All posts by Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is adjunct assistant professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Old Dominion University and a student in the School of Information Science at the University of Tennessee. He was once cast as a soldier in Andrew Jackson's army in a theatrical production on an Indian reservation.

2013 – Year in review

What a year it was for Savage Minds!

This was the year our site went down and stayed down. It was a perfect storm of poor planning and technical failure, but we do expect all of our old posts to be resurrected eventually (although we don’t know exactly when that will be). In the meantime we created a new site and you can find many of our old posts are still available through the Internet Archive. A few from late January through early March seem to be still lost at sea… Life is impermanence, little blog posts.

We had a lot of great guest bloggers this year and hope to feature more in the year to come. If you already have experience blogging and would like to share your talents with Savage Minds please check out our guidelines for contributors. If you haven’t tried blogging yet, get a free account and put yourself out there! What have you got to lose?

The top twenty posts of the year are in bold.

Professionalization, academic culture, and the labor of teaching remained among our most pressing concerns. Steven Tran-Creque wrote about the Absent Future of jobs in academia and the anger it inspires in him. I got interviewed for the Chronicle of Higher Education where I talked about moving on to Plan B when being an adjunct doesn’t work out. I also wrote about surviving trick questions in job interviews. And Rex paused to skewer an op-ed calling for a shake-up of the social sciences. Hint: it’s all about the Benjamins and I’m not talking about Walter.
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Anthropological New Year's Resolutions

All day today has felt like Sunday, but really its Wednesday. I can’t say that New Year’s Day or making resolutions is a big thing for me. I think the last resolution I made was a few years ago. I said I would go to a play at the community theater that is one block away from my house and I never went. Still haven’t been!

Why write a blog post about making resolutions in anthropology? My kids are playing with their Kindles they got for Christmas so I have a moment alone. So why not?!

  1. Finish what you started. Last summer I was going to read Frazer’s Golden Bough and didn’t even make it half-way. I’m gonna finish that! And I’m going to stop picking up projects and not see them through to the end.

  2. I’m going to begin designing a website for my Master’s thesis in Information Science at UTenn. If I work on it a little bit every day its going to look awesome by the start of the fall semester. By this time next year I want to be ready to write up the thesis.

  3. The AAA’s are in DC and I’m going to go! I can’t really afford to go to conferences anymore, but DC is as close as they come. Maybe I’ll do a paper on my MA thesis project and maybe I’ll host some DANG event.

Okay, kids are all up in my face now. It’s the last vacation day before they’re back to school so I’m going to go play with them.

What are you going go to do with your year?

Report on AAA adjunct rights resolution

[Savage Minds welcome guest columnist Andrea Morrell, Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at Guttman Community College in NYC. Andrea was our eyes and ears at the AAA business meeting as the Executive Committee received the Committee on Labor Relations' resolution on contingent faculty. Ironically underpaid adjuncts are the very group least likely to afford to attend professional conferences, so we are very grateful to Andrea for her contribution that a more inclusive audience might learn about our Association's ongoing efforts.]

It will likely come as no surprise to readers of Savage Minds that the number of adjunct and contingent faculty (a group that includes part-time or adjunct faculty, grad students and teaching assistants, postdoc appointments, and full-time non-tenure track faculty) teaching courses in U.S. colleges and universities has nearly doubled since 1975. The predominance of contingent and adjunct academic faculty has serious implications for the integrity of college teaching and for academic freedom, but for adjunct and contingent faculty members the most pressing issue is often the material difficulties of making only $2500 per course. Teaching a full load—at many colleges three courses per semester—an adjunct would earn a mere $15,000 a year. Sometimes it is far less.

In addition to the poverty of these wages, the nature of the adjunct or contingent academic’s relationship to their employer is by definition precarious: wages cannot always be relied upon semester to semester and year to year. This precarity is hard for our families, it is hard on our bodies, and it is, quite simply, hard to pay the rent.

So what does this mean for us as anthropologists and for our largest professional organization, the AAA?
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Around the Web Digest

Welcome back AAA conference-goers, while you sleep off your hangovers/ jet-lag use your ample free time to catch up on all the links you missed. Please follow us @savageminds or like or Facebook page to get anthropology themed news, blogs, and other interesting Internet flotsam on a semi-daily basis. Twitter users will want to check the second to last bullet point, Kerim has shared his growing list of anthropologists on Twitter. If you’ve spied something around the web that you’d like to share with the Savage Minds community email me at Happy clicking!


Copyright Law and Scholarly Communication — An Intro

In late October we marked the 6th International Open Access Week and in honor of the occasion the Perry Library at Old Dominion University (my employer) invited copyright attorney Kimberly Bonner to give a talk on negotiating agreements with scholarly publishers. The talk, “Scholarly publishing agreements: what you don’t know can hurt you, your university, and your peers,” fell ironically on Halloween day.

Bonner, who has 15 years experience in copyright law, presented a jokey easy going demeanor which helped deliver a rather dry topic. She was also kind enough to permit me to record her talk and post it to the Savage Minds blog. Now granted this is not a complete introduction to the vagaries of copyright as it pertains to scholarship, but if you currently know zip then you’ll know slightly more after listening to the talk.

In the space below I provide a chronology of the different topics Bonner touched on. I will place some bookmarks on the Soundcloud page later, that will help in case you don’t won’t to listen to the whole thing or want to come back to your favorite part. Continue reading

A hunter-gatherer in the stacks

For one of my library school assignments I had to bring something new to the class. I chose to report on an article out of The Library Quarterly, “An Optimal Foraging Approach to Information Seeking and Use,” (Vol. 64, No. 4, Oct. 1994, pp.414-449) by Pamela Sandstrom. Since I teach hunter-gatherer food foraging behavior in my Introduction to Anthropology class I was interested to see whether the application of evolutionary ecology to information seeking behavior was warranted. Was this a genuinely productive application of the model or if it was merely an interesting metaphor?

Prior to grad school I never had an interest in human ecology, but through my studies with Brian Billman and Bruce Winterhalder (and via being married to biologist) this has become one of the defining attributes of my anthropological worldview. In fact I remember Old Man Winterhalder mentioning in class that his work modeling forager behavior had been cited in research on how people find information on the Internet. It was a treat to finally get around to reading something that had been recommended to me about twelve years ago!

In a nutshell optimal foraging theory (OFT) describes animal/ resource relationships such as predator-prey, mate seeking, or how tribal peoples living in small-scale societies acquire wild foods. The basic components of the theory include an actor who is making choices, a currency that measures costs and benefits, any constraints that limit or otherwise shape behavior, and a strategy that specifies a range of possible options for the actor.

Imagine you are a woman who feeds her family by collecting nuts and berries. You walk to your favorite nut grove but some wild boars have beaten you there and they’ve already eaten most of the ground fall. Which course of action would be a better use of your time: carefully picking through the remaining nuts or walking out of your way to the next grove? Or say you are a man with a spear out hunting free roaming wild animals. You come across the tracks of an antelope: should you invest your energy in following this fast moving animal or look for something that’s easier to catch? We are all descended from ancestors who successfully answered similar questions.
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AAA to hear resolution on contingent and part-time academic labor

At the AAA business meeting, the Committeee on Labor Relations (Sharry Kasmir, chair) will bring forward a resolution on adjunct rights. If you are attending the meeting on Thursday and care about adjunct rights please come to show your support. For this resolution to go forward there has to be a quorum met, so it is vital that we have enough warm bodies in the room.

That’s Thursday, 11/21 at 6:15pm.


Whereas the number of faculty members teaching in the US in non-tenure track, contingent positions—defined as part-time or adjunct faculty, full-time non-tenure track, postdoctoral teachers, or graduate student teaching assistants—has more than doubled since 1970;

And today these colleagues teach more than 75% of classes nationwide;
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Grambling State as football in dialectic

The corporate enclosure of American academia continues apace. Some current events have brought this into sharper focus, both revolving around the mania for assessment. A third news story offers us hope in the guise of some unlikely role models.

Does anything embody neoliberalism in education to a greater degree than standardized testing? While I’m not expert enough to proclaim a starting point for neoliberalism (the late, great Neil Smith took a stab at it) and can remember well sitting through ITBS all the way back in 1984 Texas, we can acknowledge No Child Left Behind as a symbolic and significant policy event shaping the contemporary education scene. NCLB was supposed to be the centerpiece of Bush’s promised “compassionate conservativism” and, indeed, it does have a sensible conservative principle at its core. Recipients of public monies ought to be held accountable such that resources flow to more effective programming.

Anyone shepherding their children through public K-12 education knows what this has meant in practice. Stress and anxiety imposed on young bodies by high stakes testing. Weeks and weeks of teaching to the test. Loss of teacher’s instructional freedom. Disciplining young bodies into docility before computer monitors, diligently clicking away with a mouse for hours. Hours for a little kid to take these tests ya’ll.

Hey! I’ve got a great idea! Let’s bring standardized testing to higher education and use student performance on the test to assess faculty. A recent article in the Chronicle, “States Demand That Colleges Show How Well Their Students Learn” 10/28/13 (behind paywall but worth reading if you have access), describes just such a movement.
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Bloggers and Digital Anthropologists Unite at AAA

In late November the American Anthropological Association will convene its 112th annual meeting in little town right outside Gary, Indiana, and the name of that town is Chicago! The AAA conference gives professional anthropologists (particularly cultural anthros) a chance to preview some of the latest research in their fields, chime in at section business meetings, and hug old friends. For those of us active in the blogosphere, tweetosphere, and other technological hoohah we’re given a chance to put faces to the screen names.

Last year some of us collaborated to create what’s called a “interest group,” a club basically, within the AAA for those of interested in digital anthropology. The DANG organizational business meeting was a roaring success, ideas were floated, business cards were exchanged, hands were uhm… shaken? shook? Anyways, it was a great time and we do in fact have a tangible and official result that you can participate in at this year’s conference as a result. “Bridging digital and physical publics: Digital anthropologists’ current engagement with 21st century publics” chaired by Bonnnie Nardi (UC-Irvine) and Sydeny Yeager (SMU) is on the preliminary program for Friday morning.

DANG is grateful to the Society for Visual Anthropology who reached out to us and invited us to submit a conference panel proposal for them to review. Bloggers and other digirati: if you have this slot free in your schedule please join us at the panel so that we can make plans to socialize later. Sydeny tells me she’s interested in meeting people over lunch afterwards. In the past we’ve had great turn outs for our AAA tweet-up where bloggers and tweeters show up at a nearby pub one night. Someone will take the initiative for this in mid-November. Probably a Chicago alum. Rex, I’m looking in your general direction…

Of course not everyone has the opportunity to travel — conferences are pricey. I know! I’m still paying off my credit card from the last one. But for those of you who will be present I would invite you to take this space on Savage Minds to begin thinking about meeting up in meatspace. If you’re a blogger and will be at the conference or are presenting on topics related to digital anthropology tell us about your blog or panel in the comments section. Viva DANG!

Around the Web Digest

The kids have this thing called Twitter and since most of us Savages are courting a mid-life crisis we decided it would be a good idea to get hip and shout the academic equivalent of “Get off my lawn” from our respective ivory towers. Now if only we could afford convertibles everything would be all right! Follow us @savageminds or like our Facebook page, which pretty much has the same thing. If you’re actively avoiding the timesuck of social networks, you’re in luck because ever month or two I collect all the tweets here on the blog. If you’ve seen something around the web that you’d like to share with the Savage Minds community, email me at [] or tweet back at us. So, without further ado here’s a selection of what we were reading in August and September.


An anthropologist among the librarians

It’s been more than five weeks since I first settled in Librarilandia and the natives are starting to accept me as one of their own. Since navigating the perilous voyage to this out of the way place and enduring countless humiliations as I’ve embarrassed myself in a bumbling effort to learn their customs and expectations I have finally begun networking in earnest. The pace of the note taking has picked up too. Now, having studied at the feet of the Librarian elders, I can begin to offer these first insights, hunches, and observations.

In the mode of Ruth Benedict, here’s a list of “Anthropologists do this… but Librarians do that.”

  1. Information Science has an ambivalent relationship to science

What was once called “library science” is now increasingly known as “information science,” but what is so scientific about it? Much like in anthropology it is in part a rhetorical move, to position oneself in a way to claim the authority of science. Which is not to say that science is absent. Anthropology is inclusive too of ecology and evolution, Boas saw the application of cultural relativism in the scientific method as making a break with the amateur scholars of the Victorian Era, and even the Writing Culture crowd argues that radical reflexivity is actually in keeping with more empiricism, not less. Similarly for the information sciences. It has its toes dangling into the waters of mathematics, logic, and computer programing. It has a tradition of what I would call “scientistic” internal communications: they love charts and graphs and diagrams. But there just aren’t a whole lot of natural laws about information, so it is still very humanistic in its orientation.

  1. Regardless of the science issue, librarians are still positivists Continue reading

Colonial Entanglement [Book Review]

Colonial Entanglement [book review]

Dennison, Jean. 2012. Colonial Entanglement: Constituting a Twenty-first Century Osage Nation. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill.

Framed by the public debates surrounding the Osage Nation’s moment of constitutional reform in the mid-2000s this ethnography illuminates the diversity of ways Osage define themselves and imagine their future as a polity, creating and negotiating ideas of self and nation. The first book from Jean Dennison, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Colonial Entanglement makes a strong contribution to the study of American Indian identity. It will be a must-read for anyone working with Native nations in the midst of institutional reform.


Contemporary relationships between Native Nations and their land can be shaped by complicated colonial histories. The Osage situation is especially convoluted! The colonizer did something unique to the Osage and Dennison begins by orienting the reader. In 1906 when the reservation was allotted, the mineral rights were separated from the surface lands. Some Osage held mineral wealth as a collective but all individuals held their land as ordinary private property. Thus the tribal membership roll is greater than the number of members with shares in the mineral trust. To be an Osage citizen you have to be a lineal descendant of someone on the 1906 roll, but all the headrights to the mineral trust were distributed at the moment of allotment. To have a share of the mineral trust you have to be descended from someone who was allotted and that’s a more select group than those who are enrolled.

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Around the Web Digest

Every day at Savage Minds we are diligently scouring the web for the best and most relevant current events and anthropology blogs. Ha! No not really. We just throw some stuff up on Twitter every once in awhile. But some of it is actually pretty good. At the first of the month I re-post our tweets here on the blog, just in case you missed one.

If you like your links a little more fresh, I invite you to follow us @savageminds or like our Facebook page. And if you’ve seen something around the web that you’d like to share with our community you can reach me at [].

Best Worst Job Interview

I know its not exactly jobs season, but I was inspired by this epic open thread about usual/ inappropriate/ trick questions that have come up in a job interview. A tour through the comments section reveals that a lot of people get asked about their marital status, kids, and religion. And a fair number of people claim to have been asked brain teasers or to solve puzzles, which, obviously, the Lifehacker readership is more business and tech focused than academic, but I would be blown away in some of those scenarios.

I’ve heard some crazy stories about weird interview committee behavior, too. Committee members falling asleep mid-interview, etc. Once, for a postdoc interview I was asked what my definition of critical thinking was and how I approached that in the class room. I replied that I thought it was the ability to draw connections between material in the course and events in the real world, and you do this linking up theoretical to the applied. To which my interviewer replied with an exasperated, quizzical, “Ohhh-kaaay.” That was the same interview where none of the interviewers were in the same room, it was done as a five way conference call.

I’ve flopped some interviews hard too. Like the one where they were looking for a specialist in a particular sub-field, but that wasn’t advertized in the job listing. But then, the alchemy of writing job ads could be left for a whole other post.

So the Lifehacker post got me thinking. What are the hardest, wackest, most left-field job interview questions you’ve had to answer? I’ll go first. In an interview for a admissions job I was asked, “What qualities would you use to describe your ideal supervisor?” Ouch!

Harry Potter on a Sunday Morning

Public anthropology is something any of us can do and its a practice we can engage in at any scale. I’ve written before about how anthropology helped me speak in front of city council to save the bookmobile and I’ve advocated for a public anthropology that is “fast, cheap, and out of control” — meaning it can be local, easy, and not professionally oriented.

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to do something new that was very rewarding for me. I gave a sermon! I’ve included the text of it here. It’s a long read (I had 20 minutes to fill), but if turning cultural relativism into a religion is your cup of tea you might enjoy it. What a treat it was for me to deliver it.


If you’re nostalgic about church but are too anti-authoritarian to put your kids in Sunday school, if you’re interested in your spiritual well-being but can’t stand rules, if you don’t mind a little New Age hugging then check out your local UU. You’ll meet a lot of misfits, hippies, New Englanders, and people who for whatever reason had to walk away from other religions. As my friend Ayla, who grew up in the UU, describes it, “It’s a little bit of Christianity, a little bit of rock and roll.”

Chances are you’ll find other anthropologists, scientists, and professors too. For example my minister has a PhD in physics from Princeton. When I shared with him this story about how some Christian fundamentalists reject Set Theory he said, “Well then, they must object to Godel’s incompleteness theorem as well.” UU’s are a bunch of smartypants.

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