This is the second post in a three-part series on why I became an anthropologist. I was invited to answer this question in the Plenary Session of the 2010 American Association of Physical Anthropology Meetings in Albuquerque this past April. You can find part 1 of the series here.
As I mentioned in the first post, I feel like this question has several parts. The first, answered already, is Why did I fall in love with anthropology? The one I'll answer today is Why did I pursue academia? And the last part of the series will answer How did I get a freaking job?
Why did I pursue academia?
Public school kids are intelligent too
As I finished my senior year in college, I considered my options. I could become a consultant, like many of my friends. I could become an investment banker, another popular option. I was strongly considering becoming a massage therapist or yoga instructor, or getting an MFA in creative writing to become a fiction writer (no, I'm not joking). I had looked into programs for all three of these options, because I felt adrift when I tried to sit down and consider what I wanted to do for a career. Consulting and investment banking just seemed like more of the same Harvard competitiveness, rather than a career I'd want to do for my whole life, where my other ideas had at least some appeal. I didn't know if I was smart enough for much else, quite frankly, which speaks to the hard time I had being a kid from a poor public school (actually, I think fiction writing may take a lot more intelligence than I have, but I told myself I could be a Starbucks barista as my day job).
Part of this can be blamed on a higher education system that doesn't support or think about the preparation of its variable students before arrival on campus -- that is, the culture of elite institutions like Harvard are not inclusive of people like me whose high school calculus teacher didn't actually know calculus, or even show up to teach most of class that year. I often received really good training and advice from people that I could not absorb because of my different background or lack of preparation. But if people like me either didn't know how to ask the right questions, or couldn't understand what was offered, then it's not really good advice, is it?
At the same time, part of what happened can be blamed on the lens through which I was seeing everything, which was tinted by resentfulness and frustration due to sexism and classism -- that is, even when I was given good advice or good training in a way that should have been accessible to me, I was too mad (or sometimes immature) to do anything with it. I did not take or understand criticism well, and now realize how much good raw material and real help I messed up for this reason.
All of that said, at some point I finally realized that public school kids are not dumb. I could keep being mad about being underprepared, I could lament my lack of boarding school experience, or I could suck it up and figure out how to do my work. This really didn't happen until I wrote my senior thesis, and if you are ever unfortunate enough to read the thesis you will see that it was too little, too late. But as I mentioned in part 1, even though my knowledge, skill set and writing bloomed late and incompletely, this allowed me to begin to love learning anthropology for its own sake, to learn to ask good questions and design good projects, and continue to bloom into graduate school.
Somebody has to believe in you
Please allow me to briefly wax cheesy. I think at least one of the major factors that made it possible for me to realize that I was not dumb involved dating my boyfriend, now husband. He too was a public school kid, albeit from a rich Boston suburb. What amazed me from the first day I met him was how committed he was to working hard to solve problems and do his academic work. He was curious and intellectual, yes, but he also knew that you had to put in a lot of time and that the qualities necessary to become a scholar were not something you already had (or didn't have) going into college. You had to work for it.
Inspired by him, I finally started to work hard. I had avoided working hard – doing all the readings, studying for exams – throughout college so that I could avoid feeling bad when I didn't perform well. I could always tell myself if I got a B (or worse, as I did spectacularly fail one test in a course by my own thesis advisor) on something that it was because I didn't study. I didn't work hard on everything, only on what I cared about, but that work became all-consuming. I spent entire days in the Currier House dining hall near a power outlet with my laptop (my first ever! and it didn't have internet at first!), writing and writing away on my thesis. I spent hours most nights there, drinking far too many cups of hot chocolate. It was exhilarating to put so much attention on one thing.
I discovered two things: first, that I was smarter than I thought, and second, that when you work hard on something you care about, it only leads you to care even more. Working hard on my senior thesis led me to fall in love with anthropology all over again, and re-commit myself to the beauty of the physiology, as well as the political nature of women's reproductive health. After that, I couldn't imagine being happy teaching sun salutations or massaging someone's wonky shoulder because what I really loved was learning about the way environmental variation impacts reproductive functioning, and how our incorrect medical understanding of that variation led to overpathologizing an entire gender.