Is grad school a cult?

April 12, 2009

I recently stumbled across an interesting article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which “Thomas Benton” (a pen name) makes the case that graduate school is something like a cult. He’s driven to this conclusion largely by his sense that most graduate students, especially in the humanities, would be better served outside academia. He quotes the following rules of thumb for identifying a cult, taken from the anti-cult Freedom of Mind Center webpage:

  • Behavior control: “major time commitment required for indoctrination sessions and group rituals”; “need to ask permission for major decisions”; “need to report thoughts, feelings, and activities to superiors.”
  • Information control: “access to non-cult sources of information minimized or discouraged (keep members so busy they don’t have time to think)” and “extensive use of cult-generated information (newsletters, magazines, journals, audio tapes, videotapes, etc.).”
  • Thought control: “need to internalize the group’s doctrine as ‘Truth’ (black and white thinking; good vs. evil; us vs. them, inside vs. outside)” and “no critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as legitimate.”
  • Emotional control: “excessive use of guilt (identity guilt: not living up to your potential; social guilt; historical guilt)”; “phobia indoctrination (irrational fears of ever leaving the group or even questioning the leader’s authority; cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being in the group; shunning of leave takers; never a legitimate reason to leave”; and “from the group’s perspective, people who leave are ‘weak,’ ‘undisciplined.'”

Of course, there are plenty of points to pick at — it may speak more to the “definition” given above than it does to grad school — but I think it’s an interesting observation.


In Memory of Sir Olaf Pol

April 1, 2009
Sir Olaf Pol, 2002

Sir Olaf Pol, 2002

Sad news, everyone. I heard from his son today that Sir Olaf Pol passed away early this morning. As you may or may not remember, Sir Pol lived in Durham for many years. He was an amateur quantum physicist who presented his findings to a group at Duke several years ago, coincidentally on this date. His most striking—and controversial—contribution to his science was taking the “gedanken” out of the “gedankenexperiment” of Schroedinger’s Cat. A shocked audience listened to him describe how he took in stray cats of the streets of downtown Durham and Chapel Hill for these practical applications. Sir Pol’s son reports that three and a half of the cats survive.

Read the rest of this entry »


My New Hero

March 13, 2008

A quick drive-by post: Priest-slash-cosmologist Michal Heller has won the Templeton Prize. As a very religious scientist, I love reading about the interplay between faith and science, especially when used cooperatively.


And now for something completely different

December 12, 2007

I have nothing constructive to say, but Small and Wang have been up for a week now.

Apropos of nothing:

We don’t read so good.

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Snoopy gets deep.

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Physics is easier than football. Google image search “BCS explained” and this is the first hit you get.

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South Carolina 21, Clemson 23

November 24, 2007

AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain


Sinterklaas is coming to town

November 20, 2007

Anyone who laments the creeping commercialization of Christmas need only visit the Netherlands. It’s not so much that there aren’t holiday decorations sprouting up in store windows by mid-November — there are — it’s that there’s a legitimate cultural excuse for it. Traditionally, Christmas takes a back seat to the feast day of Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas as he’s known over here. (An aside, the Dutch have the wonderful habit of celebrating holidays twice. The day after Christmas is, appropriately enough, Second Christmas, and is also a holiday. If that’s part and parcel of a progressive society, I say bring it on!)

The feast of St. Nick is December 5th, and involves the traditional gift-giving most Americans associate with Christmas. Sinterklaas actually “arrives” a couple weeks prior, and spends his time meeting with kids around the country. He’ll be hitting Leiden this weekend, in fact. SK isn’t into flying forest fauna, so he gets around by steam boat and landbound horse. Like his SC counterpart, part of his job is separating the naughty from the nice and reminding people why dressing in red from head to toe is a bad idea.

All this is fairly harmless. The two cultural icons diverge somewhat, however, when they come to their duly appointed assistants. While Santa’s helpers are rather vaguely labeled as elves, the Dutch give their mythology a distinctly more historical flavor. Sinterklaas has a passel of helpers, and like George Foreman’s children, they all have the same name: Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”). As you may have guessed, the Piets are, well, black. Or rather, they’re Moors.

I have to admit, and let me allow for all the appropriate qualifiers — this is my opinion, born of my own experiences and strongly influenced by the culture I was raised in — Zwarte Piet makes me extremely uncomfortable. No, it’s more than that; Zwarte Piet strikes me as obviously racist. He looks like Stepin Fetchit but in blackface and with puffy pants. In cartoon form, he often looks disturbingly like a monkey. In a country so open, so tolerant, so liberal, he is, to my eyes, an incredibly dischordant image.

The fact that I cite blackface and old American minstrel shows underscores the subtlety of the issue. These, of course, aren’t cultural milestones in the Netherlands. Presumably, most Dutch people see Piet and think of cold December days, holiday songs, and time with the family. He has positive associations that are completely absent for me. And yet I have the impression that they, too, struggle to reconcile the imagery of Piet with the rest of their society’s social leanings. It’s now often claimed that Piet is black only because he’s dirty from sliding down the chimney. A few years ago, Piet became not only Black but Red and Green and Purple and Blue, but Rainbow Piet seems not to have gone over so well. Now he’s just black again.

Mythology is a funny thing. It can be reinterpreted or changed, but it has a certain staying power. It seems fairly certain to me that Piet has racist origins. In the Austrian Christmas myth, for example, many of the same tasks Piet fulfills fall to the Krampus, a devil-like figure. Today, partly through the gradual evolution of societal views and partly through conscious rewriting, Piet has been stripped of most of his more negative connotations. Does this — forgive me — whitewashing of his image mean that, whatever negatives he once represented, he should today be taken at face value? (And who decides what that is?) Or is it impossible to separate him from his origins? I’ve had several (white) Dutch colleagues tell me, and I paraphrase, No one sees Piet as racist, and the immigrants don’t mind. I cringe when I hear that. I’m not aware of any significant anti-Piet movement within the society, it’s true, but I suspect the day will come when the Dutch aren’t so proud of this particular tradition.

On a lighter note, David Sedaris has already tried to explain all this, and has naturally done a far better job than I can. Here’s his take on “Six to Eight Black Men.”


You Can Take Duke Chapel and Stick It…

November 8, 2007

I don’t happen to feel any animousity toward the Duke Chapel, but certain higher powers in the Duke physics department seem to.

Since my failed attempt at creating a poster for the Duke physics department came up today, it is a happy coincidence that I was sitting on an image Read the rest of this entry »