Please remain on the line, your call will be answered.

Every once in a while I get a reminder about how connected I am to cyberspace.  My first task every morning at work is to check my email and see what the world is demanding of me beyond ensuring a boner every time I have sex, dates with black singles now in my city, or cheaper shoes (thank goodness for spam filters).   This morning all my email accounts were accessible EXCEPT my work account.

I called our tech folks.  The same ones who managed to not get my IP address correct – so that I had to figure out how to configure that out myself when my new computer was installed, as well as reconfigure another desktop station in the department that had the address I needed.  20 minutes.  I am so glad I figured out how to use the speaker function on my office phone.

They really need a better answering service message though.  It isn’t muzak, but I really have no desire to listen to some depressed sounding dudes in their late teens offer me 7 options to get assistance over and over and over.  Jeez, play some Linkin Park or R2DJ at least in the background.  Better yet, put on some Mad Violinist Dubstep and only repeat your message once every 10 minutes.  Not over and over in a loop.  Did I mention that they played the same message over and over and over again?

On the one hand, I’m pleased since it means I can mentally delay entering the work zone.  Yet, I will still have messages waiting for me.   *sigh*  Le travail.

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Connected in the Universe

My students and friends know what a huge science and scifi geek I am.  I ran across this video of Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a scientist I admire, discussing our connection to the Universe.

It reminded me of these two wonderful quotes from Sheri S. Tepper‘s book Six Moon Dance.

We are made of the stuff of stars, given our lives by a living world, given ourselves by time. We are brothers to the trees and sisters to the sun. We are of such glorious stuff we need not carry pain around like a label. Our duty, as living things, to be sure that pain is not our whole story, for we can choose to be otherwise.

Do not dance as a woman would dance, as a man would dance, as legs would dance,but as wings would dance, as these two would dance if they were lovers making a promise that would echo among the galaxies. Do not be bound by gravity, for we will swim weightless within this liquid world. Do not be bound by breath, for we need not breathe, or by thought, for we need not think. Here is only sensation and the need for joy….

Life is so beautiful when we stop to really think about it.  We can all feel big, even when we know just how small we are in the Universe.

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Storytelling science

This morning I met with a grad student, not one of my advisees, at a coffee shop to talk anthropology.  A. is a bright and cheerful person who shares my interest in stories.  Actually, all anthropologists like stories.  If you don’t, you’re in the wrong field.

One of the big reasons A. wanted to talk was my previously exhibited interest in visual anthropological methods.  She is interested in the various ways people use their senses, including vision, to perceive the world.  I have been using photography as a research method, although I would hesitate to declare myself a visual anthropologist.  A. was curious how I used photos in my work and how I was analyzing them.  Mostly, I use photography in my fieldnotes and photovoice – where informants take photos and talk about the pictures.

As is human nature, our conversation drifted into all the wonderful stories people tell us that get analyzed and condensed for academic publication – the coin of the ivory tower realm – but then get relegated to filing cabinets, flash drives and cardboard boxes in storage.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could share those stories?  After all, the general public is usually more interested in the stories and pictures than some dry academic paper.   That’s why we go to museums, read blogs, and watch endless YouTube videos.  However, many of the people we work with don’t have access to these outlets or don’t have time or skills to put a presentation together.

A few ideas were discussed including a grad student led initiative to promote this sort of thematic data-based storytelling.  We will see how it develops.

The anthropologists got it wrong when they named our species Homo sapiens (‘wise man’). In any case it’s an arrogant and bigheaded thing to say, wisdom being one of our least evident features. In reality, we are Pan narrans, the storytelling chimpanzee.  – Terry Pratchett, Science of Discworld II

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Teaching at Hogwarts

As I walked across the quad to my basement office in Woods Hall this morning I noticed yet another sign that UMD is a little different from my previous academic experiences.  “Dumbledore’s Army” was scrawled in 2-3 foot high multicolored chalk letters across the bricks at the base of McKeldin Library.   Nearby, were messages about letting Jesus into your heart and documenting the presence of Lord Voldemort.  I guess the muggles didn’t see the wizardly graffiti or did and didn’t get it.

A 4-part coat of arms. With representative colors of all but Slytherin. Coincidence?

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across evidence for wizards here.  In late January, I stumbled out of work around 5:30pm and onto quidditch practice.  I recognized the goal posts immediately, and after a few seconds saw that students were holding or straddling broomsticks.  While some of the students may be nerds, they certainly don’t look it.  They look like athletes that run and chase snitches, pass quaffles, and whack at bludgers.  Now, at least once a week, I pass the team practicing or playing a pick up game.

Perhaps I should tell my students that I have an workspace in the dungeon, not the basement, when they ask about office hours.

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Meeping like a boss.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite games to play when I was bored was If.  You know, the game where you ask yourself questions like:

  • If I were invisible, what would I do?
  • If I could fly, where would I go?
  • If I had three wishes, what would I wish for?
  • If I ruled the world, what would I do?

Then you dream up all sorts of fantastical, crazy, fun stories of what would happen.  As an adult, I see that last question as a punishment for the truly evil like those who end up in the Special Hell.  Oh for my lost innocence.

One of the questions I continued to ask myself (because yes, I still play If), even as I got older was “If I were my own boss…”  I think most people still play this game.

Despite the fact that I am a very new and lowly assistant professor AND I have people in charge of me like a department chair, dean, etc. etc., in many ways I am my own boss.  I choose how and what to teach my students within the classes I am assigned – although I am teaching a class I put together myself this term.  I choose what and where to research – falling within reason of the sort of research I have conducted previously.  I don’t have students yet, but I am developing concepts for a research working group.  All of this gets overseen by my chair and the school and other hidden people I have yet to learn about, but the initiative has to come from me.

I imagine I must look a lot like Beaker.

And here’s the worst part.  I have a bad feeling about this.  I just can’t shake the notion that I am going to fail spectacularly and miserably.  I bounce out of bed in the morning, excited to go to work.  Then I get to my office, close the door, fire up the computer, look at all the tasks and papers and meetings, and think what the fuck did I get myself into?  Self doubt?  Hell yeah.  Like a boss.

I don’t want to spend my career in triage putting out fires.  I don’t want to be a workaholic or feeling like I am always behind.  I don’t want to be all crazy and paranoid and unhappy like I’ve seen some female academics, and a few male academics, get.

I do want to do my job well.  I do want my research and teaching to have a meaningful impact on peoples’ lives.   I do want to be able to travel and have a bit of non-work related fun once in a while.  How do people do this mostly sanely?  I hope it is just new job jitters. Meep?

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Publishing news

I finally have another article published.  This is a research project I worked on with an undergraduate student at Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, Mozambique.  I am so happy that it is finally up online in its final form.  I presented it back in January 2010 at the American Meteorological Society meetings with a group of social scientists (primarily anthropologists) conducting climate research all over the world.  Many of us in the two “Ways of Knowing” sessions have since written up our presentations for publication in a special collection on local knowledge of climate change.

The analysis caused me some grief.  I tried several different statistical tests but grew increasingly frustrated because they just weren’t right for the data set.  Finally completely frustrated, I briefly explained what I was trying to do to my dissertation adviser.  He seemed to just sort of glance at the data and then said, “Try Akaike analysis.”  I thought he was telling me to try some sort of specialized Japanese meditation because running 5 miles twice a day was no longer chilling me out enough.  Thank goodness for wikipedia – even if I don’t allow my students to cite wikis in their term papers.

The reviews on the initial manuscript were lengthy and some pulled the manuscript in multiple directions.  However, Ben Orlove did a fantastic job as our editor.  He summarized the main critiques that needed addressing and gave us a roadmap for the rest.

It all worked out and now, Leocadia’s and my research with the folks in Madjadjane and Gala in southern Mozambique is published.  The article can be downloaded from Weather, Climate and Society.  If you still cannot access it but are interested, drop me a line.

Shaffer, L. and L. Naiene. 2011. Why analyze mental models of local climate change? A case from southern Mozambique. Weather, Climate and Society 3(4): 223-237.

People construct mental models of local climate change based on their observations and experiences of past climate events and changes. These mental models offer critical insight into locally important factors that trigger responses to new climate conditions and can be used to ground-truth regional climate models. In this paper, the authors explore mental models of changes to local climate patterns and climate-associated environmental changes over the past 45 years (1963–2008) in two rural communities in Matutuine District, Mozambique. Interview results are compared to data from a regional weather station. Residents discuss temperature increases, short-term and long-term precipitation changes, and altered seasonal timing. Measurable climate change in this region includes increasing temperatures and more erratic rainfall leading to drought and altered season timing. The climate-associated environmental changes residents observed draw attention to links between local livelihood practices and climate, as well as emphasize changes that would not necessarily appear in regional climate models. Such changes include reduced crop and wild fruit production, fewer cattle, variable forest size, increased wildfires and elephant conflict, drying up of water sources, poor health, and cultural change. Differences between adjacent communities highlight the potential interaction of landscape and vegetation variability, gender, and livelihoods in observations and experiences of climate change and demonstrate how mental models can provide insight into local ecological patterns and processes.

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What is your name? What is your quest? What is your favorite color?

Tomorrow I will post my office hours on my door, but I wanted to be funny.  Somewhere in the dreamtime I decided that my students should have to answer questions to enter.  And being a fan of pop culture, I thought and picked the brains of some of my friends to find such questions.  The pdf is below.  If I have missed any significant questions, please let me know.

answer the following

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Meeting with uncertainty

Me in Finnesterre, Galacia (Spain) in 2006. The end of the world in Roman times.

I have been reading about uncertainty.  Part of my effort to develop some new research ideas, although to be honest, as an agnostic it is also sparks my thinking about living with unanswered questions.

Today I finished a book about the intersection of psychology and anthropology, What Really Matters: Living a Life Amidst Danger and Uncertainty by Arthur Kleinman.  I picked it up because I thought it would address how people respond to uncertainty (which it did).  However, it wasn’t a psychological or anthropological monograph.  Kleinman wrote about 7 people living in uncertain and dangerous conditions and how they responded to such – a soldier in combat, an aid worker, an HIV/AIDS positive artist, a minister with a sex problem, a doctor in communist China, a Victorian/Eduardian era anthropologist, and the author himself.

After the second chapter, I was wondering how applicable the book would be to my research, but I kept reading because I was intrigued at a personal level.  But then it came back together again for me and I realized that the life portraits illustrated Kleinman’s point that history, culture, politics, and political economy shape the way we respond to uncertainty.  Nothing new (or at least it shouldn’t be) for an anthropologist, but sometimes we need a reminder.

His chapter on W.H.R. Rivers, the Victorian/Eduardian doctor, psychologist, and anthropologist, spoke the most to me.  Maybe because he was an anthropologist; maybe because he took such a meandering path; maybe because he worked in an interdisciplinary context that gave him insights that might not have been available to those who don’t cross boundaries.  Rivers’ work allowed him to see that power and knowledge were inseparable, but also that “[d]ifferent models of how to live in the world were needed that challenged the established moral culture before it proved too late” (Kleinman 2006: 214).  This was after WWI where Rivers worked as a psychologist treating shell-shocked British soldiers – i.e. troops with PTSD – that ‘needed’ to keep a stiff upper lip and head back to the front for England.  Because, you know, they were faking it to avoid duty.  Rivers disagreed with the idea of sending men back to the front who had mental health problems, and thought that the British cultural ideas of how men were supposed to be made the whole situation worse.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Kleinman then goes on to talk about anti-heroes.  Unlike the traditional hero that falls or travels into danger and returns with a new idea or tool or thing that helps the community rise above the challenge, the anti-, or negative, hero holds up a mirror and challenges us to think about how we see ourselves.  The moral choices made to survive in the grey landscape of horrible and terrible things force us to think about how we would or would not act in the same situation.  Can we forgive?  Refuse vindictiveness and revenge?  Offer assistance at the potential cost of our own life? How do the horrible acts we’ve committed drive us to fix our mistakes or make up for what we’ve done later?  How do we actively choose to do “better” than those who’ve come before?  Our culture’s morals can have a dangerous side effects – ones that we need to be aware of so that we can make active choices in living so that others (with perhaps different morals) can coexist.  The national obsession with religion and politics in our current presidential race seems to fit this situation well.

We can’t know what the future will bring with certitude.  That’s just how life is.  As Master Yoda says, “Always in motion the future is.”  But in meeting uncertainty, Kleinman offers the following,

“Commitment to others, struggling to bring some good into our close-up worlds even while acknowledging that our coping skills are barely adequate, being passionate about projects that build the self and others, being serious about critical engagement steeped in self-reflection and aimed to rework or stop moral processes that intensify danger, mobilizing aspiration in defeat and finding the courage and endurance even when experiencing the hollowness of victories not to completely despair – those are the kinds of things that, no matter their trite and conventional ring, still feel authentic and useful… that acknowledgement and affirmation of the other precedes inquiry and enables a readiness for the unexpected transformations, which do occur and can be revitalizing if seized hold of and properly directed.  We must see moral experience for what it is: all that we have and all that we will ever have that defines our humanity and makes us and our worlds real.” (pp. 233-4)

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Evaluating potential students

As one of my first duties as a shiny, new assistant professor, I am evaluating potential masters and doctoral students.  Damn it is difficult.  Okay, some folks are easy because their application is incomplete – no letters of recommendation or not enough, no statement, and no resume or cv.  I don’t even bother.

There are still lots of complete applications though.  Most have outstanding letters of support.  They should.  There is no reason to ask someone who is going to give you a crappy recommendation letter to write you a letter of support.  However, occasionally it happens.  Usually though, it is what remains unsaid that raises the red flag.  My brain is so fuzzy now that I can’t give specifics, but if someone focuses on your punctuality and not that you were an outstanding contributor to classroom discussions… not good.

Then there are the students with great letters, who either don’t provide any idea of what they want to study or they want to study everything.  Unfortunately, grad school is one of those places where study starts to get specific.  You can still just provide general areas of interest like health and environment or heritage and tourism, but don’t list every single department specialty.   The other that makes me sad are the folks that apply to study something that no one in the department specializes in.  I haven’t run into that problem yet, but I still have 2/3’s of the applications to review.

I’ve found writing samples very helpful – especially when reviewing foreign student applications.  Yes, I am a bit fastidious about grammar and spelling (I believe the term is grammar nazi).  However, clear communication is very important at the graduate level.  Native English speakers with crap writing skills – particularly those that don’t take advantage of spell and grammar check – get a ding from me.  I am a little more lenient with non-native English speakers if they demonstrate solid basic skills.   Having lived and worked overseas in non-English speaking cultures, I know how steep that language learning curve can be.  You cannot fuck around with language in grad school.  Too much reading, writing, and discussing.  When there is no additional writing sample, I vet the statement pretty thoroughly.  BTW, feel free to correct my grammatical and spelling errors.  I am far from perfect.

You’ll notice I haven’t talked about test scores.  Yes, grad programs do look at them – both TOEFL (for non US citizens) and GREs.  This is usually the last thing I review.  Other professors may have a different strategy.  The reason I look at it last, is that I know from personal experience that standardized tests are not always the best way to assess potential and achievement.  Some people are awesome test takers.  I am not one of them.  Yet here I am, a new professor with PhD in hand.  I took the GRE twice; once with paper and pencil for my masters and once on computer for my doctorate.  The computer version sucks.  Back in the day, I learned to skip questions and come back to them later.  You can’t do that on the computer.  Screw that crap.

To all the grad school applicants, I wish you the best.  Remember that life doesn’t end if you don’t get into grad school.  In fact, you may actually get a real life.  🙂

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New Year, New Job

It has been a while since my last post.  Since then I’ve moved to a new state (Maryland), and started a new job as assistant professor in the Dept. of Anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park.

I’ve only been at the new job for about a week now, but in a complete contrast to my postdoc I actually feel like I am part of a department.  Don’t get me wrong.  The folks in Penn State Geography were friendly and welcoming.  There are many people I miss already.  However, postdocs in the social sciences are fairly rare and thus it seems like no one really knows what the hell to do with them – other than crack the whip and leave them be to get it done.

This past week I set up my syllabus for the split level course I will be teaching, “Anthropology and Climate Change,” and met with a couple of students.  I still have some teaching stuff to work on, but I should probably organize my files and drawers a bit since I essentially just dumped everything into where it sorta should go.  Horizontal filing doesn’t really cut it when you have only one desk top and a small office floor space.

The big focus for the next 6 years, of course, is the tenure hoop.  Publications in top journals, being cited by others, and writing successful grants are key.  I will still have service and teaching, but it is the research that counts the most.  My doctoral adviser was right in that it never ends.  🙂

For now, my fieldnotes will chronicle my participant-observation of the ivory tower community from the anthropology ‘hood.  Everything’s still shiny.

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