Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Herky Jerky Dance of the Scholar-Activist

I'm currently reading, writing, and avoiding my way through the most intense period of my PhD program. In June I will spend a few hours convincing a panel of experts, selected by me, that I am sufficiently familiar with the discipline of sociocultural anthropology to embark on the dissertation project I have designed. This is called the oral examination. I must prepare for this performance by researching four topics relevant both to my project and to the discipline, and writing bibliographic essays describing my knowledge.

My project challenges the traditional separation of university and field site because I have merged the two. Instead of traveling thousands of miles once a year to visit the field, I travel dozens of miles four times a week to visit the university. This act of situating myself between the field as an activist and the university as a scholar sometimes works better on paper than in real life.

To me spending long weeks alone, grappling with text and creating new forms of it, seems selfish. It certainly gets lonely. Sometimes my ability to move fluidly from the private, monastic world of my textual research to the human world of my home and field site gets jammed, and I end up feeling like a space creature clinging to nonsense in an impenetrable enclosure.

This retreat from the space of everyday life to one of reflection has been something I wished to avoid, so I came up with a project grounded in bike activism. And right now the bike activist in me would be better used writing grants to fund the ridiculously awesome bike cooperative City of Lights/ Ciudad de Luces has started at a day laborer center downtown.

Yet I can't do it all! I can't simultaneously devote myself to moving toward becoming a PhD candidate and do substantive work on the activist project that forms an important part of my dissertation research.

A while ago I figured out that many academics would like to be more involved in politics and public opinion, but they get swamped with the institutional requirements of working as professors in the United States. Committees, publishing, mentoring undergrads and grads, having families (ha!); only a few manage to secure their livelihoods and then go the extra mile to frame their work for wider audiences. We sit on the sidelines and grumble at what passes for knowledge disseminated through national media outlets, and that's about all we have time for.

I've been fortunate enough to find myself in a doctoral program that not only pushes me to expand academia beyond the Ivory Tower, but also offers me excellent examples of people doing this work, like my adviser, Dr. Michael Montoya, who strives to use anthropological knowledge to impact public health debates and practices.

But when push comes to shove, if I want to be an academic, I will have to go through these periods of intense separation from the everyday world. A PhD still has some value to it, even in this era of crowdsourcing and near total surrender to conspicuous consumption. Right?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Who Are They Landscaping For?

I rode my bike the long way to school today, detraining at Irvine station and rambling through the maze of creek trails and freeway overpasses that makes up this conspicuously gridless simulacrum.

Often recently I've had to leave the wide bike lanes that signify some ancient (1960s or 70s) vision of a bicycling way of life here because of landscaping trucks parked along the strips of sidewalk. Irvine appears lush and pillowy, as though water in Southern California flows plentifully. This blatant lie can only be maintained through constant manicuring, with who knows how many Latino workers trimming, shaping, watering, and planting the grass and shrubs that line all of Irvine's winding streets.

These streets usually have a greenbelt between the sidewalk and the street, and on many streets bicyclists get confusing indicators that they are also welcome on the curving paths that wind through the grass along the road, despite the clearly marked and wide bike lanes. Most of the time when I ride here, though, these sidewalks lie empty, a mere concrete line wiggling along with the cars as they speed past. Bicyclists do not get contiguous facilities; bike lanes invariably disappear near freeways, exactly where we most need infrastructural support to navigate the transition of drivers from a surface street mentality (if they even have one anymore) to a freeway mentality.

I really think Irvine maintains all of these greenbelts and park-looking spaces so that the people ripping through their city at 60 miles per hour can see something that appears pleasant to their conditioned eyes as they gaze through their windshields. I don't think they do it for the humans who actually attempt to use their legs to ambulate through this "town," cause I see a lot more two legged creatures on the off-street paths that have little attempt at landscaping running along their asphalt lengths.

In Irvine grass is meant to be seen through glass, air is meant to be breathed through an engine, and those who use other modes of transport must remain secondary to the automobilized vision of paradise. The sidewalks and bike lanes can be there because they refer to some pretended interest in quality of life, and we can even use them, but make no mistake, the landscaping is not for us. I remember that every time a landscaping truck ends the bike lane and every time I must ride between drivers speeding onto freeway onramps on my right and drivers speeding past me on my left.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Recent Adventures in Transit

1. Every month I buy a Metrolink commuter pass. It's awesome, it costs a bunch, but it lets me ride any Metrolink or Amtrak train between LA and Irvine, in addition to being my LA Metro pass. But every month I put off forking over $250 until the first of the month, which means I end up having to buy a ticket for the subway to get to Union Station so I can buy my new pass. This slight inconvenience (which I bring on myself) often leads to waiting in line to buy my ticket at the station while I hear the Union Station-bound train arrive and depart from the platform below, its usual two minutes ahead of schedule. Well, this time around, as I did my 1st-of-the month-disgruntled-wasting-$1.25 shuffle, I happened to complain about missing the train we could hear down below to a security guard. He spontaneously made the machine spit out free tickets for me and the guy in front of me at the ticket machine too. I still missed the train, but that was pretty nice.

2. Then I made a stop over at the public library downtown, and picked up some academic books (hooray for the library!). LA does not offer transfers for transit users, but subway tickets are good for two hours from the time of purchase, and they only list the origin station. So if I'm traveling in one direction, make a brief stop, and then continue traveling in the same direction on the same line, I feel okay using the same ticket. I hiked down from the library to Pershing Square. Down at the bottom of the first set of escalators, where there's still daylight coming in, there are these ashtrays that fill with the garbage of passersby. Someone had apparently flicked a lit cigarette into one of these puppies, and the junk food bags inside lit up. I poured some water on it, and felt kind of cool as I passed into the station. Then, as I was boarding a train down below, this guy said, "have you been putting out fires your whole life?" Zing!

3. When I got back to Vermont/Beverly, Metrolink pass secured, I noticed that they'd installed a mosaic that wraps around three walls, each panel featuring...women's shoes. Shoes shoes shoes. It's quite an injection of color into a drab station.