The revolution will not be on PLANET

I said my own piece a fair bit ago about why I left PLANET, which came down to: I got tired of getting yelled at via email for disagreeing with people. Disagreeing with people is this thing I do when, you know, people are wrong. People tell me I’m wrong all the time, and I have yet to die from it, but apparently others are more delicate.

Our latest blow-up on PLANET seems likely to be the death of the thing, if what people are forwarding me is any indicator of what’s going on.

This particular go around seems to be: A sexist joke gets posted (why? o why?), somebody says, hey, why is this on a professional, scholarly listserv, it bugs me that this stuff gets posted, and then the full-blown entitled-punish-the-woman internets: wuuuuuuuuh if you don’t like jokes about your gender on a professional listserv whynn’t ya jes leave then, ya party pooper meanies/oversensitive politically correct ninnies/feminazis. Because LIBERTY.

Habermas would be so proud.

WTH, people? Did I miss something about the American planning academy deciding to turn itself into 4chan while I was off reading a book or something? Huh? YOU KIDS DON’T MAKE ME TURN THIS CAR AROUND.


There have been many public goodbyes to the list, including good citizens who are much less likely than I am to use their middle finger to explain things. I regret my public exit–I should have just left rather than upsetting people–but this time, it’s good for the “it’s our party, you shaddup” crowd to come face-to-face with the reality of the Thing, and the Thing is: it’s not your party anymore. You don’t get to set the terms of the discussion if you aren’t going to treat other scholars with respect. The rest of us really, truly, would rather respect each other, and you know, talk about planning research. And there are a lot of the rest of us.

A big bunch of us were not happy with the way the PAB tried to back-door dismantle the language around diversity in planning education standards because wow, apparently, diversity is controversial instead of what it is (aka, the very least planning should do in the justice realm). And now a big bunch of people seem to be saying that we’re done with the Old Skool term-setting on PLANET.


Virtually all moderated listservs are boring, but I’m ready for content-oriented boring. The planning academy has, for too long, allowed itself to be an ad hoc field more centered on maintaining status hierarchies in the academy (and out) than helping young scholars–all of them, every single one of them, not just your little favorites who look just like you and talk just like you and defer to you, but all of ’em, even the ones that think you are wrong sometimes. We’re also supposed to be here for students to help them form and act on their visions to make cities better.

Being unwilling or unable to do those things in favor of status quo maintenance? That’s a sign of an intellectually moribund field.

Planners have got real work to do. The real problems in US cities are almost too terrifying for me to think about: our mass incarceration/public execution system that is killing Black Americans would be a good place to start any list of “things we should think about and work on” together. We got people trying to pass “no infill/no bike lanes” legislation. We don’t solve these problems by telling jokes that degrade each other or by bullying people when they try to tell you what’s wrong.

We solve them, I think, by creating a big, inclusive, powerful coalition of people who listen to each other, treat each other well, and who use our energies to do some good, at least, in a rotten world.

Gabriel Rossman explains how to review an academic journal article

….and not be a jerk about it, making the manuscript worse. Go read it.

So many times, reviewers make papers worse. Yep. I know we’re all supposed to walk around and talk about how peer review improves the process, but I have had that happen only once or twice, and it wasn’t the time that one of my reviewers broke anonymity and discussed the process in a high profile piece in an APA platform. I understand why reviewers, like this guy, like to take credit for the contribution. Reviewing is a lot of work, but honestly, the paper did not really improve much: by “improvement” he meant (a) “after round after round of reviews, the paper focussed on an issue I wanted it to instead of what the author wanted to discuss” and (b) “I forced the author to use the method I wanted.” As it is (a) was fine–I published the other material elsewhere, but (b) sucked because I had to torture the data to use his method, and the results are much harder to interpret than if we’d just stuck with a simpler method that accomplished everything it needed to. Why run a multi-level regression to establish correlation? Gaaaah.

I gave in. Why? I needed a paper in JAPA, and it was clear that the reviewers–all of whom were obvious even before the one broke his anonymity—-were in love with their own ideas, had a stranglehold on the paper, and I was doing a hostage negotiation, not a revision.

I’m excited to see how creating a dialogue around a manuscript might work. In a discussion-based format, I probably would have had another methodologist back me up to be able to say to this reviewer: “Hey, she’s right, she’s not doing a causal analysis, she’s just looking for a correlation.” (It was an exposure study; I don’t have to prove what’s causing the exposure, only that there ARE differing levels of exposure.)

George Washington and the unfinished room

Last night, USC kicked off its first lecture in a series of lectures to promote its partnership to create the Fred W. Smith Library at Mount Vernon about President Washington. It was a delightful evening; Kevin Starr gave the first lecture, and while he admitted he is not a colonial specialist, he has such a rich, deep baritone that he could just read anything to me and I would be happy to listen. However, at one point during the conversation, one historian noted that Washington started to build an addition to Mount Vernon at the beginning of the war. He didn’t finish it for 10 years.

I feel somewhat less guilty about how long it’s taking me to renovate my bathroom.

(Ok, well, yes, he led a revolution, helped start a country, and had no power tools, but I’m kind of busy, too.)

Poster sessions annoy me….

There is, as far as I am concerned, no bigger racket than academic conferences. You have no choice but to attend them when you are just starting the profession, as a graduate student and as an assistant professor, when you really don’t have the money to travel. Most universities, controlled by state governments where Republicans have decided that state workers should be able to live on $0.18 a day when they are not being flogged in the stocks in the public square for being a taker, give very little travel money–usually about $1000 a year.  Given that most conferences’ registration fees run between $400 and $1000, you wind up paying  for travel to conferences out of your own pocket–a pocket that doesn’t have any money in it at that stage of your career.

So my student emailed me this morning to tell me his abstract has been assigned to a poster session for the upcoming AESOP/ACSP conference. I get why they went that route for some of their sessions.  They get lots of abstracts, and if they turn people down, then that’s cash they don’t get.  So they just accept a bunch of abstracts and fill rooms with a herds of people, take their money, but  actually given them very little of the podium time/exposure that young academics pay to go to conferences for.  (We tell ourselves it’s to improve our work. I can count on one hand in 10 years of conference-going how many times I’ve had anybody say anything that furthers the research. )

Mostly, though, the reason posters suck is that they add considerably to the cost of conference attendance, which, as I pointed out, you’re already mostly paying for yourself anyway. Full-size posters cost you at least $200 to print, they are hard to take on the plane, and then when you get home you have great useless poster you don’t really want to throw away (because it cost $200!) but it really has little use for anything else.  It’s one thing if you are a consultant and go to conference after conference drumming up business.  But academics aren’t like that, and while posters are standard in many science fields (where it is possible to use the poster for more than one conference), with ACSP, this just winds up adding to the cost of the conference onto attendees while collecting full registrations from them.

TRB a few years ago started with the poster stuff, and they rather prove out what happens when an organization becomes entirely undisciplined about it. They have poster session after poster session, scraping in registration fees–and the conference is far less useful to young academics than it was when I was starting out.

Organizations less willing to screw over participants would give them a choice up-front when you submit:  a) I am or b) I am not willing to give a poster session, and then, if one is slotted into a poster session, you should get a break with a somewhat lower registration fee to deal with the extra costs.  The former would save them dealing with withdrawals like me–if they tell me they are putting me in a poster session, I just don’t go, and it would useful for organizations to know that up front.  I’d rather they just reject the abstract up front. (And before anybody screams at me, I can’t handle the social interaction of poster session due to anxiety related to my Asperger’s.  I’ve trained myself to deal with presentations. I’ve never been able to manage the parties and/poster sessions.)

But if taxpayers aren’t really paying much into public education, why do they get to have much say at all?

There is much about this article in this Huffington Post article about Texas higher education that makes me question the current politics of public education. It’s the usual fare from the right: universities are too expensive, there’s too much time spent on research instead of teaching our kiddies to be engineers and business people, yada. Universities are anachronistic parasites, blah blah blah, and thus the university needs to cleaned up, made more efficient, and made more accountable to the taxpayer.

The point in that which makes me raise my eyebrow:

Thirty years ago, Texas taxpayers funded more than half the university budget. This year, the state contributes about 13 percent, or $295 million.

It sounds to me like the university is not the anachronism here. What is actually anachronistic here is disproportionate taxpayer oversight of institutions for which they are marginal sources of capital. Under these circumstances, is it any wonder that taxpayer priorities for higher education mean little in the institutions’ calculus? I hate to be rude about this, but in a state like Texas, $295 million could be made up from endowments in very short time. Perhaps it is time for UT to go private to protect itself from being political fodder for weak politicians like Perry.

JAPA’s Problems and The Invisible Art of the Edit

We’re having a bit of a tussle in planning with our flagship journal. The current editor is my former advisor. I love the guy, and that’s all there is to it. He’s produced some very fine special issues of the journal, for all the criticism.

It comes up rather routinely in journals for all the durm and strang going on about JAPA at the moment; somebody who is a marvelous scholar in his or her own right takes over the editorship of a journal and winds up not necessarily suited to the role in various ways. That’s because editing isn’t a simple matter of being the best scholar in the room, or having good taste. It’s also a matter of organization and directness.

All that said, disorganized editors can hurt younger scholars. No, your promotion case shouldn’t come down to the one paper you are trying to place in one journal. But if that journal is important, there are consequences if the journal goes into disarray at the wrong time for you, as has happened for me here at JAPA. My senior colleagues with their close association with JAPA have convinced our Dean that JAPA is the premier journal in planning, at least for American scholars. It probably is. But now that USC is big into the prestige game, my promotion to full hinges on getting things into JAPA. Now, I haven’t even managed to get my stuff reviewed at JAPA after years waiting. I may have already damaged my chances at promotion by allowing my stuff to languish at JAPA. I know better than to do this, and yet I did it anyway simply because JAPA is so important to promotion here. And let’s face it: even when you are old and have been in the harness for awhile, you still hope your advisor approves of your work. At least I do. A weakness I should have outgrown, perhaps, but one of many I possess anyway.

I just finished Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker: The Invisible Art of the Edit by Ved Mehta, a memoir of Mehta’s time working as a staff writer under William Shawn. I suspect the book is most valued for the New Yorker gossip, but for me, the most interesting parts of the book came down just how extraordinary Mr. Shawn was as an editor: Uniquely supportive, attentive to detail, with a visionary eye for what types of long pieces would capture an audience and a republican interest in creating valuable content. He had a staff full of people to make it work; most scholarly editors do not.

In reading through the book, it occurred to me that JAPA’s previous editors, David Sawicki and Amy Helling from Georgia Tech, really were exemplary even if I could argue with David, in particular, about his attitudes towards certain types of qualitative work. I was a probationary faculty at the time, and David was infuriatingly direct, but quite nurturing in his own rough way. He said “This is not good, here’s why, send me something else” and “This doesn’t work for JAPA; it’s too technical/narrow/specialized for the audience” to me more times than I care to relive. Why? Well, because the material wasn’t good, and I was missing the audience, that’s why. Journals are where scholars keep learning after they finish their dissertation. Tom Daniels once referred to journals, rather dismissively, as “a training ground for junior faculty.” The phrase stuck with me at first because of the dismissiveness and now because of its insight. Journals are training grounds. David Sawicki, for all the “no” that I got from that guy, was teaching me how to write for the journal by showing me where I was missing in my attempts.

This nurturing represents an incredible generosity to the scholars that you edit.

Amy Helling, the managing editor, was even more wonderful. When I finally did get something past David and into the pipeline, Helling managed the process brilliantly, fact-checking and challenging points that didn’t make sense, catching typos and even–do you know how rare this is?–catching a typo in the regression tables. She kept things transparent and professional–a breath of fresh air in the academy where things are often neither.

I hope the kerfuffle around JAPA dies down soon and everybody gets their papers published somewhere.