On Civilization (V) and the Academic Job Search

I have a confession: I love the academic job search. I love it for the same reason I love playing Civilization. I like to play on a higher setting than I can usually win on, and whenever I start a new game I like to spend a few hours researching strategy guides for new techniques. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to prioritize using my limited production to the best long term effect. When I finally start the game I look for the land tiles with the resources my civilization needs most and then adjust my strategies as I get to know the competitive field. Looking for a tenure track job as a sociocultural Wu Zetian, from Civ 5anthropologist focusing on the life course seems to have a lot of overlap.

Although I took anthropology classes as an undergrad, I first really connected to the discipline when I came across the Washington Post’s obituary for Clifford Geertz on November 2, 2006. I was still working as a direct service provider at Identity, Inc, but I was already itching to engage the kinds of big questions that intellectually curious people ask when they regularly encounter systemic social problems. Although I am not the kind of person who clips things out of newspapers, I clipped out Geertz’s obituary and bought the book it mentioned: The Interpretation of Cultures. The second or third time I read it, the margins had started filling with questions, arguments, and emojis. I was already hooked by the time I started reading Abu-Lughod, Capps and Ochs, and Mendoza-Denton.

By the time I finally started graduate school, I knew that the job market was inhospitable but my whole-hearted conversion to anthropology demanded action. I believed in the truth-value of particularity and in the methods for paying attention when a culture “bodies forth and enmeshes you” (Geertz After the Fact 44). I wanted to learn it, but I also knew I wanted to teach it. So, from the beginning, I attended every professionalization workshop and anthropological pedagogy talk I could. I started reading teaching blogs, and following anthropologists on Twitter. For seven years I made preparing for the job search my break-time treat. So now? I am pretty excited.

I am still playing on a higher setting than I can reliably win on; in the current job market, I am a PhD candidate competing against people who have had two or three years to prioritize building their publication records over things like researching and writing a dissertation. But the game has now started, and I am enjoying searching out the few positions best suited for the kind of anthropologist I want to be. I hope, of course, that I will win the game – find the place where I can do the kinds of teaching and research that have motivated my adult life – but in the meantime, I am having a lot of fun just playing.

Harry Potter would be Sociocultural

hominum studium est scientia humanitatis

The Four Houses of Anthropology*

Now I know this is going to be a contentious topic, but sometimes a person just has to stand up and decide which branch of anthropology corresponds best to each of the Houses of Hogwarts from Harry Potter.

Gryffindor is the House of Sociocultural Anthropology:
Headed by the professor of Transfiguration (a “theory based subject” says Wikipedia, concerned with the changing properties of people and things), Minerva McGonagall; According to Phineas Nigellus Black, members of other houses sometimes feel that Gryffindors engage in “pointless heroics.” Being daring (to the point of recklessness) seems somehow related to sociocultural fieldwork to me, but I am almost certainly biased. And then, of course, there is the fact that many of the most widely known anthropologists (Mead, Malinowski, etc) were cultural anthropologists, just as many of the most well-known wizards were from Gryffindor …

Hufflepuff is the House of Archaeology:
Where else could the one field of anthropology that really labors belong? They are diggers (like the Hufflepuff’s badger) and if there’s an element associated with archaeology, it is undoubtedly earth (which is, of course, the element of the Hufflepuff House). Despite the obvious symbolic connections between the House and the Subfield, this didn’t feel all the way right because archaeology has so much cachet and Hufflepuff is a more humble House, but the archaeologists I know are good natured enough that I don’t think they’ll mind …

Slytherin is the House of Biological Anthropology:
The “spirit” of the house is all wrong – this is hardly the subfield of anthropology I would consider motivated by Machiavellian ambition. However, the theory of evolution does share with Slytherin a belief in survival of the fittest! Slytherin is headed by the Potions instructor, who shares with Biological Anthropology an interest in the effect of substances on the body. Founder Salazar Slytherin is described as monkey-like, and as we know, primatology is an important part of this subfield. The Bloody Baron was the only ghost to actually kill someone (and biological anthropologists are the only ones in our discipline who we are okay with killing their subjects! Poor rats …).

Ravenclaw is the House of Linguistic Anthropology:
If linguistic anthropologists had an element, they would, like Ravenclaw , be represented by the element of air – how else would speech be possible? Ravenclaws are concerned with erudition, and although many of the linguistic anthropologists I know do very grounded work, the image of the linguist certainly evokes that kind of aura. Finally, Ravenclaw is led by the Charms professor – a subject that is all about incantation which seems like the class of spell a linguistic anthropologist would be most interested in.

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*A note on the Four Houses of Anthropology image: That picture is one that I made for a hypothetical t-shirt, but that didn’t pan out. The Latin at the bottom was a collaborative effort with three awesome friends from my days in the Oberlin College Classics Department who have now grown up to be Classics PhDs and profs, and says something like “the study of humans is the science of humanity” (but with a little play on words in studium and is also a reference to the famous Kroeber quotation about anthropology).

Anthropology Memes and Methods

Last year around this time Anthropology Major Fox* made it big when it hit Savage Minds. But that’s pretty much our only meme. How can this be? There are hundreds of anthropology bloggers looking for content! Apparently memes just aren’t our thing. It doesn’t seem like it has been the study of much anthropological study either, despite the obvious relevance of the communicative form to the field of linguistic anthropology**.

But when the What People Think I Do meme hit the scene, it seemed like one had arrived we could really get into. Suddenly my Facebook was full of people aligning themselves with Indiana Jones, Bones’ Temperance Brennan, exhausted paper pushers, and 1920s ethnographers. And it struck me that, far more than the random ass Anthropology Major Fox, this was our meme.

“What People Think,” broken down into six panels most relevant to one’s particular cultural milieu, and always including the two parameters: “what people think I do” and “what I really do”. It also commonly includes “what my friends think I do,” “what my mom thinks I do,” “what my boss thinks I do” and “what I think I do”. Seriously? This meme is a basic field method. Maybe you the anthropologist choose the other subjects, maybe you let your informants choose. Maybe you have your informants draw in the boxes with a pen. Maybe you’ve got a computer savvy group who’ll do it online. But how could this not work out and be awesome? (That actually wasn’t rhetorical, because I’m thinking about putting it into my grants and if I’m missing something it would be great to be told that ahead of time …)

And because, you know, how could I write this whole post and not provide an example of what I’m talking about and because this is the internet and I can:

What I Do Meme - Anthro Grad Student


* fuckyeahanthropologymajorfox.tumblr.com seems to have disappeared, but many of the memes live on in places like this.
** though I wish I had a copy of Lisa Newon‘s 2011 AAA poster to share.

An Open Letter to a Prospective University of Arizona Anthropology Graduate Student

Sam writes a letter

in which I write a letter to myself

Dear Prospective Student Self From 2008,

I know you have already read everything telling you what a bad idea it is to pursue a doctorate in anthropology, and have decided to go for it anyway. That was a good move, and this is the right place for you. I also know you’re a stressball at the moment, so let me give you some of the specifics about the UA School of Anthro program I know you’re aching for.

What is the grad student culture like? Just as you hoped, it is close and supportive. People are passionate about what they do. Not in the dorkilicious way you experienced in the Oberlin Classics Department, but in the grown-up, professional, “I am trying my best to do what I love for a living now and for the rest of my life” way. In my experience, this does not result in backstabbing or cattiness, as I’ve heard is the experience in some other places. To the contrary, people are gentle with each other, show up to each others’ events, and drink to each others’ success unreservedly. If you care about that (I know you do), and having a strong community is part of what matters to you being successful (it definitely is), this is a good program for you to be part of.

What about the professors? There are a lot of them and they vary in all kinds of ways, so this question is not as easy to answer as the first. It does matter that you share interests with them. However, I find that the some of the professors I am most supported by and committed to working with are not always those who share the most interests on paper. You should probably Continue reading

Children’s books as ethnographic form

Tsitsanu, by Luciano Ushigua

Tsitsanu, by Luciano Ushigua (a trilingual Sapara book)

It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I love children’s books. I love young adult fiction*, I love middle-grade fiction**, but most of all I love picture books. I love them Elizabeth Barrett Browning-style. I love the wide variety of artistic-styles and the short written form (when they have writing at all). Anthropology is not totally out of touch with this, as some have used the creation of children’s books*** as a tool to help communities struggling with language loss and revitalization. But recently I have been thinking that picture books may be even more valuable to anthropology than just the sub-section who work on linguistic and cultural revitalization.

I really really want to engage with a more public form of anthropology, but the opportunities I have seen do not suit me****.  I like blogging, but long experience with online diary-style writing has made me cautious of anything akin to fieldnote blogging. Margaret Mead‘s regular column in Redbook seems beyond both my expertise and my clout. But a picture book is a snapshot of  a time, a place, and a constellation of relationships and social issues, and how great would it be to base it on fieldwork! Illustrations can help provide more depth and breadth, and the book itself can be read at whatever level the reader is ready to engage at. As Madeleine L’Engleonce said, “if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

A Handful of Seeds, by Monica Hughes, illustrated by Luis Garay

A Handful of Seeds, by Monica Hughes, illustrated by Luis Garay

And this would not exactly require the formation of a new genre. Picture books are already suited to this purpose. For instance, Catch That Goat! may be a counting book, but it is also about a Nigerian marketplace. A Handful of Seeds presents a story about capitalism, family, police brutality, urban farming, and homeless children, but it is a book I would pick up for bedtime snuggles any day. The Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story is simply an account of Ramadan as celebrated by a Pakistani American girl – this genre is just begging for anthropologists to get in on it!

Now I just have to think of what to make it about …


* Like Looking for Alaska
** Like Ruby Lu, Star of the Show
*** One that I love is the Kichwa story Kuntur kuyashkamanta, The Condor Who Fell in Love
****I mean, sure I hope my publications will not be hidden behind mammoth paywalls, but making your academic voice available to the public does not make your work really publicly accessible …

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.

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 Goodreads.com, 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!

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*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.