Meet My New Best Friends Fulbright, SSRC and Wenner Gren

This is my first semester of real grant writing, and that  means that suddenly my whole life revolves around getting to know what sorts of things I need to do to become BEST friends with the people distributing that money. I want to know everything about them so that they think I’m the coolest. You like salsa and pickle flavored ice cream? What a surprise! Me too! Allow me to introduce them.

Fulbright is super eager and new to the area (she probably just got a job at a local NGO). She imagines you to be potential soul-sisters but she’s not really interested in your work*. She likes to hang out, but not just chatting over a drink or anything like that. She’d rather go dancing, volunteer at soup kitchens, and ride the double decker tour bus. She also wants you to tell her about all your other friends.

By contrast, SSRC and Wenner Gren are work buddies from the University. In fact, it’s hard to imagine hanging out with them in any other context. They each have their little quirks. SSRC is delighted when he recognizes dropped names. Wenner Gren is a bit of a luddite (keeps paper back-ups of everything) but loves to sit and talk about new ideas and directions. In election season SSRC keeps track of the constellations of political alliances and Wenner Gren likes to forecast what will happen next. SSRC reads the literary fiction recommended by the New York Review of Books but you’re more likely to find Wenner Gren with her nose in a good dystopian fic.

Secretly, though, I know I’m just barely scratching the surface with these guys and if anyone knows them better, they should give me the inside scoop.

*Even though you’re pretty sure that your work is your soul.

Opal is for Outlining

I am a software evangelist. I admit it. I get super excited when I find something that works for me and become convinced that the life of almost everyone I know could be improved if they adopted the same thing. For that reason, I expect that this post on software will be only the second of many.

Opal is an outlining program for Macs and one of the programs I rely heavily on in grad school. It costs $32, but has a free 30 day trial that is exactly the same as the full version. If you outline, but you get overwhelmed at all the writing you have on the page, this is a really good program.

Opal screenshot

It’s good at a very short list of things. Pretty much just writing and editing outlines. But if that’s part of your writing process (and how could it NOT be if you are a grad student or academic?), this is a huge step up from just writing in a text file or a word document.

A reading break from reading for anthropologists

I love to read, but I only have a limited amount of work reading in me. I don’t, for example, read books on the biological anthropology of aging at breakfast (that’s when I read children’s books – this morning I read Wonderstruck). At the coffeeshop, I like to take an unimportant but difficult book to read a couple of pages of (I’m slowly working my way through Being and Time that way). When I crawl in bed at night, it’s always genre fiction (I just finished Huntress last night). It is only during my “work day” that I read for work. But even then, I sometimes need a break.

Gray Heroes: Elder Tales From Around the WorldAs interested as I am in the gendered paradoxes of Ecuadorian development, if I try to read for more than an hour without stopping, I fail. On the other hand, if I take a break by playing online, it’s really hard to get back to work. So, instead, I take a break by reading something else. Preferably something fun, but relevant; it can’t feel like work, but it can’t be so addictive that I stop working altogether. The solution, I have found, is folktales.

Folktales are good, because they are short, but not as addictive as short form genre fiction. And the best part, if you are an anthropologist, is that they are tangentially (very tangentially unless you actually study folklore) related to your topic. My research reading is about lifespan, age, citizenship, ecuador, sociolinguistics, and modernity, but when I finish a chapter I celebrate by reading one of the folktales from Gray Heroes: Elder Tales From Around the World, edited by Jane Yolen*.

Not everyone likes to read this much. Some people, completely unreasonably, prefer real life. Other people feel like their energy for fun reading is sucked away by their work reading. But if you are like me, and love to read, but sometimes need a break from your work reading, maybe you should think about what kind of folktale collections your library can offer you.

* She is a prolific writer in many genres, but her folktale collections are almost always delightful and accessible. Her website boasts she has been called the Aesop of the twentieth century.

A Twinkle In My Eye: an anthropology grad student reflects on babies

Me and my Mama

Since I was a pretty little girl, I imagined becoming a mom. Mostly it involved having a daughter to whom I could pass on many of the left-wing second wave spiritual feminist* rituals I got to do growing up. Go on, ask me about my maidenhood ceremony some time.

But I “knew better” than to have kids before my mid-twenties. My siblings warned me away from such things, but I hardly needed their advice. The discourse that having kids early interrupts all personal ambitions was one I had pretty completely internalized**. So by the time I thought about coming to grad school, I knew I had to take balancing babies and career seriously. Even before I came, I found as many grad students with kids as I could and interviewed them about their experiences.

What they said is stuff you can find in places like the Berkeley Parents Network, like reminders that there is no good time (but you still might want to get through comps first). Things sounded a lot better in our anthropology program than in Mary Ann Mason’s report on new mothers in science. Of course I still worried that I would face discrimination once I entered the job market (and still do), but if my foremothers could blaze a trail into academia, I would be damned before I’d let an unfair structure keep me from having both parts of my dream.

But the inequalities go far deeper than any single school environment. And, putting aside my belligerent yes-I-can-too attitude in favor of self-reflection, I wonder: Can I do the kind of research I want and still have kids? Can I immerse myself, heart, lungs, and bladder, into my fieldwork while I’m learning to parent? And if I can’t … what then?

* Incidentally, if you like spiritual feminist stuff and aren’t second wave (like me) you, check out Bare Your Soul: The Thinking Girl’s Guide to Enlightenment – it ain’t anthropology, but it is very readable collection of essays by United Statesian women from a wide variety of religious and racial backgrounds.

** I’m not planning to talk much about my research here, but I must admit that my mind was blown when Mike Males presented statistical research showing that young parents (within class categories) were actually somewhat economically better off by becoming teen parents in his book Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities. After writing my master’s thesis on pregnant and parenting youth, I often wonder if I would have been better off becoming a young mom and having 8 or 9 year old kids now.

VUE mindmapping

I am a software evangelist. I admit it. I get super excited when I find something that works for me and become convinced that the life of almost everyone I know could be improved if they adopted the same thing. For that reason, I expect that this post on software will be only the first of many.

VUE stands for Visual Understanding Environment and is an Open Source mindmapping program from Tufts University*. They say, “VUE provides a flexible visual environment for structuring, presenting, and sharing digital information.” Basically, it gives you a blank screen and a very limited number of buttons, and lets you make pretty boxes and circles with words or pictures in them and then draw lines between them. It’s what you probably learned to do with paper and crayons in the lesson on Brainstorming in elementary school. But you can keep it on your computer for future reference in your notes (as a static .jpg or .pdf or editable .vue file).

a sample VUE mindmap from my first year of grad school

Like most mindmapping tools, you can use it to share information (to create a flowchart for a publication for example), but I think it’s at it’s best in the thinking process. In the example above I was using it to prepare for a presentation on gendered discourses in sex education at the Society for Medical Anthropology conference in 2009.

In conclusion, I highly recommend it!

*Seriously, Tufts has the best free stuff – as an ancient Greek major in college the Perseus Project was my best friend.

Notetaking Rubric for Comps and Everything Else

In my second year of grad school, I took a class with the estimable Eithne Luibheid. In addition to teaching an excellent course on Gender, Sexuality, and Transnational Migration, she also provided us with a notetaking rubric she expected us to use while preparing our presentations on the readings. It was excellent, although I only used it on and off while I was writing my Master’s thesis. Now, immersed in the mind-numbing sea of reading for my comprehensive exams, I rely on that rubric (forked for my purposes) like a fisherman relies on her nets. So, here it is, that you too might find some use for it.

[begin with a complete citation of the book or article you read, obviously in your field’s preferred format]

[both the first and the last note I take; key if you, like me, totally forget stuff like this eventually]
[make sure to note the page number]
[I only write this one in if I have a strong opinion about it, but keeping it separate helps the rest of my notes stay more on point]
[an incredibly valuable reminder; noted throughout reading and after]
[while Dr. Luibheid suggested making content notes here, I generally use this space to note important references listed in the reading so that I can follow up with them later]
[this should be self-explanatory]

It is also worth noting, since I’m talking about notetaking, that I use Evernote for all my notetaking. It’s a free program and it syncs between devices (in my case, I usually take notes on my computer, but when I travel I use my iPad, and when I’m stuck somewhere and thinking about my work I like to be able to access my notes on my smart phone – this makes that much easier).

Fantasy recommendations for anthropologists

As has now been established, I am an anthropologist. But I am also a big science fiction and fantasy fan*. Often, I feel like these two things are very closely related to each other. Plenty of science fiction has anthropologists (some even point to a subgenre) and anthropology is a science that is the writing of fictions (Geertz is groaning in his grave at that one). I bet Donna Haraway would agree with me, though, because have you ever seen that crazy (awesome) chart on page 229 of Modest_witness@second_millennium.Femaleman_meets_oncomouse: Feminism and Technoscience? She totally mentions The Left Hand of Darkness, He, She, and It, and the Xenogenesis Trilogy, all three of which I adore and you should certainly read. She’s not the only one who makes SF/F references either, but I have forgotten the others. I am determined that when I am a grown up anthropologist, I will also find ways to include such references in my publications too. But now that I have a blog, why wait?

I keep an evolving list of fantasy-for-anthropologists at, but you may not yet be interested in following that link. Allow me to convince you.

The Telling, by Ursula K. LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin, Grand Master of Science Fiction (no really, it’s a thing), is undoubtedly the best starting place. Much of her work has an undeniably ethnographic style, but if you want to read some beautiful short form ethnography to get started, check out The Birthday of the World and Other Stories. The worlds and universes are more exploratory than imaginary, and they are studied by the narrators and clearly beloved of the author. But that is a book of short stories about places, times, and people’s she spent a lifetime writing about and for many a coherent and compelling genre novel (though I’m sure she would not approve of my use of the word) is more appealing. If that is the case for you, you should begin with The Telling. If I were rich and had more time, I would buy a copy for every anthropologist I know. Of course, it is no surprise that her work should be so anthropological, she is the daughter of two anthropologists (her father, Alfred Kroeber, founded the anthropology program at Berkeley) and her brother became an anthropologist, too. But I admit, I have never read her family’s work, whereas hers has shaped my worldview.

LeGuin is undoubtedly the cultural anthropologist’s go-to author, but I can be more specific! If you are a linguistic anthropologist, allow me to recommend the short story “Lingua Franca” by Carole McDonnell in So Long, Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. A medical anthropologist should probably start by watching the movie Gattaca, (about a future in which eugenic genetics are more encompassing) but I’m also a big fan of Cory Doctorow’s dystopian short story “The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away” about a bio-surveillance state and Robert Silverberg’s “Caught in the Organ Draft” in the devastating collection Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories (which, incidentally you can check out for yourself thanks to the awesome Baen Free Library).** A physical anthropologist interested in age (like me) may find Orson Scott Card’s “Geriatric Ward” of interest (although that hardly approximates my intensely emotional reaction to the story). Archaeologists actually make me think of mysteries (because of the Amelia Peabody books and Summer of the Dragon by Elizabeth Peters), but I’m sure there’s good stuff out there***.

And look, other people think so too. Like, anthropology professor Charles F. Urbanowicz who said,  “Anthropology and science fiction often present data and ideas so bizarre and unusual that readers, in their first confrontation with both, often fail to appreciate either science fiction or anthropology. Intelligence does not merely consist of fact, but in the integration of ideas — and ideas can come from anywhere, especially good science fiction!” (It’s a blog, I’m totally allowed to cite Wikipedia).

Of course, maybe you already agree with me. Maybe you actually have a book you want to recommend to me! In which case, to the comments!


*I’m also a fan of children’s books, but that’s another post
**I feel like this isn’t my best possible medanth rec – I may have to write about this again another time.)
***I love Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey’s The Ship Who Searched, which begins at an archaeological dig, but I’m not sure if there is really a lesson for archaeologists there the way the other stories are actually useful for anthropologists.