May 24, 2005
Pomp & Circumstance
It's graduation time again at the Waldens of the world. The full comic is here.
May 22, 2005
"Any adult human being"
An article in today's NYT on the US proposal to the Organization of American States to monitor democracy and the exercise of power in Latin America is being openly laughed at. The Argentine ambassador's comment says it all:
"This explanation is going to be impossible to sell to any adult human being," said Rodolfo Hugo Gil, the Argentine ambassador to the Organization of American States.
Indeed. Unfortunately, our current administration is filled with people who fail that criterion in one or both possible ways. After the Supreme Appointment of 2000, Florida 2000, and Florida, Ohio, Colorado, and all the rest in 2004, the US view on democracy, even in the limited sense of "elections," is nearly irrelevant. In Brazil, for example, there are many ways to steal an election, of course, but most have to be slightly more sophisticated than the ham-fisted US Republican methods. They've had verifiable touch-screen voting for ages. And of course "our" support for the 2002 anti-Chavez coup (the OAS proposal is being universally understood as an attack on and an affront to Venezuela) disqualifies us from any pro-democracy scolding in this hemisphere for another decade or the end of neocon rule in Washington, whichever is longer.
May 19, 2005
Be Borofsky-free in one simple step
(This entry removed at the request of Professor Borofsky, who found it offensive.)
Star Wars, Damn!
Anthony Lane took apart Star Wars: Episode III in the current (May 23) New Yorker in his ineffable way (I regularly use his hilarious review of Jurassic Park III in writing classes). I was happily not going to see it, as I happily didn't see II, after hating I. I also -- from the 2005 and not 1977 perspective, of course -- hate all the Star Wars movies, except The Empire Strikes Back, which is dark and operatic, at least against the backdrop of the others. Louis Menand's piece in the Feb. 7 New Yorker about how the blockbuster is killing Hollywood (although, as he argues, something has always been killing Hollywood, which keeps on living anyway) perfectly sets up this last one. ("I can't watch anymore," says Lane, quoting Obi-Wan).
But now I learn in the newspaper of record that the wacko right is reading the film as an unfair attack on Bush and the Iraq War and is boycotting it. Sigh. I guess now I have to see it. Maybe I can just buy a ticket and then sneak in to see something else, before the summer film season has us fully by the throat again.
May 17, 2005
Anthropology: Scenes from a Marriage
I just watched Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage over the weekend. This is us to a "t," and I'd like to extend the analogy. Marianne and Johan have a marriage which is hilariously idealized in the press. But it's loveless, despite mutual respect and admiration. They split up, painfully and fitfully, but continue to meet furtively over the years. I'd really like to get to the point where I can tryst occasionally with a biological anthropologist in a cabin on the sea in Sweden (I'm liking the analogy more and more...) and then return to a marriage that works on a daily basis.
(I guess I was supposed to put a disclaimer that I'm going to give away the plot...it's a classic, so -- too bad.)
Rex and Kerim seem a little skeptical.
If there are anthropologists who believe in holistic anthropology, believe their work exemplifies it, and pass this value onto their students, wonderful. Rob Borofsky's 2002 AA article shows this would be the exception to the rule. I'll be eagerly reading Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle when I get to Claremont week after next to see what others have to say. I fear the four-field myth is somewhat cynically pushed in departments that need to advance a common project to convince deans and provosts not to axe them. Politically, no problem, at least until other arrangements can be made to protect jobs and research, and this won't be easy in many places. But it's intellectually dishonest.
My reaction on this blog was to students at Harvard who seem fond of the model in the absence of faculty encouragement or institutional thrown-togetherness. I really don't mean to be critical; I'm genuinely puzzled and hope to bring some of them into the conversation to talk about it.
I am tired of seeing sociocultural anthropologists get hit over the head by archaeologists -- archaeologists! -- for abandoning "science." If you can produce a chi square analysis of potsherds measured to the micron, you're free to infer just about anything, it seems, and call it scientific. But mention "discourse" and then, well, you're just making up stories. "Scientism," in this case, is precisely the right term, and the less institutional power folks like that have over me or the meaning of "science" or "anthropology" the better. I realize that it goes both ways and also that archaeologists are in the minority in most departments (and sometimes archaeologists and physical anthropologists combined). I could be wrong here, but I do think that, a Donna Harraway here and there notwithstanding, cultural anthropologists don't usually sling terms like "scientism" or "positivism" unless provoked.
Take the Neel/Chagnon debate: the charge was that one biologist and one evolutionary anthropologist were "unethical" and not because they were evolutionists, although many are skeptical of some of the specific scientific claims in this case. The response: you're dirty, rotten postmodernists for raising such an issue. From scanning comments on the current AAA referendum, it seems that the wagons are being circled on largely sub-disciplinary grounds.
So, yeah, I think it's time for us to start seeing other people.
May 14, 2005
"World's Greatest University"
It's always to fun to make fun of Harvard, of course, but when I use this phrase here I mean it only partly facetiously. This is a great place, and I have enjoyed my two years here immensely. The students exhibit a degree of independence, creativity, and work ethic that I doubt is rivalled anywhere in the world. Great place to try out new courses and use student feedback to guide scholarship. If you have to be an adjunct, there can't be many better spots to do it.
Daddy, please come home
This week the Anthropology Club at the World's Greatest University hosted a really nice event where senior thesis writers volunteered to give short presentations on their work to an audience of faculty, staff, and fellow students. There are some excellent theses this year, and the presentations were interesting.
The club founder gave a little speech after his own thesis presentation in which he riffed on the "good fences make good neighbors" theme, imploring us not to "turn the fences into walls." This to faculty members absolutely segregated by subfield, there in the room, by building (socioculturals from archy/bios, anyway), social life (I think), and governance. The student's tone reminded me of an adolescent pleading for his parents to get back together and can't life just be like it was? Um, like back in the fifties? Doesn't he know it's all over except for the occasionally-ugly-but-usually-not alimony and child support negotiations? He suggested more cross-subfield requirements rather than the fewer the department seems to be leaning towards.
I don't really see what's at stake in the four-field debate for undergraduates in a big department with a marriage-of-convenience model like Harvard's. They grasp or are told of the huge methodological and theoretical gulfs between the fields. Their work is assessed by faculty in their chosen subfields. So, the question is, What are they reading or hearing that makes f-f anthro seem viable to them? Do they want their cross-subfield friendships validated disciplinarily? If so, why? Certainly they have friends in history or English or social studies and feel engaged with them in a somewhat common project without an overarching structure, no? It's a real mystery to me.
My World View
Here are my results from a little Internet quiz lots of academic bloggers seem to be taking and posting. Hmm. I did it because I find these sorts of quizzes fun. This one, however, could have added a category with a label for people who get all the questions and people, like me, who are utterly puzzled by about half of them. And look at my results! I'm sort of partly halfway nearly everything -- not exactly how I experience myself on a daily basis, but others may disagree :-).
| You scored as Postmodernist. Postmodernism is the belief in complete open interpretation. You see the universe as a collection of information with varying ways of putting it together. There is no absolute truth for you; even the most hardened facts are open to interpretation. Meaning relies on context and even the language you use to describe things should be subject to analysis.|
What is Your World View?
created with QuizFarm.com
May 9, 2005
Scolds on the Internet
I don't what bugs me more these days, spammers or scolds. Many online communities maintain order through informal mechanisms of reputation and shaming instead of technical or administrative means. This is especially true in forums, mailing lists, and Usenet newsgroups. Once upon a time, off-topic postings, flames wars, or inept or excessive quoting were the worst problems such communities confronted. In an era of slow dialup connections, it made sense to spend some energy flexing your symbolic capital in such communities to keep the traffic down. As new users ("newbies") found these communities and starting asking the same old questions over and over, they found themselves subjected to sometimes nasty little "read the faq" and "search the archives first" messages. Nowadays the legitimate traffic in many online communities has grown so large that most people use flags and filters anyway to limit their view to what interests them, and the extra bandwidth consumed by a few off-topic posts pales in comparison to the virtual tonnage of spam. Still, text-based online communuties are still favorite haunting grounds of both recreational "trolls," who start arguments and hit sore spots just for the fun of it, and recreational scolds, who like to act like one more newbie question or possibly off-topic message is just more than they and their long-suffering friends can handle.
As someone who's moved out of the newbie category in most areas, I'm not often the target for the latter anymore, but I do witness it a lot. (I also continue to see and enjoy personally lots of kind assistance and patient advice.) But every once in while I get in an exchange like this one:
I was having trouble getting off a list that was filling my inbox with dozens of messages a day. The unsubscribe link wasn't working, and my emails to the list manager were going unanswered. Finally, in desperation, I posted this to the list itself:
I know this is really rude to post to the list, but for two weeks now I have not been able to raise the human list owner to remove me from the mailing list. The ezmlm program keeps saying I'm not subscribed under this email; the messages keep coming to it anyway. This is a busy list and I don't want to be on it anymore at that address. So, if the list owner is reading messages but not his/her list-owner mail, please check your mail, contact me, or just remove me, please!
The moderator saw it, removed me, and sent me a nice email suggesting what the problem might have been. Then, I got the following snarky email, privately, from someone else:
I am not the moderator but I will remind you this is a professional list
at the bottom of the message is the unsubscribe instructions.
> To unsubscribe, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
We expect members to be likewise professional and responsible.
Certainly someone from a top lawtwister school can handle a small
Ok, so maybe a little resentment at my Ivy League email address (it was sent from my old Cornell address, actually). A little anti-Americanism, given the ESL-sounding English in the message? These I can cheerfully overlook. But still, give me a break! This person probably got thirty email viagra ads, witnessed half a dozen useless, troll-inspired flame wars, and fought browser pop-ups all day, and he had time to zing me for a request for help that I apologized for in advance? And he didn't even read my message before firing off his little zinger, obviously. Even in communities known for being kind and inviting to newbies, like the SuSE Linux newsgroups, for instance, this kind of sniping is seen all the time.
(I now know what the problem was, and it was sort of my fault, to be honest. I'm on about thirty lists, and this one works a little differently from most in a way that's not well documented.)
May 8, 2005
Garrison Keillor, hopeful ethnographer
This Garrison Keillor essay in this week's Nation is the most hopeful and yet realistic thing about politics in America I've read in a long time. Just when I start to forget what an astute ethnographer Garrison Keillor is, put off by his quietism and peacefulness in these alarmist and alarming times where it hasn't really been a quiet week anywhere, he manages to remind me of something worthy of hope in our country.
May 7, 2005
[posted May 6, 2005 on the Public Anthropology referendum forum, reproduced here with a few typos fixed.]
The “whereas” clauses of this referendum purport to represent an impressive concern for due process, fairness, and objectivity on the part of the referendum's authors, the same points laid out in the December 2004 American Anthropologist “Ethics Forum” article. Anyone who follows the words and deeds of these Chagnon supporters and their allies from the 2000 AAA meeting onward will recognize this as a lot of legalistic huff and puff, merely the latest act in an all-out effort to muddy and obfuscate and confuse the relatively straight-forward facts and judgments eventually established by the Task Force. This campaign includes, of course, William Irons' attempted censure of Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel at the 2002 AAA business meeting for their alleged ethical breaches in overstating the merits of the Darkness in El Dorado accusations. The depths of hypocrisy reached here are astounding since the principal argument in support of the current referendum is that the AAA lacks the power to discipline members for ethical violations, and Irons has written at length in these forums about this.
I support the AAA stricture against “adjudicat[ing] claims for unethical behavior,” given the shameful way the organization has applied such adjudication in the past (Boas, Freeman, Iron's attempt) and — agreeing here with the Chagnon camp in a small way — the impossibility and undesirability of mounting a fully judicial process of review and sanction. Adjudication, however, implies more than making judgments. I can't imagine how meaningful discussion of anthropological ethics can occur if real, specific acts cannot be held up to our agreed-upon ethical principles and “judged.”
It is no doubt true that the El Dorado controversy has posed challenges for the AAA that it is not well-prepared to face, and that various steps and missteps by key leaders have allowed charges of bias on both sides to appear plausible (the very first AAA El Dorado forum, in 2000 I think, when Patrick Tierney bravely faced a panel of almost totally hostile experts arrayed against him in front of television cameras comes to mind). Future ethics committees have hard times ahead of them. But let's be clear: rescinding the Task Force report is not a constructive or even good-faith step in that direction.
I also join those who worry that, whether it passes or not, the referendum itself and its substantial support indicate that not only do we not, in fact, talk to each other much across the sub-fields of anthropology, but that we increasingly cannot find the minimal common ethical and epistemological ground necessary to do so.
On a non-partisan note, I would also like to point out here that several candidates for the top AAA leadership positions have responded to a query of mine for their thoughts on the Yanomami/El Dorado issue, and, with their permission, have posted their unedited replies on my weblog without editorial comment.
May 6, 2005
The doctoral dissertation defense compared
In case you're not on the Tomorrow's Professor email list from Stanford University's Center for Teaching and Learning, this week's entry is a really good one. First an excerpt, then, click on extended entry for the whole thing. It's Chapter 5 of The Ph.D. Defense in Research Genres: Explorations and Applications, by John M. Swales of The University of Michigan. Cambridge University Press, 2004. (It was used by permission there, on a huge listserv, so I'm assuming it's okay for the blogosphere. I'm sure someone will let me know if not.)
In continental Europe, in contrast, matters tend to proceed in a very different manner. In Scandinavia, the examination is conducted in a large room, with as many as fifty people present, with a senior university official such as a dean presiding, everybody decidedly dressed up, the examiners in full academic regalia, the chair, examiners, and candidate processing in and out of the room in a fixed order, and some use of ceremonial Latin. The seating arrangements may resemble that of a court, and the external examiners is often called "the opponent." On a recent instance in Finland, I not only had to provide a detailed report before the thesis was approved for defense, but also had to prepare a ten-minute oral critique of the work being examined as a means of getting the examination fully under way. As might be expected, the discourse was pretty formal, with questions taking such form as "Would the honored candidate now like to address the question ofŠ?" No first names were used.
THE Ph.D. DEFENSE
The Ph.D. defense, oral examination, or "viva" is a very interesting genre and only partly because it presents another opportunity to consider the repurposing of genres, as discussed in Chapter 3. Are dissertation defenses, on the one hand, just "meaningless rituals," mere epideictic celebrations, simple instances of "just going through the motions"? Or are they, on the other, tough and true oral examinations of the submitted work, consisting of carefully prepared but unpredictable interrogations of the texts under review and thoughtful and intelligent responses by the candidates? Or are they sometimes both, or at least sometimes more and sometimes less one or the other? Unfortunately, our primary knowledge of the discoursal properties of this genre is limited to a massively investigated instance of a single sociology defense recorded in a complex manner at Indiana University in 1975 (Grimshaw, 1989; Grimshaw et al., 1994). In addition to this, I have studied the four dissertation defenses that have been recorded as part of the MICASE project.
Defenses Outside the United States
Before we look at the discoursal characteristics of the U.S. defense itself, it is particularly important to put this event type into a broader geographical context. Elsewhere, oral examinations of the Ph.D. can take very different forms and have different names, such as "viva," "viva voce," and "disputas" (Norway). In Britain, and in countries influenced by British academic traditions, the assessment of the Ph.D. thesis, as it is normally called, is carried out in a closed room and conducted by an external examiner from another institution, and an internal examiner, who is not the candidate's supervisor/advisor. There also my be a senior academic from the home university present who acts as chair and is there to make sure that no unseemly wrangles or hostilities break out. The candidate's own supervisor can ask to be present but is not usually allowed to say anything; often the supervisor busies herself or himself taking notes, including those designed to assist the candidate in making any revisions, emendations, or additions that the examiners may require. In this system, the external examiner has a great deal of power, including that of "referring" it for resubmission, or insisting that, whatever revisions might be attempted, it only qualifies for a lesser degree, such as an M.Phil. Under these circumstances, a key issue for supervisor and candidate is choosing the right external examiner. In my experience, these vivas last about two hours and have much of the "quasi-informal" (see later) character of U.S. defenses, as perhaps might be expected given the small number of people present and the lack of an audience.
In continental Europe, in contrast, matters tend to proceed in a very different manner. In Scandinavia, the examination is conducted in a large room, with as many as fifty people present, with a senior university official such as a dean presiding, everybody decidedly dressed up, the examiners in full academic regalia, the chair, examiners, and candidate processing in and out of the room in a fixed order, and some use of ceremonial Latin. The seating arrangements may resemble that of a court, and the external examiners is often called "the opponent." On a recent instance in Finland, I not only had to provide a detailed report before the thesis was approved for defense, but also had to prepare a ten-minute oral critique of the work being examined as a means of getting the examination fully under way. As might be expected, the discourse was pretty formal, with questions taking such form as "Would the honored candidate now like to address the question ofŠ?" No first names were used. In France, according to Maingueneau (2002), a key genre is the Report of the Thesis Defence Meeting (RTDM), which is the official document produced by the examining jury and which, as an official archived text, is of considerable significance for the candidate's future career.
According to Burling (1997), the Norwegian "disputas" will typically be even more elaborate, with the candidate ("doctorand") being required to present two formal public lectures on the day before the accrual disputas, one being a topic of the candidate's own choosing and one assigned by the examination committee. The defense itself takes most of the day, with the first "opponent" asking more general and theoretical questions in the morning - after having given a twenty- to thirty-minute summary of the dissertation for the benefit of the attending "publikum" - and a second "opponent" asking more specific questions in the afternoon. Burling also notes that the preferred form of address is again in the third person ("Is there anything that the doctorand would like to add?"), at least partly because the opponent is addressing two audiences: the candidate and the attending fifty or so members of the "publikum" consisting of faculty, colleagues, friends, and relatives. After the disputas, there is a formal banquet known as the "doctor's dinner" at which "the candidate is simultaneously host and guest of honor" (p. 13).
On another occasion, when I was an examiner in Holland, the defense genre had much of the same character, except that each of the several examiners was permitted to ask only one question (!), and the university's "pedale," or beadle, appeared after forty-five minutes, banged a large ornamental staff on the floor, and announced "Ora est" ("Time's up"). Aside from the highly ceremonial nature of these oral examinations, another distinguishing feature is that the thesis in much of continental Europe will already have been published, usually by the local university press. Although the candidate may think otherwise, the oral examination has the character of a ceremonial public academic debate designed to showcase elegant formal language and intellectual dexterity on the part of the protagonists.
Two hours are usually set aside for the U.S. dissertation defense, and the time and place of the defense is typically published, although it is by no means always the case that outsides (other interested faculty, fellow doctoral students, friends, and family of the candidate) are present. This is quite a heavily instantiated genre, with tens of thousands of exemplars in any one calendar year. (As far as I am aware, almost all doctorate-granting U.S. universities require a defense before a doctorate is awarded, one of the few exceptions being the University of California-Berkeley, where only the original proposal requires a formal oral examination.) Typically, the principal defense participants include a candidate, the candidate's chair or advisor, additional faculty members from the candidate's department, and one or more faculty members from outside departments. As Grimshaw notes:
Typically, the defense participants have views about appropriate evaluative criteria for both the written product (and the research it incorporates) and the candidate's performance in the defense proper as part of their stock of cultural resources; typically, the institutions themselves have normative charters of varying degrees of specificity and enforceability. These dissertation defenses vary somewhat from institution to institution, discipline to discipline, department to department; they collectively differ from defenses of fifty years ago and from those in the societies from which the practice was originally borrowed. A satisfactory answer to the question of how defenses vary over time and place is also an answer to the question of how social structure is generated, sustained, reproduced and changed. (Grimshaw, 1994: 444-5)
Although much of what we know about dissertation defenses from a discoursal perspective comes from the nearly twelve hundred combined pages of Grimshaw (1989) and Grimshaw et al. (1994), there are additionally anecdotal stories from various participants that add color to our impressions of the genre. Of course, this rite de passage can also make an appearance in the subgenre of the (English department) campus novel. The earliest instance known to me that includes an oral examination is by George Stewart and indeed has the highly relevant title of Doctor's Oral. At the close of the novel, the Grand Old Man of the English Department, who had eventually come to the rescue of the young candidate, reflects on his experience earlier that day:
How many examinations had he sat through? Sometimes he felt a monotony. Each was different, and each was the same. He could plot the normal curve. First the highly excited period; then the "rising action" when the candidate had collected himself and was still fresh; the growing weariness marked by slowed reactions and almost careless answers; then the dead half-hour when it seemed that you had to flog up the candidate to answer every question; finally, the little rally which might come before the end when realized that he was just about through - the last heart-breaking, pathetic sprint of the long distance-runner as he sighted the tape ahead. (pp. 239-40)
Stewart also nicely characterized different questioning styles by the faculty members. Here is a brief extract:
To be through with Brice's sharp staccato was a relief. Now Martiness was having his turn. He asked questions like a man snapping a black-snake whip - at first the slow moving grace of the loops as the question shaped, then the lash leaping forward and the crack as the last words released the question's real point. (p. 195)