What Would Proust Do? WWPD

By Jessica Payne, Jan Schwaid, and Brettany Shannon

At the end of the 19th century, a young French writer named Marcel Proust answered a series of questions from a confession book, similar to what we’d call an autograph book. The responses to these inquiries were thought to unlock the true character of a person – it was a popular parlor game at the time. Proust’s eloquent, extraordinary answers became quite famous, and although he didn’t author the questions himself, the collective queries are now known as a Proust Questionnaire.

Forms of this questionnaire have since become popular in interviews. Vanity Fair poses its own variation of the poll to celebrity interviewees, while James Lipton offers up a different version on Inside the Actor’s Studio. At Mockingbird Analytics, we’ve adapted the survey to reveal more business-oriented details about our interview subjects, though there’s certainly room to uncover personal anecdotes and truths, as well.

Throughout the year, we’ll offer these Proust Questionnaires to our board members, and friends allowing them to share their insights, goals, and passions with you.

First up is Brettany Shannon!

My first Mockingbird blog post -- a thrill! Not just because I'm honored to be a part of such a remarkable organization, but because it means I now have the time. I met Jessica eight years ago when we were both Master of Planning students at USC and in the six years since our graduation, I've watched Jessica make long-lasting, positive institutional changes at all the places she's worked, assuring that the good work done in Los Angeles would be better. 

For my part, I stayed at USC to get my PhD in urban planning, and to get pregnant just weeks before defending my dissertation proposal. Nearly three years later, I am finally done. Throughout, I have had the unqualified support of my husband and my friends, Jessica among them, and managed to write a dissertation critiquing American planning's normative, sometimes exclusive and pernicious middle-class agenda, and to investigate how media arts, or creative digital technologies (think your cell phone's many audio/visual recording capacities and the consequent social media products), intersect with contemporary urban planning. I find the persistent power-related challenges, as well as real opportunity for legitimate, creative participatory planning, and look forward to continuing this research agenda for many years to come. 

In the meantime, I have the joy of advocating on behalf of Mockingbird Analytics, and get to take lots of pictures on graduation day with my husband and our adorable toddler son. 


Mockingbird Analytics


1. What is your idea of perfect happiness at work?

I’ve had the same visualization for years. I am at my desk, writing/researching/working productively. Behind and in front of me are bookshelves, and to the right is a large window, through which I can see student activity below and the urban landscape in the distance. In the better months, the window is slightly open for a breeze.

2. What is your greatest professional fear?

Being an unproductive dilettante in my field. (Surely I’m not alone here?)

3. What trait do you have to work on the most?

More productivity stuff. I’m laterally productive, meaning I get a lot of things done. I have to work hardest on turning to my work. The strangeness in all of this is that I love what I do. I have no Plan B, nor do I want one.  

4. What trait do you look for in colleagues?

I find intelligence, collegiality, humor, empathy, and responsiveness are the traits I esteem the most in colleagues. But if I had to pick one, it’d be empathy because it privileges interpersonal relationships and respect.

5. What trait do you want to create in organizations with which you work?

Commitment to community. Empathy on a macro level.

6. What organization’s mission do you most admire?

There are a lot of excellent organizations out there, but I ran across Chicago’s Street-Level Youth Media doing a research project a couple years ago, and it hit my sweet-spot in terms of community empowerment/participation, critical media, and media arts. And of course I’m really into Mockingbird Analytics.

7. What is the most important investment a business or non-profit could make?

Choosing a culture, then making sure the organization’s administrative and creative processes uphold that cultural ideal. Organizations can collapse under the weight of contradiction when the ideal and reality don’t match.

8. What is your current state of mind?

We just put our two-year-old son to bed, so tired and tickled. He has fun bedtime story books, and he’s cute to boot.


9. What do you consider the most overused buzzword in your field?

It’s not discipline-specific, but I want to make a Brettany-shaped hole every time I hear the word “disrupt.”

10. Under what circumstances do you need to adapt?

Most all of them. I like to, anyway.

11. What perception of your field do you most want to change?

That planning necessarily makes things better. No, it can do a lot of damage, and that’s why it’s so important that we interrogate our policies and our justifications for them.

12. Which person in your field do you most admire?

I’m lucky, I know them: David C. Sloane and Lisa Schweitzer, two planning professors at USC. They dedicate their research and their teaching -- their lives -- to making healthy, socially just communities.

13. What is the quality you like the most in a boss?

Compassionate toughness. I cherish constructive criticism.

14. What is the quality you like the most in a client?

See above.  

15. What is your elevator pitch for your job?

I research how people use creative digital technologies for urban placemaking and how these actions impact community development. This research agenda is broadly defined, so I can look at how people can and do use media arts to foster community engagement and participatory planning, as well as how powerful agencies use the same technologies to exert or reinforce their dominance.

16. What is your professional motto/mantra?

“Mistakes make you better.”

17. What is your professional passion?

Demonstrating the value of media arts for creative participatory planning, at the same time critiquing the notion that technology will save us all. Technology is a social production, just like our cities, so we need to pay close attention to underlying assumptions.  

18. How did you fall in love with your field/job/career?

I came to USC for my Master of Planning degree in 2008, ten years after I graduated from college. But after just two weeks on campus and in classes, I knew , researching and thinking about planning was the only thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life.