Tuesday, October 30, 2007

At Last

At last, I sent out the manuscript for the omnitopia book. That's as good an excuse to have missed blogging yesterday as I can imagine. While my day was organized around myriad details concerning the peer mentor program, I managed to squeeze in enough time to discover that my computer had been struck with a virus, that my images were too big to scan without photoshopping them into manageable pieces, that the faculty lab printer was not networked to the computer I was using, and that I'd run out of writable CDs for the digital copy. But as a drizzle of rain began to fall last night, I held the manuscript and CD in my hand, ready to mail. Today I completed that task and now I look back on several years in which this project has weighed most heavily on my mind.

In many ways, writing this book was akin to writing another dissertation, with a couple of key distinctions. First, while I'm writing this book primarily for an academic audience, I hope that a broader community of readers will take some interest in this project. Also, I hope I've improved at this craft over the past ten years, a little, at least. So, am I done? Not by a long shot. Even though I've signed a contract, this is just the initial manuscript. The series editor will now read it carefully and critically, and he'll decide how far along I am to getting this project into publishable shape. Consequentially I do not consider this blog-post to be celebratory; I'm just pausing a bit before the next step. At this juncture, however, I feel it appropriate to look back a bit on several essential steps that led me to this place.

First, I remember seeing the film Logan's Run as a kid and getting inspired. Just looking at the commercials, I became entranced by the cinematic city (later called the "city of domes" in the television version of the show), amazed by the grandeur and audacity of that view. From one vantage point, an observer could peer out over the entire metropolis, all glittery and geometric with that peculiar seventies-sheen. Captivated by Logan's Run, I tried to create my own domed city, gathering Lincoln Logs, Legos, and other childhood bric-a-brac to fill my room with the phantasmagoria of a wholly contained world. Ordering and populating my city, I first attained the perspective of a planner. Omnitopia, while not even an inkling to me back then, was born with Logan's Run and my first encounter with the God's-eye view.

Then, in grad school, I wrote a paper on The Simpsons, conducting a semiotic analysis of Springfield as depicted in the show's opening credits. I was amazed by that city too, and I spent several hours pausing each frame of the show's intro, exploring how the animators rendered their complex world that seemed to play by alien rules to the urbanity I saw elsewhere. Struggling to make some sense out of Springfield, I concluded my essay with a couple of lines about the city's strange conflation of multiple narratives and paradoxical geography. Unable to find an existing term that illustrated Springfield, I demonstrated typical grad school ambition and coined my own: omnitopia. Even then I knew that the clumsy slapping together of Latin and Greek roots would cause any serious student of etymology conniption fits, but I only planned to use the word in this classroom exercise. I would probably forget it soon thereafter. Yet when my professor, Jenny Nelson, commented in the paper's margins that I should pursue this line of reasoning in future work, I decided to store omnitopia in my long-term memory.

The word came in handy when I entered the tenure track at San Jose State University, when my college dean, Lela Noble, surprised me by adding to my fourth-year evaluation that, while I was "on track" for tenure, it would be useful for me to pursue more scholarly journal articles. It seemed like good advice to me, but things got tense when I mentioned that note to my department chair. "She wrote that?" he asked, his eyes wide with concern. Suddenly I understood that my dean's comment was no small addendum; it would become the line against which my tenure prospects would be measured. I lost a lot of sleep over the next two days, realizing that I'd focused too much of my time on other academic projects, failing to advance the peer reviewed-journal part of my tenure dossier. I needed to get productive in that area, fast. I met with a senior colleague (and my office-mate at the time), Philip Wander, and discussed my options. We talked about several papers I'd written, and he encouraged me to revise them. Soon afterward I sent one to an international journal, one to a regional journal, and one to a state journal. I dedicated my strongest work, a preliminary extension of the omnitopia project, to Communication Theory. To this day I am amazed that the editor accepted my rough amblings about the omnitopian implications of airport design and performance. The work needed a substantial revision, but eventually my wanderings around omnitopia got published. I had discovered a research line that would carry me through tenure and beyond. Several articles followed in quick succession, and by the time I got through tenure I had long shed my worries about job security. I was too exited about omnitopia to consider stopping, even after I became an associate professor.

Finally, I recall a conversation with my family while we were on the road that helped cement my confidence in the omnitopia project. As anyone who knows me can attest, I love long-distance highway travel. Two weeks provide a good minimum for a cross-country roadtrip. So, it was during one of those journeys that my daughter asked me, "Dad, what is omnitopia anyway?" She'd heard me discuss the term while I was writing some of those initial articles, and she was curious. She's a bright and precocious kid, so I felt comfortable sharing some fairly complex theory. But I still had to explain my terms in language accessible to a high school student. That's the real test, I think: sharing one's academic work with a non-specialized audience. I did my best, working through the omnitopian framework with my daughter, offering examples and clarifying things even to myself. She asked thoughtful and probing questions, prompting me to rethink a few underdeveloped assumptions. And at the end of my mini-lecture, she confirmed that omnitopia made sense to her. Thereafter on our trips she and I would occasionally point out what we saw as examples of omnitopia. The word and some of its related terminology became a shorthand to our family as we traveled. That's when I knew: When my family adopted omnitopia for themselves as a way of seeing the world, I was sure that this work might merit a book.

Since then I've spent countless hours on buses, in airplanes, at coffee shops, and in conversation, trying to complete this manuscript. Today, at last, I have sent it to an editor, and I feel hopeful that this first draft bodes well for the successful completion of this project. If this book does get published, I will search for opportunities to deliver guest lectures and enjoy the appearances of omnitopia scholarship in other scholars' works. Not everyone agrees with my articulation of the term, and plenty of folks are sure that I'm missing essential components of urban life when using omnitopia as a lens. That's OK with me. I'm just happy to help advance a useful conversation about the city as a site (and as a confounding variable) of human communication and sense-making.

Read At Last - Part II

Read Omnitopia Update

No comments: