Ways to avoid becoming academic ‘roadkill’
Martin Krieger is an intellectual switch-hitter, first earning a doctorate in particle physics before turning his focus to city planning and the environment. Now a professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy, Krieger has spent 15 years documenting everyday Los Angeles, taking tens of thousands of photographs that capture slices of life in the city.
With his recent book, The Scholar’s Survival Manual (Indiana University Press, 2013), Krieger looks back on his 45 years in academia and offers advice to students, professors and administrators on how to avoid becoming “academic roadkill.”
Merrill Balassone: What’s your best advice to USC freshmen about starting a successful college career?
Martin Krieger: USC is such a large and diverse place that undergraduates will do well if they have some focused reason for attending: the band, mastering a subject that matters to them, being in Los Angeles or joining the entertainment industry. For many students, success in college may well mean maturity, learning new social and organizational skills, and making connections in the world they wish to join. I am more of a nerd, so to speak, so college success for me was learning to think like a physicist and getting to know the great thinkers and writers in our traditions.
MB: What inspired you to make such a drastic shift from your academic work, from particle physics to urban planning?
MK: I liked physics — still do — and my training and teachers are still my touchstone. My other touchstone was the Great Books that were the foundation for the requirements for my undergraduate education. What I discovered was that I was not comfortable working in large teams, and that I was not so adept working with equipment. So when I received the PhD, I knew that I had to find another role. I met some of the faculty in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California at Berkeley, they invited me to visit for half a semester, and I ended up staying in the field by the kind graces of my deans. I had some nice ideas, I worked hard to learn another field, and at 29 I had a home-run publication in a major journal. But only when I was about 41 did I get a suitable job (at USC!).
As for photography, I have always had an interest in it. In about 1998, I was passing by Playa Vista’s site on the 405 freeway, and I got the idea that it would be good to photographically document this major community development. Also, I started photographing various phenomena such as hundreds of storefront churches or all the LA Department of Water and Power electrical stations. I discovered I was a collector. My advantage was that I saw urban processes and history in the world’s phenomena, and so my systematic photo documentation was actually deeply grounded. It was less about art and more about social science. And much to my surprise, I could get grants to do this work.
What seems like a drastic shift — in fact several shifts over the years — felt more like following my nose, and again and again capturing survival from the jaws of defeat. My nine books divide into those about planning and design, those about how physicists think and do their work. When I think of decision-making, my model is Augustine’s Confessions.
MB: Why did you decide to write The Scholar’s Survival Manual?
MK: My motives in writing about scholarly life on my blog were twofold: I hated watching people make big yet avoidable mistakes. And what was good enough for me was not good enough for others — I could protect them. Moreover, it was a way of writing it down rather than have it floating around in my head, seething, getting me upset or angry.
I was on the University Committee for Appointment, Promotion, and Tenure for a number of years, perhaps half my time at USC. In my role, for six years I read all the dossiers from all fields at all ranks, so I saw a broad range of fields and problems, and along the way I learned lots about other disciplines and professions. Marty Levine was then the vice provost for faculty affairs, and we would discuss my observations. When he looked at my blog, he encouraged me to make it into a book. At first I was reluctant. But Marty was persistent, and then when I took all the postings at that point [700+], and sorted them and discarded repetition, I could see how it might well be a book. Still, lots of editing, advice from the publisher who was interested in the book and further editing was needed to make it into something that worked. I tested it out on some students, and they thought it useful. I should note that over the years, students and junior faculty from USC and lots of other universities told me they found it helpful as well. What I was saying was useful, although nothing I said was new. I found a way of penetrating people’s defenses and encouraging them to act rather than be defensive. It helped that I was willing to make fun of myself. Coming from New York [Brooklyn], it seemed that I was much more direct than most of my colleagues, although I just thought I was saying what was obvious.
MB: If a survivalist relies on a pocketknife and a compass, what is the academic’s most important academic survival tool?
MK: Keep working: research, writing, teaching. For if you don’t do research and writing, if they are not the center of your being, you will be eaten by all sorts of unsavory characters. If you do your research and writing, in part as a defense against chaos, and attend to your family, you are centered and bulletproof, you have a core that will be your North Star.