Q&A: Stanford MacArthur fellows talk creativity and ‘publish or perish’

Oct. 26, 2020, 9:04 p.m.

Stanford professors Monika Schleier-Smith, a quantum physicist, and Forrest Stuart, a sociologist, both received “genius grants” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in honor of their “exceptional creativity.” The fellowship includes a $625,000 unconditional award to support “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential.”

Schleier-Smith works in experimental physics, attempting to better understand quantum mechanics by working with laser-cooled atoms. Stuart’s work focuses on modern, urban poverty, specifically the rise in policing and the use of social media.

The Stanford Daily sat down with each professor individually to discuss the fellowship and their work.

TSD: The MacArthur “genius grants” recognize individuals who have shown originality and creativity. How has your creative thinking impacted your work? 

MS: I’m always open to exploring new ideas. And I will say, if there’s a problem that everybody else is already working on, then I don’t necessarily feel the need to go and work on that same thing. I’m excited if there’s something that seems like it’s not being explored and maybe it should be, even if it’s a little bit speculative.

I think there is an aspect where you have some ideas that come from within, but there’s also an aspect of being able to bounce them off other people. The award is for me, but it’s also recognizing the creativity of the amazing team of students and postdocs who worked on all of this with me.

FS: I think that the style of work that I do, ethnography, which really privileges getting out of your office and spending long amounts of time in neighborhoods making intimate connections, really rethinks the way we think about why society works the way it does. 

We can imagine the world as dictated by these large social structures: class, race, gender, politics, the economy. It’s easy to imagine these things as superstructures that hang over our heads, that direct the way the world works. And I think ethnography kind of flips the lens. I think it demands some amount of creative thinking to try and just get your head around the ways that society is made up of these small, very mundane, seemingly innocent and innocuous interactions.

TSD: Often, we hear about academia being “publish or perish” in a way that isn’t necessarily beneficial to true scholarship and creativity. Have you seen this issue in your studies? How have you combatted it?

MS: I will say that for myself, I certainly tend to focus on quality over quantity. I would rather invest time into really deeply understanding something and writing a better paper. And I think that might sound a little bit risky, but overall I think that quality, in the end, is appreciated.

FS: The expectations, I think, have been increasing by the year. People are expected to publish at this breakneck speed. And I do think that if we were to pump the brakes a little bit, and really read people’s work rather than read their CV — I think that would be an environment which would really foster some creativity. When I was on the tenure track, I would have loved to spend a few months longer, say, on paper, or a few months longer collecting some extra interviews, or a few months longer in a field site, doing some observations, because I knew there was some extra problem that was even deeper than the one that I had set my sights on that I could crack open.

TSD: What does winning this honor mean for you and your work?

MS: It’s amazing how much publicity it got, and it’s already given me a couple of opportunities to explain quantum mechanics to a broader audience. I’m always happy when there’s a chance to explain why quantum physics is cool. The grant is something that I’m still turning over in my mind, but right now I am really appreciative of the recognition for my group and for the awesome work that they’re doing.

FS: This is a very nice sign of recognition that the kind of work that I’m doing, and the kind of work that my students are doing, is not just good, but really important for people besides sociologists. In some circles in social science, the ethnographic approach, where we spend lots of time in communities and often marginalized communities, can get some flack. But clearly, the world wants the kind of work that we’re doing, so that recognition is really important. In terms of moving forward, I have plans for a future project that’s kind of outside of the box. And now I can execute it without having to go beg funders to give my project some extra consideration. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Contact Kirsten Mettler at kmettler ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Kirsten Mettler '23 is an Executive Editor of The Stanford Daily. She is a former Managing Editor for Arts & Life and Desk Editor for News. Contact her at kmettler 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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