Anthropology and Market Research

A long time ago, I was offered a job in a qualitative research company. I ended up not taking it, and returned to academics. That part of it is another story, but the company hired me through campus recruitment. They wanted someone with my set of skills. I remember being happy that they understood the value of well-done research with a solid foundation.

Flash forward about ten years or so. To last week, in fact. I was wandering through a mall with a friend; let’s call her Amy. A woman holding a clipboard came up to us and asked us, “Do you want to do a survey? You’ll get seven dollars! It’s about product packaging, and it will only take twelve minutes.”

I confess I have a hard time refusing people who administer surveys. I’ve done their job, when I was in college. I spend days calling people and trying to get them to answer surveys. It’s a terrible job. I had to meet a quota, they didn’t want to talk to me, many people yelled at me, and (as is generally the case with surveys) I didn’t have enough responses. It never occurred to me to fudge my data, but I discovered later that some other people who were doing the same job filled out some of their surveys themselves. It was a few more years before I really came to realize that that rendered the data meaningless.

Anyway, so here are Amy and I in the mall, and we say, “okay, we’ll take your survey, we could use seven dollars.” So she turns to me and this is how the conversation goes.

Woman: How old are you?

Me: XX years old (you don’t need to know, gentle reader)

Woman: Do you earn more than $XX000 in the year as a household?

Me: Yes.

Woman: Have you ever used X brand of paper plates?

Me: (thinking very hard now) I think so.

Woman: Do you use them more than five times a week?

Me: (horrified at the thought of such waste) No!

Woman: Have you ever used body wash?

Me: (okay, here’s what we’re really about) Yes.

Woman: Do you use it more than five times a week?

Me: No.

Woman: (to Amy) How old are you?

So at this point, I’m a little stumped. I’ve realized a few things:

1. She’s interested in body wash. I don’t use body wash, but it’s not like I don’t shower more than five times a week. I simply use bar soap. I already see an area in which their survey fails, which is that it could be a vehicle for increasing the product market, i.e. bringing the body wash to the notice of someone who hitherto does not use body wash on a regular basis. Would the new packaging do this? Aren’t companies interested in increasing their market?

2. I’m not getting seven dollars.

So anyway, Amy, being smarter than I am, answers “yes” to the body wash question. The lady takes us upstairs to where a young man asks us if we have ever taken a survey, explains it, and gives Amy a bunch of papers to sign, including a confidentiality agreement. He did not ask me to sign one, even though I was in the room and trailing around behind them. But because I’m nice, I won’t tell you what it is. I’m sure someone, somewhere, cares.

While she’s reading the paperwork, I talk to him.

Me: So, what’s your target demographic?

Man: Well, you know how we asked you all those screening questions? We’re looking for people between 34-54 who use body wash or bar soap at least five times a week.

Error! Error!

Anyway, I decide I don’t want to get the screener in trouble, she probably gets paid chickenfeed anyway. So I don’t tell the young man that the screening wasn’t quite administered properly. Maybe they were on a budget, or maybe she figured I didn’t shower everyday.

Man: We also screen out people who work for Wal-Mart, or the companies which produce these products.

Me: How do you get that information?

Man: We ask the survey takers.

Me: Nobody asked us that question.

Man: Huh?

Me: Nobody asked us that question. You don’t know where we work.

Man: (after a pause) Well, there you go!

Amy: *rolls eyes* I’m done.

Now things move on to the next phase. She is given a clicker, and pictures of display shelves in supermarket aisles are flashed on a screen in front of us. A camera positioned in front of Amy supposedly tracks her eye movements. I watch the man administering the survey. He is intent on his computer screen, though he continues to explain things to Amy. Have I mentioned he talks to us like we are five years old? Very annoying.

Then we get up and move to another room, where there is a computer with multiple-choice questions. Amy is shown some photos of the body wash in different packaging, and sits down to answer questions. I notice we have been taking the survey now for eighteen minutes, and we are nowhere near done. I wander around before walking into this room, and the original screening lady very sweetly asks me if I would like to wait outside.

“You might get bored. It’s just a bunch of questions.”

Me: (brightly) Actually, I’m terribly interested. I’m an anthropologist, you see.

She: (blankly) Oh. Okay. *shrugs whatever-ly*

I wander back into the room. At some point Amy starts clicking a little randomly. She is bored. Another flaw! The survey is too long. This is something so basic to survey administration, I’m surprised they didn’t think of it.

Finally we are done. Or so we think. The man escorts us into another room, with a mock display unit set up. He asks Amy to locate the product she currently uses. Incidentally, she couldn’t remember it, and when we were done and left, suddenly said, “I just remembered! I actually use their body wash!”

However, she still thinks she uses Dove, so she goes ahead and locates the Dove on the shelf. Then he asks her to locate Product X, their body wash. She quickly scans the shelf and does so.

Man: How did you locate it? Were your eyes drawn to the middle? Did the packaging stand out?

Amy: No, I just scanned the shelf left to right, top to bottom, and stopped when I saw it.

Man: Okay, so the packaging stood out. Was it easy to locate?

Amy: Well, once I saw it it was. Had I been standing in front or it, instead of at an angle, I might have seen it sooner.

Man: Okay, so the packaging stood out.

We gave up. As a matter of fact, I was right in front of the display, and saw Product X right away while Amy was still scanning, so her hypothesis stands a good change of being correct.

Why am I relating this long story? Well, because, as an anthropologist, I have some experience doing qualitative research, and a lot of basic things were being done wrong here. That meant the survey was inefficient, data gathering was flawed, and the resultant data were unreliable. Company X will base its packaging decisions on data like this, which means millions of dollars are eventually spent on data which are not entirely accurate.

Here are the flaws and inefficiencies, as I saw them:

  1. The screening was not done correctly and potentially introduced errors and confounding factors into the data. I’m merely talking about the questions here, because I don’t have enough information on how they randomized their sample or if there were other conditions prior to randomizing it.
  2. The screening eliminated potential customers who might have been willing to try Product X were it brought to their notice
  3. Errors, when pointed out, were not corrected.
  4. The survey was too long. This leads to the danger of boredom and of the survey takers filling out things arbitrarily just to be done.
  5. The most glaring flaw of all–not listening to the respondent. As with the last set of questions, the administrator overlaid his pre-defined responses onto Amy’s, thus falsifying data. What he said she said was not what she said at all.

How do you fix these errors? Well, you can and you can’t. All these errors were a result of careless or untrained survey administration. It’s not enough to tell administrators what questions to ask. You also have to impress upon them the importance of efficient and ethical data collection. It seemed to me that the survey administrators were a firm hired by Company X. In this case, the company may not have much option but to trust them to do their job carefully.

What does this have to do with anthropology? Easy enough. Companies need people with the skills to administer and oversee such market research projects. Anthropologists have all the required skills to do this job and do it well. We are trained observers and qualitative researchers. who understand the critical importance of sound data. As an observer, I was able to spot areas in which survey administration could be more efficient and useful to Company X. An anthropologist on their payroll could do a lot more.

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Academics and Real Life

Over the last few years, and particularly over the past few months, I’ve increasingly encountered statements like “academics don’t know anything about real life” or “academics don’t have real jobs” in the media and in popular discourse. I’ve heard it from friends who tell me I have an easy job, or who “joke” that I get paid for doing very little, and oh those lovely long summer “holidays.”

I feel somewhat strongly about this topic, so some sort of response is in order.

The primary question, of course, is what is meant by reality. Clearly, these statements aren’t meant literally. Academics don’t literally exist in some alternate realm which is outside the commonly encountered plane of reality. We live in the same world as everyone else. So this “real life” and “real” job is a metaphor for something else.

Perhaps it means our lives are easy? Okay, let’s talk about this. Most academics have a Ph.D., or are on their way to getting one. That means they have gone through grad school, or are currently going through it. What do we do in grad school? We learn to teach and do research. What does that mean? Well, first we go through coursework, which means we spend anywhere from 5-16 hours a day for anywhere from two to four years learning the basics of our discipline–theories, ideas, schools of thought, methods, how to do things, applicability, etc. We also use this time to develop projects and problems of our own, areas in which we eventually become specialists. Once our professors are satisfied that we know as much as we ought to know (or are ever going to know) about our discipline and our intended areas of specialization, we are tested on them. These tests are called comprehensive exams, and are extremely rigorous. Think hazing. They can range from intensive oral exams conducted over a few hours, or a few days, to extensive written exams conducted over a few months. Fail them, and usually it’s all over. All the previous years of work are useless–you’re out of the program. So these years are very stressful.

You’re also usually poor in grad school. Grad students may have assistantships, but they work very hard and earn very little. I’m talking about maybe on average $20,000 a year. Many of them support families on that money. I’ve known colleagues who had to resort to food banks. They may or may not have insurance, and may have to use free clinics. They may not have assistantships. Then they work full-time jobs and work on grad school, which is another full-time job. This is in addition to “normal real life”–marriage, family, kids. Grad students make sacrifices. They may not have very much stuff, or luxuries like cable. They may not have cars, even clunkers. Some go hungry for days on end so they can afford textbooks (particularly international students). Grad students put off marriage and children so they can dedicate themselves to their work, and because marriage and children are expensive and they can’t afford anything expensive. So, when their friends are earning the big bucks and have happy families and ten year-old children, grad students console themselves with the thought that one day, before they are forty, they might have those things too. And perhaps even cable with HBO.

Then you do research (you’re still in grad school). In some disciplines, like the sciences, you might already have been working on your dissertation project all this while. In anthropology, you spend the next year (or two, or three) doing research somewhere. You might be excavating at a dig, or measuring bones, or living with a group of people and learning about their lives–we do a lot of different things. Research also costs money. If you’re lucky, you’ll get funding from somewhere, but that’s looking bleaker these days. Usually you save, or take out loans, or compromise the parameters of your research, or stay in school a little longer (thus putting off the rest of your life a little longer) so you can do good research. Research–fieldwork–is hard work, and sometimes grad students give up and burn out at this stage, finding other, more stable jobs which they might actually be able to feed their families on.

Most come back to school, though, and start writing their dissertation. A dissertation is the final product of a doctoral degree. It can range from 50-100 pages, in subjects like math, to 300-500 pages, in subjects like anthropology. Some people even write 700 page dissertations, but we won’t talk about them. This writing process can take a year, or two, or six, or seven. It all depends on how lucky you are. If you’re lucky, you haven’t burned out too badly, your brain is still working, you haven’t fallen sick from hard work, exhaustion, and poverty, your partner still loves you (grad school leads to breakups and divorces at an alarming rate), and you still have funding. If you’re really lucky, your funding is a scholarship. If you’re less lucky, you have to work, but hey! You still have funding. If you’re not so lucky, you lost your funding, and have to find work. Time spent working is time not spent writing, and so you take that much time more to write. Remember, the life you want is still on hold, usually including marriage and children. This is particularly hard on women, but isn’t much fun for men either.

If you’re lucky, and not burned out, and disciplined, you can finish writing in a year or two. If you’re not any or all of those, if you have to work, or have a family that needs you, or burned out, it can take years. Some people give up, even at this stage, when the end is close. Academics suffer a high rate of burnout and exhaustion, and not just in the U.S.

When you’re done writing, you defend your dissertation. This is usually some sort of public meeting, with at least your committee members present, and they grill you on everything you did and didn’t write about. Then they say it’s okay for you to get your Ph.D.

I’m skipping over the bits where you spend a few months getting every comma and period in your book-length manuscript just so for the editors in the university grad school office. Also very stressful.

So, when you finish grad school, you are tired, exhausted, poor, burned out, emotionally drained, poor, often single, usually in your thirties, and did I mention, poor?

Now it’s time to find a job. Generally, people start looking for jobs in their last year of grad school. So in addition to being all the things above, and stressed about all of them, you are also spending a lot of time sending out job applications, and stressing about whether you will have a job or not when you leave grad school. This stress is compounded by the fact that jobs these days have hundreds of applicants. Even jobs few people would have wanted a few years ago now have at least a hundred applicants, and the bigger jobs that more people want have anywhere from three to seven hundred. At least in anthropology. So, in addition to all the other pressure in grad school, there is pressure to shine. Publish! Be a research rock star! Get a teaching award! Get external funding from a prestigious place! And sometimes, even if you have all of this, you just don’t have the right pedigree, so you’re not a “good” candidate.

So there are a number of job situation possibilities when you leave grad school:

  1. You get really lucky and get that wonderful job you wanted, and it’s tenure-track.
  2. You get somewhat lucky and land a decent job at a good school. It’s not tenure-track, but it pays well and the workload isn’t exploitative, and it will tide you through until next year, or the year after. Hopefully, by then, you have some job interviews lined up and you might get a tenure-track job.
  3. You get a little unlucky and don’t land a full-time job, but you have a few adjuncting positions. They will tide you through until next year, or the year after. Hopefully, by then, you have some job interviews lined up and you might get a tenure-track job.
  4. You get very unlucky and get nothing. You can hope your university gives you something, or seek options outside of academia.
  5. You are very unlucky and find nothing, but you haven’t defended yet, so you put it off until next year, and stay in school another year. Maybe by then the market will improve, and your CV will look better, and you will get a job. Life will just have to wait. Next year, you go through it all again.

Options 3 and 4 are risky. You can get stuck in a lifetime of adjuncting positions, with exploitative workloads, no job satisfaction, not enough pay and–here’s the kicker–no benefits. So no insurance. If you leave academia, you might not be able to come back, and you might not even want to, because earning a regular income is addictive.

And all of that is even before you start a job.

Let’s talk about those jobs. I’ve already mentioned the harsh conditions under which adjuncts work, but I confess I am one of the luckier ones and am not personally aware of the struggles of an adjunct.But even if we talk best-case scenario. You get a tenure-track job at a reasonably good or very good school. Now it begins. You put off having children for a couple of years more, because you don’t want your colleagues to think you’re not serious about your career, and having kids sends off that impression, apparently. You’re still poor, but you don’t think so, because you have benefits, and you think $50,000 a year is a helluva lot of money. You go out and buy a car, commit to a serious relationship, and maybe even get cable with HBO!

At work, you serve on a number of committees, because that is expected of you. You also do research, because if you don’t have five, or seven, or twelve high-quality publications in six years, you won’t get tenure. You also have to teach, advise students, grade, set up classes, prepare for classes, and answer emails. You would be surprised at just how much time all of this can consume. So what you do is, you work odd hours. that’s right, academic jobs are flexi-time. What this usually means is, we work longer hours that many people. We may work on our research at home early in the morning, answer a few emails from students, do the reading for our classes/make power points. Simultaneously, we makelunches, get kids ready for school, drop them at school or see them to bus stops, do the morning chores. Then we come in to school. Where we spend the day teaching, grading, writing, talking to students, serving on committees, attending meetings, answering emails. Then it’s time to pick up children from school, go home, make dinner, do evening chores, take kids to classes, feed them, put them to bed. Then you put up your feet (it’s been a long day) and get to work. Prepare for the next day’s classes. Answer emails. Do a little writing. Some people even go back to school and stay late.The next day, it’s all over again. So yeah, we have real jobs. We don’t work three hours a day–we often work ten or eleven, and that’s not counting all the stuff we do for our families.

Sure we have long “breaks.” They’re nice. We don’t have to go into work. That’s one of the benefits of being an academic, and it’s why many of us are willing to go into this line of work, which is a lot of hard work for relatively little money. This does not mean, however, that we don’t work during breaks. For many of us, this is the only time we can actually work full-time on our research. Academics are not just teachers–we are teacher-scholars, and we are obligated to keep up on our research. It’s part of our jobs. We also spend these “breaks” setting up classes, drafting syllabi, grading (in the early part of break), and doing other logistical work involved in getting ready for the next term. We send papers out for publication, or revise them. Many academics also plan babies to be born in breaks, so they might be busy managing new babies as well. Or older ones.

Then, if the stars align, after many years, you get tenure. And you know what most people do as soon as they get their tenure letters? For the first time in many, many years, they stop to take a breath. It’s the first time since you started grad school that you don’t have to worry about your job. So long as you keep doing what you’re supposed to be doing, it’s yours. You stop worrying about something for the first time. In your forties! I think we’re entitled to that little break, yes? Because it doesn’t mean we stop working.

And remember, the percentage of academics who get tenure is very small. I don’t know an exact figure, but I’ve heard that non-tenure track jobs account for about 75% of academic jobs. Many of these are part-time adjuncts who hold multiple jobs with no benefits.

So we know about real life. We work hard, we’ve been horribly poor, we’ve made hard choices and heart-wrenching sacrifices. We’re tired, exhausted, and weary with stress. And we work real jobs, difficult jobs, where we study all the time so we can teach your children. We also look out for them, listen to their stories of worry and fear, guide them toward choices we know will be good for them, and all of this with cheerful, happy faces, because our worries, fears, and stresses are not their fault and we get into the habit of not sharing.

We aren’t disassociated from how “real people” live. You’re disassociated from our struggles. And part of the reason is because academics don’t talk a lot, publicly, about how hard our lives are. Part of the reason is because some of us buy into our own bad press. Some of us still remember what grad school was like, and are overly grateful for every little thing we have. Some of us simply aren’t given to complaining in public.

So I don’t know what people mean when they say academics don’t know about real life, or don’t have real jobs. Our lives aren’t made of plastic. They’re as real as anyone else’s. We enjoy thinking, I agree, and spend a lot of time doing it. That makes us abstracted much of the time. Our minds are on something else most of the time. We live in our heads–when we can. Time is the greatest luxury for us, and so we grab it where we can–on the street, on the stairs, in the bathroom 🙂 We think everywhere! But we’re not fools with cushy, easy lives. Far from it.

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The Academic Interview: The Phone Interview

It’s that time of the year. Actually, it’s a little past that time of the year, but at least in anthro, most non-TT positions are interviewing right about now. So I thought I would give you my two cents on phone interviews, and what I think works and what doesn’t. This is based on stuff I have read all over the place, conversations with people who have served on committees and who have been successful candidates, and other fun ethnographic and autoethnographic data (these things work, in other words). Congratulations on your phone interview.

  1. Re-read your application: When you go into your phone interview, it might be a while after you applied for the position. So re-familiarize yourself with the advertisement and your application. Think of things you might want to add. Be prepared to expand on claims you might have made in your application.
  2. Make notes: If you’re on the phone, you have the advantage of being able to look at notes. Use it! Make notes on anything you think might be useful (including your application). Have a copy of your application ready, with important parts highlighted. If you’re on Skype or otherwise videochatting, and you need to use your notes, do so carefully and judiciously.
  3. Dress appropriately: If you’re on Skype, dress like you would for a face-to-face interview (suit). If you’re on the phone, they can’t see you, so it doesn’t matter. However, if you’re in your pajamas and unbathed and unbrushed, you might not be as alert. You know yourself best–do what you need to do to be fully alert.
  4. Know your interviewers: Sometimes the department interviewing you will let you know who is going to be on the call. It might be more than one person. Sometimes, it might be four or five. This can be very confusing if you are on the phone. Begin by looking at the websites of the people interviewing you. Pay attention to their interests and to the classes they teach. File this information away. If you do not know who is going to interview you, it’s a little more sticky, but you can be sure it will be someone from the department. Make notes on all of them. You’re a researcher. Do your research.
  5. Be prepared: There’s some questions you can be almost sure you will be asked, so be prepared to answer them. How would you teach the intro class in your field? Teaching techniques. Research plans/projects. If you are not done writing your dissertation, schedule for completion or defense date. They might ask you about other classes they offer, and if you could teach them. Identify areas they do not cover which you might be able to fill, so make note of those when you trawl their website. Ask if they would be interested in classes in those areas. How would you contribute to the research profile of the institution (if it is a research institution)? Publication plans. If you have won teaching awards, why you think you won them. Scholars you would focus on.
  6. Call back: If your interviewers call you without warning, thank them for calling you and say you’ll call them back. If you’re really busy, be honest (it’s my office hours/I’m just going to teach/I’m on a roller coaster) and tell them you’ll call them back. If you need to use the bathroom or eat something, tell them you’ve got something going (see above) and ask if you can call them right back. Even if you’re not busy, it might be a good idea (if you’re nervous) to ask them if you can call back in just a few minutes. Then take a deep breath, assemble your notes, and call them right back.
  7. Smile: It’s important. You can be a serious interviewee and still show that you have a sense of humor. Be pleasant. Be collegial. Be yourself (unless you’re, you know, unpleasant and uncollegial and crabby :))

I can’t think of anything else right now, but I’ll add them if I do.

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A Virus Ate My Homework: Technology in the Classroom

We’ve all heard it: “My printer didn’t work, Professor, so I can’t submit my paper on time.” Or, perhaps, “My computer crashed. Everything’s gone. I have to do it all again. Could I have an extension?”

They’re the technology excuses. Funerals are no longer held for beloved grandmothers who die with alarming and improbable frequency. Instead, they are held for computers, printers, or internet access (“I have to send you this email from my iPhone because my wifi is not working…”). Viewed from one (admittedly cynical) angle, technology is simply one more avenue for clichéd excuses to blossom.  I tend to give my students the benefit of the doubt, but I have to acknowledge that technology-related excuses, as a corollary of technology use, are on the rise.

How do I deal with it? The same way I do with grandmothers’ funerals and essay-eating pets. I lie back and let it all wash over me, tsking at my students with good-natured bonhomie. Students’ excuses are an irresistible force, and I’m too lazy, I confess, to be an immovable object.

The point toward which I am meandering, though, is that technology in academia is on the rise, and so, too, are problems associated with it. The Chronicle, for example, has an article which ponders the difficulties arising out of non-standard pagination (or none at all) on e-readers. Other technology-and-education issues which enflame the interwebs involve online/distance education (good? evil?), laptops in the classroom (good? evil?), smartphones during exams (you get the drift). And there are too many of these to link.

So here’s my two cents on the topic–the kinds of technology I have encountered, and what I do about them:

  1. Online classes: I haven’t taught one myself, I confess, but I do know people who have. There seem to be some problems associated with these. First, lack of adequate interaction. Teaching cultural anthropology, for example, is best done through face-to-face interaction, IMHO. Above all things, I have found students back-and-forth with me a lot in the classroom, working their way through concepts until they completely understand them. In online discussions, e.g. on Moodle, inertia takes over, and a gentle silence reigns over the kingdom. By their nature, online classes require disciplined and self-propelled students. Students have a hard time being self-propelled. Sometimes they don’t know how (which they learn through interaction with a professor), sometimes they have other things to do (children, jobs), and sometimes they just lack the discipline or desire. Also, interaction with professors doesn’t just occur in the classroom (or shouldn’t). I’m not certain of the mechanisms in place for this in online education. Finally, and this is really important but doesn’t get talked about as much, from what I’ve seen, managing and teaching online classes takes a lot of time. A lot. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they might even take more time than traditional, face-to-face classes. This is because, once again, online classes by their nature entail a lot of work–what, in face-to-face education, would be called busy work. Like responses to every reading. You don’t need them in a F2F classroom, because you can ask students what they think. When you leave the classroom, the interaction is over, and you don’t have to read it, think about it, and respond. Let’s face it, talking is faster than reading and writing. (Bear in mind here that I am not talking about people with disabilities, professors or students, for whom online education is not necessarily chosen for reasons of convenience. I come to them later).
  2. Synchronous technology: Not the modelling software, but using both F2F interaction and online interaction at the same time. I’m all for this. Moodle forums are a lifeline for extremely shy students, students with speech disorders, and so on. It’s all very well to say our job is to prepare students for the “real world”, but people who can’t, simply can’t speak in public for emotional, psychological, or medical reasons are very much part of the real world too. Since I started setting up forums on Moodle, I’ve found students’ worries about participation grades considerably reduced (which means they stopped harassing me about it :P). I also have managed to go almost completely paperless, and if I ever took my exam online, I would be completely paperless. Because students submit papers online, they are more or less multimedia. They link to websites, embed videos, include graphics…all while retaining formal citation practices, more or less. It’s great. It really is. And I save a couple of trees every term.
  3. Computers/smartphones in the classroom: I’m a little torn on this. On the one hand, I realize students use these for rapid reference and taking notes (I’ve seen students take notes on their wee little phones. And no, they weren’t texting–I checked). On the other hand, students use these for updating their Facebook status while I’m talking (“Bubbles McCoy is in ANTH 101 and bored to death, OMG!“). In the balance, I’m inclined to let them use their laptops and smartphones, but mount surprise checks and random inspections on occasion. Mostly, I admit, because I enjoy keeping them on their toes.
  4. iPods: No. Unless a student is using assistive technology like a smartpen, no headphones in my classroom. I usually know about students who need assistive technology because student disability services will let me know about other accommodations, but even if I don’t, I could tell because of the volume of the music blasting out of the headphones. Exception to iPod rule: students who use them to record lectures, but they cannot do that without my permission. And they don’t need headphones.
  5. Assistive technology: This is a no-brainer. Students who need such technology have to be allowed to use it. It’s really important, though, to keep up with the rapid changes in assistive technology. Braille displays, smartpens, hearing technology, recording devices,  video for Deaf students–it’s important to keep up and stay aware. The best way to do this is to stay abreast of the assistive technology news. That’s not easy. The next-best way, and one that is anthropologically easy, is to simply ask. If a student is using assistive technology, I just ask them what it is, how it works, and how it helps them. Then I ask them if there is anything I can do to make their learning experience easier. For example, I often use doodles on the board to explain concepts. I once had a student who was visually impaired, and after a discussion with him, simply stopped doing it, oriented my lectures toward verbal descriptions instead. Okay, it was really difficult to change my style. But I learned something new.

So those are my thoughts. I’m a technophile who’s not extremely tech-savvy, so this might sound rudimentary to some of you. I’m not a disability studies expert, so this might sound insufficient to some of you. But I try, and I live to learn. If you have ideas, I’m willing to try them, with my students’ permission, if I can get them to work for my class.

Edit: Do take a moment to read Kerim Friedman’s post on social media on Savage Minds. My two favorite lines from it:

[T]he technology itself is not as important as the social conditions in which it is used.

And, just a few lines down:

[T]he mere existence of these technologies does not imply that people will necessarily make use of them in a particular way.

It’s not directly connected with my post, exactly, but social media is one important kind of technology I did not mention in my post, except in a flippant way. I’ve known of people using Facebook pages for class discussions, or Second Life to hold classes in, or twitter to keep students appraised of updates to courses. I think that’s pretty cool, but I use Moodle for all of these. My philosophy here is simple. I could move my class discussions to Facebook, where my students are surely more comfortable, but I choose not to. I like to think they learn from my classes, and one of the things I would like them to learn is to separate spaces. Facebook is for home, Moodle is for school. These are different modes of communication with different purposes. To learn to work in a distinct professional space is, I think, a good life lesson. Thoughts, as always, are welcome.

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The Boundaries of Anthropology

The AAA/Science (non)event was a manifestation of existing fissures within our discipline, and a certain amount of defensiveness about whether anthropology is a science or not (on both sides).

I’ve been wondering if part of the problem is the nature of anthropology. I’ve mentioned before that I think anthropology is somewhat promiscuous–we often borrow our ideas, methods, and practices from other disciplines. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it does beg the question of where the boundaries of our discipline are.

For instance, the shift from “physical” anthropology to “biological” anthropology. Shifts in nomenclature are rarely without reason. What are the reasons behind this shift? Does it provide for a greater affiliation with biology, rather than anthropology? Are physical anthropologists simply human biologists? I would say no, because the concerns of physical anthropology are at the same time both wider and more limited than those of human biology. The anthropological interest in human anatomy, for example, reaches further back into history than most other disciplines concerned with human physiology. At the same time, anthropological focus is limited by our interests in specific aspects of human physiology.

Or is it? Here, I think, is the question. Is the development of a specific gene, for example, an anthropological concern? Is the in-depth analysis of a specific linguistic variable an anthropological concern? If we study what it means to be human, what are the limits of our discipline? If our interests are unlimited, so long as there is a human element, is there anything standing between anthropology and chaos, or indeed, nihilism?

Can we fail to fission, if we study everything?

I’m not advocating a return to some hoary tradition of only studying fossils/human osteology/stone tools/faraway cultures. Far from it. I enjoy the wealth of new knowledge and methods anthropology has acquired over the years.

I’m struggling with a genuine question, prompted in part by teaching. When I teach my intro class, students frequently ask me, “how is this different from sociology/psychology/insert-interdisciplinary-department-here.” In my classes, I borrow from a variety of disciplines, teach history, geography, linguistics, and political science, and generally take what I need from where I need to teach what I believe are the principles, methods, and theories of anthropology.

Do I confuse my students? I hope not. Can we distinguish anthropology based on our methods and principles? (Because I don’t think we can based on our interests).

And if we can’t identify the distinct space that anthropology occupies, is it a bad thing? I think, in the balance, it might be. First, because an inability to identify with a distinct discipline, when we all study such wildly different things, leads to a lack of cohesion. We all know when happens then. Second, at a more unfortunately pragmatic level, if we cannot carve out a space for anthropology, can we convince university administrators of our necessity, in these anti-intellectual times?

Is this question even relevant? I welcome comments. If you’re out there and listening, I’d love to know what you think.

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2010 PhD Challenge

I had never heard of the PhD Challenge until I read about it in today’s Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed, and I figured, we could all use a little humor in our lives right now. (In fact, my first reaction was, “is this a joke?”, which is the first question on their FAQs.)

So the random academic fun phenomenon of the day is that Gabriel Parent of Carnegie Mellon won the PhD Challenge this year. The phrase he had to slip “seamlessly” into his peer-reviewed paper was “I smoke crack rocks.” Admirably, he did. The Chronicle very unsportingly tells you how he used the sentence, but not where, and I won’t either. But you can download the paper and have a look.

The Chronicle reports that next year’s challenge is to get a peer-reviewed paper published with a co-author named “Genital Warts.” This hasn’t been officially announced yet, but I can’t wait to see which journal publishes that!

Mr. Parent’s prizes include “a box of chicken-flavored Maruchan Ramen Noodle Soup” and “a pack of leather elbow patches.” I hope he attaches them to a brown corduroy sports coat so they can shine in all their glory.

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No Death Panels for Science! AAA Issues Clarification

This was previously called “The Detritus of the AAA/Science Debate” but that was boring.

Yes, I’m still talking about it, because there’s a few things I want to say. When the AAA Executive Board issued its clarification, they made a reference to their “What is Anthropology” document, which was approved at the same time as the much-maligned Long Range Plan. That document, which the EB had to draw attention to when all science hell broke loose, explicitly refers to science and anthropology in the same breath when it says, “anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences.” Of course, that’s not as newsworthy as the “excision” of science.

We’ve been played, my friends! The AAA Executive Board is not setting up Death Panels for science! AAA EB is not carving out the entire discipline of anthropology into their own image, laughing evilly while we sheeple stare helplessly from the sidelines, wringing our wrists.

I mean, seriously. Isn’t that even just a wee bit ridiculous? Perhaps we overreacted just a teeny tiny bit? (And when I say “we”, I’m being generous. I mean you. I didn’t overreact). Okay, I don’t think the AAA EB was entirely blameless. Here’s what I think they did wrong:

  1. Failed to predict the future: The EB should have known that anthropologists all over the US would be guided into a frenzy by outsiders with unknown vested interests (see Daniel Lende’s post on Neuroanthropology for an as-always reasonable discussion of the civil discussion within anthropology, which also quotes me, how exciting).  The EB should have known, therefore, that the fertilizer would hit the fan. And let’s be fair. With all our skills at reading people and behavior, we do expect, for reasons unknown and inexplicable, that our fellow anthropologists will be rational, civil, people. Which brings me to point number two.
  2. Failed to predict level of incivility and frothing-at-the-mouth reactions from anthropologists and outside interests alike: The EB should have known that this would open old wounds in the form of the science/non-science debate, which expresses itself thusly. “I so do science. My methods are scientific. So there! You don’t do science.” “Fine. I don’t do science. I’m taking my anthropology and going home.” Or some such thing. It’s all rooted in the very old fear of not being considered a real discipline, yadda yadda, you know the drill. I think this could have been anticipated, but wasn’t simply because the AAA EB didn’t know they were excising science from the AAA Mission (because they weren’t).
  3. Failure to react fast enough: Now this is the one I’m serious about. Predicting the future is an imprecise science, so the EB is off the hook for that. But their clarification should have come swiftly, and nipped all this in the bud. I’m going to assume that they were just startled by the vehemence of reaction to something they didn’t even intend. So while they were busy scratching their heads and going “WTF?!”, we were busy self-flagellating while kicking each other in the kidneys with steel-toed boots.

As the dust clears, voices of reason emerge. Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology is one, as I meantioned earlier, and he links to many others. Tom Boellstorff, in his letter to the NYT editor, is another. I refer particularly to the last paragraph of his letter, which says,

At issue are not “factions” but mishearings. Like so many of us in this age of antagonism, we anthropologists need to employ our skills of careful listening more effectively toward one another, to advance both science and public understanding of the human condition.

And here, really, is the central bit of things. We have the skills to analyze social situations, and we didn’t. (Just for the record, I don’t think “science” and “public understanding of the human condition” are necessarily two different things). We succumbed to the lure of the rant, and were righteously indignant without consideration for whether we had cause, or for who was pulling the puppet strings. If we can’t think about situations, they should take our Ph.D.s away.

There’s something else I want to say about the leadership of the AAA. There’s been a lot of incivility toward them as well, and mockery, e.g. referring to them as the “Group of Four.” I’m sure someone thought they were being clever, but it’s simply unkind. These are our colleagues, whom we elected to represent us. They advocate for us. They are anthropologists just like you and me, not power-hungry and corrupt politicians using their massive power as the EB of the AAA to…do what? Ask yourself this question. And refer to paragraph #2 of this post as you do so. Virginia Dominguez, for example, is someone who has often spoken about how nice it would be if more biological anthropologists and archaeologists were to attend the AAAs. She would like be part of a more unified discipline. In terms of scholarship, she focuses on strong and rich data with data-driven conclusions, and she likes numbers. Hardly the profile of someone who has it in for “scientific anthropologists” (as opposed to the rest of us who pull our data out of thin air?)

Related to all this, you might have noticed I don’t use the hashtag #AAAfail. There’s a reason. I think it’s a too-clever name for a complex but unnecessary situation, doesn’t effectively convey what actually happened, and is a bit rude. Also erases a point I think is important and have made before, that we are the AAA. Not the EB. They just represent us, because there’s too damn many of us and we opted for representative government.

Frank Marlowe, president-elect of the Evolutionary Anthropology Society, said in the NYT,

I really don’t see how or why anthropology should entail humanities. We evolutionary anthropologists are outnumbered by the new cultural or social anthropologists, many but not all of whom are postmodern, which seems to translate into antiscience.

Objection, your honor!The prosecution has no evidence to make that claim.

I leave you with a thought that has been bubbling up now and again in this debate, but I would like to reaffirm it now. Eric Wolf said, “anthropology is both the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences.”

Enough said.

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Science, the AAA, and mutual disrespect

I’ve been thinking a long time about blogging on anthropological things, but just never got around to it. I feel sufficiently compelled by the brouhaha over the missing “science” in the AAA LRP to comment on it. For a recap of what it’s all about, visit Neuroanthropology.

There are a couple of things I want to say. As a position statement/disclaimer, I would like to mention that I am somewhat disturbed by the absence of the word “science,” but I’ll clarify that position.

As a cultural anthropologist, I appreciate the position of those who feel that “science” doesn’t describe what they do. I understand the qualms of those who feel that “science” implies “objectivity,” a battle we abandoned long ago as a lost cause. To briefly comment on this, it’s not possible to be “objective” (in the sense of being completely unbiased) about people and what people do. We have opinions, and those opinions influence our scholarship. This is a given, and those who dismiss it haven’t been studying their cultural anthro well enough.

However, on the flip side of the debate, that doesn’t mean we abandon the word “science” in its entirety. Since Comte, the battle for legitimation of the social sciences, the studies of humanity, has been about establishing them as scientific disciplines. More than ever, in this time when education is undervalued and universities are turning into trade schools, we need to maintain the strengths of our discipline. We’re anthropologists–we have to understand the importance of how other people perceive us.

So what is science? The “scientific method” involves, at its most basic, observation, experimentation, and replication. And let’s not forget objectivity. The assumption is, of course, that you’re examining stars, or chemical elements, which couldn’t give a damn if you are looking at them, and can be counted on to behave in more or less the same way, or at least in the same patterns, over and over again. If they don’t, you have an anomaly, which is terribly exciting and the mainstay of plot devices for shows like Voyager. The methods and experiments of the natural sciences, therefore, are replicable.

Let’s take this to people. I’m not talking about fossils here, or material culture. I’m talking about living people. The kind who do what they want when they damn well please, and tell you they’re doing one thing while you can see perfectly well that they’re doing quite something else. Let’s try observation, replication, experimentation.

How’s that going for ya?

You see my point? Studying living people needs a slightly different perspective, slightly different methods. They do care if you look at them. They do things you have opinions about. To maintain that objectivity is possible under these circumstances is a bit silly, and frankly, it’s bad science.

We gather data, look for trends and patterns, and arrive and conclusions. These conclusions are not generalizable to everyone in the world, but they are not highly individualized either. In other words, we do science, just a little differently. Our variables are variable, what can I say? This doesn’t mean that we have abandoned rigor in methodology and theory–only that we have found theories and methods which work for us, given the special nature of the thing we study–people.

This brings me to my second point. The amount of open disrespect I have seen/read about/heard toward cultural anthropologists is ridiculous. From Alice Dreger’s dismissive and highly impolite description of cultural anthropologists as “fluff-headed,” to the large number of people who have felt compelled to ridicule cultural anthropology for being “politically correct” or “postmodern” (heaven forbid!), there’s been a rather disrespectful tone being taken in this discussion.

The disrespect was already there, let’s be frank. The discipline has been dissolving into a bunch of subdisciplines, held together by tradition and mutual antipathy. The poison is administered carefully to students, undergraduate and graduate alike, so that by the time they graduate, they’ve completely absorbed the culture of disrespect and dishonor that marks contemporary American anthropology.

You know what? I abjure it. We all do things differently. It’s the nature of what we do. We are joined by our love for investigating the nature of our humanity. And if some of us lack “objectivity”, why, others among us who “do science” often take large leaps of faith. What would biological anthro and archaeology be without the (sometimes shocking) kinds of conjecture that are necessary to disciplines which function based on limited evidence? You can measure, and scan, and run stats, but at some point you’re going to have to take a pretty good guess, because we just don’t know.

That’s science. And we all do it. So yes, it belongs in the AAA mission statement and needs to go back into our long-range plan. But we also need to acknowledge that we all do different kinds of science, because we study different things. That there are different kinds of science. Some are simply more philosophical than others.

Postmodernism, political correctness, postcolonialism…these are labels I choose to wear with pride, because they are important markers in the methodology of cultural and linguistic anthropology. Without these paradigm shifts, to put it in a Kuhnian way, we would never have understood what we were doing wrong, as anthropologists. To mock them makes no more sense than to mock the shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism. They are what they are–new ways to view the world and the people in it.

And finally, my last point. To the bio anthropologists and archaeologists who are upset with the AAA–where are you at the meetings? Don’t say the AAA makes you feel unwelcome–you ARE the AAA. Put your mouth where your money is. Reclaim the AAAs for your subdisciplines. I, for one, will be happy to see you there.

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