the rest: not wanting to inherit the name of a line of slave masters. Wanting to start a different tradition, one that rejected the ones where you were always on the bottom, and that told others of like mind that you have publicly and visibly joined them.

That made sense.

What is the Nation of Islam? What do they do? What is Islam? What do they believe?

I wasn’t allowed to watch Roots. So I read it instead (nobody paid any attention to my reading) right in the middle of my fascination with Magic Johnson, who could pass a basketball like nobody before.

WTFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF. Human beings did that stuff to other human beings? And we wonder why people want reparations?

Muhammad Ali was a leader, and great leaders are an education in themselves.

Parkinson’s knocked down Ali for the last time last week, at the age of 74, which is tragically young for a man who in his youth had trained his body to beyond perfection. I am glad it seems his family got to come say goodbye.

Edited to add: dang it! I hit publish on this post before I proofed it, and it had Mr. Ali’s spelled wrong! My apologies. I meant to check it and published before I did. Dork.

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room knows Things. About Cities. And how they work.

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room knows that cities run like little clockworks, and that if People Would Just Do As He Says, cities and every service, space, or interaction in them would be So Much Better;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room spends a lot of time on the internet sending dumb wimmins and Joel Kotkin emails and tweets that start that out with “Actually…Teh Facts Are…” that usually involve cherrypicked statistics he got from Another Smart Boy Urbanist;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room knows what bicyclists need, all bicyclists, everywhere, and what they need is Amsterdam. He knows what women bicyclists need, too, because Amsterdam;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room can give a two-hour long lecture on the GM Streetcar conspiracy;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room never doesn’t have to check his phone or tap on his computer when a woman is speaking at an urban gathering;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room is against manels, because those are wrong, but thinks nothing of taking 70 percent of the air time on the panel or talking over any women on that panel or in the room;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room has read Jarret Walker, Ed Glaeser, James Howard Kunstler, and several pages of Jane Jacobs, and that’s what you need to know.

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room knows that the appropriation of the term “Street Fight” for Sadik-Kahn and Solomonow’s book was totes appropriate because the fight for bike lanes and urban playspaces has totes magotes been as hard as the fight for civil rights among black Americans and Chicanos;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room wants to reassure people that gentrification is merely a figment of people’s imaginations;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room wants people to understand that gentrification is not as serious a problem as Some People make it out to be;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room is white, but he really Gets It, you know?

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room knows that no matter what is happening with transit ridership, it is always going up, and anything that doesn’t show it going up is comparing apples to oranges or selecting the wrong frame of analysis or “Actually, the facts are…”;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room is inevitably affluent, but he’s worried, gravely concerned about poverty, and he knows that what he advocates for in the city will help with urban poverty, and if people who live in poverty fail to prioritize things in the right way, it’s because they don’t have the “big picture” the way he does;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room knows that too much democracy is bad for cities;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room needs to educate the rest of us.

Is a C+ really that much worse than a B-? Please explain

What is it about C+ grades? I turn in my grades, and the email deluge begins roughly 5 minutes after I do so: “Can I have a B- instead of a C+? Of course you will be rounding my C+ up to a B-, right? It would mean the world to me.” (No, I shan’t.)

There’s something psychological about the C versus B and I don’t get it. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about my own GPA, so maybe there is a big difference numerically, but I can’t recall that being the case; the difference between a B- and C+ is pretty marginal. Both can keep you out the elite graduate programs. Perhaps they should.

I’d understand this if were in the D+ versus C- range. At a D+, you wind up taking most required classes again, and that is an expensive and time-consuming proposition. But a C+ means you don’t have to take the class again.

I really don’t like letter grading. Let’s face it, I don’t like grading. By the time you are in graduate school, you should be self-motivated and self-evaluative enough to do your work in collaboration with a professor.

Qualitative research is not doomed, aka movie deals.

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: The qual versus quant distinction that old timers have grown up with is dated, and it probably wasn’t even useful back in the day. Most of us academics are dinosaurs, so be humble when you throw poop around the dinosaur cage.

This piece by Stephen Porter crossed my desk via Twitter the other day from Noah Smith (@Noahpinion, who is wonderful, and you should follow), and at the time I shot back some opinions on Twitter. But it’s bothered me ever since, so I thought I would write a fuller response here. I don’t know Stephen Porter or his work, but that said, I did read his bio and a couple of his papers after this blog post.

Let’s start with the overall snarky tone of the piece. As somebody who is frequently snarky, it raises a red flag. I know full well when I do it, and it’s not good scholarly behavior on a blog or anywhere else. When somebody is snarky about a topic that shouldn’t normally generate anger or condescension, it’s a warning sign, and the warning sign is simply that the author’s ego is at stake in the writing. If you really have the full force of both soundness and validity in your argument, you don’t need snark to bully the reader into believing you or to frighten dissenters from challenging you. I’m as guilty of this as anybody.

From that onward, the argument is cherrypicked, overreaching, and blind to the overall research context we all live in.

Let’s start here:

Banners and Alerts and Speaking truth to power about qualitative research Stephen Porter

His response to this tweet was:

Of course, the whining and outrage was predictable. More here:

I assume BMJ is the British Journal of Medicine.

So whining and outrage go together, and reactions to a medical journal’s business model of scholarly research dissemination is mere “outrage” instead of legitimate critique of a journal that is extracting from scholars free content to sell at exorbitant prices…about inconsequential matters such as health. Okaaaay.

There actually are some pretty damn good reasons that medical research absolutely needs qualitative research, and some of the most important medical studies ever done have been qualitative. We know a lot more about the effects of toxins on the human body because of opportunistic studies of rare events like industrial accidents or London’s “killer fog.”

And, btw, what does shunning qualitative research mean for bioethics research? It should bother us when a medical journal is not interested in the casuistry of field practice. It’s one thing if BMJ intends to specialize and expects those researchers to go to specialty journals, but that’s not the same as the “it’s a low priority for us because it doesn’t sell” rationale.

The next point that strikes me as incorrect is this one:

Let’s face facts: it’s a quant world now. Policymakers and stakeholders don’t want to hear stories about the lived experience or any other such nonsense. Funders are increasingly adopting a similar mindset

The facts are, there isn’t any evidence to back up this assertion. The facts are…policymakers and stakeholders–an amorphous, ill-defined group of people, so God only knows who they are, but they of course agree with what Porter thinks…are often not terribly interested in any research of any kind unless it supports their interests.

But before I get too far into that, let’s deal with “don’t want to hear stories about the lived experience or any other such nonsense.” So if market interest is your measure of worth, then fine, but you should probably note that in the list of New York Times Best Sellers, historians outnumber economists roughly 8 to 1 (where economists would be doomed without the not-strongly quantitative Thomas Piketty), historians routinely win the National Book Award (year in and year out, actually, where economists have never posted a win, not ever*), and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks–a qualitative book on bioethics and history–just landed a feckin movie deal. We should probably note that Freakonomics would not have been what it was in terms of runaway best sellers if it hadn’t had a research collaboration with a qualitative social scientist and a writing connection with a journalist. (And a platform in the NYT).

Matthew Desmond is currently tearing up the book sales with a book of “stories.”

I kind of think people are interested.

If your idea of qualitative research is that it is just about the “stories of the lived experience” and “nonsense”…then you aren’t qualified to make assessments of qualitative research because you don’t know what you are talking about. Yes, there are ethnography and interview studies still out there, and I find them often to be quite valuable (Henrietta Lacks, and many others). I’ve obviously done a fair amount of them in addition to my quantitative research because I’m not an ideologue about methods. I care about questions and getting answers.

But more than that, big data are–or should be if you are awake–entirely changing the distinction between quantitative and qualitative. With digital technologies and social media, you are getting millions of data that confound the traditional tools of econometrics. Later on, Porter says qualitative people are “dinosaurs” but with his characterization of qualitative research here, I guess I have to question about whether Porter is as cutting-edge as he thinks he is.

And I don’t know about the rest of you, but one of my econometric instructors, a brilliant econometrician named Joel Horowitz, and I once had a really interesting discussion about whether Bayesian approaches are inherently qualitative, and that wasn’t one of your typical sniffy-snooty, looking-down, pissing-on-the-wall, I’m-ever-so-much-more-rigorous-than-thou academic discussions. People like Horowitz, who are genuinely secure in their work, don’t have to do that: it was just the two of us chatting about where ideas come from and how people use them to formulate theory, and getting into some pretty interesting epistemological waters as we went.

The part here that pains me to write: research and higher education do seem to be in process of changing, but it’s not strictly a data revolution where quantoids like Porter stand astride the earth while the silly dinosaurs die. Instead, the star economy of the academy means that there are global academic darlings, who get all the sunshine, and then the rest of us–the Help–who get whatever crumbs are left.

Funding, particularly that for social science, is consolidating and drying up for just about everybody, not just those dummies who tell “stories.”

And if I were a betting woman, I’d guess that the university Porter teaches at, NC State, stands a good chance of either being the only state university in North Carolina…or being closed in the next 30 years. And since UNC at least has a sports dynasty on their side, I’d bet the latter.

I hope I am wrong. But I don’t think I am. I think some aspects of higher education are, in fact dying, and lot of what I see in Porter’s argument is the anxiety that all of us have about the changes going on around us: I’M not the dinosaur or the Help. YOU OTHERS ARE.

Then he goes on to say that quantitative dominance is only going to get worse because:

1. Statistics is now prominent in the K-12 math curriculum; it was nonexistent when I was a kid. Students at a young age will now be learning quant methods, not qual methods.

This assumes that students don’t learn qual methods, and I don’t think he’s right about that. I agree that we are seeing more statistical literacy in K-12 (and thank heaven), but we also seem to be seeing things like expanded service learning, visual ethnography in addition to data literacy.

2. The media has gotten much more data savvy, and now regularly present charts and graphs based on quant data. This is creating a culture where we tend to talk and view issues in terms of what the quant data tell us.

Yes, but the media also show us word clouds, videography…text mining appears regularly in the media, etc. It’s not like you can’t graph various aspects of qualitative research.

And, um, “This is creating a culture where we tend to talk and view issues in terms of what the quant data tell us”…go read some media effects research before you make sweeping conclusions like this based on your impression. The tail can wag the dog in terms of what media shows us.

3. Number 2 is especially true for academic research. The Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed report predominantly on quant studies. The major media outlets, like the NY Times, tend to report on work done by economists. When was the last time you read about an anthropological study in the national media?

And yet Matt Desmond got a six-figure book deal just telling stories, and we didn’t, with our big, giant, better-than-his data.

4. More and different quant datasets are continually collected, as we use more electronic devices and the cost of data storage continues to drop to almost nothing. So it’s becoming much easier to study a wide variety of topics using a quant lens than it was 20 or even 10 years ago.

5. Statistical and visualization software is easier to use every year, putting more tools in the hands of people who might normally never crack open R and run a regression analysis.

I’m currently doing a project with about 5,000 images from the web. Quant? But it’s coded images and text mining. Qual?

Porter’s approach seems to be “everything that is new and emerging is quant and everything old and lousy is qual”–and it’s an easy way to frame an argument you wish to win–but that doesn’t make you right about your basic definitions. Just because you have a lot of data doesn’t mean your approach isn’t qualitative. If I measure every single thing that happens every nanosecond of an individual’s life…I might have a lot of data, but not necessarily generalizable research conclusions. And it could still be interesting and useful as all hell.

This last point, to me, just suggests that old binaries like “quant” and “qual” are going away because they aren’t useful, not that Porter is right in his characterization of them.

The rest of the essay is academic posturing: my discipline does things in a rigorous way, education doesn’t, and so forth. Everybody knows that there are good studies out there and weak studies out there, and there are plenty of examples of weak quant and weak qual studies.

His link to an editorial targeted to qualitative researchers on how to get their work published strikes me as good advice for academic writers in general, though nothing here strikes me as particularly earth-shattering for those of us who get our work published. But here it is, for those out there who can use advice.

*Leontief and Galbraith were both nominated, but didn’t win. Always a bridesmaid.

Enough whining about liberal smugness: go read Orwell if you need that fix

I’ve had about a gillion people gleefully forwarded me this piece from Vox from Emmett Rensin: The High Price Democrats Pay for Liberal Smugness.


The idea here is that John Steward is smug, John Oliver is smug, Stephen Colbert is smug…all you liberal proffies are smug, and all you people who don’t “get” Kim Davis….smug, smug, smug.

Have you watched FoxNews recently? Bill O’Reilly…now THERE is a humble guy right there. A man of the people. Yesssirree. Rush Limbaugh. THERE’S a quiet, unassuming guy for you. Never a condescending word has ever been uttered or written by Ann Coulter. Or that king of smugness himself, William F. Buckley, Jr.

From their flouncing around about campus protests to assertions that they know what “history tells us,” there is plenty of smugness on the right, too.

But what really irritates me about the Vox piece is that it is old wine in a new bottle, and Rensin gets to ride a million forwards and clicks based on poor argumentation and vague assertions about what “the liberals do.” Here’s one:

That is: Kim Davis was not only on the wrong side of the law. She was not even a subscriber to a religious ideology that had found itself at moral odds with American culture. Rather, she was a subscriber to nothing, a hateful bigot who did not even understand her own religion.

Says who? Resnin’s Facebook feed?

Plenty of us in the world (like me) said “Hey, that’s too bad for Ms. Davis, but she doesn’t get to use her public office to pick and choose who exercises rights that have been settled in law based on her personal beliefs.” That’s hardly “hateful bigot” language. (It reminds me of Monica Lewinsky’s claim that “the feminists were mean to her.” Um, I’m a feminist and I distinctly remember telling people to shut their damn pie-holes and get out of her life. Do I not count as a feminist or a liberal? Or do we all just get to collapse everybody together based on our perceptions of what some of them did wrong as the definition of what’s wrong with that whole damn group we wish condemn?)

These are straw men arguments, easily posited when you don’t have to have any proof besides listing some leftie media personas who have adopted the same loud, table slapping modalities as righty media personas.

There is nothing that anybody is ever going to say about smugness, liberal or otherwise, that will top George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. Liberals are damned if they do, damned if they don’t, and Orwell set up that damnation in 1937 England way before Rensin “discovered” how it was getting worse over 30 years in America. (No evidence it’s getting worse. Apparently somehow it is. I blame John Oliver. Oh wait, he’s English and you do realize we are talking about TV shows? And cable tv no less?)

Richard Bellamy wrote about this beautifully in “The Intellectual as Social Critic: Antonio Gramsci and Michael Walzer.” In Intellectuals in Politics: From the Dreyfus Affair to Salmon Rushdie, ed. Jeremy Jennings and Anthony Kemp-Welch.

If they remain outside politics, they end up being charged with aloofness and a selective bUndness to injustice. If they enter the political arena, they appear condemned either to prostrate themselves before the powerful or legitimately to impose their ideals on others. On the one hand, they stand accused of a false objectivity obtained via a refusal to dirty their hands by engaging with the often messy affairs of the world; on the other hand, they are warned against covering their hands in blood by seeking to make a necessarily imperfect world conform to their abstract ideals.

IOW, you don’t get to feel good about not being smug just because your position is that the status quo is awesome when others are trying to change the status quo and finding it a hard go. There is an inherent condescension, too, not to mention silly absolutism in the notion that because society is imperfectable, no change is meaningful: it assumes it knows the abilities and essential human nature of all who surround you.

Orwell, BTW, once wrote: “the real enemies of the working class are not those who talk to them in a too highbrow manner; they are those who try to trick them into identifying their interests with the interests of their exploiters.” (Letters, New English Weekly).

Oh, so he meant trickle-down economics, then?

I find the reification of “the working” class to be disingenuous in all its forms, and the “noble” working class v. the “effete” intellectual dichotomy is particularly specious now that most of the academic workforce has become as contingent and economically precarious as everybody else. Orwell hoped to secure the preservation of a socially conservative working class, and that’s fine as far as it goes, but as a refugee from that world, I can say without hesitation: it’s got its own damn problems, and it doesn’t deserve a pedestal (or blame) more than the rest of the world.

I find the dialogue around Donald Trump to be particularly odious in the way that people are so careful to note that “he’s clearly bright.” There is something especially perverse about somebody who is bright and who, nonetheless, persists in spouting base and childish arguments. It doesn’t matter if you are bright if you betray your own gifts by refusing to reflect on things.