Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"They want everything for nothing!"

As I've mentioned before in this blog, I'm a fan of Harlan Ellison.  And as it happens, one of his rants has been proving particularly salient of late.

This came to mind over the ongoing debate over the function of MOOCs as a tool of online education.  Greg Downey posts a good summary of the debates, promises and misgivings of Massive Open Online Courses.  Now, naturally I'm a big booster of online education in general, as it's the primary venue where I get to teach anthropology while holding a full time job.  What galls me about some of the enthusiasm over MOOCs is the dreams of Thomas Friedman and his ilk - the idea that they will effectively upend higher education with a few elite instructors teaching hundreds of thousands of students in lieu of a traditional college education. 

Friedman seems not to be aware of (or care about) the fact that traditional academia has already been gutted, with no small amount of the teaching load being upheld by adjunct instructors who teach without tenure or benefits.  The growth of online education has opened more opportunities for adjuncts to obtain something more like a living wage by teaching at multiple institutions.  And here comes Friedman saying we can reduce education costs by replacing instructors with free courses teaching thousands.  As if the situation for career academics isn't precarious enough.  In a way, this situation differs from Ellisons rant about being undercut by amateurs, since this call is for the elites to squelch the rest of the academic workforce through a kind of Social Darwinism. PZ Myers weighs in by essentially throwing down the gauntlet against MOOC proponents. 


Monday, April 22, 2013

Icelandic names and consanguinity

In the "searching the news for something not utterly horrible" category, there is this recent story on the Islendiga-App - the App for Icelanders.  Basically, this smartphone app allows any two individuals to "bump phones" and discover how closely related they are as a preventative measure against inbreeding.  Apparently, the app makes use of the Islendingabok, the online genealogical database for Icelanders which cross-references the extensive census records, church registries and personal genealogies with molecular DNA data.  I should note that, in reference to a major personal research interest, Iceland is probably the only western nation where traditional isonymy research is ineffective due to the use of patronymic (and occasionally matronymic) name systems.  In other words, Icelandic children derive their surname from the first name of their father (and occasionally mother).  For example, my surname would be "Thomasson", whereas my son would be "Kevinsson."  This pretty much invalidates the surname as a genetic proxy, although in the case of Iceland the extensive geneaological records provide an alternative for assessing consanguinity via archival methods.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The 2013 AAPA Meetings

Hear in Knoxville for the 2013 AAPA meetings, where I presented a poster on a micro-isonymy study of the effects of immigration on population structure.  I'm always pleased when my presentations generate interest, especially since isonymy is such an arcane topic these days.  Across from my poster, in the paleoanthropology session, I noticed a presentation which proposed that the so-called "Hobbit" (Homo floresiensis) was in fact a child with Downs Syndrome.  This was emphasized when someone put up a hand lettered sign reading "the Hobbit goes down" at the top of the poster.  I will try to find a link to this work shortly. 

Also got to meet and chat with Jon Marks a bit.  We discussed race in anthropology, as well as the value of using material from somewhat dubious sources in class for students to learn about critical thinking.  I'm also happy to say I exercised an admirable degree of restraint at the book tables this years, though I did get gifts for the family.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The value of grad school - it's all relative.

In the last few days there's been a debate over the value of graduate education, spurred in large part by a Slate article warning anyone and everyone that Ph.D programs are a one way road to misery and destitution.  This article was the basis of a critique by tressiemic, who noted that while graduate education might not be the path to fortune and glory suggested by some popular notions of tenured professorship, it can be quite valuable for minority students and job seekers for whom graduate credentials prove quite useful in overcoming institutional racism

Both of these articles made me reflect om my own circumstances.  Although the Slate article was written from the perspective of a humanities student, I can attest that the bitterness and second guessing of ones life choices are a universal element to graduate school, be it biology, engineering or fashion design.  In the case of anthropology, I've heard and felt the bitterness expressed in the Slate article, regardless of subfield.  Speaking personally, I certainly don't lack for employment and do well enough for the area I live in, but this is because I work full time in addition to being an adjunct instructor.  So on the one hand, my graduate degree has led me into a career path common across the modern workforce where middle class seekers work two or more jobs to attain the same level of comfort their parents achieved with one.  On the other hand, my job is something I decided I wanted to be in the 3rd grade, I don't work in a cubicle, and I don't have to wear a suit to work (well, I could if I wanted to, but it's a bit impractical when digging 1 x 1 units).  Overall, my graduate education has been a net positive. 

My 2 cents for anyone thinking of pursuing graduate work? 

1) Chose a topic you love, and can see yourself doing for the rest of your life.
2) Go into the program with a very clear idea for a topic and how you want to pursue it. 
3) Don't idealize your topic - IT'S NOT YOUR LIFE!  It's a means to an end.  I had a conversation with Daniel Lende after his talk at Binghamton, and he really hit the nail on the head when he told me to think of the Ph.D as your union card.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

And we're back....

It's been awhile since the last post (nearly 2 years in fact), but as of today Southern Tier Biohistory is back in business.  There were a few issues that caused this long hiatus, not the least of which were some technical issues related e-mail provider switches.  But the main issues were time constraints.  In the two years this blog has been asleep, I have become an adjunct instructor at Broome Community College (soon to be SUNY Broome).  I now teach the online versions of Introduction to Archaeology and Introduction to Biological Anthropology.  With online courses, the majority of the course prep occurs long before the course begins, especially when it's your first go at it.  In addition, I still teach my summer courses at Binghamton University, all while working full time at Public Archaeology Facility.  So blogging took a far backseat.

Now, thanks to a lull in course development duties, as well as the encouragement from Jason Antrosio over at Living Anthropologically, I've gotten things off the ground again.  And it's an interesting time to be an anthropology blogger, or at least it has been for the past years.  In the time I've been out, I've missed the recent Jared Diamond and Napoleon Chagnon controversies, not to mention the targeting of our field by Florida governor Rick Scott.  But rather than beating dead horses, I'd like to move on with the focus of this blog.  In the next few days I'll have information on not one but two archaeological field schools offered this summer at Binghamton University,  more recent isonymy research, and the upcoming meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropology...

Stay tuned, and welcome back.