Tag Archives: education

What Dinosaurs Teach Us About Approaching Stanford

My wife, Libra Hilde, and I are resident fellows in a freshman dorm at Stanford. The RF residences are, shall we say, not quite as grand as the masters’ residences at Harvard (which have been know to get named in Top Five Lists of Apartments in Boston), but we fill a similar ceremonial role for our students that the masters at Harvard do. This means giving speeches to parents when students arrive and for important occasions like Parents’ Weekend.

Every year, the house staff (RFs and student staff) pick a theme and then decorate the dorm in anticipation of freshman arrivals. The standard Stanford gag is to pick a theme that somehow plays off the name of the house. These themes can be hilariously tenuous — that’s actually part of the gag — and some house names are easier to work with than others. I’m afraid we’re saddled with a particularly difficult name to play off of. We are Arroyo House. Our themes over the past few years have been: “Where the Wild Things Arroyo” (as in the classic Maurice Sendak book), “ATROYO” (an ancient Greek theme), and “Arroyosemite” (as in the National Park). After a long debate at our staff retreat, we finally decided on this year’s theme of “Dinosarroyo.” Lots of great decorating opportunities, as you can see from this picture of our common room.

Arroyo House LoungeA little game I play with myself in my ceremonial role of Arroyo House Resident Fellow is to welcome the parents with a brief speech on how our house theme relates to their kids’ careers at Stanford and beyond. Now bear in mind, we choose the theme on the basis of (1) how good a pun it makes with our house name (and we don’t have a lot to work with on that front!) and (2) the decoration possibilities it entails. How that theme fits into our larger vision is, frankly, pretty low on the list. This is what makes the game fun! After giving it a bit of thought, it occurred to me that Dinosarroyo actually has a lot to teach us. There are three big themes:

(1) College is about the spirit of discovery. Romantic tales of the expeditions of paleontologists such as Edward Drinker Cope or Roy Chapman Andrews of the American Museum of Natural History have inspired the early careers of countless scientists. Students’ experience at Stanford should inspire them to explore the boundaries of knowledge, whether they are future scientists, educators, lawyers, entrepreneurs, or whatever. Stanford students excel most when they eschew the easy path. This is a research university. Our students should take advantage of this and make new discoveries about the world. Embrace the spirt of discovery embodied by those romantic vertebrate paleontologists.

(2) The Dinosauria first appeared on Earth during the Triassic period and were the dominant form of animal life for over 135 million years. The age of the dinosaurs came to an abrupt end at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary, about 65 million years ago. This 135 million years that dinosaurs dominated is approximately 100 times longer than anything recognizably human has been on the planet. In fact, what appears to us to be a geological ‘instant’ where the dinosaurs went extinct at the K-Pg boundary was, in fact, probably longer than humans have been in existence. That this mighty and diverse lineage of animals managed to die out in the blink of an evolutionary eye suggests to me that we should have some humility about our own dominion. Crucially, at this moment in human history we are faced with many enormous challenges, some of which are potentially existential. We should use the incredible opportunities that are afforded to us by our association with this incredible institution to address these challenges. Our society has given us so much to allow us to be here at this remarkable point in history. Let’s make the most of it!

(3) Those synapsid ancestors of mammals who managed to survive when all the (non-bird) dinosaurs went extinct give us a clue as to what our comparative advantage in this universe is. We are adaptable. We are opportunistic. Most remarkably of all, our particular lineage is blessed with the capacity for planning and foresight. We need to encourage our students to take advantage of the opportunities given them by this university to become adaptable lifelong learners. I can’t predict what the job market will look like in 10 years (and anyone who tells you they can is either fooling themselves or trying to sell you something). What I can say, is that it will be different than it is today. And the job market ten years beyond that will be even more different. This means that learning to be flexible, adaptable, and to never stop learning is probably the greatest ‘skill’ our students can learn.

 

Should You Get a Ph.D.?

I wrote this as a long email to a list this week and, based on the feedback I’ve received, I thought it would be worthwhile posting it here. This is a topic to which I have given a lot of thought over the years, starting as a fellowships tutor at Harvard during my own grad school years and, more recently, as an undergraduate advisor and resident fellow at Stanford. While the specific context that elicited this essay was whether getting a Ph.D. in anthropology is worth the cost given uncertain job prospects, I think that the approach applies more generally.

Choosing to go to grad school is a decision that is fraught with uncertainty and a degree of risk. There are plenty of nightmare stories to go around about great teachers/scholars who get trapped in an exploitative cycle of perpetual adjuncting. However, a Ph.D. can also be a platform from which to launch a productive and rewarding career both within the academy and outside of it. Here are some of the issues that I think any student approaching a Ph.D., especially in anthropology, should consider:

(1) Are you passionate about research and communication of your research? For better or worse, the rewards within the academy accrue to research and publication. Some professional schools have made substantial progress in developing teaching (and clinical) tracks for faculty that reward teaching and other applied work, but this is typically not the case in disciplines housed in colleges of arts & sciences, as anthropology typically is. You need the passion for your research question to get you through the inherent tedium of research and the many obstacles to successful publication. A commitment to research does not mean giving up on teaching or other activities (such as organizational or other applied work). The NSF career awards, for example, require applicants to coherently weave their research interests with their teaching. However, research requires a commitment and, based on my rather unscientific sample, it seems that the people who are most productive in research are the people who are really driven to answer questions and are committed to publishing not because they want the professional rewards, but because they care about communication of their results. You have to be willing to write at night when you’re exhausted after you’ve put kids to bed and your grading is done. You have to write on weekends, etc. A passion for answering questions goes beyond a fascination with ideas, a love of social theory, or a commitment to education. There is a certain obsessive quality to the top researchers — answering questions and communicating your results becomes almost a compulsion. This is what helps you deal with the inevitable (and frequent) obstacles and allows you to succeed.

(2) Are you enrolling in a program that will pay for your Ph.D.? Given all the vagaries of the faculty job market, you do not want to go into debt doing a Ph.D. The financial details of different Ph.D. programs have become more critical than ever. Make sure you are informed! Ph.D. programs should pay their students’ tuition and a livable wage since Ph.D. students perform vital services for research universities. These services include the obvious things like teaching and doing the grunt work of research assistants but includes some less obvious, but perhaps more important, things like providing prestige to their institutions. The Ph.D. graduates of an institution are the people who go on to get prestigious jobs and write important works and garner fancy awards and societal recognition that reflect positively on their mother institution. It is difficult to over-state the importance of prestige for the functioning of the top research universities and Ph.D. students play a fundamental role in constructing this prestige. Many programs will pay for a Ph.D., but they are very competitive, as you can imagine. Big grad factories that provide little in the way of resources to their students — either financial or human capital investments — do no one any favors.

(3) If you choose to matriculate in a Ph.D. program, take advantage of the opportunity to gain some concrete (and portable!) research skills. Anthropologists have developed some really amazing methodologies that can be applied broadly. I think that anthropologists sometimes have an inferiority complex about our methods. It never ceases to amaze me how often I hear our students say that anthropologists don’t have methods! To get a sense of the potentially far-reaching impact of methodological innovation in anthropology, check out the many students of Kim Romney and Russ Bernard as just two examples. Ethnography is a very trendy idea in industry now. Having a slightly more tangible skill in addition (e.g., survey design, statistics, GIS, the use of qualitative analysis software like Atlas.ti or NVivo, social network analysis) improves not only your academic job prospects but your ability to secure a job in an NGO or industry.

(4) Communicate with people outside of your small disciplinary circle. The ability to communicate across disciplines increases the number of job opportunities both within the academy and without. With an anthropology Ph.D., you may expect a job in an anthropology department. However, if you are able to communicate with a wider audience and, crucially, convince people why your research is important, you might be able to land a job in a department of environmental studies or ethnic studies or women’s studies or urban studies or community health or … you get the idea. The academy of the future is far more interdisciplinary and interdisciplinarity places a premium on the ability to communicate across traditional disciplinary lines. Talk to people outside your department, write journalistic pieces for local media outlets, or even write a blog. I’m continually surprised how many people with whom I make professional connections who know me from the blog I write in about four times a year!

(5) Are you mobile and flexible? Many people who get sucked into the vicious cycle of perpetual adjunct teaching get that way because they are tied to a specific geographic location because of partner, family, or other obligations. There are good graduate programs all over the country and there are actually jobs but many would require you to move to some place you might not have considered. This includes overseas. Sometimes you take a job that may not be your ideal if it provides you an opportunity to get the work done that then allows you to trade up. If you are constrained to remain in a very specific geographic location, I would think twice about matriculating in a Ph.D. program.

I suspect that this is a step in the professional development process where we lose a lot of outstanding potential first-gen faculty. Mobility and flexibility are easier if you are an upper-middle-class grad who has been financially buffered by your parents and, importantly, when your social support derives from a mobile nuclear family. I think there are many ways that modern professionals resemble hunter-gatherers more than their more recent agricultural forebears and the key commonality is mobility and flexibility: emphasis on the nuclear family as the unit of production, bilateral kinship, high logistical and residential mobility, an ethos emphasizing individuality over group identity. Hunter-gatherers follow prey across a landscape while professionals follow job opportunities. People who are tied to a locality, whether for livelihood-based reasons or persistent social ties, will find this type of flexibility more difficult.

Getting a Ph.D. can pay off, both intellectually and professionally but it takes some planning and, frankly, quite a bit of luck if you’re going to make it in the academy. What is less up to luck is the fallback. Have a fallback plan; think strategically. It won’t hurt your chances within the academy and, in fact, will probably help. There are great opportunities for anthropology Ph.D.s with excellent research and communication skills. I have former students who work for major conservation NGOs (e.g., WCS, WWF) and public health organizations, and who have even started green businesses. I have friends who have gone into industry and done very well. Sapient and Olson, for example, are two companies I know that get major input from anthropologists and anthropological methodologies. Anthropological insights and, yes, methodologies are in demand if you are willing to look outside of the usual channels for employment for anthropologists.

It’s easy to get depressed by the academic job market (and many other job markets for that matter). However, with a little bit of planning and flexibility, getting a Ph.D. in anthropology (or any discipline really) can be an excellent ticket to a rewarding career both within and outside of the academy.

An Alternate Course Load for the Game of Life

In a recent editorial in the New York Times, Harvard economist and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, N. Gregory Mankiw provides some answers to the question “what kind of foundation is needed to understand and be prepared for the modern economy?”  Presumably, what he means by “modern economy” is life after college.  Professor Mankiw suggests that students of all ages learn something about the following subjects: economics, statistics, finance, and psychology.  I read this with interest and doing so made me think of my own list, which is rather different than the one offered by Mankiw. I will take up the instrumental challenge, making a list of subjects that I think will be useful in an instrumental sense — i.e., in helping graduates become successful in the world of the twenty-first century. In no way do I mean to suggest that students can not be successful if they don’t follow this plan for, like Mankiw, I agree that students should ignore advice as they see fit. Education is about discovery as much as anything and there is much to one’s education that transcends instrumentality — going to college is not simply about preparing people to enter “the modern economy,” even if it is a necessary predicate for success in it.

People should probably know something about economics.  However, I’m not convinced that what most undergraduate students are taught in their introductory economics classes is the most useful thing to learn. Contemporary economics is taught as an axiomatic discipline.  That is, a few foundational axioms (i.e., a set of primitive assumptions that are not proved but considered self-evident and necessary) are presented and from these, theorems can be derived.  Theorems can then be logically proven by recourse to axioms or other already-proven theorems. Note that this is not about explaining the world around us.  It is really an exercise in rigorously defining normative rules for how people should behave and what the consequences of such behavior would be, even if actual people don’t follow such prescriptions. Professor Mankiw has written a widely used textbook in Introductory Economics. In the first chapter of this book, we see this axiomatic approach on full display.  We are told not unreasonable things like “People Face Trade-Offs” or “The Cost of Something is What You Give Up to Get It” or “Rational People Think at the Margin.” I couldn’t agree more with the idea that people face trade-offs, but I nonetheless think there are an awful lot of problematic aspects to these axioms.  Consider the following paragraph (p. 5)

Another trade-off society faces is between efficiency and equality. Efficiency means that society is getting the maximum benefits from its scarce resources. Equality means that those benefits are distributed uniformly among society’s members. In other words, efficiency refers to the size of the economic pie, and equality refers to how the pie is divided into individual slices.

Terms like “efficiency” and “maximum benefits” are presented as unproblematic, as is the idea that there is a necessary trade-off between efficiency and equality.  Because it is an axiom, apparently contemporary economic theory allows no possibility for equality in efficient systems. Inequality is naturalized and thereby legitimized. It seems to me that this should be an empirical question, not an axiom. In his recent book, The Bounds of Reason: Game Theory and the Unification of the Behavioral Sciences, Herb Gintis provides a very interesting discussion of the differences between two highly formalized (i.e., mathematical) disciplines, physics and economics.  Gintis notes, “By contrast [to the graduate text in quantum mechanics], the microeconomics text, despite its beauty, did not contain a single fact in the whole thousand page volume. Rather, the authors build economic theory in axiomatic fashion, making assumptions on the basis of their intuitive plausibility, their incorporation of the ‘stylized facts’ of everyday life, or their appeal to the principles of rational thought.”

If one is going to learn economics, “the study of how society manages its scarce resources” — and I do believe people should — I think one should (1) learn about how  resources are actually managed by real people and real institutions and (2) learn some theory that focuses on strategic interaction.  A strategic interaction occurs when the best choice a person can make depends upon what others are doing (and vice-versa). The formal analysis of strategic interactions is done with game theory, a field typically taught in economics classes but also found in political science, biology, and, yes, even anthropology. Alas, this is generally considered an advanced topic, so you’ll have to go through all the axiomatic nonsense to get to the really interesting stuff.

OK, that was a bit longer than I anticipated. Whew.  On to the other things to learn…

Learn something about sociology. Everyone could benefit by understanding how social structures, power relations, and human stocks and flows shape the socially possible. Understanding that social structure and power asymmetries constrain (or enable) what we can do and even what we think is powerful and lets us ask important questions not only about our society but of those of the people with whom we sign international treaties, or engage in trade, or wage war. Some of the critical questions that sociology helps us ask include: who benefits by making inequality axiomatic? Does the best qualified person always get the job? Is teen pregnancy necessarily irrational? Do your economic prospects depend on how many people were born the same year as you were? How does taste reflect on one’s position in society?

People should definitely learn some statistics. Here, Professor Mankiw and I are in complete agreement.

Learn about people other than those just like you. The fact that we live in an increasingly global world is rapidly becoming the trite fodder of welcome-to-college speeches by presidents, deans, and other dignitaries. Of course, just because it’s trite doesn’t make it any less true, and despite the best efforts of homogenizing American popular and consumer culture, not everyone thinks or speaks like us or has the same customs or same religion or system of laws or healing or politics. I know; it’s strange. One might learn about other people in an anthropology class, say, but there are certainly other options. If anthropology is the chosen route, I would recommend that one choose carefully, making certain that the readings for any candidate anthropology class be made up of ethnographies and not books on continental philosophy. Come to grips with some of the spectacular diversity that characterizes our species. You will be better prepared to live in the world of the twenty-first century.

Take a biology class. If the twentieth century was the century of physics, the twenty-first century is going to be the century of biology.  We have already witnessed a revolution in molecular biology that began around the middle of the twentieth century and continued to accelerate throughout its last decades and into the twenty-first. Genetics is creeping into lots of things our parents would not have even imagined: criminology, law, ethics. Our decisions about our own health and that of our loved ones’ will increasingly be informed by molecular genetic information. People should probably know a thing or two about DNA. I shudder at popular representations of forensic science and worry about a society that believes what it sees on CSI somehow represents reality. I happen to think that when one takes biology, one should also learn something about organisms, but this isn’t always an option if one is going to also learn about DNA.

Finally, learn to write.  Talk about comparative advantage! I am continually blown away by poor preparation that even elite students receive in written English. If you can express ideas in writing clearly and engagingly, you have a skill that will carry you far. Write as much as you possibly can.  Learn to edit. I think editing is half the problem with elite students — they write things at the last minute and expect them to be brilliant.  Doesn’t work that way. Writing is hard work and well written texts are always well edited.

Regaining a Science and Technology Edge

Here’s a crazy idea from venture capitalist John Doerr: Don’t kick foreign students whom we have trained in science and engineering at our elite universities out of the country after they graduate.  Let them work in the United States where their education has almost certainly been subsidized in some way by the government and, ultimately, American taxpayers — “staple a green card to the diploma” as it were. This guy is nuts.  That is way too sensible…