Anomie Soup

Recently I’ve been spending my days working frantically on my book, voraciously reading texts for my qualifying exams and—this is the best, and most exciting, part—talking animatedly about potential dissertation ideas with my colleagues. You could say that, after a two-year hiatus, I love sociology again. The only problem is that it took me getting away from the best sociology department in the country to remember it.

About those colleagues: they are graduate students in sociology from SciencesPo, Paris. They work on a spectrum of topics and come from a range of countries, but as far as I can tell, they share at least one thing in common: they actually seem to like graduate school. We all work in a big, shared office room, and every hour-and-a-half someone announces a mandatory coffee break. We take a long hour for lunch, and in that time, virtually no one brings up how stressed they are about work, how unhappy they are with their advisors, or their bleak job-market prospects.

I’m sure that if I stay long enough, I’ll find a certain amount of disaffection and dissatisfaction underneath the surface. Still, my interactions have raised a previously unthinkable proposition:: graduate school doesn’t have to be miserable. Sometimes, I think the side-by-side comparison I’m constantly making between these SciencesPo students and my compatriots at Berkeley is unfair, since I viewed Berkeley through the lens of extreme depression and I am now seeing the whole world in a sunnier light. Then again, a few of the grad students here have been to Berkeley, and a few Berkeley students have visited SciencesPo, and in both cases, the universal consensus was that Berkeley students seem really, really unhappy.

I can’t actually say that I would have been happier had I chosen a different school—I was probably due for a depressive episode, anyway. But it’s not exactly like Berkeley is set up for thriving. For one, the department is ruthlessly denigrating of collaboration and co-authorship: we were literally told in our introductory pro-seminar, “Don’t ask a professor to write something with you, they’ll say no” and “Co-authored publications count for nothing on your CV.” It’s not the department’s fault that the faculty-student ratios are so far off, but facing a sign-up sheet on a perpetually closed professor’s door, with dozens of 15 minute blocks booked for weeks into the future, doesn’t exactly give you a sense of being valued as an individual. And it doesn’t exactly make me feel great that my adviser didn’t respond to the e-mail I sent telling her I was extremely depressed and considering leaving school, the one where I said I was leaving school, or the one saying that I was thinking about coming back.

The weirdest thing that has occurred to me with a bit of distance is that Berkeley sociology is so damn un-sociological. If I wrote a dissertation that said that a social movement came from a single leader or that wealth comes from individual aptitude, I’d be laughed out of the department. As sociologists, we know that great things come from groups, not individuals. Except sociology, apparently, which comes from lone, isolated geniuses. It’s funny we read so much Durkheim, since you could argue that our dis-integrated department is designed to produce anomie.

I’m a bit of a hypocrite, because I will go back to Berkeley. The activist inside of me wants to go back and to try to change it—to join those other students trying to create some sense of community, perhaps, or maybe even start a “mental health” working group, or something. But as far as I can tell, the people at Berkeley who are happy are the ones who take what they need from the department and then invest as little in it as possible. As a really, really fantastic and inspiring and caring professor told me on a skype call recently, “Don’t come back here until you’re really ready to take advantage of it. It’s not a good place.”

Maybe they should mention that on visit weekend.

In Between Protests, I Also Do Some Sociology

At long last, my first peer-reviewed academic publication is available online in the journal Ethnography, at least to those with access to an academic database.

I wrote this as my Junior Paper at Princeton, and I have to confess that my thinking on some of these issues has evolved and matured a bit.  Still, given the theme of this article – the meaning and power of dramatic, unconventional, non-institutional protest – now seems like a rather appropriate time to see it published.


Yesterday, I was beaten, arrested, and jailed for participating in an act of civil disobedience against the privatization of education and criminalization of dissent in California.

I’ve spent the last day trying to process what happened, and writing this is an attempt to get it out of my mind and on to paper (having spent last night on a cement floor, I could use some mental solace).  There’s nothing exceptional about my experience, and yet, even knowing that, I write this grappling with a feeling of voicelessness and powerlessness that I have never before experienced.  I know that, once you start talking about “police brutality” and “police states”, you enter into a group of wild-eyed conspiracy theorists that most Americans dismiss out of hand.  I can’t control that portrayal, but for whatever reason, I need to talk about what happened, even if I can’t figure out why it has affected me so much.

We set up “Occupy Cal” in an attempt to open up our university to groups that had been excluded from it, to create a safe space to debate and discuss the future of public education, and to exercise our first amendment right to free assembly. We all knew that what we were doing was in violation of university policy—which views encampments as, somehow, on par with graffiti and building occupations insofar as they disrupt classes and harm university property—and that in doing so we risked arrest.  But, having passed a resolution explicitly declaring our encampment peaceful and non-violent, we expected those arrests to follow the rules of engagement that have defined civil disobedience since the Civil Rights era.  Cal has had occupations before – protesting against apartheid, for example – and while the university didn’t like them, it ultimately tolerated them as a means of democratic dissent.

We were wrong to think the same would happen for us.  Our encampment was torn down at 4:00 p.m., but we set up again.  At 9:30 p.m., the police issued an order to disperse.  We stayed, linking arms and chanting “Peaceful protest!”  The police advanced up to the crowd and started stabbing and beating people with batons.  Most of them were riot cops from other jurisdictions; a professor who has been here thirty years assures me that this level of militarization of police (there were officers with shotguns and rubber-bullet guns) is unprecedented.  Although the labels “violent” and “non-violent” get bandied around to the extent that they have virtually lost any meaning in public discourse, I have never seen protesters remain so defiantly peaceful in the face of such brutality.  Reasonable people can disagree about whether privatizing Cal is a good thing; no one should disagree that what this video shows is unconscionable.  I trust you to make your own decisions about who here was “violent” and who was not.

I was in front, near the side of the encampment.  A female officer walked up to me and started stabbing me in the ribs with her baton as I screamed at her that I was peaceful and not resisting her in any way.  She ordered me to back up.  This was impossible since there were lines of people behind me, and, perceiving me as refusing to comply with her orders, she continued stabbing me.  I buckled over, letting go of the people around me, because at this point I realized that only by being arrested would the beating stop.  I threw my hands up into peace signs and shouted that I wanted to be arrested non-violently.  I was not afforded that option.  I was dragged through the officers despite my attempts to comply with the officers out of my own volition.  I put my hands behind my back, but they threw me to the ground anyway.  I turned to ask what the charges were and an officer punched me back to the ground.  (If you think I’m pulling this out of my ass, watch this video at 1:40)

They cuffed me and dragged me into Sproul Hall, where they were holding around thirty of us.  An officer came and asked me my name, and I told it to her.  She then started firing off questions, and I politely told her that before I did that, I wanted to know my rights at this point in the process and when I would be able to speak to a lawyer.  She responded, “You have no rights”, to which I responded “That’s impossible.”  In one of many disturbing moments of the night, she informed me that I was wrong – and wrote me down as a non-cooperative arrestee.   That simple request will earn me extra harsh treatment in the student disciplinary process, she assured me.  Throughout the night, we were referred to as “bodies” not “people.”  I was never Mirandized.

In a sense, at this point, the worst was over.  The thirty of us supported one another, comforted one another, and inspired one another.  We were driven to a county jail in Oakland, where they booked us—threatening that because our crimes were “violent” we could not be released until an Arraignment on Monday.  In a holding cell that reeked of urine, we swapped stories, sang songs ranging from Buffalo Springfield to the Backstreet Boys, and shared a sense of camaraderie that could never be imagined in another setting.  If we were afraid, we weren’t showing it: indeed, I would love to have had the defiant moral clarity of some of my eighteen-year-old comrades.

In the end, the entire process was a sham.  I called my parents collect at 3 a.m. ($4.85 a minute—just to screw the poor a little bit more) telling them they needed to put together $20,000 in bail.  And then, right afterward, a kind officer told me that they were sure that our charges of “resisting arrest” and “participating in a riot” had no chance in court, and so they were going to cite and release us.  They took their sweet time in getting us out, but when we were again free, some of our union brothers and sisters were waiting for us with food, hugs, and their own first arrest stories.  It’s strange to have experienced such wild oscillation between human decency and human cruelty, to interact both with officers who were thoughtful and considerate and those who were mindlessly violent.

On the grand spectrum of police encounters, I’ve gotten off easy.  My injuries are confined to a cracked rib and bruised psyche.  I am an enormously privileged person in that I can get arrested and know that it will not ruin my life or manifestly affect my academic career.  I have received solidarity and comfort from friends all over the country and professors in the department I barely know.  I have not for one moment doubted that my actions were in the right, and that I have nothing to be ashamed of; this is a source of strength that holds me together.  And yet I have spent all day on the verge of crying.

I feel profoundly disempowered by what happened yesterday, in a way that has only become apparent once I left the solidarity of my fellow arrestees.  I feel violated because I no longer am safe in my own body, knowing that I can be stabbed and manhandled and the individuals responsible will face no consequences.  I feel humiliated because some of the people I have talked to seem to think that what happened last night demands no response, which suggests the worthlessness of my suffering and my cause.  I feel small because I see myself arrayed against the implacable forces of an administration bent on spinning my actions into the framework of violent, radicals seeking to disrupt life for good, law-abiding students.  I feel stupid because many of the illusions I grew up with about the rules of engagement in our political system are crumbling before me, leaving me no avenue through which to channel my anger about what has happened to me.

- – - – -

I’d rather end on a practical note.  I hope anyone reading this will consider writing Chancellor Birgeneau, who ordered the attacks, to tell him that you—as a citizen of Berkeley / California / Earth—do not approve.  We always chant “The whole world is watching” when police start attacking us.  It’d be nice to know that it’s true.

The Strange Species

It is fall and I am back on an American university campus, which can mean only one thing: I am surrounded by undergraduates.  It’s most obvious at 9:55 a.m., as I look out the window of my office to see hordes of dazed-looking late-teenagers staggering to class, clutching textbooks and coffee cups.  The lampposts on campus have blossomed with fliers advertising everything from Taiko Drumming to public interest internships; if you missed those, you’ll hear about them from various aggressive leafletters if you mistakenly stray within 200 feet of the campus center.  In the evenings, Memorial Glade is divided between intramural ultimate Frisbee teams and sunbathers enjoying the last few weeks where they can even pretend that their reasons for wearing a bikini involve getting a tan.

Frankly, it’s all so familiar—the autumn air, the mad rush between classes, and the fact that I’m studying sociology—that I can’t help but imagine myself here a few years prior, as an undergrad myself.  In fact, I practically saw myself the other day, walking among four members of the Cal Marching Band heading towards the stadium for afternoon practice.  They were carrying an assortment of trumpets and trombones, proudly sporting “Beat Stanford” t-shirts and wearing their marching band hats.  Clearly, they were blissfully unaware that—regardless of the university—being in the marching band is totally not cool.  Truly, these are my people—or at least, they would have been.  I am not going to join the Cal Marching Band, but for a second, I wished I could.  I am surrounded by temptation: opportunities to relive the glory days—or maybe, just to acquire some of the positive memories I never got around to creating.

But, unfortunately, I also remember how, as an undergraduate, I found it was a bit strange when graduate students joined groups clearly not meant for them.  Don’t they have friends their own age?  On one occasion at Princeton, my preceptor asked me to explain “The Street” to him.  “What a ridiculous question”, I thought, “How can you be a student at Princeton and not know about ‘The Street’?”  Now that I’m on the other side of the divide, though, I get it.  I wake up in the morning, run, and head into my office, which I leave only to re-caffeinate or attend class.  When I’m done, I go to my house off campus.  I’m happy with my routine—it makes me feel like an adult—but as a result, I have no idea where the undergrads here go to party, or to study, or to socialize or… hell, I don’t even know what campus looks like after 9 p.m.

I find this unfortunate because—despite the complaints bandied in our graduate student lounge about “those kids” filling our classes and competing with us for library books—I believe that undergraduates are the lifeblood of any university.  That’s not to say that the critical output of a university stems from its undergraduates, only that the university as a place and an institution and a culture depends on them.  There are, after all, no graduate student theater troupes, graduate student activist groups (beyond our union), or even graduate student parties.  There are just atomized groups of us holed up in our departments burrowing deeper and deeper into our specialities.  The figurative glue that holds campus together—the people who, quite literally, travel between our parochial ivory towers on a daily basis—are our younger peers.  And yet, even as I write exultations about their role, I haven’t actually had a single conversation with one during my time here.

The rigidity of the unofficial and unspoken separation between graduates and undergraduates would be easier for me to accept had it not been for my time at Oxford, where both sets co-mingled in the college in a way that, a few years prior, I would have thought highly unlikely.  I miss that.  I am, when all is said and done, two years older than a senior—hardly an unbridgeable rift, but one that, as I advance up the ladder of academia, I am sure will grow.

UAW Local 2865

Here’s a quick primer on how the University of California (and California State University) is completely fucked.  This year’s state budget is cutting $650 million from a system already emaciated from a 20% cut last year, with a bonus $200 million in cuts if revenues come short of projections.  Tuition has risen 67% for residents in the last five years, but it hasn’t been enough to prevent reductions in course offerings as well as the axing of various support services.  Although this agenda of privatization started long before the present economic downturn, the current rhetoric of austerity and “shared” sacrifice is providing good cover for the destruction of the world’s finest public universities.

I knew all this before I came here.  In fact, at other schools I had been warned that the Berkeley was “on the border of collapse” by some professors with ulterior motives.  What I have seen so far seems to debunk that claim: by and large, the university appears to be educating students and conducting research, if not undeterred, at least undaunted.  Still, though, the cuts are visible.  The department sent out an e-mail today noting that, because they have been forced to cut classes, there won’t be enough graduate teaching positions for all who need them.  And on our library tour, our guide informed us that it was still up-in-the-air as to whether the libraries would be open on Saturdays (though, here the cuts might be a blessing in disguise).

This is all pretty real, you might say, given that I have tethered my future livelihood to the continued existence of institutions of higher learning.  And so, today, I did what millions before me have done in the face of an assault on their livelihoods: I joined a union.

I would love to hear the story of how this came to pass, but Berkeley graduate students are represented by the United Auto Workers (yes—the guys from Detroit).  Admittedly, I have my doubts about the efficacy of what the UAW is trying to do.  Given that the root of the problem is California taxpayers who have decided that education should not be a public good, feuding with the university administration—who probably don’t much like the cuts either—over the size of our medical insurance co-pays feels a bit like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  It doesn’t help that certain unions, like that for California prison guards, are part of the problem.  But, to be honest, I didn’t just join the union to be an anti-neo-liberal activist.

Ever since I decided to pursue a career in academia, I’ve been acutely attuned to how little value most people place on my chosen field and profession.  I see this not just at the macro level of politicians deriding intellectuals and cutting higher education budgets, but also on a more quotidian scale.  It’s evident in constant questions about “What are you ever going to do with that?” and casual remarks about how I am putting of the “real world” for another six years.  I’m not so self-absorbed as to equate this with true persecution.  Rather, it has all simply added up to the realization that most people don’t quite get the point of studying sociology.

And that’s why I love being in a union.  I am a worker.  I have moved on from the passive consumption of being a student to the active production of new knowledge.  What I produce is easily as real and valuable as the spreadsheets of an investment banker or power point slides of a management consultant, even if I am not renumerated like them.  While I still have grandiose aspirations for what I will eventually do with my degree, for the time being, what I really want people to acknowledge is the simple fact that I have a job.  And how can anyone deny it, when I’m represented by UAW, the granddaddy of unions?

There is power in a union.

Part II: Michigan

Shortly before I left on my cross-country grad-school adventure, I presented a paper at my very first academic conference.  Sheffield, where the conference was located, is best known as the location of The Full Monty and as an all-around paragon of a bombed-out post-industrial city, but also has a well-respected university with a strong development studies program.  The conference was student run, so a pretty low-key event—which, given that I still know practically nothing about development, was a good thing.

Still, though, there was a pretty clear division between the four of us from Oxford and the rest of the presenters from other universities across the U.K.  We moved as a pack, dominating the panels on which one of us was speaking and then monopolizing the questioning by directing all our queries at one another.  I hate to say it, but watching the presentations, it was clear that the Oxford crowd was head-and-shoulders above the rest, at least in terms of coaching and preparation.  The division cut down to really basic things, too: who managed to connect their work to theory; who had a clear division between the literature review and data; who appeared to have proof-read their powerpoint slides.  The after-conference wine reception felt strained, as I found myself talking down Oxford as much as possible to a group of English students who clearly would kill to go there.

Reading the above paragraph, and reflecting on my experience at Sheffield, I realize something that has been dawning on me for some time: my university pedigree pretty much makes me feel like a complete twat.  When I am in the U.S., and someone outside my usual social circle asks me where I went to school, I typically mumble something about central New Jersey and change the subject as quickly as possible.  When I describe Princeton in negative terms—blasting the apathetic student body, for example—I am, more than anything, trying to hide my embarrassment at the massive leg-up Princeton has given me and avoid admitting that, deep down, I appreciate the help.  One moment, I wish I had gone somewhere that I didn’t feel so guilty about.  And yet, there is something intoxicating about the privilege of attending an elite university, and while Harvard has denied me any opportunity to complete my trifecta of douchebaggery—Princeton-Oxford-Harvard—the temptation to add another notch to my resume is undeniable.

I say all of this because I can think of no other reason than private-university snobbery why I had nearly written off the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor before I visited.  Michigan is a top-ranked department, no doubt, but non-sociologists don’t know this.  In the U.K., when I’ve expressed my enthusiasm at getting into Madison and Ann Arbor, even professors—who ought to know better—have asked “why would you go there?”  This is a stupid thing to be worrying about, except that I’m already acutely aware that getting a PhD in sociology already makes me a bit of a failure in the eyes of the people back home who thought I’d be running for Congress by now.  Even for my parents, my enthusiasm for Madison or Ann Arbor seems to a raise an eyebrow.  In a sense, I visited Michigan with the hope that I could cross it off the list and make my list a bit shorter.

This decision, it would seem, is not going to be simple.  Long preface aside, Michigan was fucking fantastic, and I loved every aspect of my three days there.  Every presentation, every faculty meeting, every conversation I had made me feel like Michigan is a department on the way up.  No one in Michigan is apologizing—a la Berkeley—about their inability to provide stipends comparable to the Ivy League; if you don’t want to come here, it’s your loss.  By the end of my first day of visiting, my head was practically exploding with ideas for research projects and papers, taking me past my dissertation and long into my career as an academic.  All the faculty with whom I spoke—ranging from the old-school Marxist stuck in the 1960s to the heady young junior professors—came off as genuinely interested in my work and ready to explain how they could contribute.  One of them even offered to read over my thesis; I guess that’s Midwestern kindness for you.

More than anything—and this is something strange, given that I’m talking about Michigan of all places—is that Ann Arbor felt like a place I would like to live the next six years of my life.  Among other things, Michigan has nailed the practice of recruiting, assigning me a “grad student buddy” with a strong interest in food politics and a talent for vegan cooking.  He, like me, seems to be working to strike a balance between academic and non-academic pursuits, rounding out serious sociology with union organizing and bike building.  The other students I met seemed genuinely happy, something I had resigned myself to not encounter very often during these tours.  I really do love the Midwest, and definitely not for the weather: there is something different about the people here, something unforced and genuine.  This, I think, is a place to which I could come and not be a douchebag.  

Michigan: the dark horse candidate.

Part I: Berkeley

There are few places where I will walk around without listening to my iPod.  As an undergraduate, even a trip down the hall to the bathroom seemed like a waste of time without earbuds.  Even at Oxford, surrounded by spectacular gothic architecture and ever-entertaining undergraduates in fancy dress, my head is still usually engrossed in whatever I am listening to.

Now that I’ve reached San Francisco Bay—the birthplace of much of my favorite music—I’ve gone iPod free.  Berkeley feels like non-stop sensory overload, in the best possible way, and I don’t want to miss a second.  I come out of the sociology building and, in one direction, hear a drum circle, and in the other, see a group of people practicing martial arts.  The town of Berkeley is itself overwhelming: it seems absurd that one place can have so many sex shops, street vendors with Bob Marley t-shirts and bongs, and vegan restaurants in such a small area.  Ganja, egg-free cinnamon rolls, and anti-nuclear petitions: they are all within reach at all times.  Even the lamppost flyers—for everything ranging from conferences for Gay Pacific Islanders to protests against budget cuts—speak to the vibrancy of the place.

Good sociology, I think, should never be too far divorced from the community in which it is practiced, and, fittingly, Berkeley-the-department reflects Berkeley-the-place.  The sociology program lacks a clear center-of-gravity, but in a good way: there seems to be someone here studying everything that sociologists study, and studying it with every different method we have available to us.  After spending two years in a place where faculty often won’t deign to meet with students who don’t share their interest in one obscure post-structural framework or passion for one particular corner of India, it’s nice to meet with professors who know nothing about what I want to study, and yet are thrilled at the prospect of helping me study it.

When I arrived, I met up with the other prospective students and current grads at a bar, where we sat outside—it’s March, but it’s beer-garden weather—and drank endless pitchers of locally-brewed ale, purchased for us by the department.  The next day, we drove into Oakland for a delicious brunch of fresh California fruit and blueberry pancakes, cooked for us by an eminent, tenured faculty member.  I had an exhilarating meeting with a potential advisor—who was conviced every idea I had was publisheable—and then left for a long run along the bay (all in the sunshine, of course).  By the end of Saturday, I was ready to sign the dotted line and commit to spending the next six years here—on the first full day of a grad school trip that was supposed to last three weeks and take me to four different schools.

What a difference a day makes.  Maybe it was simply that it was raining—a reminder that California isn’t, quite, paradise—but on Sunday, the shine had literally and figuratively already worn off.  As much as it thrills me to be in a place where people have political interests that go beyond guns and Jesus, a walk around Telegraph Avenue is an object lesson in the failures of the progressive political project in the United States.  Here we are in the most liberal Congressional distinct of the country, with more vegan bakeries, burning-man attendees, and Priuses per capita than anyone in the world—and yet with all our wealth and good intentions, we can’t figure out how to house the city’s homeless.  I ate lunch at a donation-only Indian restaurant—where patrons shelled out generously to show their commitment to a post-capitalist “gift economy”—yet as we walked out, we strode past a panhandler, averting our eyes and pretending not to hear his request for spare change.

As goes Berkeley the town, so goes Berkeley the university—in the bad as well as the good ways.  When I asked faculty members if Berkeley had any downsides, they didn’t mention any gaps in their theoretical coverage or weaknesses in their teaching methods.  Instead, they all said, “the money.”  Faculty members opined that funding isn’t what it used to be, that the budget cuts have set the university on a downward trajectory, and that they can’t compete with Stanford and Princeton for the top students anymore.  The graduate students, too, sounded a little defeated, convinced that the grass is greener and the funding is better across the bay in Palo Alto.

I have to admit, I found this element of Berkeley frustrating, and if I can’t stand it after a day, I wonder if I could take six years of it.  Where was the full-throated defense of public education, the pride at being an undeniable world-class yet taxpayer-funded institution?  Since when can Berkeley—still ranked 1st in Sociology—“not compete”?  When you produce the top candidates in the job markets and win more American Sociological Association prizes then the next four universities combined, can you legitimately claim to be the underdog?  If private universities are unbeatable, what is Yale doing in spot 20, behind Penn State?

It’s a cruel irony that here, in a place that, more than anywhere else in the U.S. is seen as the antithesis of American capitalism, we seem to only be able to talk about money.  No one can avoid talking about how much better are funding packages from the Ivies are.  Yet, rather than lamenting that Harvard has more money to throw at students, why not argue that, as scholars, getting two or three grand more a year should be low on our list of priorities?  And why are we, as students who are demographically privileged yet ideologically committed to a non-market future, so obsessed with maximizing our earning power?

Berkeley is alive and well.  But it is convinced it is in decline, and resigned to its imagined fate.

Promises I Can Keep

When I embarked on my thesis project on freeganism, I envisioned myself as following the model of some of my favourite professors—Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, David Graeber, and Peter Singer come to mind—in combining genuine academic inquiry with a strong commitment to social change.  Ít wasn’t enough to just be a neutral observer of a group confronting serious injustices; in my mind, even academics had to take a side, and find a way to give research political significance.  I envisioned myself using my study of the freegans to dispel popular myths, recruit new participants, and help the group itself develop.  As my thesis sits on my parent’s bookshelf gathering dust, though, I have to admit that I never quite figured out how exactly to spin qualitative interviews and ethnographic observation into environmental justice and economic transformation.

And, to be honest, despite the popularity of “action research” and “public sociology”, I don’t think most researchers know either.  Many in the social sciences are captivated by Foucaultian idea that “knowledge equals power”, and yet few, as far as I can tell, can actually explain what this power is good for.  All the “Green Revolution” tweets and blogs in the world couldn’t overthrow Iran’s government when the tanks and riot police rolled out, and, as far as I can tell, all the peer-reviewed articles about destruction of the Amazon have done little to stop it.  Indeed, if global warming was being reversed in proportion to the volume of academic publications about it, we’d be heading for a new ice age.

What I’m getting at, in a roundabout way, is that I think a lot of researchers make promises they can’t keep.  In our quest for data, we all too often confuse researching helping people with actually doing it.  And, worse, we use our nebulous good intentions to convince people to participate in studies, without the slightest clue of how we will ever actually follow through on these intentions.  In reality, most research is self-interested: it’s about getting titles and degrees and tenure, and the social benefits are an externality.

By no means do I think that the idea of “research-activism” should be abandoned.  That said, this summer I am being careful about the promises I make.  While it kills me to say it, I am open with myself and others about how little a master’s student can do in the face of corrupt nation-states and big-oil.  What I can offer, though, is a chance for people to tell their stories—to give them a voice, if not to guarantee an audience.

- – - – -

Today I had an interview with the founder of a rather legendary environmental movement in Ecuador.  It wasn’t the most successful interview in the world—I’ll blame language barriers, and my own awkwardness—but I snagged some useful data and came that much closer to believing that yes, really, I will have a thesis.  As usual, though, the most informative experience I had was an unexpected one.

I flagged a cab outside the office.  I started chatting with the driver, and eventually managed to steer the conversation from an incredibly important topic—whether Holland or Spain is going to win on Sunday—to a somewhat more trivial one—whether Ecuador should rape and pillage the world’s most biodiverse rainforest in pursuit of oil.  While usually when I ask about Yasuní, I get a short and equivocal answer, in this case I scored a life story.

My driver was born in the highlands, but his family moved into the Amazon—a few miles from Puyo—in the 1940s, when he was six years old.  Like so many of the colonos, they went east to find land; what my driver found, he said, was a place of spectacular biodiversity.  He passed a few minutes describing monkeys, birds, trees, and all sorts of flora and fauna of which I’ve never heard.  A few years ago, though, he returned, only to discover that the area was, in his words, a “desert.”  Not only have the environment been wiped out, but his community had disintegrated.  Once proud, if poor, farmers had lost their self-sufficiency and grown dependent on trinkets offered by the oil companies.  Things were getting worse, though: the wells were drying up, and so too was the meager stream of resources on which his community depended.

I asked him if it all this was because of oil, and he said “No, it’s not oil.  It’s people.”  Oil to him was just a proxy, a medium through which callous disregard for the natural environment and greed manifested itself.  He added that the people of the Amazon had never seen any of the benefits of oil money, but even if they had, it wouldn’t matter: “Oil doesn’t belong to anyone; it’s part of the earth, and it ought to be left in the ground.” He reflected a bit longer, “I would rather the government grow drugs than drill for oil.  Things grow back when you grow coca.”

I paid him $3 for the ride, including an absurd tip in gratitude for his wisdom and openness.  As I stepped out, he called me back: “Wait, write my name down.  I’m Guillermo Escobar, and I’m sixty-eight years old.  Tell everyone at your university what I said.”  I promised him I would.

As I read this, I know how completely cheesy what I have written sounds, and how many people would snigger at my naivety and essentialization and valorization of the “other” and all sorts of other terms of cynicism that I don’t quite understand.  But, for whatever reason, Guillermo wanted me to share what he said, and I appreciate that, for once, I can follow through.

Sink or Swim

There was a time, I imagine, when doing field work in developing countries was legitimately scary.  Anthropologists studying remote islands or indigenous tribes might be cut off from contact with their home countries for years.  Without the internet or television, their immersion in their place of study was total and non-stop, even in the worst depths of frustration and homesickness.  Health care could be spotty and diseases unfamiliar and dangerous.  Lest I sound like I’m romanticizing old school anthropology too much, I should add that researchers could also be endangered, largely thanks to their close association with colonialism.

Of course, as a masters student preparing to go for a mere nine weeks to a modern—if poor—country, with Western restaurants and hospitals and internet cafes, where certainly thousands have gone before to do research, I have nothing to be afraid of.

But shit, I am so scared right now.

Of course, there are some practical worries.  It’d be nice to know that there’s going to be readily available vegetarian food, but I’m expecting to subsist off of bananas.  I’m generally a pretty carefree traveler, but seeing Orellana Province on the state department travel advisory list and reading about the abundance of muggings in Quito has me a bit concerned.  There are all manner of tropical diseases and motor accidents that could occupy my brain, if I weren’t so busy stressing about where I’m actually going to live and who I’m going to talk to.  But, really, these are just practicalities, and I know I can handle them.

Chalk part of my fear up to language.  I’m not sure what the worst mistake I’ve ever made in my life is, but right now, dropping Spanish my sophomore year feels like a strong contender.  I’ve been practicing frantically the last few months, but I know that my ability to hold a conversation in my head is very different from being able to communicate about complex ideas with an actual person.  I’m spending my first two weeks in Ecuador taking intensive language classes, but 40 hours of one-on-one training does not make one fluent.

My mediocore Spanish, though, is, in my brain, symbolic of the broader insanity of this project and, maybe, research in general.  Somehow, I’m supposed to go to a country which I’ve never even visited, talk to people for a few weeks, and, at the end, produce “knowledge.” There is, I think, a certain uncomfortable arrogance to it: the idea that I, Westerner, Oxonian, can offer something that hundreds of other academics can’t.  I make these things harder for myself, too, be obsessing not just over whether I will be able to write a good thesis—all our department really cares about—but whether I can do so ethically, respectfully, and in a way that does enough good for the communities that help me to justify it.  It’s a tall order, and one that I wonder if I managed to fulfill in my previous work with the freegans (and they spoke English!).

And, my fears get even more abstract.  If I can’t make it as a research this summer, how can I ever make a career of it?  If I’m so afraid of talking people, scared of being rejected in requests for interviews or laughed at for cultural faux-paus, why am I so interested in a field where the currency is human interaction?  If I’m this paralyzed preparing for nine weeks, how would I feel before leaving for a year or two to do a dissertation?

Yesterday, I went to the hospital to get my arm looked at.  As they took x-rays, I half dreamed that they would discover some bizarre new fracture which would, for some reason, prevent me from going.  I had a moment where I thought about another summer spent living with my phenomenal housemates, a year to brush up on Spanish and figure out how to make it where I am without throwing myself into someplace new.

But, of course, that’s all nonsense.  The cast is gone, and there’s no turning back now.  Sink or swim.

- – - – -

Jukebox: Rise Against – Survive

So, this is learning

As far as I can tell, about three weeks before exams, most Oxford students cease to be human beings.  No, really: having an exam within the next month is a universally accepted excuse for abandoning all commitments and getting out of anything, ranging from rowing practice to doing the dishes.  Somehow, though, I seem to lack the focus and dedication for extended, single-minded exam preparation and so, despite a looming test that will determine whether I qualify for a second year in my program, I continue to search out meetings and activities between which to over-strech my time.

Last night, my procrastination-through-activism took me to the annual meeting of the Oxford Animal Ethics Society.  As secretary of the Oxford Student Vegetarian Society, I’ve know for a while that the two groups should probably be coordinating our efforts.  I haven’t been particularly proactive, though, because as far as I can tell, like most political groups at Oxford, the Animal Ethics Society doesn’t really do anything.

The meeting was held in the small, very English townhouse of Professor Andrew Linzey—a jovial and quitisentially Oxford tutor of philosophy and theology.  When I arrived, I was led into a dimly lit back room, crammed with teetering piles of books, Persian rugs, and antique furniture, with a pair of contentedly rotund cats to round out the scene.  The meeting was attended by a half-dozen graduates, post-docs, and professors, four of whom studied classics and had the eccentric personalities to match.

As “Annual General Meetings” go, the event was a bit of a bust.  We heard a report on the group’s funds (it has none), its activities (few), and chose new officers (elected in abstentia—they had exams).  Having dealt with this procedural nonsense for ten minutes, Professor Linzey then declared the meeting adjourned, and announced to me, the only newcomer, that “We in the Animal Ethics Society smoke and drink, a lot.”

For the next four hours, I hobnobbed with the other attendees about, well, everything.  We talked about our pipe-dreams for a vegetarian campus and debated this year’s candidates for the infamous Oxford Professor of Poetry position.  A classicist from Northern Ireland told me about her absurdly ivory-tower academic interests (she studies references to poetry made within Greek poetry), and I learned how to swear in Ancient Greek.  I was grilled about my religious beliefs, research interests, and about academic life at Princeton.  All the while, Professor Linzey—who must be nearing seventy—poured endless quantities of vegan wine and aggressively offered cigars, pipes, and cigarettes to the rest of us, as we gradually sunk deeper and deeper into the overstuffed armchairs around the room.

For all our stress, our terror about tenure and funding and professorships and placements and peer review, nights like this remind me that academia remains the greatest gig in the world.  The only experience I can describe as being quite comparable came my senior year at Princeton, when Professor Fernandez-Kelly invited me to her Christmas “Pig Fest.” Those familiar with my rather storied history with PFK would probably not be surprised to hear that she insisted I stay at the departmental bacchanalia long past when most of the other guests had left.  By midnight, Paul DiMaggio—the most cited sociologist of all time—was drunkenly hammering away at a piano, while the rest of the department seemed to have collectively discovered that they would appear more intellectual if they suddenly took up smoking.  As the night ended, Alejandro Portes, the department chair, stood up and declared, “Since we are sociologists, we are therefore also socialists. So please join me in the singing of the Communist International in your native language.”  While I’m still slightly in disbelief that this actually happend, I then listened as the song was sung—in unison—in Yiddish, Russian, Spanish, Italian, and English.

Returning to Oxford, though; at the end of the night, the topic of conversation briefly shifted to my own future plans.  When I mentioned that I thought I wanted to return back to the United States to do a PhD, Professor Linzey asked why, if that was the case, was I bothering to do a tangential master’s degree in Oxford?  Why not just go straight through, get my schooling over with, and move on?

He had, of course, been answering his own question all night.

- – - – -

Jukebox: Good Clean Fun – Beat the Meat