On PhD humiliation: letter to a friend

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Hi Beth,

It was good to see you yesterday, although you did seem out-of-sorts and, as you said yourself: shattered. As I sat there I was quite torn. On the one hand you were asking for my thoughts and recollections, but on the other hand it seemed that more than anything you needed to have a good howl. I hope you got that (howl) before the end of the day. So in answer to your question, here are a few thoughts. I hope they help, but I think the howl will probably help more.

The PhD process brought me to some of my lowest lows in my work life so far. Bringing our as-yet-unformed work in front of so-called experts is exposing, even humiliating. It’s hard not to feel demeaned and belittled in front of rigorous academic critique. I remember phoning Rob after one such session and choking, sobbing over the phone. That was my lowest point and I nearly, nearly gave up. On one level a PhD is simply a qualification in bloody-minded persistence. It’s about not giving up, and about keeping going through times exactly like this.

In retrospect (and I know this is probably not much consolation) I can see the emotional lows are a big part of the process. You will reach a stage where you know the answers to the questions raised by experts or you can see the questions for what they are – irrelevant. Then there you are, standing firm on your own piece of ground and robust in your position.

Remember, also, we are ‘disabled’ to some degree by our age, gender and past as practitioners. Academic language and norms are not the same as the languages we use in practice. As difficult as it is to learn a new language, so it is to learn academic norms of communication. This will feel a real struggle at first but once mastered you have a huge advantage because you will know how to speak in practice AND in academic words. Bilingual. Not all academics have that. Similarly as a woman you may struggle to be heard in your male-dominated discourse, but once you’ve mastered the use of male academic language then you have the advantage of being able to slip in-between those worlds.

So well done on getting this far. Hang on in there. Persistence is key. More than anything, just take the next step.

Warm wishes, Lisa

The catastrophic consequences of demolishing freeways. Not.

Existing masshouse infrastructure

masshouse-changes

Photos courtesy of Birmingham City Council

There has been an air of impossibility surrounding discussions about the Foreshore and catastrophizing about the traffic chaos which ‘will’ ensue. (Catastrophizing which, by the way, should be taken with one very big pinch of salt). The protestations are so dramatic, one would think that Cape Town is the only city to face traffic congestion and a busy inner city core.

Urban enthusiasts are already familiar with the North American examples where elevated freeways have been removed without descent into Armageddon (and instead with many benefits to the cities concerned). These benefits include better access to all areas along the road (previously inaccessible); unlocking new opportunities for land development; better pedestrian access; opportunities for public spaces; and reduced noise. I love these pictures of the UK city of Birmingham where a ring road built in the 1960s was part of the reason for the city’s grimy and dreary reputation. The City council saw the potential to bring the road infrastructure to ground, unlocking large packages of land. Latest news is that these packages of inner city land have been sold for residential apartment blocks, generating a new wave of inner city life which keeps the centre vibrant while relieving the need for so much car space for commuters. In light of ongoing tension over housing, particularly inner city housing, it’s really time that the debate over freeways also allowed for a more informed discussion about demolition.

Small is beautiful: on NMT infrastructure

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Picture from ‘Annual Report of the City Engineer, Cape Town. 1984-1985’

 

“Without large and expensive investments for public (mass) transport or situations such as the cycle lanes in Rosebank/Rondebosch, what other options exist for promoting non-motorised transport?” Thanks to the UCT student who forced me to think hard about this.

We are somewhat obsessed with big infrastructure projects. Whether it is big freeways, or big BRT schemes or the “big” cycle infrastructure projects. Whatever form it takes, we love those big, sexy (expensive) infrastructure schemes. And yet, if you take a good look at the places where walking and cycling thrives (think Scandinavia, the low countries, small town UK, even Portland, US), for the most part this is not achieved on the back of big schemes like we see in Rondebosch or next to the BRT. Rather, these shifts have been achieved thanks to decades of incremental, small scale, local improvements to junctions, crossings, local streets, local schools, residential neighbourhoods. By applying a road narrowing here, speed tables there, speed restrictions, play streets, one ways, traffic circles, traffic signal priorities for pedestrians, improved footways, landscaping (get the picture) then local streets and neighbourhoods have been transformed and (most importantly slowed). This is important for two reasons. Firstly to work well NMT needs safe, comfortable door-to-door access which the big infrastructure projects can never give; secondly, investing in local areas has long term spin off benefits by making local areas and businesses more attractive (which in the long run cuts down on the necessity for car trips)….a win-win.

So, my medicine for NMT would be budgetary and organisational. Change and increase the local government transport and planning department budget lines to better support localised action, and get over the obsession with big sexy infrastructure schemes. Of course, such medicine is mundane, slow, and not as attractive to construction companies or politicians as the big schemes…..but its cheaper and in the long run much more effective.

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