Category Archives: How to


Become an Expert in Less Than an Hour

As a professor of anthropology one frequently has to advise graduate students whose work is, in some key aspects, far removed from one’s own area of expertise. It makes sense that a graduate student interested in child labor in India would want to work with me. I’ve published on India and teach a course on economic anthropology, but that doesn’t mean I know very much about child labor issues in India. What I can do is steer that student in the right direction.

Multiply this by a number of related scenarios (e.g. book reviews, manuscript evaluations, discussing a conference paper, etc.) and you see why anthropologists frequently have to learn how to grok an entire subfield in under an hour. Yes, real expertise takes years of hard work, but identifying the key works and ideas that define a subfield can be done quickly if you know where to look. A good analogy might be the difference between having grown up in a city and knowing how to use a good travel guide with Google maps.

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Living in a Plain Text World (Tools We Use)

If you look through the archives of Savage Minds you will find a lot of posts that are seemingly unformatted. Most of these are by Rex, who was an early fan of Markdown, a “a text-to-HTML conversion tool for web writers” developed by John Gruber. Unfortunately, the plugin we were using to make those posts appear pretty was sucking up a lot of server resources so we disabled it until we could find something better. There are probably better options out there now, but we haven’t looked at them. I personally write my blog posts in raw HTML and never saw the advantage of learning Markdown… until now.

Before I go on, a word of warning. Usually I only write my “Tools We Use” posts about software I feel confident about. That means it is bug-free, already has all the promised features, and can be easily used even by those who are less tech-savvy (with a bit of effort). However, some (but not all) of the tools discussed in this post aren’t really ready for prime time.

So what changed? Why did I come around to Markdown (MD)? Well, the main thing for me was my discovery of FoldingText. I know a lot of academics, Rex included, really like Scrivener (“the first and only word processing program designed specifically for the messy, non-linear way writers really work”), but despite trying really hard to like it, it just never “clicked’ for me. Mainly because I don’t like how it works as an outliner. FoldingText, on the other hand, is a great outliner. Yes, the current version is still missing some important features one would expect from an outliner, but I already love it. In this post I will write a bit about why I like FoldingText so much, as well as some of the other MD tools I’ve found helpful, including a way of writing powerpoint-style presentations in MD, and a new proposed syntax for annotating documents in MD. All this and more after the fold… Continue reading

Destructive Scanning for Fun and Profit

If you’re reading this then you, like me, probably have too many books. As a professor in Hawaii I really suffer from this problem — in a privileged position in the university free, used, and discarded books just keep flowing in, and space is at a premium for non-millionaires living in Honolulu. Over the years I’ve tried various solutions to this problem: more bookshelves, judicious culling of non-essential books, and so forth. And now I’m trying a new solution: destructive book scanning.

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Reading Academic PDFs on the iPad (Tools We Use)

[UPDATE: Sente is currently undergoing major changes in their sync engine; however, they have yet to update their iPad software. Once the iOS version of Sente is updated I will write a new post about the changes. Till then, please be aware that this post is out of date.]

Last December I wrote a post, Reading Fast, Reading Slow, which covered the various tools I use in my digital workflow depending on the kind of reading I’m doing. Today I want to update that with an in-depth look at what I had referred to as “slow” reading, focusing especially on texts which I have available in PDF format. This workflow assumes you have an Apple desktop computer, an iPad and the following software: Sente for OS X, Sente for iOS, Goodreader for iOS, a Dropbox account and an Evernote account. This is not a review of any of these tools, although the strengths and limitations of Sente are discussed in terms of how they help or hinder this specific workflow. I don’t by any means consider this to be an ideal workflow, but after having experimented and researched numerous options based on the tools which are currently available, this is the one that works best for me.

As I’ve explained before, it would be best if one could search and add PDFs to Sente directly from the system’s default browser, as one can do with Zotero or Mendeley, but despite this limitation, I still find Sente to be the best software out there for organising one’s citations. Zotero, for instance, lacks the “status labels” feature of Sente which is so central to the workflow I describe below. Moreover, for this workflow to work, you just need to download the PDF itself from your browser, and Sente will take care of the rest. And the iPad apps currently available for Zotero and Mendeley are sorely lacking compared with what Sente offers. (Other options are Papers and Bookends, but I find Sente compares favourably to those as well.)
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FiRe2 Field Recorder (Learning an Endangered Language Part 7)

[This is the 6th installment in an ongoing series on learning an endangered language. This post also fits in our “Tools We Use” series.]

As described in my last post, listening to lots of audio in the target language is a key part of my approach to language learning. For that reason I needed a good field recorder app for my iPhone. I spent a lot of time and (because you can’t demo most apps without buying them) money searching for a workflow which would let me record, edit, and listen to audio within the same application. I wanted it all in one application because I find that I sometimes want to go back and re-edit a file. It is also currently difficult to send files to iTunes without going through the desktop. In the end, I found a wonderful app that did exactly what I wanted: FiRe2 Field Recorder.

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Bleg: AAA Bibliography Format for Sente

Since I first reviewed my favorite reference manager on this blog a number of readers have started to use it… and started to notice that it doesn’t have a built-in bibliography format for American Anthropology Association publications [AAA style guide (PDF)]. So I’m posting a bleg for anyone who has made such a format to share it here.

Also worth mentioning here: In the end of January Zotero released version 3.0 of Zotero, which finally introduced a “standalone” version of Zotero that doesn’t require Firefox to run. IMHO, it still has a ways to go before it can catch up to Sente, but there are two areas where it is ahead of the game: (1) It has plugins for Chrome which allow you to save citations directly from your browser. (Sente still awkwardly requires you to open its own browser and copy your link before you can save a webpage.) And (2) it has a AAA format built-in.

Finally, on the iOS front, I still find GoodReader + Dropbox + Evernote to be my best mobile reading workflow. But it is worth mentioning that in addition to Sente’s excellent iOS app which I reviewed earlier, there is now an unofficial iOS app for Zotero. There is also a new iOS app from the makers of Bookends, and a new version of Papers as well.

Using Social Media to Teach Theory to Undergraduate Students

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Carole McGranahan.

“Political economy?” “Symbolic analyses?” Post-whatism?” Semester after semester, my advanced anthropology students told me they couldn’t remember the theories they had learned in their introductory anthropology course (even, they sheepishly confessed, if I had been their professor for that course). In response, I built a review of general anthropological theory into my classes and developed a theory course for junior and senior anthropology majors.

But re-teaching theory at the advanced level was not enough. I needed a better strategy for teaching theory at the very beginning level of anthropological instruction which, for me now as professor and earlier as graduate student, meant in a large lecture class of anywhere from 100 to 550 students. How could I teach theory so that introductory students could retain and use this knowledge beyond exam day? What new pedagogies would enable students to carry the theoretical messages of Levi-Strauss or Mead or Ortner with them? My strategy was to turn to social media, to teach theory by putting students in dialogue with each other: I created two new course assignments, a student-generated theory wiki and a theory blog.

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How to Get a Job as an Anthropologist

Stop being an anthropologist.

Some of my mentors, none of which are in anthropology departments, prefer to say “trained as an anthropologist, so and so, investigates…” as opposed to “so and so is an anthropologist.” If you are on the job market this may be hard to do as you are likely to have just become a PhD wielding anthropologist for the first time in your life and quite proud of the moniker and achievement but the shift in self-definition is important for you and your future academic home, I would argue.

I just went through the whole job-hunting process before signing a contract on Monday to become a Lecturer in media and cultural studies in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. I was able to apply for a silly amount of jobs, get a bunch of interviews and campus visit requests, and have some choices and grounds on which to do some humble negotiating. I think my trick was post-disciplinary research and (a considerable amount of) cross-disciplinary publishing. I could apply to communications, media studies, anthropology, information studies, STS, sociology, television studies, American studies, and internet studies. If I were desperate I could apply for archaeology and film production positions. Postdoctoral positions, particularly those financed by the Mellon, are all about interdisciplinarity as are jobs looking for digital humanities scholars.

So I’d encourage my fellow freshly minted ABDs and PhDs to begin seeing their research and their teaching across at least 4-5 large disciplines. Be able to realistically apply to 4-5 departments. One can put this together variously by publishing in different journals, collaborating with colleagues from different fields, or simply working the boundaries of one’s discipline in necessarily interdisciplinary ways. (All I can say is that I hope this is not my internalization of the precarity of neoliberal governmentality in the education sector.)

And there is something said for responding (in non-trendy and timeless ways!) to emergent patterns in industry, politics, and social movements. The departments recognize that what is in the news is what the students want to study. In my case this amounted to a recursive loop from the hype surrounding new media –Arab Spring, Anonymous, Wikileaks, SOPA, PIPA, and Occupy– to departments requesting applicants with expertise in social media and political movements. Oddly enough, if the academic job thing doesn’t work out this type of preparation in the now prepares oneself better for a post-academic profession. In academia the joy of investigating emergent practices is that there is no syllabus. You get to design your own. And in the classroom you are not pulling teeth, the issues are on students’ minds. It is relevant.

I may sound heretical to some of you by suggesting that post-anthropological disciplinary affiliations are necessary. But one gains much less than one loses by fundamentally aligning oneself with the orthodoxy of a specific discipline. One one hand, the qualitative and critical social sciences are converging. Critical theory and ethnographic or textual methods run across all the disciplines above. On the other hand, replicating the discourses specific to a discipline is important for the survival of that discipline and I am glad some people are monogamously “physical anthropologists” or whatnot. But my argument is that this practice of disciplinary orthodoxy is dangerously myopic for a discipline and puts the job hunter in a situation with few options. I preferred to bring scholarship from other disciplines to anthropology, and though it proved difficult to buck anthropological tradition by studying contemporary technoculture in America, it provided me a wider repertoire of skills that apparently translate into numerous disciplines and a blessed job offer.

Good luck! Tell us how it goes for you.


Protecting Informants in a Time of Digital Thievery

The NY Times has an article about how corporate executives and government officials leave their laptops behind when they go to China or Russia, for fear that corporate or government secrets might be compromised by advanced spyware.

it has become easier to steal information remotely because of the Internet, the proliferation of smartphones and the inclination of employees to plug their personal devices into workplace networks and cart proprietary information around. Hackers’ preferred modus operandi, security experts say, is to break into employees’ portable devices and leapfrog into employers’ networks — stealing secrets while leaving nary a trace.

I mention this because it is also a serious concern for anthropologists I know who do research in China. We here on Savage Minds have written a lot about using digital tools for research, but it is also worth thinking about the vulnerabilities such tools create for one’s informants. There are a lot of tools one can use to encrypt data, but they are useless if some Lisbeth Salander has already hacked into your computer and stolen the password. How paranoid should we be? What steps can we take to protect our digital data? Please use this as an open thread to discuss these issues.

Thinking: An Important Part of the Research Process

A bit ago Kerim talked about ‘reading fast’ and ‘reading slow’ (something I’ve called ‘pace layering‘ in the past). It was a post a lot of people found useful, although I have to admit I feel there is something not quite kosher about calling reading ‘devouring’ — somehow it makes it sound like ‘reading’ is an unusual way of feeding your mind, rather than the normal way we go about things (graduate students: guess how interested hiring committees are in your ability to demonstrate that you’ve bookmarked a lot of articles?). There was one thing that our two discussions has left out, however: thinking.

Thinking is one of the most important parts of the research process, second only to reading. (You must read. Read. Read. An article. A day. Read.) And yet I’m struck by the way that smart phones inhibit thinking by keeping us busy. When you are waiting for the bus checking Twitter, you are not only giving up the opportunity to read an article, you are giving up the opportunity for thought.

Thinking isn’t hard, at least not for me: most of my thinking occurs during my free time (walking is a fave) and just involves sitting there either silently ranting to myself (“We’ve given up thinking! Hey wait, I bet I could spin that out into a blog entry…”) or just sort of sitting there letting thoughts roll absently about in your head (“uh… interpellation…. hmm…”). Like sleep, the other major time your brain sorts itself out, moments of downtime spend stupidly pondering the universe can be remarkably productive because they allow your mind to shake the leaf bag that is your brain down until all your thoughts are nice and tightly nestled together.

Of course, thinking is second to reading because most thinking actually is the act of reading, which involves actively if silently responding to the author. But failing that, I really believe opening a beer, watching the sun set and going “uh… interpellation…” is a valid and important part of the academic process. So the next time you feel the urge to trawl the Internet for more things you’ll never read, take a second instead and turn off your smart phone and stare vacantly at the cars going by as you wait for your bus to come. Trust me — it’ll pay off in the long run.

How To Ask Someone To Be On Your Dissertation Committee

Since Kerim is doing professionalization-related posts, here are some quick tips for the awkward ritual of asking someone to be on your dissertation committee:

Make sure they will say yes: Ask your advisor if they think the prof would be a good fit on your committee. A lot of the time professors will talk to each other first before you meet, so the new addition to your committee may already know you are coming and has already basically agreed to serve. A lot happens behind the scenes in academe, so even though it is ‘your’ committee, its very important to work with your advisor so that they can shepherd the whole thing along.

Pop the question early: There’s nothing weirder than having a graduate student come to your office and spend five minutes explaining why they have the same intellectual interests as you, seemingly for no reason. Perhaps they are planning to do this for your entire office hour…? It’s far better to just sit down, be business like, and say “the reason that I’m here to see you today is to ask you to serve on my dissertation committee. Uh… will you?” Remember: the goal is to have this already taken care of ahead of time, which means your probably next step will be to:

Accept acceptance gracefully: If someone agrees to be on your committee then… say thank you! They may want to talk more (for which, see below) but they may also be very busy and consider this whole embarrassing ritual a waste of time. Take your cue from the prof — this meeting could be really short.

Accept rejection gracefully: If someone says no, don’t ‘personalize’ — people decide not to serve on committees for all sorts of reasons, not because you are a total fraud who doesn’t really belong in graduate school. Sometimes people are just too busy, sometimes they have personal issues with other committee members, etc. etc. There are lots of reasons people say no. Its ok to push people a little bit: are you sure? Do you mind if I ask why? But don’t push too hard. Those who say no will still end up evaluating your work in the future. There’s no point upsetting someone when you could have a perfectly collegial relationship.

Prepare for ‘the Probe': The problem is a long, metal instrument professors keep in their office to… no just kidding. Often before deciding to be on your committee professors will ask a couple of probing questions to see who you are and what you are doing. Much of the time they know they are going to say yes, but they still want a sense of who you are and what they are getting into. This kind of thing may also happen immediately after they agree to serve if they want to move on to the nuts and bolts of the advising relationship.

Basically, you should be able to say why you want to work with someone — how their interests overlap with yours, what you might read together in the future and so forth. I’d advise reading the acknowledgements and introduction to their dissertation to get a sense of their genealogy, as well as their latest article or two so you can understand what they’ve been working on lately.

You don’t have to knock the ball out of the park on this one — I think a lot of professors just want some very basic sense that you know what you are doing, and where they will fit into it.

Discuss expectations: No one registers for their wedding after the first date, but it does help in this initial meeting to give your committee member some sense of how much of their attention you’ll be needing. Some people want assurances that you are not going to show up on their doorstep too often, while others are not going to take you on unless they know you are ready to put in some serious time with them. Giving a committee member a sense of what you want from them is helpful, as if making sure you learn what they are willing to contribute to your committee.

But above all, professors are crazy people and office hours are an extremely strange institution. You have to learn to roll with the punches. If someone wants to talk about baseball for five minutes before you get started, let them. If they are super busy and want to shoo you out of the office after they “yes yes, I’ve talked to professor Jones about this, I’ll be on your committee” then get out from underfoot. And above all, if the vibe seems seriously off, don’t ask someone to be on your committee who you don’t think should be there.

This is such a small thing, but like a lot of things in academia someone its something that we never really talk about. So maybe this will help provide some transparency on this small academic ritual.

Picking a Graduate School

Here at Savage Minds headquarters we regularly get emails from people seeking help finding an appropriate graduate program in Anthropology. Looking through our archives, I realize that while I’ve written about making long-term plans, and Rex has written about preparing your application for graduate school (twice, actually), we haven’t really addressed this important question. So here it goes…

Before you do anything else, you should answer the following question: why are you are going to graduate school in anthropology?

If the answer is that you want an academic career in anthropology, you might think twice about graduate school. I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but I think the percentage of current anthropology Ph.D.s who are likely to find tenure track jobs in an anthropology department isn’t much better than the percentage of people in college rock bands who go on to sign deals with major record labels. If rock ‘n roll is in your veins, nobody is going to dissuade you from trying to make a career of it, and if you feel the same way about anthropology I say “Go for it!” Otherwise, I’d suggest something else.

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Reading Fast, Reading Slow (Tools We Use)

Over the course of a single day I engage in a number of different activities for which the word “reading” doesn’t seem to do justice: I scan my social networks, I check my email, I review student work, I browse articles and books related to my research, and I engage in deep sustained examination of a single text. Each of these tasks require a different frame of mind and, increasingly, different technologies. To simplify matters, I will talk about only three types of reading, each of which encompasses several of these reading-related activities: scanning, browsing and devouring.


I spend too much time doing this. The dopamine hit one gets from finding something new is immediate and gratifying. I have my email, Google Reader, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc. each of which is sending me a steady stream of new links. (Follow our SavageMinds Twitter feed or Facebook account for the results of this time-wasting activity.) I check all of them throughout the day. Especially Twitter.

One of my favorite ways to browse all this in one place (excluding Google+ for now, but I’m sure that will change) is Flipboard for iOS. Google tried to buy Flipboard and when they failed made their own app called Currents. Currently Flipboard is still way ahead of the Google, as well as other competitors like Pulse, Zite, etc. (Here is a post from Lifehacker reviewing several of the options.)

To make the best use of Flipboard, you want to group your favorite Twitter sources into “lists” so that each list can have it’s own magazine on Flipboard. I haven’t been doing a great job of updating my various lists, but you can see mine here (or post your own in the comments.) You can do the same thing with Google Reader folders and Facebook “Friends Lists.”

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Mining vs. Harvesting in Academic Writing

I sometimes get annoyed at books by established scholars. Where most junior scholars cite heavily when making theoretical claims, established scholars often seem to feel little need to cite theory (although they will cite empirical claims). But even more annoying, where most junior scholars make a point and then move on, established scholars often seem to say the same thing over and over again in slightly different ways. Lately, however, I’ve decided that there might be a lesson to learn from this. It is unclear to me whether they have become established scholars because they write like this, or if it is something that happens to one as a result of becoming established. In either case, I think it is worth examining the benefits of such a writing style.

The first lesson is that it takes a certain amount of repetition for a point to sink in. This is normal in spoken discourse, but it is useful in writing as well. It isn’t just repetition: successful academic writers often seem to be able to spin endless variations on the same theme. This not only helps bolster their argument, it also makes their point clearer by presenting it in a variety of different ways.

Secondly, and I think more importantly, many junior scholars undervalue their own insights. They tentatively make a theoretical point, find lots and lots of citations to bolster that argument, and then rush on to discuss the data. They feel safe with data, and are eager to establish the validity of their theoretical insights. An established scholar, on the other hand, sees the theoretical point as a rich vein to be mined for all it’s worth. While the initial case study may need exhaustive documentation, additional iterations of the main point can be made with less evidence, and in some cases can be purely speculative. This also helps attract other scholars to cite the work, providing them as it does with potential avenues for new research.

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Other People’s Lit Reviews

Now that I am a professor part of my job is trying to explain to students how to do the ‘lit reviews’ that are a part of several of the mandatory genres that they must learn to write. When I was in grad school lit reviews came without saying because they went without saying, so when it came time to make my expectations for this genre explicit, I hit the books. My project: a meta-project reviewing the lit on lit reviews. I found out three things: first, anthropologists do a lousy job of reviewing their literature. Second, I am not a big fan of how other fields review their literatures.

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