26 Weeks of Insightful Advice

We at The Metropole recently realized that we have featured 26 Members of the Week since launching in April–half a year’s worth of spotlights on a diverse slice of the UHA’s membership. We have learned so much about the state of the field through these profiles, particularly what’s cutting edge in urban research and what books everyone has at the top of their reading piles (Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City has been the most frequently cited). Our Members of the Week have also been fonts of wisdom, sharing excellent advice for scholars at all stages of their careers.

The most common advice was to write frequently, share work widely, and attend the UHA conference with regularity. Some Members of the Week acknowledged, however, that this can sometimes be easier said than done. Our very first Member of the Week, Koji Hirata, drew a parallel between the unpredictable nature of urban formation and the process of writing history:

“I think studying a city shows us the complexity and contingency of history. In my own research I am fascinated by the contrast between the high modernist visions of city planners and the rather chaotic process of urban formation on the ground. This helped me feel better about the gap between my dissertation writing plan and its real process.”

Echoing Hirata’s point about “complexity and contingency,” John Fairfield pointed out that indeed this is one of the satisfying advantages of studying cities:

“History and especially historians can never have the whole urban story and so you must branch out into philosophy, sociology, political science, literary theory, economics, ecology, and so much more.”

For this reason, Timothy Lombardo’s number one piece of advice was to go with the flow:

“Be flexible. Be flexible with your research, with your reading, with your writing, and with your career path. Urban history/studies is a growing field with a lot of possibilities, but young scholars shouldn’t let it also be a limitation. I think the flexibility to read across specialties and disciplines, to publish in different forums, and to research beyond what we usually consider urban history are important parts of scholarly development and maturation. I didn’t start out doing urban history; my research took me in that direction. It also helps to be flexible in where young scholars think they can do urban history. I’m pretty sure there was never a point when I was growing up in Philly, or at any point thereafter, that I told myself that I wanted to end up in Mobile, Alabama. But I remained open to different possibilities and followed them when they opened up. Now I’m lucky to be forging a career at a good university, with great students, and excellent colleagues.”

Yet Carmen Tsui warned:

“Urban historians and scholars often have broad interests. We are curious about everything that is happening, or has happened, in the city. Nevertheless, it is hard to do everything at once. Sometimes, we need to focus on the project at hand and be realistic about our working capacity.”

Alexia Yates offered some succinct advice for how to strike this balance:

“Be comparative, move across scales, but stay locally embedded and make sure there are people in your story. Every history takes (and makes) place.”

Expanding on Yates’s call to “move across scales,” Mauricio Castro urged colleagues to take a more global perspective on the city:

“As urbanists we tend to focus on the local histories and what they can tell us about national trends. I would tell young scholars to question whether these stories end at the city limits or even at the country’s border. While histories that deal with immigration and cities is most obvious, I would suggest that young scholars seek out other ways in which every city is a global city.”

Meanwhile, Scarlett Rebman recommended scholars pursue opportunities to work with local communities:

“Although it can be daunting when time is so precious, seize opportunities to share your work with community members outside of academia. Consider partnering with a community organization on a humanities project. The results will most likely be unexpected but exciting.”

On the topic of collegiality, Joe Merton and Betsey Schlabach both advised urbanists to consider and help more junior scholars. Merton wrote:

“… don’t forget where you have come from. You were once that irritating undergraduate determined to perfect their coursework or borrow that book. Likewise, you were once that sessional teaching assistant on a poorly-paid, fixed-term contract with little time for marking and teaching preparation, let alone research. Provide counsel and advice, lend support – especially to those new to the game or on short-term contracts – and be as giving of your time as others were to you.”

And Schlabach emphasized:

“if you find yourself in a place where you can take advantage of the benefits of tenure-track employment turn your focus to the tireless advocacy for contingent laborers in our field–the adjuncts, visiting assistant professors, and short-term contracts. There is no better place to focus our efforts.”

In conclusion, Michael Pante offered some wisdom that we imagine resonates with all UHA members:

“There’s no substitute to experiencing the city, seeing first-hand its unexplored corners, uncovering its faults, and especially interacting with the people who make its existence possible on an everyday basis. I don’t think scholars of urban studies who do so will ever run out of new stories and insights.”

Looking forward to gleaning more and more insight as we continue to spotlight our Members of the Week!

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