Thursday, April 29, 2010

talking to students about grad school

My recent posts on the academic job market, as well as on-going debates over articles on the Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas H. Benton (aka William Pannapacker), have made me think about talking to undergraduate students about graduate school. Benton's advice, simply, is to tell students "don't go", and I have a lot of respect for that. On the other hand, as I've mentioned in earlier blogs, I'm under some pressure to send students on to graduate school. My colleagues feel it makes our program and our university look good. So, when I'm talking to students about their future plans, I try to be ethical and honest, without being overly harsh or pessimistic. I also have to recognize that my own experiences, good and bad, have shaped my attitudes toward graduate school and the academic job market.

I tell all students three things about grad school:

1) Don't go to graduate school because you don't know what else to do. Honestly, if that's even a part of the reason they want to go, they should run - not walk - in the opposite direction. Students think that they'd be better off delaying "real life" for a while, if they can't find a perfect job straight out of undegrad (or much of any job, given the current economy), but if they're worried about their financial situation, they're better off getting a minimum wage job while trying to break into some other career. Graduate school will actually take away major wealth-building years, without much compensatory financial reward at the end, even for the most successful. If they are just scared of leaving college, well, push them toward a job at a library or someplace equally dusty and book-filled. If they really want to stay in school, suggest a professional degree. Fear and lack of other options will not be sufficient motivation to get a student through a PhD program.

2) Be prepared to pay the price. Students do not realize that graduate school is a much greater commitment than their undergraduate education, and significantly different in its structure and demands. They do not realize that by the time they finish their PhD, they will be much older, often much more in debt, and likely far more neurotic and in poorer health, than they planned. That's not to say that grad school can't be fun, socially and intellectually, but there is a significant price paid for dedicating a decade (give or take) to getting a PhD. Their college friends will get married, buy houses and cars, have kids, and be established in careers, before they even get their first job. They will have fewer resources for retirement than their college friends. They will live like students for a lot longer. Tragically, too many people will be unable to start the families they want, because their most productive years - even their health - were sacrificed to graduate school. I'm not saying there are no compensations. If the student is willing to pay the price in order to continue in a field they love, then it is worthwhile. Too often, though, students don't know how steep the price will be, or they have a vision of their future life that is completely incompatible with the realities of academia.

3) There is absolutely nothing you can do that will guarantee you a job. This is the hardest point to get across to students. The myth of meritocracy is strong in the U.S. In generally, I believe it is true that the best and brightest are more likely to get jobs. The problem is, a significant number of the best and brightest won't. I know archaeologists who graduated about the same time I did, who have weaker publications records than mine, who are now tenured in top anthropology programs. I know archaeologists with publications records that put mine to shame who have finally dropped out of academia all-together, unable to find a job. There is no check-list you can follow that will guarantee you a job, as long as you have crossed off every item. You can certainly make your chances of getting a job better, but there is too much luck involved for any guarantees.

I try to tell this to students, but they don't believe me. I think there are two problems:

a) their other professors are telling them something different. After all, they're talking to the lottery winners - those of us who actually got jobs. We all like to think that we're in our current positions due to our own hard work, clean living, and right thinking. And, of course, we are. But too many professors fail to realize that there were others - just as hard working, clean living, and right thinking - who were passed over, despite being just as qualified. When I first started my dissertation, one of my graduate advisers told me I would have no trouble getting a job "as long as you're the best at what you do." At the time, I was intimidated by the idea of having to be "the best". I now know he was wrong anyway. I'm arguably "the best" at my specific method in my specific region, but nobody's hiring in that field, so it does me no good. Students think these job market problems could never happen to them. They'll be so good, so smart, so accomplished, that they'll waltz right into a job. Their professors often feed that idea, either because it feeds their own egos, or because they can't see beyond their own experiences.

b) students, like most people, are incredibly bad at assessing risks. Just as people tends to have more fear of (their one in 3,748,067 chance of) dying from a shark attack, than of dying in a car accident (actually the number-one non-illness killer in the country), students tend to have a hard time understanding the risks they take in graduate school. Even if they've heard how bad the numbers are, they don't seem to understand what they mean. Case in point: I recently read the comments section for a Chronicle of Higher Education article on the English job market. One of the commenters posted that more than 50% of English PhDs have tenure-track jobs, so he couldn't understand why the author of the article was discouraging students from grad school. Really? The commenter honestly feels that, after dedicating almost a decade of your life toward a PhD, it's acceptable to have the same odds of getting a job as you do of tossing a coin and getting heads? Would you bet ten years of your life - ten years of earnings, ten years of marriage, ten years of raising a family, ten years of gaining equity in a house, ten years of building a career - on the result of a coin toss? I tell students, if a tenure-track job is the only outcome you'll find acceptable, then graduate school's not worth the gamble.

I strongly push archaeology students toward an MA, particularly from one of the strong MA-only programs. Northern Arizona and the University of Tulsa spring to mind as good examples of MA-only programs with strong faculty who work closely with their graduate students. If a student loves field archaeology, and wants to work in CRM, this is an excellent solution. MAs haven't priced themselves out of the job market, and they can always choose to go back for the PhD, once they really understand how the system works. They can find lucrative employment in the field they love, without the same level of sacrifice demanded for a PhD.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

more on the job market

I thought this post over at Sociological Images fit well into the information about hiring data in my last post.

Monday, April 26, 2010

"top schoolers" and hiring (in which I take blogging to new heights of procrastination)

I'm not a cultural anthropologist, but I like the Savage Minds blog, just to keep up with our socio-cultural brethren. I wasn't thrilled by this post by Rex, though, "Who needs alumni from 'top schools'", which essentially argued that PhDs from top schools aren't taught how to teach, know nothing about methodology, and can't conduct relevant research. Personally, I think that's painting a whole bunch of diverse schools (only one of which is actually named in the post) with a pretty broad brush, but then I attended two of the top anthropology programs, so maybe I'm biased. That said, I consider myself a very good teacher, I'm fully trained in methods, and one of my research interests is the application of environmental archaeology to environmental policy.

What really got me thinking was the post's contention that "top schoolers", therefore, are not well positioned to get jobs in today's education climate, which tends to value undergraduate education, methodology, and applied research. Is this really the case? The Savage Minds post had no data, so I decided to crunch a few numbers. The University of Michigan was the only institution actually mentioned in the post as belonging to the category of "top schools", so I looked at the web pages for all of the departments of anthropology in the state of Michigan, and where it was possible, I noted down where each faculty member got their PhD, and what year. (I intended to do this for several states, to look at regional variation, but this just takes too much time. Even I have limits to my procrastination.)

In the state of Michigan, there are 16 institutions with departments of anthropology (or departments with anthropology in the title). There may be some random anthropologists floating about at the other schools, but they aren't included in this sample. Michigan has one "top school" (the University of Michigan), and two less-prestigious PhD granting institutions (Michigan State and Wayne State). Two programs offer MAs (Western Michigan and Michigan Tech), while the remainder offer bachelors degrees alone. These institutions employee 151 faculty, 141 of which had information about their PhD granting department on their webpages. 116 faculty members also had information about the year in which they got their degree.

The 141 faculty members represent 54 different PhD granting institutions. Of those institutions, I choose 8 that I considered to be truly "top schools": Arizona, UC Berkeley, Cambridge, Chicago, Harvard, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Yale.* These 8 schools are 15% of the total number of PhD granting institutions represented, but their alums hold 35% of the jobs. I can't say whether this is an over-representation, since I don't know the relative size of the graduating cohorts from each of these universities. Nonetheless, more people from "top schools", overall, have jobs in Michigan.

There are some interesting trends, though, in who is hiring these "top schoolers". The only "top school" in the state, the University of Michigan, hired 66% (n=29) of its faculty from PhD programs at other "top schools". The other institutions represented on the faculty are all very strong, and most are arguably "top schools" themselves, at least in certain fields. The second-tier PhD programs, however, only hired 28% (n=11) "top schooler" faculty. The number is similar in MA programs, at 29% (n=5). Those programs that offer only bachelor's degrees have an even lower percentage of faculty from "top schools", only 13% (n=5). Of those, four of the five are graduates from the U of Michigan who obtained local jobs. So, "top schools" are hiring "top schoolers", but that is not necessarily the case at less prestigious institutions, particularly the least prestigious schools, although they occasionally snap up a local graduate from their flagship institution.

I wondered if this trend has changed through time. Since the early 90s, there has been an increasing focus on undergraduate education. If, as the Savage Minds post contends, "top schoolers" can't teach their way out of a paper bag, has there been a trend toward hiring faculty members with PhDs from less prestigious programs?

The answer is yes and no. I don't know when people were hired, but I can look at the year that faculty members got their PhDs. Of the 42 people whose PhDs were from 2000 or more recent, only 10 of them come from "top schools", or 24%, a lower percentage than for the overall sample. If you look more closely at the data, however, you'll find that previously noted trends in hiring are actually intensifying. The University of Michigan has 10 faculty members with recent PhDs, and 80% (n=8) come from "top schools" - actually an increase over previous years. In contrast, less prestigious schools seem to be hiring many fewer "top schoolers". None of the 16 faculty members with post-2000 PhDs at MSU and WSU have degrees from "top schools". Only one of the five newer faculty members at the MA-granting institutions has a "top school" PhD (20%), and out of the 11 more recent hires at bachelor's institutions, only one (9%) is from a "top school". So, in recent years, the "top school" is actually focusing more and more on hiring "top schoolers", while the less prestigious schools seem less willing to do so.

I can't say these trends will continue, or even that they apply outside of the state of Michigan, but there are still some interesting patterns that emerge. What concerns me is that this is largely a game of perception. If lots of search committee members, like Rex at Savage Minds, just assume that "top schoolers" can't teach, then some excellent teachers, researchers, mentors, etc., will never find an academic job because there is a perception that only "top schools" should hire them, and there aren't enough jobs at top schools to go around. I'm convinced that I only have my tenure-track job because this school is so small that nobody on the search committee had the background to accurately evaluate my C.V. My colleagues have very little idea of what I do, no clue how strong my research record is relative to the average for this institution, etc., etc. As a result, I was judged on my teaching talk and the research talk where I highlighted my applied research. I got the job, but if this school had more anthropologists to serve on the search committee, would I have been passed over on the assumption that no "top schooler" would be appropriate for a job here?

BTW - sorry for the dense text. Someday maybe I'll figure out how to make tables in this blog.

*Yes, I know this is arguable. Obviously, reasonable people could disagree on whether Yale belongs on the list, and whether Wisconsin, UCL, and Stanford should have been left off. The Savage Minds post didn't define which schools were "top schools", and clearly this is all based on perception, so I figure my biases are as valid as anyone elses.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

not drinking the kool-aid

I never attended a liberal arts college. I received at BA, MA, PhD, and two post-docs from major state universities. Before I came here, I had no personal familiarity with SLACs.

I really like the teaching environment here, and I think we provide an exceptional education. I understand why the faculty are proud of what they have accomplished, and of their students. Still, I'm frequently annoyed by the attitude that many of my colleagues have, basically, that no other form of education is worth-while.

I think this school has many advantages - small class size, undergraduate-focused education, strong community spirit, focus on extracurricular and interdisciplinary education, etc., etc. If a student just wants a degree, any degree, in order to get a middle management job, or because having a BA is a prereq for being middle class these days, I think they can't do better than this college. There's no skating through with the minimum level of effort here; faculty hold students to a very high standard, and the classes are so small you can't just hide in the back row. Students are pushed into doing their best, and they are more engaged in the learning process than students at big state schools.

That said, this isn't the perfect education for everyone. It certainly wouldn't have been a very good environment for me. If a student is interested in pursuing a research career, this school doesn't have sufficient depth or breadth of opportunity, in or out of the classroom; you won't make the right kinds of connections, and you won't have the right kind of intellectual pedigree. Even for students whose interests are more professional than academic, there are limits to the programs were are able to offer. When a student tells me they're really interested in veterinary medicine, or forensics, or linguistics, or going to a seminary, I wonder why in God's name they came here, where we don't offer majors/courses to fully support those interests.

Do not try to tell most of the faculty here that a Liberal Arts education is not for everyone. Not unless you want to be crushed by the giant chips on their shoulders. In their view, state schools are full of professors who can't teach their way out of a paper bag, and automaton students with no real interest in education.

I was reminded of this today, when Crazy Colleague sent out an e-mail supporting a student's petition to transfer a Theory class from an R1 university to stand in for the course that CC herself teaches here. CC spent a full page assuring us that no lecture course could ever compare to "the Freirian pedagogy of horizontal communication among a community of learners sharing their ideas that undergirds [her] course". (I kid you not, that's a direct quote.) She complained that the professor did not require enough writing, discouraged open debate, and did not spend enough time on feminist theory. Still, she finally admitted that a well-established anthropologist at a major research institution might possibly be capable of teaching basic theory well enough that his course was acceptable for our students.

Is it fine to be pro-SLAC? Of course. Should we be blind to the fact that research universities do actually provide a good education for some students, depending on their interests and abilities? Of course not.

Monday, April 19, 2010

back in the saddle, and a video recommendation

Between preparing to go and actually attending the SAAs, I haven't had time to blog in a week. Well, I'm baaaack. The conference, as usual, was wonderful. I feel inspired, excited, and ready to dive into that research.

Not to mention the giant pile of exams I have to grade.

Well, damn.

So, while I'm working on the exam, I'm going to punt on blogging and just leave a quick video recommendation. I discovered Nova's Becoming Human series earlier this semester. I've been trying to find a good video for my Intro BioAnth class for years. This 3-part series aired this past November, and it is available on-line for free. Part I covers the earliest finds (Sahelanthropus, in particular) through Homo habilis. Since it's a Nova special, they rather over-state the differences in early Homo, for dramatic effect, but it's generally a good show.

Part II covers Homo erectus, and although they obviously don't go into as much detail as I can in class, the list of topics looks like it was taken straight from my lecture notes. Brownie points to the producers for the way my students cracked up to hear Richard Wrangham say, in his impeccable British accent, "As for how we got our pubic lice from gorillas, I wouldn't care to speculate."

Part III - OK, I have to admit, I haven't actually watched Part III yet. So far, I've loved the series, though. Highly recommended for intro classes. It covers a lot of the important "big-picture" issues, and I can bore them with the details of anatomy and taxonomy in class. My students liked it too. I showed Part I a week ago, and today when I showed Part II in class, some students had already seen it. They liked Part I so much, they found the rest of the series on Netflix!

I decided to watch Part III (origins of the anatomically moderns), and I don't like it nearly as much as the rest of the series. They gave a hard-line replacement perspective, and didn't present any of the alternative evidence. For example, they implied that all genetic information supports total replacement, without mentioning any of the work by people like Hammer, which suggests some admixture. They skimmed over the controversies surrounding the "bottleneck" hypothesis, and implied that the entire continent of Africa was a desert, with only a few small places where humans could survive. (How chimpanzees and other apes would have escaped from a similar bottleneck, under those conditions, is not explained.) They played up the scanty evidence for symbolic behavior prior to 50kya, without mentioning Neandertal burial practices. They also implied that only modern humans were mentally capable of exploiting marine resources, when Stiner's work in Italy showed significant shellfish use, and Finlayson's work at the caves in Gibraltar suggest fishing, shellfishing, and hunting of sea mammals. I won't be showing this episode in my class, unless I stop the video every once in a while to discuss the various viewpoints on the topic.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

environmental archaeology in st. louis

I've been looking at the program for the SAAs. I would like to call attention to a few symposia that may be of particular interest to environmental archaeologists.


"History and Trajectory of Irrigation and Water Management in the Southern Southwest"
Poster session about the agricultural landscape of the desert Southwest, including newly excavated irrigation features in southern Arizona.

"Beyond the Biological Need to Eat: Archaeologies of Food and Foodways"
Symposium approaches zooarchaeology and archaeobotany from a slightly po-mo perspective. Katheryn Twiss is discussant. She does wonderful work, just with a different approach than mine.

"Animals and Inequality in the Ancient World"
Nice to see more of a focus on the zooarchaeology of complex societies. This is quite common in Europe, but not nearly as much a focus of the Americanist schools.

"Alliance and Landscape on Perry Mesa, Central Arizona"
This group of researchers, led by David Abbott, has applied a landscape legacy model to understanding the archaeology of Perry Mesa.


"Seeds of Change: Early Holocene Subsistence Diversification and Technological Change across the Desert West"
A really strong group of presenters, from an environmental archaeology perspective, including Phil Geib, Charlotte Beck, Joel Janetski, David Zeanah, Douglas Bird, and Rebecca Bliege-Bird. Discussants are Bettinger and Wills.

"Tropical Forest Low-Density Urbanism in the Southern Maya Lowlands and Southern Asia: Past and Present Sustainability"
Discussants are Michael Coe, Stephen Lansing, and Vernon Scarborough. Quite the diverse group, but it promises to have a great deal of interesting ecological material.

"Are We What We Eat? Continuity and Change in Food during Culture Contact in North America."
This actually sounds more interesting from a technological perspective than from an environmental one, but a variety of environmentally-savvy participants are on tap in this symposium, including the current editors of the Journal of Ethnobiology (Virginia Popper and Heather Trigg), Kristen Gremillion, William Hildebrandt, and the discussants, Katherine Spielmann and Christine Hastorf.


"Human Responses to Younger Dryas in the Northern Hemisphere: The Old World"
This needs no explanation, other than to note that the organizer is Lawrence Straus and the discussant Ofer Bar-Yosef.

"Current Research on Isotopic Analyses in Archaeology and Zooarchaeology"
The discussant is Stanley Ambrose, of course. The papers represent an impressive array of different regions and time periods.

"Large Game Procurement Strategies"
Heavy, although not exclusive, focus on the Western US


"Coastal Seasonality: Methodologies and Substantive Applications"
Alas, I'm going to miss this symposium, as my plane leaves too early for papers on Sunday morning. Organized by Elizabeth Reitz, Irvy Quitmyer, and David Hurst Thomas.

Also, note that there is an excursion to the Missouri Botanical Gardens scheduled for Saturday afternoon.

(not) taking one for the team

Our older child, Little Boo, was born while I was finishing a post-doc. I had time off at her birth, but I did not have formal maternity leave, for various reasons.

Our second child, Boo Two, was born this past November. I worked out a non-standard maternity "arrangement". The whole concept of maternity leave in academia would be grounds for another blog post, but I digress.

When I announced my pregnancy to Divine And Wonderful Department Chair, To Whom I Am Eternally Grateful (DAWDCTWIAEG, for short), DAWDCTWIAEG encouraged me to consider stopping my tenure clock. Here's the kicker: She doesn't think I need to stop my tenure clock because I will need an extra productive year in order to be tenurable. Actually, I was planning to go up for early tenure, and I already have a stronger publication record than is strictly necessary for tenure at this institution. No, the reason DAWDCTWIAEG wanted me to stop my tenure clock is because - get this - nobody has ever done it before!

Actually, that's not strictly true. Some faculty had stopped their clocks in the past for various reasons. No woman in our department, though, had ever stopped her tenure clock because she had a baby. DAWDCTWIAEG really hates the lack of precedent. She herself, when still untenured, had been told by senior colleagues not to stop her clock when her son was born because it would "send the wrong message" to the tenure committee. Now she fears that no woman wants to be the first, because blazing the trail could mean putting her own career at risk.

DAWDCTWIAEG feels I'm the ideal trailblazer for the tenure-clock policy. I have a strong enough record for early tenure, so surely there is no way my colleagues could refuse to give me tenure later, even if I took the "mommy track" and stopped my clock. Maybe I should jump on this opportunity to "take one for the team", and make the path a little easier for my junior colleagues.

I'm not going to, though. Yeah, I know, it would be a blow struck in defense of feminism, equal rights, and apply pie. It would also mean foregoing job security - not to mention a hefty pay raise - for one (possibly two) extra years. See, I'm still planning to go up for early tenure, if I can, and stopping my clock would make that much more difficult.

Sometimes, striking a blow for equal rights means asserting my right to put my own career goals first. I don't think many men would be criticized for doing so.

Friday, April 9, 2010

bad sign

A conversation heard outside my lab door, 10 minutes before the lab practicum was to begin:

Student A - So, what do we need to know for this exam?

Student B - The bones and features of the cranium.


Student A - So, what's a feature?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

juvenile sense of humor

Maybe it's just me, but I found this paragraph hilarious. The student was supposed to be comparing and contrasting bonobo and common chimpanzee behavior. (I corrected some of the grammar/punctuation, so it makes sense and is easier to read. I did not, however, correct the "typo" that makes it so funny).

Sex also is a bounding activity. It brings female and male together, and female and female together. Other primates bound by other means, like grooming or helping with the young. There is a different and deeper connection formed when bounding through sex.

I have a mental picture of bonobo trampoline orgies.

The rest of the paragraph discusses the "off spring" produced by these orgies, which just extends the metaphor.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

British courts on "Druid" repatration appeal

A British court has ruled against the Council of British Druid Orders, which had asked for the reburial of a Neolithic child from Avebury.

The druids say the remains of the child, known as Charlie, should be reinterred within Avebury's stone circle out of respect for the dead.

The Order says it has taken up the case because it feels it has a cultural link with pagan ancestors in the British Isles.

I've already mentioned my strong views on NAGPRA. Cases like Avebury make us really think about who owns the past, and who has an investment in how ancient people are treated. Here in the US, we have laws protecting Native American graves, but no specific laws protecting African-American graves, or Asian-American graves, etc. How would/should we, the archaeological community, react if there was a collaborative effort by, say, the NAACP to stop archaeologists from excavating human remains when they investigate plantation sites with slave quarters? Or the burial sites of a free black community in early 1800's Baltimore or New Orleans? Personally, I would defer to the descendants, if they could be identified, or to representatives of the local community. (And, yes, I understand that defining that community could be difficult. Such decisions would have to be made on a case-by-case basis.)

That said, I'm quite happy with the British court's decision in Avebury. It's not that the British "druids" can't support their claim of spiritual, cultural, or biological descent. That doesn't matter much to me. There are two major differences between British druids and Native American (or African-American, etc.) populations in the US: 1) in general, British druids can choose whether or not to be a member of the druid sub-culture, they are not born into a socially-defined ethnic group. In this case, they are trying to claim responsibility for the remains due to a cultural affinity with the child, when they themselves have created that cultural affinity by appropriating certain aspects of that child's belief system, long after that belief system had ceased to operate in Britain; 2) to my knowledge, there is no systemic bias against druids in British culture, so there is no power differential between archaeologists - as representatives of the mainstream and more powerful subculture - and druids. There is no post-colonial feeling that the archaeologists are attempting to defraud druids of their cultural patrimony (unless, of course, the druids are holding a grudge from the late Roman Empire). And of course, as stated above, being a druid is largely a personal choice. Under the circumstances, I don't think druids need the protection of the law for their spiritual or cultural ancestors.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

more politics of the past

Saw this very interesting article about the politicization of archaeology in Sri Lanka. Basically, it boils down to who has the greater "right" to the island - the Tamils or the Sinhalese - by virtue of long-term residence. Since the colonial period, the official teaching has been that the Tamils were recent immigrants to Sri Lanka, a claim that appears not to be true. Now some Tamil archaeologists are accusing the army (largely made up of Buddhist Sinhalese) of creating a new Buddhist shrine in the former Tamil capital and claiming it's an ancient monument, bolstering the Sinhalese claim to the area.

outside influences

Last week, several influential political bloggers were blogging about the 10 books that influenced them the most. The best summary is here, on The American Conservative.

Obviously, any list of my most influential books would focus on the venerable classics of environmental archaeology. But I started thinking about less obvious influences - those from outside archaeology altogether.

I teach certain courses (ecological anthropology in particular) that include all four subfields of anthropology. Personally, I see the four-field approach as largely a historical accident. After all, archaeology really doesn't have to be anthropology to be worthwhile, as is eminently clear if you look at the programs in Europe. (A friend of mine posted on facebook once that archaeology is misanthropy or it is nothing, which is a line I've added to my personal motto: "If I liked living people better than dead ones, I'd have been a cultural anthropologist.") Archaeologists share a history and body of theory with anthropology, but the same is true of geography. We take methods and theories from biology, geology, chemistry, etc., and nobody claims we should be a subfield of those disciplines.

Archaeology has to be one of the fields that borrows most heavily from outside its own discipline. So, in this post I want to share some of the non-archaeological books that have had the strongest impact on me and my research.

William L. Ballee, Ed.
1998 Advances in Historical Ecology. Columbia, New York.
I love Ballee's work. I can't pinpoint just one influence that this book has had on my research, since my research focus is on humanly-modified landscapes, which pretty much sums up the whole point of Historical Ecology. I was trained in Human Behavioral Ecology, and while I still use many of the techniques of HBE, I fell in love with Historical Ecology the first time I read this book. It has a depth and soul that is lacking in HBE (IMHO). This is an edited volume, with chapters that cover a wide variety of topics. I suppose it is cheating to list this book as one of my biggest non-archaeological influences, since some of those chapters are written by archaeologists (Bettinger and Roosevelt wrote incredibly interesting chapters on the Great Basin and Amazonia, respectively). Plus, Historical Ecology is an inherently archaeology-friendly field, given that historical data is frequently obtained through archaeology. Carole Crumley's work is indicative of the power of Historical Ecology in archaeology. I'm still claiming the Ballee book for this post, though, since Ballee himself is a cultural anthropologist.

Rea, Amadeo M.
1983 Once a River: Bird Life and Habitat Changes on the Middle Gila. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
1997 At the Desert's Green Edge: An Ethnobotany of the Gila River Pima. University of Arizona Press, Tucson
1998 Folk Mammalogy of the Northern Pimans. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Rea's an ethnobiologist and ornithologist whose work explores the dialectic between plants/animals and traditional agricultural societies in the desert Southwest. (Note that I hardly ever used words like "dialectic" in a non-sarcastic manner, but in this case the term is justified.) The most important influence Rea's work had on me was driving home the understanding of how deeply embedded all societies are in their environments, and how we interact with other organisms in a myriad of contexts. Since this is the case, it follows that remains of wild plants and animals can tell us something about all aspects of human society, from the economic to the social to the religious. These books are also beautifully written, a classic example of academic work that can find a wider audience.

Mintz, Sidney W.
1986 Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin, New York.

I love this book. While Rea's books show that communities are embedded in particular landscapes, and that the taxa of those landscapes permeate throughout the culture, Mintz's book looks at one species and shows how it is embedded in a vast social and political network, across space and time. He shows how something as fundamental and "natural" as food becomes enmeshed in the story of economics, power, colonialism, and religion over the last 400 years. Fascinating and, again, inspiring to think how much more than just nutrition information can be gained from a deeper understanding of the role of plants and animals in human societies.

Those are the books that come to mind off the top of my head. I'm sure there are a lot more. Anyone else want to chime in with their list?

Monday, April 5, 2010

sometimes you feel like a nut...

I've already mentioned that my department suffers from craziest person in the room syndrome. Well, today was a double-nut day. First, a meeting of Excruciating Faculty Committee, with Humanities Nut, who was particularly crazed today because she's convinced her department is on the chopping block (which just goes to show that you can be crazy, paranoid, and right). Second, I was blindsided during an advising session when my student informed me that Senior Colleague has decided not to teach our required senior capstone course next year - the one my student needed to graduate. SC had sent out an e-mail to all of the students telling them to find an "alternative", but hadn't bothered to inform the rest of us. The decision not to teach the class is partly a rational decision on her part to try to reduce a very heavy teaching load next year. I'm sure she also sees it as a bit of revenge for being forced to teach another class usually taught be a colleague who is escaping leaving.

No real point to this post - I just wanted to vent.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

using my religion

Easter Sunday is an appropriate day to make this particular confession: I take full advantage of my religion in the classroom. I was raised in a fairly religious household (even though my parents were not of the same religion), and although I left the Church for most of my time as an undergraduate, I eventually found my way back. It's not that I'm brainwashed, stupid, ignorant, or unaware of the socio-political functions of religion, it's just that I was raised in faith and, no matter how much I told myself that those beliefs were not "rational", I found that I fundamentally still believed.

My personal faith journey isn't particularly relevant here. I only mention it because I have found my religion to be helpful, especially when I'm teaching BioAnth. Even though my BioAnth class isn't required, I still have a handful of students each year who take it despite the fact that they don't believe in evolution. There are also a fair number of students who dismiss much of what I say about human diversity as just the PC propaganda of yet another left-wing ivory tower academic. Both groups of students are somewhat disarmed by my declaration of faith. They find me harder to dismiss, and I've had several productive conversations with students who are honestly interested in how I blend religion and science.

Of course, the answer to that question is rather complex (complex enough for a whole 'nuther post, and, frankly, sometimes I think my solution comes down to Fitzgerald's quote about "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time.") I know it's not possible for all students to find a resolution to their religious conflicts. I'm Catholic, and my personal experience has been that Catholics tend to have fewer problems with a perceived religion/science conflict than Mormons or members of certain Protestant sects, particularly the more conservative ones. Among the students that I have personally known, at least, that has been the case. I certainly wouldn't claim it is universal! Those students who have been taught young-earth history, and literal Biblical interpretation, are unlikely to be moved by the fact that I'm Catholic (particularly if they were taught that Catholicism is an evil cult). For other students, though, I know I make them stop and think.

Friday, April 2, 2010

politicizing the past

I saw this movie on Matthew Yglesias' blog:

Basically, they're arguing that the Smithsonian Institute's new Hall of Human Origins, which is funded by a major conservative and fossil-fuel millionaire named David Koch, is "right-wing propaganda" aimed at confusing visitors about the science of recent climate change.

I have some serious problems with the allegations in this video. Nothing shown in the video seems to me to be particularly "right-wing". The exhibit makes the claim that our genus evolved during a period of rapid climate change, and that our flexible behavior, cultural abilities, and intelligence are responses to rapid environmental shifts. Well...yeah. That seems pretty non-controversial to me. It's a stretch to argue that the underlying message is that we'll be able to evolve to meet any challenges posed by future climate changes, so we don't need to worry about capping emissions.

The video's makers are also upset about an interactive exhibit at the end of the Hall that I'm guessing is aimed at teaching children the concept of adaptation. For example, by suggesting that communication through texting over many generations could lead to longer fingers. Again, it seems a stretch to suggest that the message really is that we can burn all the fossil fuels we want, because no matter how badly we pollute the Earth, we can always evolve to the new ecosystem we've created.

The narrator of the video mentions that the exhibit downplays how stable the environment has been for the last 10kya, since the oxygen isotope curves they are showing suggest that we're still in a period of rapid climate change. Well, when you show a curve that covers the last 10 million years, then the Pleistocene is going to look dramatically different, and the Holocene will barely be a blip at that scale. Again, a bit of a stretch to suggest it's all a nefarious plot.

That said, I'm sure that Koch's foundation would have vetoed any addition to the exhibit that talked about the rapidity of modern climate change vs. Pleistocene climate change, or that mentioned that the rapid adaptation of 7 billion people to a radically new environment would occur through the deaths of many millions (or billions) of people. But, listen folks, it's not an exhibit about modern climate change! Got it?

The deeper problem here, of course, is that studies of human evolution are prone to politicization. It's inevitable that a subject so close to the bone (if you'll forgive the pun) will be loaded down with all kinds of cultural and political baggage. I spend several days in my BioAnth class talking about how our assumptions about basic human nature, gender, race, and age color our interpretations of our hominin ancestors. We can't help but politicize the past, but in this case, I honestly believe the problem is in the video maker's interpretation, not in the original exhibit.

school vs. education

I found this post over at DSP: Daily Science Professor to be interesting. DSP recounts how his plans to graduate in three years were changed by conversations with faculty members who recommend taking his time and getting the most out of his undergraduate education. I can't help but contrast the advise he got with the advise we're expected to give at this liberal arts college.

As a school, we pride ourselves on our 4-year graduate rates; it's one of the guarantees we give all in-coming students: they can definitely graduate in 4 years. At the same time, we encourage double-, triple, and even quadruple-majors. Of course, as a liberal arts college, we have wide-ranging GenEd requirements, and a fairly low cap on the number of credits that apply to a major. There is also a culture here of encouraging students to be involved in a large number of extra-curricular activities, from theater, to student government, to sports, to student clubs and organizations. (To give you an idea of the scale of student involvement, when I gave my last exam, I had to give a quarter of the students an alternate exam because they had university excuses to miss class on that day for extracurricular activities.)

I think the intention is to produce well-rounded Renaissance men and women. Personally, I think the result is all too often to produce dilettantes, who know a little bit about lots of things, but have never really applied themselves to one field in-depth. That would be fine, except we're also supposed to encourage these students to go to graduate school.

Now, I already have issues with sending any student to graduate school (as I've said before), no matter how well prepared, but the truth is our students just aren't prepared. I've had students who want to go to graduate school in archaeology or physical anthropology who have only had one class in that subject! When I suggest they take some extra classes, or do an independent study, they tell me that they "don't kneed any more credits in anthropology" because they've already fulfilled their major requirements. When I've brought up this problem to my colleagues, or to administrators, the answer I get is "Well, we can't expect students to stay for an extra semester to take more classes. Do you know how much money that costs?" Sure, I grant that's a problem, and if these students were taking their BAs and moving on to some random middle-management job, I wouldn't care. But if we're actively encouraging our students to pursue PhD's (as my colleagues are), then we owe it to them to see they are truly educated, not just that they've fulfilled school requirements.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

nagpra changes

I've seen several blog posts on this particular story. The Obama administration has changed some of the NAGPRA regulations and will allow tribes to claim remains that were found near their current or historical homelands, even if they cannot prove affiliation.

I'm going to go out on an archaeological limb here and say three little words: I don't care.

No, honestly. I predict a lot of attempts to portray this issue as an "us vs. them" fight between scientists and Native Americans, but personally I have no problem with tribes claiming remains that they cannot prove were their ancestors. Among other reasons, I'm not convinced most of these remains have as much scientific potential as some archaeologists claim. Admittedly, my research focus is not bioarchaeology, but I work in a related field. I recognize that there are new analytical techniques that have not been applied to all of the skeletons in repositories today - DNA analysis, for example - but many of these skeletons have been sitting in these museums for decades or even centuries; we've had long enough, how much more time do we need?

Furthermore, we - or our academic ancestors - have made our bed, and now we have to sleep in it. Look, none of us (hopefully) have dug up graves in a disrespectful manner, without permission of the descendants. None of us have ever owned slaves, either. But it remains the fact that we live within a system that privileges certain groups over others, and the vast collections of skeletons found in museums are the result of that bias, just as surely as the continuing differences in average wealth between communities of different ethnic backgrounds. We can say that we shouldn't be punished for the misdeeds of people in the past - today we're so much more enlightened after all - but we continue to benefit from the systematic privileging of mostly Euro-American scientists over Native Americans. It's not enough to change the rules of the game to give each player an equal chance to win, if past rounds have already given the vast majority of the cards to one person.

I spent a year doing NAGPRA compliance checks at various universities, and I have to admit that I was rather appalled by the excavations that took place as recently as the 1960's. I remember one dam project that flooded a valley with a cemetery dating to the early 1900's. The graves of Euro-Americans were moved to a hillside overlooking the valley. The graves of Native Americans were excavated by the archaeologists and the bones stored in boxes in some university's basement. Honestly, these were graves of people who had died only 30-60 years earlier. There were headstones saying that this was somebody's Uncle Fred, for Christ's sake! The mentality is mind boggling that gives a whole community the status of "research subjects", while treating their contemporaries of a different ethnicity as real people, worthy of respect after death. The people in those boxes weren't my ancestors, but the whole experience disgusted me so much that I'd be happy to return all of the skeletal remains in the country to any tribe that wanted them, no strings attached.

I will now get off my soap box.