Tag Archives: humphrey

Gopher Ties

17 Aug

I’ve been out of graduate school for two years now, and a wedding of a former classmate this past weekend gave me a moment to look back on those two years of my life. My time at the University of Minnesota has misfortune of living in the shadow of a very different academic and institutional environment from my undergrad days—one that is hard to compare on many levels. But it was still a formative experience, and if readers of this blog know anything, they know I have a fondness for reflecting on formative experiences, so it’s time to give my time as a Gopher the same treatment I’ve given to my other alma maters.

I earned a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The fact that the U of M’s planning program is located in a policy school, and not an architecture school or somewhere else, is unique in and of itself. It gave planning a valuable social context that I think it deserves, as opposed to a more technical engineering-focused education. That said, the MURP program was also Humphrey’s red-headed stepchild; the dean would make good-natured but all-too-true jokes about how he didn’t know any of us. Our program was a forgotten little corner of a sprawling research university, and as a result many of us in it developed some chips on our shoulders. It could be a lonely world, but also one that built its own fierce tribe that stuck together through grad school and beyond.

Perhaps the biggest difference between my undergraduate life at Georgetown and Humphrey was the level of institutional support for students. While there are good and bad professors everywhere, the range of teaching quality at Humphrey was much wider than it was at Georgetown, where duds were few and far between. Some, including the current MURP program director, met a fantastic ideal of intellectual heft, ability to teach, and care for students. Others were so weak or so transparently more interested in their own careers than their students that it was hard not to check out in their presence, especially for those of us who preferred not to BS our way through things. I also had several unfortunate encounters with incompetent middle-level bureaucracy, from Humphrey human resources to the broader university’s health insurance system, which left a very sour taste in my final semester. The contrasts between the Georgetown financial aid office professional who went the extra mile to make sure I had everything I needed and the U of M’s automated and soulless systems, or between the Georgetown advisory dean who oversaw a four-person seminar for my major and one poor, overworked guy for a whole Humphrey, was striking. Funding for educational support staff is necessary at all levels, period: the difference in students’ mental health and career readiness is night and day.

The size of the U of M wasn’t all bad. I enjoyed the trappings of life at a Big Ten school; even though most of the major sports teams sucked during my time there, it made for excellent atmosphere on game days, and I will always feel a certain sense of home amid the frenetic energy of undergrads. The U of M is also so large that it’s hard for a single culture to dominate, as Georgetown’s East Coast preppiness sometimes could, and everyone could find their own little communities somewhere on campus. The urban campus gave access to an intriguing city, especially on the West Bank, where Humphrey sat a stone’s throw from the Somali-populated towers of Cedar-Riverside. We grad students mostly lived a bit further afield, clustering in neighborhoods that gave us access to plenty of good living beyond our schoolwork. In a phase of life where I had no pressing need to own a vehicle, it was a great place to be, and a large urban area is an excellent laboratory for aspiring planners.

Unlike Georgetown, which was caught up in a much larger mystique and set of life goals, I chose Humphrey for largely instrumental reasons. It is comparatively cheap, and its name and location provided access to networks and a ticket to a job in my field in the city where I wanted to be. It is reasonably well-regarded, though prestige means relatively little for a planning master’s program unless one is going on to a PhD. I find it somewhat ironic that this is the degree that gets me jobs when I think my undergraduate experience was more rigorous, more formative, and did more to prepare me to navigate through the adult world. But that, I suppose, is the world I live in. Higher education is a remarkably valuable thing, but not for the letters on the pieces of paper that students get at the end.

Even as a staunch defender of higher education, I could see how falsely this race to acquire credentials rang for so many of my peers, and had some sympathies when they rolled their eyes at the university system for leeching off of it. But if this was the price I had to pay, it was modest and reasonable, and more often than not was worth the cost. I was dismissive when classmates said they weren’t getting enough real world skills such as interpretation of zoning code, and nothing since then has altered that outlook. That’s not what grad school is for. Instead, it’s an immersive step outside the humdrum routine of working life, and a theater for students to negotiate crucial questions of what the actual outcome of their work will be. The debates we had in the MURP lab over beers at bars down the street or at Liquor Lyle’s set the table for everything that came after. Take it from Frank Bruni’s college admissions friend in this timely, excellent overview on how to get the most out of college: “The more you regard college as a credentialing exercise, the less likely you are to get the benefits.”

One of the real advantages of planning is the diversity of backgrounds of people who come into it, and for that matter in what they do coming out of it. A laundry list that includes architects, policy wonks, philosophers, map enthusiasts, and recovering bankers go in, some straight out of undergrad and some with varying degrees of working world experience. Developers, hardcore activists, academics, consultants, and traditional government employees all come out. We all tested each other, learned from each other, and became more complete people thanks to one another.

I made the decision to go to urban planning school at a point where my career ambitions were at a nadir, and am not sure if I would make the same choice today if not for the community that Humphrey built. We had good debates in classrooms, yes, but what Humphrey truly cultivated was a group of people with whom I can continue to make sure I’m doing what I want to do. The cozy MURP program gives its graduates a ready community of practice who, in the event that I have some sort of question on effective policy programs for particular issues or the value of adopting some technological tool, will give me an immediate, comprehensive response if I share it with my network. And for deeper dilemmas of where exactly we’re going with our work, they’re there, too.

This isn’t to say the network was without some frustrations. There was a general political groupthink to both the MURP program and the broader Humphrey, with only rare deviance. Within the MURP program itself, the lack of diversity was a frequent source of frustration for administration and students alike. And, as with any small group of people, it’s not hard to fall too deep into the weeds and lose track of other things, a fact of life that is mostly harmless but sometimes limiting. (During the wedding, I overheard one person declaiming loudly on bar graphs; over the course of the day, I had at least five people ask me if I’d heard of the latest incident of Minneapolis political outrage in which some low-grade elected official made a hash of trying to silence a bothersome hyper-local journalist.) Small communities will always have their internal little incidents that can disturb the peace. That’s life with other people.

In our best moments, my grad school cohort built exactly the sort of little community that we planners are supposed to uphold in the world. And now, out in that working world, we are spreading that seed. I struggle to define the emotion I feel upon seeing a rush of babies born to the married members of my class in the two years since graduation: it puts on hold a life so often driven by calculation and ambition, and I am left only with a sense of humility, a moment of rightness before the power of creation. While I don’t begrudge those who choose different arrangements (or are unable to choose it), child-rearing is central to my vision for a sustainable, healthy community: if we truly believe in leaving the world better than we found it, how can we not bring life into it ourselves? How can that not be the ultimate task, the ultimate test of our ability to stand up for what we claim to believe in? No matter where I may wander from here, that desire to live in community and contribute to it will be central, and I have my time at Humphrey to forever fuel it.

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On Student Leadership

17 Apr

I’m finishing graduate school in less than a month. This is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying, and this weekend’s end-of-year banquet at the Landmark Center in St. Paul made it all that much more real. I’ll have a lot to say about my two years as a Gopher in the coming month, and I will also reserve greater judgment until I’ve had more distance, as I did with my Georgetown blog post some two-plus years after graduation. (Even now, upon rereading, that post seems overly critical.) But first, I want to reflect a little on my time as a student leader for two very distinct student organizations. I didn’t do anything earth-shattering with either one, but in retrospect, they’ll certainly define my time at the U of M more than anything else.

First, I served as President of the student group that represents my graduate program, the Planning Student Organization (PSO). This was one of the true highlights of graduate school. We dramatically ramped up the PSO’s capacity, and cleaned house and left as much positive institutional memory as possible. Some of the work I am most proud of was exceptionally boring, as it involved writing out agendas and doing a lot of bureaucratic slogging in the hope that my successors will be able to apply for larger budgets. Still, it rarely felt like work. I was fortunate to have an excellent team of people with me, all of whom I’d count as good friends, and we managed to have a fair amount of fun along the way.

My time with PSO was also my own little experiment in hyper-local government. I grumble a bit when I learn that both the Dean and Assistant Dean of the Humphrey School have no knowledge that we exist, even though we probably hold as many events as any group in the school. But in reality, we’ve rather intentionally closed ourselves off from the affairs of state in the broader graduate school. Often, a leaner operation with less oversight makes for a much more flexible, less fraught environment. We have the good fortune of having an exceptional new program director, and he certainly made the context easier to navigate. Instead of complaining to a dean when things went awry, we tried to solve them through internal capacity. If we think the admissions office is short-changing our program in its visit days, we politely work with them, but find our own way to rope in new students.  While I’m willing to sign on to a few things and certainly spoke my mind about things that bothered me from time to time, I prefer this only as a last resort. Give me direct action over grumpy letters to the dean any day.

The Humphrey School is at times fractious, its meetings full of controversy and intrigue. In our little wing of the building, there was no such drama. A small program size helps, and we have our own issues of homogeneity and groupthink to work through. Still, it’s an eclectic group with a wide array of academic and experiential backgrounds, but all unified by a vague ideal of community and a desire to have a stake in its future. To the extent that we could invite people in to that and further their goals along this path, we succeeded.

My other commitment did get me out a bit more, as I served as the Managing Editor of the Humphrey Public Affairs Review. We’re still wrapping up our spring issue, and I’m sure I have a few frantic late nights left. Once again, I put in most of my work behind the scenes, going through the same group registration process and writing a syllabus for a class that I kinda sorta co-taught. The day-to-day work involved incessant emails, keeping up with editing teams and tracking down authors and making sure the whole issue is ready to go to press.

HPAR hasn’t always been easy to manage: it’s a new publication still building up its capacity, and its members’ diversity of interests, in many ways a strength, means we’re often not in the same place as the others. Generating submissions can be a challenge, especially when the people who signed up to be PR people never showed up to anything. I’ve never been a salesman, and I probably could have lightened up on my pathological penny-pinching and sprung for a few more marketing materials. Still, we found creative ways to use editors’ talents and connections to fill the void.

A year ago, back before I served on anything, I reflected on how student organization leadership seems both a political training ground and little league at once. I still think that. I honed valuable management skills here, and at times had to work around disinterest, neglect, or just sheer obliviousness from higher-ups. The low-stakes atmosphere lets this come with ease, and students can run things in a low-key, somewhat irreverent way that lessens the stress of commitments and leadership. Without seeming to try very hard, it builds community through ease and proximity.

Half the battle seems to involve just keeping the lights on and constantly having an agenda, looking for ways to do more and achieve those fairly basic goals laid out in mission statements. After that, simply sitting down with people and getting them in the room does most of the rest of the work. This can be especially difficult when everyone has frantic schedules, and there’s something about the calendar-invite era that seems especially counterproductive to having quick, easy check-ins. If everyone part ways with clear roles and distinct action items, things will get done.

My HPAR experience even further underscored the value of human contact. In our paper review process, all our submissions are edited without names attached, so as Managing Editor, it was my job to correspond with authors. This meant a fair amount of softening the sometimes vicious copy-edits that are all too easy to slap on an essay when there’s no name attached to it (something I was just as guilty of the year before) into something more constructive. On a few occasions, this involved setting up in-person meetings with authors and sitting down with them to talk out issues, further humanizing the process. It’s amazing how talking out what points one was trying to make in writing can show exactly what changes are necessary in a paper.

Above all, it’s important to identify when things are sliding off course early and say something right away, otherwise one will be left in one of those situations where one is writing a grumpy or bitter letter. As prolific a writer as I am sometimes, all the pixels in the world can’t convey many of the things that we can share in a conversation. Constant awareness and communication skills, in the end, are what make it all work. By staying transparent in my own operations, I hoped to create an environment where others were free to be transparent with me. There are occasional moments when leadership demands bold stands or declarations, but on a day-to-day basis, it mostly involves the mundane work of gentle stewardship and guidance.

I’ll concede to feeling a bit strange as I close in on the end: I poured myself in for a very brief amount of time, and now I’ll be disappearing (though still in touch). I’m far from perfect; I had a few moments of trial by fire, and a few things that I’d do differently in retrospect. It’s a bit absurd to consider the amount of time I spent doing grunt work for which the only compensation is a bit of sap at transition events and year-end parties. Career ladders are such that leadership skills aren’t always the most relevant things to one’s first post-graduation position, as evidenced by any PSO curriculum discussion in which people worry about their lack of “hard” skills. But even though I’ve wavered, I still learned a lot more about how to work with people and get things done than I ever could have in a classroom. There was never a dull moment, and even if my time here was fleeting, the connections should endure.

Notes on a Tainted Election

2 Feb

With apologies to the vast majority of my readers for whom this post will seem like inside baseball, I felt some need to comment on the recent election scandal for the Public Affairs Student Association (PASA) in my graduate school. The election was canceled and restarted after it became obvious that several people had taken advantage of the thing I noticed when I went to vote (once, and once only!): there was nothing to prevent people from stuffing the electronic ballot box with as many votes as they liked.

The aftermath has produced a number of indignant emails from disgusted students and members of the outgoing PASA administration, and has, predictably, earned the nickname “PASAGATE.” (Ugh, ugh, ugh. Can we please retire that obnoxious idiom?) The wrongdoers, presuming they are not soulless blood-sucking vampires, have been thoroughly shamed—unless they simply do not care about PASA and thought it would be funny, which is the most likely reason for this “fraud.”

As a longtime student of international affairs, I’m well-aware of how precious a vote can be, and how much we Americans can take it for granted. Even so, it also bothers me that voting has now become our most sanctified political act. I wondered vaguely how many of the people upset about this election scandal have ever been to a PASA meeting, or have any conception of what it does beyond organizing weekly happy hours and occasional larger parties. Do we have any right to be indignant about the corruption of democracy if we don’t ever act within that democracy beyond a vote once a year?

I include myself in that category; I’m as guilty as anyone. I also recognize the weird status of student government, as it takes on trappings of importance while acting on issues that are mostly very small in the grand scheme of things. As an undergraduate, I served on a student government at one of the most politically-obsessed schools in the country. I’m proud of the work I did there, and admired the efforts of many of my fellow staffers. Still, it was hard not to sigh and groan over some of the posturing and credential-chasing of some people in and around the student government, and even there in Washington DC, the majority of the campus couldn’t be bothered to care about what we did. It was at once both a thrilling political training ground and little league. It’s the nature of student government to struggle with questions of legitimacy, and there will inevitably be people who find it a self-obsessed joke.

An attempt to hunt down and further shame wrongdoers would likely only confirm that suspicion. Perhaps I’m just being my cynical self here, but it’s at least worth asking whether all the righteousness is merited. I want PASA fight on behalf of grad students for resources and encourage inclusivity and get us out into the community more and, yes, throw some good parties. PASA must avoid falling into solipsism. (What does PASA do? It goes after people who disrespect and abuse PASA!) Student governments certainly can do great work, but its members need some sense of perspective about what is really at stake. (Thankfully, the PASA members I’ve gotten to know in my time here have certainly had that sense of perspective.)

Some of the upset emails demand justice. Yes, justice would be nice, but more than anything, I’d hope for a little engagement beyond the election. If we don’t have that, what’s the point of PASA, anyway?