Monday, April 1, 2013

Honorary Degrees: Neither Honorary, Nor Degrees


Getting a PhD is hard work! Of course, I don’t personally know this, as I am not getting one, but I know people who are either working on it, or have one already. You are basically a slave for the school, working your butt off, doing research, taking classes, writing papers, etc. And all the while, you are pretty much broke. Yes, some programs will pay you (a few grand per year), but others don’t.

So the fact that some schools just hand them out blows my mind. It seems insulting to the people who have actually earned them, and it seems insulting to the people who are receiving them. It also makes the school look bad, I think. Imagine if the Olympics gave out honorary gold medals, or the Nobel Prize committee gave out honorary peace prizes? It would be the most ridiculous thing you could ever imagine.

The first time I heard about some sort of honorary degree was when I was in film school. I went to Vancouver Film School (VFS), and I learned that the writer/director/actor, Kevin Smith also had attended years earlier. However, he dropped out, took his refunded tuition money and shot the movie Clerks.  Well, after he became famous, VFS decided to award him an honorary diploma. To me, the whole thing seemed like a transparent attempt to associate themselves with a successful filmmaker—to attach his name to theirs.

Now, one might be tempted to say “sure, in that case, VFS clearly just wanted to associate themselves with Smith, but many schools just give them to past alumni who have accomplished great things.” That sounds superficially plausible, but upon further inspection, it seems to be even worse. First, why give people honorary degrees if they already have accomplished so much? How could that possibly benefit the person? The late paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science, Stephen Jay Gould was one of the most influential and popular science writers of his generation. He taught at Harvard, worked at the American Museum of Natural History, and had a stunning scientific career—having published 479 scientific, peer-reviewed papers and written 22 books. Gould was also awarded 44 honorary degrees from academic institutions around the world. I have to ask, what is the point? Are his career accomplishments not enough? Is it reasonable to conclude that these universities thought “this Gould guy is pretty good… let’s honor him”? No. Obviously, he was a celebrity scientist and universities wanted to associate themselves with him in any way possible.

Likewise, Hollywood celebrities often receive honorary degrees for nothing more than being famous. Heck, even Kermit the frog has an honorary PhD from SUNY Stony-Brook. It seems that such gratuitous hand outs of degrees only water down the importance of PhDs, and make the university appear to not value the hard work it takes for its actual doctoral students to obtain one.

The most embarrassing examples of giving out an honorary PhD I have ever had the misfortune of seeing was at Colorado College (the institution I work for). What makes it so embarrassing is that unlike other schools that give honorary PhDs, Colorado College does not have any PhD programs. Not one. They have a Master’s degree program—for education, and that’s it. It’s shameful, and it’s the only thing that makes me embarrassed about Colorado College.

Now, you might be thinking “okay, sure. I get that all this is silly and seems disrespectful to people who work hard for their PhDs. But it’s just a piece of paper… a symbol of respect from the school or something. It’s not like anyone actually says they are a doctor as a result of getting an honorary PhD.”

While I suspect that that is the case most of the time, unfortunately, there are a group of people who do use honorary degrees in an attempt to make themselves seem academically accomplished, and give what they say credence. Those people are creationists. To anyone who follows that stuff, it’s not surprising. Creationism is a world where logic is cherry-picked and academic honesty doesn’t matter. Creationists have no qualms with getting honorary degrees or degrees from diploma mills if that means they can put "PhD" on their resume and refer to themselves as a doctor. They will use any tactic, no matter how low, to try and appear to have a modicum of academic accomplishment. So the argument that honorary degrees aren’t used for anything bad is no good either.

Of course, it should be noted that not all schools resort to such levels of sucking up. MIT, UCLA, Cornell, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Rice, the University of Virginia and the California Institute of Technology refuse to give out honorary degrees. UCLA actually gives out a “UCLA Medal” instead, which seems like a much better decision.

In the end, Universities, which should be bastions of academic honesty, rigor and transparency, end up looking like middle school girls with low self esteem. They want to be associated with the cool kids, with the hopes that other people will perceive them as being cool too. Schools should be judged on a variety of things, such as how well they educate students, the experience they give students, and the quality of work their students produce once graduating… not on whom they are desperately trying to associate themselves with.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Weirdest Experience Ever

The following story is the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me. If someone were to tell me this story, I would surely think they were exaggerating to make the story better, or simply making parts of it up. To help convince you that it is true, I will be posting links at the end, which help corroborate my wild experience. With that...

It was 2007. I was 24, fresh out of film school, and looking for a job. I was browsing Craigslist one day and found a nonprofit company that was looking for a video editor. Apparently, it was some offshoot of a bigger company named Alaska Structures, which sells military grade tents and shelters. The job seemed like something I would be interested in, and best of all, the starting salary was listed as between $60-80,000!! I applied and was quite excited when I immediately got called for an interview. Yay!

I arrived for my interview at 7:00am. It was a nice building in Kirkland, Washington, overlooking Lake Washington. As I approached the building, I could see inside and noticed that the office was already full of bustling people. I went to open the door, but found that it was locked. As I tried to open it again, the secretary looked up and saw me. I figured she would come open the door, but instead just returned to her work. Confused, I looked around to see if anyone could let me in. I then noticed a little piece of paper taped to the bottom part of the glass window, saying “please show your driver’s license to the secretary.” I thought that was a bit odd, but whatever. I got out my license and put it up to the glass. The secretary walked over, looked at it, returned to her desk to check something, and then let me in.

I was 15 min early, so I sat down on a couch and start flipping through some magazines. All the magazines were things like Forbes, Fortune,etc. As I was looking around, I noticed that there was a security camera above the secretary, looking straight at me. I didn’t really think anything of it, and continued to just sit there, waiting for my interview.

A few minutes went by, and I was approached by a guy carrying a ukulele and a bottle of whiskey, wearing a cape and a pointy foil hat. I was thinking “wat?”, and figured that it must be the brother of the CEO or something, and being a bit slow, is just allowed to hang out. Well, the ukelele guy sits down and starts talking to me, so I respond pleasantly. Though, I didn’t want to act too nice and patronizing, since I thought it might be some weird trick to test my character.

Ukelele guy asks me if I would like some whiskey,  to which I declined, saying it probably wouldn’t be a good idea before a job interview--especially so early in the morning. He then asked if I want to know a secret. I said sure, and leaned in to hear his secret. He then screamed as loud as he could, “I AM A JELLY DONUT!!!” I was totally shocked! Flabbergasted! I had no idea what is going on, and looked over at the secretary to get her reaction to such a weird outburst, but she kept her head down, refusing to acknowledge what just happened. I could tell that she could see that I was looking at her, but absolutely would not look up.

Ukelele guy then told me that he plays the ukulele, and asked if I would like to hear a song. I said sure, and he started strumming (quite poorly) on the ukulele, singing something about how no one in Tacoma has a lawn. He then quit, and asks what I thought about the song. I said it was better than I could do, but I didn’t think that it was true that no one in Tacoma has a lawn, seeing as I knew people in Tacoma, and they definitely had lawns.

He proceeded to tell me that he got the ukulele in Hawaii, because he broke his other one when he became frustrated at not being good at it. I said that was too bad, but I didn’t think he was that bad. He accused me of lying, and insisted that I hated the song. I said that wasn’t true, because he could play better than me. He then asked if I want a drink yet, and I declined, again.

Meanwhile, I noticed that a few other employees (one who turned out to be the CEO of the company) were watching me from afar.
Ukelele guy then pulled out a VERY crumpled piece of paper. He uncrumpled it, and it had a picture of an orangutan in a business suit, looking irritated. There was a caption saying something like “I can’t get any work done when all of my employees are missing links”. The guy asked me if I thought it was funny, and I said yeah, sort of. He pressed me to explain why I thought it was funny, so I explained that it was a funny expression on the orangutan’s face, and he was wearing a suit, which was funny. And with that, just as quickly as he appeared, the ukelele guy took the paper and ran off! Leaving me with what I am sure was a look of “is this real life?” on my face.

Finally, I was called in to the actual interview, only to find that I would be joining two other guys who were applying for the same job. No big deal. The interview room was quite nice, with a large wooden table, flat panel TVs, security cameras, and pics of the CEO with President Bush. There were three interviewers: the CEO, some guy from HR and some other person. The CEO was nice, but seemed crazy and sounded a lot like Rush Limbaugh. The HR guy was super nice and seemed quite normal, and I don’t remember anything about the third person.

Anyway, the group interview starts going and everything is relatively normal, with standard interview questions. However, things suddenly got weird when we were asked questions like “out of the three of us, who would you least like to work with?” and “on a scale of 1-10, rate how nice or controlling you think each of us seem”, as well as other similar questions that were somewhat difficult to answer.

The two other interviewees tried to be polite and give answers, but also not be offensive. They would try to explain their reasons for liking one person over another with a lot of humming and hawing, “Well, I gather this from you, um, but, uhh… I am not saying this for certain about you… but…” I didn’t play into it, and simply would say something like “you”, or “4, 4, 7” without any further explanation. For whatever reason, that seemed acceptable to them, and I wasn’t pressed to explain my answers.

As I mentioned earlier, the job was going to be for a video editing position, and the three interviewers explained that they had tons of footage they wanted edited into a documentary that would “sweep the film festivals.” Though, they didn’t have a story, point they were trying to get across, or anything. All they had was footage of their company helping in some sort of disaster relief.

Their story of the footage also didn’t make any sense. They said they had filmed with 6 or so cameras for 2 weeks straight, nonstop. Though, they claimed to only have 12 or so hours of footage. This didn’t make sense if they had filmed nonstop, and one interviewee questioned the strange situation, but we never got an answer. Generally, we were just told things like “don’t worry about it, we hired the best people, and it's great.” However, we were also told that their previous editor had quit, since the he claimed the footage was terrible.

That concluded the interview, and we were told that if we were still interested, to call back. I was curious, so I called back. The lady I spoke with asked what I thought of the interview, and I said it was really... interesting. She asked to explain why I thought it was interesting, so I stated what I thought was odd about it, and then asked what the rationale behind the ukulele guy was. Unfortunately, I was told I wasn’t allowed to know. Whatever the case, they scheduled another interview for me the next morning… at 6am!

I arrived at 5:45am, again to find the office fully functional, with dogs also running around inside. There was no ukulele guy this time, and I was taken straight back to the interview room. This time, I was the only interviewee.

I sat down with three interviewers again: the CEO, the HR guy and this time, the ukulele guy! Except he wasn’t the ukulele guy anymore, he was dressed and acting totally normally! He would occasionally refer to the Ukulele guy in third person, calling him Bernie or something. There was also never a hint of irony or anything in his eye. When I first saw him, I thought there might be a wink and a nod, sort of acknowledging the insanity from the previous morning. Nope.

This interview seemed to go a lot more normally (at first). They asked about my experience, and wanted to see some of my work. I gladly showed them my demo reel, and we all discussed it. They seemed genuinely interested, and I began to think that the previous day was just some weird weeding-out technique that I wasn't aware of. But then, as often happens in so many job interviews, we started talking about God (since one of the videos on my sample reel dealt with atheism/religion). The CEO explained to me that he was religious, and explained some of his reasoning, which was terrible. I went back and forth in my head, wondering if I should point out some of his flawed logic or just let it go. I figured that since everything was so weird at this company, it couldn’t hurt to push back a bit. But after a bit of debating, I decided to just drop it.

As a result of this theological discussion, the CEO went on to explain that the reason that kids at the Georgia Tech shooting were unable to react when the shooter was in their classroom was because they were unable to recognize evil. He explained that that society isn’t teaching the difference between good and bad, and the students didn’t understand what they were witnessing. I said I disagreed, and explained that it was more likely that the kids were just frozen in fear—not that they were unable to recognize their fellow students being shot as bad.

Then the CEO left to have a meeting, and I continued to talk with the other two interviewers. While answering one question, I mentioned that I have a tendency to get really wrapped up in editing, and will edit nonstop until I get a project done. I gave the example of a 48 hr film festival I was recently in, and how I edited for basically 18 hrs straight. The interviewers didn’t even blink, and asked “are we supposed to be impressed?” I said “uuuh, not really, I was just saying that I get really into it sometimes.” They then told me that the CEO worked 18 hrs a day, for 7 years straight, without a vacation. I let out a small chuckle, because I thought they were joking. They asked why I thought it was funny, and I said I didn’t realize they were serious.

Because we were on the topic of work hours, it was explained to me how most employees work at least 100 hrs a week, don’t take lunches, etc. The reason behind this is because their work is too important, and they were saving lives (this saving lives spiel was a running theme throughout the interview). They said that some people don’t even go home, they just sleep under the desk, and their families bring them food. I didn’t know if they were serious or not, but they seemed to be.

They explained that if I were to work there, they would have me work 6 days a week, from 5am to 7pm. I asked why they start so early and they asked “why do you think?” I said, well, maybe to avoid traffic, or maybe because that’s when shipments go out or something. They said those were good guesses, but wrong. The real answer was that they wanted to start early, because they were saving lives. “We LOVE our job. Why would you go home if you could save lives?” Ukulele guy continued on about how his job brings so much meaning to his life, etc.

Having enough of this weirdness, I decided to attempt to get the interview back on track, and asked about the actual job. I inquired as to where the footage was, and where I would be working. They said I would work right out with everyone else. I laughed, saying that that wouldn’t work, because I need a quiet, neutral spot to edit. They said that was a glass ceiling, and I would overcome it. I said no, that is not how editing works. I need a quiet spot so I can hear where to make audio cuts and things of that nature. They conceded that they could get me headphones. Thanks, guys.

From there, ukulele guy went into this whole tangent about how people come to this company and they hate it, and they want to quit, and their friends and family tell them to quit. But it’s all just glass ceilings, and if you stay, you will become a better person, and see that “they” were right, and you can achieve great things. Ukulele guy went on, stating that when he started, he hated the place. But he kept coming back, and "they were right. They were always right."

After a bit more of this weirdness, the CEO came back and we talked some more. He explained that his employees had a 900% turnover rate, and most people quit within the first week, and those who don’t quit in the first week usually quit within the first 3 months. The CEO also made a big point of the fact that his company does things his own unique way. As a result, people think he is like a dictator, which he accepted.

He then asked if I believed in absolute truth. This is a trick question that Christian apologists often use when trying to convince nonbelievers of some ultimate God. The trick is that if you say “no”, they then ask “is that an absolute statement” or “are you absolutely sure?” As not to fall for this potential trick, I said yes, but clarified that whether we have the absolute truth on anything is a different matter. Whatever the case, I thought it was an odd question for a video editing job interview!

The CEO then stated bluntly that a number of people have accused the company of being a cult—but clarified that they "obviously weren’t!"I laughed, and without thinking, said “well, isn’t that exactly what a cult WOULD say?”

As my laugh subsided, it hit me. The entire time, something had been off. Granted, the ukulele guy was really weird, and the questions were strange… but something about the place… something was just off and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Having been interested in religion and cults, and how cults work, I was ashamed that I didn’t realize it until THEY pointed it out: it was DEFINITELY some sort of cult! As soon as the CEO mentioned that, it just all fell into place… sort of an “OH SHIIIIIIIIIIT!” moment. All of the basic aspects of a cult were there, and I had been too distracted (or something) to see them!

-Veneration of the leader (“he worked for 7 years straight without a break. What have YOU done??”).
-Infallible leader (crazy sales tactics that apparently no one else knows about, and are THE ONLY WAY).
-Persuasive techniques (asking odd questions, trying to get to you to crack).
-Hidden agendas (wanting me to edit a video… but wanting me to start work at 5am, and work with the sales people?).
-Belief that THEY have the absolute truth.
-Guilt trip tactics if you leave (“we are saving lives. Don’t you want to save lives?”).
-Attempts to undercut your skepticism (“your family will say to leave, but they are wrong”).
-Promise of growth, transcendence, family, etc (“you will have a family, and learn about yourself and grow like you never thought you could”).

With that, the interview wrapped up and I left. I was told that if I was still interested in the position, to call them. I really did consider going back for a third interview, simply to have another funny story to tell. But at that point, seeing as I was convinced that it was some sort of a crazy cult, and I decided not to waste my gas driving across the state for another interview at the crack of dawn. Whatever the case, it was definitely the most bizarre experience of my life. A good story though!

Evidence of the madness: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5