New blog by yours truly, on non-Bolivian topics

I find that I keep posting about things that have nothing to do with Bolivia, then apologizing for it.  So, I’ve started another blog — don’t worry, my Bolivia-related thoughts will stay here!  You can read about how I recently dated an undated Pan-Am advertisement here.  Add me to your Google reader or bookmarks if you are interested in my (probably infrequent) anthropological musings more generally.


Academic honesty in the U.S.: a diatribe

(Again, nothing to do with Bolivia.  But as many of us are academics, I’m posting this anyway.)

Two things have come to light in the past couple of weeks regarding academic honesty in the U.S.  One is the Chicago Tribune’s expose on the University of Illinois at Campaign-Urbana (the state’s main campus) admitting students because they have political supporters, rather than on the basis of merit.

The other is that William Meehan, the President of Jacksonville State University, plagiarized much of his dissertation.

What is disturbing about Meehan’s plagiarism of Carl Boening’s dissertation — and something that I’m not the first to notice — is that both men wrote their dissertations for a Doctorate in Education at the University of Alabama, within three years of each other (1996 and 1999).  Not only that, they SHARED COMMITTEE MEMBERS, specifically Michael T. Miller, now of the University of Arkansas (who was chair of BOTH their dissertation committees) and the late Harold Bishop.  In other words, these two men supposedly read, critiqued and commented on drafts of both these dissertations, but didn’t notice that they were largely the same document.

I would be embarrassed to have signed off on a dissertation without noticing something so glaring.  This not only brings Meehan’s reputation into question, but unfortunately also those of Drs. Miller and Bishop.  While dissertation committees should not be expected to turn graduate work into, and it is well known that committee members often don’t have the time to read every word of their students’ dissertations (that is a structural problem involving what is expected from academics and what they can reasonably do), it seems that members of this committee should have noticed something so obvious and done something about it.

In fact, this should have been caught at the stage of formulating a dissertation project.  If a doctorate is supposed to add to a discipline’s body of knowledge, students should be encouraged to avoid projects that are too similar to others completed so recently, unless they truly have a different take on the material.

The larger point I want to make, however, is that these kinds of scandals do more than anger those of us who wrote our own dissertations and who have the unpleasant task of punishing undergraduates who plagiarize.  They affect the reputations of others associated with these institutions.  It’s one thing to write a mediocre dissertation; it’s another for others to have to wonder whether U. of Alabama doctorates wrote their own work (and I assume that most of them do).  It’s one thing to not be the best student to ever grace UIUC; it’s another for people to have to wonder whether anyone with a connection to someone in state politics is only there because they pulled strings (as this letter points out).

This is not just about who is accepted to these institutions, but what it means to have graduated from them.  In academia, much of the legitimacy of our work rides on the integrity of our scholarly communities — our students, our department, our university, our alums.  Those who throw that honesty into question should expect consequences, and those who value the reputation of their institutions should take action.  In the end, our reputation as scholars is the most valuable thing we have.

Battlestar Galactica SPOILER! Anthropological comments on the end of the series

This post has nothing to do with Bolivia, unlike my last set of comments on BSG.  But it DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS ABOUT THE END OF THE TELEVISION SERIES!!  So if you are like me and hate spoilers, and haven’t seen it yet, STOP READING.

I mean it, you’ve been warned.

Still here?

Ok, before I start my anthropological critique, let me say that I actually did like the ending, unlike Kerim over at Savage Minds.  I felt it tied up the loose ends that needed to be tied, left the ones hanging that couldn’t be reasonably explained without professional contortionists (I prefer ambiguity to no-prize explanations any day), and stayed true to the themes of the series — specifically the unclear relationships between humans and divinity, and the idea of cyclical history.  I was satisfied from a story-telling point of view.  It’s difficult to “end” any TV series, since it really is more about the journey than the destination, but I think they did pretty well.

Ok, I have to let my anthropological side out of its cage now.

In some ways the ending plays off a common theme in pseudo-archaeology, the idea that our planet was “seeded” by an advanced civilization, either homegrown (Atlanteans or similar) or extraterrestrial.  Given BSG’s cyclical history, they manage to make our seeder civilization both human and off-planet progenitors.  For reasons the crew of BSG can’t explain, they arrive on a planet they’ve never seen before that is inhabited by proto-humans.

To others this ending invokes colonialism and the racism of western expansion.  Although I don’t think that was the intent of the writers, I agree.  The rhetoric that justified the genocide and ethnocide of Native Americans in the U.S., the Stolen Generation of Australia, and many other indigenous peoples has been one of “improvement” — by introducing western values and western sperm (I’d said genes, but let’s face it, this is usually envisioned as a highly gendered interaction of white men with “native” women), we’ll bring indigenous peoples “up” to our level of fully human.  BSG came a little too close to that narrative for comfort.

These proto-humans can’t talk, yet can interbreed with humans.  But evolutionarily, we evolved into homo sapiens as we developed language.  This is not a chicken-and-egg question of having vocal cords and then figuring out how to speak, or having advanced mental capacities and then turning those to creating language.  The hardware and software developed together.  So if BSG’s crew could teach these proto-humans language, then they would presumably already know how to speak.  A different language, of course, but the concept of language would not be unknown to them.

There’s also the question of dispersing the survivors of the 12 colonies all over their new planet.  Why would they do this?  We are back to a basic premise of our own western society — that nature (i.e., biological survival) is what’s real, and culture is just icing on the biological cake.

BSG privileges the importance of biological reproduction over the survival of the 12 colonies as a society, and assumes that the survivors would do the same.  This goes against everything we know about real peoples who are faced with cultural destruction.  Culture changes, sure.  It’s one thing to adapt; it’s another to actively destroy all the technology you relied on daily and walk away from everyone and every social structure you know.

Why wouldn’t the 12 colonies choose one corner of this new planet to develop a new society in?  That was exactly what the survivors did on New Caprica when, for some inexplicable reason, they developed a shanty town with no clear agricultural base.  [I guess it was easier for the cyclons to conquer them that way.  It must have been divine intervention.]

My last critique concerns Hera (the half-Cyclon daughter of Helo and Athena) as “Eve.”  First, the idea that with nearly 40,000 survivors of the 12 colonies, and an uncounted number of “proto-humans,” that everyone can trace their female line back to Hera is a little far-fetched.  Perhaps what is more likely is that Ellen Tigh is actually “Eve,” and that her mitochondrial DNA was passed along by several of the 6s and 8s in addition to Hera.  But let’s go with the premise, in keeping with the supernatural aspects of the show.

What does it say about us that we reimagine our “Eve” not as African, but as pale-skinned?  Sure, Hera is half-white and half-Asian/Cyclon, but she’s certainly not black.  Very few people on BSG were black — and in the final scenes, I’m not sure I saw any.  Black characters seemed to die at a disproportionately high rate before the colonists reached Earth.  (Even the proto-humans, in their brief appearance, were looking a little palid.)

It’s almost as if BSG is suggesting that we rethink the premise of human evolution.  One might argue that’s what science fiction is for, of course.  But I think we should recognize that this ending was not some marvelously original creative work, but derived from some very disturbing narratives that are shot to the core by racism and inequality.