Why are you here, then?

Most of urban social science is values. But, when decisions no longer solely remain the remit of exceptionally upheld scientific and rational derivatives, one of the questions that arises is: who is making the value judgments? Truth is no ones property and no one has the grasp over absolute reality; it eludes theorists who take positions in terms of its existence and ultimate attainability—a source of much contention, that years later students of social science continue to debate over and spend time discussing. To be clear, neither is this an argument against the positions taken by social scientists with respect to reality viz., objectivist, constructionist, subjectivist, nor is it meant to disparage the worth of pertinent discussions which expand and hone students’ research abilities, while holding them firmly to the ground; humble, in face of certain uncertainty.

What this argument is against, is the lack of agency one gets assigned for having taken a position with respect to reality, and then a stand to articulate it in no uncertain terms. The problem questions in social science cannot be pigeonholed, not in terms of their scope nor in relation to their scale; the sole reason for defining scope and scale is for manageability and retaining focus. While everyone has nationalist and patriotic affiliations, acknowledgement of the globalized interconnected world we live in shouldn’t escape us. But little did I know that it does—by a huge degree. With it, escapes the acknowledgement of the root causes of individual and collective agonies of the “other“—one who doesn’t belong here and yet, is an observer of systemic and structural subversion that implicates all lives.

Why do we have to submit our wills to creators of institutional structures that we have no option or opportunity of escaping? What makes us believe in the power of incrementalism without having experienced leapfrogging? Why does our optimism and belief in inter-system change blind us to the pessimism and distrust of those who may be less privileged?

If calling out progenitors of global turmoil and terror requires a national or patriotic affiliation, then there exists no recourse to those who crumble under its injustice. If belonging to a piece of land confers the ability to stand up against the excesses committed on it, and from it, then perspectives of those alien to the land are of no consequence to their own subjugated existence. If being distrustful of apparent incremental systemic changes occurring from within existing political and institutional structures requires justification through patronage, then there exists none, for anyone, not even for those who think they possess it.

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Ideological Convictions and Self-Marketing

Inasmuch as distinct doctoral education might be from other professional degrees, the question of self-marketing remains vital for students to answer as they enter the job market. Assuming that an academic position is being sought, self-marketing needs to be based on the scholarly milieu that one wants to associate and work with upon graduation, analogous to the practical specialization one wishes to pursue as a masters graduate. This in turn will depend, predominantly, on the ideological convictions implied in the student’s dissertation. After all its a doctor of “philosophy” degree, something often ignored in a rush to expound and deliberate on—using precious energies and expensive credit hours—the methodologies that will be employed and data that will be used. In fact, rightly so, because without those two aspects a research is as complete as brilliant ten page proposal. Yet, the philosophy aspect has far reaching implications in determining the academic community a PhD student will eventually and decidedly belong to, and it is worth a conscientious student’s while to reflect on this aspect of his or her dissertation. After all, as intellectuals-in-training, PhD students need to honest with themselves about what worldview they think needs to be advanced and what values they stand by in administering this advancement through their future research.

In reflecting on this, I realized that the scholarship that I tend to naturally align with as a consequence of my ideological convictions perhaps, remains staunchly opposed to perpetuating the status quo. I guess the value-laden discipline to which I belong affords me the ability to situate myself as I please and I can only imagine how rigidly directed, in terms of implied values, the process of research would be in an engineering domain. But I can only imagine.

I found the prospect of being able to effectively market myself, as unfortunate as that phrase might sound, problematic within the discipline of planning. I had written earlier, wondering why planning practice was incapable of attempting to recognize and engage in cross-scale issues that clearly have a bearing on future of cities, and I found, as I studied further and after being serendipitously pointed towards by my PI,  that the epistemological orientation in a discipline that I was seeking was not far off from the world of planning–Urban Geography. Although I say this, I do not find myself situating in either one of these disciplines purely exclusively, especially given the level of overlap and concurrence between these seemingly distinct fields. Nevertheless, an excursion in reflecting on the possibilities is nothing short of exhilarating.

There are a number of ways to distinguish between urban planning and urban geography as one might imagine, and in my mind, a good distinction can be made on the basis of corresponding epistemologies—the nature and scope of knowledges that each discipline holds. In this sense, urban planning is mainly concerned with examining the best way to organize material and immaterial aspects of ‘the urban’ that enable a good life. This leads to analyses that may be focused on design and operation of urban infrastructure services like transport to satisfy certain objectives–pertaining to economic or ecological ends for example. Some other analyses may be focused on investigating the ability of new models of governance or principles of design to be applied in analyzing and reforming urban cityscapes. In contrast, urban geography, while debatable, views the gamut of normative ideas on cities and their ontology within a broader landscape, where ‘the urban’ is considered in terms of its relationship to different critical aspects that are known to shape or guide the evolution of ‘the urban’. Of these critical aspects considered by geographers, ecology or environment has remained the dominant one, yet new tools like GIS are enabling geographers the ability to include wider aspects into their analyses like the political economy, social physics, and systemic approaches to study and gain a greater understanding of ‘the urban’.

If I downloadcan use a provocative analogy to describe this more simply; in my mind, urban planning attempts to organize and engage with aspects related to ‘the urban’ within a proverbial box, while urban geography endeavors to understand and examine the influences on the box, as well as on its insides, in reference to where the box is placed, how its placed and what forces are acting on it. It follows that the ability of urban planning research to enable a more pervasive and radical change within its boundaries (that it is incapable of navigating, i.e. across scales), can possibly be enhanced by encouragingly drawing on the views accumulated by urban geography about the box from the outside.

In conclusion, tying this contention to my initial point on marketing oneself to an intellectual milieu that one identifies with by virtue of (either implicit or explicit) ideological convictions in ones dissertation, I can only endeavor, as a PhD student, to achieve a higher level of understanding about my own research topic, as well as my convictions to make the right decision of marketing myself as honestly as I can once I graduate. I say this because I view the scope of urban planning and of urban geography as distinct from one another, which in abstract ideological terms translates to the former unwittingly embracing impositions that generate (a subset of) outcomes for the benefit of the few (imposers), as opposed to zooming out in the latter’s view, away from the incumbent frames of reference, to overcome prevailing impositions by exposing them and offering more acceptable alternatives for the greater good.

Problem of Modernist Legacies in Urban Planning

The question of multi-scalar or cross-scale implications of decisions taken at the supranational and international levels is seldom ever a topic of discussion or concern in planning practice or, at least in the classes I’ve taken. For instance, it is hard to find an objective debate pertaining to Transnational Trade Partnership (TPP) and its implication for the urban society, particularly among practicing planners–well, at least the ones I know. This isn’t a consequence of choice that planners have consciously exercised, to select an urban issue or aspect to be involved with, but I think its a failure of the profession which essentially relegates its activities to a single-scale of analysis–the ‘urban’.

The other aspect is lack of integration of intra-urban aspects; impact of water use on carbon emissions? impact of spatial structure on social cohesion? I’m sure these topics are of consequence and I wonder why they’re relegated to academic communities. One reason could be that planning as a profession originates from modernist tendencies of reductionism and fragmentation of the urban (read Splintering Urbanism by Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin).

The modernist legacy in planning profession continues to be questioned and debated; how legitimate is it when the fall of modernist projects like the Pruitt-Igoe have long indicated modernism’s demise within planning? There are of course differing and often valid opinions on this argument, but in either case, the question of the profession’s validity remains unconvincingly answered, especially in practice, where the underlying models or ‘ways to do things‘ haven’t changed much. I think my answer to a question on this subject on Quora explains why planning might still remind us of its modernist origins. Interconnected urban problems are resolved through piecemeal projects, their efficacy being predicated on cost-benefit measurements, while discounting the social and environmental externalities that may arise in the future. One would argue that these aspects have been covered within planning decisions, especially after the social and environmental movements of the 70’s. But the substance that these value-laden aspects contribute to urban affairs gets consumed within the fragmented framework. Previously, a transportation project wouldn’t have involve environmental or social impact assessments, now it does. But the entire exercise still has a neatly ‘contained’ characted with components of social and environmental analyses simply added on to justify the project’s legitimacy.

What I’m suggesting here is that we ought to care about the implications of ‘contained’ or piecemeal efforts across disciplinary and sectorial boundaries, and not least across local, regional, national scales and above. I guess this can be considered as the academic version of the concern I had pointed out earlier for overcoming our reductionist tendencies when it comes to dealing with social and environmental issues. 

Policy Position Paper

This policy paper critiques the implementation approaches adopted in the Energy Assurance Planning (EAP) grant sanctioned by the Department of Energy under the auspices of American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009. This legislation, popularly referred to as the stimulus or recovery act, was proposed by the Obama administration to overcome the economic recession and reinstate the American economy. The policy addresses several aspects of the economy, including housing, transportation, education, social security etc. This paper focuses on the energy component of the legislation and endeavors to critique the implementation of policy actions by states and localities where the grant money was received.

The Rallying Cry

This post will go off-topic and perhaps set the tone for subsequent posts on this blog. I would like to admit that the issues I talk about here, have so far been ignored by me in favor of remaining within standard, conventional boundaries of academic blog writing–something that is worth criticizing knowing what I know from my own research.

In earlier posts on this blog, I endeavored to mention the relevance of consumer vigilance when it comes to local energy transitions, the problem we face with framing our sciences the way we do, and our self-defeating fascination with technological solutions as a global society, irrespective of the nature of the problems we face. These posts in general represent some of the topics that have led me to hold deep contempt for the world we live in. As I read more, I grow more contemptuous of some scholarly work that clearly seeks to preserve the status quo–pertaining to social, political, economic, technological and environmental aspects of our life on Earth. Simultaneously, I’ve grown more and more in favor of alternative arguments, scholarly and otherwise, that acknowledge that things are not  ‘going right’, and that we are reaching a point, until inaction persists, where our natural and societal Earth systems will flip into total chaos. The kind of chaos that none of the movies in Hollywood have been able to capture.

Crises in Earth systems are articulated in the latter scholarship that I am in favor of as “windows of opportunity” to create meaningful change. But knowing what we know from history and our own experience, not only are efforts to bring such radical change inherently uncertain in terms of their eventualities, they are also exposed to vehement subversion by those who seek to preserve the status-quo. The crises of our time include some of the most pressing issues, issues that we see erupting on social media championed by some of those who are, more often than not, single issue activists and social justice seekers. Generalists, like me, have a hard time articulating recommendations for such issues knowing that the change being sought, praiseworthy in and of itself, will create little to no radical outcome in the directions being desired. Almost all the issues we’ve spent our time and effort on, from economic inequality, to police brutalization, to corporate hubris and exploitation across public and private spheres, while extremely important, are being engaged with within the paradigms or frames of reference that created them. It is no wonder that, as a society, we are far away from grasping at the elixir of radical transformation in every single issue which asymmetrically favors the minority over the majority–across race, income, and gender, and other issues which haven’t yet permeated our social justice dictionaries but are just as important.

I argue that we are operating in an ontological culture of reductionist tendencies. To put that more simply, we have factionalized ourselves, dividing among ourselves the issues we care about, not because we care less about things beyond the purview of our radar, but because of reductionist tendencies all around us. Let’s take for example a highway infrastructure project, which seems to have been a flavor in DFW metroplex in perpetuity. There is an environmental assessment which invariably gets passed. But the intensity of energy or water consumed by the project is seldom ever considered, not during project implementation, and certainly not thereafter. In fact, the lack of cross-sector communication and the need to synergize across water, energy and transport sectors was an important closing remark made at the end of the 13th Annual Buildings Science Expo held in February at UT Arlington. It follows that we have been conditioned at the very least to have a distaste, and at the very best, contempt for complexity. Ironically, this is despite the fact we are as a species biologically, neurologically and psychologically most complex. We have effectively forgotten that we are designed to work through complex issues, allowing those who have set the hegemonic power structures in place to manage us, more easily than one would think is possible. The tactics employed by our overlords to make this possible are best described by keywords which have permeated alternative media; indoctrination, manipulation, white-,pink-,green-washing et al.

In a time when almost all of us are aware of the pseudo-dichotomy of the political process in every country on Earth, particularly those which claim to be “democratic”, we have to realize that our efforts will remain unsustainable, and more likely to be cracked-down upon without immediate or subsequent gains to be had, if we do not find a common ground; a common rallying cry that unites our siloed issues in an integrated, cogent and coherent manner, that is able to reflect the complexity of our collective convictions without washing over our individual issue areas. To borrow words from former anarchist socialist Gavin Mendel-Gleeson, only at least an equal amount of complexity can ever have a chance of securing radical change against power structures that are themselves complex. Its only that we have been taught to reduce them and embrace pieces of it, not the whole, and the sooner we realize this the better.

End of semester tales and reasons for doing research

This was by far the most eventful semester. Not only did the new college, with the school of Architecture and school of Urban Planning, become official, there is new faculty being hired and new spaces constructed ahead of our physical move in Fall. While things are hopefully moving in the direction as they should be, the same cannot be said about the PhD student group that we are hoping will become official by Fall. As senior cohorts come close to their graduation and the new ones focusing on their coursework and seeking out limited number of research and teaching positions, it wasn’t wise of us to assume enthusiastic support at this point. This hope is now postponed to Fall, when incoming students may be eager to join the group and help bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm.

What made this semester more eventful was the verbal approval of my committee members on my proposed research topic. So, summer will have me drafting and redrafting my proposal until it gets me approved for the field exam by end of this year. Thankfully, the timing also fits as I finish the last leg of my coursework over Fall, just in time to submit the proposal, gain approval and secure candidacy.

But as I consider the list of chapters in my proposal, and the sections and subsections that go into it, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed. Having discussed this “natural” pre-proposal writing feeling with my supervisor and a senior doctoral candidate (so helpful!!), the task seems less overwhelming, but its still just as intimidating. I guess that will abate as I get things off of my to-do list of chapter—more on this later.

As these tasks get listed down on my list of things to take care of, and as I move towards the point where the  probability of reaching “valley of shit” increases (hope not!), I keep thinking about the larger ‘purpose’ of research—you know, besides the opportunity to write “Dr.” in front of my name and wear a silly robe in front of my loved ones. Having settled on a topic that is narrow enough to be completed within realistic time frame and interesting enough to hopefully hold my interest, I think its a good exercise to consider why research matters, at all.

I don’t think anyone who seeks a PhD solely for respect and acclaim ever ends up completing it in earnest. I may be wrong, but to gain either material or social credits for something that one has toil for for several years seems ridiculously unsatisfactory, if not self-defeating. It has to be more personal. Why does it matter that I make a valuable contribution to the existing body of knowledge in my field of interest when its physical embodiment (the dissertation) is only going to be read by my mother and my committee members ?

For me, my interest in research is an outgrowth of my ideological convictions, To put it simply, there are correct ways to do things (design cities, build infrastructure, enable democracy etc.) that have the potential to positively influence us all, but its something, at least I, don’t see happening in the real world. Research, in my mind, is one way to expose this misdirection in implementation of knowledge away from fundamental first principles, of life, or the world, of our very existence. It follows that if a unique contribution to our knowledge of life, the world, and our existence matters, then its articulation must be independent of who brings it forth. If new knowledge is destined to be added to our existing knowledge, it will be, regardless.

The researcher then is a channel for this destined knowledge to be brought forth, not necessarily its primary source. The things we learn, even while not consciously accessing, evaluating and juxtaposing others’ ideas or arguments into/against our own—as we usually do in literature reviews—lets us think how we think and do what we do. While this may seem like distancing oneself from ones own work, it isn’t. Rather, its an objective reconsideration of why contributing knowledge matters at a personal level and what reasons must it take to belong to a community of academicians/researchers/graduate students who do this—for the right reasons. This idea, as I sat discussing with my PI yesterday, was something I must have perhaps picked elsewhere from art and creative writing domains, but it makes sense to me and seems relevant for academic research work as well.

Academia in the cold

Last week it snowed and everything froze in Arlington, Texas. This week is a repeat. This time, however, the university did not close down the library. I am thankful for that. Although, I must admit that its nicer to stay home than go to the library in the cold even if it is a few blocks away. Previous week, my research went into cold storage and as soon as it warmed up earlier this week, my brain froze (not literally!).

Besides preparing for and attending an interview, I constantly procrastinated on the pre-proposal proposal, which is a topic for another post. I am also helping organize the informal colloquiums that some of the senior Ph.D. students had initiated. Going forward, the idea is to formalize Ph.D. student representation through these colloquiums as a means of strengthening faculty-student relationship within the new college uniting the School of Architecture and School of Urban and Public Affairs. While several outcomes on this are awaited, it would be too early to comment on the plans. The bottom line being that my brain froze because nothing I did the previous week was related to my research. It was a pretty anti-academic week, weather-wise and personally!

Just to overview some of the more academic tasks still staring down at me, here’s a laundry list:

  1. Two pager on dissertation proposal — reverse outline
  2. Literature review on Urban Energy Systems — revised manuscript plan
  3. Policy brief on the PSoF paper for class assignment and (tentatively) for Scholars Strategy Network membership
  4. In class presentation (was this week, postponed to next because of snow-bummer!) and discussion
  5. In class discussion lead on the topic of environment and energy policy
  6. Term project in GIS class (I haven’t even started on this!! @##@$%$)

It doesn’t seem much, right ? (I am convincing myself, not you!). Although I can smell the Spring break in the frigid wintry air blowing unnecessarily at 12 mph, I don’t think it will be much of a break for me. God Help Me!