Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Call for Contributions

I was about to write a piece arguing that Chicago should drop its bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, and then went and looked back at Jason's introductory post, and said, Oh right! This is a blog for planning PhD students to share information, not a place for Jessica to rant about whatever comes into her head.

As for our Head-Blogger-in-Chief, Dr. Brody, he is presumably taking Manhattan by storm as we speak -- that would be Manhattan, Kansas, home of Kansas State's urban planning program and, I hear, an abiding hatred of jayhawks, whatever a jayhawk is. Point is, he's going to be busy, and not in a position to contribute much. And Occasional Blogger annalise has just announced she will be doing a fellowship at Claflin University (hooray!) next year, so blogging will not be her first priority either. That leaves, as best I can tell, me and a whole bunch of crickets.

Therefore, if you are a doctoral student in planning with advice to give and pithy observations to make, this blog will be the better for your participation. Look at it this way: the more people join, the better the blog gets; the better the blog gets, the more prestigious it becomes; the more prestigious it becomes, the better you will look later on for having participated.

I would suggest emailing Jason at his brand-new K-State address, jbrody at ksu dot edu, for posting privileges. If you are impatient, email me (jessica dot doyle at gatech dot edu) and I will guest-post for you. In case it does not go without saying: contributions from other brand-new faculty, or from doctoral students outside the US, are also welcome.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Gentrification, or "Demographic Inversion"?

The New Republic has an article available summarizing what the author refers to as "demographic inversion" -- namely, middle- and upper-class residents choosing to live in the city, less affluent residents, including immigrants, going to the suburbs. As you might expect, Jane Jacobs comes up a few times.

I found this paragraph particularly striking:

Nor, in general, does the scourge of urban life in the 1970s and '80s: random street violence. True, the murder rates in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cleveland have climbed in the last few years, but this increase has been propelled in large part by gang- and drug-related violence. For the most part, middle-class people of all colors began to feel safe on the streets of urban America in the 1990s, and they still feel that way. The paralyzing fear that anyone of middle age can still recall vividly from the 1970s--that the shadowy figure passing by on a dark city street at night stands a good chance of being a mugger--is rare these days, and almost nonexistent among young people.

By "young people" the author means "young professionals"; I would not go so far as to say that the majority of less affluent people, young or not, are no longer scared of crime. But if (and I would say it's quite an if) the author is right, fear of crime may also contribute to an inversion of stereotypes: the city as lively, wealthy, safe; the inner-ring suburbs as decrepit and desperate, where no one will hear you if you scream.

This assertion about fear of crime and the city reminded me of the the Atlantic piece which looked to link rising suburban crime with Section 8 vouchers (see a debunking of said article, via Randall Crane). It is possible that certain neighborhoods of certain cities will collect enough eyes on the street, and enough amenities, to establish a feeling of safety. The question then becomes, given the very different design of most suburbs, what steps can be taken to make them also feel safe -- which is not the same as actually being safe; but the feeling and the being are certainly related.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On Storytelling, Privilege, Individual Pride, and Yes, Finally, a Work Presented in Chicago

Be warned at the outset that this post will be quite the mishmash. (The one-sentence takeaway: go hunt down Marisa Zapata and her Chicago paper; they are both very much worth engaging with.)

To start with an anecdote from the PhD Jamboree in Vancouver last year (which is how I met Jason and annalise): as a prelude to Ken Reardon's discussion of his community-empowerment work in St. Louis and New Orleans, Leonie Sandercock played a tape of an African-American woman singing a song of lamentation. Afterwards Leonie explained that the song had been recorded by a New Orleans native (if I remember correctly) after Hurricane Katrina hit, and that she herself thought the song's observation -- that, essentially, nothing had changed and the position of African-Americans in the US was just as lowly and brutalized as it had been since before the civil rights movement -- was spot-on. In the audience, I bristled. This was due less to their being wrong than to personal events the week before the Jamboree having left me in superdefensive mode. But the immediate reason I bristled was I felt that what Sandercock and later Reardon did -- compare New Orleans 2005 with Oxford 1962, and find essentially no difference -- was to conflate two different instances of societal failure, and to do so somewhat smugly. Not that I get to make the last call on the narrative of Katrina and the position of African-Americans in the US; but I wasn't willing to cede it to them, either.

I thought of that when I read this essay by Charles Johnson (via A&LD), calling for a "new narrative" for African-Americans. Johnson's argument rests, not solely but largely, on the accomplishments of individual African-Americans: doctors, lawyers, CEOs, PhDs, actors, engineers, writers, and presidential candidates. He does not mention New Orleans 2005 in his argument, and while I haven't yet gone looking for counterarguments (and The American Scholar doesn't post trackbacks), I would guess that the aftermath of Katrina figures pretty highly in the arguments of those who would tell him that the old narrative appears, unfortunately, to have a lot of life left in it.

The tension here seems to be that between celebrating individual accomplishments and acknowledging the larger obstacles facing the individuals as a group. Does the average African-American child born in 2008 have a better chance of becoming the next scientist, lawyer, artist, philosopher, politician, or CEO than he or she would have if born in 1948? Either you say "yes," because so many legal and societal obstacles have fallen, or you hesitate, because so many societal and economic obstacles still exist. Your answer will spring from the narrative you subscribe to. The groups who usually hold power in the US (I originally wrote "the US" and then realized I needed to be more specific) have a long history of privileging stories of individual accomplishment; and those stories can be very useful and inspiring -- not least because it's easier to get relate to the story of an individual than of a group, on average. But one can point to, in discussions among Americans at least, a tendency to use narratives of individual accomplishment to dismiss the narratives of discrimination against the group.

Then today I read this and this (courtesy of Megan McArdle, an ex-co-worker of mine) and thought the two posts together wonderful, for the author's frank discussion of the fact that narratives of individual empowerment are... well, empowering (I did this) and when you start placing such narratives in the larger context of the group (you did this, but in part because you benefited from certain privileges that you lucked into, and not everyone gets those same privileges, and you can't swear that you would have been able to accomplish that same thing without the privileges) will almost certainly meet resistance.

When I wrote earlier that storytelling is dangerous, I was speaking from a fairly self-serving point of view. Here is a larger point: if storytelling is to become an effective planning tool, American planners (I can't speak for other cultures) will bump up against this tension time and again. A good many of us will want to tell stories to bring attention to underserved communities. But to tell such stories in ways that inspire helpful, rather than defensive or guilty, reactions, is tricky. Including stories of individual accomplishment can help inspire, but may also seduce the audience into thinking that things aren't so bad after all. And the underserved community itself may be divided as to which stories should get privileged.

I want to conclude by pointing to Marisa Zapata's work, because I got to see her presentation at Chicago and many other people didn't (it was in the last session of the last day). One point she made at the end of her talk about a planning process that deliberately sought out people from different cultures was that at the end, the white participants felt depressed and worried for the future, while the Latino participants were energized. Zapata suggested (I may be putting words into her mouth here) that this was a reflection of different cultural norms: that the Latino participants were much more comfortable with a process that focused chiefly on problems and not on easily implementable solutions. I suspect that this tension was similar to that between individual-focused and group-focused narrative; and if I'm right, that may suggest that, one, such longing for the individual-focused, inspirational narrative is not universally subscribed to in the United States, and two, there are ways to introduce other narratives, other approaches.

Finally, I will say that, to avoid overgeneralizing, I end up talking a lot in ways that put a white woman front and center ("I bristled... I felt... I read... I got to see"). Such is another danger of storytelling; but that one's more easily solved -- by making sure that other stories get space as well.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

On Olympicized Beijing

In the runup to Chicago -- and don't forget, if you're coming to Chicago, to RSVP for the Tuesday night students' reception -- I am repeatedly distracted by interesting articles: this one, a New Republic book review, focuses on China's political culture in the run-up to the Olympics. It is only tangentially related to planning, in that the first book discussed focuses on the modernization of Beijing and the resulting changes in its urban fabric. But Andrew Nathan is a major figure in his field (not for nothing was he a coeditor of this book) and if you are not terribly familiar with Chinese politics, this could be a very useful introduction to how the state currently works, and how the central government can absorb blows such as the Tiananmen protests, the criticisms over Tibet, and the continuing efforts of pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong, and yet keep on going.

(The other reason why I was so quickly distracted is that of the three authors of Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City, one was my undergraduate advisor and chief academic mentor, and another taught me about the Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers and is responsible for my continued love of red bean cakes. So reading Andrew Nathan's praise for their book leaves me tickled pink.)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Europe's Declining Fertility Rates, and What They Imply for Cities

Another interesting article, from the New York Times Magazine. It's more broad than deep, surveying some of the literature on why fertility rates in Europe are dropping so fast (and not reaching any definite conclusions, though some of its hypotheses surprised me), but gets particularly interesting for city planners about halfway through, discussing the plans of some German cities to shrink their urban footprints. As a bonus for those of us insular Americans: it will give us something to talk about with our new European acquaintances in Chicago, beyond "That Sergio Ramos is something, huh?"

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Some Interesting Climate Change Speculation

I know: we the DSUP cabal have been neglecting you quite seriously of late. Some of us have been looking for jobs; some of us are finishing our dissertations; and some of us have been caught up in a combination of various offline events and changing our operating system three times. (Somewhere, Commenter Nick is laughing.)

So as not to neglect you, I bring your attention to Sustainable Energy--Without the Hot Air, a work-in-progress by David MacKay, a Cambridge professor. There's also a blog and an article in The Register -- the two are related, as MacKay uses his blog to correct some of the impressions a Register reader might get. The nice part about MacKay's work is that he puts it all online, so you can download it, examine it, and argue with it at your leisure. Note that you cannot just read the four-page executive summary and get his full conclusions that way; I tried that already.

(Link originally found at Arts & Letters Daily, though, strangely, not at its sister site, Climate Debate Daily.)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Plug: Lisa Schweitzer

UCLA professor Randall Crane (whose blog you have in your RSS feed just before or after ours, right?) has posted a profile of Lisa Schweitzer, who got her PhD at UCLA, spent some time at Virginia Tech, and is now at USC working on issues of environmental justice and transportation. I got to hear Dr. Schweitzer present in Milwaukee last year, and although she admitted straight off that she was presenting on research (on hazardous waste-related disasters and environmental justice) she'd just begun, it was still a very interesting presentation. Her presentation style was relaxed, friendly, and confident, which can be difficult in a conference setting; that style may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it worked well for me.

And since the Chicago schedule is now posted online, I can now tell you that Dr. Schweitzer will be presenting at 9:45 am on July 8th, moderating a panel on measurements and techniques later that day, and helping with a roundtable on environmental justice (alongside Ann Forsyth) first thing Friday morning the 11th. Even if you are neither a transportation person nor an EJ person, I would recommend you check her out at some point.

(Standard doctoral-student disclaimer: Dr. Schweitzer is not on any committee of mine and is not reviewing any papers I have written.)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

On Telling Stories and Looking Professional Online

At least some of y'all read the Emily Gould Times piece and thought, "Clearly, not a graduate student." At least, not a PhD student in a field where, despite a great deal of work about storytelling, said PhD student still has to worry about the word "overshare" being used during a prospective job evaluation.

This is something I have wrestled with for years. If you were to go to my website -- and I am most deliberately not giving you the URL -- you would find a badly formatted, sparsely updated blog I gave up on a couple months ago after being informed that no matter what tweaks I made to WordPress, the only people allowed to comment, apparently, were spammers. Clearly, it would benefit me more to have a richer and better-looking online presence, to decrease the risks that a search committee would be spending time raising their eyebrows at the number of friends I have zombiefied on Facebook.

But to be less flippant about it: the idea of "telling stories" as a method of distributing and accumulating planning knowledge is extremely attractive to me, as someone who wanted to be a writer long before she wanted to be any variety of planner. Stories are powerful. Emily Gould's story, particular as it is to her place, time, and socioeconomic situation, inspired so many comments the Times first had to close the comment thread and then had to open it back up again. Telling stories can invite confidence; open up space for similar or complementary narratives; communicate more effectively than other methods. The story can serve as warning, as inspiration, as exemplar, as lesson. Granted, it's not the easiest thing in the world to teach from story when every planning situation is unique, but people are working on it, and God bless 'em for it.

However: for women working -- not just women working in planning, or women working in academia, but women working, period -- telling stories is also dangerous. To take an example outside of planning academia, to tell a story that begins, or ends, with "I had a miscarriage" is pretty potent stuff. It can inspire sympathy. It can inspire discussions about how and why miscarriages happen, and how the American (or what have you) health care system should respond to miscarriages. It can also make your colleagues uncomfortable, and suggest that your mind is simply not on your work. (And for all we talk of work-life balance, I would suggest that any one of us wants our colleagues to have a work-life balance only up to the point that it does not harm our own work-life balance. Forgive my grammar.) And I think the negative repercussions of such storytelling-gone-awry are greater for women in the workplace than for men.

I am generally more inclined than not to tell stories about my personal life: because I'm seeking advice; because sometimes hiding the information is more trouble than just coming out with it; because sometimes I hope to be able to entertain or enlighten; because someone else has just told a story and I want to offer empathy with a similar story; because I just like telling stories by habit and inclination. But it means I am constantly running the risk of becoming Madame Overshare. And online, where oversharing once in 2002, or even 1992, will still be in Google's memory in 2010, the risk is even greater.

So for a while I have been wrestling with what I want a personal website to be. Because it is one thing to be "personal" and yet quite another to be "personal" while still being "professional." I wonder if other people feel they've been able to find a happy medium, or whether they would counsel me to screw the imagined search committee and tell all the stories I see fit, or wonder why this is even an issue.

Friday, May 16, 2008

More on Womanism (in a Different Context)

For those following Annalise's posts on womanism and planning, the "XX Factor" blog on Slate has recently begun a discussion of womanism in relation to the Clinton-Obama fight. The term is introduced in this post by Kim McLarin and the discussion continues here and here. Obviously one cannot pick up the idea of "womanism" under discussion in that context, which is considerably less formal, and snap it into planning methodology as if it were a Lego block. But it might be interesting to those just getting to know the idea.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Pragmatic Take On Our Use Of Data

In the course of our careers most of us have heard someone utter the misbegotten statement "The data speaks for itself." This is doubly irritating. First, we collect data because we want to find answers to particular questions, and use it as evidence to support particular claims about those questions. It is the claims that matter. On its own data could be used to support a variety of claims. Drawing in part from the following survey data: 6 American moms prefer Jif peanut butter, 3 prefer Skippy, and 2 prefer Nutella hazelnut spread, we could claim that American moms prefer Jif, or that Nutella is making inroads into the American market, or that our survey does not reflect what is known about the preferences of the population as a whole. Data is information. It is authors that speak. Also irritating is that the statement is grammatically incorrect. Data is the plural form of datum. Data wouldn't speaks, they would speak. A well-formed (but still misbegotten) statement, then, would say "The data speak for themselves."

I am more irritated by the former. In fact, I am not bothered by the grammar of "The data speaks for itself" at all. It is true that one meaning of data is that it is the plural of datum, but I don't believe that this is the way that most academics, or most people in general, use the term. When we talk about data, we are usually interested in its value for making statistical inferences. Making statistical inferences requires us to draw from a sample population large enough that we can presume that, within a finite degree of uncertainty, what we found in the sample is likely to be representative of some larger population. The key to such a "large enough" sample is that one additional or one less datum is unlikely to significantly change the inferences we make. We're not interested in data here so much as we are a dataset. The difference is a subtle one, and I acknowledge that we don't always use data in this context, and that this is a very simplistic discussion of data and statistical inference. And that I could be wrong. But I think the discussion is good enough for what I am concerned with here. A "large enough" dataset speaks as one voice, and hence using singular grammar is most appropriate.

Here are the goods: language is both full of grammatical rules and wonderfully inventive. In the case of data, we have two rules: data is the plural form of datum, and data is the shortened form of dataset. Pragmatically speaking, each rule is appropriate to a given community of speakers in a given context. Natural language is pretty good at recognizing what rules are appropriate to what context, and at inventing new rules when the context demands it. This comes, however, with a tolerance for things like ambiguity, error, and evolutionary change that technical discourses might find unacceptable.

I should add that part of the reason I wrote this post is because I think that, at least for the areas I am currently interested in (urban design, professional practice), we planning academics are too often the dowdy grammarian correcting unruly students. Research often demands that we define our terms, so that we can measure, question, and test with precision, but we shouldn't expect professional and lay communities to define the same terms in the same way. Further, I would argue that once in awhile the colloquial meaning of a term generated within a professional or lay community has a greater logic than the formal/technical meaning generated within our own academic world, regardless of whether such meanings are explicit or overt.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


WalkScore is a website intended for a public audience that will rank any address you chose based on the walkability of its surroundings. Its algorithm seems to be based on proximity to a variety of uses, kind of like online yellow pages. I'll reserve further comment, except to say that 1. WalkScore is a fun timewaster, and 2. The site cites honest-to-god JAPA articles on the benefits of walking.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Womanist-Consciousness and Planning Proficiencies

Recently I was asked to post something to this blog "to educate the planning community about womanist methodology." Sounds like a good idea at first, but, when I thought it over, the idea of going into detail about methodology in this blog simply did not appeal to me for a number of reasons. I have, however, attempted to provide some thoughts about womanist consciousness and how it differs from feminist consciousness. Feel free to take it or leave it.

Number one, the "planning community," if we can call it that, lacks a language and a consciousness for womanist methodology. No one, to date, has articulated this theoretical model/methodology in theory or practice, and, unfortunatley, this blogspace is simply not an ideal or safe place for starting a serious dialogue about womanist-talk or womanist methodology. Planners and students of planning have a limited and squeamish vocabulary for discussing and demystifying gender (albeit, this same critique could be applied to many disciplines and publics). Check out planning proficiences of feminist epistemologies, methodologies and frameworks by asking a planning academician or practitioner what s/he thinks about what feminists have said about planning and you'll see what I'm talking about. For those truly interested in learning more about womanist-talk and methodology (in addition to reading my dissertation when it is done), I suggest checking out the following authors/sources on womanism:

-Emilie M. Townes (my former seminary professor), Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil. Palgrave MacMillan, 2006.

-Nikol G. Alexander-Floyd and Evelyn M. Simien, "Revisiting 'What's in a Name?" Frontiers, Vol. 27, No. 1, 2006.

-Clenora Hudson Weems, Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves. Bedford Publishers, 2003.

-Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk. Orbis, 1996.

-Katie Geneva Canon, Katie's Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community. Continuum, 1995.

Secondly, getting agreement on womanist methodology is not an easy thing to do. The womanist methodology that I am working on is tailored to my dissertation, which is titled, "Troubling City & Planning Discourses: A Womanist's Analysis of Forty-Five Years of Planning in Springfield, Massachusetts (1960-2005)." I might use a different methodological approach for a different project. For my dissertation, I am using womanist consciousness as a hermeneutical-analytical tool to examine and explore planning texts and discourses about the local black community. My approach is grounded in historiographical methods of late nineteenth and early twentieth century black scholars who resisted white representations of black culture and life. FYI, I am an ex-clergywoman (by choice) and my training and experience in Christian theology, with a strong interest in black liberation theology and preaching, has informed this particular methodological stance (go figure!). Since I am still writing, I am somewhat protective of unfinished works, so what I have given you here is the most that I am willing to give out at this point. On the other hand, I do have a trusted community of friends and scholars, apart from my committee, that I talk with on a regular basis. I recommend that doctoral students create these types of dialogical communities for themselves (learned that in law school).

I will, however, offer a little more for the benefit of those who are curious about womanist-talk in general. The term "womanist" resurfaced in the 1980's with the publication of Alice Walker's book, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens (1983, Harcourt Brace). It is a term that comes out of black life and culture: a "womanish" girl is recognized by her elders or other community members, i.e., "She is so womanish!" A womanish girl is perceived as mature (serious) well beyond her years. She has knowledge/insight that other girls her age don't have. Often, she might be told, "You've been here before." Perhaps, a black girl/woman will embrace this consciousness about herself, but that is not a given, she must embrace and name it for herself. Typically, feminists do not enter into feminism with this socio-critical and/or prophetic self-awareness. The identities-practices of feminism, even in its third-wave/phase, are most accessible in the academy, are often legitimized with the privileges and statuses that are associated with academic and institutional lifestyles and rhythms. These feminist identities-practices are not readily available to those who are not privy to the academy for one reason or another. Being a feminist, therefore, is often validated by the possession and/or knowledge of abstract theory that finds its most vivid expression in the academy or institutional structures. Being womanist, and the subsequent acting out of womanist sensibilities as a matter of political engagement, is born and nurtured from within and with the organic knowledge and support of trusted others; it requires no formal organization whatsoever.

Well, hope this helps. Gotta go for now.

annalise fonza,
PhD Candidate
University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Friday, April 25, 2008

Planning and Software: Some Curiosity

Recently a first-year master's student here at (Georgia) Tech was trying to get information from her colleagues about what software they used and needed on a regular basis. I told her I was an Ubuntu convert (although I'm going to wait until at least the end of the semester to try out Hardy Heron, the most recent version of Ubuntu) and that, furthermore, I would be happy to give some sort of tutorial-slash-advocacy presentation at the beginning of the fall in regards to open-source software for end users, if she and any of the other master's students would be interested.

But that exchange got me to wondering how rare I am in turns of planning students, in relying on open-source software. I suspect that a lot of people use a little bit of open-source software (i.e. they run Firefox) while many fewer people make the leap to Thunderbird or OpenOffice, and fewer still do what I did a year ago and stop using Windows at home. It is not, as it turns out, the easiest thing to do, especially since open-source GIS options are very limited at this point. But there may be particular rewards in turning away from a corporate-controlled operating system (i.e. Windows; Apple has opened up its software a bit) and towards software that is much more heavily dependent on a community approach.

Anyway, I'm curious if anyone else out there has had any experience with a Linux-based operating system or has tried to branch out into using open-source software more often.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Calling all theorists

My cohort and I are revising the reading lists for our qualifying exams for planning and public policy. I know some people on this list are in joint planning/policy programs as well. I thought this might be a good forum to share reading lists with one another and get a sense of similarities and differences in thought across programs.

Rutgers' PhD reading lists (currently under revision by us) are available on the web.

We've realized that our lists are light in policy theory, a remanent of the merger of the two programs. That's why we're looking to accomplish two tasks:

1) add significant policy theory texts to the list
2) revise the planning and social theory list, particularly the former, to include more contemporary and diverse material.

I would appreciate if any of you would be willing to share your input with us. We'd be happy to share the results with you.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Chicago Is Going to Be Expensive, Part II: Chicago Is Still Going to Be Expensive

Those of you already on the PhD Bowling League mailing list (if you're not, here's the joining information) know that there's been a fair bit of discussion as to why student fees jumped from $125 for ACSP in Milwaukee last year to $295 for ACSP/AESOP in Chicago. My guess is that the fees are probably not going to come down. And even if they do -- well, there's still a price to pay to be in a very nice downtown area of a city enjoying a renaissance.

So here are my hastily-cobbled-together tips for minimizing the non-student-fee costs of Chicago:
  • and SideStep can both search many flight and hotel websites at once. Both also have a Search-by-Address option, so you can put in the address of the Marriott (540 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago IL 60611) and have the site return hotels nearby.
  • TripAdvisor has reviews of hotels. Take them with a grain of salt, though.
  • Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity all sometimes offer special deals (I think can as well) so if you're not having any luck at all, try doing separate searches. My Milwaukee reservation was an Orbitz deal. (Note: if you do this, and end up changing your schedule, getting refunded any extra days is not easy to do, since you have to go through the booking site, not the hotel.)
  • If you want to press your luck with Priceline: Bidding for Travel has lots of good advice as for bidding travel strategies. You will probably want to check Priceline's map -- it divides the city into "zones," and you are only guaranteed a hotel by zone, not by particular location. According to BfT's list of Chicago hotels, the Marriott is in the North Michigan Avenue - River North Area zone. Also, I believe Priceline bids are nonrefundable. If you want to get advice from the people on the BfT forum, read the forum guidelines very carefully before posting -- they have a particular format for communicating information about Priceline bids and they're sticklers for that format.
If anyone has Chicago-specific advice (say, the Chicago equivalent of Cheapo Vegas, which I have recommended to people attending APA this year), feel free to post them in comments.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

ACSP Student Travel Awards

A word of warning: Chicago is going to be expensive. For those of you planning or hoping to attend, note that the student registration fee for this one is $295, and will go up to $345 after June 2nd. I was able to make Milwaukee a little less painful last year by scoring an Orbitz deal on a nearby hotel, but I did a Kayak search yesterday and the cheapest I could find within a mile of the Chicago Mariott Downtown was $140 a night.

If you want to go, and you know you're unable or unwilling to finance this jaunt by yourself, you still have time to submit an application for the ACSP Student Travel Awards. Applications (link is in PDF format) are due Friday. Good luck.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Contemplating a World Without Planning Academia

Annalise has this odd habit of making me think. Her first post here was no exception. Namely: what if one ends up with a PhD in city and regional planning and does not become a professor of city and regional planning? To some degree, the psychological burdens of sunk costs apply: if you enter a program bound and determined to get a PhD because you don't particularly want to be a municipal transportation planner or economic development consultant (or, in my case, journalist) and end up, at the end of the road, deciding that the main thing that the additional three letters qualify you for isn't a good career move either . . . suffice to say you might at least end up with some sleepless nights wondering what those extra years of studying and lost wages got you.

Which sounds a little like pre-emptive self-pity (and if there's one thing graduate students have nailed down, it's self-pity) but is meant to prompt a thinking exercise: if tomorrow all the academic planning departments in the world were to be swallowed by a giant global-warming-enhanced land shark, what would you do? What would the PhD have taught you that a master's, or even just working in a planning-ish position, would not have? How would you take those new skills and apply them towards your goals? How would your goals change in the absence of a potential tenure-track position?

For myself I generally enjoy (a) developing ideas and then (b) communicating them to a wider audience, which is the main reason I keep blogging even at the risk of some future hiring committee doing a future Google search and then indulging in a future collective sigh of disappointment. Unlike Annalise, I started out with enough race-, nationality-, and class-based privileges, and have enough tendencies towards social cluelessness, that you generally have to hit me over the head with a thick plank to get me to notice exclusionary processes. Even so, the idea of a life without a planning faculty position leads me to wonder how else I would be able to get ideas out into the wider world, or even whether a planning faculty position is the best perch for such goals of communication.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Quick search tips

Particularly when exploring an area that is completely new, searching for literature can be a minor pain.  Some quick and maybe obvious tips:

1. Cross reference keyword searches in your library catalog with a search on Amazon or a similar site.  When you look up a source on Amazon, it suggests works that people who were interested in your source were also interested in.  I find this useful for two reasons - it returns potential sources without requiring you to identify the keywords most useful to your nascent search, and it offers a way of telling which potential sources are most valued.  This is useful mostly for books, of course.

2. Search the call numbers surrounding a potential source.  This will help identify thematically similar sources without having to rely on a keyword search.

3. Search article by article, issue by issue for the last ten years or so in the eight or ten journals that seem most likely to relate to your subject.  This seems labor intensive, but in reality does not take that much time if you pursue it in a workmanlike fashion.

4. Skim your most recent sources first.  Their bibliographies will both help you identify other, older sources and help you determine which older sources are most valued by your field.

No Safety Net: A Brand New Day for the PhD in Planning (For Those Who Are Awake)!

Over the summer, I was face-to-face with Dr. Ken Reardon (Cornell) at the PhD Symposium in Vancouver, British Columbia discussing my research and teaching interests. He responded, saying that it would be too bad for me if I did not gain a job teaching within a planning department. What a pity? I don’t think so. My womanist intuition immediately kicked in and resisted the victimization. I quickly replied: I am not the victim! The sense of pity for those of us who do not “fit in,” according to the powers that be, is one way for the planning establishment and/or authorities to assert supremacy and control when in reality they are feeling anxious and inadequate about loss and/or change. Five or ten years ago, such a downward gaze may have worked to silence me, or scare me into appeasing Beauregard’s concept of the modernist planning project. To that, I can’t help but remember what my five-year old niece said to me when she got out of bed, brimming over with the energy and anticipation of a brand new day: “I’m woke now!” Indeed, I am woke (e.g., awake), and feeling sorry for myself or others with similar perspectives and worldviews is simply not an option. We are here, and there are far too many academic opportunities and venues (that will not be afraid of these differences and challenges) to feel loyal or limited to any one master, so to speak. And, thus, it is a brand new day.

As I wind up my dissertation, if it happens that I am courted to fulfill my life’s work outside of planning, then so be it. It won’t be my fault; I am not hiding somewhere under a bush for nobody to see. But the philosophy that the PhD in Urban Planning will find the best “fit” in a planning environment does not jive with the rapidly changing global economy and socio-political landscapes in the U.S and beyond. The safety net is primarily for those who need it. On the other hand, there are those of us, who because of life’s circumstances, have been learning to walk on water and have faith when there was very little, if any, evidence that hope was on the horizon. We are out here on the water because we have to, and we know the risks. Yes, we may lose the opportunity to be “Professor of Planning,” but we may, indeed, gain greater mobility and complexity by not limiting ourselves and our interests to planning structures that do not, in practice, encourage and/or support a transdisciplinary approach to teaching and research. So, when the outlook looks dim to me and my faith in myself and others begins to falter, I keep the focus on my goals, which is the prize. What makes me think, I say to myself, that planning “authorities” will be able to implement the structural changes needed to welcome and appreciate people like me? Such an embrace takes skill and power not just rhetoric. Few planners and professors, as far as I’m concerned, have demonstrated the will and the ability to be truly inclusive, i.e., how well does your town or city planning department include those who have historically been left out of the process? How about your academic department?

Well, I’ll take my chances out here on the water and stand firmly in the belief that the key to a rich, vibrant career in academia with the PhD in Planning is being content with the experiences along the way that have given me the courage and the ability to meet whatever comes my way, because as its said in black folk tradition, I know that I know that I know!!

annalise fonza, PhD Candidate
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Department of Landscape Architecture & Regional Planning

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Query on Post-Submission Etiquette

Here's another opportunity to shed some light for doctoral students, if you're so inclined: What is the usual time frame in terms of finding out what's going to happen to a submitted article? My understanding is that it can take months to review and render judgment upon an article; what I don't know is how much time has to elapse before the impatient writer can fire off a polite query as to how the review process is going, and when he or she can expect to hear a verdict. Two months? Three? Six? Or are such inquiries seen as too pushy no matter when they come?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Donovan Finn on Workspace

I'm forwarding some thoughts this week from Donovan Finn, who was a classmate of mine at Illinois and now teaches at Hunter...

I'm probably no expert in this matter, what with still being ABD even after leaving school 9 months ago to "finish".  Still, I've made what I think/hope is a borderline insane amount of progress on my dissertation in the last 5 weeks or so.  At about the time I was really feeling like I was on a roll, our fearless leader sent me an email announcing the birth of this blog, and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to try and articulate some of the things that seem to have helped me hit a stride lately.  Hopefully this will be useful information for anyone at the proposal, data gathering or starting-to-write stage of their dissertation.  While my project is for a department of urban and regional planning, I think many of the tips apply regardless of your field or sub-field.

I'm well aware that everyone works in different ways and no two situations are exactly alike.  Some people write best in their pajamas.  Me, I need to be showered, shaved and dressed.  But that said, if even one person is helped through this arduous process by any of the dribble I'm sure to post here over the next few weeks, it will be time well spent.

In the interest of brevity, I've tried to break down the causes of my recent burst of progress into a few key topics.  This post will mainly concentrate on workspace, but others will follow (hopefully) soon enough.  So, on to this week's topic:


In my humble opinion, this is key, and something that you should start thinking about as early as possible, while you're still doing your coursework if it's feasible.  In previous eras of my writing life (field paper, proposal, and so on), I was working all over the place -- at the dining room table, in my spare bedroom/home office (shared with another dissertator), at a couple coffee shops, at multiple libraries, at my research office.  Each had pros and cons.  I won't get into them here - you can make your own list I'm sure.  But since moving to a new town where I have no office to go to, there are no good coffee shops, and the libraries are only passable and always crowded, I've started working exclusively at home.  Luckily we have a spare room that can be a dedicated office.  I have everything I need here and just hole up when I am writing - shut the door and try to pretend the TV, dirty dishes, and the rest don't exist.  I fyou don't have a good home office space of your own to work in (or if you just KNOW you don't work well at home), I'd suggest starting work now on finding a dedicated space to work.  Anyplace where you can dedicate yourself to working with as few distractions as possible and where you can store all (or at least some) of your books, notes and other crap without having to schlep them all over town every day.

While space is usually a premium on campuses, I find that some faculty occasionally have access to extra offices that they don't need at the moment but also don't want to admit this lest they lose the space for ever, so it just sits empty or full of a few file boxes.  If you suspect any of your committee members has such a space, ask them if you could use it for a while.  A friend once commandeered a rarely-used conference room in her department's annex for the summer to work on her final chapter and editing.  She didn't have web access, but sometimes the space and a locking door (she had a LOT of files) is more important than the amenities.  Plus, because it was in an out-of-the-way corner of the building, no one ever bothered her.  Another friend is particularly good at (and bold enough) asking faculty members about to go on leave if she can camp in their office for a semester.  I've been surprised by how many say yes, so if you can make this work, good for you.

I personally found that my research lab office was not an amazing place to work, though many people like to write at the same place they spend the rest of their time so they can keep all their stuff in one place.  This is a personal decision.  Personally I found it too hard to go to the lab every day because, even though I was only "officially" working on lab related work a couple days a week, it was too easy for people to come to me with questions, last-minute tasks, impromptu meetings, etc. and I never seemed to get that much writing done.  On the other hand, access to software, server space, physical storage space, a printer, and other tools can be great. Similarly, a coffee shop provides, well, coffee, but also the ability to put in some earplugs and concentrate on cranking out text while binging on muffins.  And home is convenient, comfortable, and has cable, but it's also comfortable and has cable.

As you can see, perhaps, there are no easy solutions to this problem, and everyone's needs are different.  Plus, it's not really realistic to expect that as a grad student (or even as a faculty member for that matter) you'll be able to secure a different dedicated space for each of your needs (a teaching office, a research office, a dissertation office, and so on).  On the other hand, if you can figure out what works for you early, secure some sort of space or even just a routine or a rhythm (library on Monday, home on Tuesday, coffee shop on Wednesday) around which you can plan your life, I think you'll find that it makes sitting down to write just that much easier.

Next week's topic: Making time to write

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Field Paper

In any doctoral program, some elements are likely to be more institutionalized than others.  Most schools, for instance, have a pretty good idea of how they would like you to form your dissertation committee.  In this entry I will present some notes on a task that is probably less emphasized, but is important nonetheless: the field paper.

A field paper is a synthesis of the literature in the particular area of planning in which you intend to focus.  It is more than an annotated bibliography and different than the literature review for your dissertation or proposal.  In an annotated bibliography you summarize the key points of relevant literature.  The field paper is more comprehensive, and a more coherent synthesis.  The field paper stakes the bounds of a particular area of study, placing literature in its larger context.  You should cover at least four elements: what is known and what is not in your field, what methodological approaches researchers have used to answer questions, how the questions and approaches to answer those questions have changed over time, and what issues and controversies are particularly timely now.  Where a literature review marshals sources to a specific research question, the field paper brings sources together to delineate the somewhat broader area in which you will work.  (My field paper had eighty-some sources, but a better paper for my area of interest might have included more.)

It is best to write the field paper early on in your doctoral studies, before you have progressed to exams.  In my case Lew Hopkins organized a seminar for me and a couple of my classmates at the University of Illinois.  If the PhD coordinator at your program does not organize a similar seminar, you might talk to your advisor about using a semester or two of independent study coursework to write your field paper, or better, self-organize a seminar with your class mates.

I'm on the job market this year (and possibly next year...), and my recent interviews have given me a new appreciation for the value of a field paper.  Originally I saw it as a good way of identifying useful dissertation topics (planners have long been concerned with X issue, but Y specific question remains unanswered...).  Now that I'm giving job talks, I have come to see its usefulness in establishing the value of my research to a larger audience.  I have to say that in terms of both scholarship and writing, my field paper kind of sucked, and in the end it didn't even relate much to my dissertation.  Nevertheless, because we doctoral students tend to hone in on our own research questions, sometimes more than we should, the experience of having to stake out the territory of a particular area of planning gave me a good sense of perspective.

ACSP Awards

In case you haven't heard about them, a few awards from ACSP were announced recently: Edward McClure Award for the Best Master's Student Paper (Deadline, May 1) and Barclay Gibbs Jones Award for Best Dissertation in Planning (Deadline, July 1). There are more award announcements on the ACSP website's Awards and Scholarships page.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Resources for Designing a Course

One of the things I'd like to do while I'm still a doctoral student, and assume I will have to do after having been a doctoral student, is design a course, top to bottom. At this point my main guideline for doing so would be the syllabi of courses I've taken, and while those will be useful, any texts or previously published guidelines or advice would also doubtless be useful. Can anyone point me to resources they drew upon while trying to create a course? Bonus points if it's planning-specific, but I would think it wouldn't have to be.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Climate Change as a Wicked Problem

I was sitting around with several other Tech PhD students Friday evening, as we are wont to do, discussing the best cars to drive in light of what we know about climate change (a friend of mine was in the market for a new car). We didn't get very far. The Civic Hybrid is balanced differently than is the more expensive Prius, and thus does not get as good gas mileage. A car powered by fuel cells has zero emissions but has been criticized as being inefficient. Electric vehicles, of which Tech has several, don't help much in states such as Georgia, where most of the electricity comes from burning coal. The biggest biodiesel advocate in our department (he uses waste oils) has taken the biodiesel sticker off his car, so as not to encourage other people to switch to biodiesel or ethanol. And so on and so forth.

I was particularly interested in this after a graduate of our master's program forwarded around a link to this blog post, which discusses the interim Garnaut report and concludes:

Here in the U.S., it's the follow on implication that ought to concern us most: that we'll need to slash our emissions much more drastically over the next decade or two than anyone in American political life is currently discussing... In comparison, I'm increasingly hearing science-based realism described as an 80-90% reduction in the U.S. climate footprint by 2030, partnered with massive effort to diffuse the resulting innovations around the globe.

Johann Hari makes a similar point, and further adds that if we think we can get out of this mess by buying Priuses and compact fluorescent light bulbs, we're kidding ourselves.

On the other hand, it is now relatively easy to find counter-arguments about the necessity to impose climate-change-related restrictions -- Alexander Cockburn has been making such arguments in The Nation (subscription only, but you can see a summary -- from a website, Hari would remind you, funded by oil companies) and the co-editor of Arts & Letters Daily is now compiling such skeptical arguements at Climate Debate Daily, side by side with arguments that climate change is certainly man-made, that it is only getting worse, and that drastic changes must be made yesterday.

As I was reading the various arguments, and getting discouraged about the ability to do anything about the problem at all, it appeared that climate change could be fairly accurately described as a "wicked problem" as defined by Rittel and Webber in their 1973 article.

To recap the ten aspects of wicked problems:
1) It is not possible to formulate the problem neutrally -- or as Rittel and Webber put it, "[E]very specification of the problem is a specification of the direction in which a treatment is considered."
2) There is never a good stopping point; it is always possible that greater investment of time or effort will yield a better solution.
3) There is no "right" answer, ever. How a particular group views a policy solution will depend on its interests and values.
4) Any solution, once implemented, will produce consequences for an extended period of time. It may turn out that the consequences make the solution worse than the problem; but there is no way to know these consequences ahead of time.
5) Every implemented solution is consequential.
6) There is no way to prove that every possible solution has been identified and considered.
7) Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
8) Every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem.
9) In implementing a solution, it is generally possible to explain away discrepancies. How discrepancies get held up as refuting the original hypothesis, or explained away, depends on the interests and values of the person doing the explaining.
10) Planners are responsible for the consequences of the solutions they choose.

It is hard to think of a more wicked problem than one in which every month's temperature is held up as proof or refutation; where to cite a cause (transport! Big Oil! consumerism! eating meat! no, it doesn't have anything to do with human behavior!) is to imply a political position and a value judgment; and where the consequences could mean drastic changes in quality of life, whether they are meant to solve the problem or ignore it. As I said to my master's-holding friend, an 80-90% reduction in emissions, as recommended above, could mean not having central heating or air-conditioning, in houses and office buildings that were by and large designed to take central heating or air-conditioning for granted.

Or to give another example of consequences: one of the comments on this article references the leadership of Jimmy Carter in establishing CAFE standards, but by 1980 the Carter administration was actually backing away from stricter CAFE standards for fear it would cost too many jobs in Detroit.

All that said, I am not sure how far thinking about climate change as a wicked problem gets us. The wicked-problem formulation insists that there are value judgments on all sides of the issue at hand, but some people (and I am not thinking of anyone in particular) will complain that saying "Human activity contributes to carbon-dioxide emissions, which contribute to climate change" is a value judgment is like saying "Species have evolved over time" is a value judgment. And even if we (whoever "we" would be) do agree that climate change is a wicked problem, how would we then solve it? This article suggests that citizen participation can help manage wicked problems; and yet there are suggestions such as Hari's, or this editorial's, that the answer to global warming is not citizen participation but the imposition of standards and legislation from above.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Planners and Catchers Report

Until recently I wasn't familiar with the backstory behind Dodgers Stadium, referred to casually by some baseball announcers as "Chavez Ravine." Chavez Ravine was actually the site of a Mexican-American community, demolished to make room for the new stadium in the 1950s. Both the PBS website on the 2004 documentary and the Wikipedia entry on the "Battle of Chavez Ravine" suggest that the clearance of the neighborhood actually began before Walter O'Malley and the Dodgers showed up; nonetheless, it is hard to de-link the stadium from the destruction that preceded it. Especially if you have some biases against the Dodgers to begin with. Ahem.

Which led me to thinking: if we judged baseball teams in terms of the effects of their placement on the urban fabric, which teams would we end up rooting for? I'm a Braves fan by family tradition, but I don't think the Braves would pass muster at all, given the effects of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and then Turner Field on nearby neighborhoods. Then there are what we could call "sprawl stadia" (Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, TX; the atrociously named Angels Stadium of Anaheim); ballparks that have been directly linked to urban revitalization (Oriole Park at Camden Yards; Jacobs Field in Cleveland; Petco Park in San Diego); no-longer-existent ballparks that became symbols of their declining cities (Tigers Stadium, Three Rivers Park in Pittsburgh); and ballparks that were lucky enough to have winning teams early, thus establishing themselves in the city fabric long before urban renewal hit (Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and, for at least one more season, Yankee Stadium).

My guess would be that Planner Nation would be split. The urban designers would end up rooting for the Giants, because from what I've heard AT&T Park works beautifully with the rest of the city. The urban historians can have the Cubs or the Red Sox. The community developers would back the Padres, if Petco Park actually lives up to its potential. The transportation lovers will take the Mets, unless the new Citi Field proves harder to get to by subway than Shea Stadium is. Also the new Nationals stadium might work, although I refuse to root for the Nationals on non-planning-related principle. And it may be that enough time has passed, and enough has changed, that someone can make the case for the Dodgers, the history of Chavez Ravine notwithstanding. But I suspect the Braves are a lost cause.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The wrong way to make friends and influence your city council

My guess is that bringing a gun to a city council meeting, aiming for the mayor and killing six people in the process will not help further this man's cause with the Kirkwood, Missouri City Council. Although, what ever his beefs were, whether they were related to taxes, property or services, are probably moot now.

Anyone who has been to a city council (or neighborhood, or county board, etc.) meeting knows that it is usually part plodding procedure, part innocuous discussion, and sometimes -- or usually, depending on what city you are a part of -- part passionate (and sometimes cracked) rants. This raises two issues for me, as a parson interested in good governance. First, how do we identify the sensible kernel in the crazy diatribe and incorporate that into our discussion? Because, if we skim away the off-putting rhetoric, I think we will usually find that the concern is reasonable. Second, how do we better listen to city residents so that they don't have to fly off the handle to feel like their concern is being heard? Because often I think the people who hit the roof often feel like the city/county/neighborhood is ignoring them and their problems.

It is not clear what issue this man in Kirkwood, Missouri had with the city council. And it is not clear that any kind of placating rhetoric would have deterred this unfortunate event. He had been barred for the council meetings for disruptive activity, according to the Associated Press. Of course this is an extreme case but listening to "the crazies" (as I affectionately call them) can help the city/neighborhood/county move beyond plodding procedure to pioneering discussions and possibly innovative solutions. In this case perhaps there should have been a discussion about mental health services (perhaps just for this man or perhaps mental health is overlooked in the city) but in other cases the discussion may be different.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Funny Thing, Argument

I was recently flying back home after an interview when I thought of Giandomenico Majone's book Evidence, Argument, and Persuasion in the Policy Process.  I first encountered Majone's book several years ago in Kieran Donaghy's course in planning theory, which was then the sole required course for doctoral students  at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  I didn't think much of Majone at the time, didn't give him much attention, and hadn't thought about him since.  In fact, I'm certain that the only reason I remembered it again after a number of years is because I found Majone's argument so irksome.

In Evidence, Argument, and Persuasion, Majone makes the case for reemphasizing the art of rhetoric in policy analysis.  He suggests that the kind of public debate to which we contribute tends to be not unlike the adversarial environment of legal proceedings.  Actors in public debates bring differing points of view, and differing preconceptions, in part based on their interests. Deliberation in such debates has less to do with formal techniques of problem solving, Majone argues, than with a process of argumentation - a process that involves (even conflates?) both factual statements and subjective evaluations. Evidence in argumentation involves bringing information to bear at a particular point in the argument, and must be evaluated not just for its factual reliability, but also for its relevance to the argument as well as for the subjective reasons behind why it is introduced. Part of E, A, & P is a criticism of what Majone calls "decisionism" - a technical/professional paradigm of rational analysis that policy makers inherited from economists and operations research. Majone claims decisionism is less well suited to environments with a plurality of values, and where plausible recommendations must be made despite factual uncertainty. The real trick, according to Majone, is learning to make good persuasive arguments, to distinguish good argument from bad, to make judgments between competing sets of evidence and competing value claims.  (I should say that this is what I remember of E, A, & P.  I've only looked back at my class notes, and I evidently wasn't a good note-taker.  Oops.)

Anyway, Majone's argument was irksome.  To describe planning as an adversarial process and rhetoric its central activity seemed to be very nice for those good at rhetoric: I wasn't sure how it would protect the interests of everyone else from those better able to control the process of deliberation.  If 'decisionism' had limits it at least made a play at objectivity.   Better to be screwed by a process that has some kind of objective standards, I thought, than by one that could be hijacked by slick talkers.

In the intervening years, I've come around to Majone's argument, at least to a degree. It still seems to me that Majone is a bit too idealistic in his advocacy of rhetoric and persuasion. But I think he does a good job of characterizing the environment of public deliberation that planners operate in.  Planning in the real world is more pragmatic, and more messed up, than we like to allow. While we doctoral students tend to focus on making knowledge that is hard and sure, Majone reminds us that it is less the making of knowledge so much as bringing knowledge to action that is central to urban planning.

By the way, Evidence, Argument and Persuasion in the Policy Process is in stock at Amazon.  It sells for $20.

Penn Goodness, and A More Accurate Warning about the ACSP Abstract Deadline

It's this Friday, the 8th. Not next Friday, the 15th, as my last post implied. I had the wrong countdown date on my Palm, on which I have become overdependent.

At 11 pm, for that matter. Keep in mind that because it's the joint ACSP/AESOP conference, the track listing is a little different than the track listings last year in Milwaukee.

Once you have your abstract in, or have made your peace with the idea that you are not getting your abstract in, you can turn your attention to the 2008 PhD workshop, which is August 14th-16th at Penn. (John Landis is the contact person; if you didn't get the flyer via the Bowling League email list, ask him.) If you are at the dissertation (or dissertation-proposal) stage, the ability to be able to talk to other people at the dissertation stage, and get information about the dissertation stage, and get information about funding the dissertation stage, could be pretty valuable.

As to funding: the cost of the Penn workshop is $400 ($200 if you're not staying on Penn's campus) plus travel expenses. ACSP has some limited financial aid available. My college apparently has a standard policy that if you're not presenting at a conference with conference proceedings, you're not getting money. I would guess that if it helps you get funding in the long run, the $400 is well worth it, but if it's not the easiest cash to scrape up, you have my sympathies.

Right now dissertation-stage students are somewhat underrepresented on this blog, since Fearless Leader Jason is past that stage (he's currently in the job-interview stage; wish him luck) and I'm still taking classes. Hopefully soon we'll have more people like Stephanie chiming in on the dissertation process.

Friday, January 25, 2008

You Have Approximately 21 Days, 23 Hours, and 9 Minutes To Submit your ACSP/AESOP Abstract

Where I work we have already had one email go around reminding us that ACSP, and thus the ACSP abstract deadline, is early this year, followed by shouts of consternation. I suspect that there will be at least one more round of email and shouts before we actually get the abstracts in, and in this we are not atypical. So consider this yet another reminder, in case you need it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Proposal’s Literature Review

This post is from Stephanie Ryberg, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.  Stephanie talks about writing the literature review for her dissertation proposal.  Her perspective is a good one: she is in the midst of things, and is working out how to tackle an important part of her proposal.

The Proposal’s Literature Review

After finally finishing coursework, I sat down about a month ago to begin seriously writing my dissertation proposal. In our program, we have to follow a fairly standard outline in structuring our proposals (review of relevant research, problem statement, objectives, methods, approach, data sources, significance…). I was able to write my research ideas clearly and succinctly. And although I need to revise it and add some depth, my advisor’s comments on the actual proposed research were generally positive.

The “review of relevant research,” though is another story. Writing the first draft of this section presented me with three significant issues. First, I have only about four or five pages to cover all of the necessary information. Second, I am studying a relatively un-researched topic that crosses a number of bodies of scholarly literature. Last, while my dissertation is using contemporary case studies, much of the justification for the project comes from a historical analysis of various approaches to neighborhood revitalization. For the first draft, I presented this history and then reviewed and critiqued contemporary literature—going well beyond my tight length limits. My advisor’s comments were succinct: synthesize all the information—history and existing research, present it as one narrative, and do it in five pages. This is proving easier said than done.

My research is a qualitative project that combines historical analysis and methods with something mimicking a policy analysis of contemporary case studies. The research crosses a few (often disconnected) sub-fields of city planning (historic preservation, community development and organizing, neighborhood revitalization). It inevitably must also address some fairly heated issues such as gentrification. All of this creates a complicated framework, which I am sure cannot be unique to my project, and makes grounding the proposed dissertation in existing research extremely complex.  

Of course I am encountering the usual issues of selecting the most important and relevant research or points of history to include. In addition, we are expected to write and revise our proposals while taking qualifying exams and submitting a journal-worthy paper (part of our program requirements). Finding time to balance all of these high-priority things and dedicate sufficient thought to each seems daunting from the outset and anxiety-inducing throughout.
My goal seems simple: use a historical narrative, combined with some of my own previous research, to show that the phenomenon I am investigating exists and then illustrate through a critical review of literature that the issue is understudied (at best) or ignored. When I try to do this, though, my writing becomes muddled and something resembling panic that I have no idea what I am doing sets in (the latter is definitely not a productive step in breaking my writing block). I have great support for my work and approach (including undertaking qualitative, humanities-based research), but continuously feel that I am taking a shot in the dark with every draft of this portion of the proposal. At the moment, I clearly have no answers to my own dilemma (except a healthy dose of “stepping away from it” procrastination). Perhaps one day—a couple of months from now—after I’ve revised and revised I will be able to look back and offer advice. But maybe not; maybe this is just one of those things we have to go through and the only solution is to just work at until it works. I guess only the coming weeks will tell…

Advice for Would-Be Planning Doctoral Students

This entry was written by Jessica Doyle.  Jessica is a doctoral student in city and regional planning at Georgia Tech.  If I remember correctly her research concerns public transportation investments and local economic development. 

Blog Entry: Advice for Would-Be Planning Doctoral Students

Martin Kreiger recently complained that there are far too many top-10 lists out there, even for potential or actual doctoral students in planning. So I am not going to present you with the Ten Things You Really Ought to Know Before You Start a Planning PhD Program. Besides, one of those ten things ought to be "What is planning, anyway?" which you probably already know. (I got my undergraduate degree in history, worked as a journalist, and entered my doctoral program without having completed, or even started, a master's in planning first. I am weird.)

The first thing you should do, if you are considering applying, or already applying, to PhD programs in planning, is read "Should You Go to Graduate School?" It was written by Tim Burke, who teaches history, not planning, but is nonetheless a wise person to listen to (or a wise person whose blog to read). When he says, "Two years in, and getting out will be like gnawing your own leg off"? Listen to him. One caveat: I think -- for my own sake, I hope -- that unlike a PhD in history, a PhD in city planning (or city and regional planning, or community planning) will qualify you to venture outside the academic world, if you so choose. One of the reasons why I love planning as a discipline is that even very theoretical discussions don't lose sight of the practical: toss around "advocacy planning" and "critical planning theory" all you like, but in the end you're still talking about how to get a roomful of people, some of whom have more power and wealth than others, on a particular zoning code or infrastructure project. But everything else about the totality of a PhD program applies.

If you've gone and read that, and then gone through the PhD Comics archive, and you're still eager to do this doctoral thing, then I would look at your potential schools in terms of a series of matching areas. Here are the matching areas I would consider the most important:
  • The balance of professional training versus academic training. At my program (Georgia Tech), the master's program comes first, the PhD program a distant second. This has definite advantages, in that both the faculty and the majority of the students have to keep at least one eye on the practical, and I will finish with a number of friends working planning jobs. This is not a small thing, if your career plan is to be teaching people who want to work planning jobs. But it can mean that PhD issues get addressed more slowly than issues at the master's level. If this worries you, you may want to focus on schools with a larger PhD-to-master's ratio, with a longer history of churning out PhD graduates who get teaching jobs.
  • Outreach. Some schools will absolutely love you if you want to spend your summers on hands-on projects in low-income areas. Some will not. Some advisors will. Some will not. (Some hiring committees will, and some will not, but by that point your program should be able to help you.) If you're more interested in outreach and service, and consider research as a step along the way rather than an end in itself, then you very much need to find a school that will reward and nurture you for those goals. My guess (since I am particularly slack on the service front) is that professors with a long activism history (Ken Reardon, for example) will be more welcoming of outreach- and service-oriented students than those who have concentrated more on quantitative research problems. But it's going to depend not just on your future advisor but his or her relationship to the rest of the department and the university. Be very upfront, as best you can, about your goals, so that the program can take that into account when deciding whether you're a good fit.
  • International focus. By this I mean two things, which may not be of equal importance to you. One is how well international students are supported in the program. My personal bias is that having people with experiences from other countries is an asset, but not every program's focus will include as much room for international students. The second is how much research from outside the US is incorporated into research and teaching within the program. If you think you might at all go abroad for your dissertation research, start bringing that up now, since different programs (and faculty) will have different levels of experience at helping you get your hands on the money you'll need. You do not to be arguing about your potential funding sources, and why what's going on in Europe or Thailand is relevant anyway, during your dissertation proposal.
  • Political orientation, in terms of the virtues or drawbacks of economic growth, or positions on equity issues versus an emphasis on rational planning. Put it this way: what gets your future advisor, and the faculty as a whole, fuming? Sprawl? Ugly strip malls? The stagnation of inner-city areas? Climate change? Overdependence on cars? Destruction of historic buildings or areas? They may be annoyed by all of the above, but you want smoke out of the nostrils and ears, if possible. Then look for those things that make smoke come out of your nostrils and ears. If you get a match, it will make future research directions, not to mention awkward small talk, much more bearable.
  • General comfort-level issues. To some degree this last is true of any academic department, since you will be spending a great deal of time with these people. However, if you find a good academic match, it might be tempting to put these issues aside. Do not. If you are gay, you ought to be able to mention your partner in casual conversation. If you are a practicing Christian, you ought to be able to mention your church in casual conversation. If you tend to make jokes when you are nervous, as I do, you need at least one person near you who will laugh or say something ridiculous back. The faculty at your program, especially your advisor, are going to have some control over your employability for the rest of your life, assuming you finish. You do not want to find yourself ill at ease for three years or more; it will not help.

    My final piece of advice, if you are choosing between different planning programs, is this: Find out how long it takes people to finish. In March 2005, after I got my acceptance, I had an hour-long chat with a very nice and intelligent guy who worked with my then-future advisor. He said lots of good things about Tech's program. What he did not say, or perhaps what I did not hear, is that it tends to take people a while -- and indeed, almost three years later he has not finished, or even submitted his dissertation proposal. My own tenure is probably not going to do my program's time-to-completion rate any favors. In my case I would have chosen Tech anyway, and I have no regrets, but if you have the luxury of deciding between more than one program, and you do not intend to spend a decade in this process, get as much data as to time-to-completion as you can.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Welcome fellow scholars!

I am starting a blog as a means of sharing information about the work of getting a PhD in urban planning, as well as what students should expect from a career in academia.  Look for entries from a variety of talented students and professors in the coming weeks.
What I have in mind here is a blog with short postings by a wide variety of doctoral students and faculty about things authors have learned, advice they give, or articulate-but-as-yet-unanswered questions they might have about how to do what we do.  This blog is oriented both towards sharing our experience and providing practical information on workaday aspects of our career path.  I hope that this will be a useful and occasionally irreverent source.  One advantage of a blog format is that entries should be short and informal - and hence not too time consuming to write.
If you find this blog useful, I hope you consider posting.  Blog entries could cover topics beginning with advice for students considering applying for a doctoral program, carrying through to challenges in getting tenure.  Entries can be ten to a few hundred words, either credited or anonymous.  Email me if you're interested/willing, and I'll add your email to DSUP's author permissions, allowing you to post as needed.  Or you could simply send me a post and I'll make sure that it gets published.

Jason Brody