Friday, June 25, 2010

Stop doing whatever else you are trying to do at the same time

From Daniel T. Willingham, "Have Technology and Multitasking Rewired How Students Learn?" in American Educator (Summer 2010):

Survey data indicate that younger people do multitask quite often; over half of high school students report that they multitask "most of the time," and about 25 percent report watching television or chatting with friends while they do their homework. Young people report multitasking for more hours per day than older people, and laboratory tests show that younger people are better at multitasking than older people.

In fact, all of us perform tasks best when we do only one at a time. So, when laboratory tests find that younger people are better at multitasking than older people, what that really means is that younger people have less degradation of the speed and accuracy of each task, compared with when each task is done separately.

Young people's advantage in multitasking is not associated with them practicing it more, or enjoying it more, than older people.... The reality is actually somewhat surprising: college students who report being chronic multitaskers tend to be worse at standard cognitive control abilities - like rapidly switching attention between two tasks - that are important to successful multitasking.... It may mean that people who are not very good at mental control choose to multitask more frequently....

So, there is not evidence that the current generation of students "must" multitask. Is multitasking a good idea? Most of the time, no. One of the most stubborn, persistent phenomena of the mind is that when you do two things at once, you don't do either one as well as when you do them one a time.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Beanie's ideas

Not surprisingly, StraightMan and I have produced a Maker of Lists in our daughter. An example of which I include here, from her cubby at school. Note: She has not spoken to me about item number 3.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Henrietta Lacks

This weekend, I finally finished reading science journalist Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The only reason that it took me so long to read it - over the course of two months - is that I taught three courses during the semester, have two kids (ages 3 and 6), and a spouse away at a three-week-long seminar.

It is rather serious a subject, but the narrative has such a pull, that you might need to take the book to the beach. It deservedly has received a number of excellent reviews, which can be read at Skloot's own Web site.

Henrietta Lacks is about a woman whose cancerous cells, removed from her body during a biopsy, became the basis of tissue culture research in the late 20th century. "HeLa" cells, as researchers refer to them, revolutionized medical research, contributing to scientific understanding of the basic biology of cancer and the development of chemotherapies. The story is about how and why the cells could be taken from Lacks - a poor black woman seeking care in the charity hospital at Johns Hopkins during the 1950s - and used for research with her consent or knowledge, or that of her husband or children.

Along the way, the book is also about medical research ethics and their development during the last 50 years, following the Nuremberg trials and the uncovering of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, two grim "milestones" in science. As Skloot writes in her Afterword, the issue is less about compensation - and concerns about the commercialization of tissue culture research are discussed throughout the book - and more about consent. Henrietta Lacks reads as an argument for why individuals ought to be informed at least of the possibility that their tissues might be used for research, even have a say about what kind of research. This book describes the damage that can be done when there is no information and no consent.

As important, the book is also about what happened to Henrietta's family after her death at age 31. While the cells became celebrated as a miracle of science, her children became abandoned, essentially, by their father. When they finally learn about their mother's "contribution" to science, they are ill prepared, emotionally and otherwise, to understand what this means, let alone "appreciate" the good for science and society. For example, one of Deborah's brothers refers to the "rape" of their mother's cells, which they learn - after a lifetime of their own neglect and abuse - have been exposed to nuclear radiation and fallout, HIV, scores of toxins, and other extremes in conditions to "test" their effects on humans.

Knowledge of the HeLa cells esp. devastates Deborah, the fourth of her five children and the only surviving daughter. Deborah becomes the central figure in Henrietta Lacks as she struggles to understand how her mother's cells could have done so much "good," when she herself has suffered so much from her mother's absence. Over and over again, Deborah decries the fact that no one ever bothers really to explain to her what is happening to her mother's cells. Although Skloot admits her occasional impatience with Deborah, she also never condescends to her: Is it any wonder that Deborah is under the impression that clones of her mother are walking around London, given the sensationalism of headlines in the media?

I found gripping, poignant, and difficult to read the chapters that detail the journey of discovery that Skloot and Deborah undertake. They visit a laboratory, at the invitation of the researcher, where Deborah and one of her brothers see their mother's cells under the microscopes and hear from a scientist who has dedicated his entire career to working with "HeLa" cells what they mean to him.

Then Skloot and Deborah look into whatever happened to Deborah's older sister, Elsie, who had been institutionalized as a young child, then forgotten by the family after their mother's death. I found Elsie's story even more disturbing than Lacks' own story. Deborah herself had come to be convinced that Elsie might have been deaf, as she and her brothers also had degrees of congenital deafness, which might have accounted for her apparent "slowness" (not responding to speech) that led to her being certified as an "idiot." Most of the medical records at the institution where Elsie lived and died had been destroyed, but Skloot and Deborah uncover her death certificate, with a rather gruesome photograph attached. Skloot pieces together a story in which it is likely that Elsie, who never reached her teens, had been a subject of medical experiments that might have included surgeries. The news, of course, is almost too much for Deborah to bear.

I can imagine that writing about the breakdown and the ritual of "soul cleansing" that follows were a challenge for Skloot, who rises beautifully to the occasion - I think because she so clearly feels compassion and affection for Deborah and for the other members of Henrietta's family. Indeed, as a cultural anthropologist and a former journalist, I so admired that throughout the almost 10 years that this project took to complete, Skloot respected the fact that this is not her story and that she does not control it. This is critical to how and why she, a young white journalist, gains Deborah's trust.

Initially, I had been thinking I might assign this book in Medical Anthropology or the Anthropology of the United States, but now I am thinking that it just need to be read and discussed widely. Period. It might be ideal for a "Big Read" on a college campus because it addresses important and meaningful concerns about research ethics and science as well as about race and poverty, all of which are not just coincidentally interconnected.

I want to compare this book with Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down in that it boasts careful reporting, clear and compassionate writing, and a story that catches you and knocks you down. I know any number of anthropologists who teach Fadiman's book in their classes. It also is read in book clubs, in community "Big Read" programs, and in classes on "cultural competency" in nursing and medical schools. Henrietta Lacks ought to become required reading in the life sciences.

Friday, June 18, 2010


Just learned that the wonderful doula who supported StraightMan and me during Beanie's birth has decided to "retire" - at least for the moment.

The reasons that she gives for leaving it aside resonate with me. This just is not the right time for this kind of work. It always struck me as an irony of doula work that the women who esp. feel called to it are exactly in the "right" place to know all the fears and hopes of a woman in labor - so many doulas having been motivated by their own (recent) birth experiences - and also in the "wrong" place in their own lives to drop what they do in order to attend a birth.

Women's lives do not proceed in exactly the "order" of men's lives. To borrow a metaphor from my fiber crafting friends - we knit, we weave, we tangle, we unstitch, we start again, we make do.

Still, I feel loss at doulicia's announcement. She was so much a part of Beanie's birth, which in my mind remains An Especially Special Birth because, after all, it was my first. (Bubbie, your birth, too, is especially special.)

Next week, Beanie "graduates" from kindergarten. Or as she crooned to me, to the tune of "New York, New York," rehearsing a bit from their performance next week: "I want to be a part of it, First Grade, First Grade!"

So, I guess I should just say, good luck in first grade, doulicia!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Linguistic parenthropology

I confess: Sometimes when I ought to be just a parent, I find myself drifting off and looking at the situation like a parenthropologist. Frankly, it is probably to Beanie and Bubbie's benefit b/c detaching like this prevents me from screaming (at least more than I already do - I admit that I am not a paragon of gentle talk and placidity 24 / 7), walking away without looking back, or cackling demonically as I charge my head over and over into the side of the house. Which is having its cedar shakes restained and the window and porch trim repainted, so I might need to charge into something else that is tattier. Like our neighbor's house.

The particular field of study in linguistic anthropology that interests me is language socialization, which describes the ways in which caregivers treat language as both the end and means of "teaching" their children appropriate / proper behavior. Think about the intense interest of American parents in the development of their children's ability to talk. Think also about what parents consider important to teach their children to say - like "please" and "thank you."

A lot of parenting simply is talk. Parenting books offer as much coaching on what to say as on what to "do." For example, StraightMan was raised in a household where "stupid" could refer to actions or things, but not people, including oneself, which is advice I have read elsewhere, and which I find sensible and sensitive, and try to follow. The same goes for "bad": I can say that I do not like Bubbie's behavior, I can tell him that he will eat his supper or else I am putting him to bed right now, I can tell him that he is upsetting, irritating, or annoying me. That is the point, I guess: To raise his awareness about the effects that his behavior has on my (or another person's) perceptions of him and as a result, behavior towards him as well. It all might sound a bit precious, but I think the significance of talk ought not be underestimated in parenting. To sound grandiose for a moment, it might be that we can model in how we talk and listen with our children the kind of social world that is possible to create.

I think a lot about the importance of parents and talk because whatever it is that we teach children, they take with them as they interact with other children and create (or recreate) a social world. Linguistic anthropologist Marjorie Harness Goodwin has written two books on girls' talk among themselves, He-Said-She-Said: Talk as Social Organization among Black Children (1990) and more recently, The Hidden Life of Girls: Games of Stance, Status, and Exclusion (2006), which I recently started skimming.

Here is a passage that especially caught me:

Dispute is an interactional accomplishment, and one of the most important loci for the development of friendships and peer relationships. Neither an aberration nor something to be avoided at all costs, it is, rather, constitutive of children's dealings with one another, establishes group cohesiveness, and provides a primary way that activities are constituted. Despite such recognition of the importance of conflict in everyday life, and in particular among peers, most contemporary feminist scholarship has not only avoided analyzing conflicts between women, but actively promoted a view of women as essentially cooperative (Goodwin 2006:33).

This prompted me to recall an exchange that I overheard during a play date at our house a few months ago. "I'm not mean," I overheard Beanie tell her friend. "You always want to make the rules." Her friend said, "You're hurting my feelings." Beanie said, "You always say that." Then her friend said, "I'm the guest so you have to let me." Stormy silence. I think at this point, I intervened with a snack.

At the time, I think I thought something like, are you playing together, or are you just going to goad each other the whole time? (Probably also something like, this was a mistake...) In fact, Goodwin notes, "Children observed in multiparty participant frameworks display an orientation toward sustaining and promoting rather than dissipating dispute" (33). Goodwin suggests, "Dispute for children provides a way for playing with language, asserting one's position, for displaying affective stance, and consequently, character, sanctioning violators, and rearranging the social order" (33).

Looking, as a parenthropologist, at the exchange I described above as an interactional accomplishment, it is clear that the girls indeed were sustaining and promoting their dispute (neither backing off) to assert their positions (whose rules would guide their play), and making their assertions on the basis of character (being mean) and affective stance (hurt feelings).

That said, I probably could do with less interaction and more accomplishment when I am the parent supervising the play date.

Still, I appreciate the reminder, from Goodwin, that after all, children get along differently than grown-ups do. In part, they still are learning how to get along: Even when they are as interactionally accomplished as Beanie and her friend, they remain novices. As such, they test some of the proprieties that they hear their grown-ups reference. In particular, what I think is interesting is that the idea of "the guest" ends the exchange (along with juice and Goldfish, which I guess could be read as an enactment of hospitality in this context).

Just the other day, during a play date with a different friend, the idea of "the guest" became referenced again, with different effects: This time, the two girls were talking about what their game should be. They had been playing "hamsters," but Bubbie came home and wanted his hamster, which the friend had been holding. The friend suggested that she could find a different stuffed animal for the game. Beanie offered to let her play with her hamster, and she herself would play with another animal. The friend said no. Beanie said, "You're the guest, so you should have it."

Eventually, they agreed that they both would play with other animals. Thus ended the game of "hamsters," and began the game of "puppies." We are talking, after all, about two six-year-old girls.

I guess they learn, these children of ours - and they can learn from each other.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On the bright side

I have been blogging much too seriously as of late. Here is a follow-up to my post from yesterday, an idea whose time might have come, as reported in the nation's finest news source back in March. I still snortle whenever I happen to think about it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

21 percent

This call for papers posted on a blog that I recently started browsing, Feminist Philosophers, notes that "a mere 21% of professional philosophers" (I assume in academia / higher ed in the United States) are women. Not sure whether or not I should be surprised. I guess I am. While it is true that gender equity certainly has not been achieved in anthropology, I think about my department, my teachers and friends in graduate school, and the scholars whose work I most admire - a strong representation of women.

That said, the number of women represented on my "Traditions" syllabi were scarce - Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Nancy Munn. I had to read Audrey Richards, Emily Martin, and Marilyn Strathern on my own time. Also, I find problematic the discourse on the so-called feminization of anthropology - the number of undergraduate majors, the number of graduate students - as it suggests something inherently wrong with there being so many women studying and practicing in the discipline. Not to mention that feminization seems to fade higher in the ranks of the professoriate.

This leads me to throw in my two cents on other posts that I read on the FP blog - see here and here - responding to this column by New York Times columnist John Tierney, which I had missed.

StraightMan, attending a 3-week seminar sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, notes the marginal number both of women at all and of men with young children participating. (The participants include philosophers, economists, historians, and a pair of anthropologists. So, interdisciplinary crosstalk no doubt prevails...)

In fact, there was a kind of scandal with another NEH seminar that had required a female participant, a single mother, to provide evidence that she had arranged full-time child-care, lest she be dropped from the seminar. (Inside Higher Ed reported on it, here, following up on posts on Feminist Philosophers. Way to go, FP!)

Given the demands of the seminars, I cannot see any way that one could participate to one's own satisfaction without full-time child-care: It is a reason that I am here with Beanie and Bubbie, and StraightMan is there.

However. I think it highlights the ways in which opportunities for women become limited. If we "choose" to opt out, then it is because our choices already have been constrained. (I am not a philosopher, but I am certain that cannot really be called a choice then.) For example, I also had considered applying to an NEH seminar, then decided against it. I am the mother of two young children and the wife of a talented scholar about to start his sabbatical. I cannot imagine either being away from them for 3 weeks or alternatively, having them all with me at the seminar.

It also highlights the ways in which men's roles and responsibilities outside the family become emphasized. Why give up the satisfaction, the respect, and the privileges of work in favor of sharing the obligations to young children?

So, if the NEH and other institutions, including colleges and universities, truly are interested in supporting and promoting women in academia / higher ed, then they ought to make available to everyone affordable (I say free) high-quality child-care.

Universal child-care along the lines of universal health-care! Although we see in the United States how much Americans continues to abhor what might benefit them.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Brunch for thought

Just read Thomas Friedman's Sunday column reflecting on the BP catastrophe and the question of "responsibility." In it, he quotes from a letter to the editor that appeared in The Beaufort Gazette in South Carolina. "It is the best reaction I’ve seen to the BP oil spill — and also the best advice to President Obama on exactly whom to kick you know where," Friedman writes.

The letter is sincere. It resonates. It expresses sentiments that I think a lot of thoughtful people share right now:

It’s my fault. I’m the one to blame and I’m sorry. It’s my fault because I haven’t digested the world’s in-your-face hints that maybe I ought to think about the future and change the unsustainable way I live my life. If the geopolitical, economic, and technological shifts of the 1990s didn’t do it; if the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 didn’t do it; if the current economic crisis didn’t do it; perhaps this oil spill will be the catalyst for me, as a citizen, to wean myself off of my petroleum-based lifestyle. ‘Citizen’ is the key word.

I especially like the emphasis on citizenship.

However. (You knew it was coming.) I think about the terrifying speed at which an assertion like this, which I read as the attempt of a citizen (and the other citizens who share it) to take control of the public discourse and direct our efforts and energies in directions like an energy climate bill, financial regulation, and immigration reform (as Friedman suggests), instead will become appropriated or co-opted by, say, BP, Transocean, or whomever has an interest, frankly, in not seeing an energized citizenry.

Is there a way that We the People can take control over the terms of discourse and the agenda for action without (at least rhetorically) blaming ourselves? In part because I fear the hijacking of this narrative and the control it is meant to assert on behalf of citizens. More important because I think it is not in itself the irreducible truth of the matter: I mean, think about the ways in which, as individuals, the decisions we make in our day-to-day lives are structured.

The point is not to recuse ourselves from these proceedings or absolve the actions that we take. I think the impulse to take the blame comes from the desire and the ability that we have to understand what is happening, even when it is painful and unflattering to ourselves. So, let us continue to take that hard look: We tend to see ourselves as people with biographies, or our own life's stories, or to use another word, memories. We fail to recognize ourselves as people with and in history, which apparently happened somewhere "in the past" with little to do with individuals. (Unless you happen to be one of the Great Men or Great Women of History.)

So, I want to stop talking about "blame." I want to talk about history. We need to see ourselves as the people who have been making histories that we do not approve or even especially wish to claim, much less control, and the the people whose histories have made us what we are.

As an aside - this reference to the difference between memory and history has haunted me for the last two days since I read it in the June 7th issue of The New Yorker, in a review of Hirsi Ali's Nomad: From Islam to America - A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. The review tells us that Ali is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a Somali woman who has rejected Islam. I appreciated this observation in the review, in response to Ali's comments on visiting a neighborhood of Muslim immigrants in London:

Whitechapel has much in its past - oppression, bigotry, poverty, radicalism - that would have helped Hirsi Ali understand not only the neighborhood's newest inhabitants but also her own family. But "Nomad" reveals that her life experiences have yet to ripen into a sense of history. The sad truth is that the problems she blames on Islam - fear of sexuality, oppression of women, militant millenarianism - are to be found wherever traditionalist peoples confront the transition to an individualistic urban culture of modernity.

The last bit I find to be rather a sweeping statement that could be explained further - like, how individualism and modernity are never quite a done deal, but constantly being claimed and asserted, and that the problem is not a retreat in "traditionalism" in the face of modernity, but that the so-called confrontation or more precisely the process of modernity can be seen as itself producing such effects. For example, social anthropologists over the decades have suggested that "witchcraft" and "sorcery" become reintroduced and reinvented in moments of historical instability. Tradition is not the problem per se. "Modernity" - and this concept, like tradition, needs to be unpacked - is.

The BP catastrophe, including the laying and claiming of blame, clearly represents the problems of modernity.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

So exactly like it was

Did you attend any heady institution of higher education during the 1980s (which in my opinion ended in 1991) and major in English? If so, then this bit (lampooning specifically Brown) might seem familiar:

Semiotics 211 was limited to ten students. Of those ten, eight had taken Introduction to Semiotic Theory. This was visually apparent at the first class meeting. Lounging around the seminar table, when Madeleine came into the room from the wintry weather outside, were eight people in black T-shirts and ripped black jeans. A few had razored off the necks or sleeves of their T-shirts. There was something creepy about one guy's face - it was like a baby's face that had hideously aged - and it took Madeleine full minute to realize that he'd shaved off his eyebrows. Everyone in the room was so spectral-looking that Madeleine's natural healthiness seemed suspect, like a vote for Reagan.

From a short story in the June 7th issue of The New Yorker, "Extreme Solitude" by Jeffrey Eugenides. Whom I heart.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Keeping up with The Times

Just read philosopher Peter Singer's contribution to the Opinionator, "Should This Be the Last Generation?"

Which on the one hand brought to mind a joke that StraightMan likes to make about teaching and parenting: That had he known in advance what they both involved, he might have reconsidered one of them.

The exact wording, the brevity, the delivery, and with them, the impact, might be lost, but I think you get more or less the idea.

On the other hand. I found Singer's piece interestingly provocative, as it clearly is intended to be, but I admit that I also thought: Written like a man.

I mean that without essentializing either "man" or "woman." Of course. Mindful of the gendered existences and experiences that "we" have. That said, I think men and women build their relationships to / with a child rather differently. Having a child, or not having a child, becomes attached with importances and meanings. How we feel about having children and what we do about it, in fact, genders us.

It might be just my disciplinarily-bred defensiveness or my crankiness with the field of "ethics" - I has less problem with ethics themselves - but I disagree with Singer's contention that "very few ask whether coming into existence is a good thing for the child itself. Most of those who consider that question probably do so because they have some reason to fear that the child’s life would be especially difficult — for example, if they have a family history of a devastating illness, physical or mental, that cannot yet be detected prenatally."

Given that at least some kind of testing has become routine in the medical management of pregnancy in the United States - and this includes fetal ultrasound imaging, which has become more or less a ritual for "seeing" the baby - I suggest that the question of coming into existence haunts a lot of women in the family way.

Anthropologist Rayna Rapp wrote a compelling ethnography, Testing Women, Testing the Fetus, documenting women's decisions to have or not have an amniocentesis performed to test for chromosomal anomalies. Again, given the common use of the test, which is strongly recommended, almost required, for women over age 35, I think it is not unfair to say that a lot of American women face the dilemmas of do I test or not, do I want to know or not, what will I do with this information, what will I decide? Their, or I should say our choices might have been "either / or," but their / our questions and answers were far more complicated, including not only notions about the child's own "good," but also the good of their other children, who would be the siblings and possibly eventual caregivers of children with disabilities.

There is no "bracketing" or leaving aside "for the sake of argument" their experiences, expectations, and identities as women and particularly as mothers making choices for their children. I almost feel as though Singer were asking me, as a woman and mother, to inhabit his perspective without his making a similar attempt to challenge his own imagination. At risk of sounding like a stark raving feminist, I confess: I have begun to see this storied philosophic strategy of "just supposing" as an important means of universalizing a particular gendered perspective. Women constantly are asked, persuaded, pressured, and forced to accommodate men's arguments, ideas, and perspectives. Try asking men to "take on" women's ways of seeing: Become accused of being political or worse - soft, subjective, unscientific, not so smart.

The questions that Singer poses to readers are intended to be provocatively interesting, but I do not find them exactly that. I mean, are they not the questions that guide the ideas and practices of women and men across cultures and societies, in the past and in the present?

If a child is likely to have a life full of pain and suffering is that a reason against bringing the child into existence?

If a child is likely to have a happy, healthy life, is that a reason for bringing the child into existence?

Like so many other decisions that we as human people make in our lives, the "choice" to have (or not have) a child is itself constrained and conditioned and culturally mediated and socially policed and historically and politically / economically situated and gendered.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

On being 6+ years old

We are a cable-free family. Which generally works for us b/c StraightMan and I hardly have time to watch much tube during the teaching year. When we do, we prefer to skip the ads, and to anticipate liking, more or less, what we will watch. Like an entire season of "30 Rock"! On top of which, our squeam threshold has dropped considerably after becoming parents. Why must threatened harm to a child be used as a plot point for suspense?

So, our kids hardly even know how to watch TV. Not in the sense that they do not sit bug-eyed in front of the set, but rather that they do not quite "get" that you cannot pause a show in progress, repeat an episode you liked, or choose a show other than the ones being aired currently. They find watching "regular TV" a bit frustrating.

21st century children.

For the last month, they were engrossed with "Rolie Polie Olie," a cartoon about a family of robots that mixes metaphor, imagery, and voice and sound effects from 1950s-style family situation comedy. To be fair, it was Bubbie who sat in such thrall, watching the same DVD over and over and over during morning screen time. (I take a little time rousing, so StraightMan lets them watch while they eat their Cheerios and he drinks his coffee and checks his e-mail. Morning screen time serves us all well, I think.) Eventually, Beanie heaved a sigh and trudged off to her drawing table, where she planned curriculum and created math worksheets for her dolls. (See? How morning screen time translates into choosing other forms of amusement.) StraightMan and I were right there with her.

Then Netflix delivered a new treat last week - a DVD of the animated series based on the "Olivia" books. Which has been a huge hit in our house. (Esp. as StraightMan just left for a three-week NEH seminar.) There is a big sister and a little brother ("little bother") and the big sister and little brother in our house seem both to relate to the stories.

In fact, I feel like a lot of "Olivia" is pitch-perfect in capturing what life is like with / for a 6-year-old girl who is just bursting with brightness and energy and confidence. Olivia is described on book jackets and such as "bossy," but I do not think that is quite accurate or fair. What I see in Olivia, and in Beanie, is wanting everyone around her to be and do and feel together what just seems so worth sharing. Which, admittedly, can come across as "bossy," esp. if / when you are the little brother.

So, I like "Olivia" as much I like Lily in the Kevin Henkes books and Frances in the Russell Hoban books. They are about spirited and unafraid girls - a bit bossy, but not really all that bratty - and I realize that I am projecting or even romanticizing what I find remarkable in my own girl, but I have to say: The enthusiasm! The exuberance! Also, the poise that comes with the knowledge that life is good b/c you have friends to play with and grown-ups who look after you.

Those are the ups of being 6+ years old. At least for me, the downs include the constant stream of riddles, jokes, plays on words, and loud commentary and questioning on whatever it is that I am doing. (In a McDonald's restroom: "Mommy, are you peeing? Why is peeing so much louder here than at home? It almost scares me. It's so loud.")

Ahem. It seems to me like 6+ years old is a good age to be.

The common touch

Or, how aristocrats manage to keep on being aristocrats - with the assent of everyone else. From the June 7th issue of The New Yorker, a description of Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats party in Britain, which recently formed a coalition government with the Conservatives (Tories):

He has also mastered one of the most important British upper-middle-class skills, that of seeming less entitled than he is. He has the nuanced understanding of class dynamics which comes from having a great-great uncle who was murdered by his own peasants.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Another reason that we need Katha Pollitt

Just read Katha Pollitt's column, "Veil of Fears," in the June 14th issue of The Nation. About the ongoing controversy in Europe, in particular France and now Belgium, surrounding the proposed banning of face-veiling. In which she both writes against the ban and also admits:

I don't like face-veiling either. It negates the individual; it reduces women to sex objects who must be shrouded to avoid tempting men; it sends the message that men's "honor" resides in the bodies of "their" women. In a conflict between women and fundamentalists, including the fundamentalists in their own families, I would want to side with women, on dress as in other issues of personal freedom. Yet while the French Parliamentary Report on the Wearing of the Full Veil nodded frequently to "French values" and gender equality, it isn't obvious how criminalizing Muslim women's clothing makes them more equal - unless you believe that they are being forced to cover by male relatives or increasingly fundamentalist communities.

This takes seriously the idea that veiling allows conservative Muslim women both to follow the custom of (gendered) seclusion and enable them to work, learn, and even play in public. It unpacks what structures the apparent need for veiling. Which by the way is practiced in Judaism and Christianity.

It also points to the fact that at least some women are choosing to wear the veil. The Nation and The Economist, which also published a report in its May 15th issue, both note the relatively small numbers of women who cover their faces (much less wear the full-body burqa) in France and in Belgium. The Economist notes they include converts to Islam and in France, women from North Africa "where there is no face-covering tradition." They also are young.

So, what is going on? The motivations of Nicolas Sarkozy and other political leader seem clear, but what is less clear is why face-veiling, though in still relatively small numbers, is being adopted as, basically, a new tradition. I think that this is a significant point to bear in mind because there is a way in which face-veiling is depicted in American (and European) media as an ethnic and primeval custom of Islam, conflated with equally essentialist notions about jihad and terrorism and the Clash of Civilizations and so on.

When instead we might look a lot closer to home to find the conditions that make face-veiling seem appealing, attractive, even necessary to choose. Pollitt closes her column with a reference to a study at Stanford and the Sorbonne that suggests not "ethnic" (e.g., anti-Arab), but religious (e.g., anti-Muslim) discrimination in France: Identical resumes were created for three fictional women, whose names suggested an ethnic French, a Senegalese Christian, and a Senegalese Muslim woman. "Aurelie did only a little better than Marie, but she got three times the callbacks of Khadija."

I think most of my college students might suggest that Khadija should change her name to Aurelie or Marie. The imperative to assimilate is strong in the United States. Yet, I suggest that there are reasons also not to assimilate. For example, why bother? I might be an Aurelie on paper, but in person, I look like a Khadija.

More importantly, is face veiling a "religious" question alone? Esp. when religion is clearly also political and social and economic. It seems worth asking why these women (and men, for that matter, b/c they are implicated in the move toward veiling, whether they force their wives and daughters and sisters or not), and why now?

In the context of post 9/11 fear of and discrimination against an American / European construction of "Islam," face veiling might seem not to make a lot of sense, for example, to my college students. As a matter of fact, I have to think that Muslim women who choose to veil are not motivated by what our so-called terrorism experts today term jihadist sentiment.

Rather, I think it is worth the attempt to understand what are the concerns in the communities where face veiling is emerging? Keeping in mind that discrimination, whether ethnic or religious, had been experienced long before 9/11. It might be that for young Muslim women, veiling represents opportunities, not the curtailment of them. Including the status, financial security, emotional stability, protection that frankly, traditionalist (or so-called traditional) marriage could allow.

What is face veiling in France or Belgium (or the United States) really about?

I wish more people with a public forum would ask this question instead of feeding of false answers. At least we have Katha Pollitt.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Not dead yet

Here is a case for majoring in the liberal arts, from The Talk of the Town in the June 7th issue of The New Yorker:

The skip-college advocates' contention - that, with the economic downturn, a college degree may not be the best investment - has its appeal. Given the high cost of attending college in the United States, the question of whether a student is getting his or her money's worth tends to loom large with whoever is paying the tuition fees and the meal-plan bills. Even so, one needn't necessarily be a liberal arts graduate to regard as distinctly and speciously utilitarian the idea that higher education is, above, a route to economic advancement. Unaddressed in that calculus is any question of what else an education might be for: to nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently.

I know, I know. This sounds so grandiose and so familiar. The sentiments that become trod and retrod around this time of year at commencement exercises across the country. I have to say, however, that I am tired of people not taking these ideas seriously.

I am thinking that a "defense" of the liberal arts - btw, I am tired also of the liberal arts requiring defense, as though degrees in programs like accounting, business, or communication were self-evidently useful - is a lot like a case for craft, whether in our individualized pursuits or (as I have suggested previously) in the reinvention of work itself. As Rebecca Mead, the author of this particular Talk of the Town item, writes: "All these are habits of mind that are useful for an engaged citizenry, and from which a letter carrier, no less than a college professor, might derive a sense of self-worth."

That seems to get at the heart of the matter, I think: From what, or in what, do we find our self-worth? Clearly, in the United States today, it is connected largely with money. So, craft is important and meaningful as an alternative to, counter-discourse on, and metaphor for Money as Self-Worth. Craft is also an idea and a practice that parents can teach to their children - which opens a real possibility for meaningful change that leads us straight back to the conditions in which we work.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


This morning, I took Bubbie to his "swim" lesson. So called because it involves a swimming pool. (In fact, I like the lessons, and I credit them with helping Beanie develop swim-readiness.) Bubbie enjoys most of the activities, except those involving having to listen to the instructor and holding hands with the other kids.


As I am backing out of the driveway, I stop, of course, and check the street in both directions. At the far end of the block, I see a car just crossing the intersection, but as it is a full block away, and it is a residential street with a speech limit, and it is a slow Saturday morning (i.e., no students speeding to a class for which they likely are unprepared and in which they are unlikely to participate meaningfully...) I decide, I think reasonably, to back into the street. I was not conscious of making these calculations - I think this is what Malcolm Gladwell calls blink.

I digress.

I am just straightening out and pulling forward when I just barely see the other car whiz past on my right. There is a good chance that we could have sideswiped each other. I slam to a stop. Bubbie, strapped into his car seat, protests. I am livid.

I try to get over it, but then a couple of blocks later, I see the car come to a rolling stop, then whiz into the parking lot across the street from the Y (where I am headed) through the one-way exit. I pull into the spot across from the car as it happens to be the closest open spot. I admit I am somewhat surprised when the driver turns out to be a kind of elfish-looking middle-aged woman, but I roll down my window, and tell (admittedly, scream at) her, "That was an incredibly dangerous thing you did on Elm St. in front of my house while I was backing out."

She looks at me, half laughs in disbelief, then tells me, "Lady, I had the right of way, I saw a space, and I took it." I am not sure what part of this peeved me most: Lady? (Ever notice how this word went from being a compliment to a bit of a pejorative, uttered when somebody says something obnoxious? I cringe whenever I hear people use "lady" as a term of address or of reference, unless followed by something like "Camilla" or even "Gaga.") Right of way? (More below.) Space and took it? (Did she learn to drive playing Pole Position?)

Whether or not she had the "right of way" - and she was at the other intersection when I pulled into the street, which indicates to me that she was speeding - it seems to me that the driver still acted dangerously. Was she in a rescue car with lights and siren blaring? Was I driving a tractor or Amish buggy on a county road?

By the way, she had sped through the streets and pulled into the parking lot through the one-way exit on her way to a plant exchange at a local church. Gardening emergency!

I was thinking a lot about why this incident and my exchange with the driver so shook me. Because when she told me she had the "right of way," I tried to tell her: I could not see you passing me on the right. There could have been an accident. (Which, btw, there already had been this morning, with a college student slamming into a parked car while she was changing the CD she was listening to - she was not hurt, but the other car was totaled.) This is not just a matter of what your "right" is, but what the right thing to do is, with people being considerate of each other. Even when that means slowing down for the car that you see, from a block away, has pulled into the street. Or at least honk to let me know you are passing me on the right.

This got me thinking about why people post signs in front of their houses that read "Thank you for not speeding." Which I used to find a bit silly (not sure that they actually changed anyone's behavior) and also a bit snarky (because they clearly were not about thanking anyone, in the same way that someone who calls you "lady" often means something else).

I have been thinking that the signs are a way (the only way?) that people feel like they can assert their concerns and frustrations. (Our apparent impotence as neighbors and citizens is a topic I think about, too. Another time.) I think it is a comment not on whose right of way and the law, but how you behave around people's homes. The street in front of my house is public, but it is part of the immediate environment that I call my home. So, I do not like high school students breaking beer bottles, college students drunkenly shouting, or middle-aged gardeners speeding in front of where I live.

Perhaps it is a sign of the good neighborliness that many people around here really do exhibit. I have come to take that right way of behaving (not just a right of way way of behaving) as what we all ought to do. Not necessarily in the borrow-a-cup-of-sugar and chat-on-the-porch kind of way that (I think) is so romanticized, but at least a more fundamental patience with each other. Because we live with each other. Because we need to get along.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Finding the divine in the bovine

This posting on Savage Minds
commented on the state of ritual theory in anthropology in response to this posting on Open Anthropology about the ritual slaughter of a cow at the World Cup in South Africa:

Animal slaughter is a ritual among local tribal groups to call on ancestors to bless an occasion. Some 2,000 people attended Tuesday’s ceremony, many wearing traditional animal skins.

Maseko said the ceremony was meant to cover all the World Cup’s 10 stadiums, including Johannesburg’s second stadium Ellis Park, where 43 fans died in a stampede at a local derby in 2001, the country’s worst soccer disaster.

“The spirits of those people are hanging over all of the stadiums. We need to cleanse those spirits,” she said.

I confess that I am just too untheoretical to follow precisely what the comments on Open Anthropology were all about. I think not only that ritual is significant in our lives (as I am certain that the Open Anthropology bloggers would agree), but also that anthropological analysis of ritual is insightful and inspiring (as the Savage Mind blogger suggests):

Arnold Van Gennep originally published The Rites of Passage in 1903. He was not the first, or last, anthropologist to note the importance and meaning of ritual (or of particular rituals in particular cultures and societies), but his work brought attention to the structure of rituals, which he claimed could be observed across contexts.

Victor Turner later elaborated upon what he called the ritual process, which begins with "separation" from an individual's former status in a group, "liminality" (which he described as the state of being "betwixt and between"), and "incorporation" into an individual's new status in a group.

For example, in what we call a traditional church wedding, when a bride is walked down the aisle by her father and she is "given" in marriage at the altar, this ritual marks her separation from her unmarried status (and from her father as representative of her natal family and so on). The liminal individuals (bride and groom) exchanges rings and vows. In the end, they are invited to kiss (sealing the deal), then introduced as wife and husband, which marks their incorporation (or reincorporation) into the community. The wedding illustrates completely the ritual process, or rites of passage.

Think baptism, First Communion, weddings, funerals, even pledging in a fraternity or sorority. Or pregnancy and childbirth, for that matter. A structure or process is what Van Gennep and Turner suggested that they all have in common. It is, in fact, what makes rituals "work" for us.

Van Gennep himself suggested that rites of separation, of transition (liminality), and of incorporation will not be "developed to the same extent by all people or in every ceremonial pattern" (11). Also, not all rituals are rites of passage. Exhibiting a late 19th / early 20th century thinker's mania for taxonomies, Van Gennep describes rites of passage as a category, with rites of protection, divination, initiation, and propitiation being others.

Anthropological analysis of ritual offers a tool for understanding activities such as the ritual slaughter of a cow as not senseless. (I leave aside concern about animal rights. My particular ax to grind here is animal rites. Ha ha.) In fact, it turns out that the ritual is overladen with meaning - for example, to mark the start of the World Cup games, to recognize the tragedies of the past and even "separate" them from the present (i.e., to "appease" the spirits, to lay them to rest), to create community, to express a wish for connection, and so on.

I think it might be an important "intervention" of anthropology to introduce the framework of ritual, hopefully enabling us all to recognize the importance and meaning and even necessity of ritual in our lives.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

What is she?

Just a quick follow-up to my post about the RAP apps now available at the iTunes store. This is a photograph taken of Beanie two years ago: What is she? StraightMan and I used to call her "baby of the world." Which she seems to be. We took a trip to Puerto Rico when Beanie was about a year old, where everybody claimed that she looked Puerto Rican. At other times, people who see her have remarked that she looks "Mediterranean" or "Middle Eastern" or Persian or Indian. StraightMan found a picture of a Sudanese Muslim girl who strongly resembled Beanie (which speaks also to the history and diversity of what "African" is and looks like). We sometimes describe her as our "silk road" child, or someone who looks like she comes from one of the stan's (Uzbekistan or Tajikistan). Which is an apt metaphor for her lineage. Our friends all claim that she looks exactly like StraightMan. I think she looks like StraightMan as a little Asian girl.

So, talking to Beanie about race is something I consider rather important because when people know that StraightMan and I are her parents, that seems to answer the question of "what is she." I want, of course, for Beanie to question whether or not "what is she" matters at all, but I want her also to be able to say more than "I am a person / a girl / a human Bean / etc." Because if we are serious about wanting race really not to matter - that is, to influence our expectations and experiences of ourselves and each other - then we need to start with a real education about race.

Teaching (and learning) about race is a lot harder than just telling children that race "does not" matter. Which, by the way, even children can observe does not reflect their reality. I still remember, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Beanie coming home from preschool and asking me, "Why is it so important about Barack Obama?" Meaning not that he was running for president, but that he was running for president. "He is the first African-American (or black) president" is an answer, but it is not an explanation. Which is what she persisted in asking.

I am finding that talking about race with my kids means talking about history. Not as the story of how things keep getting better and better (and they lived happily ever after in the New World or industrialization or free-market capitalism or so on), but as the choices that people make without always understanding or being able to know their effects or sometimes even thinking or caring about what happens next. So, we learn more from history than just "history." We learn about the complexity of human thought and action: We can talk about kindness and courage and meanness.

Which has the added virtue of making for a better story.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

RAP app

So, an anthropologist whom StraightMan and I know and call friend has been developing new ways of communicating with people about race - apps for the iPhone and iPod touch. One is a kind of quiz for teens and adults, the other is a game for kids ages 3 and up to play with their grown-ups. The apps are part of The Race Awareness Project (RAP).

I esp. think the game is a terrific concept. Teaching kids about race - and in particular, modeling for kids how to talk (and listen) about race - is an important and meaningful responsibility. It seems to me, however, that Americans are much more open talking about sex with their kids than about race - or class, for that matter.

Reading about the apps makes me wish I had an iPhone or iPod touch.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Soap box

At some point every night for the last few weeks, I have turned to StraightMan and said: "I just don't get it."

I believe that I am not entirely hyperbolizing when I say that I live if not in fear of, then at least in anxiety about messing up. For example, just the other week, I was making lists of my students' grades in each class, checking them twice, the whole Santa Claus and naughty-and-nice maneuver. I do not like messing up for a range of reasons. Like, I do not relish receiving rude e-mail from irritated or irate students, but also, I figure assigning grades to students in a clear, consistent, and fair manner is just part of my job, and I like to be good at what I do. So, call it not fear or anxiety, but conscientiousness.

Which brings me to that I just don't get it that anyone, esp. anyone as extravagantly paid as the executives at BP, is allowed to make mistakes at all, much less at the colossal level that we are witnessing today.

Being the thoughtful anthropologist that he is, StraightMan suggests two readings of the situation, one generous and one that could be described as either cynical or realistic:

The generous reading. The executives and engineers and everyone down the line actually are conscientious about their jobs, but being human, they will commit errors. Making mistakes, in and of itself, is to be expected - which, to mix my metaphors, is why there are multiple links in the chain that check and balance each other.

So, the BP disaster is an example of how a series of relatively minor "ordinary" mistakes, made during the day-to-day on the job, can accumulate catastrophically. Also, it is an example of what modernity means - the speed and scale at which we produce, distribute, and consume being ever faster and greater, so that the ripple effects of our errors are felt that much faster and greater.

Not to mention taking and managing risk is what BP does as part of the day-to-day on the job. Risk being what puts us in the way of ordinary and extraordinary fortune and misfortune. Everyone benefits, or potentially benefits, from risk taking. I mean, it was no doubt a risk to leave the trees and go bipedal. In the day-to-day on the job, financial institutions take calculated risks, in part that they will not be called on their deals. The Meltdown of 2007 illustrates what happens when the takers and managers of risk make a mistake. The spillover affects everyone.

So, I wish the pundits would stop calling the BP disaster Obama's Katrina. This is more like his Lehman Brothers or his AIG. Which, by the way, he also presided over containing.

The cynical / realistic reading. Wherever you happen to stand on the political spectrum, I think it is generally the understanding that an important and necessary role of government is to protect and defend the interests of We the People. Now, We as the People might disagree about how exactly this happens and what it means to protect and defend and even which people, but I think this is an underlying principle of the good that government can do and be. In 2007 and again today, We the People see what happens when government's ability (and arguable, even will) to defend and protect Us has been itself so devastated.

How could this happen? I just don't get it, but We the People need to understand and to know.