PhD in dilettantism: Everything is an ecosystem


If I could get a PhD in being a dilettante (a nice way for saying that I can’t focus and want to know and learn a lot about everything without really becoming an expert), I’d sign up now.

Today I dabbled and dealt in so many different disciplines, tackled so many things in so many languages, worked on hands-on fix-it things but also read poetry, marketing theory papers and some clinical research (in healthcare), that it could never be said that I do the same thing all the time. What I do with my time would probably bore the majority of people, but that’s what makes the world tick. Some of us want to drive trucks; some of us know how to mix drinks; some of us want to drill teeth (hopefully as dentists); some of us want to write about destination weddings in Italy while baking coconut macaroon tarts and filling them with dark chocolate ganache (recipe and pictures to come). I also saw a record number of cats prowling around the immediate vicinity, answered a lot of overdue email and told someone what a “croque monsieur” is (even if I have never made nor eaten one myself).

I write all of this, though, as a preface to a debate I often have running in my head about the value of focus versus multidisciplinary meanderings. I conclude that there should be no “versus” in that statement because it is not really something about which one can make a value judgment – both ways of doing things have their own value. They accomplish different ends.

What prompted this was the recent death of activist Billy Frank Jr. One of the articles I read after his passing pointed out that Frank’s life work, dealing almost exclusively with fishing rights, restoring salmon habitat and the ecosystem was sometimes criticized by Native American groups that felt Frank should use his voice and platform to fight for or pursue broader Native American issues in his agitation and political work. Frank was direct as always: he worked with what he knew. He wanted lawmakers, when they saw him coming, to know exactly what he wanted from them and would talk about.

“I know there are other problems, but the one I know about is the salmon, and when these politicians see me coming I want them to know that’s what I am here to talk about.”

While this singular focus served Frank, does a singular focus on an important issue sometimes prevent us from seeing a bigger picture or looking outside a given discipline to find a solution to a big problem? This might not have crossed my mind except that around the same time Frank died, and I had salmon populations and the whole “ecosystem” idea on my mind, I had seen a program (multiple times), Lifelines, on Al Jazeera English about how an overabundance of a parasite in Senegal led to epidemic levels of schistosomiasis. The disease is one of the world’s neglected tropical diseases (have you ever heard of it? I hadn’t) and can have very severe consequences.

In the story presented on Al Jazeera, the freshwater snail that carries this parasite basically overpopulated the river once the river had been dammed. The population using the river water would then become infected. Even though the infection is treatable, reinfection occurs when the person uses infected water, of course, making it a neverending cycle unless something could be done about the overpopulation of snails.

Doctors and specialists working in Senegal on this public health issue decided to look outside their own sphere of expertise. They knew, according to the documentary, that damming was responsible for the outbreak but were not sure how or why.

“…until a development specialist linked the explosion of schistosomiasis to the extinction of river prawns in the river system caused by the dam.

River prawns prey on the snails that carry the schistosomiasis parasite. Without prawns, the snail population increased, and so did the risk of schisto infection for everyone who entered the river”

It took some different thinking to look outside, for example, the immediate problem of a dammed river or outside the medical problems at hand to see the entire ecosystem and discover what had changed (the prawn population) that could have caused this. In this case, a focus on one thing (suddenly 90% of the population was infected with schisto) led to expanding the focus to consider different disciplines that could explain the problem and come up with a solution (repopulating with prawns).

One could argue, of course, that all of this makes sense because regardless of whether you are a specialist or a generalist, so much of what gets done is well-integrated with everything else. It’s an interdisciplinary world, and much like the natural ecosystem, the manmade ecosystem relies on this interdependence and the different types of skills and expertise its parts and people have. (More reason to cheer for my unorthodox but totally interdisciplinary higher education at The Evergreen State College, eh?)

Getting-Arrested Guy


Billy Frank JrNative American fishing rights activist – died at 83 this week. He had been a guest lecturer in my MPA program many years ago – alongside his late wife, Sue Crystal (d. 2001) — who was one of our faculty members. I did not know either of them well but somehow when these people who played such influential roles in one’s education are gone – it’s certainly a time for reflection. Everyone dies – I know – but despite death’s inevitability, it is natural to reflect on what someone’s place in your life and in the world as a whole meant once they are gone. It’s also a kind of time capsule. I don’t really want to remember my life in 1998-99, but thinking back to Sue Crystal and Billy Frank Jr, it is like I have gone back to that point in time – the hurried, cynical moment when I thought I knew what I wanted and what I was doing – but looking back, I really had no idea.

Billy Frank Jr - RIP

Billy Frank Jr – RIP

That is kind of an interesting train of thought – thinking you know what you are doing and what you want when in fact you don’t. In my old age I can look back and realize that even though we all think we are well into responsible adulthood by the time we are in our early-to-mid-20s, it feels like we as people were still so unformed and stumbling around when we were 23, 24… which makes it seem all the more shocking to me that people make big life decisions that involve other people (such as marrying and having children) when they are so young themselves. Not that it is wrong by any means – it just seems that life’s wants and needs change so much even between the ages of 22 and 25 and between 25 and 30.

I got the feeling from Sue Crystal’s lectures and her life that she followed a path that she had not intended either. She once mentioned being a Jewish girl from Chicago who became a lawyer. Would she have imagined that her future included marrying a man who fought his entire life for Native American fishing treaty rights in the Pacific Northwest? No, she had not imagined that – but that is exactly where her life took her.

I think a lot about how we blame people for things they said or did in youth – for example, Monica Lewinsky has popped up in the news again lately… and while I don’t know her at all, I can imagine that in her own insecure youth (I have known people whose attention-seeking behavior and need to be noticed led them into situations that were too much to handle and far bigger than they were) she just wanted to feel important, noticed, special and entered into this ill-advised affair with the President of the United States. While Lewinsky has been out of the public eye for a long time, she has never left the public consciousness – and the way she is used as a symbol shifts depending on who is doing the using and why. How is a Republican opponent bringing up at this point how “Lewinsky was used and abused” by Clinton any different from how anyone else has used her, her name and her experience for their own ends? I have no doubt that Lewinsky thought and still thinks that her actions were consensual and were exactly what she wanted. But would they have been what she wanted if she could have foreseen what those actions would lead to – how she would drag their aftermath around with her for the rest of her life?

My point, though, really, is that she was in her early 20s… and even though that is not an excuse, I can look at it and think, “I did a lot of really stupid, regrettable things when I was in my early 20s – asserting that I really thought I was an adult – asserting my ability to make completely independent decisions” – all things that I cringe about now and realize that no actual, grounded adult would do.

We’re developing throughout our lives – and people in their early 20s may in fact be among the most dangerous and vulnerable (particularly to themselves). They are on their own and expected to behave like responsible adults – but are without much guidance or supervision for perhaps the first time in their lives. And when a poor decision is made, it’s said, “S/he should have known better.” But in fact – should they have known better? What previous experience would have prompted them to know better? Sure, maybe it is logical that having sexual relations with a sitting US president is a bad idea, full stop, but what young woman in that situation would do the logical thing – particularly (if I may generalize wildly) the type of attention-seeking woman I perceive Lewinsky to have been?

I digress – all I wanted to say is that sometimes life leads us to places we never imagined.