Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Keeping up with The Times

This past Sunday, the Times reported on an anthropological study based at UCLA. The Center on the Everyday Lives of Families amassed a video record of 32 dual-earner, middle-class families totaling 1,540 hours. They just finished transcribing and coding it. Wow.

Disclaimer: As a graduate student, I was affiliated with a sister center at the University of Michigan.

Among the findings that the Times reported in its article:

Mothers still do most of the housework, spending 27 percent of their time on it, on average, compared with 18 percent for fathers and 3 percent for children (giving an allowance made no difference).

Husbands and wives were together alone in the house only about 10 percent of their waking time, on average, and the entire family was gathered in one room about 14 percent of the time. Stress levels soared — yet families spent very little time in the most soothing, uncluttered area of the home, the yard.


In addition to housework, mothers spent 19 percent of their time talking with family members or on the phone, and 11 percent taking occasional breathers that the study classified as “leisure.” The rates for fathers were 20 percent chatting, and 23 percent leisure — again, taken in fragments.

Hmm. What is this leisure "in fragments" of which the Times speaks? Is this the few minutes I took after supper, while Beanie used the potty and Bubbie tried sitting on his (I am happy to see him exhibiting "potty-readiness"), to read Katha Pollitt's column in the issue of The Nation that just arrived b/c I really just did not feel like, for example, folding the basket of laundry that was sitting at my feet?

Interestingly, the researchers also reported this:

The couples who reported the least stress tended to have rigid divisions of labor, whether equal or not. “She does the inside work, and I do all the outside, and we don’t interfere” with each other, said one husband.

That makes sense to me. StraightMan and I divide our care of kids and home more or less right down the middle. The moments when things feel like they are breaking down are the moments when one of us messes with the other's schedule (I attribute the stress of this more to having to manage a change at the last minute) or worse, meddles with the other's plan or method. I think we basically parent by two rules: (1) We back each other in the moment and avoid disagreement or contradiction in front of the kids (but we admit when we have been mistaken and apologize, to the kids as well) and (2) When one parent is solo in charge of the kids, the other parent does not criticize how he or she manages (like letting kids watch TV).

Actually, now that I have articulated them, I realize they are less rules to parent by and more rules to maintain marriage by.

Dismal science

Finally finished reading what I found to be a fascinating and somewhat maddening article in the May 17th issue of The New Yorker - a profile of Esther Duflo, a development economist who directs MIT's Poverty Action Lab. Finally b/c I read it in spurts of a few paragraphs in the mornings, here and there between making ham and cheese for Beanie's lunch and pouring more Cheerios for Bubbie and brushing my own teeth. Such is my life.

The article describes Duflo's work - the economics of poverty, which necessarily means looking not only at poor "people" but poor "nations" (and rich people and rich nations) - and her particular approach to it - running randomized clinical trials of economic interventions in order to be able to compare their effects.

It was interesting to me to read that "the dominant economic model of the poor was that they were 'poor but efficient' - that is, they acted with the same freedom and self-interest as the wealthy" - that simply recognizing this might not be true represented a paradigm shift in development economics. For me, this illustrates not that the pointy heads miss what seems like a big duh, but that science works in a controlled and exacting manner. Even radical transformations require talking in the terms of the discipline. For better and worse.

In the article, Duflo contends that too much development policy has been implemented (and too much development aid invested) without really knowing whether or not the interventions work. "We have no idea. We're not better than the medieval doctors and their leeches," she is quoted during a presentation that she gives.

Really? I mean, do we really not know what is good or bad for poor people and poor nations?

This is where I wish to return to the idea that talking in the terms of the discipline works for better and worse. When Duflo claims that "we" have no idea, it seems to me worth asking exactly who is this "we." At first, I found the idea of randomized trials intriguing, even promising, but the further along I read, the more I started to feel outside Duflo's "we."

Silly rabbit. Such tricks are for the stakeholders of development - not poor people or poor nations, but the rich people and rich nations that implement and invest development policy and aid. That is the "we" interested in efficacy and efficiency. Those are the kind of "we" (not me) that might be expected to read The New Yorker. I imagine that others like me might become absorbed into the "we" as they become convinced by reading the article?

I was not, or I am not. I admit that I side with bleeding heart Friend of Bono economist Jeffrey Sachs, who commented that "careful measurement and comparisons are, of course , vital" - that is what StraightMan and other development anthropologists also observe and study - but that, "if I go into a village without bed nets, it pains me." I think this gets to the point that poverty is like disease (with which it is shown to be correlated) in that withholding a therapy known to work (which I believe bed nets have been) runs counter to research ethics even or especially in randomized clinical trials. Not to mention human ethics. In this sense, I feel like Duflo, strangely enough, underestimates the significance of her work, as when she defends her methodology by pointing to its versatile applications: "I once sat through a presentation where randomized trials had been used to choose the best packaging for yogurt." Did I miss the point, or did she? I see development interventions as more like medical therapies than like the packaging of Yoplait.

Also, as a teacher and scholar from the so-called softer side of the sciences - anthropology - I maintain that not everything actually can be learned from randomized trials. It is only one method among others, some of which might be themselves more effective and efficient for learning and understanding what we seek to know. The New Yorker quotes Angus Deaton, who critiques Duflo's work on the ground that (1) "experiments are frequently subject to practical problems that undermine any claims to statistical or epistemic superiority" and (2) "even if your data are perfect, how can you generalize from the information? Does the policy that works in India work in Brazil?" Spoken like someone who might appreciate a bit of anthropology and ethnography.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Waste Not

How did I miss this?! OK, it probably has something to do with the fact that we live just beyond a day trip's drive to the MoMA, but I am sad that I missed this exhibit from last year - Beijing-based artist Song Dong's installation, titled "Waste Not." Here is a description from the MoMA's Web site:

A collaboration first conceived of with the artist's mother, the installation consists of the complete contents of her home, amassed over fifty years during which the Chinese concept of wu jin qi yong, or "waste not," was a prerequisite for survival. The assembled materials, ranging from pots and basins to blankets, oil flasks, and legless dolls, form a miniature cityscape that viewers can navigate around and through.

Interestingly, I just read about "Waste Not" in an article about hoarding in the University of Michigan's alumni magazine.

LSA Magazine reports: "Cheap overseas labor and materials mean that consumer goods are inexpensive, and people are spending more on things." Hoarding looks like hoarding looks like horading, I guess, wherever you go, but I cannot help wondering whether or not it means the same at the point of production (in China) and at the point of consumption (in the U.S.)

On a side note, LSA Magazine also noted: "Recently southeast Washtenaw County in Michigan created a hoarding task force because so many evictions are hoarding-related."

Monday, May 24, 2010


Two points that I wish to make about ceremony:

Do not pooh-pooh the importance of ceremony. On Saturday, I participated in commencement exercises, a.k.a. graduation, a.k.a. the walk. I have to say, participating in such a ritual makes me appreciate it all the more. There are too few occasions (I think) in our modern American lives where we engage directly and overtly in symbols. The contemporary criticism made of ritual being so much hocus pocus - so what? Does it truly make us more clear eyed and less mystified not to engage in ritual? Or based on what I observe in college students, it seems to me that they know even less about symbols, even when they are being enacted (even preyed) upon by symbolism. Looking to classic ethnographies, I suggest that the Trobrianders and the Nuer, with all their rituals and symbols, seem to have been more aware of and articulate about their realities.

Grown-ups need to start acting and dressing like grown-ups. There am I, in my archaic robes. It would not do simply to "dress up": All aspects of the ceremony, including the robes, call attention to the rituals and symbols. That is the point of commencement exercises. So, what is with the parents and siblings and other relatives or friends of graduates attending the ceremony in baggy jeans or shorts (even cut-offs) and XXXL t-shirts with questionable language printed on them - and blowing those annoying air horns? Why not bring in the Number One foam fingers, too? Certainly graduation is an occasion for celebration, but is the Super Bowl the only model that we have for a larger, community-based observation? Apparently, it is.

I also wish to add that the families of color - the phenotypically black, Latino, or Asian-looking families - looked notably good: Fathers in suits and ties with polished shoes, brothers showered and shaved and wearing pressed shirts and slacks, mothers and sisters in flowered dresses and high heels. To be fair, most of the families, white and otherwise, seemed to be dressed for the occasion, but it was striking to me which families were not. Half-joking, I said to StraightMan: "See, this is why your race is on its way down and out in America." To which StraightMan responded that in fact, being able to appear in such a slovenly manner at commencement exercises is a sign that white privilege is as strong as ever.

StraightMan also wonders whether or not the lack of ceremony and knowing how to act and dress for formal occasions might not be linked to church-going or not-going. Church was, and is, one of the domains of everyday life in which Americans engaged in rituals and symbols and ceremony. The Super Bowl, it seems, cannot fill the void on its own.

On a not entirely related, but also not entirely unrelated point:

The last time that I visited my parents, I came home with a box of books saved from my childhood, including Johanna Spyri's Heidi, which I remember finding just fascinating. Like other books that I loved from my childhood - the Little House books, Little Women, and so on - I always became quite interested in the houses and the preparation of food. In Heidi, I especially found fascinating the descriptions of goat's milk and golden toasted cheese, bread, and sausage.

This time around, reading aloud to Beanie in the evenings, I became struck with how much God there is in the story. I am teaching Beanie that many, even most, other people in the world believe in God, and that this is an important belief for them that she does not need to share, but that she wants to understand and respect, in part because because many people whom she loves, like her grandparents, go to church.

I am starting to think also that it is important for Beanie to learn "about" God because without understanding what and why and how people believe, Beanie might not be able to develop fully a connection and a compassion for other people - for whom God is important - also to appreciate what it means to be awed and humbled and inspired. Which, a non-believer I am, I feel that I have glimpsed in other people's ideas and practices of faith.

Rituals, symbols, ceremony. Not to be pooh-poohed.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Paper crafts

Last night, gathered together with friends for book group. The book this time: Adrienne Martini's Sweater Quest, to which I hope we gave sufficient praise. The hostess with the mostess prepared for us a trifle - the actual dessert - and a chocolate decadence. Naturally, I had a slice of each.

Toward the end of the evening, I remarked on why I thought I had not learned sewing, knitting, crocheting, quilting, or any of the crafts that she enjoys. Hanji, or Korean paper crafts, being the current one, and it is the one that appeals to me, personally, the most. It might be that I am old enough now, or that Beanie is interested also, or that it is paper, and paper is itself a material that I especially appreciate and respect and love. The photograph above is an example of the beautiful work of her hand.

It is in part temperament - my mother and I both always have been rather impatient with each other - but I think importantly it also is that crafts have been moments of discovery and invention that are entirely her own. Two things that I feel have defined my mother for me: (1) She had been a MD, but stopped practicing, more or less, after my younger sister, the third of three, was born, and (2) She has whatever it required to become a MD despite not having had much means and not having been born the eldest brother in a Korean family.

A third thing is that by her own admission she has not read a word I have written since about middle school. Ironic, is it not, considering that I have been an aspiring writer of poetry and fiction, a newspaper reporter, and now an academic anthropologist? Or it might be that I have chosen my particular crafts not only for the moments of discovery and invention that I find in them, but also that they can be entirely my own. (I am not nearing 40, but still 14.)

Being a mother now makes me consider the various things we pass down - even pass down without passing it down, in the case of my mother's crafts and my own. I believe that in a number of respects, I am different as a mother than my own had been - I am not saying better or worse, but the boundaries and opportunities of my life look different from hers. Of course, we each have had a hand in shaping each other's boundaries and opportunities. The possibilities remain for remaking them, too.

As with paper.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

My tenure kitchen

Hard to believe: I just finished my 4th year of teaching at what on this blog I will call East Central State University College. I agree it is ridiculous that all of these words can be strung together to form the name of an institution.

So, I am supposed to start thinking about putting together my tenure file.

Allow me to preface what I am about to say about tenure: I am not sure how I feel about tenure in general b/c I get that there are arguments for it pro and con, and this is now how they do it in the UK, and so on. For example, in terms of so-called job security, the idea of a 5-year contract, with possibility of renewal, sounds reasonable to me, too. However, tenure means "more" than job security. So, as far as that goes, I want tenure, too, as a sign of a positive appraisal resulting from the process of peer review.

Here is what I am about to say about tenure: I wish that there were more "perspective" on tenure. One of StraightMan's friends from graduate school remarked that tenure is proof of ability to self-exploit. Funny how many tenured and tenure-track professors do not find this, well, hilarious, as StraightMan and I do, sitting at our adjacent desks, preparing classes, then glancing and muttering at each other, "Self-exploiter."

What happened to irony: The kind that is so not what our high school English teachers meant, but that having come of age during Reagan and Bush I apparently cultivated. Or what happened to humility and the ability to see, like Straight Man, that "promotion in an institution like West Central Pennsylvania University was a little bit like being proclaimed the winner of a shit-eating contest. Certainly such success did not reflect greater worth on the open academic market. To move to a better college, we'd have to give up something - tenure or rank or salary, or some combination of the three" (27).

In other words, I do not want to make too small or too big a deal about tenure.

It might be b/c I am turning 40 this year, therefore feeling a bit more reflective than usual even, but this bit from Richard Russo also makes sense to me: "I sometimes tell myself that I might have found another book in me if I'd been in a different, more demanding environment, one with better students, a shared sense of artistic urgency, the proper reverence for the life of the mind. But then I remember Occam's Razor, which strongly suggests that I am a one-book author. Had I been more, I'd be more" (27). Which I quote not to be self-pitying or self-deprecating but b/c I think stating things so unpityingly and undeprecatingly, in fact, helps me to keep trying in any case. I think that it is necessary to recognize that research universities do not just hire researchers, but that they produce them. Similarly, teaching colleges produce teachers. Tenure, then, is academia / higher ed's brand of quality control. It ensures that the research universities produce researchers and the teaching colleges produce teachers, to more or less their specification.

BTW, I find Occam's Razor, how shall I say, a bit ethnocentric. Whose version of simple? What is so simple about your version or mine in the first place?

Which brings me to my intended topic: I hope I get tenure. When I do, I want a kitchen!

At first, I had been browsing magazines and books and Web sites like The Not-So-Big House, but I kept finding ideas and inspiration for not-so-small kitchens. Why does everyone think they need an island?

Then I stumbled upon Apartment Therapy and their Small, Cool Kitchens Contest.

I esp. like the kitchen with the old file cabinets in the International division.

Whatever my tenure kitchen looks like, it will not have an island.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bubbie's Birthday!

Today, our young man turns 3 years old!

Above, an image of him at 7 months, in Ecuador.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The political economy of craft

Not sure where I will go with these thoughts, but then again, the whole point of this blog (for me) is just to think. At all.

Reading Adrienne Martini's Sweater Quest has had me contemplating what all the fuss about craft is all about. (Sweater Quest is itself a fine rumination on the fuss as well. Here, I am responding less to what Adrienne writes and more to a contemporary American discourse on craft. Like, the fact that apparently it is the thing to do.) I get all the analysis about frugality and practicality and authenticity and so on, which you can see in articles in The New York Times Magazine on backyard chickens and female organic farmers and so on.

As a cultural anthropologist, however, I immediately feel hesitation about "authenticity" as an explanation. (Then again, even terms like frugality and practicality also ought not to be taken for granted. However, "authenticity" seems to be something about which cultural anthropologists are understood to have something to say.) Authenticity is a claim that one makes, not a fact or a reason in itself. So, authenticity seems to me a place to start an examination of craft, not end it. What does it mean now? What has it meant in the past? Who is making the claims about authenticity? Who is validating or invalidating them? What is at stake? How and why do people think about their lives as having or not having authenticity with and without craft?

As an aside, interesting to note the favoring of "craft" over "crafts." Not unlike "culture" versus "cultures." Craft sounds more grown-up, more significant, and like culture, more universal. It is the quality that gives things importance and meaning (and value) and not the things themselves. "Crafts" sounds trivial. Also, craft is dear - that is, expensive. Crafts are cheap: They are commodities. (They are not authentic?)

There is a discourse on "craft" in the social sciences that seems to me born out of claims being made for work and masculinity - I am imagining Richard Sennett's recent work, The Craftsman - but of course so much of the current attention to craft that is evident to me is on crafts associated with women. I think it is not surprising to observe that women now claim what they do as "craft" and not "crafts."

(Of course, this begs the question of which women? How does what looks to me like an educated middle-class woman's movement in parts of Europe and North America connect with other ideas and practices of crafting in other societies? Or is it only crafting under particular kinds of conditions? Do collectives of women sewing embroidered shirts, being paid by the bale, with the shirts being sold at a market, "count" as craft? Why or why not? Ultimately, does not the existence of industrial goods define craft, too?)

So, I will admit this: Part of me is just waiting for the backlash against craft. Because I see a risk of it becoming One More Thing that is being prescribed as Something I Ought to Do.

I am fairly certain that the thought never has crossed StraightMan's mind to learn how to whittle or tinsmith or cobble or scrimshaw.

Like StraightMan, I already am engaged in work from which I derive the satisfactions of continual process and practice and society and even observed results and effects. As much as we kvetch and kvell over the injustices and indignities of working in Higher Ed - in particular, being much underpaid not to mention misunderstood (sniff, sniff) - I think we both still feel the thrill for and from the the craft involved in being a teacher and a scholar. I think we might be in one of the few "good" jobs left in the world in the sense that, at least in the classroom, we enjoy a good deal of autonomy.

So, hear out my Barbara Ehrenreich moment: I think what has helped inspire the current turn to craft is the deterioration in the conditions of work that American men and women have experienced in recent decades.

Or as sociologist Arlie Hochschild suggested: In the late 1980's and early 1990's, when American men and women were spending long hours away from home, it was that work could feel like an "escape" from the pressures of home, where individuals might not feel rewarded or acknowledged as they might at work. When work, however, is not satisfying socially, emotionally, or financially, then home becomes a haven in a heartless world, as the historian Christopher Lasch called the family.

Yet, there are problems, too, with finding reward and acknowledgement in family, esp. in this era of expert-advised and resource-intensive parenting. Children might be part of the motivation to become involved in craft. Directing one's efforts at craft - like decorating a dozen bear-face cupcakes - can contribute to one's parenting. However, I wonder also whether or not craft offers another form of effort that frankly feels more "satisfying"? Unlike children, your craft is under your control. (This is where the issue of autonomy matters.)

So, it seems to me, the current discourse on craft seems worth examining both in terms of its gendered dimensions and especially its political economy. What are the larger conditions that effect this moment of craft? What does it mean for European and North American men to claim "craftsmanship" at a time when it is becoming clear that those "good" manufacturing jobs will not return to where they are - and for women to pursue craft / crafts at a time when females now comprise half the paid workforce?

Here comes my second Barbara Ehrenreich moment: Leaving aside the want and need for some kind of reward and acknowledgement that we expect in domains such as work and family - and now craft - can craft itself do it for everyone? Why do so many of us just expect work to suck so that we see our real, true lives and selves - the authentic - doing something else? Is it not worth trying to change?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Feminist technologies

Linda Layne, an anthropologist whom I much admire, has a blog about her new book on Feminist Technologies. In her first posting, she poses an interesting question: Are fashionable birth control packs feminist or antifeminist?

I will give the prototypical cultural anthropologist's response right here: I suppose it all depends on what you mean by "feminism" :)

I know, I know: This is "just" another example of marketing. However. I like the cute case. I like the sense of play that it evokes. I think feminism can be playful. I think feminists themselves / ourselves can be fun and funny.

This question called to mind a conversation that I had this semester with a student whom I was advising on his independent study project on masculinity and the male pill. We started to think about the kind of packaging that might be developed for a birth control pill for men.

A soft slim case that looks like a condom stashed in a man's wallet? Or a hard sleek case that resembles a smartphone? It even could send a text message reminding him to take his pill at a given time.

(I bet there already is an iPhone app for women that can be used to track ovulation / menstruation?)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Birthday party wisdom

No anthropological content in this posting. Although I suppose I could muse on the significance of bears in contemporary American ideas and practices concerning families and children. Oh, how the mighty totem has fallen! Infantilized and juvenated so.

Bubbie turns 3 years old this Wednesday! We celebrated the occasion today - it turns out that after 2 kids and a total of 8 (now 9) kids' birthday parties that I have organized, I know more or less what to do:

Keep it small and simple. We invited 4 families / 5 kids.

Have brunch. Especially for the pre-school set. The kids are happy and excited when they arrive. As their energies begin to flag, you give them sugar. Then as they start to crash, it is time to go home for a nap.

The pleasures of brunch, I believe, depend on vast quantities of eggs and heavy cream. In addition to a spinach-and-cheese strata (modified over time from The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook), I made a baked French toast (from Gourmet).

Have lots of coffee. In place of sugar, for the grown-up's.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The uses of ill literacy

Circulated on an e-mail in my department: This link to CNN's story about Arizona's new state law banning ethnic studies (i.e., Mexican-American studies) in the public schools.

The new law forbids elementary or secondary schools to teach classes that are "designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group" and advocate "the overthrow of the United States government" or "resentment toward a race or class of people."

The bill was pushed by state school Superintendent Tom Horne, who has spent two years trying to get Tucson schools to drop a Mexican-American studies program he said teaches Latino students they are an oppressed minority.

Leaving aside the retorts that one could made - about, for example, the fact that Latino students in Arizona do not need to be taught in the schools that they are members of an "oppressed minority" when all they need to do is look at the good citizens who enabled the passage of what amounts to legalized racial profiling - as an anthropologist and parent, my attention is drawn to the intense legislation surrounding the teaching and learning about race, culture, and ethnicity of children in elementary and secondary schools.

Recognizing schools as a critical element in the reproduction of culture and society, it is not surprising that the follow-up to Arizona's immigration law strikes now at what ought or ought not to be learned and taught there.

Here is another report on the happenings in Arizona, from The Economist this week, emphasizing the intersections between immigration, ethnic identity, and age:

William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC, think-tank, believes that Arizona may be a bellwether for the whole country in more ways than one. Over the past two decades Arizona’s Latino population of children and young adults has grown so fast that the state now has what he calls the largest “cultural generation gap” in the country: 83% of Arizona’s older people are white, but only 43% of its children now are. States like Nevada, California, Texas, New Mexico and Florida have gaps almost as large.

As a result, says Mr Frey, old white voters increasingly balk at paying taxes so that people they consider alien can go to school or the emergency room. The result, he thinks, is populist anger rather akin to that now fuelling the tea-party movement, which draws much of its support from white male baby-boomers. It is possible, says Mr Frey, that in Arizona the seeds of new racial and ethnic competition for public resources have been planted.

I think this points to a larger concern today, which is seeing children as somebody else's responsibility - and I think this is not just about old white versus young Latino people in Arizona.

"Don't trust anybody over 30" has become "Don't trust anybody under 30." In a college town, like where I live, the students themselves become the subjects of complaint, not the ramshackle conditions of the houses that they rent from landlords who charge a lot and do a little in terms of maintaining the properties. Teenagers are viewed with suspicion. Small children, like mine, regarded as annoyances.

Parents themselves become judged for helicoptering, neglecting, and / or spoiling their children. Or just having children at all.

This is what it looks like to disown the future.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The end is near

This old jalopy called my semester comes shuddering to a stop. I am fumbling my way out of it. Today, I have two exams to write. Tomorrow, I have final poster presentations in medical anthropology. Friday, I give the exam in linguistic anthropology.

This is all set against the possibility of furloughs starting next week. What does a furlough mean for an academic? I think it just means a pay reduction - for work already completed, I might add.

So, I feel a mite like a cranky anthropologist. Which brings me to my recent discovery of a blog called The Cranky Linguist, which is written by an anthropology professor.

I especially appreciated his musings on students missing the point you were making all semester.

StraightMan and I remind each other constantly that we should stop being so surprised. On occasion, I have offered in-class reviews ahead of exams, posting PowerPoint slides of questions (and answers), with the exact wording that later appears on the exam - and students still answered incorrectly.

I cannot speak for professors in other disciplines, but I think unfortunately, in anthropology, students take our classes expecting to have confirmed what they think they already know - for example, about human evolution and Neanderthals and race and culture and so-called Ebonics. It might be that students assume that they do not know much about chemistry or biology, but even the ones who come to my classes simply because they are fulfilling a General Education requirement figure that they know about culture and that they can be different and that it is important to respect them even so. Duh.

Which is ironic because in all of my classes, I feel like I take as much trouble to demonstrate what culture cannot explain. In other words, when you come to my class, you should expect me to try to contradict everything you think know, not confirm it. The default mode in my classes might be that whatever the common-sense line is, say something else.

To be continued.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

On my Netfllix queue

A few months back, a few students had begun mentioning rather excitedly to me seeing the trailer for a new feature-length documentary, "Babies." They said it made them think about me. Hmm.

This line at the end of A.O. Scott's review of the film (in The New York Times) caught my attention:

“Babies” is rated PG (Parental Guidance suggested). Breast feeding.

Because like the "intense, horrific violence and appropriately profane reactions to the prospect of same" that are featured in "The Hurt Locker," audiences need to be advised!

The above, I admit, is a cheap shot. In fact, the line caught my attention mostly because it makes me wonder about how and why audiences could not expect breast feeding to be exhibited in a documentary called "Babies." Or is this an anticipation or expectation of the Times editors that might or might not reflect the reactions of audiences themselves? I mean, could we not give each other a bit of credit.

BTW, after viewing the trailer for the film, scroll down and view the third clip from the film. I see college students do this in class more often than I like to admit - c'mon, people, I am not as boring all that, and I teach cultural anthropology, which is fascinating! - but of course they just are not as adorable as this little kiddo.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Keeping up with The Times

While it is true that they occasionally say things that seem to make sense to us, as far as StraightMan and I are concerned, David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, John Tierney, and Nicholas Wade are the Gray Lady's own Evil League of Evil.

As anthropologists, we reserve our particular ire for Wade.

Recently, Wade discovered culture, which he describes as an "evolutionary force" that has been in effect for the last 20,000 years or so.

Today, Wade reported on a study of the possible consequences of cousin marriage in the Darwin family.

The topic of cousin marriage is one that I happen to teach in ANTH 100. For example, I screen the ethnographic film "Masai Women" (a "classic" documentary that helps students connect the practice of polygyny with ideas and practices about women and property) and also assign chestnuts like Melvyn Goldstein's "When Brothers Share a Wife" (an article about fraternal polyandry in Tibet that appears in a number of textbooks).

This is all done in the service of impressing upon students the idea that there is no universal definition of marriage. It can involve more than two individuals who need not be different sexes / genders and it is not assumed that first comes love.

I also like to talk about marriage in ANTH 100 to illustrate the point that it can be difficult to cultivate a stance of cultural relativism about activities, behaviors, and attitudes that "we" consider fundamental experiences of everyday life.

Given that cousin marriages, cross-culturally and historically in American and European societies, have been preferred, I make rather a strong case for how and why such marriages ought not be seen as "unnatural." I always anticipate that at least one student will ask the inbreeding question. So, I plan to read the study that Wade cites more carefully. It sounds like an interesting approach, but I feel a bit doubtful about whether or not this particular analysis is all that robust.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Who ya gonna call?

Postings here have been irregular recently, which I blame on my 4 body problem (2 academics with 2 children).

I am behind on writing: At some point, I plan to blog about the rise and demise of what had been called Take Our Daughters to Work Day, now called Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, which would have been April 22.

I am behind on reading: I just learned that free range kids had declared Take Our Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day on May 22.

This follow-up posting at free range kids caught my attention, especially these observations:

Ultimately though, they were no more definitive than CPS in answering whether my son could go to the park alone. To quote them, “It depends…”

This ambiguity is extensive. I can’t even study it scientifically, because the very records that document what constitutes “neglect” — the court records and the CPS case reports — aren’t generally available to the public, as they involve juveniles. So in the end, it would seem, there is no legal certainty for us parents. The law will only be found in the courtroom, before a judge, on a case by case basis. Unfortunately, at that point, it’s too late.


Perhaps, since there is no clear law on leaving a child at the park, the numbers give support to what many of us parents feel out in public everyday: the cultural effect of CPS, the furrowed brows of neighbors and strangers who see a young boy biking down the block and think first to call a government department instead of slowing down their car.

I don’t want to make light of their mission. CPS protects children from very real abuse and neglect, from parents who beat their children or leave them alone for days. And I want to make it clear that if you leave your child alone and your child is hurt or breaks the law, you’ll likely be arrested. It’s that simple.

But I also want to make it clear that laws on neglect are subjectively enforced. And that’s why taking your kids to the park…and leaving them there is culturally important, because it seeks to change our perspective, our world view, and the world view of every stranger who has CPS on their speed dial.

Sounds like a job for an anthropologist.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Conspicuous consumption

The Optibike. A hand-built electric bike. Made in the USA. With a rechargeable and recyclable battery.

Oh. So. Want.

Priced at $4,950.