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.

What would George Carlin Say? Might Translation be Reverse Plagiarism?

Still they ask you in court to “use your own words,” and more to the point of my profession, we tell our students to “use your own words,” and we even have fancy computer programs like “” that help us haul offenders off for plagiarism, which is the crime of using someone else’s own words which is, like I said above, is just about all I ever do.

The only people I can think of who made up any number of their own words are Charles Dickens, James Joyce, and Mark Twain. They made up their own words, and we call it literature. When I do it, I’m considered to be babbling incoherently. Or speaking German, since in German you can ram odd words together, capitalize it and call it a noun, and its o.k. See Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz

Speaking of German, I recently completed a translation of Max Weber which I hope all of you have read by now. (If you haven’t, please ask your library to get it!)

Our translation takes German words which Weber mostly borrowed from other people, throw in a couple of German nouns he made up, and then using English words we heard somewhere else (not from Weber) we then claiming that Weber said them. It is kind of like reverse plagiarism, I guess. Think about it. We took words Weber heard in German, and then turned them into words we heard somewhere in English, but Weber never heard. In other words, we take words from people Weber never knew, and then give him credit for uttering them. Lucky guy!

George Carlin of course had something to say about borrowing words. If you have time, continue listening after this brief clip to the following clip which is on euphemism—Carlin tells the story of how Shell Shock in World War I, became Battle Fatigue in World War II, Operational Exhaustion after the Korean War, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after the Vietnam War.

Suicide by Train in Germany

We returned from Hamburg to our temporary home in Lueneburg on July 4, 2015, after visiting friends in Hamburg. It was a normal trip on a German train until…it came to a stop at about 9:30 pm. There was a confused silence among the passengers, until the loud speaker finally announced an indefinite delay because something had been thrown on the tracks.

The mystery solved itself a few minutes later. There was a suicide in front of one of the trains, and the emergency equipment had arrived and closed the tracks going both ways. As a result, the tracks were closed, and our train would be returning to Hamburg, and not going forward to Lueneburg. What to do? A number of us (probably 100+) piled out of the train, and began calling friends and taxis to take us onwards. We were lucky enough to get a share in an eight person taxi about 45 minutes later, which took us home with six other people who shared our fate, and destination. Total cost was 15 Euro.

This is the second time in Germany I’ve been delayed by suicides in front of train. When I googled the phenomenon, I found out that Germany has the highest percentages of “suicides by train.” It is 7% of suicides, which works out to a few hundred per year. This is higher than other countries with extensive train systems, and it means that most people have experience being delayed by suicide. The train locomotive drivers are the ones most concerned—during a career as a driver, their engines can be expected to be used for suicide 2-3 times. The German magazine Spiegel published this story about train suicides in 2011.

Suicide rates of course has a long history as an interesting point of study in sociology and anthropology. Emile Durkheim published his classic book Suicide in 1897. There is also this article about suicide among the Mla Bri hunter gatherers of Thailand published by myself and my colleagues Gene and Mary Long in 2013.

Audience Reception of “Sing Along” Music: Hey Jude 1969 vs. Michael Row the Boat Ashore 1963

I have used this clip of Pete Seeger singing “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore” in class for some years, now. The song is a great example of how the music of the American slave cabins moved into the mainstream American culture, and then moved all the way to Australia where this clip was made in 1962 or so.

It also, I think illustrates two things about the audience, first that audiences in 1962 were very open to a “sing-a-long,” The audience knew the words, and sang along with Seeger quite competently, and in their own ways enthusiastically.

The difference is that my student audiences in Chico California, 2015, never ever give into the temptation to sing with this clip. They don’t even tap there foot—in other words they are stiffer than the stiff-necked Australians in the clip. My students today have been raised with YouTube, and prefer to let others do their singing for them, and I use this clip to tease them about their shyness.

But how things changed in six years. While wasting time on YouTube and Facebook this morning, I clicked on the classic version of Hey Jude made by the Beatles in 1969 when they appeared on the David Frost show. What I found interesting was the reaction of the audience to the sing-a-long version of Hey Jude, which had the easily remembered refrain of “na-na-na-na-na,” (starting at about 3:00) More interesting though is how the different parts of the audience responded. There is a group that is every bit as stiff as the Australians in the audience, but other parts of the audience are much looser, swaying with the music in a manner which would have seemed unseemly at Pete Seeger’s Australian concert.

To add to the fun, here is also a YouTube clip of Paul McCartney leading the audience of the opening ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics. What has changed about the audience reaction between the Pete Seeger clip from 1962, and fifty years later at the London Olympics.

And to top off your time of assessing audience reception and sing-a-longs, check out this performance by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen at the 2009 Obama Inaugural. Compare it for audience participation? What has changed across the four YouTube clips in terms of audience reception


The US Army’s Human Terrain System Bites the Dust

….some argue that HTS was a good idea that was badly mismanaged. It would be more accurate to say that HTS was a bad idea that was badly mismanaged. Cultural knowledge is not a service that can be easily provided by contractors and consultants, or taught to soldiers using a training manual. HTS was built upon a flawed premise, and its abysmal record was the inevitable result. The fact that the program continued as long as it did reveals the Army’s superficial attitude towards culture…..Roberto Gonzalez

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Why is Queen Nefertiti’s Bust in Berlin, and not Egypt?

Last weekend, I visited The Egyptian Queen Nefertiti this weekend on a trip to Berlin’s Neues Museum. “New” being a museum built in the mid-nineteenth century, bombed during World War II, and finally re-opened in 2009 after reconstruction following German Reunification.

The bust of Nefertiti is the Neues Museum’s best-known artifact. The Nefertiti statue is of Egypt’s Queen during the period of approximately 1370 BC-1330 BC. The statue is known for the skill that the sculptor Thutmose put into it, the well-preserved coloration, and the beauty of Nefertiti herself.

The bust remained buried until discovery by German archaeologists in 1912 when they excavated the Thutmose’s workshop. The German team was digging under license at the time from the government of Egypt, which was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, which in Egypt at the time was dominated by the British. (But the antiquities department was at that time under the French as a result of the strong interest in Antiquities established there under the influence of Napoleon Bonaparte who had occupied Egypt 100 years earlier.)

If that last paragraph makes immediate sense to you—pat yourself on the back! The point of the paragraph is to point out that the Nefertiti statue was obtained under some version of legal/extra-legal/colonial license at a time when it seemed that every European power had its finger in the Egyptian pie at a time when Antiquities were attracted quite strong interest in Europe. Anyway the statue made its way to Berlin by 1913, where it was eventually put on display at the New Museum.

So the Nefertiti statue was brought to Berlin just before the World Wars. Berlin itself of course became the center of German militarism first in World War I, and later in World War II. Much of Germany’s antiquities were removed by the Nazi government during the war (1939-1945), and much of what was left behind was shipped to the Soviet Union as the spoils of war in 1945-1946. The Nefertiti statue itself was discovered by the occupying American forces in a salt mine, and put on display in West Berlin where they ruled. The Soviets who occupied East Berlin where the Neues Museum and Museum Island is found of course objected—but by then Nefertiti was another pawn in Cold War rivalries. Not until the final restoration of the New Museum in 2009, was the statue returned to the Neues Museum, 70 years after it had left. And that of course is where I saw it last weekend.

In the process of this history, the Nefertiti bust has become an important symbol for Berlin. The sculpture is of course well-preserved, and the Germans do this because they believe that such ancient artwork should be held in trust for all of humanity.


But of course here is were the disagreement starts. The modern Egyptian government regards the 1912 as looting, and has requested the statue be returned to Egypt for display there. Egypt never allows antiquities to leave the country (which is why much of King Tutankhamen’s treasure is still in Egypt).


And so Nefertiti remains in Berlin at least for the time being, and international treasure, rather than an Egyptian national treasure. This is contested of course, as many museums around the world have found out. How responsible are they for the conditions under which their trophy pieces are obtain decades, or even a century ago?

Are Long-term Job Prospects Better for Philosophers than for Engineers?

The machines may not destroy us, but it’s quite probable that they will render our labor obsolete, and without the creation of massive new fields of employment. Of course we will need engineers and software experts in the near future. But you know what we will need even more?

Philosophers, historians, artists, economists, and political scientists.

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