On the dangers of dissertating outside the Ivory Tower.

It is very difficult to buy into the apathetically correct wisdom of the meaningless of the dissertation exercise.  Specifically, this becomes difficult when I am confronted several times a week by people who actually, really, and truly care about it.  People who thank me for talking to them.  Comment on how I’m the first to have asked and how much better it feels to talk.  Who act at first surprised that I want to know, then hesitant that I should listen, and finally rest on the relief of sharing.

A few weeks ago, I dragged my Schweitzer cohort out of the comfortable confines of our usual space within the Louisiana Public Health Institute.  From the bright steel and chrome finishes of the modern downtown offices down a hard-to-find narrow road lined with modest World War II-era slab homes, to a damp and crowded trailer turned community center.  The Harahan meeting place for a small Hispanic Church.  There, several parishioners made us fantastic baleadas and coconut bread while we held our monthly meeting.  I gave a short talk based on my prospectus defense about race, racism, acculturation, and the health of immigrants from Latin America.  Then, our chefs joined the meeting and spoke about their lives.  Although I’d planned the logistics of the meeting, I had no idea who would come or what they would say.

By happy accident, Paul and the kids were there and ended up providing some companionship for another child (daughter of one of the church members).  Will taught her to play games on the Ipod, she supplied markers and Jesus coloring sheets.  Kate played the faithful sidekick, thundering up and down the small hallway past our meeting space.

Since that meeting, where some of my peers cried and all expressed deep thanks and appreciation for my risk-taking in how I’d conducted the session, several fellows have written to tell me about the impact of the night.  One specifically described how it had changed her interactions with patients in her current med school clinic assignment.  Another said that my talk was one of the best she’d had in graduate school and made her re-think how she looks at health research.  Other fellows have asked if I could bring members of the community to future events so that we can give larger voice to their experiences.  Maybe linking theory to practice isn’t as elusive as it seems.  Maybe it’s just a point of asking and listening?

And then there is this dissertation.  The one that matters to no one.  The one that is a means to an end, a task to be finished so that I can move on, hopefully, to more important things.

What a mess of information I’ve got!  Transcripts are en-route, surveys from last weekend’s health fair sit boxed on my desk, and somewhere on my computer is the prospectus… that document I defended as my research plan, my approved manual for what I was going to do to finish this degree.  Did I do what I intended to do?  Did I answer my question?  Honestly, I’m not sure.  I think I’ve strayed from my original purpose.  Perhaps because I keep getting distracted by what matters to someone.

Does a dissertation that matters to someone count?  How esoteric must I be to contribute to knowledge?  And whose knowledge, exactly, must be furthered for a dissertation to qualify as a quality document?  I used to understand the situation and was comfortable with it.  Now it makes me feel unsettled and unsure.  Whom do I disappoint?  My informants, the community I’ve worked so hard to be a part of, to show my support within?  Or my committee, who doesn’t care?


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And in 5, 4, …, …, …!

The “Greater New Orleans” interview airs tomorrow on WLAE channel 12 at 7 and 9:30 (and I think again at 2:30am?)  I feel certain that Paul will pull it from TiVo and put it online to ensure maximum embarrassment on my part; my parents pay him well to keep me tortured in this regard.


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Things I should look in the mirror and say to myself each morning, for inspiration.

1. The only person who cares about my dissertation is me.

2. The only person who will read all of my dissertation is me.

3. The only person who the dissertation will have any impact on is me.

4. The only good dissertation is a FINISHED dissertation.

5. I would do well to keep all of the above in mind and just find something to wrap this thing up.


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Visit with Violet

Paul spent the last week in Sierra Vista, Arizona, leaving me as a single mother with two children and no bathtub. Lucky for me, our friendly neighbors were more than willing to let us use their tub. Even luckier for me, Violet spent a few days here during her vacation tour of the Gulf Coast.Violet was our neighbor in Michigan and she and her husband, Millard, are friends and role models. It was a bummer that Paul missed her visit, but frankly, she came at the perfect time. As a research-minded, academy-familiar, professional mother of two, Violet is just about the only person I feel completely comfortable talking to about my professional endeavors because She Gets It. I found out Monday afternoon that my Wenner Gren application did not get advanced, mostly because the reviewer felt it lacked in “theoretical anthropological significance.” Considering my committee chair, a Wenner Gren reviewer for several years, felt it was easily one of the top he’s read, I felt a bit wounded by the letter. But after an evening of licking my wounds, I was able to brush it off and move on.

So Tuesday, I had a meeting with another committee member, who was shocked at Wenner Gren’s decision, but felt it a good thing for two reasons: my focus is so much changed that it may have been worth taking a new funding direction and increase the budget. Current literature on RDS suggests using a Deft (design effect) greater than 2, greatly increasing sample size. That, combined with recent changes in focus, was putting things in a different light. I felt better after discussing all of this with Beth. But I felt even better after talking it over with Violet, who immediately advised brushing it off and going for more. *sigh*

Wednesday, I spent the day with Violet. We went to a local gym, where I oogled the FOUR outdoor pools (two just for kids) and contemplated how many organs I’d have to sell for a summer membership to take the kids to the pool. We enjoyed breakfast at Oak Street Cafe while Charlie entertained in the background. In the afternoon, we toured the 9th ward (particularly the lower 9, downstream from the industrial canal) — my first time in going post-Katrina (more on that in another post). In the evening, we left the kids with favorite babysitter and friend Michelle and had an UH-MAZING dinner at Dick and Jenny’s. And each night, Violet helped me get the kids bathed and in bed. It was wonderful.

Thursday, we took a walk in Audubon Park. We noticed the egrets and ibis (and maybe others?) mating and nesting in the trees at Ochsner Island, passed the violin player practicing under the oaks, and regrouped. Before leaving, Violet came to Abeona to take a few pictures with the kids.
Thanks, Violet, for a wonderful visit!


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Grading in Oak Street Cafe

“Want to read one of the exams? You can read my answer key.”

“Okay… although it’s not very exciting.”

“Not exciting? The logistics of what to do when 50,000 people come pouring into another country… I think it’s fascinating!”

“I already know what to do.”


“Give 1.5 billion to Halliburton.”


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