Professors Need to Write Clearly, but Columnists also Need to Read Carefully

Nicholas Kristof has written an op-ed “Professors we need you,” in the New York Times.  His point is that that professors like me need to write and express ourselves more clearly so all our presumed smartness is accessible to people like Kristof.  Partly I agree.  But partly I don’t.  I also think that people like Kristof and the policy-makers he advocates for need to read more carefully.

This is a sore point with me, especially since I was lectured a couple of times by policy-making types about writing in op-ed length of about 750 words chunks—that is the sort of thing that Kristof is really good at writing.

My muttered response: Oh that’s how decisions about invading Iraq were made by Congress, in 750 word chunks.  I occasionally write in 750 word chunks, and it is a fine way to make one very clever point to adjust a discussion.  It is though a lousy way to make public policy.

But good public policy also requires the reading of books.  Whole books.  Lots of books.  Books which deal with generalities and not just specifics.  Books that help you think, as opposed to op-ed which in 750 words typically appeal to emotion.

The kind that make long complex argument if, for no other reason, that questions of why people go to war (and do many things) are complex.  Sometimes it even helps to use big words and complex sentences, too–maybe then you will think a little more carefully about invading countries, like Iraq.

This type of reading is work–but it pays off in the long run.  Just ask the Germans who did not invade Iraq–my students in Germany complained that my readings were too easy, and “too popular.”  In other words, bye-bye Jared Diamond, hello Eric Wolf.

And see, I just made that point in 350 words, while appealing to emotion by using an anecdote, and an unsupported correlation.

The point of course is that not only do writers need to write clearly like Kristof points out, readers also have a responsibility to wrestle with complex ideas, and maybe even numbers.



Happy #anthrovalentineS Day

I will leave it to the historians of wikipedia to sort out the history of Valentine’s Day. And I will leave the critique to the Huffington Post .

Today I want to publicly thank @DonnaLanclos , an anthropologist who works in a library, for storifying the results of the twitter hashtag #anthrovalentines .

My favorite tweet, and a savvy nod to the intersection of public and private interest in fieldwork, is this one:

@EthnoGraffiti  I would do anything for love, but I won’t do multi-sited ethnography #anthrovalentines

And thank you everyone who contributed to the hashtag. I LOL’ed.

In praise of Stephen Jay Gould and The Mismeasure of Man

Last March, Michael Scroggins posted about “Gene Promoters: On Chagnon and Diamond,” pointing out that the connection between race, genetics, and social deterimination was rearing its head again.  He was writing in response to a blog in Discovery Magazine by Razib Khan “Against the Cultural Anthropologists” in which Khan wished that cultural anthropology could be voted off the academic island.

The result was a spirited back and forth between supporters of Razib, and Michael over the month or so in which by and large I took the side of Michael.  In the spirited back and forth, both sides tossed out their favorite philosophers of science.  We found out that by and large we have been reading different things, and that when we do read the same things, we tend to have different views, often depending on our disciplinary background.

One of my favorites discussing the relationships between race/genetics and intelligence is Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man, which was published in 1981. Gould’s central point is that science itself is a cultural product, and therefore cannot be “objective” when measuring things.  In Gould’s case, the cultural product is i. q. tests which are used to stratify individuals in a fashion which reinforces the pre-exsiting status quo.  And of course in  the case of American i.q. testing, what was reproduced was the pre-existing status quo which stratified people by race, immigrant status, language ability, etc.

At that point, I was assured by commenters that Gould was thoroughly debunked by critics in subsequent decades, especially by a student who pointed out that Gould was sloppy (at best) with cranial data which did not support his thesis.  This was reported in the New York Times in 2011, as described here.

And then in the excitement of a couple of hundred blog postings, I had to admit: I hadn’t read Gould in sometime—and promised myself I would have a look later with a more jaundiced eye.

I did this last week, and I must say that even if the cranial data were “mismeasured” or worse faked, it does not change much Gould’s conclusion about the persistent misuse of psychometrics to reproduce a pre-existing social order, in this case that of American forms of racial stratification.  In other words, Gould could have left out the example, and the conclusion about the embeddedness of science itself in culture is not refuted—and this is Gould’s most basic point, not whether the skulls were mishandled.

In contrast, when I critiqued the mishandling of genetic data in the evaluation of the Mlabri hunter-gatherers social origins in Thailand, there was a change in the conclusion (though admittedly the authors disagree with me).

My net conclusion remains that I think that the natural sciences have much to learn from the social sciences about culturally embedded assumptions.  Science is not immutable—as you learn in Science 101, all scientific theory is subject to challenge, and will eventually be cast aside.  Dare I say it, this too will happen to even the powerful theory of evolution.  And if you want to know when and how that will happen, I would recommend reading Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, as well as Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  No scientific theory can last forever.  Indeed, for those things we believe will last forever, Durkheim has another word it—religion.

I also found that I need to read much more in the genetic sciences in order to write critique that goes beyond the occasional blog post.  So well, where does that leave me? Razib brought up the work of Luigi Cavalli-Sforza whose use of genetic and linguistic data I was quite impressed with some years ago.  I see that Cavalli-Sforza has co-authored a new book  Genetics of Human Population which looks interesting.  I will look forward to seeing if he is able to develop his story while also at least implicitly acknowledging that as a science, genetics is also a cultural product.

Human Terrain System, Again

The Human Terrain System is under critique again, and this time not from the AAA, but from a pro-military Congressman who finds that the program was rife with waste, fraud, and abuse.  As the Army Times reports, Congressman Duncan Hunter reports “It’s shocking that this program, with its controversy and highly questionable need, could be extended.”  Apparently Human Terrain contractors burned through $726 million in the name of providing actionable social science to the military.

So, in the end Congressman Hunter and the AAA end up on the same side of the Human Terrain issue.  End result, is likely to be the elimination of the program, the end of battlefield consultation with social scientists.  In fact, junior military officers can go back to doing their own cultural analysis, which is what the AAA has always preferred, I guess.  For that matter Congressman Hunter,  a former military officer who served in Iraq, is quite the expert on Middle Eastern culture. Indeed the Congressman does pretty well on his own when it comes to deep understanding of the Middle East, as reported in the Defense News in 2013:

Echoing other congressional Republicans and conservative pundits, Hunter said the White House and other Security Council nations erred in inking a preliminary Iran deal that allows Tehran to enrich any uranium. Hunter said Iranian officials are “not trustworthy,” then said all Middle Easterners — due to their “culture” — cannot be trusted at the negotiating table.

“It is part of the Middle East culture” to “do anything you can … to get the best deal,” Hunter said.

Asked by a C-SPAN host if he believes all Middle Easterners are liars, Hunter did not directly discount the notion.

As for the $726 million for Human Terrain System across several years, the mind of course boggles that such chump change in the military budget would attract the attention of Congressman Hunter.  What’s $726 million spent on Social Science, in a world of billion dollar bombers?

On the other hand the same amount boggles the mind of anyone trying to put together a university budget  funding the study of culture, but that’s another story.

Either way, it is nice to see the American Anthropology Association and Congressman Hunter on the same page when it comes to eliminating the Human Terrain System.  Perhaps at the next AAA, he can be offered his own panel on why the Human Terrain Teams were such a bad idea in the first place.

In my mind irony is among the things that Social Sciences do best, even when social scientists themselves are the focus of the sharpened pen.  The good news is that irony is free.  The bad news is that anthropologists need to eat, too.

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 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) 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 in January 2014. Waters is a Professor of Sociology at California State University, Chico, and occasionally blogs at  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.]


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