I am a self-identifying email junkie. I have 5 accounts that I keep separate and check regularly, if not obsessively. For many folks this level of information intake is normal, especially when you add in the more nuanced forms of social media. And I am positive that I am among the masses in my use of these communications to satiate a voyeurism more so than to actually communicate. But I categorize and collect, I collage and combine so that I can see patterns in all these messages, even when there may be none. Here at MIT, the email traffic never disappoints.
So when I received an email with the catchy subject line “Re: Paper Competition on Urban Poverty for graduate students. Grand prize winner presents at WUF in Italy!” I naturally took notice. I mean, Italy, right? And all I have to do is write the best paper on poverty.
To those who know me, you know where this is going. To those who don’t: I am currently fixated on the idea of language as an institutional form that necessarily affects, if not dictates and directs, our ability to negotiate complexity. Language impacts the work we do, supposedly in solidarity with (or on behalf of) other communities — foreign or domestic.
Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I am not necessarily suggesting an insidious or even conscious motivation behind the senders of the email; I am only highlighting a larger construct in media, and in academia in general — particularly the social silen… sciences. My broader concern with these types of emails, asking us to use the pain associated with poverty as an incentive to prove our academic prowess, is that they are a literal demonstration of a passive cannibalization of parts of human populations in the name of research.
The message of the email (full email text available below), of course, is more subtle and when read carefully it becomes clear that the authors intended the message to be focused around solutions to poverty. Yet still, I take issue with these types of competitions aimed at finding the best paper on poverty because they are symbolic and representative of the larger trend in academic and research environments to glamorize the pain of poverty in order to sustain or advance an academic career. I emphasize that I am not suggesting this is necessarily deliberate on the part of either the sponsors or the contributors, just that such practices exist, and are prevalent enough in our daily email traffic for an email junkie to take notice of them as a category unto themselves.
The competition description offered in the email does not give any of the criteria for selection, which allows for a degree of flex on the part of the parties sponsoring the contest. One might argue that the metrics for a successful — a best — poverty paper would be sensitive to the lens through which the paper was written, thereby screening the selection for liberating or desire-based narratives. Yet the existence of the competition encourages people to find ways to make their poverty paper sexy so as to separate their research from the others.
This email reminded me of an article I read in the Wisconsin State Journal. I keep up with the news there because Madison is my hometown. The article covered a decision made by a juvenile judge to waive a 16-year-old child into the adult penal system. Unlike the email, the text in the newspaper article was not what grabbed my attention, but the presentation and formatting of the medium of communication. Skirting the edges of the article, ads for banks, social media outlets, music events, drink specials, pottery lessons, mattress replacement options and online dating form a colorful periphery to the otherwise somber image of a young child in jailhouse blues. I guess if he wasn’t getting waived, we would be devoid of necessary space for mattress advertising anyway.
However, the point is not to go to deep into the article or the mattress ads, but to showcase how our reliance on stories of pain translate from theory (academia) to practice. Although the article was much different from the email in terms of delivery, both encourage an author to use a source of excruciating pain as a type of incentive. In the email, the message is much more about the initial sales pitch than it is woven into other parts of the delivery. In the newspaper article, the article itself is not the focus, but the entire economy feeding off of the moral decay of our prison system. The point is not to insinuate intent or motive, but to highlight the ease with which these types of dependencies are sustained.
I am an email junkie. I collect and collage, and every now and then I see patterns even when there are none.
From: mcp1-bounces@MIT.EDU [mcp1-bounces@MIT.EDU]
Sent: Thursday, January 26, 2012 4:36 PM
To: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: [mcp1] FW: [YIPPS] Paper Competition on Urban Poverty for graduate students. Grand prize winner presents at WUF in Italy!
Please help spread the word! Abstracts due February 20th, 2012.
CALL FOR PAPERS:
REDUCING URBAN POVERTY
Paper Competition/Policy Workshop/Publication
Abstracts due: February 20, 2012
To encourage a new generation of urban policy makers and promote early career research, USAID’s Urban Programs Team, International Housing Coalition (IHC), World Bank, Woodrow Wilson Center’s Comparative Urban Studies Project (CUSP), and Cities Alliance are co-sponsoring a third annual paper competition. The competition seeks paper submissions for an upcoming policy workshop and paper competition on urban poverty in the developing world. Winning papers will be published and selected authors will present their papers in a policy workshop to be held in Washington, D.C. in October 2012. The grand prize winner will also present at the World Urban Forum in September, 2012 in Naples, Italy.
Papers must be linked to one of the following sub-topics:
The absence of efficient land and housing markets and lack of secure tenure for both renters and home owners are impediments to urban and economic development in developing countries. Papers on this topic should explore strategies and approaches that would enable property markets to function better and would provide increased security of tenure and strengthened real property ownership rights. Papers might examine such topics as: legal and regulatory policies and frameworks that facilitate the functioning and efficiency of real estate markets; tenure security for tenants and homeowners; property ownership in slums and informal settlements; the availability of land to house lower income households; titling and registration systems; the availability of public information about property values and market data; gender aspects of tenure security and property rights.
People in urban areas across the world will be affected by climate change. Most at risk are the urban poor, as their already precarious living situations are exacerbated by rising sea levels, inland floods, frequent and stronger tropical cyclones, periods of increased heat, and the spread of diseases. Papers on this topic should examine how urban populations, especially the poor, are coping with the impacts of climate change and provide strategic policy analysis to better understand how cities can become more resilient to climate change impacts.
Most of the youth of the developing world are now or will soon be living in urban areas, which they perceive to offer greater opportunities than rural areas. Unfortunately, the majority of them are often growing up in the poorest urban areas — informal settlements and slum communities where their opportunities for advancement and positive contributions to society are limited by a variety of negative factors including circumstances over which they have little or no control, such as poor housing, education and health care. Papers should explore how youth can develop knowledge and skills, find gainful employment, and participate more fully in society to advance economic growth and social development.
Papers should be policy-based and solutions-oriented and should critically examine existing projects and/or propose new strategies for tackling issues related to urban poverty. Papers from a variety of disciplinary and/or interdisciplinary perspectives are appropriate, including (but not limited to) urban planning, economics, political science, geography, public policy, sociology, environment, and anthropology. For more information, please contact email@example.com.
For more information on last year’s competition, please visit: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/reducing-urban-poverty-policy-workshop
Process and Timeline
Eligibility: This call for papers is directed at PhD students and advanced Masters students. To be eligible, applicants should be currently enrolled in a degree or post-doctoral program.
– Abstracts (max 500 words) and a brief CV should be submitted to the selection committee by February 20, 2012. Submissions should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Abstracts should contain a title, paper description, author name and affiliation, and specify which of the topical areas listed above the paper will most directly address.
Request for Full Papers:
– A panel composed of members of the sponsor organizations will review submitted abstracts and request full papers from approximately 15 authors.
– Applicants will be notified in early March whether they will be asked to write a full paper, which will be due by April 30, 2012.
– Completed papers should be a maximum of 20 pages in length including appendixes (double-spaced, Times New Roman 12pt font) and utilize the style, spelling, usage, citation and illustration guidelines used by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (http://www.acsp.org/publications/jper/guidelines).
– Approximately 10 of the full papers will be selected for inclusion in a final compilation to be published by the Woodrow Wilson Center.
– Publication of each selected paper is subject to review and will be contingent upon completion of suggested revisions by the authors, should they be requested by the selection committee.
– 3-5 of the authors selected for publication will be invited to Washington, DC, in October to take part in a unique “policy workshop” that will bring together a small group of academics, policy makers and students for an interactive discussion of international urban development topics. The session will focus on bridging gaps between policy and academia, theory and practice.
– At the conference, students will be paired with a senior development expert who will serve as a discussant for their paper.
– Workshop invitees will be provided with up to $1000 to help cover transportation and accommodation costs.
World Urban Forum:
The World Urban Forum (WUF) was established by the United Nations to examine rapid urbanization and its impact on communities, cities, economies, climate change and policies. The Sixth WUF will be held from September 1-7, 2012 in Naples, Italy and will be focused on the theme of “The Urban Future.” In addition to the Washington conference and publication mentioned above, the grand-prize winner will be invited to present his/her winning paper as part of a panel at the World Urban Youth Assembly at WUF to be held on September 1st and 2nd.
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Photo of Venice by leonbarnard on Flickr.