Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Beanie meets Saussure

Recalled from a conversation with Beanie, age 6 and 3/4 on the eve of Christmas Eve, an example of parenting as an anthropologist:



"I always wanted to know: Who made up languages? Because all languages are made up."

"Wow, Beanie." Is this supposed to become a teaching moment on the concept of arbitrariness?

"So, that must mean that somebody had to make up all the languages."

"That is a question that a lot of people have tried to answer."

"Do you think it was one person? How could we ever know? What would be the first word that someone made up?"

"How about we make up our own words?"

Giggle. So cute. "Dr. Seuss makes up his own words."

"Is that language?"

"I guess so because it's made up."

Hmm. "So, what if I start calling what you call an apple a 'snargleboffin'?"

Giggle. Even cuter. Sigh. "No. Because what you call a - what did you call it?"


"What you call a snargleboffin is what I call a boffagargle in my language."

"If I make up my own words and you make up your own words, then how are we supposed to understand each other? So, I think languages are not made up by one person."

"It has to be more than one person. Maybe two."


"No." Giggle. "Boffagargle."

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Druggiest colleges, part duh

Just a quick follow-up to my post from yesterday, concerning our almost-daily newspaper's front page headline declaring that the college where I teach is "Not Among 'Druggiest' Schools."

Today, the headline across the top of the almost-daily's front page reads: "How Heroin Gets Here," with a sub-head quoting the county D.A.: "Drug has become serious problem."



In other news, the free once-weekly newspaper that is mailed to our house reports on its front page: "TJ Maxx Is Coming Into Mall."

I admit that when I saw it, I smiled and let out a little whoop: "Cool!"

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The druggiest colleges in America?

The front page of our almost-daily newspaper blared with a headline about the college where I teach being "not among 'druggiest' schools, locals say."

Which I think violates certain rules taught in journalism school about writing headlines and "not" being not news in the first place. In any case.

The article tells us that The Daily Beast posted a list of the "50 druggiest colleges" in the United States. Included in the top 10 were the college where I now teach. (So, technically, it is among the "druggiest" schools, in contradiction to the headline.)

"I think the whole thing is preposterous," the article quotes the mayor of our fair city saying.

I agree. Although not necessarily for the same reason as hizzoner.

The piece is clearly a bit of snark - I mean, this is the Web site that Tina Brown founded and edited - responding to "Operation Ivy League" that snared students dealing drugs at Columbia University.

Its "methodology" is. Well. Creative. (I can snark, too.)

The grown-ups see a list like this as discrediting the work that they do to protect and promote the health, well-being, and safety of the students here. Not to mention to teach them.

It is also demeaning to the students who take seriously that "the college has raised its standards, and the quality of the students has improved," as one student told the almost-daily. However, Operation Ivy League itself seems to belie the assumption that the selectivity of the college and the SAT scores of the students can be taken as signs of Moral Character and / or Intelligent Decision Making.

Interestingly, the elite college that StraightMan and I attended as undergraduates - Williams - is also included in the top 10, even with a drug use grade of A- from a student review database called College Prowler: "A high grade, i.e. an A+, indicates that drugs and alcohol are not noticeable on campus and there is no pressure to use drugs."

I wonder what college kids - and a lot of them see themselves as kids - think about this. With higher education resembling a marketplace of branded names that offer more or less the same kinds of bells and whistles, to what extent might the notoriety of being ranked among the druggiest colleges in America actually distinguish one brand from another? With the result of making a school better known and more attractive?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Keeping up with The Times

Exams and papers have been graded, and the fall semester has a great big fork stuck in it. Then along comes this article, "Mental Health Needs Seen Growing at Colleges," which I think is worth a gander for anyone teaching undergraduate students:

A recent survey by the American College Counseling Association found that a majority of students seek help for normal post-adolescent trouble like romantic heartbreak and identity crises. But 44 percent in counseling have severe psychological disorders, up from 16 percent in 2000, and 24 percent are on psychiatric medication, up from 17 percent a decade ago.

The most common disorders today: depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, alcohol abuse, attention disorders, self-injury and eating disorders.

Every semester, it seems, I have at least one or two students who come to talk to me about their concerns about their performance in my courses - in connection with the side effects of the medications that they take for depression and / or anxiety and / or attention disorders.

What got to me especially was the effects that students' problems have on the people who work with them: "The need to help this troubled population has forced campus mental health centers — whose staffs, on average, have not grown in proportion to student enrollment in 15 years — to take extraordinary measures to make do."

This is not to mention the professors, like me, who frankly are unequipped to do much more than make referrals to the counseling center. However, each referral results from my taking the time and care to sit and listen - and absorb - the worries of a student who approaches me as his or her teacher.

“By this point in the semester to not lose hope or get jaded about the work, it can be a challenge,” Dr. Hwang [a clinical psychology at SUNY Stony Brook] said. “By the end of the day, I go home so adrenalized that even though I’m exhausted it will take me hours to fall asleep.”

For relief, she plays with her 2-year-old daughter, and she has taken up the guitar again.

Hmm. I need a hobby.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What Beanie wants to know...

... is why the "pretty girls" in the movies are blondes.

My immediate impulse was to protest that it simply is not true. For example, Beanie's given name is also the title of a movie starring Audrey Hepburn.

At the time, Beanie and her best friend, Pants, were watching a Barbie movie ("The Princess and the Pauper"). Which, for the record, is not nearly as bad as it sounds.

Beanie and Pants wanted to know why the princess had blonde hair, and the pauper had brown hair, like theirs. Of course, both princess and pauper were Barbies - also, the strong resemblance is critical to the story's plot... - but I think Beanie and Pants, at the ages of almost 7 and 7 years old, have caught wind of the blonde obsession of American (and perhaps, globalized) popular culture and it is making them mad.

Which, I have to admit, warms the cold, cold cockles of my feminist heart.

See? Even a Barbie movie can become a teaching moment.

Later, I pointed out to Beanie that although the makers of movies often try to make the movies look "real," even when set in places like Hogwarts, in fact, they are not real and barely resemble "real" life. After all, if the movies were real, then there should be not only girls with brown hair, but also girls who looked like me ("Asian") and girls who looked like her (with mixed heritage) and girls with dark skin as well as girls with blonde hair.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Feeling bookish

Final exams begin today. In other words, I will be underwater in grading for the rest of the week.

Still, could not resist browsing blogs and such that I have no business reading right at the moment. I found this post on Inside Higher Ed today really interesting: All the President's Books.

I appreciated author Eric Weinberger's reflections on the small, but good things (I think) that he did in his treatment of books sent to the president of Harvard University: "In all this, the important thing was that books were objects to be honored, not treated as tiresome throwaways, and that everyone in the building knew this."

As I, a pleased kindle owner, find myself constantly saying: Books and paper are perfectly wonderful technologies that they do what they do effectively and efficiently. Also, meaningfully. No need to get in a hurry to rid ourselves of them, either in the abstract or the particular.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Somebody had to say it

Classes ended Friday, finals start tomorrow. So, I took advantage of the lull: I put on clothes and a shade of lipstick that make me feel a little frilly, we hired a baby sitter, and StraightMan and I went to a party! Where admittedly we talked to a bunch of our faculty friends and kvetched about how hard this semester has been, especially for the parents who have had to deal with head lice. Remember what I said about "sucks" being the new normal?

What with writing exams and managing students suddenly concerned with their performance (or lack thereof) in my classes, I have had nary a moment to keep up with the Times, but StraightMan just turned to me (literally, from his desk next to mine) and said I should stop whatever it was that I was doing (which happened to be re-reading the exam that I wrote for this Wednesday) and look at this opinion piece: "What Progressives Don’t Understand About Obama".

I am glad that somebody said it: The United States has a "black" president, but that does not mean that we do not - or that he does not - have to contend continually with issues of race in the United States. When historians look back at Obama's presidency, they will have to look seriously at how race conditioned and constrained his actions and reactions.

Obama, in fact, cannot enjoy the privilege of playing an avenging cowboy: "What the progressives forget is that black intellectuals have been called “paranoid,” “bitter,” “rowdy,” “angry,” “bullies,” and accused of tirades and diatribes for more than 100 years."

Also, Ishmael Reed reminds us: "When these progressives refer to themselves as Mr. Obama’s base, all they see is themselves. They ignore polls showing steadfast support for the president among blacks and Latinos."

Along these lines, I find this piece in The Nation's Finest News Source from a few weeks back to be strangely spot-on about the State of the Union. Proving yet again that the fake news can be so much more insightful.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The mean reds

Remember in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," when Holly says to Paul:

"You know those days when you get the mean reds?"

"The mean reds, you mean like the blues?"

"No. The blues are because you're getting fat and maybe it's been raining too long, you're just sad, that's all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you're afraid and you don't know what you're afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?"

Kind of. I mean, it is not exactly fear that I am feeling right now, but more like diffuse anxiety, which I suppose is a kind of fear that I will forget something or someone... The diffuseness of my anxiety could be mistaken for not knowing what it is that itches and nag.

In other words: It is the end of the semester.

What triggers the mean reds for me is not necessarily having to write exams (or even to grade them within 24 hours of their completion). It is:

* Having to hear yet another student's confession about the problems he or she has been having from the start of the semester that affected the quality of the student's performance in my class, which he or she in fact found quite interesting, also that the student is a lot more intelligent and hard-working than he or she might have given the impression of being. None of which I dispute. However, I cannot grade the goodness of intention or the greatness of potential.

* Having to say no to students asking for or requesting a range of exceptions, from submitting work from the first month of class now during finals week to whether or not they can devise an additional assignment for extra credit to rescheduling the date and time of their final exams b/c they have back-to-back exams.


Look. I know it is "right" to say no. Also, that as the professor, I have the right to say no.

The fact is that I do say no.

However. I hate being put in the position of having to say yes or no. At all.

Perhaps it is that I am uncomfortable with the "power" of being the professor who assigns the grades. (I suppose it is an occupation hazard of being a cultural anthropologist, but sometimes I cannot help but feel that this power is being exercised rather arbitrarily - I mean, we all hear the stories from students about the insane professor in another department...)

Or am I showing my gender: I like to be nice, and I have a problem with not being nice?

Or perhaps it is that I feel the efforts I already make for students seem to go unrecognized - for example, for students in ANTH 100, I post events like lectures and films that they can attend and write about for extra credit on the Web-based course calendar.

Not to mention what I had been doing up there in the front of the lecture hall during the entire rest of the semester. Which might or might not have made a difference. Blurgh.


So, I have the mean reds right now:

Well, when I get it the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany's. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there. If I could find a real-life place that'd make me feel like Tiffany's, then - then I'd buy some furniture and give the cat a name!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Volunteer, shmolunteer

My point is not to say stop giving your time. Rather, it is a call to have us all recognize what that means. Which is a lot.

StraightMan forwarded me a link to this piece in the NYT, "Frazzled Moms Push Back Against Volunteering," with the comment: "Hm, dads holding down the fort with their 8.5 hours/week," which referred to the number of hours of child care that American men on average perform. (The number of hours for American women on average is twice that.)

He also added: "But it is also true that it's important to keep a tight rein on volunteering."

I definitely know some moms seriously overloaded with their volunteer commitments to their children's school and / or other related organizations. (You know who you are: You have no business reading this blog right now. You have something else that you really ought to be doing.)

The piece struck me because school volunteer work has been, and still is, unpaid and unacknowledged work that primarily women perform. In the past, it would have been performed by stay-at-home mothers, and it probably still is primarily SAHMs, but I have to say that some of the women I know who are busiest with their volunteer commitments also are full-time working mothers.

Or as StraightMan said to me, paraphrasing a bit of wisdom from his own dad, a former minister, about who you can trust to get something done: "Find the busiest person you know, and ask her."

I am not one of those women. At least not when it comes to school volunteer work. I do what I can: I go to PTO meetings at the elementary school, and I organize the monthly snack calendar and the Facebook page for the nursery school. I wish I could spend time visiting the kids' classrooms and so on. I think not only might it benefit my kids' experience, but I think I might enjoy it.

However. To call what all of these women contribute to schools and other organizations "volunteer" work is rather misleading. I might add: Trivializing. The work that all of these women donate is necessary to the basic functions and operations of the institutions themselves. Or as the NYT itself reports:

As local and state economies continue to struggle, budget cuts to rich and poor school systems are increasing the reliance on unpaid parent help. The need is so great that some school districts, like a couple of specialty schools in Prince William County, Va., have made it mandatory to commit to a small amount of volunteer time, and others are considering it. In San Jose, Calif., one elementary school district has been discussing a proposal that the families of its 13,000 students commit to 30 hours of volunteer work during the year.

Many parents are happy to volunteer uncoerced, and most everyone recognizes the worthiness of the cause. But the heightened need and expectations are coming at a time when many parents have less and less time to give.

"Parents"?! Ahem. Nowhere in this piece (which was 3 pages long on the Web) were men and fathers mentioned. Except to complain that their wives were never home (i.e., saddling them with "baby sitting" while they organized another school event...) - including the cautionary tale of the woman who did so much that her husband eventually left her.

For the record, the president of the PTO at my daughter's school is a dad. StraightMan serves with two other dads on the board of our son's nursery school. These guys ought not to be the exceptions.

My other response to the piece: I serve "voluntarily" on four committees on campus and in a national professional organization. (That is in addition to all that is entailed in teaching four classes and developing a scholarly career, without which, BTW, my teaching would be worthless...) I will not say all of the committee work, but I will say a lot of it is necessary to the basic functions and operations of the college itself.

A critical difference between school volunteer work and so-called professional service is that the latter becomes rewarded: With tenure. I hope.

It seems to me also that there is all kinds of gendered committee work that happens at colleges and universities. The untenured men can simmer down: I hear and see you. I know that you, like me, feel pressured to take on "volunteer" commitments. I will have to save that topic for when I have tenure...

Friday, December 3, 2010

Benefit of the doubt

This is to follow up on my post from the other day on college degree or pedigree.

A friend commented on Facebook that one of the social assets that is gained through attending an elite college or university is benefit of the doubt:

Sure, graduate schools may matter more, but going to an elite college makes it easier to get into a top graduate school. Having worked at two Ivies now, I've seen up close how this benefit of the doubt works in an almost talismanic way for those who graduate from these schools. Most interesting to me in the debate was the point that this benefit of the doubt can be especially beneficial to minority students.

This reminded me that as a child, my parents taught me, explicitly and implicitly, that in order to be considered "as good" as "other people" in the United States, I needed to perform "even better," as they perceived inequalities in the social order: Arriving as "guest workers," they felt keenly that they had a "place" that they were given in American society, but to this day, even as naturalized citizens, I think they lack of real sense of belonging. They still talk about "American people" as somebody else.

Performing "even better" to my parents signified speaking "good English" and academics. So, they stopped speaking Korean at home with me, and fairly aggressively encouraged my reading and writing with weekly visits to the public library. Some families take day trips and vacations to look at mountains and lakes: My parents took us to look at Columbia and Harvard.

So, I think the comment on benefit of the doubt raises points that I hope are being examined further: The experience of attending an elite college, and the "fact" of receiving a pedigree from one certainly benefit individuals, but they also benefits individuals differently. For students who become identified as "minority," it might represent simply gaining a foot in the door, which seems rather a modest aspiration.

Also, among "minority" students, there will be differences: The rates at which Asian-American students enter and graduate from college and university look staggeringly different from the rates for African-American and Latino/a students. In addition, "Asian-American" students can refer to the upper-middle-class children of professional parents who immigrated from Taiwan and then moved to Alpine, New Jersey - and to the children of refugees.