Monday, January 30, 2017

Having a Sense of What You are Up To

It is useful to write yourself a paragraph or two about what you are up to. You are doing some sort of research, or preparing to do such research. But that research lives in a larger environment of others' research and the policy realm. If you can see what you are doing in that larger perspective, you will have a better sense of where you might be going.

Even senior scholars benefit from such an account of what they are doing. Often, they are so productive, the larger questions are put aside to get the work done. Perhaps they will win an award or become a member of an honorary society, and their friends who are trying to have them admitted will write such an account. But I believe it is useful for the actual scholar to do so.

Over the years I have been forced to write such an account for myself, as I apply for fellowships and grants that are much less specific than are most of my colleagues' projects. I have to tell a story that makes sense of the diverse materials I have worked on, and why and how they fit into that larger context. 

My initial attempt, what I had written below in greyed italics was too compressed to be understood more widely. Let me try to extend it a bit, so that it will be understood in two ways--What does this have to do with planning and public policy? and, What are the concrete instances of this work? It totals to 174 words. Don't be concerned if you leave out some things--rather be sure that what you include is effective and a good description. 

​    Over the years, I have written about: 
        --the artificiality of the natural environment;
        --the probability of doom; 
        --how abrupt collective changes (such as neighborhood tipping) may come about through the interaction of  individuals; 
        --the ideas built into seemingly innocent mathematical techniques or physical models; 
        --how actors such as entrepreneurs and special forces in the armed services make decisions and commitments; 
        --how big decisions are made and justified (as in infrastructure investments);
        --and, in the last fifteen years, I have pursued systematic photographic documentation of Los Angeles (storefront churches, people at work in industry,...) and written about doing such documentation.

    My concern is with models or ways of thinking that might appear algebraic or quantitative, and ways of acting and thinking that are better understood in the sacred realm of commitment and sacrifice. Topically, I have been concerned with mathematical and physical models in planning and cities, the environment both natural and built, and actors and the decisions they make--each of which cuts across the quantitative/sacred divide.  [Early on, I was quite surprised that I needed to understand religious discourse and thinking if I was to do my work.]

I just wrote the above, but of course I have been saying something like it for years. My point here is that you want to see yourself in a more objective way.