Thursday, November 7, 2013

Don't Do What I Did

Note the long time until my first book appeared. I received tenure much later. And the flow of books started a bit later.

I am not sure I have posted this earlier, but if not, it’s about time. I wrote it for the preface of The Scholar’s Survival Guide, and I have retained its particular references to that context. It was cut down in editing. Here I want to provide the whole text. More recently, I put together a chart of what is sometimes called “my career,” the implication being that you are following some sort of nice path (“career” comes from the French for a square). LOL as they say in text messages. It’s worked out fine for me, but it’s not likely you want to follow my path. My blogs and book are my attempts to tell you how not to do what I did. If it was good enough for me, it’s surely not good enough for you. 

        I was born in 1944, in the Israel-Zion hospital in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn. I guess we were working class, but I always thought we were middle class, neither poor nor rich. We attended an Orthodox Jewish shul, but clearly my grandmother was more important than the rabbi or God. Mostly for my grandmother, we bought the Yiddish newspaper Forverts (The Forward), which I recall had a rotogravure picture section in brownish ink. (And we did not get the Yiddish Der Tag, since it was "right wing" according to my father.). We lived in Bensonhurst (Kings Highway station on the BMT/Sea Beach Line), and then almost at the end of the IRT/New Lots Avenue line. I went to PS 177, Seth Low JHS, and Thomas Jefferson HS. I think it was in high school when the class went on a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Much earlier, my parents had taken my sister and me to the Museum of Natural History. My high school World History teacher, who was in her fifties or sixties, spent a great deal of time on the origins of the First World War, her source being Fay's books. (Fay’s books, The Origin of the World War, were also the inspiration for the game Diplomacy.) Once, I got in trouble in American History class because I read The New York Times, secreted on my lap but under the desk, during class. (My father had taught me how to fold The Times so you could read it on the subway, but this method does not work in class.)
             My father read The New York Times, cover to cover, every day, as well as the afternoon New York Post (then owned and published by Dorothy Schiff) when he came home from work. His usual comment when reading was, "Shirley [my mother], remember Joe X. He died." since the obituaries were always carefully studied. Jews who changed their names were also announced to Shirley. We also got the Brooklyn Eagle on the weekend. And on Fridays, my father brought home the New York City civil service newspaper, The Chief.
             My parents were introduced to each other by their friends Al (an electrician) and Jean, and they had a Hudson automobile. In my neighborhoods, families were ethnic, Jews and Catholics. But most of our socializing was with our relatives on both sides of the family. I did not encounter Protestants explicitly--or other Christians (except for Jehovah's Witnesses at our door)--until I got to college, and I am not sure I was aware of the distinction between Catholics and Protestants until then. (Of course, I knew about the Reformation and Luther from World History with Miss Meehan, but somehow that did not become practical knowledge.) Republicans and Southern Democrats were referred to as "reactionaries." I learned of Nixon and his red-baiting of Jerry Voorhis and of Helen Gahagan Douglas (Nixon's opponents in 1946 and 1950) when I was about six or maybe earlier. At home, we never talked about sex so I only got all that straight when I got to college and much later.
             It was vital that we have fresh rye bread with caraway seeds each day. We got a telephone, which was French-style with the mechanism in a box affixed to the wall, and then a television, later than many families, but not so late that I felt different. While we did not have a Servel gas refrigerator, I recall that some neighbors did. We did not have a car, only my father drove, and I learned at 24 since I was going to work in the Bay Area.
             I used to borrow lots of books from the Brooklyn Public Library on West 6th Street, and at times had so many at home I had to return them using a folding shopping cart. The big event in my life was when I could go to Manhattan on my own using the subway. From then on, there was a whole new world.
             Columbia College was all-male and quite small (650 freshman each year) in 1960. I had received a good scholarship (a Pulitzer) and moving to Manhattan to live in a dormitory was a big step. The undergraduate requirement of General Education--Great Books ("Humanities") and significant political and social thinkers ("Contemporary Civilization"), was very different than breadth requirements at most universities, and I thrived on it--even though I was too young, at 16, to understand much of what I read. In general my teachers were not great didacts, but watching them think in front of the class was the education I needed. (I recall Daniel Bell and Herbert Deane, and many of my physics teachers, eight of whom received Nobel Prizes.) I studied mathematics and physics, and majored in physics. I did my doctoral work at Columbia, working in particle physics, already then Big Science. But by temperament I was not meant to be an experimentalist, at least in Big Science, and soon after receiving my PhD and starting a postdoc at Berkeley, I moved over to city planning at Berkeley as a postdoc. My initial foray into planning was using a model of a phase transition in solids to understand neighborhood transformations. In the background was the revolution in particle physics of the early 1970s to the early 1980s: the Standard Model, quantum chromodynamics, non-Abelian (noncommuting) gauge field theory; and in parallel, in astrophysics, the three-degree background blackbody radiation, the Big Bang, quasars, and the inflationary scenario of Guth and others, paralleling earlier developments in nuclear physics and Bethe's late 1930s account of the sources of the energy of the Sun; all paralleling developments in condensed matter physics
             I am a late bloomer. More precisely, my early flowering was almost frozen on the vine by a seeming cold spell. I received my PhD when I was 24, but received tenure when I was about 44 or 45. While a "home-run" article appeared when I was 29, all but one of my books appeared after I was 45. At age 34, I was denied "early" tenure, probably appropriately, although at that point I had not only that article, but many others and a book manuscript, and several nice high prestige fellowships. But that denial opened up new opportunities for which I am grateful.

             I have committed just about every mistake I describe The Scholar’s Survival Manual, more than once. My life is a story of snatching survival from the jaws of idiocy.
             When I was 40, I thought that my academic career was over, I had left that tenure-track job before I came up again at the regular time, nothing new came up except for grants and fellowships. (By the way, one should never leave a tenure-track job without another real tenure-track job in hand, unless you have changed career trajectory.) Maybe I would go into philanthropy and foundation work, maybe journalism. When I went to one foundation about working in their world, they did not give me a job--but they did give me a grant although I had not asked for one. [In a different context, a propos of her Harvard colleagues waiting a very long time before making her a regular faculty member, Judith Shklar said, "There are very many scholars whom I regard as my superiors in every way and whom I admire without reserve, but I have never thought of myself, then or now, as less competent than the other members of my department." (A Life of Learning, American Council of Learned Societies, 1989.) I am grateful to those universities I worked for, even for a short period, for I learned a great deal from colleagues, in my department or, especially, in humanities departments.]
             I was hired at my current institution to teach for a semester as a temporary replacement for a faculty member who had left, with no further expectation. Afterwards, out of the blue, I was offered a job there, and took it since I had no other choice (the usual fact of my life). What saved me, what made the big difference, was my adopting a newborn on my own when I was 42, nine months into the new job. Bringing up a child on your own focuses the mind wonderfully, and so the subsequent books and grants and fellowships were possible because I worked and parented. What helped was that my son slept. He is now 6'5", I am 5'7", and so we are a Mutt and Jeff. Moreover my university left me alone to work and parent, although I have done my share of teaching and service. People still remember my son playing with Lego at research seminars.
             I read the African Berber and Christian Father Augustine of Hippo's Confessions (~400 CE) when I was a freshman at Columbia, but it was only when I happened to hear lectures at the University of Minnesota by John Freccero on Dante and Augustine, when I was about 33, that the work entered my working vocabulary. Augustine wrote his confessions in his early 40s, about ten years after his conversion to Christianity. The Confessions are archetypal: the time before conversion is a life lived away from the truth, with moments of temptation toward the truth; the life after is living in the truth; and what we thought was best about the before-time was just what was worst for us. This book is not really a confession, ala Augustine, since I have come to see my pre-parent days as preparing me for all my work and life since then. And I never did have a moment, as did Paul or Augustine, where I was struck by the light and changed my life--although bringing my newborn son home from the hospital might be such a moment, but without our falling off an ass on the way to Damascus. I always say that babies are made to make their parents into good caregivers, their coos and smiles being the guide to parents to do the right thing.
             More relevant to this book's tone: Only if advice comes at the right time, with the right flavor, will it penetrate a bubble of excuses and justifications, and then such a revelation can well be transformative. It would be nice if those were moments when one has not hit rock bottom, but sometimes they are the moments we need. The Confessions provides the archetype of the resistant's story and of the transformative moment. Hence, all I can hope is that you hear a child's voice sounding or saying something like "take it and read" (Augustine heard in the rustling of the leaves in a garden the Latin "Tolle. Lege."), open up this book at some random page and find that what you encounter tells you something powerful and helpful. (There are similar traditions in Judaism, the Bat Kol, as well as in the I Ching and Tarot.) In any case, the basic advice about doing better and getting done is pervasive and given in a variety of contexts, and so will be found everywhere. One does not need to find, as did Augustine, a particular passage (his was Romans 13:13-14).
             In the middle 1990s I discovered what we would now call a blog by John Baez, This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics ( , recently having changed its name and focus). If someone were about to walk in front of the proverbial oncoming truck, I often tried to intervene and tell them how to avoid the splat that was likely. I began a regular column addressed to our doctoral students, mostly about topics in urban planning,  but along the way I conveyed some of the lessons I had learned in my discontinuous and unsmooth path in academia: This Week's Finds in Planning: "Do not do what I did; do not make my mistakes; what was good enough for me does not mean it is good enough for you." Sometimes the column was about books or articles, sometimes about particular policy issues, and as time went on it became more and more about academic life. I was fortunate to serve on our University Committee on Appointment, Promotion and Tenure, and I have probably read something like 600-700+ such dossiers for appointment, promotion, and tenure decisions, in all fields and at all ranks, and attended my share of meetings. I have also read a wide range of third-year reviews of probationary faculty. Much of this book reflects my experience, and my desire to prevent more oncoming-truck events for others. I have also read some of the research literature on higher education, and on promotion and tenure in universities, and on academic work. My experience is that the concrete facts of most situations would seem to trump generalities, yet people also seem to be quite willing to risk being hit by a truck even when they know that what they are doing is not what they need to do.
             So this book draws from not only my own experience, but also my observations from within the bowels of the university. By the way, such university promotion committees are almost always advisory to the provost or the president, so your main job is not to say yes or no or maybe, and vote and give your reasons, but to help the provost figure out what is going on in difficult cases. This book is not a tell-all, and my experience is that the central university promotion and tenure process is fair and unbiased--although I cannot judge what happens at the departmental level. Moreover, I am sure there are mistakes of commission and omission, probably rather more tenurings than are warranted, and remarkably few denials that are mistaken. But there are mistakes and sometimes there is unfairness or shenanigans. This book is not about those situations. I know nothing useful about them.

Everything I describe is common. If what I say feels like I am describing you, and perhaps you know me and figure that I am using you, my response will be "It's not you." There are too many examples for any of us to think we are unique or marked by our problems.

Recently I came across this observation in Mehrling’s biography of Fischer Black: “Human capital was not only the largest fraction of his [FB’s] wealth . . . “I find this congenial.