Thursday, October 28, 2010

Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference (3)

Last Friday, I had the privilege of giving a keynote lecture at the city school district’s teachers conference on diversity. This week, I am posting excerpts from my talk, “Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference: Perspectives from Parenthropology.” Here is part 3:

As a parenthropologist, I have come to think that the difficulty of talking and listening to kids about difference comes in part from our own discomfort with talking and listening about difference among ourselves, as parents and teachers. We need to create “the talk” about race along the lines of “the talk” about reproduction. In fact, there are now resources offering thoughtful advice to parents and teachers on talking and listening to kids about difference. Parents magazine, on their Web site, has an article on “Raising a Child Who Respects Difference” that suggest to parents: “First, Forget ‘Color Blindness’” and “Don’t Wait for Them to Bring It Up.” The Southern Poverty Law Center develops and distributes free materials for K-12 teachers through its Teaching Tolerance Web site. There is now even an iPhone app for this: The Race Awareness Project has developed two “games,” one called “Guess My Race” and another called “Who Am I,” which were designed to help (and guide) parents through conversations about race with their pre-school and elementary school-aged kids.

I suggest also that in order to create “the talk,” we as parents and teachers need to be clear about the words that we use. So, in the hopes that we can find the words for us to use, here is what anthropologists have to say about two ways of talking about difference that are especially salient in the United States today – race and culture.

I noted earlier that as an anthropologist, I am trained in a discipline that is concerned with both universality and diversity. What makes us the same? What makes us different? Anthropology also is distinctive in its holistic approach, in which we consider any given dimension of human experience as interconnected with still others. For example, is food a matter of physiological need, economic activity, religious law, local custom, climate change – or all of the above? The holism of anthropology is reflected in the fact that the discipline is comprised of sub-disciplines: The four fields of archaeology, biological or physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. Four-fields anthropology became organized in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, building upon earlier traditions in the study of human “civilization,” which reflected then current concerns with differences among people – in their physical appearance, in their behaviors and beliefs, in the environments and conditions in which they lived – which were being encountered in travel and exploration and trade globally.

Following upon a much older philosophical tradition that so-called inner qualities, such as intelligence, were manifested in outer qualities, in particular appearance, it was thought that traits such as skin color could be interpreted as markers or even expressions of emotional, intellectual, and other “essential” characteristics. In fact, early and mid-19th century anatomists and physiologists – the fore-bearers of biological or physical anthropology – were involved in efforts to locate the sources of difference in the human body itself, taking measurements and creating scales that defined the “races” of humankind. In addition, it was claimed that the “races” themselves had developed separately, with each race representing “sub-species” of humanity, and “steps” in human evolution. Race became an explanation, or rather an excuse, for political, economic, and social policies that segregated and subjugated peoples.

This 19th century concept of biological “race” has been discredited in the work of 20th century scientists, including anthropologists, who emphasize the lack of concordance in so-called racial traits: Not only does difference in physical appearance not correspond with difference in emotional or intellectual characteristics, but even racialized traits associated with physical appearance (such as skin color, eye color, hair texture, eye and nose shape, and so on) do not correspond with each other. Nor is race coded in our DNA. Even to the trained eyes of geneticists, human DNA looks remarkably the same: There is more genetic variation in penguins and in fruit flies than there is in humans. In fact, geneticists tell us that two individuals who would be classified, according to physical appearance, as members of the same race, are likely to have as many or even more differences in their mitochondrial DNA as two individuals classified as members of two different races. Our genes provide evidence of the shared origins of modern humans in Africa. We are, indeed, a single race.

So, then how do we make sense of difference in physical appearance, which in the United States today, we continue to describe as “race”? Clearly, human biological variation exists, but what it tells us is a story about the migration of modern humans, out of Africa, to the far reaches of the globe, which is itself a remarkable tale with the power to excite the imagination. Human biological variation tells us a story about certain sets of genes arriving at the right time and place to be favored, or at least not disadvantaged, for survival – like darker skin closer to the equator and lighter skin in regions further flung. In other words, the difference in physical appearance that Americans call race could be described as a side effect of ancestry.

The discrediting of the 19th century concept of biological race and the 20th century recognition of human biological variation are developments connected also with a completely different way of thinking about differences – that is, the concept of culture. Defining and refining the concept of culture has consumed anthropologists for the last century, but at heart, culture is a way of talking about difference as behaviors and beliefs that are shared in groups through learning and teaching. The concept of culture is, in part, a reaction to the concept of race: It asserts that customs and habits are invented and become acquired. They are not innate to bodies and inherited through blood and genes. Culture also suggests that the most important and meaningful differences between people are the ones that they have learned since childhood then continue to teach to their own children. An example of the power of culture is, unfortunately, the persistence of the idea that “race” describes and explains differences between people.

As a parenthropologist, I suggest that it is critical that we, as teachers and parents, recognize the significance of what we do in our work with children – and the difference it can make. A few weeks ago, my daughter came home from school, bursting with a story that she told us at dinner. She had read a book called Amazing Grace, about a girl who wanted to be Peter Pan in her class play, despite discouragement from other children that Peter Pan was not a girl and Peter Pan was not black like Grace. My daughter told us in no uncertain terms that these were not good reasons and that she herself could be Peter Pan, just like Barack Obama could be president. Not only can we, as teachers and parents, make and re-make the meaning of difference by talking and listening to kids, but I think it also might be the only real hope that we have.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference (2)

Last Friday, I had the privilege of giving a keynote lecture at the city school district’s teachers conference on diversity. This week, I am posting excerpts from my talk, “Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference: Perspectives from Parenthropology.” Here is part 2:

I find it striking that race seem to be “taboo” topics while, for example, sex and gender have become less so. “The talk” about reproduction has become a rite of passage in American life that is accepted and expected as part of the raising of children. There also are a number of resources offering thoughtful advice to grown-ups on what to say and what not to say. For example, the advice today is that parents ought to use the correct anatomical terms, not euphemisms, to refer to body parts, starting even at an early age – which lays the foundation for unashamed, open and honest, communication. At home, parents exercise critical thinking about gender, dressing their infant daughters in blue and encouraging their toddler sons to play with dolls. At school, teachers remind their students that there is no difference in what girls and boys can accomplish. As a culture and society, we recognize the significance of talking and listening to kids about sex and gender.

Yet when it comes to race, there is no “talk.” For example, when young children talk too loudly about Bubbie’s mother being “a Chinese lady,” their parents hush them and rush them off. I suspect that what children are explicitly told is that is race and ethnicity are not “nice” to talk about – and they become implicitly taught that race ought not be talked about at all. Indeed, in their 2009 book NurtureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman cite a 2007 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, which found that among 17,000 families with kindergarteners, 45% said they never or almost never discussed race issues with their children. The rates varied, however, between white and nonwhite families: 75% of white parents said they never or almost never talk about race.

Recently, I discussed this statistic in a class that I currently am teaching on the Anthropology of North America. Most of my students identify themselves as white, with a few students who describe themselves as “mixed heritage.” Many of my students, both white and “mixed heritage,” described coming from communities that they did not consider “diverse,” at least in terms of race and ethnicity. Yet, some students voiced their belief that not being “diverse” did not mean that diversity was not a concern for their communities or for them. After all, they encounter difference in college and in “the rest of their lives.” They perceive difference as portrayed in the movies and TV shows that they watch or the music that they hear – and as one student commented, they can either accept the media portrayals as truth or question them. We as parents and teachers must be concerned about the meanings that become attached to difference. We must question whether or not we are guiding kids to understand what difference does and does not mean.

Students in my class speculated that not talking about race is about attempting to achieve an ideal of color blindness, because so many Americans want so much for race not to matter. Yet, my students also recognized that while color blindness might be an ideal, it is not our reality. In Nurture Shock, Bronson and Merryman review recent research in psychology that finds children as young as six months old perceiving the differences in physical appearance that we in the United States call race – that is, skin color. This overturns the assumption that we teach our children to perceive difference. In fact, what we do is to teach our children how to make sense of difference that they already perceive. So, what do we teach our children when we hush them and tell them that race ought not to be discussed – and if they are not learning from us, then from whom are they learning, and what are they learning?

While the norm for white parents has been not to talk about race, the norm for non-white parents has been to discuss difference actively. Sociologist Erin Winkler, in a recent account of African-American families, describes the importance and meaning, for African-American mothers, of teaching their children both to take pride in their identity and learn how to negotiate prejudice directed against them. In her account, titled “ ‘It’s Like Arming Them’: African American Mothers’ Views on Racial Socialization,” Winkler quotes a woman who tells her: “I guess with my kids, I’m trying to teach them that, you know, you’re going to have to grow up and be a little alert, but, you know, don’t lose your humanity about it. Don’t just assume that all of them are like that.” When parents and other trusted adults actively talk and listen to children about difference, they offer guidance on what it does and does not mean.

A student in my class suggested that Americans today increasingly look to institutions other than family to teach their children the facts about reproduction, and the facts about difference. In particular, they look to the schools. So, what you – what we – say as teachers and parents, and how we listen to children, and how we guide them with our actions matters more than ever. We can teach them to talk and listen openly, honestly, and respectfully about difference, which, as a parenthropologist, I think is the most significant lesson for us all. We can answer our children’s questions with what we know about difference – what it does and does not mean.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference (1)

Last Friday, I had the privilege of giving a keynote lecture at the city school district’s teachers conference on diversity. This week, I will be posting excerpts from my talk, “Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference: Perspectives from Parenthropology.” Here is part 1:

The purpose of my talk is to remind ourselves of why it is important and meaningful to talk and listen to kids about difference, and to consider why we as adults refrain too often from this discussion, not only with children, but also among ourselves. I also offer my own thoughts on how we, as parents and teachers, might find ways of talking and listening that work for us all. In particular, I offer insights and approaches from the discipline in which I am trained, anthropology, which has engaged in more than 100 years of discussion on the meaning of difference.

Look around our classrooms and communities or read the news, both local and national, and it is hard not to notice that differences between people matter – even or, I suggest, especially in communities as apparently “homogeneous” as our community. These differences can include race, ethnicity, culture, language, class, gender, religion, and ability, among countless other ways that we might distinguish ourselves and each other. In my talk today, I will focus particularly on race and culture because they have been, and continue to be, especially powerful ideas and practices about difference among people in the United States and around the world today.

We know from our own experiences that difference can be cause for celebration and pride, and for conflict and pain. Children are no less aware of and sensitive to difference than adults are. They see it around them – even despite, for example, what we grown-ups might consider our well-intentioned efforts to keep our kids “color-blind.” They also observe our reactions, witness our behavior, and look to us as models for how they themselves ought to act and think. So, it seems to me that our challenge as teachers and parents is to help children make sense of what difference does and does not mean in our world today. At the same time, it seems to me that we might cultivate in children a sense of how we might think and act differently about difference. After all, we – adults and children alike – are not only members of our society and culture, we are also the makers and breakers of our own rules and customs. There is always, then, the possibility for change. This is why it seems to me important and meaningful for us to consider the matter of talking and listening to kids about difference – and for us, as teachers and parents, to be able to articulate a case for having this conversation to those who might require persuasion. In this talk, I offer words that you might use.

My interest in how we talk and listen to kids about difference emerges from my concerns as a second-generation Korean American raising children of “mixed” heritage. On their father’s side, my children can claim roots in Italy, Germany, and other parts of Europe. Initially, I thought simply celebrating our family’s mixed heritage might be enough – that is, passively exposing them to the “positive” meanings of difference.

Then my daughter came home from school and asked me: “Why is it so important about Barack Obama?” Being a college professor, I demurred – I deflected the question back to her so that I could understand what she was asking me. I asked her: “What do you know about Barack Obama?” She told me: “Everyone is excited that he is running for president. Why?” So, I told her: “A long time ago, before your grandparents and your great-grandparents were born, some people, even a lot of people, in America believed that someone who looked like Barack Obama could never be president, could not go to school like you can, and even could belong to someone else who owned him.” Since then, Beanie and I have read stories together about enslavement and the Underground Railroad, and about heroes of the civil rights movement, like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. We have talked about how she, with a Korean American mother and a white American father, is like Barack Obama, who had a white American mother and a black Kenyan father.

Talking and listening to my daughter has changed my mind about whether or not “passive exposure” to race and ethnicity, and history and heritage is enough. I think we must talk and listen to kids about difference actively. If we do not guide our children on how to understand difference, then they will take their ideas from other sources who might not share the same cares and concerns that we have or who might not take the time and effort to explain what difference does and does not mean.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Child's play

With parents both professors, I suppose there is no escaping it: Beanie has a strong didactic streak in her.

Coupled with sibling rivalry, the result is this: I wake this morning to hear Principal Beanie telling her student, Bubbie, that he had moved from green to yellow to red to blue for his behavior - and that she will be sending a Sad Note home to his parents.

See the above. Completely unintentional visual punning: I "blocked" the names.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Just because I feel like I need to say it

Anita Hill, you owe no one any apologies for what you yourself endured during the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The awful truth

This piece, "Furlough Realities," posted today on Inside Higher Ed, is worth reading whether or not "furlough" has entered the discourse on your campus.

It makes the point that b/c furloughed faculty are not directed not to allow the furlough affect with their teaching and service responsibilities - and nor would they wish for it to - the effect (in particular for the untenured) is that furloughed faculty do exactly the same work, but for less pay. A so-called furlough is in fact an unacknowledged pay cut.

(Indeed, last spring, there was talk of furlough on my campus, which would have meant that I would not be paid for classes I already had taught, b/c I am paid every two weeks for work I already accomplished the two weeks prior.)

I share author Shaun Johnson's frustration that so much of the work that professors (and educators in general) do is taken for granted:

So much of what a successful K-12 or college educator must do to make the classroom operate effectively is done behind the scenes. In fact, the preparation done privately is absolutely essential to the public face of the profession, which is in the classroom. Whenever a new mandate or policy rolls out, a new curriculum, or certification requirement, it’s dumped on the backs of teachers. We are told that our extra duties must not in any way compromise time with the students. Teachers who have already run out of time weeks ago perpetually take the minutes and hours and blood out of their private preparation, which then inevitably creeps into educators’ personal lives. Educators take their jobs very personally and our performance, or lack thereof, is interpreted by society as a personal virtue. If we are perceived as not burning the midnight oil for the sake of our students, then there must be something wrong with us. It’s a character flaw and we therefore should find another line of work.

What’s the connection to higher education and the furlough concept? Sacrifices must come out of my private responsibilities as an educator. The powers that be know full well that for any professor who wants to keep his or her job, which is based on satisfactory teaching, research, and service, nothing meaningful will be cast aside. Many of us will just keep right on working as usual with not one thing taken off our plate.

In other words, professors do not simply waltz in, tell a few lame stories, then take the summers off.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Keeping up with The Times

This story on the comeback of the idea of a "culture of poverty" became one of the most e-mailed on The New York Times.

I think it is striking that the problem with "culture of poverty" concept is depicted primarily as a problem of political correctness - and that all of the contemporary scholars quoted in the story are sociologists!

I think it is critical to recognize the ways in which the concept of "culture" itself had been bowdlerized and essentialized in Daniel Patrick Moynahan's evocation of a "culture of poverty." Oscar Lewis himself, as an anthropologist, espoused a more nuanced understanding of culture, and wrote critically about the structures the produce poverty.

"Culture," which anthropologists use generally to draw attention to the ways in which humans learn / teach the practices and ideas that define us, can be a productive explanation for how practices and ideas become reproduced over generations. Or re-produced: That is, made and remade.

There are "many new and varied definitions of culture," the NYT notes, "but they all differ from the ’60s-era model in these crucial respects: Today, social scientists are rejecting the notion of a monolithic and unchanging culture of poverty."

In fact, anthropologists long have been engaged in articulating a dynamic concept of culture - and even arguing for an abandonment of "culture" b/c of the ways in which it has come to be used commonly as an essentializing explanation for difference: "That's just their culture."

So, this issue is not, for me, political correctness, but "correctness": Moynahan's rendering of a "culture of poverty" simply does not apply the concept of culture in a way that anthropologists understand as "correct."

I am not especially interested in disciplinary policing, but given that culture is a core concept, arguably even the concept (alongside "race") at the foundation of anthropology, it just seems to me that if you want to know what the current state of the art / science on "culture" is, then you ought to talk to anthropologists.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Crafting selves

Really interesting QOTD (from a few days back...) and discussion at martinimade - I agree with the comment that there might be a book that Adrienne Martini ought to write about the meaning of craft/s for American women today :)

Earlier this summer, Adrienne's most recent book, Sweater Quest, had me pondering, as an anthropologist will, why are these particular people doing what they do at this particular moment? Which led me to consider the political economy of craft.

It might be true, at least in part, that American women today turn to craft/s b/c they have the means to do so (including time and / or a certain amount of money to be able to do so, as hand-crafted generally is recognized not necessarily to be more "economical" than store-bought...) Or, as I had suggested, that we are experiencing a particular political economic moment in which other forms of productive work (e.g., paid labor) seem to lack a certain kind of meaning and importance that renders it unsatisfying in part b/c it is unsatisfying in terms of creativity, discovery, and autonomy.

I think it is interesting that American women ponder whether or not crafting is "feminist" - and consider what they learned (or not) from their mothers and grandmothers. There has been a strand of feminist discourse that salvages and celebrates "women's culture" that I think is being evoked here.

However. What especially strikes me now in the recent discussion at martinimade is the women's references to their age or at least stage in life: I realize that young women, too, are interested now in craft/s, but I wonder whether or not the turn to craft/s might be part of that continual process of crafting our lives / selves, esp. as women face age 40 and 50 and beyond.

For whatever reason, I find myself thinking about medical anthropologist Margaret Lock's book, Encounters with Aging, which compares women's experiences of menopause in North America and Japan. The book makes the rather surprising (and controversial) claim that women in Japan do not experience (or at least do not report complaints about) hot flashes, which are practically synonymous with menopause in the United States. Instead, Lock found that women in Japan reported other complaints, which in turn were linked to changes in their social identities.

What does crafting say about what kind of women we imagine ourselves being or wanting to be? How and why is it connected to becoming and being women, mothers, and grandmothers? How does becoming a mother (or grandmother) rewrite what it means to be a woman? Might crafting be a way that we remake ourselves?

Saturday, October 16, 2010


When last I blogged, I had been reflecting upon the observation that clearly not all students seem entirely prepared for college - and that both the kind and range of the challenges that students face (and a result, the challenges that students themselves then pose to faculty, staff, and administrators in academia and higher ed) leave me, as an anthropology professor, feeling rather unprepared to manage.

Exactly how am I supposed to "teach" students who are in no psychological, social, and / or even academic condition to "learn"?

Also, I confess, it is not only that I feel unprepared: I admit also that I feel somewhat unwilling to break what I understand as the "rules" of college b/c to do so then empties it all of meaning. Not just the class the student is taking, but also the student's purpose in college, his or her degree, and not insignificantly, the career to which I have committed myself as an anthropologist, who teaches... I mean if I had wished to be a psychiatrist / social worker / life coach / guru - not to mention a high school teacher - then that is what I would have become.

(BTW, there is a larger discussion that could be had here about rules making meaning, but that is too lofty for me... At least right at this moment, when I am procrastinating from grading exams while StraightMan and Beanie and Bubbie nap upstairs.)

As a cultural anthropologist, I think attending to meaning matters a lot - and should matter more to a lot more people - in the current discourse on college, esp. in this era of encouraging college-for-all. This is a point made in an article that appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of American Educator (which the American Federation of Teachers publishes): "Beyond One-Size-Fits-All College Dreams: Alternative Pathways to Desirable Careers."

The issue had lain forgotten in a stack of to-be-read magazines that I reached for in a fit of despair last night - a Friday night spent reading exams - and I think the cover story is well worth reading. It opens with the observation that while the majority of high school seniors today plan to go to college, the truth is that less than half will graduate from college - a rate that drops to less than 20 percent for low-achieving students, who often must start their college careers with remedial courses for which they receive no college credit. "Meanwhile, they have wasted precious time and money that could have been spent on career-focused certificates or associate's degrees that have better outcomes than are generally recognized," note the article's authors, James Rosenbaum, Jennifer Stephan, and Janet Rosenbaum.

The outcomes include AAs in radiography earning salaries in the $80K range. Which I might add seems unfathomably high: It is considerably higher than what I earn with a PhD from an institution that the National Research Council recently ranked as one of the top programs in anthropology.

Here is where the question of meaning become critical in academia / higher education:

In everyday language and in formal policy discussions, the word "college" is used as a synonym for "bachelor's degree." Colleges have much more to offer than just four-year degrees - and recognizing that fact would go a long way toward rescuing the college-for-all-movement.

A friend commented to me on Facebook that "college will never be for everyone": I think what we both mean is that the pursuit of the four-year / bachelor's degree is not for everyone. Not to mention an education in the liberal arts, which I think traditionally has defined the four-year / bachelor's degree.

Another point about meaning: "Students are understandably surprised to learn that 'high school competency" does not indicate 'college readiness.'" Huh. In my experience, I have learned that this is true in fact, but I am surprised to learn that this is true in intent, too.

An especially interesting observation in the article is their comment that too many students in high school tend not to be especially well informed "about" college: They know they "ought" to go, but they do not know that fewer than half will graduate. The authors suggest that students enter college with unrealistic expectations - which themselves make it even less likely that they will succeed - because adults are withholding information and as result misleading them. In part, this might be because some adults, like parents, might or might not have attended college and have the experience to share with their children. Or at a time when the ratio of high school guidance counselors to students is 1 to 284+, the advice is fairly general, with not much detail shared, let alone individual counseling.

Even more significant, I think, is that the rah-rah routine to cheer students into college appears to be part of a larger cultural or social value placed on, well, rah rah routines in general - especially when as they concern adults promoting and / or protecting children's well being.

We are mystified by what we are increasingly seeing as idealism that prevent optimal outcomes across youth-related fields. We think our society's tendency to advocate BAs for all is a good example of this problem. Somehow, across fields, we must find a way of being honest with our youth without crushing their dreams. Short term, the truth about college might be disheartening. Long term, knowing the truth is the only way to accomplish one's goals.

For another time: How to talk to talented undergraduate students about (sigh) graduate school.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Dammit, Jim...

I'm an anthropology professor, not a psychiatrist / social worker / life coach / guru - and definitely not your mother.


Interim (midterm) grades are due this Monday. I have exams from my two sections of ANTH 100 to grade, and will be collecting essay exams from another class next week. So, there is plenty to do. However. What has me feeling especially anxious and overworked at the moment is having to respond to students "in crisis."

I have been thinking about the blog discussion at The New York Times on "Have College Students Changed?" In particular, I think about this response from Linda Bips, a psychology professor at Muhlenberg College (and the author of "Parenting College Freshmen: Consulting for Adulthood"):

In my experience, freshmen today are different from those I knew when I started as a counselor and professor 25 years ago. College has always been demanding both academically and socially. But students now are less mature and often not ready for the responsibility of being in college.

Many of today’s students lack resilience and at the first sign of difficulty are unable to summon strategies to cope. The hardship can be a failing grade on a test, a cut from the team, or a romantic breakup. At the first sign of trouble many become unable to function and persevere. Often they even anticipate difficulties and their anxiety alone paralyzes them.

Whatever the causes might be, the effects that I observe are students apparently unprepared to meet the demands of higher education - and I am utterly unprepared to respond to them. I sometimes feel rather tested and I see this as not necessarily the student's fault. (Though it is true also that sometimes particular individuals push against the limits of my patience...)

There seems to be a serious gap between the expectation that a college education ought to be accessible to everyone, and what this actually requires. If college students are changing, then is college changing? Should it not?

Is the work of college professors, too, changing?

No answers this evening. Just questions.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Well, duh...

What wears this parenthropologist down to a mere nub of herself is not a particular class or the sit-down with a student who is flailing or having two letters of recommendation to write or following up on a plea from a colleague to read a research proposal: It is the accumulation of all of the above.

(That was just today. I still also have a research poster to submit on Thursday, a keynote lecture to write for next Friday, a research poster for next month, and a book review for December. Did I mention that I also am supposed to be revising my book manuscript? Which I have not seen since the semester started. Say it with me: I. Am. Fucked.)

In addition, there is the usual preparing and teaching of classes and just having to be "on" all the time. That is, projecting competence and likeability with a touch of humor and humility. Not to mention having to spend time putting on a little make-up in the mormings b/c it turns out to be, what my mother says: Honey, I have reached the age where it starts to matter...

(Not to mention at all Bubbie and Beanie and StraightMan. Sigh.)

So, when I turned on my laptop this evening to check my e-mail - basically to check if any students were having meltdowns over the exam they will be taking tomorrow - this post in The New York Times caught my eye: "Have College Freshmen Changed?

Predictably, the subtitle of the discussion is: "Are 'helicopter' parents making it harder for students to adjust to life on campus?" Which actually means mothers.

The other usual suspect lined against the wall here is technology.

Indeed, I suspect that when / if calling a professor meant having to find a pay phone and a dime, a student might have been forced to consider the mortification that s/he was about to bring onto her/his head by recording a voice mail while crying and complaining from the library that s/he was unable to watch the video (previously shown in a class that s/he had missed, and placed on reserve for her/his benefit...) b/c s/he was having trouble with the DVD players.

(When I reached the part in the message that went something like, "I don't know what you expect me to do," I finally had to erase it. Not that I am saying that anything like this ever occurred.)


Monday, October 11, 2010

Would you rather be perceived as a brainy bitch...

Or as sweet, but stupid? B/c apparently that is a choice that women pursuing careers in academic administration ought to make, according to this article in the Times (of London) Higher Education Supplement.

(The feminist philosophers blog pointed me to it.)

Apparently, there is a wrong choice and a right choice: Likeability trumps competence.

Not only that, but likeability makes less likely that a woman will be perceived as competent, and competence makes less like that a woman will be perceived as likeable.

I have no interest in academic administration, but I sometimes wonder about issues of likeability and competence in teaching.

Blurgh. Just stick a fork in me. I am done.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Rolling like thun-dah

This past week, StraightMan embarked on an "organization" project: He uploaded all of the CDs that we own onto his computer. Turns out we do not have all that many. The compact disc became the audio medium of choice during our college years. Speaking for myself, I bought only the CDs that my suite-mates or friends did not buy. I mean, how many copies of the same REM / Indigo Girls album could we possibly need?

I think I reached the peak of my music purchasing years when I was 17 or so. The medium then: Cassette tapes. Which I rather miss: The Smiths' "Hatful of Hollow," which I bought at a record store in Andover, Massachusetts, because it felt then like I hadn't had a dream in a long time...

These days, I rarely buy music, unless it I heard about it on NPR. Which means that it is a critic's darling kind of album or an iconic 80s pop rocker reinventing himself as a roots artist. Does Bryan Adams have a tribute to Muddy Waters? Or will Cyndi Lauper please record an album of Brazilian bossa nova with lush orchestrations?

That said. I sooo was feeling Elton John. I'm still standing...

Friday, October 8, 2010

The end of picture books?

This piece in the New York Times today just makes me sad :(

Admittedly, I myself have encouraged Beanie to read chapter books, primarily b/c she herself declared an interest in them, but I do not continue picture books "baby-ish" or "backward": I suspect that a cognitive psychologist will have to undertake a study that suggests the intellectual benefits that children derive from picture books - the analog thinking or some such - in order to make them acceptable to parents and teachers again.


From the perspective of an anthropologist, however, seems like more food for thought on language ideologies, esp. in terms of literacy. Apparently, it is not just about "books," but about "text" and especially "word."

As an aside, I feel like a number of the newer picture books I have read at the library with Beanie and Bubbie in the last five or so years are not unlike Pixar films in that they seem to try to wink and nod at parents as much as they tell a story to children. Perhaps this might be a nudge back to basics: The "classic" children's books that continue to sell do not pander to grown-ups.

The case against tenure

Over breakfast, I read Dana Goldstein's essay, "Grading 'Waiting for Superman,'" in the October 11th issue of The Nation. Goldstein, an education reporter, considers what "Waiting for Superman" - a much discussed documentary about the failures of public education - tells us and especially what it does not tell us. Her assessment is similar to Nicholas Lemann's recent comment in The New Yorker, about which I blogged recently: Both journalists note that the film celebrates charter schools as a solution, and teachers unions as the problem.

For my friends who are parents and / or who are concerned about public educations and have questions about charter schools (I confess that I probably know too little about the issue...), I think it would be smart of us to read the criticisms of "Waiting for Superman." I have not yet seen the film - not at the mall cineplex in my neck of the woods - but I certainly plan on it. My understanding is that the film, made by the director of "An Inconvenient Truth," is quite compelling. However. I know that I want to know the rest of the story, too.

What especially caught my eye is the brief comment on tenure for public school teachers, which I think gives insight to the brouhaha over tenure for faculty at colleges and universities. Goldstein quotes from an interview with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who apparently is singled out in the film as The Enemy:

The unions are hurt by public frustration with teacher tenure, a level of job security inconceivable to most American workers, who are barely hanging on during a recession with a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate.

"Only 7 percent of American workers are in unions," Weingarten says, adding matter-of-factly, "America looks at us as islands of privilege."

That is the case against tenure?! I call this the "sucks"-is-the-new-normal effect... Never mind that the real islands of privilege might lie located elsewhere...


I think it ought to be noted, as Goldstein does, that unionized teachers themselves also want to see their profession do a better job at maintaining their own standards. "According to a 2003 Public Agenda poll, 47 percent of teachers believe 'the union sometimes fights to protect teachers who really should be out of the classroom," Goldstein notes.

So, why not enable, encourage, and support workers themselves to set the standards, and see that they are upheld - and to do so in a way that preserves the dignity of each individual? Which, unfortunately, "policing" too often fails to do. We might have more incentive not to bend the rules, were the rules themselves more resilient...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tenure tracts

It probably says more about the cast of characters that I call friends, but I read two posts on Facebook concerning tenure:

One is this link to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education: "Parents: Your Children Need Professors with Tenure."

The other is this link to an article on Insider Higher Ed about the faculty at Brown voting no on changes to tenure that a Provost-appointed committee had developed.

The Chronicle piece offers a spirited defense of the virtues of tenure, culminating with a flourish on academic freedom... "A college professor must be able to voice controversial views and challenge his or her students to question their assumptions and, at the very least, learn to define and defend them more effectively," writes the author, Cary Nelson, an English professor at University of Illinois. "Too many faculty members without tenure do not want to take that risk."

On the one hand, if Fox News is opposed to it, then I feel like I should be in favor... On the other hand, I have to disagree with Nelson: I think the scholar-teachers who are most willing to take chances in their scholarship and teaching are other untenured professors. (In part b/c we are in the process of "proving" ourselves: To our peers, to ourselves for tenure, for posterity...) Being untenured has not stopped me from pursuing research or teaching on topics that can be "uncomfortable" to discuss: Race and racism. Class and social stratification. Birth control and abortion.

I think talk about tenure ought to be more precise: The fact of being "tenured," in and of itself, does not embolden faculty to toss caution to the wind and chase truths that the timid would rather not know! Rather, I imagine that the long term commitment of an institution and its resources - and time - enables individuals to develop: Teachers and scholars do not spring fully formed from graduate school.

I think tenure, if / when it works, might be more like an apprenticeship. Or in today's parlance, an investment that colleges and universities make to further their own interests. Or in still other terms: You grow your own.

Which brings me to the post from Inside Higher Ed on changes proposed in the tenure process at Brown University. In particular, this nugget caught my eye:

The backdrop for the discussion -- and part of the reason many faculty have been dubious of the recommendations -- is that Brown was faulted in a recent accreditation report for having too high a tenure rate (70 percent), because many top research universities have significantly lower rates. Brown faculty members insist that they do a good job of advising those who will not receive tenure to leave before the final vote.

Am I just naive? I was startled to learn that having too high a tenure rate could pose a problem for a college or university. What is the point of hiring "the best and the brightest" if / when the point, apparently, is just to let them go after six years?

What about all the resources and time - and experience and expertise and so on, gained during the years of service - that a faculty member represents? Even in corporations, it is understood that training new workers and grooming them for positions of responsibility is costly, so you protect your investment.

We need to remember that not only do colleges and universities produce students (with and without degrees...), they also produce professors.


The Chronicle piece is written as an appeal to parents: It advises them to look to institutions with tenured faculty.

From where I perch, as a parent and professor, I would be more interested not necessarily in how many faculty have tenure, but how many are tenure-track - and teach undergraduate students, including introductory courses.

This is not to discredit the talents of graduate students or of adjuncts. In fact, having been a graduate student at a major public research university, I would have to question the priorities of an institution that is apparently unwilling to invest in tenure-track faculty.


Disquietly quiet here - I actually applied my bottom to my seat for enough uninterrupted time to eat my lunch (Kashi Lemongrass Coconut Chicken) while it remained hot from first to last bite!

So, I took the bit of time to catch up on the blogs I "follow." This post on Savage Minds caught my eye: "Are pdf's immoral?"

I hope not. I could say I think not, but that might just be me justifying what I will characterize as a practice that is rather familiar to me.

I will add that in the past, I tried instructing students on how to run their own searches on JSTOR - esp. for recent articles that were not found in edited volumes or readers that I might have required them to purchase - and download the PDF's as individuals.

It was kind of a disaster: I had students claim to me that they "could not find" the articles I had assigned or that the instructions were confusing or that they had a hard time reading the article on their computers or that they had run up their print quota. Blah blah blah.


Call me naive, but I think when students do not purchase their books (and when they do, they do not retain them, but resell them to the used book sellers...), it is simply b/c they do not value them (i.e., they do not consider them worth buying). I know: Duh. Frankly, as I look at some of the textbooks and readers and their price tags that I have even in my own office, I find it hard to argue. Some of the books just are not that good and almost all of them are cost far too much for what they are. I doubt that students see themselves as paying for CD ROMs or Web content or so on, which I think they value even less.

The contrasting example is when students really come to admire, even love, a book: In previous semesters of ANTH 100, I assigned Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which it seems like every semester, at least one student tells me that they "loved it so much" that they are "keeping it." When I assigned Emily Martin's Bipolar Expeditions, a student told me me bought an additional copy of the book for a friend whom he thought should read it.


So, I do not think it is just that PDFs being "free" devalues the worth of scholarly publications. I think it is the context in which the PDFs become circulated: If a student is taking ANTH 100 b/c it seems like the least worse class to take for a gen ed requirement need to graduate at the end of that semester, then I probably should not be surprised that being required to purchase books, or even go through the rigamarole of having to locate and download PDFs from JSTOR for myself, might seem like a colossal waste of money, time, and effort for that student. I think we reasonably could expect the student to skip it. In which case, making PDFs freely accessible also seems a reasonable response, from the perspective of a professor...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Mobilize me

It usually feels good when somebody agrees with you. Also, when somebody else is able to articulate what you have been thinking, but have not been able to put into words. Even better when that somebody else has a high-profile perch from which to persuade, perhaps, still others. This is how I felt when I read Malcolm Gladwell's article, "Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted," in the October 4th issue of The New Yorker.

Gladwell is critical of the hype surrounding Facebook, Twitter, and other "social media" as instruments of social change. To make his point, he contrasts the example of sit-in's in the segregated south during the 1960s with one man's recent campaign to get back his friend's Sidekick from a teenager who found it in a NYC taxi... In part, what is contrasted is the cause (or in the case of the Sidekick, "cause"), but it is also the mobilization of people behind it.

Notably, Gladwell describes how and why civil-rights organizations of the 1960s successfully organized volunteers to make great sacrifices (including their lives) in pursuit of their cause. Not being an expert on social movements, I do not feel that I can evaluate his suggestion that the success of the civil-rights movement is due, in part, to its hierarchical structure. Then again, this being Gladwell's reporting, I am guessing that the hierarchy hypothesis is drawn from scholarly works that are not cited here. (See my post from yesterday on journalism's reliance on scholarly sources...)

Technomongers today insist that social networks motivate people. "But that's not true," Gladwell writes. "Social networks are effective at increasing participation - by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires." For example, he mentions that the Save Darfur Coalition has a Facebook page with 1,282,339 members, "who have donated an average of nine cents apiece." On the one hand, more than 1 million x 9 cents each still seems a sum worth cheering. Also, it seems to demonstrate what happens when "everyone" shares the burden. However. Pocket change does not make social change. "Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice," Gladwell writes. "We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro."

In describing what Facebook's strengths are, Gladwell references the work of sociologist Mark Granovetter in suggesting that social media "lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It's terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism."

The observations here about weak ties and strong ties led me to think about points that I try to make in ANTH 100 lectures on how / why we need to think about economic activity as cultural and economic activity. The French sociologist / anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) wrote an essay called "The Gift," which has been influential in anthropological studies, not only of economics, but also of kinship, gender, and reproduction. Mauss observed that there are no "free" gifts: Receiving gifts obligates persons to other persons: One must eventually reciprocate. Giving gifts - whether yams, pigs, or women-as-brides - establishes and maintains obligations between persons. In effect, both giving and receiving gifts can "cost" persons. Yet, it might be that the higher the price of giving and receiving, the mightier the obligation, the stronger the tie.

The strength of ties with other persons depends on the demands that we make on other persons and that they make on us. I have been thinking lately about how we see this in our everyday experiences. This is not to say that we in fact expect our friends to give or do - it is that we can. Or could. That is what makes us friends...

Perhaps what civil-rights organizations did so successfully depended not only on hierarchical structure, but also, in fact, on demanding so much of persons?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Scholarly sources say...

For those of us interested in "public anthropology", yesterdays's column from the NYT's Public Editor might be worth a gander: Scholarly Work, Without All the Footnotes.

Public Editor Arthur Brisbane comments on the reactions to linguist Guy Deutscher's article, “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?" which was published in the August 29th issue of the Sunday Magazine.

In fact, I had clipped the article as a possible reading to assign in Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology, which I will teach again next semester, because I thought it provided a fine overview to the issues surrounding language, culture, and thought, including a discussion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis / linguistic relativity.

Brisbane notes a stream of reactions from scholars who felt that the piece exhibited "an unacceptable scale of borrowing" (i.e., plagiarism) from other linguists, including the use of specific examples.

Interestingly, Brisbane consulted with anthropologists, including Michael Silverstein, who told the NYT that “one could not avoid writing about these particular substantive phenomena and these particular lines of research, since that is what has fired folks up."

So, Brisbane concludes:

The problem here, I conclude, is not one of intellectual theft. It’s really a problem of journalism itself.

The rules of attribution and credit in the domain of scholarship are established, strict and well-understood. Journalism, by contrast, lacks a formal code for citing scholarly work. When scholarly subject matter traverses the border into popular journalism, it simply isn’t clear how much attribution is enough.

As someone who is teaching an introductory course in linguistic anthropology, I agree with Silverstein - I mean, had Guy Deutscher not used the examples that he used, he might have been criticized for showing inadequate understanding of the field itself.

As someone who previously worked in journalism and esp. enjoyed writing so-called think pieces (for which I not infrequently read scholarly works, and interviewed and quoted scholars themselves), I agree also with Brisbane, who also quotes Peter W. Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars (and an anthropologist), observing that "scholars are filling a rising appetite for science writing in the popular press and that the protocols for giving credit there remain murky."

It might be time for journalists to develop such criteria - and for those of us interested in "popularizing" scholarly work to become involved in developing them.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Beanie on books

Beanie, who is in the first grade, just became introduced the world of Beverly Cleary and of book reviewing.

She had been having ups and downs with her little brother all last week, so I thought it might be fun for her to read Beezus and Ramona, which I remember as being spot-on about sometimes just not liking your younger sibling, then feeling like you were wrong to feel that way.

I heard her giggling aloud as she started the book. So, I asked her what she liked about it. Beanie decided to write a "paragraph" about it - paragraphs being a concept that she just learned (I forget how and why). The result is above.

I challenge Michiko Kakutani to review with such sincerity.