Thoughts on “The Anthropology of Childhood” by David Lancy

As noted previously, The Anthropology of Childhood is excellent, and now I can say that it is excellent throughout. There are too many points to summarize the book effectively or even to hit many of its main points. One could productively read it with Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, since both books argue, sometimes implicitly, that upper-middle class Western child-raising practices have become crazed, neurotic, and conceivably even counter-productive (and almost certainly counter-productive in life-satisfaction terms). Consider this example, from Anthropology:

An interesting contrast can be made with WEIRD [Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic] society, where girls are not usually assigned sibcare [sibling care] duties and where young mothers labor alone without the guidance of their old female relatives. “The relative isolation of the nuclear family . . . means that each woman rears her newborn infant from scratch” and young, urban mothers are unprepared for squalling, active, and very unhappy babies (Hubert 1974: 46–47). The foibles of clueless parents have proven to be quite entertaining, as evidenced by “reality” TV shows such Nanny 911, which aired in the USA between 2004 and 2007, and Supernanny (2004 – 2011), in which a competent nanny brings order and harmony to dysfunctional families.

anthro_of_childhoodYet almost no one considers this point, or many similar points.

Wealth may enable a wide range of non-adaptive behaviors and beliefs that can be sustained primarily because we’re rich enough to sustain them. Bedrock beliefs held by many Westerners about the nature of humans and families are actually culturally selected, and some of those beliefs surprised me. Nerds, however, may be unpopular because nerds often attempt to interject facts into belief- and feeling-based conversations; I suspect many citations to The Anthropology of Childhood, and especially the sections on infanticide, will not go down well.

Still, self-deception also helps explain why so many people adapt seemingly non-functional behaviors; Charles Murray describes many of those behaviors in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, a book that like many true books that puncture popular beliefs is deeply unpopular in many quarters. Most people can, if they choose to, easily see whether their partners exhibit traits related to fidelity, tenacity, conscientiousness, grit, and so forth—but many if not most of us choose to ignore these obvious signals. Our values are observed everywhere.

There seems to be a growing bifurcation in American society between crazed, neurotic, and anxious upper-middle class two-parent households in which little Madison needs ice-skating lessons, soccer practice, oboe lessons, and round-the-clock enrichment activities, or else she’ll never be a “success” and will become a drug-addicted prostituted without even a public-school degree, and single-parent low-income households in which any babysitter is a good babysitter and survival is everything. The former need to chill out and the latter… I actually don’t see a good public policy for the latter, though both the political left and right have many strongly held opinions, neither of which have done much to countervail the larger trends Murray describes. Another writer, Michel Houellebecq, describes them as well, though much more obliquely.

The Anthropology of Childhood is, as Michael Erardjan suggests in the New York Times, going to become my go-to baby gift for those who have recently spawned, though careful readers may find sections disconcerting:

Another common tactic used by new mothers is to exaggerate the resemblance between the newborn and their husband [. . .] In spite of the confidence with which humans claim “he looks just like his father,” experimental studies show that babies cannot be reliably paired to their parents on the basis of appearance (Pagel 2012: 315). Studies in our monogamous, adultery-condemning society have shown that 10 percent of men designated as the biological father of a particular child are not (Buss 1994: 66–67), so the baby’s anonymous appearance confers a survival advantage.

If 10 percent of men designated as the biological father of a particular child are not, one has to ask what kinds of fictions prevent a society in which DNA testing is cheap and easy from automatically doing so as a matter of standard practice. The answers may get very ugly very fast.

I want badly for Lancy to write an advice column; something like Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is beautifully written and yet so utterly conditioned by contemporary American beliefs, and so utterly unfamiliar with cross-cultural comparisons or evolutionary biology. Read it anyway—that beauty! that feeling!—but read it with Lancy. Compare and contrast. Imagine what Lancy might say about the myriad of problems medicated, neurotic Americans experience, or think we experience. Most contemporary advice columnists are as much repositories of conventional thinking as religious figures were a century or two ago. Lancy is different. Lancy knows things. But the things he knows we instinctively want to reject—which is why reading him is so valuable.

The stupidity of what I’m doing and the meaning of real work: Reading for PhD comprehensive exams

Last weekend, I wrote a flurry of posts after months of relative silence because I needed to do real work.

This might sound strange: I am doing a lot of things, especially reading, but all of it is make-believe, pretend work. That’s because the primary thing I’m doing is studying for PhD comprehensive exams in English lit. The exam set is structured in four parts: three, four-hour written segments, and a single oral exam, on topics related to stuff that’s not very important to me and probably not very important to most people. The exams also aren’t very relevant to being an English professor, because the key skill that English professors possess and practice is writing long-form essays/articles that are published in peer-reviewed journals. The tests I’m taking don’t, as far as I can tell, map very effectively to that skill.

As a consequence, the tests, although very time consuming, aren’t very good proxies for what the job market actually wants me to do.*

Consequently, PhD exams—at least in English—aren’t real work. They’re pretend work—another hoop to be jumped through on the way to getting a union card. Paul Graham makes a useful distinction in “Good and Bad Procrastination,” when he says that “Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.” That’s what I’ve done through most of grad school, and that’s part of the reason why I have a fairly large body of work on this blog, which you can obviously read, a fairly large body of fiction, which you can’t (at the moment, but that’s going to change in the coming months). To Graham, the kind of small stuff that represents bad procrastination is “Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary.” Passing exams has zero chance of being mentioned in my obituary. Writing books or articles does.** PhD exams feel like bad procrastination because they’re not really examining anything useful.

They’re also hard, but hard in the wrong way, like picking patterns out of noise. Being hard in the right way means the soreness you get after working out, or when a challenging math problem suddenly clicks. The quasi-work I’m doing is intellectually unsatisfying—the mental equivalent of eating ice cream and candy all day, every day. Sure, they’re technically food, but you’re going to develop some serious problems if you persist in the ice cream and candy diet. The same is true of grad school, which might be why so many people emerge from it with a lugubrious, unpalatable writing style. Grad school doesn’t select or train for style; it selects and trains for a kind of strange anti-style, in which the less you can say in more words is rewarded. It’s the kind of style I’m consciously trying to un-cultivate, however hard the process might be, and this blog is one outlet for keeping the real writer alive in the face of excessive doses from tedious but canonized work and literary theory. Exams, if anything, reinforce this bogus hardness. If I’m ever in a position of power in an English department with a grad program, I’m going to try and offer an alternative to conventional exams, and say that four to six publishable, high-quality papers can or should take their place. That, at least, mirrors the skills valued by the job market.

The bogosity of exams relates to a separate problem in English academia, which I started noticing when I was an undergrad and have really noticed lately: the English curriculum is focused on the wrong thing. The problem can be stated concisely: Should English department teach content (like, say, Medieval poetry, or Modernist writers), or skills (like writing coherently and close reading)? Louis Menand describes the issue in The Marketplace of Ideas:

[C]ompare the English departments at two otherwise quite similar schools, Amherst and Wellesley. English majors at Wellesley are required to take ten English department courses [. . .] All English majors must take a core course called ‘Critical Interpretations’; one course on Shakespeare; and at least two courses on literature written before 1900 [. . .] The course listing reflects attention to every traditional historical period in English and American literature. Down the turnpike at Amherst, on the other hand, majors have only to take ten courses ‘offered or approved by the department’—in other words, apparently, they may be course sin any department. Majors have no core requirement and no period requirements. (Menand 89-90)

Most departments right now appear to answer “content.” Mine does. But I increasingly think that’s the wrong answer. I’m not convinced that it’s insanely important for undergrads to know Chaucer, or to have read Sister Carrie and Maggie: Girl of the Streets, or to have read any particular body of work. I do think it’s insanely important for them to have very strong close reading skills and exceptional writing skills. Unfortunately, I appear to be in the minority of professional Englishers in this respect. And I’m in grad school, where the answer skill mostly appears to be “content,” and relatively few people appear to be focusing on skills; those are mostly left to individuals to develop on their own. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone discuss what makes good writing at conferences, in seminars, or in peer-reviewed papers (MFA programs appear to be very interested in this subject, however, which might explain some of their rise since 1945).

As Menand points out, no one is sure what an “‘English’ department or degree is supposed to be.” That’s part of the field’s problem. I think it’s also part of the reason many students are drawn to creative writing classes: in those, at least the better ones, writing gets taught; the reading is more contemporary; and I think many people are doing things that matter. When I read the Romantic Poets, I mostly want to do anything but read the Romantic Poets. Again, I have nothing against the Romantic Poets or against other people reading the Romantic Poets—I just don’t want to do it. Yet English undergrad and grad school forces the reading of them. Maybe it should. But if so, it should temper the reading of them with a stronger focus on writing, and what makes good writing.

Then again, if English departments really wanted to do more to reward the producing of real content, they’d probably structure the publishing of peer-reviewed articles better. Contrary to what some readers have said in e-mails to me, or inferred from what I’ve written, I’m actually not at all opposed to peer review or peer-reviewed publications. But the important thing these days isn’t a medium for publishing—pretty much anyone with an Internet connection can get that for free—but the imprimatur of peer-review, which says, “This guy [or gal] knows what he’s talking about.” A more intellectually honest way to go about peer-review would be to have every academic have a blog / website. When he or she has an article ready to go, he should post it, send a link to an editor, and ask the editor to kick it out to a peer-reviewer. Their comments, whether anonymous or not, should be appended to the article. If it’s accepted, it gets a link and perhaps the full-text copied and put in the “journal’s” main page. If it doesn’t, readers can judge its merits or lack thereof for themselves.

The sciences arguably already have this, because important papers appear on arXiv.org before they’re officially “published.” But papers in the sciences appear to be less status-based and more content-based than papers in the humanities.

I think this change will happen in the humanities, very slowly, over time; it won’t be fast because there’s no reason for it to be fast, and the profession’s gatekeepers are entrenched and have zero incentive to change. If anything, they have a strong incentive to maintain the system, because doing that raises their own status and increases their own power within the profession. So I don’t foresee this happening, even if it would be an important thing. But then again, academics are almost always behind the important thing: the important thing is happening in some marginal, liminal space, and academics inhabit a much more central area, where it’s easy to ignore stuff at the margins. I don’t see that changing either, especially in a world where many people compete for few academic slots. In that world, pointless hoop-jumping is going to remain.


* There’s a vast literature in industrial organization on the subject of hiring practices, and most of that literature finds that the most effective ways to hire workers is to give them an IQ test and a work-skills or work-practice test. The former is effectively illegal in the U.S., so the best bet is to give workers a test of the thing they’ll actually be called on to do.

** I also consciously ask myself this question set:

In his famous essay You and Your Research (which I recommend to anyone ambitious, no matter what they’re working on), Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

1. What are the most important problems in your field?

2. Are you working on one of them?

3. Why not?

I have an answer to number three, but it doesn’t seem like a very good one.

Student choice, employment skills, and grade inflation

Edward Tenner’s Atlantic post asks, “Should We Blame the Colleges for High Unemployment?” and mostly doesn’t answer the question, instead focusing on employer hiring behavior. But I’m interested in the title question and would note that the original story says, “Fundamentally, students aren’t learning [in college] what they need to compete for the jobs that do exist.”

That may be true. But colleges and universities, whatever their rhetoric, aren’t bastions of pure idealistic knowledge; they’re also businesses, and they respond to customer demand. In other words, student demand. Students choose their own major, and it isn’t exactly news that engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and the like tend to make much more money than other majors, or that people in those disciplines are much more likely to find jobs. Students, however, by and large don’t choose them: they choose business, communications (“comm” for the university set), and sociology—all majors that, in most forms in most places, aren’t terribly demanding. I’ve yet to hear an electrical engineering major say that comm was just too hard, so she switched to engineering instead. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa show in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, those majors aren’t, on average, very hard either, and they don’t impart much improvement in verbal or math skills. So what gives?

The easiest answer seems like the most right one: students aren’t going to universities primarily to get job skills. They’re going for other reasons: signaling; credentialing; a four-year party; to have fun; choose your reason here. And universities, eager for tuition dollars, will cater to those students—and to students who demand intellectual rigor. The former get business degrees and comm, while the latter get the harder parts of the humanities (like philosophy), the social sciences (like econ), or the hard sciences. It’s much easier to bash universities, with the implication of elaborately educated dons letting their product being watered down or failing, than it is to realize that universities are reacting to incentives, just as it’s much easier to bash weak politicians than it is to acknowledge that politicians give voters what they want—and voters want higher services and lower taxes, without wanting to pay for them. Then people paying attention to universities or politics notice, write articles and posts pointing out the contradiction, but fail to realize the contradiction exists.

You may also notice that most people don’t appear to choose schools based on academics. They choose schools based on proximity, or because their sports teams are popular. Indeed, another Atlantic blogger points out that “Teenagers [. . .] are apt to assemble lists of favored colleges through highly non-scientific methods involving innuendo, the results of televised football games, and what their friend’s older brother’s girlfriend said that one time at the mall.” Murray Sperber especially emphasizes sports in his book Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education.

By the way, this does bother me at least somewhat, and I’d like to imagine that universities are going to nobly hold the line against grade and credential inflation, against the desires of the people attending them. But I can also recognize the gap between my ideal world and the real world. I’m especially cognizant of the issue because student demand for English literature courses has held constant for decades, as Louis Menand says in The Marketplace of Ideas:

In 1970–71, English departments awarded 64,342 bachelor’s degrees; that represented 7.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, including those awarded in non-liberal arts fields, such as business. The only liberal arts category that awarded more degrees than English was history and social science, a category that combines several disciplines. Thirty years later, in 2000–01, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in all fields was 50 percent higher than in 1970–71, but the number of degrees in English was down both in absolute numbers—from 64,342 to 51,419—and as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, from 7.6 percent to around 4 percent.

Damn. Students, for whatever reason, don’t want English degrees as much as they once did. As a person engaged in English Literature grad school, this might make me unhappy, and I might argue for the importance of English lit. Still, I can’t deny that more people apparently want business degrees than English degrees, even if Academically Adrift demonstrates that humanities degrees actually impart critical thinking and other kinds of skills. I could blame “colleges” for this, as Tenner does; or I could acknowledge that colleges are reflecting demand, and the real issue isn’t with colleges—it’s with the students themselves.

How Universities Work, or: What I Wish I’d Known Freshman Year: A Guide to American University Life for the Uninitiated

Note that you can also read this essay as a .pdf.

Introduction

Fellow graduate students sometimes express shock at how little many undergraduates know about the structure and purpose of universities. It’s not astonishing to me: I didn’t understand the basic facts of academic life or the hierarchies and incentives universities present to faculty and students when I walked into Clark University at age 18. I learned most of what’s expressed here through osmosis, implication, inference, discussion with professors, and random reading over seven years.

Although most of it seems obvious now, as a freshman I was like a medieval peasant who conceived of the earth as the center of the universe; Copernicus’ heliocentric[1] revolution hadn’t reached me, and the much more accurate view of the universe discovered by later thinkers wasn’t even a glimmer to me. Consequently, I’m writing this document to explain, as clearly and concisely as I can, how universities work and how you, a freshman or sophomore, can thrive in them.

The biggest difference between a university and a high school is that universities are designed to create new knowledge, while high schools are designed to disseminate existing knowledge. That means universities give you far greater autonomy and in turn expect far more from you in terms of intellectual curiosity, personal interest, and maturity.

Universities are also supposed to help students help themselves. That is, you, the student, are or should be most responsible for your own learning.

Degrees

This section might make your eyes glaze over, but it’s important for understanding how universities work. If you’re a freshman in college, you’ve probably just received your high school diploma. Congratulations: you’re now probably working toward your B.A. (bachelor of arts) or B.S. (bachelor of science), which will probably take four years. If you earn that, you’ll have received your undergraduate degree.

From your B.A./B.S., if you wish to, you’ll be able to go on to professional degrees like law (J.D.), medicine (M.D.), or business (M.B.A.), or to further academic degrees, which usually come in the form of an M.A., or Master’s Degree. An M.A. usually takes one to two years after a B.A. After or concurrently with an M.A., one can pursue a Ph.D., or Doctor of Philosophy degree, which usually takes four to ten years after a B.A.

The M.A. and Ph.D. are known as research degrees, meaning that they are conferred for performing original research on a specific topic (remember: universities exist to create new knowledge). Professional degrees are designed to give their holder the knowledge necessary to be a professional: a lawyer, a doctor, or a business administrator.

Many if not most people who earn Ph.D.s ultimately hope to become a professor, as described in the next section. The goal of someone earning a Ph.D. is essentially to become the foremost expert in a particular and narrow subject.

Professors, Adjuncts, and Graduate Students

There are two to three main groups—one could even call them species—you’ll interact with in a university: professors, adjunct professors, and graduate students.

Professors almost always have a Ph.D. Many will have written important books and articles in their field of expertise. They can be divided into two important classes: those with tenure—a word you’ll increasingly hear as you move through the university system—and those without. “Tenure,” as defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary that comes with Mac OS X 10.6, is “guaranteed permanent employment, esp. as a teacher or professor, after a probationary period.” It means that the university can’t fire the professor, who in turn has proven him or herself through the publication of those aforementioned books and papers along with a commitment to teaching. This professor will probably spend her career at the university she’s presently at.

Those without tenure but hoping to achieve it are on the “tenure track,” which means that, sometime between three and six years after they’re hired, a committee composed of their peers in the department will, along with university administrators and others, decide whether to offer tenure. Many professors on the tenure track are working feverishly on books and articles meant for publication. Without those publications, they will be denied tenure and fired from their position.

Adjuncts, sometimes called adjunct professors, usually have at least an M.A. and often have a Ph.D. They do not have tenure and are not on the “tenure track” that could lead to tenure. They usually teach more classes than tenured or tenure-track professors, and they also have less job security. Usually, but not always, adjuncts teach lower-level classes. They are not expected to do  research as a condition of staying at the university.

Graduate Students (like me, as of this writing) have earned a B.A. or equivalent and are working towards either an M.A. or a Ph.D. From the time they begin, most graduate students will spend another two to eight years in school. They take a set number of small, advanced classes followed by tests and/or the writing of a dissertation, which is an article- or book-length project designed to show mastery in their field.

Many—also like me—teach or help teach classes as part of their contract with the university. In my case, I teach two classes most semesters, usually consisting of English 101, 102, or 109 for the University of Arizona. As such, I take and teach classes. In  return, the university doesn’t charge me tuition and pays me a small stipend. Most graduate students who teach you ultimately want to become professors. To get a job as a professor, they need to show excellence in research—usually by writing articles and/or books—as well as in teaching.

For all three groups, much of their professional lives revolve around tenure, which brings additional job security, income, and prestige.

Two Masters

Most graduate students and non-tenured professors serve two masters: teaching and research. As an undergraduate, you primarily see their teaching side, and your instructors might seem like another version of high school teachers. For some if not most instructors, however, teaching is not their primary duty and interest; rather, they primarily want to conduct original research, which usually takes the form of writing articles (also sometimes called “papers”) and books. The papers you are assigned for many classes are supposed to help you prepare for more advanced writing and research.

Graduate students and professors feel constant tension between their teaching and their research / writing responsibilities. Good ones try to balance the two. For most graduate students and professors, however, published research leads to career advancement, better jobs, and, ultimately, tenure.

Many of your instructors will have stronger incentives to work on research than teaching. This doesn’t mean they will shirk teaching, and most teach creatively and diligently, as they should. But it’s nonetheless wise to understand the two masters most of your instructors face.

In graduate school multiple professors told me to minimize my time spent teaching and maximize my time spent researching. This isn’t unusual advice. Grad students and non-tenured professors are often explicitly told not to waste time on teaching, since that doesn’t lead to advancement, and often imbibe a cultural atmosphere that denigrates teaching. This is important if you’re wondering why your professors seem distracted or uninterested in the classroom. Professors are often incentivized not to focus on teaching.

Interacting with Professors, Adjuncts, and Graduate Students

To earn tenure (or work towards earning tenure), many professors and grad students spend long periods of time intensely studying a subject, most often through reading. They expect you to read the assigned material and have some background in reading more generally; if you don’t, expect a difficult time in universities.

Professors and your other instructors have devoted or are devoting much of their lives to their subjects. As you might imagine, having someone say that they find a subject boring, worthless, or irrelevant often irritates professors, adjuncts, and graduate students, since if those people found their subject boring, worthless, or irrelevant, they wouldn’t have spent or be planning to spend their lives studying it.

Most make their subject their lives and vice-versa. They could earn more money in other professions but choose not to pursue those professions, but they are often excited by knowledge itself and want to find others who share that excitement. If you say or imply their classes are worthless, you’ve said or implied that their entire lives are worthless. Most people do not like to think that their lives are worthless.

Professors can sometimes seem aloof or demanding. This is partially due to the demands placed on them (see “Two Masters,” above). Being aloof or demanding doesn’t mean a professor doesn’t like you. Most professors are interested in their students to the extent that students are interested in the subject being taught. In this sense, professors often try to stir students’ interest in a subject, but actively hostile/ uninterested students will often find their instructors uninterested in them. Motivated and interested students often inspire the same in their professors.[2]

To be sure, there are exceptions: some professors will be hostile or uninterested regardless of how much effort a student shows, and some will be martyrs who try to reach even the most distant, disgruntled student. But most professors are in the middle, looking for students who are engaged and focusing on those students.

Nearly all your instructors have passed through the trials and tests they’re giving you: if they hadn’t done so, and excelled, they wouldn’t be teaching you. Thus, few are impressed when you allocate time poorly, try to cram before tests, appear hungover in class, and show up late to or miss class repeatedly. On the other hand, many will cut slack for diligent students who show promise.

One reason professors don’t think much of student excuses is because many students have different priorities than professors. As undergraduates, most professors were part of the “academic culture” on campus, to use Murray Sperber’s term (5); in contrast, many undergraduates are part of the collegiate (interested in the Greek system, parties, and football games) or vocational (interested in job training) cultures. The academic culture, according to Sperber, “[has a] minimal understanding of, and sympathy for, the majority of their undergraduate students” (7) at big public schools.

I think Sperber is too harsh, but the principle is accurate: if you aren’t in school to learn and develop your intellect—and most students in most schools aren’t, as Sperber shows—you probably won’t understand your professors and their motivations. But they will understand yours. Academics are a disproportionately small percentage of the student population at most schools but an extraordinary large proportion of grad students and professors.

Another book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, describes how many universities have evolved two or more tracks, but those tracks are mostly concealed from the students (Armstrong and Hamilton). One track is primarily academic, with hard and often technical majors that are highly demanding and that usually lead to developing important skills. The other is primarily social, and leaves students with fewer skills but lots of time to party. The latter track works reasonably well for students who have wealthy and/or well-connected families that can get intellectually weak and low-skill students jobs upon graduating with a dubious degree. It doesn’t work well for other students. The more time I spend in the system the more apparent the two tracks become and the more I wish students were explicitly told about them.

Requirements for Undergraduates

You can only graduate from a university if you pick a major and fulfill its requirements. Clark called its undergraduate requirements “Perspectives,” while the University of Arizona calls them “Gen Eds” or “General Education Requirements.” There is no way to avoid filling requirements, and most requirements demand that you spend a certain amount of time with your rear end in a seat at a certain number of classes. Fulfill as many requirements as possible as soon as you realize those requirements exist, assuming you want to graduate on time.

You’ll often be assigned an “academic advisor,” whose job it is to help keep you on track to graduate and to help you pick courses. Don’t be afraid of this person: he or she will often help you or point you to people who can help you. At bigger schools, your advisor will often seem harried or uninterested, but even if that person is, you should remember that he or she is still a valuable resource. And if you can’t get help from your counselor, find the requirements of potential majors or all majors and work toward checking them off, because you won’t be able to get out of them.

I tried and found that there is virtually no negotiating with requirements, even if some are or seem silly. For example, Clark required that students take “science perspective.” In studying my schedule and options, I figured that astronomy was the easiest way out. Considering how useless astronomy looked, I decided to petition the Dean of Students to be excused from it so I could take better classes, arguing that I’d taken real science classes in high school and that I could be more productively engaged elsewhere. The answer came quickly: “no.”

Astronomy consisted of tasks like memorizing the lengths of planets from the sun, what the Kuiper Belt is[3], and the like. Tests asked things like the size of each planet—in other words, to regurgitate facts that one can find in two seconds on Google, which is how I found out what the Kuiper Belt is again. The professor teaching it no longer appeared to have a firm grasp of his mental faculties. At least it was relatively easy: the only worse thing would’ve been having to take, say, chemistry, or a real science class.

That astronomy class was probably the most useless I took, and Clark’s tuition at that time was something like $22,000. I received a scholarship toward tuition, room, and board, so my tuition was probably closer to $16,000, or $8,000 per semester. Undergrads took four classes, so the useless astronomy class cost around $2,000. Would I have rather taken another English class, or Computer Science, or a myriad of other subjects? You bet. But I couldn’t, and if I didn’t take some kind of science class, I wouldn’t have been able to graduate, no matter the uselessness of the class.

What should I major in?

I have a theory that virtually everything you learn in universities and in life is the substance or application of two (or three, depending on how you wish to count) abilities: math and reading/writing. Regardless of what you major in, work on building those two skills.

In the liberal arts, that most often means philosophy, English, and history; other majors vary by university, but those requiring a lot of reading and writing are almost always better than those that don’t. In the hard sciences and economics you’ll be left to develop your reading and writing skills on your own. And this does apply to you, whether you realize it or not. As software company founder and rich guy Joel Spolsky wrote:

Even on the small scale, when you look at any programming organization, the programmers with the most power and influence are the ones who can write and speak in English clearly, convincingly, and comfortably. Also it helps to be tall, but you can’t do anything about that.

The difference between a tolerable programmer and a great programmer is not how many programming languages  they know, and it’s not whether they prefer Python or Java. It’s whether they can communicate their ideas. By persuading other people, they get leverage.

So if you want leverage, learn how to write. And if liberal arts majors don’t want to be bamboozled by statistics, they better learn some math.

In short, I have no idea what you should major in. But you probably shouldn’t major in business, communication, sociology, or criminal justice, all of which are worthy subjects that, for most undergraduates, are sufficiently watered down that you’re unlikely to challenge yourself much. Odds are that you’ll even make more money as a philosophy major than a business management major (“Salary Increase by Major”).

Paul Graham wrote:

Thomas Huxley said “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.” Most universities aim at this ideal.

But what’s everything? To me it means, all that people learn in the course of working honestly on hard problems. All such work tends to be related, in that ideas and techniques from one field can often be transplanted successfully to others. Even others that seem quite distant. For example, I write essays the same way I write software: I sit down and blow out a lame version 1 as fast as I can type, then spend several weeks rewriting it.

The reality is that your specific major probably doesn’t matter nearly as much as your tenacity, ability to learn, and the consistent application of that ability to learn to specific problems. One way  people—friends, employers, graduate schools, colleagues, etc.—measure this is by measuring the way you speak and write, which together are a proxy for how much and how deeply you’ve read.

A great deal of college is about teaching you how to learn, and reading is probably the fastest way to learn. Once you’ve mastered the art of reading, you’ll be set for life, provided you keep exercising the skills you develop at a university. Keep that in mind as you search for majors: those that assign more reading, more writing, and more math are probably more worthwhile than those that  don’t.

Many people have many opinions about what you should major in, and most of them are probably wrong. This one included. As I said previously, it probably doesn’t matter in the long run, so don’t worry much about what to major in—worry about finding something you’re passionate about and something you love. In Prelude to Mathematics, W.W. Sawyer wrote: “An activity engaged in purely for its consequences, without any pleasure for the activity itself, is likely to be poorly executed” (16 – 17). If possible, find something to major in which you enjoy for itself, or which you can learn to enjoy for itself.

Regardless of what you major in, let me reiterate something I wrote in the introduction: you are or should be most responsible for your own learning. This is true not only in school but in your entire life. You will get some bad teachers, some bad bosses, some bad clients, and some bad situations in your life. Nonetheless it is your responsibility to keep learning, to overcome obstacles, and to help yourself.

Students often want to be spoon-fed everything. That’s not how the world works. People generally pay other people to solve their problems. Your goal is to develop the skills it takes to solve the problems other people have, so that they pay you. Let’s look at some professions and how, in an ideal world, each profession solves a problem:

  • Cop: Solves the need for public safety.
  • Scientist: Solves the need for learning how things actually work, and, tangentially to that, how to turn ideas and facts into products.
  • Petroleum Engineer: Solves the need for energy, which people require to get from point A to B via car, plane, or train, and for electricity.
  • Teacher: Solves the need for education, and helps turn economically useless children into productive adults (Senior).
  • Social Media Analyst: Solves the need to advertise through numerous electronic platforms.

You can occasionally find situations in which it’s possible to get paid without solving someone’s problem, but they’re rare. There are also important jobs that are nonetheless illegal but can be analyzed through the same method as the bullet above (for example, prostitutes solve the need for sex, and drug dealers solve the need for different experiences). People on the cutting edge of technology and social change often solve needs for themselves—Mark Zuckerberg needed a way to communicate with others online before most people really noticed that need.

Your teachers and professors, including me, are often not that good at identifying such needs.

Finally, note that you often can’t predict what will be useful and what won’t be. It’s also possible that the people designing your curriculum know more about the subject than you do.

How do I get an A?

One thing you shouldn’t do is say that all you want to do is get an A: as stated above, most professors are completely and utterly invested in their subject. When you ask how you get an “A,” they’re likely to be annoyed because you’re indicating you don’t care about learning, which is the best way to earn an A. Instead, you care about the badge. It’s like asking how you become poet laureate, as Ebenezer Cooke does in The Sot-Weed Factor: the question itself is wrong, because the right question is how you become a poet, and the laureateship will follow (Barth 73). If you ask professors how to get an A, they’ll also tell you what you already know: work hard at the class, show up, read the book(s) and related materials, form study groups, and the like.

Another grad student in English said that she’s almost relieved when students say they just want to get an A, because it means she doesn’t have to worry about them or their grade. Paradoxically, when you say that you just want an A/B/C, you lower the probability that you’ll actually get it.

To get that A/B/C, demonstrate that you’re interested in the material, do all the reading, and show up to class every day. Go to the professor’s office hours to ask intelligent questions—like whether you’re on the right track regarding a paper—or what you could’ve done better on a quiz. By doing so, you’re showing that you’re interested in doing better, rather than saying you are. Novelists have a saying: “show, don’t tell,” which means that you should show what a character is thinking and why they are acting in a certain way rather than telling the reader. Readers are smart and will figure it out for themselves. Your professors will be able to figure out in a million ways whether you’re interested in a subject, and when you ask how you get an A, they’ll know you aren’t.

Oh, and don’t fear the library—it’s the big place with the books. If you conduct research with books, your professors will be impressed. And learn to use the online journals. If you don’t know what this  means, ask a librarian, who will assist you. They very seldom bite and are there to help, and most schools also conduct library help sessions at the beginning of each year. Indeed, almost everyone at a university is there to help you learn; you just need to a) want to learn and b) ask. Many students never get to point a, and of those who do, more should get to point b.

Reflection

I wrote this now because I’m old enough to, I think, have some perspective on universities while still being young enough to remember the shock and bewilderment of the first semester of my freshmen year. This document reflects my academic training and preoccupation: it contains allusions and references to other work and is structured in such a way that you can skip easily from section to section. As a trade-off for its detail, however, weaker or uninterested students might lose interest in it before they come to the end, which is unfortunate because it describes the world they will largely be inhabiting for somewhere between one week and six if not more years.

Anecdotes from my own academic experience are included because discovering facts about the incentives in university life didn’t occur all at once for me. No one gave me a document like this: I was expected to either already know or understand most of what you just read, and as a result, I spent years drawing a mental map of universities. The professors and graduate students had spent long enough in the university atmosphere that they knew how universities were structured with the thoroughness you know your native language. I’ve written this in the hope that it will better explain to you (in the plural sense) what I’ve explained to many individuals.

My natural impetus is to remember when I have to repeat the same things over and over again, consider how I might convey all the things I’ve said to a large number of people, and then write those things down so that they might be read, which is a vastly more efficient information transfer mechanism than speech. Nonetheless, I realize that this document and my explanations are probably not perfect, so if you’ve read this to the best of your ability and still have questions, don’t be afraid to ask them. One thing universities should inculcate is inquisitiveness, and I hope I do so as a teacher and as a person.

Notice that this document has a version number in the upper-right corner: as time goes on and I receive questions or comments, I’ll probably change this document to reflect new concerns. When you ask questions, you’re not only helping yourself discover something: you’re helping the person you’re asking better understand the subject at hand and the nature of what they’re trying to say. By asking me questions about this document, you might help me ultimately improve it, and ultimately help those who read it in the future. If there is one cultural advantage universities should impart more than any other, it is the ability to ask questions about even the most fundamental things; confusion and uncertainty are often the sources of new knowledge.

As Paul Krugman, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize for Economics, said of his own research (which led him to the prize):

The models I wrote down that winter and spring were incomplete, if one demanded of them that they specify exactly who produced what. And yet they told meaningful stories. It took me a long time to express clearly what I was doing, but eventually I realized that one way to deal with a difficult problem is to change the question — in particular by shifting levels.

He also has a section called “question the question,” in which he recursively asks himself whether the question he has asked is the right one. For him, as for many people, questions are at the center of the learning universe, and if you learn to ask them promiscuously and then seek the answers, whether from me, your other professors, or from books, you’ll be better equipped to find the answers, do well in college, and do well in life. One challenge is often learning enough to be able to formulate the right questions, and with this in mind, I hope you know how to ask important questions about the institution you’re attending.

As noted previously, you can also download this essay in .pdf form.

Works Cited [4]

Barth, John. The Sot-Weed Factor. New York: Anchor Books, 1987.

Graham, Paul. “Undergraduation.” Personal website. March 2005. Accessed 7 December 2008. <http://paulgraham.com/college.html&gt;

Krugman, Paul. “How I Work.” Personal website. Accessed 11 November 2008. <http://web.mit.edu/krugman/www/howiwork.html&gt;

“Salary Increase by Major.” The Wall Street Journal. Undated. Accessed 7 December 2008. <http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/info-Degrees_that_Pay_you_Back-sort.html?mod=googlenews_wsj&gt;

Sawyer, W.W. Prelude to Mathematics. New York: Dover Publications, 1982.

Sperber, Murray. Beer and Circus: How Big Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.

Spolsky, Joel. “Advice for Computer Science College Students.” Personal website. 2 January 2005. Accessed 7 December 2008. <http://joelonsoftware.com/articles/CollegeAdvice.html&gt;

“tenure.” The New Oxford American Dictionary. 2010. Mac OS X 10.6 Operating System.


[1] One useful study tip: if you read or hear a word you don’t know, look it up. You’ll expand your vocabulary and, concomitantly, the range of your thinking.

[2] In the hard sciences, for example, it’s often wise to ask professors if you can join their research labs, where you’ll gain valuable experience and make important connections. But most undergraduates don’t seem to realize that the first thing they have to do is ask. The second thing they need to do is show their professors that they won’t be a waste of time.

[3] A bunch of rocks near Neptune’s orbit, for those of you wondering.

[4] Writers include works cited pages so others can draw on the sources used to construct an argument. Contrary to popular belief among freshmen, they’re not just pointless hoops teachers set up, and they become progressively more important as you matriculate.

Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity — Marc Augé

Marc Augé’s Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity is fascinating because it describes a process and some places that almost all of us feel like we’ve been. In my post about Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, I wrote about one such bureaucratized space in the form of airports:

As I write this, I sit in a Tucson airpot bar. Airports have everything wrong with them: they are transitional, one-off spaces filled with strangers, the “restaurants” they offer consist of pre-made food with character slightly above a TV dinner, and for some reason we as a society have decided that Constitution rights and privacy don’t apply here. People I don’t know can stop me at will, and merely flying requires that I submit to security theater that is simultaneously ineffective and invasive. Everything is exorbitantly expensive but not of particularly high quality. Menus don’t have beer prices on them.

The airport, in short, is designed to extract money from a captive audience; this might be in part why I don’t care much for sports stadiums, Disneyland, and other areas where I feel vaguely captive.

And it’s miserable, at least to me, and Augé traces that feeling at least partially to a place’s relationship or lack thereof with history. His book is useful because it offers a theoretical framework for understanding why we think of some places the way we do and frustrating because it’s written in French academic-ese. John Howe translates it but can’t change the fact that most of the book is actually concerned with how ethnologists view places. In other words, the major action described by the title isn’t reached until about two thirds of the way through the book. And it takes until page 94, and nearly at the end, to get a somewhat clear definition of what constitutes a “non-place:”

Clearly the word ‘non-place’ designates two complementary but distinct realities: spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations that individuals have these spaces. Although the two sets of relations overlap to a large extent, and in any case officially (individuals travel, make purchases, relax), they are still not confused with one another; for non-places mediate a whole mass of relations, with the self and with others, which are only indirectly connected with their purposes. As anthropological places create the organically, so non-places create solitary contractuality.

Any time someone uses “clearly” or “obviously,” they should have their text examined more carefully, because anything that is genuinely clear or obvious doesn’t need the modifier. The text itself is unsure: what are “certain ends” as opposed to “non-certain ends?” I’m not sure: maybe he means where people live. What is the ‘organically social?’ Presumably something like neighborhoods, common cause, not “Bowling Alone” and the like. The gap between what is said and what is probably meant looms large with these phrases, even if the passage as a whole at least yields some kind of framework for discussing the problem.

I would say that non-places are basically commerce or exchange economies, while places are gift economies. In other words, in non-places one cannot have any real recourse to common humanity: you can’t ask to borrow something, to be done a favor, or to expect to know the myriad of strangers you cross. In a place, you can expect to have local knowledge, to not have to rely entirely on signs, to be able to decorate it as you will, and to have the opportunity for whimsy.

One thing I like about universities is that they do a decent job of being both gift and commerce economies, thanks in part to state subsidies: although my students have to pay the bursar’s office to take my class, once they are within it, we do not discuss or exchange money directly, and this mediating bureaucratic influence helps maintain something closer to a gift economy. Most professors I have met are more than willing to give their time to those who do not waste it and who wish to learn. By “do not waste it,” I mean those who are prepared, conscientious, and willing to read or experiment per the professor’s instructions, as opposed to the inevitable students who, at least in English, want the professor to read a half-baked paper the night before it is due in order to receive a higher grade. Professors are willing, in short, to make what Augé calls a “relational” space that is “concerned with identity,” or, as his long quotes have it:

If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relation, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place. The hypothesis advanced here is that supermodernity produces non-places, meaning spaces which are not themselves anthropological places and which, unlike Baudelairean modernity, do not integrate the earlier places: instead these are listed, classified, promoted to the status of ‘places of memory’, and assigned to a circumscribed and specific position. A world where people are born in the clinic and die in hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotels chains and squats […]) (78 – 9).

This is the sort of assertion that almost works: notice how it starts with a major “if” at the start and never quite defines the terms relational, historical, and concerned with identity: although airports feel like they have none of those attributes today, they might a hundred years from now. Maybe airpots will one day be places in the sense that Belltown or the University District in Seaattle are. It’s hard to say, even if I feel like the idea that “supermodernity produces non-places” is correct, since those kinds of spaces (like airports, as stated above) produce the unhappy torpor of being totally unmoored and being buffeted by bureaucratic forces that cannot be directly negotiated with.

The last comparison Augé uses is curious: hotel chains feel quite different squatter camps, although I only have direct experience of the former. And being born in the clinic and dying in the hospital sounds like an improvement over being born in a hut and dying in a house, if the latter involve an earlier death. And what it means to be modern is something that seems like it’s being ceaselessly re-described—to be modern is to debate what it means to be modern, or to be acutely aware of history. This is another way of thinking about connections between people, among groups, and the like. Here’s one way Augé gets at that:

Collectivities (or those who direct them), like their individual members, need to think simultaneously about identity and relations; and to this end, they need to symbolize the components of shared identity (shared by the whole group), particularly identity (of a given group or individual in relation to the others) and singular identity (what makes the individual or group of individuals different from any other). The handling of space is one of the means to this end, and it is hardly astonishing that the ethnologist should be tempted to follow in reverse the route from space to the social, as if the latter had produced the former once and for all (Augé 51).

Neither wholly produces the other, but they both work systematically, space constraining daily contact and time constraining members in terms of particular history. Notice the idea of the “reverse […] route from space to the social,” although the social also affects space. In Jane Austen this happens less, but the space of the manor or inheritance affects everything the characters do: think of the vitality of the entailment on the actions of the characters in Pride and Prejudice. Love does not conqueror all in that novel, even if it affects relations with space and vice-versa. It is hard to imagine Charlotte Lucas loving the irritating Mr. Collins if not for his eventual, deferred wealth.

The book’s penultimate paragraph suddenly moves away from place and toward humanity:

One day, perhaps, there will be a sign of intelligent life on another world. Then, through an effect of solidarity whose mechanisms the ethnologist has studied on a small scale, the whole terrestrial space will become a single place. Being from earth will signify something. In the meantime, though, it is far from certain that threats to the environment are sufficient to produce the same effect. The community of human destinies is experienced in the anonymity of non-place, and in solitude (120).

The idea of distance and perspective is evoked from the first words: “one day” implies a day so distant that it cannot be envisaged, only held up as a trope. And the sense of vastness continues, with the “whole terrestrial space,” as opposed to the way we divide up now, and the possibility that such an orientation, however improbable that it will come to pass, might bring. I hope we get there, unlikely though it may seem, and unlikely as it is that non-places will bring us closer to place.

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