Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Day 55: Harvard is hell for some

What went well? 

  1. Buddhism mid-term went very smoothly.
  2. Interesting sociology colloquium on what merit means in admissions to elite universities in the US & UK.
  3. Really interesting guest lecture (Dr Laura Kubzansky) in positive psychology today on the relationships between positive psychological functioning & physical health.
  4. Stouffer fellows night with my Buddhism professor as the dinner guest! It's always interesting to hear his stories, and this was no exception. Man, he has had some of the weirdest and funniest experiences. One of the stories he shared was a linguistics class he took as an undergrad at Boston, where the class ran from 12am-5am (yes, AM) once a week, by this totally weird professor, and they always drank lots during it. LOL. It's like something out of the movies?

What did I learn? 

  • A new term: "diversity bargain". Students at Harvard & Brown are happy for race to be considered in admissions (affirmative action), so long as it benefits them - i.e. if they get the benefits of increased diversity by having the opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds, but not if they self-segregate, and certainly not if said student hadn't gotten in because someone from a racial minority got in ("If I hadn't gotten in, then..."). I thought this was intriguing.
  • Most research in the past pertaining to the relationship between emotions and physical health had focused largely on negative psychological states (e.g. Type A personality, depression, stress) & physical health, but only recently have they started to collect data on the relationship between positive psychological states (e.g. optimism, positive affect) and physical health. And yes, there is a huge effect!!! Not just wishful thinking. One study (I don't have the reference here) showed that participants who had high optimism at baseline had a 56% reduced chance of developing cardiovascular disease compared with the pessimistic participants (all were healthy at baseline). Another study showed that emotional vitality reduced risk of cardiovascular disease by 28% and optimism by 31%; these effect sizes are substantial as they are similar to the effects of diet interventions. I'm actually quite interested in perhaps looking at this line of research in the future - health psychology/public health.
  • My intro Buddhism professor hated, and I mean hated Harvard. He did his Masters degree at the School of Divinity, and said that he felt physically sick getting off the train each morning to get into campus - hated everything about the place - the students, the buildings, the food, the weather, the city. I was quite taken aback. This made me think back to the discussion we had in our lab meeting the other day about institutional culture, and this is adding to my growing realisation that this is something that will be very important to consider. Whatever grad school or post-doc or faculty position I choose in the future will need to be backed up with solid motivations and solid research into the culture, not just because they're commonly accepted to be the "best" institutions for research or whatever. So, why did he hate it so much? "Imagine a room full of alpha-males and alpha-females who are trying to be alpha-males, all striving to show that they're better than each other, and that this is encouraged by the professors. And professors can't even be professors because you can never access them." Another story he told us was this time a student came up to him (this would have been about 15 years ago) and said, "I have a problem." He says, "Ok, let's talk about your problem." The problem? She got a B+ on a paper! It was the first time she'd ever gotten a B in anything, and she was all like, "What are we going to do about this?" Obviously, the professor was like wtf?! (not literally, but probably thinking that) and basically said, "I dunno." So she pressed him, and he was like, "Why don't you talk to the President about it? I'll come to the meeting." And she was like, "Ok, I'll do that. But you're not going to be at the meeting." Prof: "Too right I'm not. Because you're not going to get a meeting! You'll be laughed at if you call her." So then the student asked, "Why did I get a B+?" And he said, "Now you're asking the right question. Can you tell me why you shouldn't have gotten a B+?" And she couldn't answer it. Fascinating. Just fascinating. I can't believe how naïve I was (and to some extent still am) and susceptible to the "halo" of Harvard as the ideal destination, a priori. More critical thinking required. As an aside, he did love UC Riverside! From what I've heard, I'm liking the sound of the institutions on the West coast.
A few random pictures from the day

"Good luck on exams! Stay positive! It's almost SPRING BREAK"

I never noticed that the building behind Hummus was this awesome!

Colourful flowers at the grocery store


  1. interesting, Jessie! I always thought some of the elite schools are overrated and wondered what would happen if all our titles, statuses and achievements were stripped bare from us and what that would reveal. Our lives are defined by how we live, not just as individuals but also as a populus, and if there was no money or merit, who would be the 'best' human beings? We live and then we die, and in death we are made equal. We have to keep humble. And now through this lens can we say that Harvard is the 'best' school? I think not.

    1. Wow, On On, thank you so much for your very insightful comment. I'm grateful to have such thoughtful friends.

      I think you hit the nail on the head. Like you, I believe that we are fundamentally equal as human beings. And character strengths such as kindness, respect for people, generosity, forgiveness, humility are key to facilitating this attitude, and therefore a more peaceful, prosocial society. I believe that we need to make character and what we do for others the basis of our definition of success in life, not empty accolades. Of course, society, as it currently works, makes it difficult to always keep that in mind - but we can try!