Undergrad Seminar: How long should this paper be?

Every student wants to know “How long should this paper be?” I think that’s a pretty reasonable question, but for some reason instructors sometimes treat this question like one of the deadly sins. Ironically, when your instructor is asked to present a paper, they are given the answer to that very question at the beginning!  Conferences state how long the abstract should be, how long the sessions are, how many participants and often how long they personally have to speak. Unfortunately, the smart-ass answer some people like to give to this reasonable student question is “when you feel it’s done.”  Indeed, may all those instructors be plagued with 50 page papers for the rest of their days. Again, this is a moment of strategy on the part of you the student. What you are really asking is “Based on the relative importance of this class to me when weighed against my core interests, the amount of effort required for my other classes, the GPA I hope to maintain across all my classes this year; what am I being judged on for my grade so I can compare that into my course load and understand when I want or have to put in more effort vs. minimal effort for the desired result.”  No one ones to hear about minimum effort, granted. Personally, I don’t want to hear about your minimal effort I only want results. If you are a bloody genius that can whip out a brilliant paper in two hours, hey more power to you. Undergrads take a lot of classes because they HAVE to, not out of interest and want to save their real effort for the classes that they have the most interest in. I am not going to ding you for that, but don’t be so dumb as to brag about it because the class is just that easy, unless you really just want more challenging work. Most instructors enjoy bright interested and gifted students, asking to be challenged will rarely go badly for you.

Part of your strategy is understanding that your instructor is also concerned with time management strategies. Every assignment given to a class means X number of papers to read and grade, questions to answer and whining students to deal with. This is on top of the need to publish, serve on committees and worse if the professor is coming up for tenure review. If a teacher has four full classes a semester and assigns nothing but papers to each class. Call it 4 classes X 30 students each X 4 papers per student X 10 pages each, that comes to 4,800 pages of work that have to be read and graded each semester. and that number is on the conservative side.

Knowing your instructor and their expectations is a big part making strategic choices. If you don’t know the needs of the client, then you really are shooting in the dark. Make it simple, GO TALK TO THEM. This is what office hours are for. Unsure if you are headed in the right direction on a paper? Why on earth wait until you turn it in to see if you guessed right? Go to them with an outline of the idea and your approach to the paper. When they offer “suggestions” as to a better approach, or more reasonable topic (more on reasonable topics later), take the suggestion without complaint or excuse. If they think it’s a bad idea, don’t take it personally. Move on to a different idea. Don’t expect your Prof to indulge your interest in science-fiction or fantasy literature in a class on medieval literature. If you really love renaissance festivals and spend all year long making your costume for it, they may not be interested in letting you claim that as a “class project.” Your idea may simply lack sufficient credibility for academic work. MOVE ON. More time is wasted by students stubbornly hanging on to some idea that their Prof as already said is simply a load of dingo’s kidneys. MOVE ON.

Undergrad Seminar: Why Incompletes Are So Dangerous

Here we are in the 2nd half of the academic year. If the 1st half got off to a rocky start, maybe this is a good time to talk about time management. Not the “The 7 habits of that smugly overambitious go-getter” variety. This is aimed more at the “How can I squeeze school into my hectic schedule of procrastination and binge drinking” style. In other words, for the rest of us. This is not to ignore what I think is the real value of the university experience: the freedom to explore, to question, to learn what you never expected. If you go though school without some kind of an “Ah ha” moment, then you have to ask if you really took advantage of the opportunity. Time management is making sure you have the ability to explore those Ah Ha moments.

What does time management mean? It is simply developing a strategy that helps you set reachable and realistic goals that treats school as something akin to a job. School is not the same as a job, I know that. In the US, heading off to college represents all kinds of milestones and transitions towards adulthood including making a lot of really stupid mistakes. Since stupid mistakes are part of life, you may as well factor this in and manage the parts you can. But if you can put yourself into the mindset that school IS your fulltime job, it might help with things like procrastination (my all time largest problem in school). That part-time job you have in the library, or as a teaching assistant or else-where are something you have to do to make ends meet, but school is your fulltime job. (This is referring to fulltime students. Part time students are often already fighting a massive time management battle).

In addition to getting those “Ah Ha” moments that we all love, there are some very basic tangible goals you want to hit: Graduate in 4 years, 5 at the outside with the GPA, experiences, training and recommendations you need to take you next step, no matter what that may be. School is about more than the GPA and getting out, but school is also expensive and your GPA at the end matters, so it is in your best interest to keep that in the back of your mind.

First rule: Incompletes are bad debt. Very Bad Debt. No matter what else you take away from here, learn that taking an Incomplete at the end of a class should be seen as a last option. You would be amazed at how often someone’s college career gets derailed due to piling up incompletes. No, your instructor will not take pity on you because its 5 days to graduation and that one incomplete is in your way. When you have an incomplete, you have very little room to negotiate. You don’t even have the option to take a lower grade if the instructor decides you have to finish that paper or project to complete the course. Never take an incomplete? Well, that’s strategy isn’t it? It’s much better than an F or D or maybe a C, but if it is a class outside your major and you really don’t want to spend more time on it, would you rather have the B or the bad debt of an incomplete that can become an F? I once knew someone that took an incomplete to get an A+ instead of an A, maybe I am a slacker, but that is insane given how much riskier the Incomplete is. Also instructors talk, if people find out you are taking several incompletes, they are going to stop giving you that option. Remember that taking the Incomplete is not your choice, it is your instructors. They have no obligation to give you one because its it bad debt for them as well! They have to give you a grade, chase you down before it becomes an F and listen to your excuse because you keep putting off that paper or project you owe them. If you are piling up incompletes, you may need to lay out a semester just to get them off the plate. Having an incomplete is mentally the same as carrying over that (or those) class(es) into your next course load.

Oh hell, you already have an incomplete? Weren’t you just reading all that… ok, ok, fine. I’ll calm down. Either you have screwed up badly or some legitimate misfortune befell you at the last part of the semester. All we can do now is move forward. That incomplete is a big pile of rotting food in your kitchen and you have GOT to clean that up before it gets into the rest of the food and really stinks up the whole house. To start with, there is no easy solution that will not increase you workload unless you have some miracle deal with the instructor. You cannot “borrow time” from your existing work load. If you take that attitude you are looking at a domino effect of incompletes. Is it starting to sink in why this Incomplete of yours is a big friggin deal?

There is only one way out of this: give up your free time to finish the job. That it, the only solution.

You can’t take the time from the work you already have to do, like the 500 pages of reading you were assigned over the weekend that you weren’t going to do anyway. I KNOW how hard this is, I am a terrible procrastinator and we are the worse kind of people to have incompletes because the deadline is often vaguely out there, but not quite real. The longer you take, the better the final product is expected to be! Maybe this is one of those “screw it, I will do a little worse work and take a B for the paper” moments on this particular project. But you have to turn in something or risk getting a failing grade. I am not going to even say you are going to feel better getting it off your plate. Having to finish this Incomplete is going to put you behind on your other work that you will have to double up on to prevent it from going incomplete. By the way, if we are talking about a 10 page double spaced paper please don’t write and tell me. I will run screaming from the room. This blog entry is nearly four pages double spaced using Arial 10 point font. 10 pages is really not that big a deal.

Make a plan, set a drop dead date and make your idea realistic: What is the minimum you have to do to get the grade you want. My apologies to my faculty friends, but this is triage and the crass reality of it. Your goal is not to win the undergraduate award for writing, it’s to get the incomplete off you plate. Scale back as much as you can: do you really need 40 sources or will 10 do? Is the instructor looking for regurgitation of their pet ideas or original thought on your part? Being that challenging student during the class is great. But now it’s an incomplete, a pain in the ass and not the time to get clever. Have you got a draft? Great, drop it off at the professors office. You might not get comments, but it shows a good faith effort on your part towards meeting your commitment. If they do comment, you might lucky and they say “hey, if you just add a paragraph about X, we are good to go.” And please dear Lord, don’t drop off an idea they already rejected and this is that same dumbass, irrelevant, unrealistic idea that you stubbornly hung on to and got you that incomplete in the first place. LET IT GO. I have watched people do that very thing. I don’t know what insanity overtakes them, but for the love of Pete, knock that crap off.

Do that incomplete: Do it this weekend, do it over two weekends if you have to. Unless that paper is huge, two hard weekends can cover it.

If you currently have an incomplete, leave a comment with the date you commit to having it finished. Did you just finish an incomplete? Let us know in the comments. Motivation is a big part of getting it done so motivate each other!

Ethnography, Tanzania, PhD degrees, and Something to Read at Bedtime


       Someone told me once that a PhD is a license to write for other PhDs.  As Donna Lanclos notes, this is different than making a living, and getting a full-time tenure-track job.  Nevertheless, as Donna herself demonstrated with her own book about childhood in Northern Ireland, this is a license that we can actually on occasion use.

       But, while a PhD may be a license to write, what is really fun is getting people to read what you wrote. And hopefully to do this, they do not need a PhD (indeed, a lot of really good ethnographic writing is actually done by people who don’t have a PhD, but don’t tell anyone!).  Having said that, here is my latest use of my license to write, and the result of something like ten years of back and forth in the wilds of western Tanzania, archives of Dar Es Salaam, and Chico where I tried to figure out how a very remote area became what we see to you today.  So, from African Studies Quarterly, presenting: “Social Organization and Social Status in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Rukwa, Tanzania.”  This is written for the other nineteen people in history, anthropology, and sociology who are interested in western Tanzania, and for Mark Dawson who is bound to find plenty of material for more existential musing.

      Seriously, I hope more than the other people interestedin Tanzanian history read this.  But, as I tell my students, such articles are perhaps best read for content in the mid-morning with a cup of coffee.  Unless of course you have insomnia, in which case you might try reading it in bed!

PhD, or not PhD

A column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, as pointed to by my friend Matt Bandy, has an interesting take on the essentialness (or lack thereof) of a Ph.D.  The column is specific to the humanities, but is easily transferable to the social sciences, and I think most particularly, to Anthropology.  Matt makes his points specific to archaeology, but I think that getting a PhD in any kind of anthropology these days is a particular kind of folly.

Yes, I got one.  Yes, some of my best friends are Ph.D.’s in Anthropology.  Reader, I married a Ph.D. in Anthropology.  That doesn’t mean it was a good idea—just that we were lucky, and that our passion for the discipline managed to (almost) make up for, in my case,  the hard time we spent trying to wring even one full-time job out of our two-Ph.D. partnership.

This is not to say that I don’t think people should study Anthropology.  On the contrary, I think we need more, not less, in our educational system.  But Anthropology should be shot through all of our educational system, K-12 as well as higher.  It should be a robust undergraduate degree, from which one could spring to any number of professional career platforms.  Anthropology should be a foundational discipline in anyone’s Liberal Arts and Sciences education.  A knowledge of anthropology, and the history behind the discipline, can lead to a perspective that can be useful in any number of paths.  But one doesn’t need a Ph.D. to have this knowledge.  Indeed, the quest for the Ph.D. can isolate the people who have this knowledge into a group of sad, self-flagellating academic wanna-be’s who, rather than getting to share their love of the field, grow increasingly bitter at the disconnect between what they wanted to happen in their professional lives (that is, a tenure-track job as a Professor).  How liberating it would be if they (if we) had simply studied what we loved as undergraduates, but then took that wonderful foundation and did something else entirely?

I had at least one professor, when I was an undergraduate, try to talk me out of going to graduate school in Anthropology.  I appreciate their efforts—they were not doing it out of disrespect for me or my abilities, but rather because they did (and do) respect me, and knew how hard and thankless the road to the Ph.D. would be.

I will repeat:  I have many successful friends in Anthropology, people with the fabled tenure-track jobs.  They are not only talented, they are extremely lucky (and most of them know it!).  I also have many wonderful friends who are successes in every other way except for the tenure-track job, and that latter “failure” makes them miserable, even though it is not their fault.

We as a profession need to take responsibility for our students, and not only inform them of the options outside of a Ph.D. in Anthropology, but actively point undergraduates into post-B.A. in Anthropology, non-Ph.D.,  professional opportunities.  That can include an M.A. in Anthropology, but not necessarily.  And we need to be serious about it, not treating anything other than a tenure-track job as “second- (or third-, or fourth-) best.”

I Hope That The Human Terrain Teams Read The Deceivers by John Masters: An Anthropological Novel

One of my favorite all-time historical novels is The Deceivers by John Masters. Published in 1952, the protagonist William Savage is an administrator in a remote district for the British East Indian Company. The book is set in 1825. Savage speaks four Indian languages, and has spent 19 years in the colonial service. As a colonial administrator, he is “the law” in his district. But to do this, he lives in an Indian village, embedded in Indian cultures and languages. No garrisoned “Forward Operating Base” with a VCR, pool table, video games, or other comforts of home for him!

Savage discovers a nihilistic death cult, the Thug, which waylays, robs, and kills travelers. Turns out that the cult has been around for 200 years during which it has killed something like one million people across India, including dozens in Savage’s own district. In short, it is the world’s greatest murder mystery. Savage goes undercover, learns about the intricacies of the Thug cult dedicated to the goddess Kali. He even learns to strangle using a cloth rumel. After some rip-roaring good adventures and spooky mysticism, Savage convinces the British colonial powers that they have a responsibility to pursue the cult, and make India’s roads safe for travel. And though it is beyond the scope of the novel, the British do this—by enforcing the laws in ways that both respect British legal traditions, and destroy the anarchy in which brigands, death cults, and robbers flourish. John Master’s interpretation of this is made possible by both his own personal experience in India—he was the fifth generation of his family born in British India—and attention to the importance of ritual, religion, empathy, and morality in ordering human affairs.

The strength of the novel is in its story—it is a great adventure book. But my latest reading also impresses on me that it is an anthropological story too. The British are imposing their justice system, rooted in western morality, in early nineteenth century India. This is a problem that sometimes crosses cultural boundaries effectively, but at other times exposes British naivete. Spookier, are the accounts of how the religious cult ties together Thug gangs Masters’ cleverly describes the power ritual gives them to kill, rob, and terrorize. Which of course leads the book to another important anthropological point, which is that religion and religious commitment are essential to understanding people, and what they do. Finally, the book implicitly illustrates how important anthropological skills like empathy, language skills, and cultural understanding are for understanding another cultural world. In doing this, Master’s makes the point that cultural experience matters—what makes possible Savage’s investigation in the first place is his affinity for India, and his ability in four languages.
This for me brings up anthropology’s recent engagement with the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Agree or disagree with it, in at least one important way, the empire-building project of the British in the early nineteenth century, and the American in the early twenty-first century is similar. Both are challenging cults rooted in pre-modern conceptions of religious ecstasy which glorify killing and death. The odd thing is that the British, with their long-term commitment to empire do the anthropologically correct thing and develop staff like Savage (or perhaps for that matter Masters’ own real-life family) that engage with locals to extend their concept of empire.

But the Americans in their wars against Al Qaeda and other groups in Afghanistan and Iraq, have shorter-term post-imperial goals, and perhaps as a result do not engage their opponents as effectively. After reading The Deceivers, the American effort really seems like “empire light” because it substitutes high-tech for culturally savvy administrators like Wiliam Savage. America’s post-imperial mindset, along with an implicit faith in the capacity of American technology, law, and economic might complete the substitution. Thus, today, the Americans are more comfortable with the technology of drones that can be “flown” over Afghanistan from a desk at CIA headquarters in northern Virginia, than they are with developing language skills which are created only by living for years in a culture. This preference for short-term technological fixes is I think ultimately the culture that Mark Dawson and others from the Human Terrain Team are up against when trying to peddle anthropological ideas. They want the Americans to think like William Savage. But in the American war effort, technology, not cultural competence, is central.

On a certain level, I appreciate that the US American military is becoming aware that culture matters when confronting nihilistic cults like Al Qaeda. But let’s face it, despite the fact that Al Qaeda may have some similarities with the nineteenth century Thug cults the US military is not producing the William Savages to confront Al Qaeda. Instead they are creating computer jockeys who reduce the problem to what is seen on a computer screen. In doing this, they ignore the power of ritualistic cults, and religious mysticism that drives such groups in the first place.

Programs like Human Terrain Team could presumably fill this hole, but I doubt if they ever will. If HTT does their job, they will point out the limitations of drone attacks in destroying religious cults rooted in ethics very different than that of the US military. Ultimately, I wonder though whether the modern US military with its own culture invested in high tech is suited to confront traditions of religious ecstasy, nihilism, and the anarchy of remote places like today’s rural Iraq, rural Afghanistan, or rural Pakistan. If today’s planners don’t quite believe this sociologist from Chico, they should have a look at John Master’s book The Deceivers. Besides enjoying a good read, they may also get some advice about how to confront the ninilistic religious cults like Al Qaeda.

Mark said we’re not blogging about HTS anymore

but I thought this was a good story, not specifically about HTS, but about one anthropologist’s work with the military, as a professor at the Marine Corps University at Quantico.

Not surprisingly, I agree with the points she makes about grey areas, and about how each anthropologist needs to “draw their own line.”

Blogging is soooooooooo 2006

This is the time of year when blogs talk about their top posts for the 2009, the most important issues in their area of interest and otherwise reflecting with great insight on the past year or decade. I promise this blog will continue its long held tradition to avoid insights at all costs.  So forward, forward I say.

But what to natter on about? I don’t have much interest in the debate about the military/cultural anthropology “conversation” any more. People have made their calls on a personal and professional level, and will go about their business as personal conscience leads them. The grassroots are wiser than the self-appointed protectors of the purity (read: ossification) of the field. It was fun to poke a stick at people for a while, but you can only make self-righteous people dance around and screech for so long before its boring again.  Now, if they screeched something different every time, that would keep my interest.  But, sadly it’s the same reason video games don’t keep my attention… not enough variety.  They are sort of like watching Glenn Beck, you don’t need more that a couple of minutes to get the gist of it.  Then it’s like watching Seinfeld.

I’ll still write about design and innovation from time to time.. I was in the field for 15 years as a design anthropologist and still enjoy it.  But what else?  I am not doing anything the looks like ethnography anymore and there is not much pissing me off these days, my life is pretty damn dull.  I do a lot of book research and some consulting.  I still have my “what am I issues.”  Am I an anthropologist, yes… am I doing anthropology these days… no.

Here is what I have been working on for the last few months, as a hobby not a job mind you: Learning and playing Texas Hold ‘em poker.  A totally fascinating, difficult, frustrating game filled with a combination of science, individual heuristics and folklore.  But that is what I do for fun in my spare time these days.  I play very low limit games (for example, what some would call penny ante and very low stakes tournaments).  I pour over my hand histories, read books on strategy and mostly gnash my teeth over my routinely poor play.  I am not getting any better, so we will see how long this lasts.  The Ordinary People Project lies fallow for the moment for no reason other than laziness.

But there are other bloggers here and they add their interests and we will be adding new bloggers soon.

What would you like to see more of?