The Normative Graduate Student

Before starting graduate school, we said we’d do it on our terms. It wouldn’t become our lives. Grad school would be a job, like any other, and we would maintain a home life, a social life, and our sanity.

Ha! We’d expected reality might pummel that little dream. We were right. The all-consuming demands of graduate school made it difficult to live the way we wanted. It wasn’t just reality, though–something else bashed our fanciful dream, too. It’s what we’ve come to call The Normative Graduate Student. It’s a pervasive stereotype that bonds us to our fellow overworked, underpaid, hungry, sleepless, cohort-mates. It also pushes us toward an unhealthy norm, and with another semester beating down our door, I want to question how necessary that ideal really is.

In case you’re not familiar with the normative graduate student, here are a few characteristics. He or she:

  • Sleeps little, if at all
  • Eats poorly
  • Is desperately poor
  • Freeloads, especially food
  • wants but infrequently receives fulfilling guidance, encouragement, or recognition from advisors or professors
  • lives in a dungeon-like office on campus, rarely sees home
  • is hooked on caffeine
  • cannot maintain personal relationships because of the workload
  • lives in a state of perpetual existential crisis and self-doubt

…sound familiar?

Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration. All of those characteristics probably aren’t rolled into one individual. But they’re all images of what a graduate student is, and many are based-at least partially-on reality.

More importantly, I’ve noticed when I didn’t feel under-slept and overworked, something seemed wrong. Surely I wasn’t working hard enough? I was sleeping too much–I’d never succeed as an academic, because I wasn’t doing it right!

To what extent is this ideal necessary? Is it keeping grad student on track, or creating a culture that bonds isolated, overworked students? Maybe and maybe.

Should we reject it? Maybe.

Eventually, I’ll blog about the various tools and methods I use (or would like to try) to make grad school feel more like a 9-5 job. Until then, I’d love to hear feedback about what it means to be a graduate student. Yes, we’re working our asses off. But do we really have to become that underfed, overworked specter that’s so alive in our collective imagination?

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We’re Back!

Hello again. As you may have noticed, blogging took a backseat to our first year of graduate school, and neglect took over here. I’m here to report success! We completed our first year of grad school. We lived, the animals lived, and the garden survived.

Keep your eyes open, because we’ll be back soon with software recommendations, recipes, and backyard poultry updates from the last year!

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Favorite Quotes, part 2 of n: Geertz

On what it’s like to be an anthropologist:

“But that, along with plaguing subtle people with obtuse questions, is what being an ethnographer is like” p.29

“One starts any effort at thick description…from a state of general bewilderment as to what the devil is going on” p.27

Geertz, Clifford (2000). Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. In The Interpretation of Cultures. 3-30 New York, Basic Books

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The Horny Elephant in the Room

On a recent episode of Living on Earth, Janet Ranganathan spoke about changes that must be made in worldwide agricultural practices in order to feed the world without destroying it. I enjoyed the interview, and was pleased to hear a conversation about world hunger that didn’t involve scaling up destructive industrial agricultural production. Her ideas sound socially and environmentally healthy. Indeed, agriculture does need to change. More than anything, though, it was a side comment that really got my attention. Agriculture, Ranganathan said, is the hungry elephant in the room. (And, based on her statistics, it’s the thirsty elephant, too. 70% of the world’s fresh water goes to agriculture). While I encourage readers to check out her work, my thoughts drifted to other elephants.

Agriculture is the hungry elephant. And while “elephants in the room” are by their nature silent, I argue that there is another, bigger, more silent one that must be addressed. Let’s call him the horny elephant. Or the Catholic elephant. What he represents is population.

Everyone saw the news: the world just passed the 7 billion people mark. Every newspaper raised the question: how will we do it? How will we feed, clothe, and house our growing population? There’s the green movement, of course: we’ll all buy environmentally friendly household cleaners for a sustainable future. Monsanto and Cargill claim to have some answers, too. But what of the problem itself? There are too many people on Earth. The crazy thing is, we would rather prepare for the inevitable 9-billion-person mark than really address the population problem. As one study from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry points out, “If we had 100 million people on Earth — or better, 10 million — no others would be a problem.”

It’s not hard to find advocates for lowering the birth rate in Bangladesh and Nigeria. Educate women, provide access to birth control, whatever it takes. An compelling article in the New York Times titled “Talking Their Way Out of a Population Crisis” addressed one possibility for population control: dialogue. Apparently, just  “relaxed, trusting and frank conversations between men and women may be the most effective contraceptive of all.” What a cheap solution!

The United States and Europe already went through one demographic transition around the turn of the 20th century, when birthrates dropped significantly. By many standards, our birthrates are low. Children born in the West, though, will consume far more than children from developing nations in their lifetimes: as for carbon, an American generates 66 times more CO2 each year than the average Bangladeshi, with an overall lifetime carbon footprint 160 times greater (see OSU pdf below).

I think it’s time to turn the conversation around and discuss our own horny elephant right here in the U.S. The choice about how many children to have is one of the biggest decisions one makes—and not just for the immediate family. Blogger Lisa Hymas points out that all of the “green” choices we make—driving a hybrid, changing our lightbulbs, taking short showers— “don’t come close to the impact of not bringing new human beings—particularly new Americans—into the world.” A 2008 study (see pdf here) from Oregon State University reiterates this message, looking at how the reproductive choices of an individual contribute to his environmental impact. Ultimately, it says, “A person’s reproductive choices must be considered along with his day-to-day activities when assessing his ultimate impact on the global environment.”

It’s not just about climate, either. In an interview with the authors from OSU, one said, “Rapid population growth affects other species (think ivory-billed woodpecker, passenger pigeon, blue whale and Fender’s blue butterfly) and exhausts the planet’s carrying capacity. At current levels of production, it has been estimated that it would take 1.4 Earths to maintain today’s population into the future. In other words,” he concludes, “we’re living off the capital now.”

Population control, then, is not just an issue for those overpopulated developing nations. As global citizens, I think we should recognize that population does need to be addressed. We are part of the problem, and should be part of the solution, too. I don’t mean that we should all shun childbirth. You (or I) could decide to have a couple of kids, or no kids at all. Or maybe, in light of this global problem, have one less child than we otherwise would have.

I know that population growth and control is a complex issue. Any population control needs to be sensitive to the rights of women, and am no way am I suggesting a return to the forced sterilizations of women in the U.S. and abroad. And yes, if population growth slows, we will have to face an aging population. Social Security will suffer. What will we do with all those old people? I hear this argument a lot. If we have less children, we’ll face a crisis. What I don’t hear is that we’ll face a crisis either way. Either we make some tough adjustments for a generation or two while our growth slows, or we make tougher adjustments because our growth didn’t slow. Recent political events (or, non-events, since nothing has really happened) have underscored the reality that, as a nation, we’re a bunch of procrastinators. We’ll deal with it later, because we don’t want to make tough choices now.

If you want to have kids, great (seriously). I can be a fan of kids. But I think we should pause and think about the bigger picture—reproduction isn’t just a right. It’s a choice that affects everyone, a choice that carries great responsibility. So let’s talk about it. Just like we want those Africans to do, lets talk about our family choices. In that conversation, let’s recognize that there are lots of ways to lead a fulfilling life. Some involve parenting, and some don’t. I can’t implore others to think about this issue without doing it myself. I might have a kid. I might not. That decision is important, not just for me, but for everyone.

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Want vs. Need: It’s Not My Bag

First of all, I apologize for not having posted in… well… a long time. The move and subsequent shift to graduate life took its toll, and I’ve found myself struggling to be motivated to do much more than I’m doing in school. But, I’m going to try to put my nose to the grindstone and do more blogging, if for no other reason than its cathartic/diversionary value.

Back in mine and Lauren’s days working at the co-op (aka 4 months ago), I used my position as a cashier to undertake a modest experiment. My goal was to determine if, and to what extent, my word choice could affect someone’s likelihood of using a bag for their groceries. I would ask some people if they wanted a bag, and some people if they needed a bag. I tallied the results over a couple of days at work. But first, I’ll explain my assumptions and methods.

In asking people whether they want/need a bag, I of course had to limit my sample size to those people who came through my register while I was working, and were purchasing a reasonably small quantity/volume of items. Thus, I didn’t ask someone with a cart full of groceries and two kids whether they wanted/needed a bag: the answer was obviously yes. Similarly, I didn’t ask people who had brought their own bags whether they wanted/needed a bag: the answer was obviously no. I also didn’t ask someone who was only purchasing one item under the (reasonable) assumption that they could carry it out perfectly well without wanting OR needing a bag. However, many of these people still requested a bag without prompting. I aimed for people with 2-6ish reasonably sized items that could fit in a single bag (of varying size and composition [paper vs. plastic]) but could still be easily carried out without a bag.

We often chit-chatted about various things (the weather, the items they were purchasing, etc) before I asked them the question. I also waited until after the transaction was completed to make the tally in order that I not be rude and raise their suspicion as to just what the heck I was writing about instead of doing my job. None of the customers had any idea I was collecting this information, either. But, seeing as this experiment is pretty harmless, I didn’t feel the need to run to the IRB for approval. Besides, I couldn’t pick a single one of them out of a line-up if I had to.

Okay, so here are my results.

Want Need
Yes 16 Yes 11
No 18 No 24

So, as we can see, asking someone if they wanted a bag didn’t influence their actions. I would have expected to see far more people want bags than actually did. The numbers that are more interesting (to me at least) are of those who needed bags. As we see, there were more than twice the number of people who chose to go without a bag when asked if they needed it. This suggests that, while the relatively benign word “want” did not move people to actually want something unnecessary having simply been prompted with the option for it, the stronger word “need” did in fact influence them to reflect on their actual state of being. In fact, I often noticed this reflection as it was happening, as many of the people I asked paused for a moment, surveyed their selection, and declined the bag. As I love to point out, words don’t simply reflect reality or signify things; words can interact with the world and make things happen.

The implications of this are fairly clear: cashiers of the world, ASK PEOPLE IF THEY NEED A BAG rather than a) simply putting their stuff into a bag without asking, or b) asking if they want a bag. This is an almost ludicrously simple way to save resources and keep crap out of landfills.

As a sociologist (in training), I would also like to point out a crucial observation: the responses people gave to these questions varied demographically. For instance, older customers took bags far more than younger customers, and black customers took bags far more than white customers, regardless of the word I used. In fact, this last point about the predictive power of race in determining bag preference was corroborated independently by several of my colleagues at the store. I even had one older black woman ask me for a bag for her .05 oz mascara stick. The employees talked about this issue at length, and the most plausible reason we could come up with is that a history of discrimination against black customers in predominantly white retail establishments has caused black customers to want a bag as proof of payment. Accusations of stealing can, according to this account, be minimized by “proving” you’ve paid for an item by carrying it in a bag. I would love to hear any competing accounts that anyone can think of.

As I’ve hoped to show from this (limited) example, simply by phrasing things in particular ways, we can influence people to act in particular ways. Thus, we should all think closely about what we say and to whom we say it. Words have far more power than we often give them credit, and reflecting on the ways we can use that power can help us to be more effective in accomplishing particular goals we may have. (Like keeping plastic bags out of landfills!)

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Baked Beans: so slow, so easy, so good.

One of the hardest things about life as a graduate student has been retaining our passion for and routine of cooking delicious things on a regular basis. Like every working person in America, we don’t have much free time. (Although, as of 2010, the average American watched 35 hours of TV per week…so clearly we have some free time). Really, though–this semester has consisted of long days and few breaks, and time and energy to cook in our (not large) kitchen has been hard to come by.

We have not given up our food values, but we’ve had to get creative with recipes that are either easy or will feed us for several days at a time. Here, I present one: Baked beans. This is quintessential slow food–it took about 17 hours start to finish. At the same time, very (very) little of that was hands-on, and the result was a delicious dinner perfect for a cold winter night.

Baked Beans (adapted from Alton Brown)
1lb dried great northern beans
1 onion, chopped
2 jalapeños, chopped (we roast and freeze them during the summer and then use them throughout the winter)
Olive oil
1/4c tomato paste
1/4c brown sugar (preferably dark)
1/4c molasses
vegetable broth
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1tsp black pepper
2tsp kosher salt

1. Clean, rinse, and soak beans overnight in enough cold water to cover. (tip: soak 6-8 hours, and never more than 12 for the best bean consistency)
2. Preheat oven to 250 degrees
3. In a cast iron dutch oven (or oven-safe pot) over medium heat, saute onion and jalapeños in olive oil until softened
4. Stir in tomato paste, brown sugar, and molasses
5. Drain beans and reserve soaking liquid; Add beans to dutch oven
6. Combine soaking liquid and vegetable broth to make 4c total liquid; add to dutch oven
7. Bring to boil over high heat; add cayenne, black pepper, and salt; stir and cover with lid
8. Place dutch oven in oven for 6-8 hours, until beans are tender.

Do this while you work at home or on a Saturday, and enjoy the aroma wafting through the house. We ate dinner earlier than usual just to get into these beans as soon as possible! They’re not the most photogenic, so you’ll just have to believe me. You want to make these baked beans.

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Eating Local and Missing the Point

Eat local. Eat local, buy local, eat local. Go organic! Eat organic, buy organic!

The resounding call echoes around campus, around town, around the nation. The movement for locally-based economies and organic goods is a small percentage of the market, but it’s growing. Great! Local and organic – that’s what the world needs. Right?

Wrong. Or, wrong-ish. Local and organic are good, yes, but they’re not enough. And, most importantly, they seem to be missing the point.

Recent course discussions about industrial meat production have revealed how heavily we rely on these two terms to solve problems of food production around the world. Highly centralized, industrialized meat- and all food, for that matter- production is harmful to both worker and consumer, and it’s no friend to the environment, either. As we circle these issues in class, students often say, “Food systems need to be more localized. If everyone would just buy local, and maybe organic, this wouldn’t be a problem”. I will dedicate another post to the naiveté behind “convincing everyone to buy local”. What I want to address here is the fact that local isn’t the answer.

When the local and organic movements were in their infancy, they were deep ideas centered on ethical, just food systems: good to the worker, good to the environment, good to the animals, good to the consumer. As they have risen to buzzwords, what has been gained in breadth has been lost in depth. Marketing firms co-opted the terms, and buyers benefited: thought and discernment were less necessary when “organic” was clearly labelled on products. On the one hand, that’s great. On the other, “organic” morphed into a strict list of practices-what growers do, and what they don’t- that supplanted the deeper idea about the goodness of production. Organic can be destructive monoculture, mistreat workers, or damage the environment. Organic sugar cane, for instance, is incredibly water-intensive to produce. Similarly, local farmers can abuse their animals, hire and mistreat undocumented immigrants, or cause soil degradation with their cultivation practices.

I don’t want to put forth an alternative term to define good food. Ethical food, good food, slow food: all will be hollowed out in their popularization. I do advocate widespread attention for local foods and organic practices, but I don’t want us to lose our focus. I don’t want to forget why we wanted local and organic products in the first place: transparent food chains, which empower us to choose truly good products.

Local food doesn’t necessarily solve our food system’s problems. It is not an end in itself. But, it can be a powerful means to an end. The beauty of a local food system is that our food retains its visibility. Unlike industrially produced food, with its obscured production that amalgamates ingredients from disparate places around the globe, the chain of local food is open for viewing. I can know my farmer’s name. I can ask how she raises her animals, how she manages pests, or how much she pays her workers. If she doesn’t want to answer, or answers unsatisfactorily, I can take my business to another farmer whose production satisfies my ethical standards.

What I hope is that you and I not surrender our discernment process. I want us to actively seek good food, whose goodness runs deeper than the label. As the Slow Food movement advocates, we need good, clean, fair food. Finding those products can be hard work, and we can’t depend on “local” and “organic” to get us all the way there. With a little attention, though, they can be important tools to help us on our way.

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