Becoming a Lightning Rod for Controversy by Starting an Evolutionary Studies Program in Alabama: Part 1

When I let slip that I got my job when I was still ABD during a recession, people still marvel at the dumb luck (or so my low self-esteem still interprets their obvious stupefaction). Similarly incongruous is that I would seemingly jeopardize that position by starting an Evolutionary Studies minor in a state that outsucks every other state in the Union at teaching evolution & is CHOCK FULL of anti-evolution fundamentalist Christians. Yes, there’s an obvious need, but do you really start out a new job by emphasizing your own naïveté?

YOU might take the low road & sagely focus on publications & grantwriting, but these don’t provide the immediate gratification of mobilizing faculty you don’t know at all across a state flagship research university to develop a whole curriculum for a student demand that doesn’t exist (yet!). Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? In fact, I highly recommend it. Who but a new guy is gonna be dumb enough to take so much service on? What better way to demonstrate your efficiency & make yourself a target for even more work? I know how tempting I’m making this sound, but seriously, starting an EvoS program is a really good idea & I’ll tell you why. I wrote a whole kick-off blog on the “what-we-did” to start our program, but, frankly, the EvoS Consortium, Binghamton, and New Paltz already how perfectly good instruction manuals for this (hell, I bet if you check Howthingswork.com, you could probably get more info than I could provide). But what I didn’t see anywhere is why YOU should try it, what YOU’ll get out of it.

Money, fame, & reproductive success. OK, I’m kidding. It’s an evolution blog. Seems like something I should talk about. Seriously though, in the world of cool academic geekdom types of things, there are benefits: 1) you get to meet everyone at the university you want to meet, 2) you get to hang out with interesting people from around the world without having to get in their face for an autograph, & 3) you get to impress undergraduates with all the names you can drop & not be completely full of shit (but as we know, if you’re name-dropping, you’re at least partly full of shit or you wouldn’t need to bother).

Meeting people around town is an underappreciated opportunity. I had a similar opportunity in grad school when I was paid to retool my department’s website (mind you, I had little to no web design experience, but you take these opportunities where they come & figure things out as you go along). It forced me to contact every faculty member & extract CVs & other actually up-to-date information from them. I got to know them better & they all knew me, & doors opened that would not have otherwise, I am certain. The details would be boring to you, but suffice it to say, they involved otherwise unavailable course opportunities & funding that got me thru the program in record time. Surveying the entire Universityof Alabama course offerings for candidates to include in an Evolutionary Studies curriculum, inviting faculty to contribute to the outline of the minor & take part in the team-taught introductory course, & supplicating myself to department chairs for funding to support the speaker series have all brought me onto the radar of sympathetic scholars across a wide array of disciplines that I would have otherwise not encountered so soon or ever. Sure, it might seem easy to just go up to strangers & be friendly, but academics are generally not renowned for their blessings of social grace, & I am no exception. An agenda is like a “pivot” around which I can function socially & feel human-like.

Yet you don’t even have to go to the trouble of a full-fledged minor to enjoy benefit #2. To be included in the EvoS Consortium, you could simply start a speaker series. Fortunately for me, the University of Alabama already had a speaker series in place, so a precedent existed of high-fallutin’ experts coming to town on purpose to hang out with us. In a former life, I used to interview bands under the auspices of music journalism because I really just wanted to meet them & talk to them about cool stuff. Ironically, these conversations were usually rather stilted & awkward until I turned the recorder off & we just started talking records we liked & not about their “influences” & so on (think Almost Famous without the boyish good looks or the chutzpah). But now, when I see a great talk at a conference or read an eloquent (& accessible, thank you!) book by a visionary in our field, I can email the person & offer someone else’s money for them to come hang out with me for few days. Of course, the life of an assistant professor isn’t all sunshine, puppies, & summers off, & coordinating a speaker itinerary is a great big pain in the ass (as, having no event planning, I inevitably wait until the last minute to actually do the “coordination”), but these are the people who have inspired us to do the things we are doing in life (the evolutionary research & job part, not this blogging crap) & so driving them around in your car & having them ask about your kids & YOUR research is just really neat (aw, shucks).

Finally, impressing students by name-dropping is just totally pathetic, but I, for one, am not above it. Nosiree, Bob. Did I mention I was ABD when they hired me? Have you seen this market? I am so impressed with myself for having a job. It is still a headscratcher. Anything to puff up my feathers & bolster my prestige (more about deception & self-deception in a later blog). And seriously, one time last year I did talk so much about personal conversations I’ve had with these “luminaries” in the field in the course of a class that a student actually said, “It’s so cool that you actually know all these people.” Ha! Well, “know” is a bit of a stretch. But yeah, it’s cool when you’re training students based on your firsthand experience, based on your one-on-one conversations based on something ONLY YOU HAVE BEEN TOLD (&, well, every other guest host wherever they’ve given talks & the guy on the plane they were stuck chatting with for 3 hours…& their neighbor, who doesn’t even know or APPRECIATE that they’re famous in the world of evolutionary cognitive neuroscience or biogenetic structuralism or whatever!). Hell, students can find most of what we teach on Wikipedia, but you can impress them by relating what they haven’t even published yet. I had my first experience of this when I was a curatorial intern & docent at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City. I would come fresh from the Municipal Archives or the Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn, getting information straight from the archivist or having made connections about the Jewish landsmanshaftn former residents of the building used to belong to (the museum is a former tenement apartment building & the tours are about the real people who used to live there—it’s great, check it out if you haven’t) & share them immediately with visitors to the museum. Few others knew (or until then had cared about) that fact & were able to convey it. It wasn’t in the docent script. That feeling was satisfying & still is. I guess that’s what intellectual property is about. People want to feel they have something special only they can provide & make a living off that. Maintaining such proprietary exclusivity seems like a Sisyphean endeavor to me. I am all for sharing, downloading, whatever (hell, you can download all the music I ever made for free, please!), but if I can get a little dopamine fix by impressing an undergraduate here or there, if I can hang out with the people who made me want to become a professor every few weeks, if I can feel like a BMOC as the “co-director” of something, screw it, I’ll do it.

And you know what? There hasn’t been a lick of controversy. So it’s all gravy (except the extra workload, but that just makes me look “industrious”…or so I say to myself). More on that later…

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he directs the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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8 Responses to Becoming a Lightning Rod for Controversy by Starting an Evolutionary Studies Program in Alabama: Part 1

  1. Pingback: 2012′s Cheap Thrills thru Evolution in Review | Welcome to the EvoS Consortium!

  2. Pingback: Becoming a Lightning Rod for Controversy by Starting an Evolutionary Studies Program in Alabama, Part 2: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly | Welcome to the EvoS Consortium!

  3. Christopher Lynn Christopher Lynn says:

    Hi Juan,
    The whole interbreeding with Neanderthals tide has switched gears lately & caught me off guard. As of my last read of the literature a few years ago, the genetic relatedness we share with Neanderthals is more than that between chimps & bonobos, who separated about 3 mya. That still may simply mean we share genes b/c we share common ancestry. So it leads me to wonder if I’m just missing something…?

  4. Kathryn says:

    Bravo! While I am not an evolutionary biologist (I’m actually an ethnomusicologist), I am a firm believer not only in evolution, but in bringing the gospel of evolution to every classroom in the United States. Kudos to you! Best of luck!

  5. Julian Keenan says:

    …and now we are dropping YOUR name!

  6. Juan Luque says:

    Great job Chris, what is your take on the Neanderthals, how much are they still with us? Genetically speaking?

  7. Christopher Lynn Christopher Lynn says:

    Thanks, Gil!

  8. gil says:

    Bravo, good sir!

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