Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Add to the list

Looks like a book I want to read when I have nothing else to do.

Keeping up with The Times

In today's Opinionator, Olivia Judson explains what "sexual tension" means for evolutionary biologists:

Normally, it’s not possible to free one sex from the constraints of the other, because the two are condemned to evolve together. But again, fruit flies are an exception. In the laboratory, it’s possible to let one sex to evolve while holding the other still.

In other words, it is not what was happening between various male and female characters on "Firefly." Yet, fascinating nevertheless.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Why you wish Adrienne Martini was your friend, too...

Because when she signs your copy of her new book, she writes in it:

"Keep blogging! (& learn to knit)"

By the by, her new book is called Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously and it is oh-so-good! You need not knit to enjoy it.

Parenting like an anthropologist

For me, parenting is like being an academic in that it all feels like almost a fraud at times. One day soon, the person in charge will realize that I am just passing at being competent.

I hear myself teaching a class and I am surprised that I sound like I know what I am doing. The same goes with the raising and rearing of my children.

Aside from my academic interest in parenting advice literature, I typically disdain it. I might not always know exactly what to do, but I also am not convinced that anybody knows that much better.

That said, a book that I like is Betsy Brown Braun's Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents (2008).

For starters, I can relate to the title.

What I like is that this book starts with the recognition that so much of parenting involves talking with and listening to children. In other words, skills that we have learned - and that we need continually to hone.

Braun's advice is based on recognizing the strategies and tactics of conversation that both parents and children use. For example, in a discussion about telling truths and lies, Braun offers specific suggestions:

Set your child up to tell the truth. If you are quite sure that your child has committed a misdeed, don't ask him if he has.

Never ask a question to which you already know the answer. If you know who spilled the milk, don't call out, "Who spilled the milk?"

We need no training in anthropology to recognize the importance and meaning of language in parenting. Yet, I think we parents could take more time to consider. This kind of reflection comes too often to me as an after-thought about what I should have said.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Anti-anti-gay talk?

There have been classes that I loved teaching despite the students in them. I have clung desperately to my own interest in the material to carry me to the calm and gentle waters of the semester’s end – or at least dumped me on its sands. In such situations, StraightMan and I have come home and told each other: “If only the students would get out of the way of my teaching…”

Sometimes, however, the stars and the planets align: This semester, I am teaching a class on linguistic anthropology. This is the class that I spend all of my time obsessively preparing because I’m lovin’ it.

The students in linguistic anthropology seem to like to talk about talk. They also have a lot to say. I think this is in no small part due to the fact that they want, even need, meaningful opportunities to reflect on the importance of ordinary behaviors – which is part of “popularizing” anthropology.

Last Friday, we talked about the use of the phrase: “No homo.”

Students in my class explained that “no homo” becomes attached to guys’ comments, like compliments, to each other. As in: “Nice shirt.” A pause. Then: “No homo.”

The Wiki on “no homo”
traces the origins of this phrase to hip hop music, in which “it parenthetically asserts that the (male) speaker is not a man who has sex with men, whether identified as gay or otherwise, after an utterance that might give that impression.”

Wikipedia also notes: “A parallel term is ‘pause’, which has the same meaning and is often used by Jay-Z, among others.”

Is this just a joke, as some students in my class claimed? Or is it an example either of undisguised gay bashing or of homophobia veiled as humor, as other students suggested?

Both the phrase itself and the extent to which it apparently is used were news to me. I still recoil when I hear students say "that's so gay," which I recall from my own high school days. So, as a college professor today, I have been surprised to hear "that's so gay" used so blithely and so often. (For the sake of being able to situate me, you could call me a Gen Xer.) I remember, in college, having a gay friend call to my attention how thoughtless and careless it was for me to use "that's so gay" as a way to say "that's so stupid."

A generous reading of the use of phrases like “no homo” and “that’s so gay” among college students today is that it is “ironic” – that is, it can be just a joke or it can be an intentional and in-your-face playing on expectations and pushing of boundaries. In this reading, “no homo” is not quite the same as gays and lesbians reclaiming “queer” for themselves, but it shares a certain sensibility, especially when we take seriously the language ideology of hip hop, from which “no homo” has been adopted, as a form of “speaking truth to power.” If opinion polls can be trusted to tell us something about what people think and believe, and if support for gay marriage can be read as some kind of marker of at least recognizing the rights and humanity of gays and lesbians, then my students belong to the generation of Americans who could make a claim for being “post-hate.” I can see the possibility, then, that my students could argue that “no homo” is anti-anti-gay.


During the discussion, I suggested comparisons between the use of “no homo” and Mock Spanish, which I discussed in an earlier post. If “no homo” is intended to be just a joke, then like Mock Spanish, “getting it” depends on what linguistic anthropologist Jane Hill called “instant, unreflecting access to a cultural model” that carries a “negative residue of meaning.” In this case, getting the joke means accessing a cultural model of gay men - and accessing a cultural model of gay men also means accessing cultural models about gender, sex, and sexuality more generally.

This discussion of “no homo” emerged from consideration of Deborah Cameron’s “Performing Gender Identity: Young Men’s Talk and the Construction of Heterosexual Masculinity” (1997), which describes Cameron’s re-reading of a male college student’s paper about “men’s talk.” My students agreed with Cameron that “gay” talk (like “no homo” or “that’s so gay”) is not uncommon in conversations among male college students.

The talk is not so much about “actual” gays or gayness, but guys (i.e., other male college students) “being gay” – or in Cameron’s words, “failing to measure up to the group’s standards of masculinity or femininity.” For example, she considers why a group of male college students described another individual as “being gay” based on their observation of his continual “hitting on” a particular woman – whom they also evaluated in extremely uncomplimentary terms. “I think this is because the deviance indicated for this group by the term ‘ gay’ is not so much sexual deviance,” Cameron writes, “as gender deviance.”

So, another reading of “no homo” is this: When male college students remark on a nice shirt or a new haircut or so on, their own understanding of why they then might add, “No homo,” is not necessarily that they are disavowing their comments as “hitting on” other guys – that is, they do not fear being misrecognized as “actually” gay. Instead, they are calling attention to the fact that they know, as guys, that they are not supposed to care or notice, let alone comment upon, shirts and haircuts. In general, caring, noticing, and commenting are not masculine behaviors.

In addition, I think it is telling that the examples that my students used were compliments about shirts and haircuts, which are seen as particularly “gay” concerns.

"Gay" talk, then, is not only about gay men in "actuality," but about sex and sexuality more generally. That is, the use of "no homo" seems to be about talk that might be charged with the possibility of sexual meaning. It is not just that men today are not supposed to care or notice physical appearance or attractiveness in other men, but that they also are not supposed to comment on women's shirts, haircuts, and so on - lest they themselves become labeled as lecherous and / or their compliments become construed as harassment.

Of course, uttering "no homo" also allows "actual" lechery and harassment to continue, but masquerading as sarcasm, even wit - and the joke is on the person who apparently does not have enough of a sense of humor to laugh at it.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Wisdom sits in places

Like the words of Tim Ingold, in his 2007 Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in Social Anthropology. Titled "Anthropology Is Not Ethnography," it was published in the Proceedings of the British Academy 2008:

"As educators based in university departments, most anthropologists devote much of their lives to working with students. They probably spend considerably more time in the classroom than anywhere they might call the field. Some enjoy this more than others, but they do not, by and large, regard time in the classroom as an integral part of their anthropological practice. Students are told that anthropology is what we do with our colleagues, and with other people in other places, but not with them. Locked out of the power-house of anthropological knowledge construction, all they can do is peer through the windows that our texts and teachings offer them. It took the best part of a century, of course, for the people once known as 'natives', and latterly as 'informants', to be admitted to the big anthropology house as master-collaborators, that is as people we work with. It is now usual for their contributions to any anthropological study to be fulsomely acknowledged. Yet students remain excluded, and the inspiration and ideas that flow from our dialogue with them unrecognized. I believe this is a scandal, one of the malign consequences of the institutionalized division between research and teaching that has so blighted the practice of scholarship. For indeed, the epistemology that constructs the student as the mere recipient of anthropological knowledge produced elsewhere - rather than as a participant in its ongoing creative crafting - is the very same as that which constructs the native as an informant. And it is no more defensible."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Keeping up with The Times

The pep talk that anthropology ABDs receive when, for example, they do not receive an invitation for a job talk (or they happen to glance at a bleak report in The Chronicle of Higher Education) is that academia is not your only option: More than half of PhD's work "outside" the ivory tower. To be frank, it did not always make you feel peppy to hear this.

I was filled with thrill and envy, however, to learn that a linguistic anthropologist has become the new columnist for "On Language." I like that he starts with a consideration of "no." He even talks about anthropologists and kinship to boot! (Not in connection to "no.")

What a nerd am I.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

2 jobs + 2 kids = 2 much

My husband and I are in what I grant is an enviable situation for two PhD's who are married to each other. For starters, we have each other and two children who delight (and torment) us as no other beings can. We also have two full-time jobs. In the same discipline. At two neighboring institutions. In the same town. He has tenure, I do not (yet). We appear to have the two-body problem solved.

EXCEPT that we do not. A two-body problem solved means only that there will be other issues to resolve. This is the equation of 2 jobs + 2 kids = 2 much.

Last spring, in fact exactly one year ago, I started the following journal. This is the only entry. Read further, and you can see why:

12:50pm Arrive in lecture room for two sections of ANTH 100 that I teach back-to-back. This morning, I arrived on campus around 9:20 after dropping off my daughter, Beanie, at preschool. My husband, whom I shall dub StraightMan for the purposes of blogging about, had dropped off our son, Bubbie, at day care. I spent about 45 minutes reading over the chapter of my book manuscript that I currently am reworking from my dissertation. I have some ideas. Then I turned my attention to preparing for my ANTH 100 and ANTH 105 lectures, printing hardcopies of the slides, then handwriting notes about points to emphasize or additional examples that might be relevant. I responded to e-mail, then ate lunch while I browsed for references on rapid ethnographic assessment and other research methods for a potential project that I have been approached about joining.

2:55pm I am supposed to meet a colleague who is borrowing my copy of “Ongka’s Big Moka” for his 5pm class. While waiting, chat with students in his class. I answer a question about a class that I will teach in the fall. Which reminds me that I want to revise the syllabus.

3:05pm Arrive back for office hours. Realize that I left the DVD of “Nanook of the North” at home because I was watching it, taking notes, and preparing my lecture for ANTH 105 (between 8:30 and 10:30pm) the previous day. Each lecture involves a mini-research project b/c anthropologist though I am, I actually do not have a thorough knowledge of the culture, history, and contemporary dilemmas of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Canela of Brazil, the !Kung San / Bushmen, and the Eskimos. I had some of my best teaching evaluation numbers the last time I taught this, but highly critical, relentless self-exploiter that I am, I decided to change the reading assignments, the films, and the general approach to the course to make it, to my mind, more engaging. What is the sound of my own hand clapping? Hint: It sounds like self-flagellation.

So, I walk up the hill to my car. In the parking lot, I chat with another self-flagellating colleague. Even the 10 minutes spent in casual conversation feel like a luxury. It is this Comrade who inspires me to log my time, as he does. By logging his time, he has come to realize that his goal of spending 15 hours a week on his research is not close to being met. It is the second full week of March, and he tells me that since the semester started, he has logged 15 hours total on his research. I express similar frustration about writing – or more like not writing – my book manuscript. Gentle reader, have I mentioned that I have a contract? With a publisher? That I have a reduction from four courses to three courses totaling more than 125 students? So, the reduction is not a reduction at all, but a reorganization. Hence, the manuscript looks like a series of files, started, but not finished, on the desktop of my Mac, and a few yellow sticky notes reminding me what I was thinking, in the event I ever should have an opportunity to reopen one of said files. It looks like this because that is all I have.

I go home, get the film and a bar of chocolate to fortify myself for my ANTH 105 class at 5pm. Note to self: Eat better, and exercise. I return to my office, realize that I need to make copies of today’s handout. I make the copies, then come back to the office (I am holding office hours) and start writing this for yuks, I suppose. I recall that Comrade and I chatted about how we feel like we spend most of our time just keeping up or just covering what we must – namely, caring for young children at home and teaching. I begin to realize that “teaching” is a gloss for all kinds of activities including, but not limited to reading and taking notes on the articles that I have assigned to the students, composing notes and/or PowerPoint slides for lectures, performing the lectures themselves, listening thoughtfully to students during their presentations and discussions, offering feedback on their comments (including constructively correcting their mis-readings of the material so as not to discourage the students), mediating disagreements that arise between particular students during discussion, attempting to draw into the discussion other students who do not participate, talking to students before and after classes about their various concerns (especially absences past and anticipated, the reasons for them, and how they might “make up” missed work or receive extra credit), answering e-mails and phone calls from students, talking with students during office hours about their grades or their plans for next semester or for graduation, designing assignments that are at once meaningful and doable and gradable, skimming the anthropology journals to which I subscribe (American Anthropologist, American Ethnologist, Medical Anthropology Quarterly) to present fresh not canned knowledge, browsing other electronic journals for the same, checking book reviews to see what fits the criteria of (a) what I want to read that (b) I can assign in a class that I am planning for (i) next semester and (ii) the semester after that and (iii) sometime in the future. There is still more to teaching than this, but that is all I have time for because now it is…

4:50pm Time to make the donuts. That is, go back to the lecture room where I previously taught back-to-back sections of ANTH 100, and knock them dead in ANTH 105. The topic this week: The Western fascination with Eskimos, and the film “Nanook of the North.” I produced a PowerPoint presentation of 30 slides, then cut then back to 17 because although the class is 2 ½ hours, I still need to review for the upcoming exam, screen about 45 minutes of the film itself, and leave open time for discussion.

9:35am Arrive on campus, start my computer while I hang up my coat, and deliberately do not log on to my e-mail. New strategy: Check e-mail around 10pm at night, answer student questions immediately, answer other e-mail requiring quick response immediately (like the ones I am exchanging with a colleague whom I will call Tick – short for Tenure Clock – about a workshop that we are organizing for a fall conference – the deadline for the proposal is April), answer one or two more from the day or two before that did not require immediate response. Then do not log onto e-mail until I have put in 45 minutes of work on my book manuscript the next day. I steal time from myself.

Last night I got home around 7:45pm – my class ended shortly before 7:30pm, then I got straight into the car and drove home to be there for bedtime with the kids. StraightMan is there, as he always is. Thankfully. I saw Bubbie for a total of like15 minutes yesterday – I resent that about Wednesday. Beanie jumped up and down to see me – I snuggled with her and we read part of a story before we turned off the light. Downstairs, StraightMan puts my supper, which he cooked, in the microwave before he leaves – as faculty adviser for a student group, he attends their meetings diligently, if sometimes wishing he did not have to do it. We are a two-body problem apparently solved – two tenure-track jobs (in the same discipline) at two institutions in the same place. Lucky, but frankly, not always feeling so. It is early March, however, and we both still feel snowed under, at least metaphorically. There just never seems to be an end to the to-do list. StraightMan and I occasionally debate whether or not such items as “article” or “research” should appear on that list because they always get pushed to the bottom, like stones or cement blocks weighting down a body in the water that somebody does not want found. We always conclude, however, that we must keep such items on our lists because not to have them appear will be even worse. I eat dinner alone, absorbing the stillness of the house. The computer in our kitchen is on, I look at newspaper headlines as a way to disengage from the rest of my day. I read an unbelievably sad and unbelievably stunning piece in The Washington Post Sunday Magazine that a friend had mentioned – about parents whose children die after they have been forgotten in a car seat. The point of the piece is that this is not really a crime, but a terrible, most egregious error that reveals the shortcomings we all share as modern humans. The fault lies in our brains and in our five-point-harness carseats and in our need for said carseats and the driving around that we all do.

That parent could be me. I once arrived at home thinking that Bubbie had been there all day – I forgot to pick him up from day care. I speeded all the way up Maple Street because it was 20 minutes past the time I should have been there. It was terrible – I felt this terrible love and this terrible fear as I scooped up Bubbie and promised that I would never, ever forget to get him. He just wiggled out of my arms and picked up his stuffed cat and waited, I suppose, for me to compose myself. I hate that I did not forget the classes that I needed to prep for the next day or the assignments that required grading or the committee meeting that it was my responsibility to attend that afternoon.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Higher Ed

(This cartoon appeared in The New Yorker, April 20, 2009.)

Alas, I wish I could say that I, too, worked in that wonderland called Academia, but I work in a world more prosaic, called Higher Education.