Friday, March 22, 2013

Do NOT send emails or memos such as these...(now with further background 26Apr13)

{The Scholar's Survival Manual, this blog, is a continuation of my other blog, This Week's Finds in Planning. I will repost here a few of my recent This Week's postings. The book, The Scholar's Survival Manual that will be out Fall 2013 is drawn entirely from This Week's postings. I am now restricting This Week's Finds in Planning to city planning, cities, and social science}.

Preliminaries: The contents of the emails I received were not problematic. Rather, it is their tone and hostility that strike readers as curious. I should note that when I received these emails, I was not at all offended. I just wondered what was going on in the students' minds that they wrote them. I became clinical and professional, and my responses never tried to fathom their intentions. But others read these emails, and indicated that they were hostile and outlandish. I am not sure about hostile and outlandish, but others are quite sure.

26April13: Now it is months after these emails. From further information, I have a better feel for the background, at least for the second email below. The original instructor was not available, and the circumstances around that were disturbing to students. Moreover, it was believed that there was no syllabus for the course. And my preliminary first draft syllabus was quite rough, since I had been asked to teach the course late in the game. Over the next ten days I revised it several times, and that was not comforting I gather. Later it was discovered that the reading was not central to classwork, even though I do believe it was crucial to many of the projects. Students felt that the university was not attending to them, even as they were spending their own money and time. And I had sent them emails earlier in the semester which some found uncomfortable, while others found them comforting. In sum, there was lots of turmoil, and the note to me was a reflection of that. Its tone was unfortunate, since I could have been much more comforting if I had known the origin of the problem, and that tone was inappropriate in any case (I am told by my colleagues).  There is another lesson here. When you receive a communication, especially email, that is somehow off, it's best to be professional, pay attention to the issues, be anodyne. That won't solve the problem, but at least you have been serious. Later, and informally, find out what's going on. My intuitions about what to do had been honed by watching student discomfort at other institutions at other times.

1. I have edited the email below to get rid of identifying material. I responded to it in an anodyne manner, dealing with each issue matter-of-factly. It did seem a bit problematic in its tone (the last line was curious), and when I showed it to experienced colleagues, they suggested that the writer was being too-smart-by-a-half in his praise and was in effect acting out his anger. They might well be right.

If you are fortunate, whatever you send to your boss or your instructor, will be answered in a matter-of-fact fashion, and your improper decorum will be ignored or not noticed. (Your professor may well have dealt with other such messages, seen the same concerns, and figured that this was just one more of the same student confusion. Professors spend a good deal of their time mentoring students, so nothing surprises them.) But you may not be so fortunate, and you will lose credibility. So, don't lay it on so thick, say what is on your mind more directly, and realize that even the most obtuse professor has acute friends. Also, don't address your instructor as "Professor." You can say "Professor Krieger," or "Dr. Krieger" (I can't stand the use of Dr. in this context, but others find it OK), or just have no address, since this email.

I definitely cannot speak for our whole class, but I can speak for a few of us who are somewhat confused about taking another course. You have helped us all figure out what our thesis topic will be through our introduction to "forced evolution" and through your 40 years experience in asking tough questions that get results. You have instructed us in how to do a proper literature review and what kinds of publications are appropriate for each of us on an individual basis. Further, you have, and will be, instructing us in how to write a good paper - providing many references on that topic. You have changed the way we approach reading, making us much more effective and efficient, and teaching us how to determine if it's a good piece of scholarly work.

With all this in mind, I thought that this put our entering-class far ahead of earlier doctoral entering-classes at this point in the program. As for the next course and the one we are taking now, the biggest difference in our syllabi is that they are doing three literature reviews to our one, and their paper is a little longer. Otherwise they are going through the same forced evolution to focus them on a topic as we are. I have attached the two syllabi that you sent us with highlights to show were I am coming from.

I realize there are some differences in the two courses right now, but I did not think they were significant enough for us to take the second course and repeat 90% of what we are doing right now.

But, I'm sure you will explain it to me.

2. Another such interchange: I received a letter from prospective students who were to begin their second required doctoral level course, in a professional doctorate program in our school. The letter lies below my response; it is quite wonderful. FIRST IS MY RESPONSE, THEN THE LETTER, AND THEN SOME REFLECTIONS ON MY RESPONSE


Thank you for your letter. It itself is very rich and I use it below extensively. Let me respond to the letter now, and then respond again after I have thought more about your concerns.

1. There need not be any uncertainties in the course due to who will teach or the reconsideration of the degree.  At USC a course is given by different instructors. No professor "owns" a course.  As for the Price School's considerations of the degree, those will take some time, and you will be through with much of your coursework before they make it into the catalog.
2. You cannot take an elective in place of this course. It is a required course for first year students. [I have always been under this impression. If I am wrong, please correct me.] Programs have such requirements to ensure a shared base of knowledge among a cohort of entering graduate students.
3. As for the relationship to previous course, my current thinking is that while that is a course about ideas, this course is about concrete institutions and history. I cannot imagine that you won't use those ideas in thinking about the materials of of our course.
4. I am not sure what you mean by autocratic/hierarchical vs. inclusivity/collectivity. No organization or firm, no matter how hierarchical its structure, works if it is really autocratic, and the best literature suggests that the powers of the weak lie in how they quietly defy the hierarchy (Michel Crozier, James Scott). (That's also true for totalitarian and autocratic states.) As for inclusivity and collectivity, it is almost always the case that there are leaders and an organizational articulation that is not always inclusive or collective, in part because institutions are pushed forward by external forces.  Planning and policy paradigms, at least of actual places and ongoing institutions, depend on figuring out the interplay of the extremes you have sketched. Your big problem always is how to get all the Israelites to move as a people, so to speak. You might enjoy Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution, my Entrepreneurial Vocations (1996) or books on Moses as as leader (by Aaron Wildavsky).
5. What I love about teaching professional students is the depth of their experience in their respective realms, and how they bring that knowledge to bear on our discussion and their own papers. What I have also discovered, and you all may be exceptional, is that most of us do not have analytic distance on what we know best, so that our account of what we know about our realm would benefit from scholarly studies. I have found that I only understand the university and my being a professor when I read the history and sociology of the university and teaching. Our goal in the  program is to take your everyday deep knowledge and ground it in scholarship so that what you know is richer and less parochial. Comparison and analogy are the way I think, and I hope it will help you.
6. Your list--methods, ideas about planning, and longer-term trends with comparative evidence sounds right to me. My main objective is to "elevate your thinking and challenge the validity of your values and fundamentals." That is how I have always taught. I try to do this when we talk in class, and when I comment on your proposed papers and drafts of those papers. I take it as my job is to ask you questions that enable you to think more productively. It's what I am good at.  Methods may be what you need, and surely a sense of trends and history and what is happening elsewhere are valuable.
7. As for clearer more specific learning objectives, actually you have identified the main objective as I have paraphrased you in #6.  I want you to learn to read critically, and the way to do that is to do the reading, think about what is important, and see what we do in class. What I do when I read is take some notes, looking for what is going on in this article or book. I'm good at this, but I have 40+ years of doing this for a living. But I believe I can teach you how to do this by modeling the activity in class. In fact I don't expect you to "absorb the information," as you refer to it below. There is no information to be absorbed.  As for "understanding the impact and significance as they relate to your respective areas of practice", again to paraphrase what you wrote me, that is exactly what I do when I read anything. I am always looking for what does this say to my concerns, my intellectual problems. So when you read, you are not reading to summarize the book or article. You are reading to figure out what this material says to you about your concerns.
8. The professional doctorate is not a conventional research degree. It is meant as a chance for you to work out an advance in practice, an invention, in your field of work or in a related field. You may do library or field research to help think about your advance in practice and to work it out in detail,  but the research is not the same as the research PhD students do, or even close to it. PhD students are advancing a scholarly field, you are advancing practice.
9. As for "positively, measurably, and responsibly having an impact on your fields" that is the purpose of this degree. I am not sure what you mean by "measurably," for often the measure is conveyed by a narrative account that is in no sense anything like a scientific test (and in fact, scientific tests have little to do with all this talk about objective and measurable etc. since the tests are almost always within a very specific practice of doing that science).
10. I know that many of you, and surely your children if you have them, have been under a regime of objectives, grading rubrics, and evidence-based practice. Actually, at this level of your education, those notions infantilize students. What you want from a course is a way of thinking about your concerns that allows you to move forward more productively. That's my goal always.

More to follow.  Your letter below is quite wonderful. Thank you for it.



Dear Dr. Krieger,

We want to begin by thanking you for being so responsive and attentive to the email exchanges regarding the course you will teach this coming Spring.  There are many uncertainties regarding this course given the events that transpired over  and the restructuring that is taking place with the program.  Having someone like you who is so accessible and who tries to the best of their abilities to be forthright and prompt with responses is much appreciated.  Thank you.

As a cohort we are sympathetic to the difficulties you have in preparing for this course given such short notice.  We thank you for inviting us to share our thoughts, concerns, and questions about the course syllabus with you.  We are grateful for this gracious gesture.  We begin by sharing about our cohort.  We are richly diverse in our understanding of planning and urban development, with some having a deeper level of understanding on this subject matter while others do not because they are keenly astute in other areas.  However it has been agreed by most us that having a more detailed syllabus with clearer and more specific learning objectives prior to engaging in the reading materials will better help us absorb the information and understand their significance and impact as they relate to our respective areas of research interests.  Specifically we are interested in knowing the class learning objectives and how they will further our understanding of policy, planning and development, as well as closer to our end point as doctoral level practitioners.  We would like to know how the content of this course will build off of our previous class, which focused on planning and policy paradigms and moving from ones of an autocratic, hierarchical approach to one of inclusivity and collectivity in the policy and planning urban environment.
For example, what may be
·         Some appropriate research methods that would help us identify the shortcomings in our industries and how we as leaders can elevate the discussion?
·          Some themes, paradigms, and insights or perspectives to urban planning and policy to help elevate our thinking and challenge the validity of our values and fundamentals?
·         Some longer term future trends (positive and negative), approaches, and concerns/deficiencies in urban planning and policy as per academia vs. real-time institutional in the USA and abroad, and what can we learn from their implementation?

With your leadership and expertise in this field, we look forward to your more detailed syllabus that will adequately design a course covering theoretical and practical political issues in policy, planning and development urban environment, and perhaps co-creating/sharing relevant industry content during class. We as doctoral level students ask for this clarity, specificity, and support because we value the investment we are making financially and professionally to elevate our theoretical and practical knowledge to positively, measurably, and responsibly impact the respective fields in which we serve.  Likewise, we truly value the investment that each instructor, such as yourself, and more so the Price School, allocates to developing a curriculum and curriculae respectively, that elevates their students' knowledge and prowess in the field and as alumni.  Placing value on this degree and being valued as students is of highest importance and mutually beneficial.  As a cohort, we are varied in our interests, deeply thankful for this learning opportunity, look forward to this next course and future ones, and are excited at the opportunity to get closer to each of our professional aims.

We have attached a sample syllabus we found helpful in outlining some of the learning objectives we are looking for.  Although you are not given much time to prepare for this course, we believe our dialogue exchange on the learning outcomes for this course and leadership and penchant for excellence in teaching, a completed course syllabus can be delivered by January 15, 2013.  We believe this is a reasonable timeframe for both of us, as it will give also us with enough time to plan and prepare for this class or take an elective in its place.  We look forward to your thoughts and inputs.  Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to share our thoughts, concerns,and questions with you regarding this class.


My response was considered and reflected the kind of critical analytic thinking I want students to have. I did not pull punches.

Some remarks were factual: #1, 2, 3, 8
Some remarks reflected what the scholarly literature says: #4
Some remarks reflected my view on the standard issues in scholarship: #9, 10, but could be taken as philosophy of teaching
Some remarks indicated my philosophy of teaching: #5, 6, 7

I started university teaching at UC Berkeley when I was in effect a post-doc during 1968-73 (if I recall correctly 72-73) when students were even more dubious of what we were teaching and how we went about it. Our students are perhaps more polite and perhaps they have a more professional-sounding set of notions, but the issues are much the same, the tone is effectively the same.

The big change is the economics of higher education, where students are now much more acutely aware of tuition costs to them and time they spend in school. I believe that in general the tuition (price charged) covers about 1/2 the actual cost in a research university, and still is dwarfed by their lost income. The latter is why people want online, weekend, distance, etc education. I am not sure of this, but the payoff in terms of future earnings and increased impact and responsibility, dwarfs cost, time, and lost income.