Thursday, September 30, 2010

The future of higher ed?

While browsing the anthropology blog, Savage Minds, I clicked on a link that made me feel for a moment that I had entered Bizarro Blog World.

The blog is called Confessions of a Community College Dean, and this is what Dean Dad says about his blog:

The cast of recurring characters includes The Wife, The Boy, and The Girl. The Boy is in elementary school. The Girl is in preschool, and queen of all she surveys.

For a moment, I felt like I had a glimpse of the hand that might be writing this script called my life... Or it might be just that, given the numbers of Americans involved in higher education, either as students or as the faculty and staff, a lot of people might have a lot to say on parenting and work in academia / higher ed. BTW, I know for a fact that Dean Dad is not me in drag. Also, it is not StraightMan. In addition, Beanie is the one in 1st grade, and Bubbie the one in preschool. Plus, neither StraightMan nor I are deans (personally, I can think of nothing I want to do less...) or teaching at community colleges (which as unglamorous as that might have seemed to me as an undergraduate and graduate student, I think is where higher education might be most critical today...)

Anyhow. This post, "Will They Still Need Me When I'm 64," might give pause to the graduate student or the faculty member advising undergraduate students about graduate school.

For the moment, I will bracket what Dean Dad says about the current status of academia / higher ed and its projected future - bracketing being one of those things that we in academia / higher ed (esp. anthropology...) do so well: Kind of a form of intellectual procrastination.

Instead, I want to say that I like what Dean Dad says about "the ‘bundling’ function that institutions perform. There’s a value in having a single place to go that answers multiple needs at once." As a cultural anthropologist, it strikes me that the discourse on "assessment" in higher ed, for example, ought to be understood not only as, say, the recalcitrance of faculty mired in their 19th century conception of The University or the idiocracy of a growing strata of university and college administrators or even as a concern of workload (on which I have commented here before...) - but might be even more significantly a contest over the meaning of academia / higher education. In particular, to make it less bundly...

The assessment imperative, I suggest, carries with it what I will characterize as a restricted understanding of academia / higher education: It frames the rather messy enterprise of teaching and learning into the much neater terms of input and output, i.e., "outcomes." From where I perch, the problem is that assessment starts with a rather narrower definition of the purpose of higher ed: After all, when one is attempting to collect data, there need to be measures. It seems to me, however, through the practice of assessment, the restricted definition becomes imposed. It sets the terms in which we can talk about - and think about - the meaning of higher ed.

For example, my department produced student outcomes, the language of which a campus advisory committee criticized: We had to rewrite them. Ask your favorite expert on Foucault: It is through such "capillary" actions that power becomes exercised. Or just ask your local anthropologist: Contests of culture happen in experiences of everyday life.

I worry about what it means to restrict the meaning of academia / higher education. Would it not rob us all, not just those of us participating in academia / higher education, of a place / space where meaning in its multiplicity matters?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

More buzzkill

One of my favorite feminists, Katha Pollitt, recently mused on the advantages of social democratic systems in Europe and why Americans seem to reject such nice things as paid parental leave and public child care. The column, called "It's Better Over There," tips its hat to a new book, Tom Geoghegan's Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?

As a matter of fact, I sometimes think so - and not just because, like, my parents immigrated here from South Korea.

Here is what Pollitt says:

Still, it is hard to understand why Americans fight so hard against the nanny state, which provides so many good things.... My theory is more primitive: a critical mass of white Americans would rather not have something than see black and Latino Americans get it too. No matter how often progressives point out that most welfare mothers, and most poor people, are white, Big Government means the hard-working white taxpayer heaping largesse on shiftless people of color. The Tea Party movement suggests that trope is alive and well. In the twenty-first century, the problem is—still—the color line.

It hurts because it feels true.

Don't believe the hype

This is a follow-up on a previous post, "Academic Economics."

One of the paradoxes of grading is that it can be tedious and time-consuming that it forces me to take breaks. I procrastinate. I read through my issues of The Nation that have been piling on the table. Then I start to read through The New Yorker.

So, I have my ANTH 100 and ANTH 215 students to thank for having been able to read Nicholas Lemann's Comment in the September 27th Talk of the Town, "Schoolwork."

In the piece, Lemann describes the ways in which both public education (K-12 schooling) and higher education are being cast as "in crisis" at exactly a time when there are indications that they might not be. Or in the case of public education, schools have been "in crisis" for some time - in particular, underserving poor, urban, and minority children.

However. Lemann wants us to see also how we might be being told a story:

It should raise questions when an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama. In the current school-reform story, there is a reliable villain, in the form of the teachers’ unions, and a familiar set of heroes.... And there is a clear answer to the problem—charter schools. The details of this story are accurate, but they are fitted together too neatly and are made to imply too much.

In higher education, Lemann tells us that "the reform story isn't so fully baked yet, but its main elements are emerging." From where I perch, they include such black hats as "research" (which becomes opposed to "teaching") and "tenure" and white hats as "assessment" and "efficiency."

Here is the part of the Comment that had me throwing my chapeau in the air with cries of huzzah, huzzah:

Large-scale, decentralized democratic societies are not very adept at generating neat, rational solutions to messy situations. The story line on education, at this ill-tempered moment in American life, expresses what might be called the Noah’s Ark view of life: a vast territory looks so impossibly corrupted that it must be washed away, so that we can begin its activities anew, on finer, higher, firmer principles. One should treat any perception that something so large is so completely awry with suspicion, and consider that it might not be true—especially before acting on it.

We have a lot of recent experience with breaking apart large, old, unlovely systems in the confidence of gaining great benefits at low cost. We deregulated the banking system. We tried to remake Iraq. In education, we would do well to appreciate what our country has built, and to try to fix what is undeniably wrong without declaring the entire system to be broken.

We all know - we all feel - how tough the times are. However. The problems of public education and of higher education predate these times. As do a number of the proposed "solutions." Moves to discredit "research" as part of the mission of higher education and to increase "efficiency" had been made before The Economic Crisis, which as an element of the narrative has begun to take on a larger-than-life reality of its own. So, it makes me nervous to hear and see evidence of the ways in which The Economic Crisis is being used as cover to, say, push back against teachers' unions and the large, old, unlovely system of higher education that even now still inspires awe and aspiration around the world. Which could be said also of The Great Experiment that is American democracy. Why bring that into this conversation? B/c today it might be public education and higher education that is being washed away to be rebuilt more neatly and rationally, and tomorrow it might be democracy. Or is this happening already?


Why is that the anger that I hear these days seems to come only from the Tea Party? What about the rest of us? If there is one thing I think Carl Paladino has right, then it is not that we ought to be mad as hell, but also that we ought not to take it. The mad (and I think at least moderate) silent majority needs to pull the levers on November 2.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Language wars

Interesting post today on linguistic politics at The Economist's language blog:

There's not much to say about this, except to observe that one of the side-effects of English being the global language is that it performs a wide range of political and cultural tasks. Here it's a marker of either anti-immigrant sentiment or national pride, depending on your viewpoint (Oklahoma, Illinois); a proxy for a perceived threat to minority rights (Canada); and a statement of independence from a former hegemon (Georgia). Elsewhere, of course, it's become a symbol of cultural decline (France) or a mechanism of unity (India). I can't think of another language that plays such varied roles across so much of the globe. If politics is war by other means, linguistic politics is war by yet other means again. At least it's the most benign form of war there is.

I have to disagree with Johnson's assertion that this is "the most benign form of war there is." I think, say, persons indigenous to North America or Australia and whose histories include a war on their languages might agree.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Out here on my own

A blog that I "follow" (i.e., glimpse its content, then occasionally read) is savage minds, a group blog of anthropologists (primarily cultural, I think) that reads like a kind of online graduate seminar. So, sometimes I find it fun (and sometimes I find it tedious), but I find it reliably interesting.

The current post, called "Owning and caring," caught my eye. In it, the blogger considers what it means that when you own, you "care" more, which in housing translates into homes that are maintained and so on. What about public housing? What happens when the state - a focus of concern in cultural anthropology - no longer owns? Does it no longer care? The blogger uses the example of the UK:

As unusual as it is to see governments trying to rid themselves of power, there are questions to be asked about the consequences of governments also ridding themselves of ownership. Does it make the state appear heartless, literally with the heart removed, or metaphorically as lacking in feeling? In practice, in the housing estates, as elsewhere, there was a strong feeling that the state failed to care for residents. A failure to care led to the relinquishing of ownership, but they went hand in hand. You don’t bother to hold on to things you don’t care about. Perhaps owning did, indeed, give the state personhood. So where will it find its personhood without ownership?

Ownership means more than calculated "investment," which is a familiar formulation of owning and caring in the Us today. In anthropology, however, "ownership" entails entire systems of obligation between persons. So, it seems to me that owning / not owning and caring / not caring are at least part of what is being decried in the US also. For example, Americans perceive that big business does not care and that big government has failed to care. Or depending on where along the political spectrum your thoughts lead you, that it always will fail to care and / or should not be relied upon to care.

The punditry on No-Drama-Obama and Clinton as the feeler-in-chief always bothered me - personally, I want my presidents to think, not feel - but I am reconsidering what this means. If the president embodies the state, then what "we" (which I also question who or what this "we" really is...) want is a state that cares. Or at least shows that it does. In other words, it is not about the president, it is about a whole, complex system in which persons feel disempowered, disenfranchised, undervalued, underserved, un-cared for... Which might be a symptom not only that our state, but our society no longer "owns" us in the anthropological sense: There is no obligation. I echo the Savage Minds blogger's question with another: Can we be persons without obligation?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Three Women

Taking a break here in grading hell to read about other kinds of heaven and hell: The New York Times reports on the translation to stage of a radio play that Sylvia Plath wrote shortly before her death.

Called "Three Women," it invokes the voices of three women describing a wanted baby, a miscarriage, and an unintended pregnancy. (Keep in mind that roughly half of all pregnancies in the United States today are unintended, and that about half of them were conceived on birth control...) The text of "Three Women" is available here.

This stanza from the Third Voice struck me:

I am a mountain now, among mountainy women.
The doctors move among us as if our bigness
Frightened the mind. They smile like fools.
They are to blame for what I am, and they know it.
They hug their flatness like a kind of health.
And what if they found themselves surprised, as I did?
They would go mad with it.

I think it is the line, "They hug their flatness like a kind of health" that got me.

The hit

Back in the spring, I blogged about putting "Date Night" on our Netflix queue.

StraightMan and I finally saw it last night. We decided that reviews were lukewarm b/c either the reviewers have no notion of what it means to have a date night or they know too well and the movie hit too close for yuks.

Including the part when Tina Fey tells Steve Carell that her fantasy is to be able to check into a hotel by herself and have time alone and not have how her day was depend on how it was for everyone else around her.

I am sitting here in my office, on campus, on an overcast Sunday morning, mentally preparing myself to grade 90 undergraduate "fieldwork" papers. Sigh.

StraightMan has taken Beanie and Bubbie out for a little local color - the annual PumpkinFest, which includes the weighing / judging of giant pumpkins that will be hollowed and prepared as small watercraft, then raced in a "regatta" at the lake.

To be honest, I am not sure who is taking the hit here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Good Enough Baby

I know that this piece in current issue of The New Yorker is intended for yuks - The Good Enough Baby - but as with so much humor, it offers a reality checklist: Is my baby clean enough? Is my baby well fed enough? Is my baby stimulated enough?

The last item, on stimulation, especially interested me as a parenthropologist:

During the past few decades, early-development “experts” have stressed the importance of so-called “enrichment activities”: reading to babies, singing to them, even talking to them. We are now finding that these activities, in addition to being excruciating for the parent, may actually be harmful to the baby...

In their 1996 book, Parents' Cultural Belief Systems: Their Origins, Expressions, and Consequences, anthropologist Sara Harkness and psychologist Charles Super noted the differences in what they called parental ethnotheories given to describe and explain an infant or young child's behavior. In particular, they found that when an infant cried, American middle-class parents interpreted the cries as expressions of "boredom," which needed to be remedied with stimulation, like a new (different) toy. In contrast, Dutch parents interpreted the cries as a barometer of too much stimulation, so that the child required quiet and calm.

When I first read Harkness and Super's work, I was pregnant with Beanie. It became a running joke between StraightMan and me, who to be perfectly frank are low-stimulation people, that we would raise her Dutch...

As a parenthropologist, I think Harkness and Super's observations that American parents place value on stimulation is important. It allows us to see "boredom" as a cultural and social construction: For example, we make boredom explicitly through use of talk like "I am so bored..." and implicitly through use of talk like "This is so exciting..." We learn to feel and to give name to feelings as boredom and excitement.

Which is not to say that I am immune to such feelings: Blah blah blah. Yawn.

(Shout out to DoulaK and SustainabilityK in Prague: What are Czech ideas about boredom?)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Feeling my ethnicity

As an anthropologist, I am all about questioning essentialisms like race and ethnicity. Yet, as a person, I also feel their significance.

For example: This evening, an invitation comes through my Inbox to come out to a Little Feat show.

I turn to StraightMan: "How do I answer this? What is Little Feat?"

I entertain the possibility that it might be my age - the Wiki on Little Feat gives me the impression that the band had its heyday during the 1970s? I mean, look at the photo above.

StraightMan, also my age, however, exhibits a brand of familiarity and ease with (and enthusiasm for) Little Feat that provokes in me an emotion that ought to have a German word giving name to it: A response that is connected with the surprise of the familiar being made suddenly strange, like looking at one's own face in the mirror and not recognizing it, like talking with one's spouse and realizing that there are depths there that I fear to plumb.

So, I have to ask him: "Is this one of those bands that white people like?"

A pause. "Maybe." Another pause. "Probably."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

An Anna Wintour moment

Where I am now, the devil does not wear Prada. She wears OshKosh.

The scene: The other day, while walking Beanie and her friend, Pants, who is in the second grade, home from ballet class.

The fashion faux pas: Across the street, a young woman, possibly a college student, walking in the other direction, is wearing... well, something. Kind of a shapeless swath of fabric - a tube dress?! - that brushes against the tops of her thighs. Otherwise, her legs are bare. She is, of course, talking on her phone.

The second grader, Pants, speaking apparently at the top of her lungs: Did you see that? Is that a dress?

Me, lowering my voice to "model" what I think would be so much less embarrassing: I think it is [a dress]. It is pretty short...

The first grader, Beanie, matching her friend's pitch and volume: I would never wear anything so short. Unless it was a shirt. Then I would need to wear pants with it.

The second grader, helpfully: Or leggings.

The first grader, agreeing: Or leggings.

The second grader: Or jeans that fitted.

Me: Skinny jeans?

The first grader, firmly: Leggings would be better.

There you have it: Fash-shun tips from a first and second grader.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Girls will be boys...

So, between replying to student e-mails and prepping classes, I just read this article in the NYT, intriguingly titled, "Afghan Boys Are Prized, So Girls Live the Part."

The piece describes, in Afghanistan, a practice of families enabling or encouraging daughters to live their childhoods as sons. I started reading it b/c I thought it might be interesting to assign in ANTH 100 to discuss the construction of gender and expectations that surround women's fertility and preference for sons.

It might be just me, but I find the tone / language in this piece a little bit off: The girls are described as "masquerading" and "disguised." There are "real boys," and then there are the bacha posha, which we are told means "dressed up as a boy." Yet, the author describes how the bacha posha live as "both" boys and girls, wearing the clothes of boys and having the freedoms associated with them, but also socializing with girls. (We are told that this all changes abruptly with puberty, and the expectations of marriage that accompany it.) Not only parents, but the community at large, including school administrators, participate in allowing for bacha posha. So, I find unconvincing the characterization that this is a masquerade and a disguise.

In fact, I feel like the story is even more interesting than as told here. What I find wanting is a consideration of gender beyond the it-sucks-to-be-a-girl-especially-in-Other-Cultures perspective that is taken here.

The author quotes an historian who observes: “Segregation calls for creativity. These people have the most amazing coping ability.” Which I think expresses a stance that I hope to cultivate in ANTH 100 students: Recognize the conditions and constraints - in fact, the inequalities and injustices - surrounding gender, but also the capacity of human beings to devise solutions to the problems that they also create.

Linguistic laughs

I am having one of those I-probably-should-not-laugh-but... moments while sitting here, hunched over my keyboard while eating my Kashi Sweet & Sour Chicken for lunch and reading this post on nicknames for Mexican drug kingpins, which appeared on The Economist's language blog. Which itself is called Johnson. Which makes me want to laugh, too... My favorite is "El Pozolero" for its contextually clever, gruesome wit.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Stand up for your work

A link to this thoughtful op / ed piece in the NYT just circulated on a teaching listserv to which I belong, accompanied with a comment that it was relevant not just to elementary / secondary school, but also in higher ed.

In particular, author Susan Engel's concluding remark resonates with me - that testing ought to be "one tool among many for improving schools, rather than serving as a weapon that degrades the experience for teachers and students alike."

We are only in the first few weeks of first grade at our house, but already I have become aware of the long shadow that standardized testing casts over teachers and students. I think about Beanie's teacher, whom we already have come to respect and admire in just the few weeks that we have known her: I cannot imagine that assessments and measures are what motivated her to become a teacher in the first place. She seems like a caring and creative teacher with a lot to share, but the more that the "job" of teaching becomes degraded to test preparation, the less room there is for the exercise of talent.

The imperative to assess is being felt also in higher ed. The perceived recalcitrance of faculty, I think, ought to be understood, at least in part, as the stand we are taking on the importance and meaning of our work. We do not want it - and our students and ourselves - to be degraded.

Friday, September 17, 2010

We the Nacirema

The other night, while prepping for my class on the Anthropology of North America, StraightMan suggested that I read this Onion piece from 2004. I finally got around to it today. It hurt to read it. A lot. I did not laugh. At all.

Later, reading martinimade's QOTD made my day. I interpret it to mean that Jon Stewart agrees with me - or at least that I agree with him - about "sucks" being the new normal: Except that he calls it "shit taco".

1 in 7 Americans now live in poverty, defined as about $22,000 a year for a family for four. The Washington Post noted:

Since 2007, the year before the recession kicked into gear, the country has almost 4 million fewer wage-earners. There are more children growing up poor. And for the first time since the government began tracking health insurance in 1987, the number of people who have health coverage declined, as people lost jobs with health benefits or employers stopped offering it.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to remain employed on the one hand feel grateful, but on the other hand also insecure and uncertain. Not to mention overstretched in almost every domain, with pressure to do more with less at work and at home.

I suspect that expectations already had been increasing even before the economic downturn, which then becomes referenced as the reason to "explain" (or justify) so-called austerity measures, which become promoted as "temporary" and as "shared" sacrifice.

Or it just might be time to wake up and smell the shit taco.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The radical agenda

A bit hectic here on the parenthropological home front: I was invited by the honor society at my campus to give my "Famous Last Words" lecture. So, I wore a suit that I thought might be appropriate to be buried in, and gave a talk about anthropology and reproduction last evening. I am happy to report that two students in my Anthropology of North America class today told me not only that they had attended (without the carrot of extra credit...), but that it seriously made them think that when the time came, they wanted to have their babies with midwives. Two cheers for the re-production of culture!

Yesterday, I also enjoyed a Leftist Moment with a colleague during a Women's and Gender Studies reception. Hmm, I am beginning to think that the reason why there are so few opportunities for faculty to co-mingle and converse is that THEY want to keep us alienated and mystified, divided and conquered. B/c imagine all the righteous lefty talk that professors could engender... Which brings me to this item from Inside Higher Ed. Which I admit that I clicked on because of the titillating title, "Christine O'Donnell on 'Orgy Rooms' at Colleges":

All eyes are on Christine O'Donnell, the Tea Party-backed candidate who won the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Delaware on Tuesday. Among the various quotes from her past that surfaced on Wednesday were some views on coeducational dormitories. Salon found quotes she gave to The Washington Times in 2003, criticizing coeducational dormitories. The article excerpt:

"What's next? Orgy rooms? Menage a trois rooms?" asked Christine O'Donnell, spokeswoman for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in Wilmington, Del., which publishes a college guide.

All this coedness is outside normal life, said Miss O'Donnell. "Most average American adults don't use coed bathrooms - if they had the option of a coed bathroom at a public restaurant, they wouldn't choose it." Coedness "is like a radical agenda forced on college students," she said.

Get thee to a nunnery.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

For-profit education

No punditry or wisdom in store for today: Just prepping for today's classes :)

In the course of doing so, however, I started watching this Frontline documentary on for-profit education in the United States today: College, Inc..

Clearly the journalists approach this topic with a story to tell: They adopt the skepticism that they assume their audience will share.

Now, I pride myself on being in touch with the industry news, but I had no idea that so many students were taking courses through for-profit colleges and universities. So, I might re-evaluate the stance that Frontline takes.

The interview with the executive at the University of Phoenix raised my hackles. I think a lot of us feel that academia / higher ed is where good ideas come to die: Like, serve on any committees lately? The cynicism of faculty concerning service is not that we do not like to do it, but that we do not like to do it when it comes to naught. Which even in my four-going-on-five years, I perceive is what happens more often than not. For example, the standing committees on which I serve, representing my department, hold "advisory" status. Which means that the time and concern that we commit to this service will not and cannot effect change. So, the Phoenix model of Getting Things Done can seem appealing.

Faculty at "real" colleges and universities, like where I work, talk with disdain about for-profit education, but I think we need to pay attention to what they do. The faculty at for-profit colleges and universities are not unlike us. They even might be us. I bet a lot of the professors there do their work quite capably.

Of course, the students and the faculty are not the "targets": For-profit education treats them as opportunities and costs. I really think this is not the approach that academia / higher ed ought to adopt.

So much for keeping my promise about no punditry. Back to prepping today's classes...

Monday, September 13, 2010

Further proof

Further proof that "sucks" is the new normal: The incorporation of routines like the morning nit check and products like Lice Shield - "a new line of hair care products demonstrated to repel lice while, at the same time, gently cleansing and conditioning" - into the body rituals of the Nacirema (or at least a few families that I know).

StraightMan lamented this morning that the days when a single rinse of pesticide shampoo could visit devastation upon the lice have gone: This is now a nit by nit battle. The guerilla warfare / new world order / post-9/11 / counterinsurgency tensions surrounding such a statement make my skin crawl as much as the idea of lice makes me itch.

I feel so colonized.

Note that the Web site photo for "Lice Shield" (above) is a child dressed as a knight engaged in sword-in-hand combat. Which seems to prove StraightMan's point. What a frustrated parent like myself really wants to see is a mushroom cloud swirling around that child's head, with stone cold lice on their backs and their six legs pointed skyward...

Uh oh. I seem to have lapsed into Cold War nostalgia. I am way too young for this.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Can't. Hold. On. Much. Longer.

I have 10 minutes to kill: That is the prescribed amount of time to leave in the lice removal shampoo that I applied earlier this evening to Beanie and to Bubbie, and now, after rinsing and combing their hair and changing the sheets on all our beds b/c naturally, this morning, both kids climbed into bed with me to snuggle, as StraightMan is out of town at a conference, so the kiddos felt like they needed extra cuddling.


This is why it is best that I avoid other means of self-expression / self-indulgence like Twitter. Besides which I think it actually might drive me insane (not to mention others insane with boredom) to report minutely on such happenings as have occurred here during the last 48 hours or so:

Thursday 6:30pm. StraightMan has departed for the airport about 30 minutes later than he had hoped b/c Bubbie had a meltdown at Mama Nina's, where they went to pick up the pizza that was supposed to spare us a lot of trouble at supper.

For the record, Bubbie also had a meltdown earlier in the day, when we dropped him off for his first day at nursery school. Given that he has been attending a child care program since the age of six months and that he already knows the teachers and other children at the nursery school, we are a bit surprised. Also, irritated, in my case. I need to finish prepping two classes for that afternoon, including a lecture / "discussion" that is not unlike pulling nits off Beanie's head, and a hands-on seminar, the reading for which I have completed. (My usual prep time on Wednesday afternoon became swallowed whole by chatting oh-so-helpfully with a couple of students after my back-to-back intro classes, then attending a department meeting.) So, by the time I arrive at home after a mercifully quick meeting with Anthropology Club, for which I am co-adviser, I am reminding myself that I encouraged StraightMan to attend the conference - between the two of us, he really is the better scholar - so it is unfair of me to be sending darts of dark thought at his back as he closes the door.

Perfectly formed tear drops fleck Beanie's long, long lashes. Her great-grandfather on StraightMan's side would have said: A rooster could stand on that lower lip.

Thursday 10:30pm. Dishwasher that was run last night still has not been unloaded, which is required before I load it again with today's accumulated mess. Students e-mailing their troubles and worries about the weekly quiz, the paper due next week, the realization that their major in fill-in-the-blank is not that inspiring, and that anthropology might be calling to them. Hang up, I am tempted to tell them. Ignore.

Friday 10:30am. Bubbie woke about 6:45am, demanding that we make Mickey Mouse pancakes for breakfast. This means putting all the ingredients in cups and bowls for him to dump into a mixing bowl, then combine with a wooden spoon. Miraculously, we make the pancakes, the kids eat them hungrily, and they are dressed and reasonably clean when we leave the house. I drop off Beanie at her friend's house, so they can walk to school together. Then, in lieu of my morning run, I take Bubbie in his stroller to his child care program. Not to go on for too long, I am dressed and reasonably clean when I arrive on campus. I chat with a couple of colleagues, then with a student whose independent study I am advising. I teach my back-to-back intro classes. Blurgh.

Friday 3:05pm. On our way out, Beanie's teacher gestures to me to wait a moment. She tells me that another child - whose coat hook is next to Beanie's - has been sent home with head lice. Frak.

I have Beanie change her clothes on our back porch, washing and drying everything on high heat. We get Bubbie from child care, then open the Netflix that arrived - "The Princess Bride." Toward the end off the the movie, I notice that Beanie has fallen silent after a steady stream questioning and commentary. Is something bothering you, I ask. As she nods, the tears drop from her lashes. She is glad that Inigo finally got his revenge on the six-fingered man, she says, but Inigo's father is still dead, she continues, and that makes her think about how her own daddy will not be home until Sunday.

Saturday 12noon. I am cursing this ridiculous American middle-class notion that we ought to give children "choices" in order to help them feel more control / less frustration. Yadda yadda yadda. Does Bubbie want a slice of pizza or a roni roll? A roni roll, he tells me. So, that is what we order. Pandemonium ensues.

Saturday 2pm. Bubbie is in his crib, Beanie is in her bed, and I am in my bed. I do not care what they actually do, as long as I am unaware for at least the next 30 minutes.

Saturday 4pm. One by one, we wake. Life... feels like it could be... enjoyed.

I ask the kids whether or not they might like a treat - to have supper (and dessert) at Friendly's. Walking to Friendly's, drivers stop their cars to allow us to cross. Sorority girls remark audibly on "how cute" Bubbie is. We see the dog poop on the sidewalk in time to avoid stepping into it. Sunshine day... All through supper, we look and even act like a happily functional family. The children even lick clean their little saucers of mandarin oranges and apple sauce, which they ordered (instead of fries) as their side dishes. We order candy shoppe sundaes for dessert.

Saturday 10pm. I am wearing lice removal shampoo in my hair and blogging to kill time. I had checked Beanie's hair in the am, but found nothing - I check again before bedtime and find dried little nits. Hmm... Then I check Bubbie's head and find three larger gelatinous nits. Frak. I shampoo both kids' hair. Bubbie's is so short and fine that it seems lousy for lice (ha!), so I hope that takes care of it. I comb out three dead bugs from Beanie's hair.

This is our third lice experience since June. I cannot understand it. Is it that we just never got rid of it the first (or second) time around, or is it that the larger circle in which we move (school, summer camp,, and so on) just never got rid of it, or both? Not only do StraightMan and I read and follow the instructions on the lice removal kits, but we wash and dry clothing, linens, towels, and so on on high heat; have dry cleaned other things we cannot wash; quarantine stuffed animals and pillows in plastic bags for a month (in fact, there is still a batch stashed in the attic right now); vacuum rugs, couches, and curtains; and check for nits every day. We are not lackadaisical about all this. In fact, I feel like we are a bit over-the-top daisical.

All of this is happening at the same time that I am feeling that creeping anxiety about: The classes that I have not prepped for the coming week. The exams that I need to write for next week. All alongside two committee meetings that will cut into the time that I would have used to prep the classes, write the exams, and do the following: The application for a salary adjustment that is due this coming week, along with the application for funds to attend a conference where I will be presenting. Not to mention a proposal (due in three weeks) for a talk (in November). The talk that I will be giving next week. The presentation that I am giving in one month. The research poster that I will show in one month. The research poster that I will show in two months. The research for a different project that I need to complete for the revision of my book manuscript that I intend to resubmit in February. The renewal file, due in January, which leads to the reappointment and promotion (tenure) file that I will need to prepare next fall.

The thing that kills me is that I am not entirely convinced that it all needs to be done. Not in the sense that I individually choose or do not choose to be a parent, a college professor, and so on, but that the expectations for each of these roles has become so much. It just seems like things that a generation ago were good-to-do (like teaching and publishing...) have become required-to-do. Or else.

As a parent, I become a logistical contortionist in order to create an environment of unharriedness and unhurriedness for my children. So that I am not always telling them "some other time" or "later," and that I have the patience and presence of mind to listen and engage with them or just take them around the block on a bike ride or to Friendly's for supper and dessert.

Yet, I am not, as a person, unharried or unhurried.

Way past time to rinse the lice removal shampoo. Which I hope kills the nits and bugs before it kills me.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A whole new cultcha

My friend, DoulaK, is spending the year in Prague. Her husband, SustainableK, is on sabbatical, and they have two boys. Recently, she posted the following on Facebook:

Playgrounds here have a serious Lord of the Flies edge to them. We've seen kids throwing pebbles/stones/sand at each other with impunity on at least three occasions. The third time [the boys] were the targets. Our fear, in this environment, is that B is going to get bullied. And G will become a bully.


It's not that [parents] are not watching, they just don't seem to care. In the worst incident we saw, some bigger boys (~7-8 YOs) were throwing pebbles down at a little boy (4-5?), who finally started crying. Karl and I (way on the sidelines) had already vowed not to do anything b/c we'd intervened at another site and the adults looked at us like "what are you so uptight about?"

After the little boy cried for 20 seconds or more, a woman (who had been very close by the whole time) finally stood up and sauntered over to pick him up and soothe him. Mom? Babysitter? Random court-appointed guardian? We have no idea.

When B&G got pelted it was kind of comical. It was by a girl (~7 or 8) who felt the boys had encroached on her territory and weren't playing the way she wanted. (BTW, B had knocked her off the zip-line platform 15 mins earlier. He stopped immediately to apologize, and we ran over to help ... but she may have held a grudge!)

Anyway, when she started complaining to them about the pulley system they'd all gathered around, B stood up to her and said, "you're not the only one who's playing with it!" She gathered a handful of large pebbles, threw them at the boys, and yelled "Bye bye!" B&G looked at each, kind of shrugged and went back to the pulley thing. SustainableK and I, mouths agape, chuckled and shook our heads.

It's a whole new cultcha.

What followed DoulaK's status updates were comments from her friends offering sympathy (and luck) with her concerns about bullying, also observations about differences in cultural and social expectations about what parents ought to do (or not) - for example, if Czech parents are less and American parents more "interventionist," then what does that mean?

In previous semesters of ANTH 100, I have assigned an article titled, "Our Babies, Ourselves," which is an excerpted version of biological anthropologist Meredith Small's 1999 book of the same title. Small's perspective, which she calls ethnopediatrics, is that practices of child care ought to be understood both in terms of their diversity across culture and, especially, in terms of their contribution to child health and well being (in other words, survival and adaptation). A point that I like for students to discuss is that it can be challenging to consider child rearing practices with a stance of cultural relativism. In fact, I find that ANTH 100 students can be harshly judgmental about parenting. Not so different from parents themselves, I think.

Putting aside the issue of bullying (at least for the moment), in future posts, I plan to consider what anthropologists can tell us about parental "intervention" or "mediation": The point being not that parents in some cultures do less / more, but that there might be much more to understand about when and how adults do or do not involve themselves in children's interactions.

Old wine, new bottle

Since entering into the blogosphere this past spring with a vague notion that I wanted to be a or even the popularizer of cultural anthropology - I have such grand delusions - I have come to the realization that a lot of what I have to say is about the life and work of being a parent and a professor, and a lot of why I think anthropology might be useful to popularize is that I also think we need other ways of thinking about (and even being) parents and professors. I have decided to work with what I have and not against it - a lesson that I constantly relearn as a parent and professor - and hereby relaunch my blog as parenthropology.



Speaking of old wine, new bottle (or in this case, new wine, old bottle): True Prep has been published!

See my previous post on why this matters.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Academic economics

How did I miss this Times opinion piece on tenure?

Author Christopher Shea describes the tempest in academia / higher ed's teapot over the economics of universities and colleges. In particular, whether or not tenure ought to be abolished, and the mission of academia / higher ed be rethought. This is in response to recent publications such as Mark C Taylor's new book, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, and his opinion pieces in the Times. Shea concludes his piece:

Here we have the frightening subtext of all the recent hand-wringing about higher education: the widening inequality among institutions of various types and the prospects of the students who attend them. While the financial crisis has demoted Ivy League institutions from super-rich to merely rich, public universities are being gutted. It is not news that America is a land of haves and have-nots. It is news that colleges are themselves dividing into haves and have-nots; they are becoming engines of inequality. And that — not whether some professors can afford to wear Marc Jacobs — is the real scandal.

From where I perch in higher education - a PhD who in fact is immersed in undergraduate education, teaching 4 / 3 (with no TAs) at a public college that is not a research center (and whose research career depends upon the amount of time I manage to steal, essentially, from myself...) and who cannot afford to wear Marc Jacobs - I do not think that private versus public is the only important division, and I do not see the division of haves and have-nots as news. Frankly, is it not for this reason that so many Americans today do pursue post-secondary education? B/c having a college degree might mean the difference having or not having a job. Not to mention why the competition for admission to institutions like Williams and Columbia (or faculty positions there, for that matter) is as stiff as it is?

What is broken needs to be fixed. I just worry that the fixes proposed for academia / higher education will make institutions like the one where I teach as broken as everything else seems to be? Is the new normal "broken"?

I am not tied to the tenure system - I can imagine reasons to abolish it - but in the current stream of rants, I seem to see a lot of suggestions to decrease the autonomy and security with work in academia / higher education.

When it comes to work, is the new normal "sucks"?

Having everyone participate equally in unfair conditions is not the same as banishing inequalities. It seems to me that we all need to feel that we put our energies and efforts to meaningful use in our work, and that we are as necessary to the work being accomplished as the work is for our ability to meet our own needs and wants.

That this is not true for too many people is what sucks and what is broken.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The only thing we have to fear

Today in ANTH 100, I introduced the idea that the concept of culture is one intended to define a field of study - that is, "culture" is a tool that cultural anthropologists use to define / explain what we study. There are lots of ways to study what people do, say, and think, but "culture" lets us see human practices and ideas as learned (and taught) and shared so that individuals identify themselves (and others) as members of particular groups.

As a parenthropologist, I wonder about what we might be learning and teaching today: I just read this post on free range kids about a new book that I plan to put on my kindle wish list: Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear.

I especially appreciated author Aaron Kupchik's assertion: "We’re teaching kids what it means to be a citizen in our country. And what I fear we’re doing is teaching them that what it means to be an American is that you accept authority without question and that you have absolutely no rights to question punishment."

I like Kupchik's title and the connection it makes to the culture / politics / economics of homeland security. Although I have not read it in full, I have become a fan (literally, on FB...) of The Washington Post's coverage on Top Secret America:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

We invest so much in terms of economic resources, intellectual effort, and emotional energy - for what?

What worries me is not just that homeroom / homeland security is "not working," but that it clearly is accomplishing other kinds of work. These are intended and unintended: As a parenthropologist, I am not interested in conspiracy theories. A lesson that cultural anthropology teaches us, however, is to question "functionalism" - that is, to recall that there might be stated reasons for why certain activities are undertaken (e.g., to keep kids safe and secure at school), and unstated reasons serving to reinforce still other ideas and practices.


Along with what we are teaching kids, implicitly and explicitly, about "security," I have been thinking about what kids are learning or not learning about work. I hear so many grown-ups go on and on about kids need to learn "work ethic" and the value of a dollar earned (or saved).

What I find jarring, however, is that seldom do the same grown-ups talk about the worth of work in terms of what workers ought to have - that is, fair and safe conditions. So that at least some college students see unionized workers as "greedy," and side with corporate interests in "efficiency."

Something you sometimes hear pundits wax eloquently on these days is the issue of "narrative" and controlling "the story" as a significant part of politics. What is the narrative of unionized workers? Why do I feel like I only hear stories that basically train me to adopt the values of stakeholders and stockholders? True that my retirement savings make me an "owner" with a stake (and stock) in the system, but that all still depends on being, in fact, a person who works.

Just some thoughts for Labor Day.

Friday, September 3, 2010


This might reveal supremely bad taste or judgment or both, but I had to share this from the feminist philosophers blog - an example of a new genre of so-called "Hitler parody" that apparently is being posted on YouTube.

This example is titled "Hitler as a teaching assistant" - I agree with the feminist philosophers not only that it is gendered, but also that it is funny (esp. in the world of academia / higher ed), and begs the question of why it is funny.

I am not a historian, but "Hitler parody" seems to have existed since Hitler himself was alive. (Were I a historian, I might know exactly the right citation to insert here. You know where to e-mail me...) He must have been aware of the resemblance to Charlie Chaplin, who would have been quite a celebrity at the time. Also, if you have never watched the original 1942 version of "To be or not to be" (which Mel Brooks remade in the 1980s), put it on your Netflix queue. It contains memorable (and hilarious) sequences concerning "The man with the little mustache..." and a joke that begins, "They named a brandy after Napoleon..." (and ends with the Fuehrer as a piece of cheese).

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Teaching Nacirema

You might have read Horace Miner's "Body Ritual among the Nacirema" in an introductory class in anthropology. If not, here is a clue about its significance: What does Nacirema spell backwards?

Here is a Wiki on Nacirema.

When I teach "Nacirema" in ANTH 100, we typically engage in a discussion about the bizarre and strange habits of a society that we assume is exotic and primitive. When it is revealed, either by a student or by myself, that "they" are "us," the discussion turns to concepts like ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. Also, that ethnography also is a form of writing, so that we ourselves participate in the making of the exotic, even in word choices ("medicine men" versus "doctors"). I also like to suggest that a reason why students today might fail to recognize the Nacirema is that Miner's account, originally published in 1956, describes a society that has changed since then.

In previous semesters, the discussion has become animated, with a handful of students in the know "sitting out" while the rest work through the article.

This time, however, about a third of the students in one section of ANTH 100 had read "Nacirema" in high school. In both sections, students caught on quickly.

So, I still had almost 20 minutes to kill. (Not to worry. I always have more material that I want to cover...)

It makes me wonder whether or not it might be time for mothballs. For the article, I mean.