Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A few questions for Andy

Recently SJSU's College of Social Sciences asked me to answer a few questions about my teaching and research. I'd dreaded this assignment for the past few weeks. Having completed it, though, I found it a useful opportunity to reflect on where I am these days. So I figured I'd archive those thoughts here...

1. What research questions currently preoccupy you?

While my research has generally focused on communication and the built environment, studying structural and perceptual flows whose apparently distinct places convey inhabitants to a singular space, I have begun to examine disruptions in those flows. Initially I explored, somewhat optimistically, the production of “locale” in roadside architecture, arresting places whose evocations of home and community provide a nostalgic and therapeutic response to the stresses of contemporary life. More recently, though, I have concentrated on the somewhat more ambivalent rhetoric and performance of seemingly (but almost never actually) abandoned places. Currently I am interested in the uses, aesthetics, and ethics of “ruin-tourism” practiced in places like Detroit, Post-Katrina New Orleans, and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

2. What personal factors contributed to your study of communication and the built environment?  

I recall a conversation with a senior colleague, now retired, in which I outlined some plans for research into the history and design of postwar motels, now often used as long-term apartments, halfway houses, and shooting galleries. Summarizing my plans, I noted how my interest in roadside architecture began during the years when my spouse and I drove between Ohio and Florida to see our families. I was quite surprised when my friend asked, “but didn’t you tell me that you lived in motels for awhile?” I was amazed that I had somehow forgotten that dimension to my personal interest in the built environment. Fleeing an abusive relationship, moved by my mother to the relative safety of a Mom and Pop motel, I grew to appreciate the freedom evoked by roadside architecture – and the fear too. Coming to grips with that continuum of feelings is a personal factor shaping my research that long precedes the academic purposes of my work.

3. What has been most challenging in your research and teaching?

While I bring a scholarly interest in theories and frameworks to the classroom, as well as a humanist belief that study and contemplation are valuable skills whose outcomes may not be “measured” or “assessed” in some contemporary meanings of the words, I recognize that many SJSU students (and some administrators) bring what they perceive to be more practical concerns to our interactions. Many folks struggle with the notion that we should cultivate a keen interest in the world beyond our material ambitions, to read, to travel, and to explore a wide range of topics for the pleasure of doing so, for the opportunities to join the human conversation of values, interpretations, and possibilities, without being forced to account for the energies expended in these endeavors as one would complete a spreadsheet. Of course, addressing this struggle is a challenge worth undertaking.

4. How has your position in SJSU contributed to your research and teaching? 

As an SJSU faculty member, I have sought out opportunities to fund my travels, chances to experience the flows and disruptions of places that have contributed directly to my publications and lectures. Along with traditional college grants and departmental matching funds, I have sometimes needed to negotiate some non-traditional opportunities. For example, when asked to teach a second peer training course during my service as director of the university peer mentor program, I agreed with the proviso that my additional work be compensated with a one-time travel allotment. With those funds I completed a cross-country road trip in 2008 whose outcome included one of my most favorite scholarly articles, “Two roads diverge: Route 66, ‘Route 66,’ and the mediation of American ruin.” Though my research has required some similar appeals over the years, I have found that my university is willing to support my road-tripping and globe-trotting ambitions as long as I advance a productive array of scholarly output.

5. Do you have a hidden teaching talent? 

I have developed a small repertoire of songs that I’ll sometimes share with my students to advance one point or another. For example I love to sing “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” in COMM 149 (Rhetoric and Public Life) when we’re discussing Disney’s corporate vision of American domestic spaces, an ideal future of consumer technology. I also sing “[Get your kicks on] Route 66” in any class that includes a discussion of travel and tourism. My singing is not technically a talent, because I can hardly boast a gifted voice. But my willingness to express myself in song contributes to a memorable learning environment – for good or for ill.

6. What is one book that changed your life (or teaching/research) and why: 

John R. Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic is a nearly perfect collection of essays that build to a coherent argument for the need to sharpen our acuity about the human-made world around us. I return to his book often to borrow illustrations about how the built environment consists of layer after layer of patina that can be scraped away through physical or mental means, revealing more than mere history as an intellectual exercise but rather the means to encounter bygone modes of life that shimmer like William Gibson’s semiotic ghosts. Outside Lies Magic encourages readers to become explorers of the “why” of everyday life. One example: Stilgoe says that if you peer into the cabinet under the kitchen sink of an early twentieth century house, you stand a good chance of finding apple green wallpaper – the same color found in that era’s police stations and asylums. Read the book and find out why.

7. What is one website/journal/newspaper (in your field) you follow without fail? 

While I scan the international, national, and regional journals that host the scholarly conversations of my field, I must confess that I almost never read an issue cover to cover. Speaking as a former journalist whose work was measured by its relevance and accessibility, I find far too much of our academic writing is laden with foggy, derivative, and frankly soul-sucking prose. Accordingly I don’t follow publications as much as I read a few authors whose works, which typically appear within and beyond one particular field, demonstrate a balance of intellectual sophistication, practical utility, and aesthetic quality that inspires me to improve my own writing.

8. What is some advice you’d give to newer faculty or students?

I encourage newcomers to balance enthusiasm and dedication with a healthy degree of stoicism. Far too many folks approach their duties with a kind of zealotry that blinds them to the subtleties of why people and things work as they do. People who approach each challenge and each obstacle as a matter of success or failure (or worse, as good or evil) end up being frustrated – and frustrating as co-participants in SJSU life. Successful faculty and students bring zeal to their tasks, yes, but they never lose sight of the fact that the world is far more complex than their desires, and that they are merely one part of a much more complex universe whose workings often defy easy understanding. A little stoicism – not dour acceptance but a deeper reservoir of patience and humility – goes a long way in this life we have chosen.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Party

You’re at a party.

Almost everyone there is a stranger. You recognize one person, though. A work colleague.

A coordinator and his attendant enter the living room. The coordinator says he will play a video.

You are told to watch it carefully and memorize as many details as possible. There will be a test afterward.

You catch glimpses of order but mostly find yourself confused by the jumble of images. You slump back into the couch; you can’t keep up.

An attendant hands out thick booklets. You are supposed to answer questions.

This isn’t really a party; it’s an aptitude test. This isn’t someone’s home; it’s a department of some college campus.

You’re in a large central area, surrounded by offices, closets, and laboratories.

You struggle to find the logic.

You must answer three questions, but you can’t find the prompts. You must mark the answers, but you can’t find where they go. Details of the video swim in and out of view, but the coherence is gone.

You ask for help but can’t understand other folks’ halfhearted efforts to assist.

Your colleague submits her correct answers and wins a prize.

She shares the correct responses with you. There are plenty of prizes to win, and she’s not greedy.

You gather her words closely, ready to work this puzzle. Now you only need to find the pages where the answer should go.

The din is getting louder and louder. It really does sound more like a party now, not a test, especially for those who finished early. People who have closed their booklets are now relaxing, chatting, eating.

You get up and find the coordinator in his office; you ask him to explain the rules.

You know that you’ve talked yourself out of whatever prizes await the folks who can navigate the game. You just want to finish the test with some sort of dignity.

With increasing frustration, the coordinator tries to help. But you can’t understand his instructions.

Your colleague is gone now; she left the party with her prize. You’re alone with strangers.

You seek out the attendant. She’s cleaning up messes as the party grows wilder and wilder. She’s busy and impatient. She ignores you.

You find a chair at another table. It doesn’t matter where you sit now. You say to someone sitting nearby, “You know, I think I’ve just discovered that I have a disability. I can’t hear people in loud places.”

He looks at you with the slightest gaze of contempt.

You gather your things, leaving the booklet on the table. You won’t finish the test. You’re only somewhat embarrassed that the attendant will find your stuff later on, abandoned.

On your way out, you double-back to the coordinator’s office. You will muster up some of that confidence you once had by offering a professional handshake.

He’s not there. The room is the same - you think it is - but the furnishings are all different.

There’s an old guy with wild white hair occupying the office now. He sits in the dark while the party proceeds outside. You stare at him.

He says, “You think I’m crazy, huh?”

He does look crazy, but you reply differently.

“You look like a professional.”

It’s an effort, you suppose, to be kind - but also to assert some authority.

You walk out of the room.

It’s morning; you’re now in your bed.

You remember yesterday’s meeting. A typical, rushed affair, colleagues racing through an agenda.

You were in your groove at first, multitasking, engaged, knowing, curious. Then, while making some point or other, you couldn’t articulate a phrase. Just couldn’t remember the words.

Mouth agape, you struggled. Your colleagues occupied cardinal positions around the small table, waiting with growing unease.

You blurted out in panic and frustration, “Help me out here!”

They did, gamely. They got the idea. And besides, the specific words weren’t that important.

But it was. It was the exact phrase needed. And that’s a skill you’ve always tried to cultivate, finding that right phrase.

The moment ended when your colleague offered the correct phrase, kindly, with the smooth clarity you so frequently called to your command.

Later you think about the word “dumbstruck,” about the kinds of guilt that swirl around that epithet. That’s it; that’s exactly how you felt. The perfect word.

Now you wrangle these memories, connecting dreams to doubts.

Dreams, of course, fade. But you strive for correctness, to keep the details right.

From time to time you etch some fakery into the recollection, only to buff it out. Something tells you, remember this. Keep it close.

Hold on.

You know who the old man with the wild hair was. You know who he will be.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Solo ’16

For Spring Break I enjoyed the chance to cruise 2,676 miles of the the great northwest. Highlights include a quick stop at the Shasta (CA) ghost town, flying my quadcopter over an ersatz Maryhill (OR) Stonehenge, shooting neon signs in Yakima (WA), searching for the Wallace (ID) “Center of the Universe” sewer access cover, photographing the Anaconda (MT) Club Moderne (a classic of streamlined architecture), visiting the Rigby (ID) Birthplace of Television museum, driving down rutted roads to survey the Ely (NV) Ward Charcoal Ovens State Park, and staying a night at the infamous Tonopah (NV) Clown Motel and Miner's cemetery - all while grooving on old Dragnet radio shows, complete with Jack Webb taking a Fatima "smoke break" at least once per episode.

Holiday Motel, Bend (OR)
Club Moderne, Anaconda (MT)
Clown Motel, Tonopah (NV)

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Thoughts on the potential CSU Strike

A student recently asked me to answer some questions about a CSU potential strike that may affect all 23 campuses of the California State University system this April. With that student's permission, I'm reposting the exchange here. For facts and analysis, I encourage you to check out the California Faculty Association FAQ. For one faculty member's take on the situation (expanding on a number of posts I've written about the academic market), read on...

What is your opinion on the strike? A strike is a regrettable but sometimes necessary response to unfair working conditions. In this case, CSU administrators have failed to pass along a reasonable portion of increased revenues to repair the damage to faculty pay caused by years of recession. The union has negotiated with the CSU in good faith, and we have certainly tried to avoid a strike. But if this sort of job action is necessary then I stand with my union.

Do you think it's fair to the students? I agree those who state that, "faculty working conditions are student learning conditions." If administrators demean those working conditions by failing to pay workers a wage that allows us to keep up with inflation (in a place known for its extraordinary cost of living) then management is harming students. How, after all, can students succeed if faculty - folks they call to grade assignments, offer mentorship, write recommendation letters, and provide other forms of direct support - can't afford to pay their bills and care for their families? Indeed I would hope that students would feel encouraged to support their faculty, recognizing that we share the same goal: fair and productive working/learning conditions.

How did you feel when you first heard about the strike taking place? When I received the news I understood immediately. Faculty have suffered stagnant wages for years, a fact exacerbated by the growing cost of living in California. We all stepped up to help the CSU weather the economic difficulties wrought by years of shared economic hardship, even accepting a furlough in 2009 to help preserve jobs and help students graduate on time. That furlough meant real pay cuts in a time when many faculty members were struggling to pay their bills. We supported our schools then because we recognized the need to pull together in times of challenge. Now that the economy is growing, albeit more slowly than we'd prefer, the faculty merely ask for some help to keep up with inflation.

Are there any concerns you have because of this? Having joined the union almost immediately upon my employment at SJSU I have always known that a strike could be called. Indeed, I remember participating in an informational picket just a few months after my arrival. It was a strange thing, accepting a job and then soon entering a picket line. While it was nice to join my senior colleagues in singing old protest songs, I inwardly wondered if I was engaged in an activity that might endanger my job. I understood that CSU faculty who pursue authorized job actions are protected from retaliation, but that protection seemed a bit too theoretical to this young professor. Still, I joined my colleagues and was proud to play my part (small as it was). I feel no less determined today. No one wants to strike. But if we must, we will.

Do you think it's important for the faculty to go on strike? Why? A wide range of global, social, economic, and even philosophical trends have contributed to a de-professionalization of education. For many administrators (not all, but enough), faculty members are increasingly viewed as disposable employees - as "human resources" - who should feel lucky to have a job and must be willing to acquiesce in silence to their managers. But we are not widgets. We are professionals, subject matter experts, artists, counselors, coaches, and experts in our fields. We know our students; we serve on the front lines of the struggles to help them enter a tough marketplace and, more importantly, become well-rounded human beings. We became educators because we love to teach, and to learn. So, yes, we accepted a "calling" of sorts. Still, we pay the same sorts of bills as everyone else, and we know our value, even if some administrators don't. We appreciate it when chancellors and board members pay lip service to our central role in educating the next generation of students; we are grateful for their kind words. At the same time we deserve and demand a fair wage. So if there's a strike, I'll join my colleagues - and those students who wish to participate - and do my part.


Infographic by Deric Mendes

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

SLP Street Art

Highlights from a street art search in San Luis Potosí...

Monday, February 29, 2016

Mexican Journey

Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey
Campus San Luis Potosi
Last week Jenny and I traveled to Mexico (our first time!), having accepted an invitation to participate in the Global Faculty Program at Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education. The gig emerged from a dinner conversation with Claudia Ugalde in St. Petersburg, Russia of all places. We’d both completed three weeks of a study abroad program in Finland and were enjoying a meal with other friends and colleagues when Claudia recommended the Mexico program. Since I’d enjoyed working with her students so much, she figured I’d have a swell time on one of their home campuses. So after submitting an application I received to word: I’d be heading to San Luis Potosí.

Pozole in SLP Old Town
I had no idea of what to expect. Her colleagues and I discussed plenty of logistics: flights, lodging, that sort of thing. But my actual duties remained flexible until a few days before departure. That’s when I received word of their request that I’d teach ten lectures on a broad range of topics. They’d read my vita and found topics that fit with my skills and interests, and in fact I really only needed to prep a handful of presentations. They were happy for me to repeat lectures for several class sections.

Searching for Street Art
Still, there are few things that are both as exhilarating and terrifying for an educator as flying into another country, arriving late at night, waking up super early to prep, catching a ride to campus, being shown around various spaces, finding my assigned classroom, figuring out the tech, getting to know the professor hosting this lecture, sizing up the students as they walk in, and then hearing a silent voice in my head that goes, ".... and nowwwwww... teach!" 

Campus San Luis Potosí 
Thus I especially appreciated the pleasure (and relief) in knowing that the old tricks and half-forgotten techniques, the familiar dance and untrodden path, managed to connect. On my first day I presented two versions of "Gamification: Disrupting Business and Higher Education,” smiling to find that this topic is just as relevant in Mexico as it is in Belarus, in Finland, and in California. Pretty soon I got into a pleasant groove, presenting lectures on "Silicon Valley Startup Culture," "Intercultural Communication: Crossing Borders and Dismantling Walls" (with some snippy Trump references, of course), and "China: The Once and Future Superpower.”

Nighttime in Jardín Guerrero, Querétaro
Somewhat embarrassingly, I also prepped a lecture called "Mediated Communication: Rethinking Engagement in the Age of Ubiquity” but accidentally fired up the wrong Prezi one day and ran the “Intercultural Presentation” talk instead. Neither the professor nor the students seemed to mind, though, and we ended up having a rollicking visit. The conversations that ensued gave me much to contemplate about life in Mexico, and about local perceptions of U.S. culture. That evening Jenny and I joined other visiting faculty and a wonderful campus host for late-night dinner in a restaurant themed after Frida Kahlo. The food and chat were delightful.

El México de Frida
After finishing my tenth lecture and saying goodbye to our new friends in San Luis Potosí, we joined a Monterrey Tech tour of Teotihuacán, which included an opportunity to learn about indigenous astronomy, agriculture, and spirituality - and to climb the Pyramid of the Sun. I can still hear the whistling wind and see the clouds roll over the valley, and I can still smell the burning sage we used for a ceremony that gave us permission to ascend those sacred steps.

Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacán
Afterward our group sampled some local tequilas (Jenny passed on that part, of course) and then cruised back to SLP. With all the driving back and forth, we ended up getting three hours of sleep before our return flights. But we’re wide awake in our love and affection for Mexico. My new pals there have encouraged me to return one day, and I hope I can. Indeed, I can't believe it's taken me this long to begin exploring this amazing place!

Atop the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacán
Check out my Facebook album for more pix.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Iowa 2016

Jeff Darcy
OK. Joke’s over.

Recently while having coffee with a colleague, the topic of Donald Trump came up. My pal had noticed a number of political posters in our hallways, some comparing Trump’s rhetoric with the vile history of Nazism. She was glad to see that many of our students are politically involved. I replied that I appreciated their sentiments, even as I bemoan their excesses. “Comparing Trump to Hitler,” I said, “just seems silly.”

I affirmed my belief that Trump is a circus sideshow of blustery soundbites and shameless hucksterism. Yet a vibrant democracy must allow for his voice, I said, grating as it is. Splashing a swastika Trump’s over goofy hairdo kills the potential for serious debate. What’s worse, the attack mutes the meaning of real Nazis and the real terror they spread. Sure, Trump projects a cult of personality. His reckless militarism is scary. And his “take back our country” pablum begs the question, “take it back, from whom?” Trump’s a fool. But he’s no fascist. An opportunist? A bully? A chickenhawk? Oh, yeah. But let’s not hyperventilate just yet.

My pal rebuked me. Hitler was mocked and ridiculed, too. And then he took power.

I thought about this for a few days… until Sarah Palin entered the fray to throw her support behind Trump. “OK, that’s it,” I said to myself. “The 2016 campaign has officially become a conceptual art exhibit.” And sure enough, there was Tina Fey once again delivering a ruthless satire on SNL, rendering Palin somehow more of a laughing stock than she was in ’08. Best of all, Fey merely had to repeat Palin’s bizarro-land stream-of-consciousness almost word for word. I began to relax. Of course Palin would stand beside Trump in the political cloud-cuckoo-land of 2016! These gags write themselves.

To this point I’ve believed that Iowa Republicans would eventually get the joke. But enough Hawkeye State Republicans caucused for Donald Trump to put the New York billionaire officially in the number two spot, sending The Donald off to New Hampshire where he holds a commanding lead. This is the guy who joked that Megyn Kelly’s tough questioning could be explained by “blood coming out of her wherever,” the guy who ridiculed John McCain by saying, “'I like people who weren't captured,” the guy claimed he could "could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody" and not lose any voters… This guy almost won the GOP Iowa primary.

I still think that Trump is a national embarrassment, and I continue to believe that the democratic process is resilient enough to endure his shameful rhetoric. And I remain adamant that efforts to denigrate political hacks as “Nazis” insults both history and our potential to disagree in a constructive manner. At the same time, I will no longer dismiss Donald Trump as a national joke. He nearly took Iowa, losing to the slightly less loathsome Ted Cruz; he’s running for President of the United States, and he can still win.

If we let him.