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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Six Months of Sabbatical (More or Less)

Yesterday was town-hall meeting for all Friends University employees; afterwards, our university's interim president invited me to serve on a summer committee involving various transitions which are underway here at Friends, but I demurred (even though some of those transitions are very important to me). As far as I'm concerned, yesterday's meeting was the last bit of academic business I'll have to attend to for the next sixth months. Of course, the next spring semester won't begin until January 13, 2015, so I suppose technically I could say my sabbatical is actually seven months and change in length. But then there'll be some advising stuff going on during those months, as well as some students who took incompletes in their classes that I'll need to deal with. And of course, I'll have to write my syllabi and order the books. So let's just say I've got six months to work on the sabbatical ideas that I first wrote about over a year ago, and nothing else. I'm going to think about, research about, talk to people about, and write at least a couple of papers (hopefully eventual chapters for a book) about the appropriate conceptual definition of, and theory of governance and sustainability for, cities "of a certain size"--which is on possible title for my overall project on mid-sized cities, like Wichita. How do I intend to do that? A few basic steps:

Reading: I have about 25 books (plus numerous articles and studies) siting on my desk or on their way to me, all dealing in one way or another with communities both large and small, both urban and rural, and the sorts of citizens they either shape or need, and all which I need to read or re-read all or parts of. Among them:

Mark Abrahamson, Global Cities
Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do?
Benjamin Barber, If Mayors Rules the World
M.P. Baumgartner, The Moral Order of a Suburb
Daniel A. Bell and Avner de-Shalit, The Spirit of Cities
Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air
Harvey Cox, The Secular City
Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City
Brendan Gleeson, The Urban Condition
Alan Ehrenhalt, The Lost City and The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities
Peter Levine, We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For
Susan McWilliams, Traveling Back
Witold Rybczynski, Makeshift Metropolis
Richard Sennett, Together
James Shortridge, Cities on the Plains
Michael Taylor, Community, Anarchy, and Liberty
Adam K. Webb, Beyond the Global Culture War
Thad Williamson, Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship
Thad Williamson, David Imbroscio, Gar Alperovitz, Making Place for Community
Robert Wuthnow, Remaking the Heartland and Small-Town America
Sharon Zukin, Naked City

That's a lot of reading, but if I don't have anything else on my plate for the next six months, I can get through it, right?

Bicycling: Over the past eight years of regular bike commuting here in Wichita, I suppose I've put over 10,000 miles on my Trek 7100. That's an impressive feat for getting around a city that lags behind just about every other urban area of significant size in America's plains states (Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Omaha, and Kansas City are all way ahead of us, though thankfully we're still better than Dallas)--but unfortunately, the great majority of that riding has been along my commute, and no where else. There are all sorts of public parks and other open spaces in the great Wichita area that I want to explore--and, if possible, even do some documenting of (both written and photography), since I want to be able to incorporate into my research a fair number of on-the-ground observations, studies of land use, and perhaps even artistic depictions of the practices, both historical and current, which make Wichita the sort of city it is. This means getting out and getting around, visiting different neighborhoods, spending time on less-used (by a west-side resident like myself) routes, and getting a better, different feel of this city that we've called home for most of decade, and presumably will call home for at least a decade or so more, if not longer.

Meetings: Didn't I start this out talking about the meetings I intended to avoid for the next six months? Well, yes--but that allows time for meetings of a different sort. If I'm going to provide the bones of my theoretical reflections with any substantive meat, I've got to not just observe, but attend to what others with access to information, with ideas about the heritage and future of Wichita, and how it compares (in ways both good and bad) to other cities of a similar size, are doing and saying. I've long been at least somewhat engaged in our neighborhood association and various local events and arguments, but I want to use the time I'll have over the rest of 2014 to do more. I want to get out to as many of the meetings of the Wichita Bicycle Master Plan, the Community Investments Plan, and the Wichita City Council as I can, and get to know (and ideally interview) some of their major players, from the Mayor on down. Why? I mean, they aren't (or at least I assume they aren't) political theorists or students of comparative government or community sustainability. True--but they know a great deal that I don't know, about what has worked in Wichita and what hasn't, and they can offer at least as informed opinion as anyone could about whether they things that did, or didn't, work did so because of some particular human factor, or rather reflected something cultural, something systemic, something--and here is where my real questions begin--that might shed light on the specific political, economic, and environmental struggles which a large-but-not-metropolitan urban communities--cities of a certain size!--happen to face.

(I should add that, which obviously Wichita will be the inspiration and foundation for most of my particular observations, it's not going to be the only city I'll be looking at. This summer I'll be traveling with my family to my hometown of Spokane, WA, for a big family reunion. As Spokane is about the same size and is situated in its local natural and socio-economic environment much the same way Wichita is--large, but not metropolitan; the biggest and clearly the dominant urban area for more than 100 miles around, but nonetheless lacking in any self-understanding of itself as a major city--while there I hope to find the time to meet with and learn some things from people who work in their city government as well. And besides going all the way to Spokane, we're going to go even farther, to Portland, where I'll meet with some people who work in at the Urban Sustainability Accelerator at Portland State University, some of whose staff worked closely with Wichita this past year. So, while most of the meetings I'm talking about are right here, not all of them are.

Blogging: What does this blog come into it? Well, I'm planning to put up a continuing series of short posts here, continuing over the next six months, all focusing on as-yet not-fully-developed ideas that I will have picked up from my reading, from interviews with local leaders or involve citizens, and maybe even photos that I've taken. People have said for years the only real justification for an academic like myself to spend so much time reading and writing on blogs is if they can make use of the format so as to make it serve a storehouse of ideas, which in time might become a springboard for a stronger synthesis and better arguments. I've had ideas of trying that in the past, but never did it consistently. Now, I'm going to try.

So that's it--my sabbatical plan for the next six months. Of course, in those six months there will also be a garden to tend, a playhouse to repair, local events to attend, camp-outs to go on, movies to see, and much more. I consider this next half-year to be a test to see if I can actually re-discover and hold onto the kind of discipline and inspiration in my thinking which enabled me to become a quasi- (or at adequately, if not entirely satisfactorily, paid) intellectual in the first place. Wish me luck, my eight readers. Hopefully, this won't be the last you hear about all this.

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