Broken Femurs and Cracked Backs: An Ethnography of Thai Motorcycle Safety

Introduction

We arrived in Thailand last Thursday to visit our daughter Kirsten who teaches English in a Thai school. Within a half hour of arrival we were informed that she had just had an accident. She was driving her scooter near a Thai market in the small city of Phrae, when a “white car” backed out in front of her. She hit the brakes, skidded out, and fell into an on-coming truck whose wheels gave her back a big whack. At about the same time, the people picking us up at the airport sent her a text saying we had arrived successfully at an airport in the next province. She texted a “thumbs up” back to them from the back of the ambulance indicating that she was pleased we had arrived safely. She didn’t think that a brief text about a motorcycle accident was appropriate in such a circumstance—thus the thumbs up.

At this point she began her ethnographic participant investigation of the Thai insurance, medical, and legal system. More about the ethnography of this situation in a minute!

But first a word from our sponsor: Motorcycle Safety.

Motorcycle Safety I: Artificial Femurs in Tanzania

     Motorcycles are really dangerous. But they are also ubiquitous in the middle income countries like Thailand where people have enough money for a motorcycle, want to send their kids across to town for school, don’t like to walk, and car ownership is not affordable.

    Which brings up a trip to the operating theater I made last April when visiting Tanzania, a country poorer than Thailand, but which has also had a boom in motorcycle purchases as the economy has improved. The director of the Tanzanian hospital took us on a tour of the facility. It was a large facility in a rural area of Kilimanjaro Region on a dirt road. But they were able to do many things, including delivering lots of babies (we visited the new-born ward), treat topical diseases  and the other things a rural hospital on the sides of Mount Kilimanjaro needed to do.  They even had a college where nurses and medical aides are trained. At one point, our tour guide asked if we wanted to see the operating room. Sure why not? I’ve seen a couple of operating rooms before on t.v. and even occasionally in person—it is a table with lots of cool machines and lighting.

     So he took us to the operating room. But he didn’t take us in the actual room itself, because it was being used at the moment. So he invited us to have a look at the viewing window (this is a teaching hospital after all). And there we watched a surgeon operate on a broken leg. We could only see the leg—the rest of the patient, who was sedated with a spinal block, was covered All I could see was disembodied leg. But into this banged-up leg the doctor had inserted a manual “screwdriver” (actually a brace and bit), with which he was carefully screwing something into a bone via a hole in the leg. This wasn’t like the type of operation I’ve seen on t.v. where there are bright lights beeping machines, and fancy machines. Just a very focused surgeon with scalpels and screwdrivers. No whirring machines either. A bit more than what we had bargained for on our “tour!”

        Next stop was the storeroom, where we were shown the collection of metal femurs they kept there—i.e. a metal rod which includes a hip joint, and a  “For motorcycle accidents” it was explained. They had several sizes in the store, in anticipation of the motorcycle accidents that are increasing in number as the Tanzanian economy develops and people buy motorcycles. Indeed, in every Tanzanian town there is a new industry going back less than ten years—the motorcycle taxi service (buda buda in Swahili). Young men hiring out the back seat of their motorcycles to passengers. And such motorcycles were the raison d’être for the store of metal femurs kept there. The hospital was anticipating motorcycle accidents—and broken femurs.

Back to the Thai Hospital

Now back to Kirsten, who was hit by the truck here in Thailand. She had finished teaching her English evening class, and was riding to the market to meet her friend for dinner when the white car backed out of the parking place in front of her. She hit the brakes, and skidded out, tumbling into the on-coming traffic. The fall was not too bad as she was going slowly. But when she looked up, she saw a truck coming toward her head. As a reflex, she apparently went into a fetal position, so that the truck hit her on her back. Pow! Or ouch!  The next thing she knew she was thinking about whether her toes and fingers would still move.  Taking a gulp she wiggled them–the did!

The truck had Thai university students on the back who screamed. Other people started running toward the accident, and nervous laughter began—who would talk to the farang lying on the ground? Others took photos. Someone called the ambulance. Kirsten found an English-speaking Thai woman, and asked her to find her friend in the market a few hundred feet away. The Thai asked if she could borrow her motorcycle, and Kirsten, lying on the ground, told her it was ok The woman returned in a few minutes later with my daughter’s farang friend. An ambulance came too, and loaded my daughter onto the gurney. The friend was told to slowly and carefully follow the ambulance to the hospital. But of course the ambulance went quickly to the hospital, causing the friend to drive—quickly.

At the Emergency Room, Kirsten was x-rayed, and a quick diagnosis made that Kirsten was o.k.—she was sore from muscle bruises and cracks in in three lumbar vertebra (the pointy part of the vertebra, not the actual spinal column itself).  Fortunately there was not damage to the spinal column itself, which is why she could still wiggle her toes.. Because Kirsten has Thai accident insurance, she was quickly x-rayed and placed in a single room to spend the night—the hospital knew they were getting paid. The doctor finally arrived, and reported that the x-ray of the spine was normal, and that she could be discharged. Kirsten, explained though that she could not walk, much less climb the four floors to her apartment. Told this, the doctor changed his recommendation—she would need to spend the night in the hospital, and see the orthopedist.

The orthopedist came by the next day, and took another look at the x-rays. It seemed that that the truck tire had broken and/or cracked three of the spurs on Kirsten’s lumbar, which explained well why she was having so much pain while walking. However, no surgery would be necessary. New prescription? More pain meds, a week of taking it really slow, and a corset for a month. Oh, and she should have been wearing a motorcycle helmet, too.

Motorcycle Safety II: Motorcycle Culture in Phrae, Thailand

Up to 26,000 people are killed in road accidents every year in Thailand, which puts the country in the 6th spot in terms of road casualties. Of those killed, up to 70 or 80 per cent are motorcyclists or their passengers. Source

Kirsten is part of a large group of American and European young people teaching English in Thailand. Besides having a lot of motorcycles, Thailand also has a great thirst for English education, and is willing to hire twenty-something foreigners (farangs) like Kirsten to come teach in primary and secondary schools. Many of the people taking these jobs are thirsting for adventure. Adventures in Thailand naturally include motorcycles, which cost only about $40 per month to rent, and make mobility possibility possible, as they do for the streets full of Thai motorcyclists.. The rentals come with insurance for the bike to protect the owner, but not for the medical costs to protect the renter—accident insurance costs Kirsten another $30 per month, and covers medical expenses, and loss of income in the event of an accident. What they don’t come with is motorcycle training, experience driving on the left side of the road, or what appear to foreigners to be chaotic Thai driving culture. The result? Every one of Kirsten’s foreign English teacher-friends had fallen off their bikes, often during the first weeks on the road with a range of bruises and “road rash” the result.

     What is this Thai driving culture? Children start riding as passengers at birth, and start standing/sitting on them by age two. They begin driving motrocycles themselves as teenagers, and will drive their motorcycle to high school. Most college students have their own motorcycles, as do many high school students.  They usually drive on the left side of the road, but not always, especially if there is not a convenient place to turn right to a destination.

      Roads in northern Thailand are designed for an earlier age which involved foot traffic, slow ox-carts, cattle, water buffaloes, and elephants as recently as 30 year ago. Even city roads are often windy, narrow, and parking practices are irregular–line of sight is often block. Street vendors are an attraction of Thailand, but they also obstruct view since they are often literally in the street. Finally, there of course is a close relationship between drinking and accidents in Thailand, as elsewhere. Thailand has its own brands of whiskey and beer which are drunk in both moderation and excess. 

     Motorcycles helmets are required in Thailand at least since 1996, but the law is often ignored, despite police checkpoints. Kirsten has been stopped several times at the police checkpoints, and always had a helmet with her, though not necessarily on her head, so no ticket. But she always wears a helmet when going to her school as an example to her students, while complaining that to wear a helmet she has to take her hair down, which is hot in the tropical weather, so sometimes she carries it attached to the helmet carrier. Anyway she was not wearing her helmet at the time of her evening accident.

       Kirsten is not unusual in Thailand either,.  last year, just 43 per cent of motorcyclists and their passengers nationwide wore helmets, down from 46 per cent a year earlier. Source.  The informal rule in Phrae is that the helmets are worn during the day when the police are activity—and focused particularly on the time that the schools begin, and are dismissed. The motorcycle traffic of the high school students is heaviest at this time—and they do receive tickets if they do not have a helmet.

Conclusion: Kirsten’s Hospital Bills

So what has happened to Kirsten? She spent two nights in the hospital, and thankfully does not have to take advantage of the screwdrivers, nuts, bolts, artificial femurs, and so forth which I hope that the Phrae surgeons have to fix the many motorcycle accidents of Phrae. The corset holds in place the three lumbar vertabra that were cracked/damaged by the truck’s wheel against her back, and which makes walking painful. She does not require surgery—just a slow and awkward recovery period so that the bones can knit back together while being protected by the corset. Her biggest regret I think, is that she cannot get back to her first graders too soon, as they have the habit of affectionately jumping on her unexpectedly. She expects to return more quickly to her older students who do not do this.

For this she spent three nights in the hospital for which her insurance policy will pay compensation to her of about $30 per day. Because she was paying the accident insurance, her total out of pocket co-pays came to about $75. The biggest item was her corset, which was billed to her at $33. The bill I saw from the second hospital where she spent two knights, had visits from two doctors, an x-ray, and painkillers had a total bill of about $250, most of which was billed directly to the insurance company.

Kirsten was also interviewed by the police who had a finding of “no fault” for the three drivers involved in the accident, a conclusion that she has no quarrel with. As for the photos taken of her lying in the street, we have not seen them, and they have presumably been posted to Facebook, but  not by anybody who tagged her–so we have not seen them.

Overall Conclusion: The Value of Ethnography Itself?

So what is the overall conclusion of this blog? Well, motorcycles are dangerous! You should also come visit a place like Thailand, to visit, study, travel, or any other reason. The people do things differently than they do in Europe or North America, but there is also a richness and kindness evident in every day interactions.

But you probably already knew that motorcycles are dangerous, and Thailand is a great destination–so why read this far?  Of course motorcycles in Thailand are dangerous, but also necessary in every day life for the vast majority, including faring teachers, who cannot own cars. And if you are new to Thailand, remember you probably have not been standing on these beasts since you were two years old, driving since your were thirteen, nor have the experience of multiple accidents and fatalities among your friends and age mates. Which means, learn to ride motorcycles slowly, be aware of your environment, always wear a helmet, and always remember first Kirsten, and then surgeon with the screwdrivers I saw in Tanzania.

Not much of a conclusion, really, but does ethnography really have to always have conclusions? Or safety sermons? After all, ethnography is also about telling stories—which I think is the real point of this blog after all. Tell stories because they are interesting, engaging, and important. Or perhaps to just say “thank you” to a type of world which his different than your own.

How are the Minds of PhD Students “Disciplined” by Graduate School?

Thinking about getting a PhD? Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt is the book to read. Already getting a PhD, ditto. Already have a PhD?   You should also read this book, even though it was published way back in 2000, and relies on data from the 1980s and 1990s. It applies to today as well—little has changed. What is more, it gives an insight not only to how graduate schools seeks to shape and discipline a conservative cadre of future professors, the principles can also be applied to the pursuit of tenure for people who have made it that far. Academic winnowing works the same way at the graduate school, tenure track level, and for that matter for adjunct hiring as well. All should read Schmidt’s book as a warning about the nature of “professional socialization.” Hint: It’s not about critical thinking and high quality independent academics.

Disciplined Minds is specifically about how PhD programs select for scientists (and others) who are disciplined to the pre-existing norms of the disciplines. The pinnacle of academic achievement he writes is not about how good the students is, or how smart, but how disciplined to reproducing the the previous group of academics. Academia does it by administering a system which selects conservative people willing to reproduce the status quo. This is done through a series of examinations, particularly the “qualifying exams” that are designed to select for people who

….have an intuitive feeling for the values, attitude, outlook and approach that the tests favor-they have internalized the spirit of the tests.

(Kindle Locations 2937-2938).

Values, attitude, outlook and approach are what is sought in graduate school admissions tests like the GRE, MCAT, and LSAT and for PhD students the equivalent is the qualifying exams. And what the examiners are looking for are students who have internalized the spirit of the department and the discipline. Notably, this is different than getting general smartness, brilliance, or teaching well.

When the issue is how “good” the student is, there is no criticism of what the examiners are looking for and nothing is exposed about the true nature of the field that the selection system functions to reproduce. (Kindle Locations 1911-1913).

What the tests seek is to replicate pre-existing power relations, meaning graduate school is conservative in its very nature—it seeks to reproduce the examiners, even when the examiners are left-wing professors voting urging change for other people’s institution.

Generally speaking, the greater the power, whether corporate or state or even oppositional, the more eager professionals are to subordinate themselves to it. (Kindle Locations 3208-3209).

In the case of the physics PhD education Schmidt put himself through, they are seeking students willing to subordinate themselves to the funders of Physics experiments, which are the people in the US Defense Department and industry who fund grants to professors and universities.

When the professional leaves unchallenged the moral authority of his employer to dictate the political content of his work, he surrenders his social existence, his control over the mark he makes on the world. (Kindle Locations 3222-3223).

Lest Sociologists and Anthropologists think they are immune to such pressures, I would urge them to look carefully at the funding decisions that underpin administrative decisions to fund new positions as Assistant Professors and graduate students.

Schmidt’s book obviously made a big impression on me. I urge you to read it! I will also be posting now and then about other parts of Schmidt’s argument soon.

Max Weber was a funny guy!

That’s right, Max Weber, the dour looking social theorist on the cover of you social theory text made jokes. How do I know this? Well, my wife and I just published a new book Weber’s Rationalism: New Translations on Politics, Bureaucracy, and Social Stratification, and this post is an essay about why you should read it!

      In particular, Weber’s classic essay “Politics as Vocation” has real zingers in it.

Tony-Cover of Weber book

Some examples of the wit and sarcasm of Max:

      Vanity is a very widely spread trait and probably nobody is entirely free of it.

 

Certainly, among scholars and academic circles it is kind of an occupational disease.

Nevertheless, especially for a scholar, vanity is distasteful when it expresses itself, but it is relatively harmless because it does not disrupt the functioning of academic organizations. This is completely different in a politician for whom the pursuit of power is a means unto itself. (pp 181-182).

But Weber was not going to only take potshots at academics, he also had some fine words for politicians as well, writing as he was during the German Revolution of 1918-1919. Specifically he said:

 But there is one remark I would like to make: At this time and day of pure excitement and passion—even though not all excitement is caused by true convictions—politicians on an outrageous scale run wild with slogans like:

 

‘It is the world, it is dumb, stupid and mean! It is not me! I am not responsible for the consequences. The consequences are the responsibility of others for whom I work. But I will eradicate their stupidity, arrogance, and nastiness!’

 

To put it bluntly, I ask myself firstly, are such people truly serious about any ethical and moral convictions? I am convinced that in nine out of ten cases, they are windbags puffed up with hot air about themselves. They are not in touch with reality, and they do not feel the burden they need to shoulder—they just intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations. (p. 196)

And then he really lets politicians have it when he writes the following about the characters who turn to that profession:

Politics is made with the head, not with the other parts of body, nor the soul. (p. 181)

I know, you are probably wondering what is so funny about that last one?  What does he mean when he advises politicians to not make politics with either the soul or “other” parts of the body?  What exactly is the “other” part of the body used to “make politics?”  Anyway,  I don’t think Weber was thinking of hands and feet! Politicians in those days too had fleshly temptations, and giving into them could only lead to poor political decisions, as generation after generation of politicians continually re-discover!

Admittedly, the humor in our new translations is nestled among Weber’s more serious gems of insight which are couched in in more lofty prose.   But wit and wisdom go together, and in our translations and the pages of accompanying editorial material, which we wrote, there are plenty of both.

How prescient? President Bill Clinton said that “Politics as Vocation” was one of the 21 best books he had ever read—it is in the same list with his wife Hillary’s auto-biography!

And there is more humor in “Politics as Vocation,” including endearing comments by Weber about men who blame their wives for their own affairs, and random potshots at political nemeses among the revolutionary politicians of 1919 Germany like Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebkencht, and Kurt Eisner,  and even snarky remarks about politicians in the United States and Russia.  But you need to get the book to read about these!

Besides the rip-roaring oratory of Weber’s “Politics as Vocation, first delivered in the lecture hall of the University of Munich in 1919, in our book there are also new fresh translations of Weber’s classic essays “Class, Status, Party;” “Discipline and Charisma;” and “Bureaucracy.” All four translations are new, fresh, and littered with footnotes to help you understand both Weber’s wisdom and humor!

Now for those of you convinced this is worth $90+ , you can have your copy of our new book delivered by Amazon.com either by the post office, or wirelessly to your Kindle. If you don’t have an extra $90+, you can tell your library that they cannot do without this book. Here is a convenient link from our publisher to recommend the book.  Please click on this link and tell your library that they should indeed buy a copy so you can quickly check out the wit and wisdom of St. Max.

A pre-publication version of Chapter 1 is here.

Happy reading!

 

National Adjunct Walkout Day #NAWD

I started adjuncting in spring 2006, about two weeks after turning in my MA thesis at California State University, Chico. I was hired to teach sociology by an Anthropology professor I’d taken in grad school who was also the chair of the social and behavioral sciences (SBS) department at Butte Community College. I reread my journal from that time and oh man, I was so happy to have a job right out of grad school.

But my happiness lasted only a brief period and right away I learned how easily adjuncts are hired and fired. The Friday before the spring semester began, the SBS department secretary called me and left me a voicemail at home stating that I was not going to be able to teach that Monday, no reason given and no request to call back if I wanted more information. I got on the phone quick, spoke to the chair of SBS at Butte College and learned I was deemed not “equivalent” because my MA was in Social Science not Sociology.

This was my introduction to the world of adjuncting. I was lucky, I knew a thing or two about California law and contracts and I had already signed mine, so I pushed back. I spent my first semester on pins and needles trying to gain equivalency to teach in the field I studied. I was granted equivalency in fall 2006, but only after fighting and writing lots of emails.

Today, adjuncts across the United States are staging walk-outs, teach-ins, and other types of action to bring attention to the adjunct plight. Adjuncts are precarious workers and even though I had no clue I was an adjunct when I was hired, it didn’t take long to learn I was on the shit end of the stick. I worked in low wage service work before I went back to school in my 30’s; I know what precarity feels like.

Precarity feels like shit. Dignity and shame are emotions adjuncts have to manage. It hurts them, hurts students, and is an illustration of the tremendous inequity in higher education; it is a two-tier system where (in this case) a set of workers do the exact same job but one group for far less in earnings and benefits; Weber called this status inconsistency: “a situation where an individual’s social position have both positive and negative influences on his or her social status.” For example, professor’s have a positive image imbued with respect and prestige, things that enhance status. At the same time, they earn little money and lack benefits and power.  Sound familiar?

I miss teaching though, I quit in June 2012, which you can read about here (good old fashioned quit lit). I’ve tried to get back into teaching (with eyes wide open, whatever that means) but no such luck. I did get a call from one of my old Dean’s in January; he’s working at Woodland Community College now. They needed someone to teach 1 soc class (and Woodland is a 90 minute drive from my house). I also got a voicemail from their 1 fulltime soc prof, “Hey Julie, this is so-and-so, I’m calling to talk about this position, really hoping you can help us out.” Help them out, hmpph. I sent a text to my former dean, “if you had more than one class…” and then I felt like shit. Why couldn’t I just say ‘No” or “Are you shitting me, you want me to drive 3 hrs a day for a hundred bucks minus taxes?”

Anyway, I came across this old rant I wrote in 2008, 2 years into teaching and in the thick of my growing consciousness about inequality in the academic workplace. I’m sure there are some inaccuracies but I certainly captured the frustration I felt and saw then and I see in other adjuncts now. Reasonably so, no one tells us about aduncting in grad school, we get worked by our tenured profs and every year fresh-faced, excited academics get churned into the murky waters of contingent labor for the system to feed off of like chum. And yeah, some tenured folk get it but for the most part, they are as rare as unicorns. If the tenured really want to help then please challenge the apathy and comfort zones of your tenured colleagues and administrators. Being an ally means you’re gonna get dirty, you might even get yourself stigmatized like us; but at least you’re doing the right thing.

Wages, Benefits, and Respect…oh my! (2008)

 

Here’s the facts: Temporary instructors earn less than fast food restaurant managers and slightly more than some of our students. The students don’t know the difference between a temporary worker and a full-time prof until I tell them this: Last year, I worked an average of 50 hours a week teaching, preparing lectures, holding office hours, and grading papers…I earned, for all these efforts, about $21,000 and zero benefits, save the two personal days we’re allotted each year. And I’m one of the lucky ones, privileged to be married to a guy who makes a decent income so I can do what I love. I think about my part-time colleagues, raising families as single parents, spouses laid off, some teaching 7 classes at three colleges and holding office hours when we are paid for only 4.5 hours a semester, literally, educators as grunts, working the front lines of this system.

We know the system doesn’t give a rat, many of us don’t expect it to…but our full-time colleagues, oh how it hangs in the air between us. Someone said to me recently, “You’ll see when you get a tenured position.” In other words, selling out is inevitable…but is it? So many of these folks are Boomers who fought for civil rights, labor rights…now they drive BMW’s and Mercedes and say they’re “too busy,” or “swamped” to share my concerns, what the hell happened? I’m Gen X, so let me tell you, they got a “taste.” And when you get a taste, the money, the status…it must all be too much…for some.

But back to my point…if we temps are treated unequally–and the pay and benefits are only a piece, lack of respect within the system is abundant–how does this affect students? though I love teaching, I think the tenure system and concurrent part-time pool work against student success. I know TENURE, what the hell am I thinking attacking that when I might have it some day? Usually, the words, “Would you give up your academic freedom?” follows this comment. Yes, we part-timers are limited in that area anyway but this is not an academic freedom issue, it is a labor issue.

The PhD as an Existential Question???

Originally published here at e.com in August 2012. 

To PhD or not to PhD, that is that a question for you?  Well, at Ethnography.com we have years of unsolicited advice to those of wondering if all the uncertainties of grad school are for you or not.

For example those of you have lousy grades for any number of reasons, and question not your own capacity, but that of your chosen profession to give your application a second look, check out “Can Bad Grades and Graduate School Go Together?”  The answer of course is a resounding YES!  But it is not so YES! As if you had better grades.  But what is done is done, so push on.

But let’s say that you’re already in grad school, have a stellar g.p.a. and the luminaries of anthropology are throwing research assistantships, graduate fellowships, and closing in on the Master’s.  Is it ok to bail, and take another path? For you, too, we at Ethnography.com have.  Check out “Why I chose not to get a PhD” by one of our more erudite bloggers.

Or maybe you’re an adjunct faculty member, working in a community college or as a university lecturer. No matter how excellent a professor or how hard you work, you are treated as a second class citizen by tenured peers and administration alike. If this is you we here at e.com know your pain and alienation, our blogger Marianne Paiva writes about this in “Second-Class PhD.”

Finally, perhaps you are finally closing in on that PhD and realize that the brass ring of tenure track employment is perhaps just that—only made out of brass, and not gold.  Family, the job market, and life in general is keeping you from the step of casting yourself on the national or international job market, and your life is just fine where it is, thank you Herr Dr. Big Shot Major Professor! Let our blogger assure you that there is nothing inherently essential to life in “PhD or not PhD.”

 

Is an NSF Grant Just Another Cult Fetish?

I made a somewhat off-hand comment one of Ryan’s posts about graduate education on Savage Minds.Org some time ago.  I warned graduate students about “fetishizing” various types of grant sources like NSF, NIMH, Fulbright, and the various others sources of grad student funding which students compete to get.  This initially got me a deserved sharp rebuke from Ryan.  After all, who was I as a fully tenured, overpaid, and underworked full professor to complain about graduate stipend which (obviously) are few and far between?  Well that question is fair enough—but Ryan has also graciously offered me a chance to elaborate.

First my backstory.  One of the reasons I am not an anthropologist is that in 1988 after eight years working in Thailand and Tanzania mostly with refugees (which is what I wanted to study), I told I need at least eight more years to become an anthropologist.  In large part, it was explained to me that this was because (obviously) fieldwork is required for a doctorate in anthropology, you might need to try two or three times before success.  But never mind while waiting for the grant to come through you would need to work 2-3 years as a t.a. waiting to strike gold.  It was sonorously explained to me that to do field work, you would need pre-research visits, protocol visits, and finally what was in the early 1990s a $20,000 grant from Fulbright or NSF to buy your plane tickets, fly back to places you have already been, collect the data to do the field work.  The field work would then take another year or two to do the write-up, and so forth.

So I ended up in Sociology, and completed a PhD in 5-6 years, without fieldwork and wrote a dissertation based mainly in the library.  I also heard that I would never get a job unless I:

Could get a grant, preferably one via NSF or one of the other federal agents which pay “overhead” to my university.

Curried favor with letter writers (i.e. they themselves) who controlled the job market via social networks.

Delivered multiple papers at conferences, preferably those organized by their networks.

Made a theoretical break-through in your dissertation, which they would sign off on.

Now fast-forward twenty years.  I am sociology professor sitting on hiring committees at a comprehensive MA granting institution, i.e. the type of place where about 80% of the tenure track jobs are in the United States.  The goal in these committees is to hire someone who fits the published job description so that the university’s lawyer will sign off on the search.  Once that criteria is met, here are the most important questions:

1.Will their PhD be finished and signed off by the time they arrive?  The best way to have this is to be applying with the degree in-hand.  New faculty with an unfinished dissertation typically take longer to finish than they and their dissertation chair promise—better to hire someone which is sure to be finished.  The best dissertation is a done dissertation—don’t worry we aren’t going to read your dissertation, even if your letters indicate that is “ground-breaking.”  All letters say that, and anyway, the point of a dissertation is to be ground breaking, even if they are not.  Dissertations are usually boring to read, and we aren’t going to read yours as part of a job search process—it is too much like reading student papers, of which we have plenty; and besides savageminds.org is much more fun to read.

2.Can the candidate teach the classes in the job ad, and will the version they offer fit in with our curriculum?  Are there some extra classes that they might be able to teach that are in OUR curriculum?  Notably, we do not really care if you can create a new class based on your dissertation research—we are much more concerned with OUR curriculum being covered, because if the new hire doesn’t teach it, we will teach it via larger class sizes, more preps, etc. We didn’t get to teach our dissertation, and neither will you.  What attracts us is a candidate that can teach what is in the ad (e.g. Anthropology of Africa), but who also can teach something unexpected which is already in our curriculum—e.g. physical anthropology or statistics.

3.Can the candidate be an active publisher of scholarly work?  The best indicator is that they have already published something on their own that is relatively recent.  It doesn’t even need to be in a refereed journal.  Simply, is there a probability that you will continue to publish and maintain a national profile despite a focus on teaching?  If you have been a lecturer, did you keep publishing, even with a heavy teaching load?  Something published 5 or 6 years ago with your prof doesn’t really impress.  What did you publish on your own? Note: papers co-authored with your big shot prof are not a good substitute for doing something on your own, at least in my view.  Your prof will not be coming to teach/write here, you will.  Single authorship tells us that you will be an independent scholar.  And at least in my mind, publishing at Savage Minds is far, far better than not publishing at all.

4.Is this person a good departmental citizen?  Will they show up for meetings, even at odd times?  Will they remember to provide information for stupid assessment reports?  Will they cover your class when you are out of town, and get letters of recommendation off for students (and colleagues) in a timely fashion?  Do they answer emails from students?  From colleagues?  Will we be a just a stepping stone to something they really want?  In other words will they leave after a year or two, dumping their classes back in the department’s lap?

5.Now we finally get down to the fetishes that Ryan asked me to write about, i.e. the grants, conference presentations, fellowships, post-docs, etc. which are so highly valued in the world of the Research I universities.  Notably, none of these things help much with completing items 1-4.  Sometimes they even hinder it.  Too many graduate students spend an extra year or two (or three) t.a.ing at $17,000 dollars a year waiting out the grant cycles that will get them to the field—someday.  This does not help with item 1 in particular—the finished signed off dissertation. Incomplete dissertations are really really costly to the grad student in terms of opportunity costs.

Ok, so how do you write a dissertation if you don’t have a grant? Answer: you just do it. About $5000 will get you set up almost anywhere in the world, and even a graduate student can borrow this much.  Then when you get to your site, go teach English on the side, get a local-hire job with an NGO, or even a job in a mental institution, or a bar. I have an ethical problem with jobs in red-light districts, but apparently not all faculty do. This is called “participant observation” in your dissertation proposal.  Then when you get back after a year or two in the field, write up the dissertation. You don’t need a book, or ground-breaking article in a highly ranked journal.  Rather, you need a dissertation which is done and signed off. When you can, teach something outside your area of specialization at a local community college while you are doing this, and suddenly you are hot stuff on the job market for comprehensive universities which value the done PhD and teaching.  Emphasis is on the dissertation that is done, and the PhD. is in the can.

Now for the heresy—we like people who have teaching experience more than someone who has a NSF or Fulbright.  Really, we do.  Fellowships and grants are fine, but they are not central to finishing the dissertation, or doing something that gets our classes taught well (i.e. items 1, 2, and 4 above).  Nor does it say much about collegiality (item 3).  This means that if a tenure track position is not available, take an insecure lecturership—some of these pay $40,000+ with benefits which sucks, but sucks less than what an equally insecure t.a., or r.a. gets while they are waiting for the NSF to come through. It is even more than the student Fulbright grant, which is about $30,000 now, and from which you need to pay for transportation, tuition, etc.

See what I mean about the NSF/Fulbright/NIMH fetish?

As for my interest in refugees, I got a job in 1994 working for an agency assisting with the Rwandan/Burundian refugee crisis.  As a “participant observer” I worked hard, took field notes, collected memos, and wrote it up—you can read all about it in Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001) which indeed was completed without any fetish money from the federal government; in fact I made about $36,000 per year in 1994-1996 with family benefits, which was pretty cool at the time, even if there was not much employment security.

None of this of course addresses the broader public policy question of how to fund graduate education.  Graduate school was one of the most insecure and impoverished time in my life—I wouldn’t want to do it over, and I do not think that the insecurity and poverty added to the quality of my work.  Nor does it express my views about the NSF/NIMH/NIJ grant racket in which most of the money ends up going to the already-wealthy in the form of institutional overhead, buy-outs, and summer money for us already well-paid professors—and in which graduate student support is a financial afterthought, which is really the definition of fetish.  In the absence of anything better, I get it that grad students need to play this game sometimes, but I still have a tough time finding time to write my Member of Congress complaining about NSF cuts.  But maybe that is problem for another blog post.

[This is an invited post by Tony Waters that appeared in SavageMinds.org in January 2014. Waters is a Professor of Sociology at California State University, Chico, and occasionally blogs at ethnography.com.  His application for a PhD program in Anthropology was rejected in 1988 because he was unable to put together the appropriate charms needed by the admissions committee at an unnamed western United States university.  In an attempt to please the gods of the tribe he has since offered up his first-born at the altar of an unnamed Anthropology PhD program in the eastern United States.]

 

Boldly go Towards Collaboration

Nicholas A Christakis’ story in the NY Times is serious food for thought.

Christakis starts “Let’s Shake Up the Social Sciences” with the following:

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, when I was a graduate student, there were departments of natural science that no longer exist today. Departments of anatomy, histology, biochemistry and physiology have disappeared, replaced by innovative departments of stem-cell biology, systems biology, neurobiology and molecular biophysics. Taking a page from Darwin, the natural sciences are evolving with the times. The perfection of cloning techniques gave rise to stem-cell biology; advances in computer science contributed to systems biology. Whole new fields of inquiry, as well as university departments and majors, owe their existence to fresh discoveries and novel tools. read on here

This article could worry anthropologists in training or in practice but it could just as easily excite us.  Some would rather wait for handouts and complain about the current state of affairs but not me.

I say the time is upon us to get cracking and make our own destiny!!  Some fear that the future of anthropology is outside of anthropology. If so, I’m sure that the unique skill set that the anthropological perspective brings to problems will not disappear. On my campus, I have worked in my schools of business and education quite comfortably. Off campus, I have also taught qualitative methods to members of my local police department and to psychology doctoral students. I’m still the exotic “other” from anthropology but I get the job done. I have also worked on big multidisciplinary research projects with colleagues from Economics, Sociology and Political Science and Public Administration.  Yes the world is changing but that is what the world does. I could complain about it or adapt.

When I’m lacking inspiration, I go to Jason Antrosio’s Living Anthropologically blog to remember why I got into anthropology in the first place.