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Monthly Archives: June 2011

Late-Night Dog Walk Observations  §

The difference between a major city and a small one is encapsulated in the difference between their traffic lights.

In a small city, all traffic lights are exactly the same color and exactly the same age. Over every intersection, the same number of lights hang, in the same orientation, suspended directly over the intersection, parallel to one another. They always work.

In a major city, traffic lights may be of differing shades and ages. Some are LED-based, others are still bulb-based. Some are on the sides of buildings, while others are on cables and still others on steel fixtures. There may be three in one intersection but just one in the next. One may be on the near side of the intersection and the other on the far side. Some do not work, and some are turned, for inexplicable reasons, to face departing rather than oncoming traffic.

In a major city, nonetheless, almost everyone sees the traffic lights almost all of the time. In a small city, they often miss the traffic lights and commit traffic violations, despite the clarity and uniformity of their emplacement.

— § —

Similar observation:

In a small city, people waiting for lights at intersections are unreflective, suspended in time, in rhythm, in flow.

In a major city, people waiting for lights at intersections seem uneasy, trapped inside their automobiles while vaguely aware of the fact that around them, there may be no eyes or there may be hundreds of eyes watching them. Anything could happen at any moment. They are not suspended in time; they are living in real time, heightened time, taut and aware.

— § —

In a small city, dogs are sleepy and late-night walks are perfunctory.

In a major city, dogs on late-night walks reflect on their identities, the plight of their species, and the future of companion animals.

— § —

In a small city, nights lie in between days.

In a major city, nights are the latter halves of days.

— § —

In a small city, you are present.

In a major city, the city is present.

— § —

At the most fundamental level, there is nothing else that needs to be known in order to understand the difference between major cities and small cities.

Notes on a Sunday  §

So I am downtown today in a university library, in a reserved study room, with the door shut, typing. Someone bangs on the door and when I open it, they angrily tell me that I’m “typing too loud” and need to keep it down. Keyboards make noise. I am making no more noise than any typical keyboard would make as I type on it.

I tell him that. “Keyboards make noise, but hardly a lot of it. The door is closed. What do you want me to do?”

“I don’t give a shit,” he says, “type slower. Maybe stop typing at all. Libraries are supposed to be silent. Take the computers to the park. Libraries aren’t supposed to be the place to come and type all day.”

??!

Some days New York wears on me. The density, quite simply, can get on everyone’s nerves. This sort of thing never happens in places where you’re never within 20 feet of anyone else, even indoors on a busy campus.

— § —

When it was time to take a bit of a lunch break, I headed down toward Prince Street. Just below Prince there’s a kitschy Chinese home goods import store called Pearl River or something like that. My mission: to buy Gongfu/Taiji shoes for my wife. I have done this multiple times already, but each time I come not having remembered the size from last time.

I hope I got it right.

Also pick up some hot chili / garlic paste while I’m there. The big jar. The really big jar.

— § —

Today once again as I’m doing academic work I run across an instance in which someone has a major social theorist completely wrong. I see this problem almost all the time in academia. I start to get the impression that practicing academics either:

  • Haven’t read any of the works they cite, or
  • Have read most works only on a very cursory basis even though they happily cite them at critical junctures, or
  • Are so intellectually underqualified that despite reading a great deal they understand very little

Most of the best and most widely read/published social theorists answer their critics pre-emptively in many ways or are in fact not subject to the criticisms leveled against them that are often based entirely on misreadings or oversimplifications.

The fact is that there are a very large number of “scholars” out there that are in fact not accurately representing intellectual history or the current state of the art in their field to students. This is likely one of the reasons for the disrespect academics and the arts and letters receive in American culture. People think that they’re nonsense because academics portray them as nonsense, either unintentionally (perhaps most pitifully) or intentionally (after misreading), giving everyone the impression that most of the best works are easily “discredited” or undermined.

— § —

This makes my blood boil, but not as much as it used to, and that’s a problem.

I could write an article, or even post an online comment in response in some cases, outlining these points. I could stand up at a conference and make these points. When I first got to New York, in 2006, I did. That’s how I met my wife, in fact.

But now? I just don’t care. I am happy that they’re wrong, in a selfish kind of way. I am full of apathy and a kind of Schadenfreude: “Let them be wrong. What does it matter to me? Who has the energy to fight the ignorance that appears to be everywhere, about every topic and thing under the sun? Better not to waste your resources in such a Sisyphean task. Instead, use your secret intellectual advantage to somehow get out while the getting is good, before all of these people get their comeuppance when their society, which they do no even begin to understand or comprehend in its operation, needs, or theory, collapses beneath them.”

— § —

Such is the moment at which youthful idealism gives way to mature cynicism/pessimism, at which democracy gives way to totalitarianism.

When you can empathize with the totalitarian and begin to believe in his necessity, you know that it will be difficult any longer to engage in fruitful debate with the mainstream of modern western academics.

— § —

Will I vote in the next election? I suspect not.

I have already begun to feel guilty for voting in the last one.

— § —

There are many ways in coming days in which I will have to interrogate my integrity, to see what it is, precisely, that I wish to be made of and where I wish to go from here, from amongst the spectrum of possibilities that is open to me.

— § —

There are an incredible number of German-speaking persons, many of them clearly tourists taken aback at the ways of New York (i.e. the non-working subway turnstiles that give cryptic messages and trap families in subway entrances, split into two camps, those that “can escape” on the inside next to the oncoming train, and on the outside those that suddenly fear as though they are condemned to stay in New York forever, watching helplessly as it approaches and threatens to tempt their family away with it). I don’t know why that should be in the neighborhood surrounding NYU.

I actually don’t care all that much.

— § —

I have to sell my bicycle—the one that I assembled with m own two hands—online in the next week or two. This is not a happy affair, but it is a sensible thing to do. For some reason I suspect that this effectively marks the end of any serious bicycle riding that will occur in my life.

It marks me one stage older in the game, overall.

— § —

This year the old football team joins a new league. For this I can hardly wait. For the falling leaves, too, I am beginning to pine. And for leaving New York.

Time to get to work and make it happen.

Ph.D. Student Life (A Major Rant)  §

It is a hot day in New York. And I have been out walking around in it. This is a rant.

— § —

Let me start by warning prospective students about attending fancy-schmansy “small private schools” that are “legendary” for their particular “unique characteristics.” Aside from the unique characteristic of offering pitiful levels of graduate student assistance, another unique characteristic may be their conception of “study space.”

What you see above is the actual study lounge in the graduate building at the New School for Social Research. Notice what’s missing in this gorgeously coiffured space in which lounge chairs and coffee tables form the entirety of the furniture? Let’s see:

  • Anything resembling a work surface
  • Any place to sit a laptop where you can actually type on it
  • Any place to put a stack of books
  • Proximity to a library
  • Oh, snap—a library at all!
  • Any way to isolate yourself from other room occupants, visually or aurally
  • In short, anything resembling study space

Compare this to the study space that litters the New York University campus.

Oh, how ugly! How un-boutique! But wait, maybe that space is useful. Let’s see… no blinding white and/or brightly colored flashing lights and walls… tons of desk surface at a height appropriate for laptops and (dare I say it) a stack of books, without having to lean down over your knees for how many hours you plan to study as if you’re about to eat an hors d’oeuvre at a laid-back party… partitions in between study spaces to give some measure of privacy and focus… and actual chairs that foster a study-supportive posture!

Not only that, but all of the fabulous study spaces at the New School—for that is what they are, just fabulous like so many New York night spots—are full of empty floor space. That’s right, they’re light and airy. Not only must you lounge in a group setting, laying back like Cleopatra while your laptop rests on a coffee table at your ankles, but a room that could hold 80 study cubicles offers a total of perhaps 20 lounge chairs and three coffee tables. Not only can you not study, you can’t even find a spot in which to not do it.

— § —

But that’s not really what I want to rant about. What I want to rant about now is the dreary adjunct life, which is how every Ph.D. student has to support him or herself for several years, as the part of the job in which you “gain teaching experience” for your CV. I’ve held appointments at at least five other major campuses in New York as an adjunct, and what I’m about to say is par for the course in adjunct life.

Let me start with the wages. As an adjunct you are generally limited to a 2+2 year (two courses in fall, two in spring). Most of the schools also forbid someone doing a 2+2 from taking jobs anywhere else; it’s considered full-time. This “full time” gig in New York, which does actually take more or less all of your time during a semester, pays anywhere from $10,000 per year to $20,000 per year for this full teaching load. This is how much American kids’ college instructors are trying to live on in a major city.

And I do mean “American kids” as in most of them, since the vast majority of the undergraduate courses in the U.S. are taught by adjuncts. And this is what we live on, for full-time work. Somehow.

But let’s not stop there. Let’s talk about our status. The fact is that we don’t actually have any.

— § —

After teaching at my current school for three semesters (a year and a half), I am currently on summer break. I just did a 2+2 teaching year (full adjunct load) that finished less than a month ago and in a few short weeks when fall semester begins, I will again be teaching two courses. In fact, I’m grateful for the work, since there are a lot of people in my position that can’t find it.

I need to build my syllabi for next semester. That means things like doing research, finding readings, assembling course packets, etc. It’s going to take weeks. All unpaid; it’s part of the job to have this stuff ready when fall rolls around and the semester starts, but not part of the job to get paid for it.

So today I came downtown to go to my institution’s library to build the syllabus. Only my ID card no longer got me into the building. Security there wouldn’t let me in, and sent me instead to the ID card office to get it “fixed.”

I walked to the ID card office in the heat (quite a walk) and they promptly confiscated my card since I’m not teaching during the summer. They said I’d need to go to the university Human Resources office to get a form approving summer access in order to get the card back and have it updated for library access.

I walked to campus Human Resources (all the way in the other direction) and waited at the intercom (there is no receptionist) for someone to come out and assist me. After telling me to have a seat, they disappeared behind a door for some time until finally they came back out and told me that they couldn’t send their form to the ID card office until I got a form from the Human Resources department of my division. They didn’t know where this was.

Happily, Google Maps on my iPhone told me where it was and off I set again on foot—even a longer walk this time. Sweat is, by now, pouring off of me. Nobody is out walking today. The heat is sweltering.

My division’s human resources office again told me to have a seat. Then, the receptionist called across the room asking why I needed my card updated for library access. I stood up and went over and told her the reason. She returned to the phone to discuss my reason and I went back and had a seat. At length she called out that they couldn’t give library access to just anybody and since I don’t have a summer class that is apparently what I am. I need, she said, to go and visit my department’s administrator to get them to send a form to divisional Human Resources, so that they can send a form to campus Human Resources, so that they can send a form to the ID office, so that I can get my ID card back and get into the library to assemble my syllabus for fall.

So I went to my department—another long walk in the heat. By now I’ve burned more than two hours. When I get there, the department administrator is not in. It’s summer, after all. What kind of academic is on campus during summer?

Adjuncts, that’s who. Trying to build a syllabus.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m at the high end of the adjunct scale in pay and I’m happy to have the work. I could just as easily not have it. But at the same time, this is adjunct life—paid a fraction of what professors are paid but doing most of the actual teaching, wandering around in the heat burning multiple afternoons (since I will have to come back and do this again, once I can schedule a time when everyone is in) just to be able to get into the library to do the unpaid summer-long work of assembling course materials for fall.

— § —

And, by extension, that’s Ph.D. student life, particularly at a boutique private school.

I’m supposed to be working on a dissertation through all of this. Because I have a private life—a baby, in fact, which is unheard of for people with my career aspirations—I have very little time in which to do it.

Because I am at a “legendary” boutique private school, I don’t have a full stipend and free housing, but instead have to pay my own way for living expenses in New York, and just must adjunct-teach.

And because I am an adjunct, I spend days walking around in the heat, getting my exercise and making my clothes smelly.

— § —

And all so that the people I know that aren’t in academics can elbow me about my “cushy” job teaching “at college” which (they presume) must pay a fortune and offers me wonderful, really unfairly cushy things like a summer break.

— § —

This is why all of the books warn you that unless you are hyper-dedicated, you will not finish your Ph.D. Because the entire machinery of academics and of society at large is working very hard to make sure you don’t—just so that if you manage to survive it all and finish, you can compete in a jobs market in which 75 percent of graduates will go unemployed and eventually give up on using the Ph.D. they worked so hard to obtain, eventually settling in a garden center or a coffee shop or doing interior design or catering or whatever else they can put together once the Ph.D. thing doesn’t work out.

I think for those of us that do continue, one thing that holds us in the game is the determination to grind our teeth and dominate these obstacles, to demonstrate to them, with a kind of triumph, that they will not be allowed to win.

Work?  §

Nobody understands what I do for a living. Since the beginning of my adult work life, nobody ever has. Look at the things I’ve done in the past:

  • eBay Investigator
  • Technical Editor
  • Media Analyst
  • Media Development Consultant

And then there are the things that I am doing now:

  • Media Sociologist
  • Online Guide
  • Freelance Digital Stock Photographer

All of this is e-work. People in “affiliated” industries have no idea just what it entails. What, exactly, is an investigator at an online auction site? What exactly is technical about editorial work that isn’t done by, say, layout or production people? Everyone knows what a guide is in the context of the Sahara desert or the Amazon or even, more modestly, the Colorado river. But online?

People that think “photographer” think about film and helicopters and exotic locations and news stories, not databases and keywords and files and gigabytes. The same goes for the sociologists; I’m getting a Ph.D. in sociology and have scored honors everything on every exam and have a 4.0 GPA and none of the sociologists has any clue what I do and I have no clue what they do and our knowledge, in fact, overlaps almost not at all, despite our using the same body of theory and the same list of classical analytical and philosophical tools.

All I’ve ever done in the “multiple careers” I’ve supposedly had is sit in front of a computer and link inputs to outputs in ways that I believe are likely to produce meaningful results for people other than myself.

— § —

Everyone things I’m just a geek. I like computing. I hug databases. I kiss data. I don’t want to throw away my email because I’m quaint.

They imagine that the fact that I have 8TB (eight terabytes, that’s right) of RAID-1 storage online in a networked capacity is about me being just a little bit mentally ill, but in a harmless way, and the fact that I can manage to fill this space with stuff that isn’t (a) movies, (b) video games, (c) porn, or (d) any other form of entertainment makes me a special kind of mentally-ill-but-in-a-harmless-way.

My whole life is data. Data, data, data. To do what I do requires data. That is how I make my money. I am, at the core of things, a data analyst, which requires (these days) massive IT skills, the basics of CS skills, super logical thinking capacity, and the ability to abstract, systematize, and problem-solve.

I analyze and/or grapple with and/or organize data, using that data as a resource from which to produce stuff that people find interesting and are willing to pay for / read. And yet, I am not a “quant,” I don’t use the data to produce charts and graphs and other things that are ideologically blinkered and oversimple and yet highly sellable. If I did, then I could just tell people, “I make statistics about the data and turn it into nice charts and graphs.” That people can understand.

As everyone knows, there is nearly an infinite amount of data out there, flying around almost all of the time, most of it absolutely worthless to most people most of the time. What I do is try to make some of it meaningful to some people some of the time, beyond numbers and charts and graphs, which (a) I don’t think are always transcendentally informative in the way that they claim to be, and (b) I don’t have the requisite skills to produce at a professional level anyway.

— § —

Is this a legitimate career?

I don’t know. It doesn’t have a title. Nobody imagines that it exists. It gets folded into all of these other fields still organized around traditional forms of economic practice—publishing, mass media, policy research, social science, marketing and sales, and so on, never mind, that the old-school publishers are hanging around the archives and the presses and the old-school policy people are hanging around the bureaucratic offices and the old school social scientists are out doing fieldwork and the old school marketing and sales people are busy with inventories and billboards, and for all of these hats I use one single computer system and in fact these days one single database (DevonThink) to work in all of these industries doing something that looks nothing like what my “colleagues” in the industry do. Nevermind.

I don’t know if it’s legitimate. I don’t know if it’s producing real value.

I do know it’s the one set of skills I’ve been leveraging my entire adult working life.

I also know that I wish people would believe that it’s real work.

— § —

For the most part, people see me sitting in front of my computer reading articles, typing stuff, clicking around in a database, whatever, and they somehow imagine that because I’m not doing it under the nostril breath of a boss of some kind and because I’m not in a cubicle and because I don’t have any recognizable job description like “accountant” or “paralegal,” I must be playing on my computer at just that moment, or doing some sort of hobby-oriented, personal-growth-sustaining something-or-other that is good for my soul, and that I do my real work, my productive and paying work some other time and place that they don’t get to see.

And if I sit there with my computer too long and/or spend a great deal more money on software, gadgets, data storage, or accounts than they would in their personal life, they are quick to say that I am being a bit wasteful, aren’t I, and shouldn’t I just make do, after all, what normal person needs all these hard drives and gadgets and accounts and clever programs, they’ve gotten by for years without.

It seems impossible to explain to anyone that this is my job, I don’t have a boss, these things are the necessary, tax-deductible tools to staying successful in this job, and I am working, not hanging out chillin’ and looking for something to do.

— § —

I so wish I had a lab coat or a greasy uniform or something else that would denote

MAN WITH TYPICAL JOB TITLE AT WORK AND PLEASE DON’T DISTURB HIM OR HIS BOSS WILL FIRE HIM

because then I would get more respect from passers-by about being a hard worker and I would also know where I fit within the economy, e.g. there would be some I.R.S. occupation code that actually applies to me when doing tax returns and the paperwork or webformwork of banks and other similar institutions wouldn’t have me lying through my teeth and claiming to be an “educator” or a “scientist” or an “information technology” worker or something like this simply because there’s no category yet that anyone not doing this job can imaging for “person that analyzes massive flows of data, fields of user interfaces, populations of active users, and the norms and trajectories surrounding all of these draws connections, synthesizes, distills, then republishes or relectures it in this form.”

— § —

What should you do, exactly, when nobody thinks you have a “real job” or a “real specialization” in your academic field, even when you are doing what you do very well?

— § —

The world is moving too quickly for everyone. Hell, if it’s moving too quickly for me (and it is) then it’s no wonder nobody has any idea what the f*** I do.