Failed research ought to count

Failed research projects ought to count for something! It’s too bad they don’t. They just disappear into nowhere, it seems to me: into filing cabinets, abandoned notebooks, or forgotten folders on some computer. The data goes nowhere; nothing is published about it and no talks are given; no blog posts are written and no credit is claimed. You stop telling anyone you’re working on your dead projects, once they’re dead.

I’m imagining here that other social researchers are like me: they have a lot of ideas for research projects, but only some of them come to fruition. Here are some of mine:

  • Interview project on the personal experience of people applying to graduate school in English and Physics. (It got started, but didn’t have a successful strategy for subject recruitment.)
  • Interview project on student representatives to university Boards of Trustees in the Chicago area. (I got started with this, but didn’t have the time to continue.)
  • Historical research project on what I hypothesized was a long-term decline of organized campus labor at the University of Chicago. (I only ever did some preliminary archival poking around.)
  • Project on faculty homes in the Paris region. (I only had fragmentary data about this, and it was too hard to collect more, and never the main focus of my work.)
  • Discourse analysis project on “bad writing” in the U.S. humanities. (I did write my MA thesis about this topic, but it needed a lot more work to continue, and for now it just sits there, half-dead.)

Continue reading Failed research ought to count

Herd overproduction and star overproduction

I’ve been thinking about certain scholars who have written, for lack of a more precise way of putting it, a lot. The sort of people who seem to write a book a year for thirty years. I don’t necessarily mean scholars in, say, the laboratory sciences, but more like the humanists, the anthropologists, the philosophers. Today a post by Brian Leiter quoting a caustic review of the prolific scholar Steve Fuller reminded me of the topic.

If one description of scholarly activity is “producing knowledge,” then logically, wouldn’t we expect that there would be such a thing as “overproducing knowledge”? Can there be an overproduction crisis of scholarship?

Continue reading Herd overproduction and star overproduction

A day in campus IT

One day back when I was working in my campus IT job, I jotted down some notes on a day at work. I was in the middle of working on a web application that we were building to keep track of graduate student degree progress, so this is the story of a day in the life of that project. It was full of interruptions.

9:12 am. I’ve just finished getting my coffee, refilling my water bottle, and saying a gruff Hello to the guys across the hall who do desktop support. They seemed busy. All four of them: a recent arrival from California, right out of college with a bony face; an undergrad; a Ukrainian who has been here for five years; and a guy from downstate Indiana, in his late 30s, who previously worked at a cable company and now manages our group. It’s a fairly masculine environment, which I’ve talked about with the manager before, but our group is slowly becoming more diverse, which I’ve felt glad about.

Back at my desk, which is marked by three enormous computer monitors and a futuristic ergonomic keyboard, I get an email from someone who’s leaving the university: “Yes, today’s my last day.” I ask if she can do one last piece of work before she leaves, sending out an email announcing a new project. I know she’s had that item on her agenda for the past few weeks, but probably got overwhelmed and couldn’t get to it earlier.

Now I’m revising the code that calculates a currentTerm property (that is, it figures out the current academic term) for our student tracking application. I used to generate the current term using a lazy approximation, by just dividing the year evenly in 4 quarters, 3 months each:

Continue reading A day in campus IT

New Years

Outside my new house, which is currently full of half-unpacked boxes and lamps waiting to be reunited with their shades, there’s a palm tree. If you go out and descend the fourteen steps from the front door, you’ll pass a series of low houses, and, finding yourself at the corner of a shady boulevard, you can arrive, after another minute, at a large sign reading Whittier College, where I’ve just started working as a postdoctoral fellow.

I got hired largely because I had a background in both anthropology and web programming. These past few years, while I was finishing my dissertation, I was also working full-time as a web applications programmer for the University of Chicago’s Humanities Division. Mainly I built administrative applications for them — internal software to keep track of student progress, keys, endowments, course scheduling, that sort of thing. I also worked on some research projects — Scrolling Paintings and the Digital Media Archive were the most interesting — and used a bunch of handy technology, like ansible, solr, ruby on rails, ember.js, drupal, shibboleth, LDAP, nginx, postgres, or redis. It was an unusual job, because a lot of universities don’t have in-house software development, but I learned a lot there.

In any event, my new job in Whittier is half in the Anthropology Department and half in the Digital Liberal Arts Center. This spring I’m teaching a class on digital cultures, and next fall, I’m thinking of teaching a class on anthropology of education, and another about web programming. And I’m working on a couple of book projects coming out of my dissertation — one’s going to be about the French faculty protest movement in 2009, the other about the Philosophy Department at Paris 8 — and hope to be able to blog much more regularly, at last.

Last day in Paris (2011)

I’m not sure whether this little descriptive passage from my fieldnotes will ever have much use in academic discourse, but it does remind me quite vividly of urban space in my fieldsite.

May 4, 2011. Last day in Paris. A man across from me on the metro dangles one hand in his crotch and texts with the other. A woman across the aisle is chewing gum and has flipflops with painted nails. The day is hazy, footsteps tap on the car floor, the train squeals as it accelerates; it picks up speed and the cement panels flash by and the advertising, CHOISISSEZ LE LOOK MALIN it says in orange on blue, hint of a smell of pastries, of sweaters, thrashing of the air through the open windows. I’m aboard the 14 train going to Saint-Denis to see a friend one last time; it sighs, the train, the man across from me now replaced by another, he rises, a woman gathers her purse, staggers a little as she gets off as the train shudders, with its long tube of fluorescent lights, with the grey of the car and the black of the tube that the tube of the train rushes along, rushes through; and I’m elbowed gently, but fortunately it’s not a période de pointe.

Continue reading Last day in Paris (2011)

On real problems

I came across a confrontational moment in one of my interview transcripts. We had been talking about philosophers’ metanarratives about “truth.” But my interlocutor found my questions a bit too oblique.

Philosopher: But I don’t know — you aren’t interested in the solutions to problems?

Ethnographer: The solutions to philosophical problems for example?

Philosopher: Problems! Real ones! For example do you consider that the word “being” has several senses? Or not? Fundamental ontological question. Do you accept that there are several senses or one? It changes everything. And what are your arguments one way or the other?

Ethnographer: Well me personally I’m not an expert—

Continue reading On real problems

Boredom as a practice

I was reading through my field notebooks lately and I came across a little ethnographic snippet of description. It is a description of a male French student sitting in a classroom and getting bored. The more bored he got, the more he seemed to invent new ways to exhibit and alleviate his boredom. His boredom became generative, I would almost say. It seemed to try to overcome itself.

What, then, is boredom as a practice?

To stack two pens one on the next.

To roll the pens in the pen case, a Mexican folk art/hippie-esque knit bag with a dark zipper.

To test a pen.

To put new ink in it.

To try to wipe off the ink with a whiteout marker.

To cradle the back of the neck in your palm.

To send an SMS, surreptitiously, keeping your phone mostly still in your pocket.

To sigh and lean back, one arm crossed, in white t-shirt and jeans.

To put one foot up on the chair to retie your shoelace.

To sit sidesaddle in your seat.

To stare intently at the ethnographer’s notebook, looking away when the ethnographer glances at you.

To look at the ethnographer’s notebook again as soon as he lets his guard down…

[Field notebook V, p.35]

Anthropologists have sometimes claimed that when ethnographic subjects “look back” at the ethnographer, that this is almost a political act: a way of challenging the power relationship that normally sets the observer up and over the person being observed. Here I’m not sure that that’s what it was. Here I think that looking over the ethnographer’s shoulder at their notebook was more of an attempt to escape the tedium of a local situation.

Graduation day

I’ve now had the Ph.D. in hand for about three weeks. It is in a large brown folder. It looks pretty official. There is, if anything, something incongruous about the notion that years of one’s work and passion can be adequately compensated by a shiny document.

Now that that small matter is behind us, I hope to have more time to write — here, and other places.

Modernity isn’t philosophical

Here’s a tidbit from before Sarkozy was President that gives a certain sense of how his administration was likely to regard philosophy, and the humanities in general:

« Nicolas n’est pas quelqu’un qui se complaît dans l’intellect, assure le préfet Claude Guéant, directeur de cabinet place Beauvau, puis à Bercy. J’ai beaucoup côtoyé Jean-Pierre Chevènement. Il lisait de la philosophie jusqu’à 2 heures du matin, c’était toute sa vie, les idées prenant parfois le pas sur l’action. Nicolas, lui, est d’abord un homme d’action. Quand il bavarde avec Lance Armstrong ou avec un jeune de banlieue, il a vraiment le sentiment d’en tirer quelque chose. Dès qu’il monte en voiture, la radio se met en marche. Il aime les choses simples, les variétés, la télévision. En cela, il exprime une certaine modernité. Les Français ne passent pas leur temps à lire de la philosophie… »

“Nicolas isn’t someone who revels in the intellect,” asserted the prefect Claude Guéant, chief of staff at the Ministry of the Interior and then at the Ministry of Finance. “I’ve spent a lot of time with [the Socialist politician] Jean-Pierre Chevènement. He read philosophy until two in the morning, all his life, ideas sometimes took precedence over action. Nicolas, on the other hand, is primarily a man of action. When he chats with Lance Armstrong or with a kid from the slums, he really feels like he’s getting something out of it. As soon as he gets in a car, the radio’s on. He loves simple things, variety, TV. In that, he expresses a certain modernity. The French don’t spend their time reading philosophy…”

A certain modernity is the opposite of time wasted on philosophy books…

critical anthropology of academic culture