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