History as middle-class proxy

From a commenter signing in as ‘Witt’ at Crooked Timber on a post about education and income inequality comes another take on what college education is good for. S/he is speaking to the distinction among different kinds of college degree: here, traditional four-year vs. distance ed. emporia like Phoenix or Strayer. No surprises here, just clearly stated and worth keeping in mind:

Again, without derailing the thread, I have participated in and conducted hiring processes at three organizations (all <50 employees) in the past 15 years, for a variety of postions. College info on a resume is usually only valuable to me in a very broad-brush way; the phone screen and interview tell me much more.

Traditional four-year degrees are a proxy for a kind of middle-class socialization. The candidate I see who have other types of bachelor’s degrees are typically a) hyper-focused on career advancement, with a perception that advancement + salary increases = number of years served + amount of credentials earned, or b) credentialed on paper but sufficiently inexperienced in middle-class norms that I spend gargantuan amounts of time training them. At present I’m in an organization with 14 full-time staff. If you’re not literate enough to learn to produce a very straightforward business letter after two or three go-rounds, you’re not a good match for the skills we need.

(And … in general I don’t hire people from Ivy League schools because their life experience and career expectations are a poor fit for the work I do. They very often self-select out during the interview process. I’ve hired two who were phenomenal exceptions, not least because they were world-class code-switchers.)

It’s nice to see code-switching appreciated.

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11 Comments

  1. Tangential, but possibly relevant. Here’s something I wrote a while ago for the newsletter of the Association for Asian Studies.

    ———–

    Shock, Despair, and Then What?

    John Traphagan wrote, “I was wondering if you would be interested in contributing to the column I edit for the AAS Newsletter. It is called ‘the Profession’ and is supposed to present information that is useful to junior scholars related to things like jobs, tenure, etc. Since you work in a non-university position, I thought it might be interesting and useful to have a contribution from you.”

    But what should that contribution be? My confusion as I started to write this piece is born of strong and still unresolved feelings. Born in 1944, I was an undergraduate from 1962 to 1966 and then a graduate student from 1966 to 1969, when I set out with my newly married wife, Ruth, to do fieldwork in Taiwan for a Ph.D. in anthropology. I finished my dissertation in 1973, a year into my first and only, full-time academic job. In 1976, I learned that I would not get tenure. Ruth was pregnant with our daughter, and an ACLS grant for another year in Taiwan only forestalled the funk that lasted until Ruth, now a graduate student in Japanese literature, got the grant that brought us to Japan in 1980.

    Like many of us who were students in the sixties, I drifted into academia more out of distaste for either government or business than any passionate conviction. In my case, however, the academic life became a serious addiction. My interests in philosophy and then anthropology reflected a classic Oedipal rebellion. My thesis research on the symbolism of popular Daoist magic reflected a choice of subject directly at odds with the pious, conservative Lutheranism in which I was brought up. What, after all, could be more rebellious, more outrageous, than to find serious meaning in incense, golden idols, burnt offerings, spirit possession and flagrantly magical—practical and manipulative—attitudes toward beings identified as gods. Feeling and interest combined in a sense of who I am that was stunned by being cast out from the ivory tower. That I find myself asked to write this piece reflects the fact that the academic in me was crushed for a while but never died, so that just a few days ago I wrote in response to headhunter’s inquiry, “In my heart of hearts I am a scholar, writer, and teacher who happens to have had a good deal of practical experience in advertising and marketing that might be of use to your client.” The rage and confusion I felt in 1976 wells up again as I start to think about what I might have to say “to junior scholars related to things like jobs, tenure, etc.”

    The first answer that comes to mind is a flip reply I often use when asked what anthropology has to do with advertising: “In Taiwan I studied magicians, in Japan I joined the guild.” The point is, of course, that trying to understand, from an anthropological point of view, the constructions of social realities embodied in Daoist magicians’ rituals turns out to be very relevant, indeed, to understanding the processes by which advertising is made. As I wrote in a recent paper,

    “When, as an unemployed anthropologist, I got into the advertising business, I found that my late-sixties training in analysis of myth and ritual was very handy, indeed. Claude Levi-Strauss’s injunction to look for “a logic in tangible qualities” (1969: 1) served me well in working with art directors. Victor Turner’s description of the properties of dominant symbols gave me useful targets to work toward in developing what I hoped would be powerful advertising. Like dominant symbols, I thought, ads should also exhibit condensation of multiple references, unification of disparate significata, and the polarization of meaning around the sensory pole, where emotion is generated, and the ideological pole, where logic congregates (Turner, 1967: 27-29). I detected a similarity here with a familiar advertising paradigm, the conception of a brand as composed of both emotional and function benefits, unified in a powerful image. Later, I noted a convergence between marketers’ talk of “positioning,” and James Fernandez’s assertion that metaphors are devices for pushing pronouns [why not products?] around in cultural spaces (1986:8).”

    The sad thing is that none of this training or experience helped me to get a job in Japan. Neither did the years I had spent trying to learn Chinese nor the two intensive summers invested in trying to add some Japanese to my language repertoire. What did the trick was being able to write—actually simply to spell and to punctuate correctly—and knowing more about computers than most people with basic writing skills knew in the early 1980s.

    The year before Ruth and I came to Japan, we had run out of money. I had found a job in an artificial intelligence project whose perks included a free year of sophomore-level computer science. Thus, when I interviewed for a job as a rewriter-editor in a small corporate communications company whose clients included IBM Japan, I turned out to be just what the company needed.

    Three years later, a mutual interest in personal computing made a friend of my predecessor as an English-language copywriter at Hakuhodo, Incorporated, Japan’s second largest advertising agency. Headhunted by another firm, my friend had left them in a lurch. They needed someone to write English-language export ads for Japanese electronics firms. That turned out to be me.

    It wasn’t until I had that job that the anthropology and the Japanese I knew began to be valuable. The anthropology helped to understand my new business and how the different parts fit together, a useful skill in a business where people tend to be specialists in account service, creative, marketing or media and may need some help in seeing how their work affects what others are doing. Anthropological training in translating between cultures later proved invaluable in making presentations to multinational clients.
    At first my knowledge of Japanese was suspect; later it became an edge. When I joined Hakuhodo, other foreign (gaijin) copywriters told me not to speak Japanese with clients, lest I ruin my mystique as a genius in writing English copy. Speaking Japanese, they said, would suggest to clients that I had been in Japan too long, that my English was no longer fresh and topical. That advice turned out to be nonsense.

    The real edge, however, came from being able to read as well as to speak Japanese. By the mid-1980s, demand for English-language advertising produced in Tokyo was slipping. Noticing that trend, I began developing an alternative niche, helping my Japanese colleagues present their ideas to multinational clients. Others tried to do the same thing, but those who could only speak Japanese were hopelessly handicapped. I was in and out of meetings, reading and commenting on documents before they took final form. My colleagues waited, gnashing their teeth, until all of the final decisions were made and the Japanese originals translated into English—typically less than a day before their presentations had to be made. They might hate what they were forced to say or sell; but it was already far too late to do anything but gripe and complain—not a good way to make friends and influence people who might give you new opportunities.

    Looking back on this experience and thinking about the advice I might offer, I focus on a few key points.

    First, if your academic career doesn’t go anywhere, you may indeed feel stuck, frustrated, angry, confused. Do remember that to get into graduate school you had to be pretty smart. You may not know what you need to know to get a job outside the academy, but learning fast and learning well is something at which you are very good, indeed.

    Second, your academic knowledge and language skills are not what potential employers are looking for. They may add enormous value to the job you do once you have the job. They are not likely to help you get it.

    Job No. 1 is to find out what potential employers need and equip yourself to at least look like you are able to give it to them. Don’t be discouraged and don’t assume that you have to go back for more school, in business, law, counselling, whatever. Give yourself a month or two to study books like the Fast Forward MBA in Finance (Tracy, 1996) or The Fast Forward MBA in Marketing (Murphy, 1997). To anyone who has learned an Asian language, the language of business is, believe me, dead easy.

    Once you’ve got the basic patter down, get on the Net or find a comfortable chair in your local Barnes and Noble. Check out a few corporate web pages, read a few business magazines, become familiar with the current hot topics in the trade press that covers the industry in which you are looking for a job. If you can’t go into an interview sounding knowledgeable, it’s a wonder how you ever got into graduate school at all.

    Third, don’t give up your academic interests. They may, as they did for me, turn out to be unexpectedly relevant to whatever you wind up doing. They can add an extra dimension both to the work you do and the self you present to your colleagues. And, again if you are like me, they are hard to imagine living without.

    BIOGRAPHY

    The author of Japanese Consumer Behavior: From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers, anthropologist John McCreery is Vice-President of The Word Works, Inc., a supplier of fine translation, copywriting and consulting services to corporations doing business in Japan. As a [former] lecturer in The Graduate Program in Comparative Culture at Sophia University in Tokyo, he teaches seminars on “Marketing in Japan” and “The Making and Meaning of Advertising.”

    REFRENCES
    Fernandez, James W.
    1986 Persuasions and Performances: The Play of Tropes in Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
    Lévi-Strauss, Claude
    1969 [1964] The Raw and the Cooked. John and Doreen Weightman, trans. London: Jonathan Cape.
    Murphy, Dallas
    1997 The Fast Forward MBA in Marketing. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
    Tracy, John A
    1996 The Fast Forward MBA in Finance. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
    Turner, Victor
    1967 The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

  2. Some of the best advice I got as I entered graduate school was from Cornell Professor John Roberts. I had met him at his summer seminar in quantitative anthropology, he was the only prof I knew at Cornell, and it seemed natural to ask him, “I’m new here. What should I take this semester.” He replied, “John, the whole point of being a graduate student is to stop being a student,” i.e., to become one of the faculty, a peer to be taken seriously. The same, I believe, is true of those seeking employment in industry. And, given that this is true, the worst thing someone interviewing for a job can do is do what we all learn to do as students—wait for the teacher to tell us what to do. That may do if our ambitions are limited to flipping burgers, working on an assembly line, or selling shoes. Managers, and especially executives, are expected to be able to identify problems and take action to solve them, without waiting to be told what to do. That doesn’t mean that they have to know-it-alls or one-man-bands. On the contrary, being able to reach out, find people with the knowledge or skills required, and get them on board with your project is the one indispensable skill. That is why, while my younger self adamantly rejected the very idea, businesses like people who have played team sports. Situational awareness, rapid reaction, playing well with others to achieve a collective purpose, those are the basic business talents. Deep analytic skills are sometimes useful, but also dangerous when they paralyze decision making.

  3. Great stuff, thanks. @1 you say “Victor Turner’s description of the properties of dominant symbols gave me useful targets to work toward in developing what I hoped would be powerful advertising. Like dominant symbols, I thought, ads should also exhibit condensation of multiple references, unification of disparate significata, and the polarization of meaning around the sensory pole, where emotion is generated, and the ideological pole, where logic congregates (Turner, 1967: 27-29).” Very interesting because without making the connection to Turner my wife and I have talked a lot about her art doing the same thing.

    @2, Roberts was exactly right. I tell my undergrads the same thing, mostly to the same dismayed response. And in these online discussions, when junior colleagues complain about how alienating grad school was and how hard the transition to the job is and how they’re not getting the nurturing they need, I think ‘Dude, you’re so far behind the curve on becoming an adult, of course you’re struggling’. But I’m thinking from the perspective of exactly the kind of middle-class socialization Witt is talking about.

    G.H. Mead talks about the formation of self in teamwork – not imitation, cooperation. The first baseman does not imitate the shortstop, she takes her own role in relation to the situation and the others in it. Of course ‘student’ is a role without which the role of the teacher and the whole collective purpose of education as commonly understood would be impossible (worker/boss works the same way), so it’s not hard to see why younger participants might be confused about what’s expected of them if they haven’t gotten opportunities to role-switch.

  4. Quoted: “Traditional four-year degrees are a proxy for a kind of middle-class socialization.”

    Kvond: It seems to me that there is a very basic, nearly class-level socialization marking that works.

    1. If you are culturally middle class, having a four-year degree simply marks you as “normal” (not normalized). It confirms what you already are.

    2. If you are culturally lower class, or have the markings of the lower class, (often read ethnicity), then you are now marked as having been normalized.

    Just what you have learned, and what you may think because of it in a great number of circumstances matters very little. It is like getting the USDA grade of meat mark. God knows where the meat came from, but if you think you know where it came from, it is a subtle reassurance.

    In the quoted: “in general I don’t hire people from Ivy League schools because their life experience and career expectations are a poor fit for the work I do”

    This seems like a class issue as well.

  5. I find myself repulsed by your comments, John M, so now I have to figure out why. I agree with so much of what you say. Yes, one might actually find good work to do outside of academe. Yes, one’s intelligence, knowledge, and skills can be put to uses other than those in which they were originally exercised. Yes, a smart and resourceful person can learn the basics of most jobs pretty quickly. Yes, one needs to take the initiative rather than waiting for the boss to issue orders or instructions.

    I think it’s the specific example that bugs me the most: adapting your anthropological expertise to gain an edge in the marketing/advertising field. I don’t doubt that manipulation of symbol, myth, sensory-emotional axes, and so on can help sell products by directing the pitch outside of ordinary conscious awareness. I’m a psychologist: I could play a similar game. We could form a little consulting group and offer plenty of good advice to, say, Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo about how to maximize signal-to-noise ratio in information extracted from prisoners while also inflicting maximum damage on the enemy’s collective morale. I suppose these are good works if you believe in the mission strongly enough.

    Maybe the pivotal sentence is this one:

    “Job No. 1 is to find out what potential employers need and equip yourself to at least look like you are able to give it to them.”

    Do you really give it to them, or just make it look like you’re giving it to them? I’ve worked with plenty of ad/marketing people whose guiding principle was “what’s best for the brand.” Did they really believe what they were saying, or did this principle make their jobs less complex and therefore easier to perform? Or did they just repeat the mantra over and over because it instilled confidence in their clients/employers? I suppose one can achieve a greater degree of psychic integration as a worker by adopting the employer’s needs as one’s own. After all, maintaining an emotional and ethical and political distance from one’s own work is a sure-fire recipe for alienation.

    Of course it’s a free country, each of us can decide whether we approve of manipulating people into buying products they don’t need or want etc. And on some level there really isn’t much leeway, inasmuch as US federal law requires boards of directors and CEOs to run publicly-traded companies so as to maximize the interests of their shareholders. But your essay, John, itself sounds like an advertising pitch: come on, get on board, be a team player, commit yourself to the corporate purpose. And don’t analyze what you’re doing too deeply, because you might find yourself unable to do it any more.

  6. Do you really give it to them, or just make it look like you’re giving it to them?

    I think you should really give it to them while making it obvious that you are just pretending to give it to them while sneakily in fact giving it to them where they don’t see it coming – works for me every time…

  7. Précisément! I’m afraid your proposition is going to result in me annoying the wife with adding the word “guerrilla” to everything and making an excuse out of it: “guerrilla vacuuming” (no, I didn’t vacuum under the desk, this is guerrilla vacuuming, we don’t need your traditional establishment vacuuming techniques!) and so on…

  8. “Job No. 1 is to find out what potential employers need and equip yourself to at least look like you are able to give it to them.”

    Do you really give it to them, or just make it look like you’re giving it to them? I’ve worked with plenty of ad/marketing people whose guiding principle was “what’s best for the brand.” Did they really believe what they were saying, or did this principle make their jobs less complex and therefore easier to perform? Or did they just repeat the mantra over and over because it instilled confidence in their clients/employers? I suppose one can achieve a greater degree of psychic integration as a worker by adopting the employer’s needs as one’s own. After all, maintaining an emotional and ethical and political distance from one’s own work is a sure-fire recipe for alienation.

    John, thank you for raising these questions and expressing your feelings so candidly. They are questions that I have raised to myself for more than a quarter century and feelings with which I continue to wrestle from time to time.

    It may be worthwhile to separate the questions into three categories: (1) those concerning the morality of the decision to engage in this kind of business; (2) those concerning the efficacy of what ad and marketing people do; and (3) those about the ad and marketing people’s motivations.

    1. The morality problem — The issue for me, when I failed to get tenure in my first academic job, was “How am I going to do what a man has to do, provide for his family?” Options available to me when Ruth brought us to Japan were joining the CIA (we were both recruited, and this was the only employer who cared about Asian languages), doing something related to computing ( PCs were still largely hobbyists’ toys, and, practically speaking, the most available opportunities involved working in a corporate computer center writing or tweaking corporate data systems), or teaching English in Japan (or some other foreign country; could have gone back to Taiwan). Later, when I was recruited as a copywriter, the projects I was assigned were mostly related to emerging digital technologies-copiers, faxes, PBX, networks, PCs, that sort of thing. I could imagine myself in a situation similar to that of John Sculley, when Steve Jobs recruited him from Pepsi by asking, “Do you want to change the world or spend your life selling carbonated water and sugar to teenagers?” The point of all this rambling is not, however, to make excuses. It is, rather, to highlight a maxim I learned from John Wager, who contributes to lit-ideas: Morality implies ambiguity. If everything is black and white, there are no moral choices to be made. To which I add what I learned from Vic Turner and, again, from Pierre Bourdieu (though the thought goes back at least to Marx, Freud and, before them, Hegel): Life is full of contradictions. We cannot make them go away. We can only learn how to live with them or resolve one set in ways that lead us to a place where we have to confront others.

    2. The efficacy problem — When I was teaching marketing, I began my seminars by pointing out that the only thing we know for sure about marketing is that every year hundreds or thousands of new products enter the market place. Each will represent the efforts of smart, hardworking people who thought long and hard about product, pricing, promotion, packaging and placement — and the overwhelming majority will fail. Within two years they will no longer be available. I then go on to observe that learning to do what we ad folk and marketers do is like learning to play poker. You start with the rules and the basic calculations. At the end of the day, however, you play the cards you are dealt at a table where everyone wants to win. You win a few, you lose a lot. The more you learn the more likely it is that you win, but whatever you learn can never do more than shade the odds in your favor. There are no recipes for automatic success.

    3. The what are they thinking problem — Given what I have written in 2., it will come as no surprise that I see ad folk and marketers as addicted to magical thinking. How could we not be, working in an industry where commonsense on the client side says, “I know that half my advertising budget is wasted. The problem is I don’t know which half.” (attributed variously to Lord Leverhulme, the founder of Unilever, or Tom Watson, the founder of IBM)? Does this mean, however, that I write us off as frauds and charlatans? No. In my experience, the great majority of us take what we do very seriously and do the best we can. In this respect, we resemble the the anthropologist, the Daoist master, and the Japanese creative director mentioned in the acknowledgements for my book.

    This book is dedicated to the memories of three men: Victor Turner, Tio Se-lian, and Kimoto Kazuhiko.

    The first was an anthropologist whose teaching is inscribed in the shape of this book. He taught me that an anthropologist works with three kinds of data, things observed (here the Lifestyle Times, the internal newsletter produced by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living that provides much of this book’s content), the native exegesis (represented here by the conversations with HILL researchers interleaved between the chapters), and the economic and demographic background that cultural analysis neglects at its peril.

    The second was a Grand Master of Daoist Magic who allowed a fledgling fieldworker to become his disciple and, by trotting him the length and breadth of Taiwan, made it perfectly clear how much goes on in modern, urban Asian societies that escapes the boundaries of the villages and neighbourhoods in which anthropologists usually work.

    The third was a Senior Creative Director who hired a hapless scholar and turned him, with much labour, into a copywriter unable to tolerate stereotypes of the kind this book attacks.

    Looking back what I see in all three is a willingness to listen, a passion for detail, a flair for the dramatic, and a breadth of humanity that transcends the places and moments in which we met. I am proud to call them my mentors and to try, however poorly, to follow their example.

  9. John, thanks for opening up some of your ambivalence. Related to the original post, I’ve discovered that you and I both received our undergraduate degrees from the same distinguished university. We should congratulate ourselves and one another for retaining enough brain cells to engage in any sort of coherent exchange.

  10. Speaking of those brain cells and career paths, John and John, some other grads of your distinguished university have settled the next town over and opened a local brewery. They run tours every Saturday, give away a lot of free beer, and seem to enjoy their lives immensely. Maybe they didn’t code-switch very well and this pitiful fate was all that remained to them.

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