Monday, December 19, 2011

Visions of sugar plums and Marcel Mauss

How I spent the last week: Giving finals. Grading finals. Drawing long eyelashes on Beanie and her seven comrades-in-arms for five performances of "The Nutcracker."

Watching Beanie march on stage before a packed house - it was something to see. It makes me wish every child had opportunities like this. To perform and to transform and to learn - and to teach her mother what it means rise to the occasion and act with grace. I am so proud and so hopeful for her :)


I like to think of Christmas as the Mauss wonderful time of the year.

Yuk, yuk, yuk.

A friend posted on FB the following link to comedian Jimmy Kimmel's shtick urging parents to punk their kids with prank Christmas presents.

She posted the link, commenting that while she found it side-splitting, she also wondered whether or not it was abusive. Others then mused about the potential for children to draw lessons about gratitude from the stunt.

I hope not. As a parent, I hope that my children never learn to be grateful for a gift deliberately selected to be just plain bad.

As an anthropologist, I also hope that they learn a bit about the meanings of gifts.

Marcel Mauss observed that a reason why it might be better to give than to receive is because gifts create obligation to the giver from the recipient. Or as anthropologist Lee Cronk wrote in an article that is widely taught in introductory anthropology classes, gifts always come with strings attached.

It is at this point when I am teaching on gift economies in ANTH 100 that I need to remind students that it is not necessarily "bad" to be under obligation. When you think about it, feeling obligation, as individuals and as groups, enables us to live together. We call it a sense of responsibility and of belonging. I think when my students start to feel the weight of obligation as "bad," they are responding to their understanding that giving gifts can be assertions of status and power - and receiving gifts (or feeling obliged to receive them) can be experienced as a loss of status and power. (For more on this, see the classic ethnographic film, "Ongka's Big Moka," with the memorable line from Ongka, "In giving so much, I have knocked you down."

As much as we tend to want to forget that status and power exist between adults and children and within families, they do. This is perhaps what prompted my friend to think aloud about whether or not the prank Christmas presents were abusive.

I will open myself to accusations of being utterly humorless and say that I think punking your kids with prank Christmas presents is mean.

Of course, having no sense of humor is my specialty as a woman, in particular a feminist, and a member of an ethnic minority in the U.S. The former also makes me fiercely sarcastic.

However, I say with complete sincerity: Enjoy your winter holidays :)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Tips for battling your Inner Grouch

Disclaimer: No provocative anthropological content in this post. Go to Anthropology Report or Living Anthropologically for something intelligent. This post is for the weary, like me. A few reminders for the comadres and compadres who are giving and grading final exams this week:

1. "Put your own mask on first..."

Today I awoke and realized how ill I had been for the last two weeks or so b/c I experienced health again! I had forgotten what wellness felt like.

Last Friday, I finally took myself to urgent care, not for the hacking cough that has been lingering for about a month now, but b/c I thought my eye had gone septic: Redness, swelling, pain. Turns out it was an allergic reaction to erythromycin, which I had been using to treat the pink eye that I had caught from Beanie! A shock to me b/c my parents, both doctors, dispensed erythromycin with liberality. It is not an exaggeration to say that my mother always had a few in her purse. Just in case we had a bit of soreness in our throats that needed to be quelled.

BTW, the cough? Bronchitis. The dull ache in my ears? A touch of an infection in both ears. I was prescribed a horse pill of an antibiotic and an inhaler (which cost $40!)

StraightMan, I am sorry. I should have listened to you a full 10 days earlier.

2. I am a feminist, but I have to admit that at age 41, a little lipstick and eye liner can go a long way to brightening my own impression of myself.

Fellas, you can achieve the same effects with a trim of nose and ear hair! (Oh, come on, just admit it: At age 41, that is where it is growing now.)

3. Enjoyment needs to be practiced. Preferably among a dozen or more lovely individuals who have been gathered together to drink pomegranate punch and swap Christmas cookies! (I baked Mexican wedding cakes.)

4. Speaking of the bakerly arts and sciences, these atom cookies from the baker / blogger / biological anthropologist at Not So Humble Pie look good for the winter holidays! Cookies will not cure what ails you, but they offer little bits of comfort, which are good to take.

Back to grading :)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Keeping up with the Times

Just a quick comment on this piece on "The Dwindling Power of a College Degree," which appeared in the NYT Sunday Magazine for November 27:

Computers have hurt workers outside factories too. Picture the advertising agency in “Mad Men,” and think about the abundance of people who were hired to do jobs that are now handled electronically by small machines. Countless secretaries were replaced by word processing, voice mail, e-mail and scheduling software; accounting staff by Excel; people in the art department by desktop design programs. This is also true of trades like plumbing and carpentry, in which new technologies replaced a bunch of people who most likely stood around helping measure things and making sure everything worked correctly.

As a result, the people whose jobs remained valuable in that “Mad Men” office were then freed up to do more valuable things. A talented art director could produce more work more quickly with InDesign. A bright accountant could spend more time thinking of new ways to make and save money, rather than spending endless hours punching numbers into an adding machine. Global trade works much the same way. It’s horrible news for a textile factory worker in North Carolina, but it may be great for a fashion designer in New York.

Has it, in fact, been great for that art director and accountant and fashion designer? Or, in addition to producing more work quickly, thinking of new ways to make and save money, and so on, are these workers not also having to take on paperwork, maintain correspondences by voice and e-mail, and schedule meetings and what not via Outlook? The technologies do not do the work on their own - they still require people to run them. Except that those people are no longer dedicated staff that (in my opinion, more efficiently) manages the operations of a workplace.

In the workplace of higher ed, I recently heard from a colleague that how a few of her now-approaching-emeritus faculty member typically handled attendance (until quite recently) was that they circulated a sheet of paper asking students to sign in - then passed along the sheets to their full-time department secretary to keep track of student absences! So that the older faculty members could not understand how and why younger faculty members complained that they could not "count" attendance in their grading. Hint: Because it takes a lot of time to keep track of student attendance. Time that younger faculty members do not necessarily have b/c we have absorbed a lot of workplace operational work ourselves... (Not to mention whether or not it is even appropriate to ask department secretaries to do work like this...)

Here is what I found a bit frightening:

A general guideline these days is that people are rewarded when they can do things that take trained judgment and skill — things, in other words, that can’t be done by computers or lower-wage workers in other countries. Money now flows around the world so quickly, and technology changes so fast, that people who thought they were in high demand find themselves uprooted.

I think we tenure-track faculty members cannot take for granted that professors will always be needed. (We know that they are not always wanted...)

It is happening already, believe it or not, in K12 schooling. Read this piece, "How Online Learning Companies Bought America's Schools," from The Nation's November 16 issue.

The new normal sucks.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Teaching the anthropology of reproduction: Notes

T'was the Sunday night after Thanksgiving...

At least three of us in the household are sooo not looking forward to Monday. StraightMan is looking rather long faced about the pile of papers that he did not grade over his "break," which after all had been occupied with driving the four of us to my parents' home for Thanksgiving dinner, then driving us back again. While I slept both ways, still recovering from a cold and lack of rest. I feel creeping anxiety about the week ahead, but console myself that even though I still have classes to prepare for tomorrow, I washed, folded, and even put away all of the laundry this weekend! One must find solace where it can be found, like here in the kitchen near the box of wine that StraightMan has propped open. (Respect the box of wine. It is not your parents' box of wine.) Meanwhile Beanie is skulking around, peevish and bored with her dull family after spending the entire day yesterday stomping around the woods in this unseasonably mild weather with her best friend and her much more fun family, collecting acorn caps and milkweed to create "nature crafts."

Upstairs, I hear Bubbie taking his twice-weekly bath. Improvising his own lyrics to "Puff the Magic Dragon." No amount of gently suggesting to him that Puff lives in Hanalei will convince him that the dragon does not live in Hallowee (which BTW is not the same as Halloween).

Oh, to be Bubbie and four years old!

Some time this week or next, I will be required to give student evaluations in class. Which, despite the fact that I receive good numbers and even quite good written comments, I never can bring myself to read until an entire semester has passed and my memories have been dulled a bit. Kind of like actors not wanting to read the reviews for fear that they will not be able to continue acting.

In fact, I have had a fairly good time this semester teaching the Anthropology of Reproduction. This is a 200-level course that I have tried to teach once a year. It is now an elective not only for anthropology majors, but also biology majors in the human biology track at my college. (Another huzzah for the so-called teaching college! I mean, imagine undergraduate students at a research university being permitted such an opportunity to broaden their training.) The course is also cross-listed with Women's and Gender Studies.

The class typically has been overwhelmingly female, but there are at least a few more male students now than in past years (still only five out of 30), and they tell me that they are talking it about with their friends! On top of which, they and my female students alike make a point of describing reproduction as an issue for everyone to study.

As a teacher, this is just such a feel-good kind of class :)

A plea for syllabuses and suggestions on teaching the anthropology of reproduction just circulated on a listserv to which I belong (for the Council on Anthropology and Reproduction). In part b/c I am not convinced that I will get another chance to blog this week, I thought I might post my response here:

I assigned the edited volume, Reconceiving the Second Sex, this semester, and I am finding it has been terrific for provoking discussion in class:

Esp. memorable discussions so far on the chapters on sperm by Lisa Jean Moore and Helene Goldberg, which I prefaced with short "conversation starter" videos from YouTube. One is a 30-second TV commercial for a Belgian bank. (BTW, this might pair well also with Emily Martin's classic article on the romance of the egg and sperm.) The other is a 2-minute video of animation spliced together from Spike Lee's film "She Hate Me." I have not seen the film, but you get the gist from the clips, which play on the ideas that Moore discusses.

Also, an at times raucous discussion on the chapter by Laury Oaks on the male pill, esp. whether or not female students in my class trusted males to remember to take it! The readings and discussion on semen, sperm and the male pill followed readings and discussion of menstruation and the (female) pill, including menstrual suppression. So, I showed a PBS American Experience documentary on "The Pill" to preface discussion on Oaks and the male pill. It helped bring out discussion on how birth control can be experienced as a burden, a theme that other chapters in Reconceiving the Second Sex also explore.

Another terrific piece to read and discuss (not in Reconceiving the Second Sex) is Linda Layne's "The Home Pregnancy Test: A Feminist Technology?" Again, students had a lot to say, in part b/c they felt they really had not been esp. well informed. I showed two 30-second TV commercials from YouTube, one for EPT that featured a couple confessing their anxieties and hopes as reasons for wanting to know the results early (BTW, this commercial became lampooned on "Saturday Night Live") and a humorous one for a digital test ("the most sophisticated technology you will ever pee on") that we debated about who is the intended audience / market.

Hope that helps :) Curious to learn about other experiences with teaching anthropology of reproduction!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


OK, sooner or later, I will need to write that Kate Clancy a fan letter - I confess that I have not commented on her blog due to the fact that I would need to register as a user on Scientific American and it just seemed like a hassle - but I wanted to bring this to the attention of anyone who might be reading my blog and not already reading hers. Check out this post, "What Does It Mean to Do the Right Thing?"

As an aside, I want to say to Kate Clancy that I agree with her decision to continue blogging at SA (for now) and calling foul on what else might be published over there that is unscientific, sexist, racist, and just plain wrong.

I also agree with the commenter who noted that the person who should be leaving SA's blog is not her. I feel like I have seen or else have heard of this happening too many times - that is, the principled person takes a stand that in the end has no consequence for the transgressor and no impact on the institution, which continues to back the transgressor. This is not the fault of the principled person. This is the failing of the rest of us, who need to have her back!


I know that someone somewhere already has said something a lot smarter and more meaningful than what I will tap here about this, but is it not kind of interesting and cool the way in which the word / concept "occupy" has become re-occupied? Part of what is so brash about "Occupy Wall Street" is that it turns on head who is (supposed to be) occupying whom. That is, Wall Street is / has been the occupying power. At a PTO meeting at my daughter's elementary school a few weeks back - where we were discussing the possibility that our city's neighborhood schools might become reorganized in order to cut costs (e.g., closing a building, laying off staff) - I joked about a need for an Occupy Our Schools movement.

I was only half joking...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What counts (in tenure)?

I seem to have re-caught the cold from which I was recovering, so I walked around the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association - this last week / end in Montreal - rasping like an aging chanteuse who had loved her Gitanes a bit much.

My blog posts were put on hold for the last couple of weeks as I continued to prep classes and grade piles of papers and exams and in the wee hours after kiddos were put to bed, finished my conference paper then continued to edit it, right until the morning of my panel. Such is the academic parent's life.

Being at the meetings got me thinking again about a concern that is never far from my mind, which is what it means to be an academic parent or parenting academic, and in particular a female parenting academic.

A few weeks back, I posted a few musings inspired by biological anthropologist and blogger Kate Clancy on being a radical scholar. I stand by my musings with even stronger conviction today. At the meetings, friends were telling me about the pressure to publish or perish in their departments - and by publish, they mean specifically peer-reviewed journal articles. Not even chapters in edited books count for much. Much less contributing to a policy paper or testifying as an expert witness or blogging or organizing and presenting a paper at a well received and well attended panel at the annual meetings.

There are more than a few points to rant, like:

* It was noted at the business meeting of the Association for Feminist Anthropology that even while we all recognize changes in the structures of the academic publishing - with presses scaling back their operations - the expectations for tenure, especially at research institutions, have been slow to change. Undoubtedly, the expectations for tenure will need to change, but unfortunately, the female junior faculty whom I know fear falling into the gap. (I imagine that this is true for male junior faculty also, but for the moment, I am concerned with the challenges facing my female colleagues in particular.)

* Feminism has forced changes in institutional ideas and practices that now enable women to come into the academy, including women like myself and my female colleagues who work on issues such as reproduction - not because they are women's issues, but because they are also everyone's issues. It is clear that the institutions themselves are failing us. Note that I blame not feminism, but the institutions themselves. There continues to be both a bias against studying so-called women's issues and a misperception of issues like reproduction as not a men's issue.

* I have to ask, what is the point of peer review exactly? Ostensibly, it has something to do with validating the quality of the work that is being published, and that might be even more important in the age of "going viral." (On a related, but tangential point, here are a few considerations about the challenges that surround alternative forms of review, such as attempts at "crowd-sourcing" peer review, at the New York Times and at AAA's blog.) So, perhaps my rant is not so much about peer review - I recognize that there ought to be a process of some sort to check our claims and evidence - but about the particular kinds of venues (e.g., journals, but not edited books) and activities that count for tenure.

On a related note, I just read this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about anthropology professors who (gasp!) love to teach undergraduates. Of course, at a so-called teaching college like the one where I teach, the challenge is more to convince administrators and staff (and sometimes even other faculty) that research contributes directly to teaching.

In short, I find frustrating the reductionist thinking about what counts in a scholarly career.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Keeping up with The Times: The "app gap"

I logged on to blog and what do you know?! I never posted this little screed on the "app gap." Give a hint of what a terrific couple of weeks it has been here in the land of 2 academic careers + 2 kiddos = 2 much 2 handle.


At the moment, I am standing at the corner of Conference Paper Hell and Grading Nightmare, but of course, I have had my attention diverted.

StraightMan tells me last night that I ought to blog about this article in the NYT: "Screen Time Higher Than Ever For Toddlers." The article reports on a new study from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ longstanding recommendations to the contrary, children under 8 are spending more time than ever in front of screens, according to a study scheduled for release Tuesday.

The report also documents for the first time an emerging “app gap” in which affluent children are likely to use mobile educational games while those in low-income families are the most likely to have televisions in their bedrooms.

The article then goes on to quote a survey researcher who notes that "parents increasingly are handing their iPhones to their 1 ½-year-old kid as a shut-up toy. And parents who check their e-mail three times on the way to the bus stop are constantly modeling that behavior, so it’s only natural the kids want to use mobile devices too.”

That, to me, is the problem that ought to be the concern here. Instead, the term "app gap" seems to problematize that children from lower income households have unequal (less) access to apps.

The article quotes parents who download apps for their kids, justifying the amount of screen time that they permit:

"I’ll lie to myself that these are skill builders,’” said his father, Keith Lender, who has downloaded dozens of tablet and smart phone apps for Jaden and his 1-year-old brother, Dylan. “No, I’m not lying,” he said, correcting himself. “Jaden’s really learning hand-eye coordination from the golf game, and it beats the hell out of sitting and watching television.”

I find it interesting that this parent both expresses awareness of the criticisms about whether or not screen time is building skills - then repeats the claim about hand-eye coordination that has floated in public discourse since every 6th grader I knew (except me) had an Atari game system at home. In a moment of resignation, he remarks that at least he is not letting his kids watch television. Which BTW the AAP reports is the dominant medium in lower income households.

I leave open the possibility that screen time involving apps might be qualitatively "better" than TV, but you will need to convince me. (Dadgumit, I am a scientist!)

Look, even the nation's chief technologists are not convinced, as the NYT also reported, in an article on the Silicon Valley school of choice - a Waldorf school (!):

The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom school here. So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard.

But the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home.

iPad as a form of class warfare? You decide.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A child's "Europe and the People without History"

How it warms a parenthropologist's heart when this is the book that her daughter has chosen to borrow from the school library!

(The book is The European Invasion.)

Last week, Beanie borrowed a book on the Mohawk, and the week before, books on the Iroquois and the Blackfoot. They are well written and well researched, with historical illustrations and photographs of material culture. They demonstrate that history need not be - indeed, should not be - portrayed to school-aged kids as (only) a series of holiday cartoons. Nor is about simply turning the tables (e.g., Indians good, Europeans bad). We can and ought to teach our kids from an early age to see people, our beliefs, and the consequences of our actions as complicated. It is the complexity of our stories that make our stories (and us) so interesting in the first place.

So, I am so impressed that our school library has books like these. Hooray for our school library!

Beanie only read about 6 or 7 pages in each of the books, which in terms of reading difficulty prob'ly are more appropriate for a 6th or 7th grader. Then she turned her attention back to other books that she is reading at home like The Sisters Grimm series, which BTW is why she has been monopolizing my kindle, or the other night at bedtime, Go, Dog, Go. This is fine with me. I like that she both tries, even persists at reading books that are rather challenging, and still likes to read her favorites.

While StraightMan and I both read with / to her, Beanie prefers to read her library books on her own. So, we are not sure how much she actually comprehends in a book like The European Invasion. However, when we asked the other night what she might want us to help her understand, her question was about smallpox and measles. (More particularly, she wanted to know whether or not she could get sick with them. Beanie, you should know, tends toward hypochondria...) So, we figure that she comprehends enough. I take this as a good reminder that as important as it is for StraightMan and I, as parents, to "check" on Beanie and offer guidance on what she is reading and learning, it is also worth letting her have the freedom to find her own challenges: She will understand what she can understand, and hopefully she always knows that she has two parents who love to talk about subjects like, well, European invasion...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Why being an anthropologist just might matter

What I hope I can teach my students as an anthropologist, and my children as their parent:

“We can make the world less unjust; we can make it more beautiful; we can increase our cognition of it” - Immanuel Wallerstein, quoted in "Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism: A Four-Field Manifesto."

Disclaimer: The author of the blog Living Anthropologically is my spouse, but he also happens to be brilliant and apparently born to be a pamphleteer.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Tackling Infant Mortality Rates": A response

B/c my daughter has been monopolizing my kindle, I did not read this NYT article from Saturday, Tackling Infant Mortality Rates Among Blacks, until I read Denene Milner's impassioned critique of it this morning - "Tackling Infant Mortality Rates—Without Stereotyping Black Mothers" - on her blog, My Brown Baby.

The NYT reports on a serious problem that is not unfamiliar to me as an anthropologist, but that receives not enough public attention and frankly (I think) not enough outrage: In America, the babies of black women die at twice the rate of the babies of white women. The article also describes efforts (in Pittsburgh) to address what public health officials call a "differential" or a "disparity" in the rates of infant mortality.

Echoing the perspective of critical medical anthropologists like Merrill Singer, I think it ought to be called "inequality":

While the term "health disparities" references differences in health across groups, the term "health inequalities" points, as well, to underlying structural causes in disease distribution, namely, that social inequalities produce health inequalities (Singer and Baer 2007:152).

The higher rate of infant mortality has been observed for all black women, regardless of their income, education, access to prenatal care, and so on.

Denene Milner responds to the portrayal of a particular pregnant black woman in the article, who comes to stand for all pregnant black women:

Witness the subject the Times story highlights: A poor, uneducated, 20-year-old pregnant black woman from Pittsburgh who the reporter suggests had to be talked into actually wanting her baby, and has so little self-control or pre-natal intellect that she’s spent the last seven months gorging on chips, soda, tacos and her “mama’s cooking,” gaining 50 unhealthy pounds that could put her baby at risk. Her baby has a chance of surviving only because of Healthy Start, a nonprofit group that, despite scant federal and absolutely no local financial support, manages to give in-home pre-natal care to moms-to-be who qualify for and need their services.

The piece makes the story of that mom-to-be all of our stories—puts the black infant mortality onus squarely on our shoulders by suggesting if we planned our pregnancies, ate better and were smart enough to seek out and follow up with quality health care, our babies would live.

This is pretty awful, but also, unfortunately, not surprising. A favorite rant that I like to go on in my medical anthropology class is that introducing the concept of "lifestyle" was possibly one of the worst mistakes for public health b/c it deflected attention from political, economic, and social concerns and shifted responsibility entirely to individuals making "bad" choices. "Lifestyle," esp. when crossed with class and race and gender, produces some ugly stories.

Not to mention that I find myself reminding my students at least two or three times in a semester of medical anthropology and anthropology of reproduction that almost half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended - with higher rates of unintended pregnancy among younger women and women of color, which itself is another sign of another disparity / inequality.

I agree with Milner's point also that there is a missed opportunity in the NYT article, which itself reports:

Recent studies have shown that poverty, education, access to prenatal care, smoking and even low birth weight do not alone explain the racial gap in infant mortality, and that even black women with graduate degrees are more likely to lose a child in its first year than are white women who did not finish high school. Research is now focusing on stress as a factor and whether black women have shorter birth canals.

The point about stress, I will return to in a moment. First, to address the suggestion that black women might have shorter birth canals - I was not aware previously of any research along these lines, but as an anthropologist, I felt more than a twinge of nervousness reading this in the NYT, especially with no further explanation offered. So, on the one hand, my nervousness arises from the awareness that race historically has been and continues to be biologized - and that science, including anthropology, has been used to legitimize reductionist understandings about race-as-biology. (In the PBS documentary series, "Race: The Power of an Illusion," which I use in introductory anthropology classes, there is a discussion of the ways in which there has been hardly an anatomical feature that has not been examined - from brow to brain to heart and so forth - in search of the "essential" difference between black and white races.)

On the other hand, there might in fact be a legitimate question to ask about the biological variation that is exhibited across all humans. As my colleagues in biological anthropology emphasize, humans exhibit biological variation that ought to be viewed as a continuum, not as either / or. The classic example is skin color, which differs in gradation from darker to lighter, not either dark or light, and which we recognize as variable even within a given cluster or group of individuals.

From the perspective of medical anthropology, there should be no doubt that social conditions produce health and sickness. A social condition we ought to be taking far more seriously is racism itself (and the stress it causes) and the effects of it has on biology. This video clip, "How Racism Impacts Pregnancy Outcomes," from the PBS documentary series, "Unnatural Causes," explains.

The NYT article and Denene Milner's response also make me think about the interventions that anthropologists in particular might make. Clarence Gravlee published a piece that I encourage anyone teaching the concept of race to read (and assign) - "How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality." In it, Gravlee challenges scientists (esp. anthropologists) "to explain how race becomes biology. Our response to this challenge must deal with with two senses in which race becomes biology: Systemic racism becomes embodied in the biology of racialized groups and individuals, and embodied inequalities reinforce a racialized understanding of human biology" (Gravlee 2009:54).

The fact that in America, the babies of black women die at twice the rate of the babies of white women ought to impress upon us that the social practices and ideas that we call racism have biological consequences.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Oh so radical me

Long story short, I have been picking up the pieces that I dropped during the final push of finishing the revisions on my book MS (which is back to the editors now - woo hoo).

Unfortunately, in picking up those pieces, I dropped still others, like my blog. Sigh.

I am musing while I wait for the printer to spit out copies of two chapters from my book MS (how I love that phrase... like, did I mention I have completed a book MS?) and my CV b/c I putting together a packet to mail to a mentor / adviser who has agreed to write a letter on my behalf as I will be applying for tenure in January. Difficult as it is for me to believe.

I am musing about a recent post by anthropologist / blogger Kate Clancy, "The three things I learned at the Purdue Conference for Pre-Tenure Women: on being a radical scholar."

I will not dwell on how eerily much the recapped conversations between Clancy and her husband sound like the ones that StraightMan and I regularly have ("About how we can’t compete against people with kids but a stay at home spouse, about how we can’t compete against our peers without kids at all.")

Instead, I will write a bit more hopefully and optimistically about the three points that Clancy makes:

1. Bring your whole self to your job.
2. Have a plan.
3. Be a radical.

Bringing your whole self means not hiding parts of who you are to fit into the role of an academic whose interests fall in line with what (you might think) you ought to do.

Having a plan, Clancy describes, is the difference between the Plan A academic who "says yes to most things because she is directionless and is trying to meet expectations" and the Plan B academic who "uses her personal values and interests to define and express her scholarly worth."

Being a radical means: "Be the scholar you think you should be, bringing your whole self to the table, finding your passion and making it your scholarship, and having a plan that will help you become a leader in your field."

To which I say amen, sister - and add: Where you might want to be, radical scholar, is at a college committed to undergraduate education.

It is true that you will hear StraightMan and I grousing about how little time we have to commit to our research and writing, and how little understanding even some of our co-workers on campus exhibit about what it is, exactly, that professors do: We have summers "off" from teaching, not from the rest of the enterprise of practicing anthropology. Not to mention how resources like time and money (and respect) beget still more resources: Research universities produce research faculty. Too often, StraightMan and I feel that we continue our scholarship despite our positions as college professors.

Yet, in other ways, working as anthropologists at so-called teaching colleges enriches our scholarship. Look, it is true that the research expectations at our respective institutions are not nearly as demanding as they are for our friends and colleagues at research universities. That does not mean we are any less capable of conducting research of the same caliber. (In fact, StraightMan and I both have the privilege of working with colleagues who turn heads in their fields of study.) I am not even convinced that everyone I know at R1 is even that much more productive, when you compare the "input" of time and resources and at R1 versus teaching colleges.

Working at teaching colleges has freed us from the pressure that can drive pre-tenure faculty to undertake research that is calculated to earn them tenure. We pursue the projects that we truly consider meaningful. I believe this is true also of our colleagues. More important, I think our experiences - StraightMan at a small, private liberal arts college and mine at a mid-sized, public comprehensive college - belie the assumption that there is such an important divide between teaching and scholarship - and the rest of our lives.

I teach courses in cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, medical anthropology, and the anthropology of reproduction. My research has had to do with making and raising babies. I want my students to know that I consider the questions that I ask to be important and necessary not only as a teacher and scholar, but also as a woman and a mother.

If that makes me a radical, then that is OK with me :)

Friday, September 30, 2011

Now that is what I call olde school...

The story I am about to tell will give you the wrong impression of us as a high-brow and literary family. Just remember, we are all about Disney Pixar...

However, this week, Beanie received a somewhat unusual gift for a 7-year-old from a friend of the family: Her own two-volume set of Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queene." It is a beautiful set - the Everyman's Library edition - in like-new condition, but with the old scent of a library wafting off its pages.

I believe I read, as a college undergraduate, a portion of Spenser from my Norton's Anthology, but it failed to leave a lasting impression on me. So, I admit that I looked a bit skeptically at the books, as lovely as they are. To be honest, I just like holding the books and turning the pages and smelling the librariness of them - and though I have not asked her, I think Beanie does, too. She not only likes to read, she likes books. Take that, amazon...

StraightMan and I have read a few verses aloud with her - I know that we failed to do justice to the Elizabethan English - and I am surprised at how we have been enjoying it.

(Of course, part of me inwardly groans at the notion that Beanie will become obsessed with Elizabethan literature, eventually writing her PhD on Spenser and the making of the modern English imaginary, then spending her days teaching composition to college students who will be unable to grip pens in their hands b/c they have evolved agile and elongated thumbs for texting. However, I digress.)

Beanie esp. liked the image of "a Dwarfe did lag, / That lasie seemd, in being ever last." "What does that mean?" she asked. I told her to imagine taking a walk with her brother and how much further and further behind he falls as we walk.

She objected to the characterization of "a Dragon horrible and stearne." "Well, actually," Beanie said, rather authoritatively, "dragons can be quite nice."

A Dwarf and a Dragon, not to mention a Knight and a Ladie?! I find myself being drawn into the story.

So, that is my message for today: Read something olde school with your kids!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Keeping up with the Times

I confess that the thought of an entire conference of college admissions counselors sitting around completely having it handed to them by a group of high school seniors and college freshmen made me laugh:

Mystified counselors sought clarification.

“You don’t want us to text you?” one asked in disbelief.

A 12th grader replied, “If you’re going to use the phone, taking the time to call is a lot better, a lot more personal.”

Another university representative asked when might be the best time to call.

“Outside of school hours, because there’s not very good service at my school,” the student replied. “Also because I want to be sure I’ll be able to answer.”

OK, completely having it handed to them might be a bit of an overstatement, but so is the line about youth today being the digital generation who can hardly make a move without technology. I bet not only would high schoolers today prefer a phone call, but they also would treasure (gasp!) a hand-signed letter of acceptance on the letterhead of their college of choice. *

(BTW, when I ask my students who keeps texting them during class, they tell me it is usually their mothers - and I believe them.)


* Especially if / when the director of admissions signs in the school's color (purple) and adds a smiley face and a comment like "I'm glad!" My 20th class reunion will be held in 2012, and I still my college acceptance letter in a file in my attic.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


So, to follow up on my last post about what student are or more particularly what they are not bringing to school:


When we talk about what schools fail at teaching kids today, the focus tends to be on teachers and / or parents. As in, what are parents doing or not doing to raise their kids right?

Susan Engel, a psychologist at Williams College whose op-ed pieces in the NYT I have found to be thoughtful defenses of kids and parents (and playing!), has a book that I plan to purchase at my local independent bookstore: Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become. (How I like to see academics writing popular books!)

The point of the book is to look at the science and distinguish between what can and cannot be changed about kids. "It's unlikely that any parents, however loving or involved, can fundamentally change whether a child is dreamy or driven, shy or gregarious, optimistic or anxious," writer Ali Benjamin explains in her profile of Engel, which appears in the September 2011 issue of the Williams Alumni Review. "Nor can a parent influence whether a child has a temper or calm demeanor, what captures his interest or even her basic IQ."

Curiosity, however, is an attribute that Engel suggests can be influenced. "When kids want to know the answer, they learn the material more deeply, they remember the answer longer, and they can do more with the information," Engel tells the Alumni Review.

Here is what caught my attention:

Research shows that at home a preschooler will ask an average of 25 to 50 questions each hour. But several years ago, when Engel and her students recorded the day-to-day activities in area kindergarten and fifth-grade classrooms, they found a significant drop in the number of questions asked. An entire class of 22 kindergarteners might ask only two per hour. By fifth grade, several hours might pass before a single question is raised.

Engel discussed how this resarch her own observations indicate "there's so much pressure on teachers to teach lessons that there's not time to deviate and allow kids to follow their hunches."

It is not all bad news. Engel describes how teachers themselves can be encouraged to encourage curiosity: "Teachers who were told the goal was to 'help the student learn about science' encouraged student inquiry and exploration significantly more than teachers who were told the goal was to 'help a student finish a worksheet.'"

It is true that as a college professor, I sometimes find myself astounded and frustrated by the lack of curiosity that too many students in my classes exhibit. Unless it is a question that will be asked on the exam, too many seem utterly apathetic about knowing anything. (I also hear students express their frustration with other students who in their opinion are not taking advantage of being in college. So, the incuriosity is notable.)

If Engel is correct about encouraging curiosity, then testing students and assessing teachers actually works against learning and there should be a lot less learning for / teaching to the test.

What are the ways that parents might encourage curiosity? It might be not about enrolling them in enrichment activities or constructing perfect parent-child teaching moments and continuing to up the ante on parenting.

As I read excerpts from the Engel profile aloud to StraightMan this morning as he shaved, benignly neglecting Bubbie who was loading his toy cars into the seat of his ride-on scooter (I have no idea why...), Beanie called from the other room (where she was sprawled on the floor with colored markers and a ripped T-shirt that she was decorating as a banner for Christmas - never too early to start, I guess...): "What is psychology? Do I ask a lot of questions? So, is it good to ask a lot of questions? Why are you not answering me?"


For those of us who might have been hoping that I was referring in my title to a certain Norwegian pop group of the 1980s.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why texts, not textbooks

From today's Science Times profile of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins:

“I didn’t have a very starry school career,” he says. “I was medium to above average, nothing special.”

He lighted his own intellectual fire at a university peculiarly suited to his temperament. Oxford relies on the tutorial system, in which students burrow into original texts rather than textbooks.

“I loved it; I become easily temporarily obsessed,” Professor Dawkins says. “I did not end up as broadly educated as my Cambridge colleagues, but I graduated probably better equipped to write a book on my chosen subject.”

(From that experience he drew a dislike of the current establishment insistence — bordering on mania — for standardized tests and curriculums. He views this as antithetical to true learning.)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

I've said too much / I haven't said enough

From a review of philosopher Charles Taylor's Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays, published in the August 29 / September 5 issue of The Nation:

Sometimes, Taylor is the kind of writer so fearful of simplifying a complex truth, or flattening out nuances, that he runs out of space (or courage or stamina) just when he seems about to say what he is trying to say.

Sound familiar, my fellow professors of the liberal arts?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

At your "service"

Given that I am applying for tenure this winter, I prob'ly should just keep my trap shut about this, but then StraightMan starts talking about this new book that has him in high dudgeon - Randy Martin’s Under New Management: Universities, Administrative Labor, and the Professional Turn.

In particular, he reads me this passage, from an interview with Randy Martin that appeared in Inside Higher Ed - on the meaning of academic "service":

Indeed, service has a connotation of voluntary or unpaid work, which associates it with the raced and gendered divisions of labor on many campuses–those who serve the academic mission, from clerical staff to food and maintenance workers. Service as a category of labor is also connected to unpaid domestic work and slavery. Devaluing service not only makes it easier to take for granted all these jobs that allow campuses to operate, but also takes attention away from the increasing administrative work that faculty are asked to do and the growing purview of decision-making claimed by senior administrators — whose own work is becoming more generously compensated. Academic freedom, doubtless a value that cannot be taken for granted, pertains to faculty governance, a domain that is being eclipsed by university governance over which administration holds sway, especially when it comes to priorities in collecting and disbursing funds or investments. Faculty will be well-served to recast service as administrative labor, both to give value to an increasingly consequential aspect of their academic lives, but also to come to recognize the knowledge they possess as to how to run the institutions of which they are a part.


Until I started teaching six years ago, I had never even heard the term "service" before - I know that in graduate school, I heard professors grumble about meetings and committee work, but I never heard it discussed as I do now. On my campus, there are faculty members who seem to think one cannot do enough service and that it, along with teaching, should be all that counts toward tenure - and then there are others who think there is already much too much demand for faculty to do service (and that there are clearly individuals flouting their obligations and placing the burdens on their untenured colleagues). Which always has caused me to wonder what exactly everyone means when they talk about "service" in the first place. Do the former just love meetings and committee work that much? Do the latter simply tell their students to piss off?

The distinction that Martin makes between faculty governance and administrative labor helps me make a bit better sense of what I see around me. When the service that you do is the work of faculty governance, it is meritorious and rewarding. However, when it is indeed administrative labor - here, I am thinking particularly about the development of academic program assessment that is phrased as created by and for faculty, but comes clearly as a managerial mandate on campuses across the nation - it is work for which you are uncompensated.

You feel even that your work as a professor is being held hostage by "service."

Yet, the administrative labor being absorbed by faculty as service could and should itself be work that a support staff could perform (even more ably than faculty) for pay. There is plenty of work to be done, and there are workers out there looking for it.

Because I do not want for my son to live in a pineapple under the sea

As the parent of a 4 year old boy, I am confident that the answer to this question just has to be yes.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Protecting children and childhood?

Earlier today, I shared this post from Free Range Kids - "Five Freedoms I Had that My Daughter Won't" - on Facebook.

Like the blogger, I am inclined to think that kids today need more free time and unstructured play than they seem to be allowed - I favor more (not less) recess at school.

I admire the work of organizations like KaBoom!, a national non-profit organization with the mission of building "a place to play within walking distance of every child in America."

A mission like this recognizes that the kinds of childhood experiences that adults (like myself) wish to protect and promote are (and were), in fact, not accessible to all children.

For each of us who thinks back on the freedoms we had as children, I wonder how many other adults remembers not feeling especially free as children. There might be good reasons why some parents think they are taking better care of their children than they were.

So, in a way, I am critical of the idea that we ought to be protecting children and childhood. Clearly, this is not just about children and childhood. Plus, we run at risk of further romanticizing childhood in ways that I think ultimately undermine a concept of children as themselves agents of culture and society. Which I think is what it ultimately means to respect children and childhood.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The girls, they just want to have fun!

After teaching Anthropology of Reproduction at 12noon, I sat down with my Kashi Pesto Pasta Primavera for lunch and read this article on the NYT: "Nursing Bras That Show Mothers in More Than ‘Work Mode’."

On the one hand, I am all for recognizing the woman in the mother and letting the girls get dressed up. Why should nursing bras be unattractive and otherwise unappealing to wear?

On the other hand, I find statements like this a tad irritating:

“As soon as you have the baby, nobody looks at you anymore,” Ms. Dimond said. “This is to treat yourself.”

I wish that the woman in the mother did not place quite so much significance in being looked at.

Even more troubling is this statement:

“Another driver is the rapid growth in size, influence and power of online mommy culture.”

As a parenthropologist, I could go on and on about the referencing of "mommy" and "culture," but the point that I wish to make is about commodification. To a certain extent, breastfeeding can be said to exist "outside" market economics (or at least is constructed to be free and "pure" of all that, which itself can have consequences both positive and negative for women who "succeed" or "fail" to breastfeed...) The making of a new market of glam and sexy nursing bras appears to me an attempt to commercialize what previously had been apparently uncommercializable. You cannot sell or buy the milk itself, but you can produce and consume commercial goods that accompany breastfeeding. You can make a commodity of the experience of breastfeeding.

It is true that women's breasts themselves long have been fetishized and commodified. The fact that lactating women's breasts, too, now are subject to it all... Is this really progress?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Quote, unquote

Today, two on technology, both quoted in Janelle S. Taylor, The Public Life of the Fetal Sonogram (2008):

[Technology] seems "thinglike" when we point to specific objects or techniques as its most visible manifestations, but the discursive power of technology as a term is in large measure attributable to its vague, intangible, indeterminate character - the fact that it does not refer to anything as specific or tangible as a tool or a machine.

-- Leo Marx, "Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept" (1997)

Those who advocate a new technique are liable to suffer from a strange condition called certainty.

-- Ann Oakley, Essays on Women, Medicine and Health (1993)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Keeping up with the Times

With the college semester starting this Wednesday, and Beanie starting the 2nd grade in two weeks, I found these two op / ed pieces worth a gander:

"The Hidden Costs of Higher Education"
notes that payment plans intended to help middle-class families afford tuition - paying by the month instead of by the semester, and by credit card instead of by check - end up costing them more:

Struggling families often face rough patches during which they don’t have enough cash on hand to make such payments, and so have to go to their credit cards — and pay the fees. Meanwhile, wealthy families that can afford to simply write a check upfront each month avoid both credit card fees and interest payments.

To be fair, monthly payment plans intend to help lower-income families afford college. But they have also had the unintentional consequence of creating bonuses for the wealthy and added impediments to the less well-off.

"The Kids Are not All Right" describes childhood in crisis today. Being the jaundiced parenthropologist that I am, I admit to approaching claims of "crisis" a bit wearily and warily, esp. when the usual suspects of Big Bad Business become paraded. Not that I am an apologist for BBB. What I found most interesting in the piece is this little bit of legal history:

By the middle of the century, childhood was a robustly protected legal category. In 1959, the United Nations issued its Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Children were now legal persons; the “best interests of the child” became a touchstone for legal reform.

But the 20th century also witnessed another momentous shift, one that would ultimately threaten the welfare of children: the rise of the for-profit corporation. Lawyers, policy makers and business lobbied successfully for various rights and entitlements traditionally connected, legally, with personhood. New laws recognized corporations as legal — albeit artificial — “persons,” granting them many of the same legal rights and privileges as human beings. In an eerie parallel with the child-protective efforts, “the best interests of the corporation” was soon introduced as a legal precept.

Children and corporations both being ascribed personhood at around the same time, using similar metaphors and images? It seems like not small coincidence - and that, I think, is far more fascinating and frightening.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Summer slacking

Logging back on after a few weeks off during a summer when I tried better to balance fun with work. As a friend posted on FB a few weeks back, I wish I had done both more and less of everything! However, as my semester starts on Wednesday, I feel like I will not be entirely play-acting when I smile and give that Tony-the-Tiger "just grrreat!" whenever anyone asks about my summer.

Obviously, I will be play-acting that I am a 1970s cartoon cereal monger.

I am thinking about summer slacking b/c this am, as I slipped back into my running clothes and took a nano-run around my parents' block, I passed a shiny black Honda CRV, which seems to be the favorite drive of well-heeled suburban mothers, bearing the following bumper sticker:

"Proud parent of an accelerated reader."

I am looking now for the sticker that reads: "My child poops in the potty."

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Nipping ethnocentrism in the bud

As I drop off Beanie at her day camp, a girl she knows from school detaches herself from a small group of kids playing with Legos, walks up, and asks, "Where were you born?"

"In Michigan," Beanie says proudly. She loves the stories that I tell her about "when she was a baby," and being born in Michigan is significant.

"Oh," the girl says. "We thought you were born in China."

Beanie seems either not to know what to say or just plain not to care. Her attention has been diverted to the table where a group of girls is drawing "Stay Out" signs. (She has been making them for her bedroom door.) I, however, feel mildly provoked. What does it mean that they thought she was born in China? There is a child in the group who had been adopted from abroad. Is this an attempt to make a connection? At least one other child in the group is biracial / bicultural. Is this just the kids trying to make sense of seeing Beanie with her Asian mother?

So, as casually as I can, I laugh and say, "Well, my parents were born in Korea. So, it would have been unlikely for Beanie to be born in China."


When I pick up Beanie from her day camp, another little girl - not the one from this morning - asks me, "Are you Chinese?"

What is with the questions about China today? Still, I manage a smile and look at her. "No," I say. "Are you?"

She looks surprised. "No. I'm not Chinese. I'm normal."

"Well, I'm not Chinese, but being Chinese is normal, too."


For the most part, Beanie has been sheltered from questions about what she is. Until now. I think that is what has me feeling a bit discouraged and to be honest, sad for her. I spent a good deal of my childhood having to explain what I was to other kids. It gets tiring and discouraging.

Nipping ethnocentrism in the bud is a job that is just too big for me or for Beanie or for the only non-white kid in a classroom, family in the neighborhood, or colleague in the workplace.

I want to remind the parents who might be reading this that we need to be mindful ourselves about the way that we talk about difference.

I am not against noticing difference, but I am against noting it in a way that casts difference as not normal. That little girl's question might be rooted in curiosity, but her response about being "normal" speaks volumes to me about a curiosity that is shaped by a particular cultural, social, political, and economic context. It is a curiosity that divides her from Beanie and me.

In contrast, I think about the power to connect that questions about who or what you are also can have. This is what manners help us do. We can forgive children for their imperfect attempts at politeness, and show them how to do better next time: This is what it means to be a civil society.

Monday, August 1, 2011

My summer of state parks

In future, I will look back upon 2011 as the year that I became enamored of the State Park - and if I am not quite a convert from ocean beaches to lakes, then at least I have learned to appreciate the gentler joys of freshwater swimming.

On weekends, we have been taking the kids to Gilbert Lake State Park for swimming and playing in the dirt.

Last week, my sister and I spent a few days in Saratoga Springs on our inaugural sisters-only vacation :) We spent time walking and bathing in Saratoga Spa State Park, aka "The Public's Resort."

This past weekend, we all went to Glimmerglass State Park.

Our family's enjoyment of the parks has reminded me not only how much good it does us to enjoy water, sun, air, and earth, but also how much good We the People can do for ourselves. While walking the Hall of Springs at Saratoga Spa State Park, my sister and I noted that the buildings were constructed in 1934. If it was possible to build and even more significant to see the point of building "the public's resort" during the Great Depression, then surely we can summon the hope and imagination to build even better now - or at least not tear down what we already have.

The state parks brought to mind what my parents, who immigrated from South Korea, had said about Americans as being grandly generous.

For a $7 vehicle entry fee, you can have the run of a freshwater lake surrounded by wooded hills, with picnic tables and playgrounds (not to mention clean restrooms and a place to shower and change).

Rest and play and enjoyment ought not be reserved for individuals who can pay a premium or fly off-shore to find them. Places of rest and play and enjoyment in nature exist all around us. I am thinking that In These Economic Times, we need to fight for our right to swim and make mud pies.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Letting kids fall

This post is an apology to my husband, StraightMan. The man who took our then just-able-to-walk toddler to the top of a rather steep slide at the elementary school that I had attended in northern NJ, and released her with the words: "Let's just see what happens."

Her eyes widened as her body gathered momentum and crossed the high untrespassed sanctity of space, hands touching the face of God, then landed on her diapered bottom in the wood chips spread across the ground. I rushed over to Beanie, who sat stunned, and checked for signs of damage. (There were none.) StraightMan, to my recollection, just laughed.

I admit it: I was a scold, and I still am, but less so. I have learned. At least a little bit. StraightMan insists that kids hurt themselves only when we are watching them play. It is true when Beanie or Bubbie has become bumped or bloodied, it is usually when StraightMan is standing right there, at an arm's length or so. Now, another parent might regard this as evidence of StraightMan's supervisory skills or lack thereof - I know I have - but who among us has not had kids fall down and bang into each other, etc. on our own watch?

Also, it turns out that StraightMan might have science on his side, as science writer John Tierney reports in the NYT today. It reports that there is a downside to making playgrounds too "safe," removing tall slides and climbers and so on:

“Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run,” Dr. Sandseter said. “Children approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner, and very few children would try to climb to the highest point for the first time they climb. The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.”

Sometimes, of course, their mastery fails, and falls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally. While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.

By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.

There is joy and triumph on Bubbie's face as he comes careening down the tongue slide (which you ride with your legs straddling either side of the slide, not with your legs in front). It is not that he knows no fear. Possibly the slide would be not that exciting without a little bit of trepidation. Yet, he takes whatever fear he might have into his own hands and manages it with his own efforts.

These days, I work hard not to hover and to squash what I realize are my fears. I guess I should have spent a little more time on the monkey bars myself :)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Walk around the block

A few weeks back, Beanie asked me: "Mommy, can I take a walk around the block?" As I gathered myself off the couch to go with her, she added: "By myself."

Unhesitating, I told her no. Yet, I also felt a tingle. Not of pride exactly, but a good feeling about her wish to act independently and her confidence and comfort with both who she is and where she is.

"Why not?"

B/c, I told her, the driveways along the block can be busy at 4pm, and "around the block" is a much longer distance than you think when you walk it alone, and you are only 7 years old, so I think you are a bit young to be on your own.

"When will I be old enough?"

We will have to see, I said.

I have thinking about this conversation as I have read the news coverage about Leiby Kletzky, which has spun quickly into attempts to draw the lesson of the story. Is it that parents need to keep a closer eye on their children? Or that horrors like this still remain the exception, not the rule?

It is hard not see that a young child is vulnerable in a way that an adult is not. (Also, that not all adults are equally vulnerable or invulnerable.) So far, the reporting seems to suggest that the man who took Leiby Kletzky was not necessarily a "predator" actively seeking children, but someone taking advantage of a situation that had presented itself.

What happened to the boy speaks to every fear I have as a parent, including the fear that I might make a mistake which brings harm to my child. No doubt Leiby Kletzky's parents regret their decision to allow their 8-year-old son to walk home by himself, but I am not convinced that they made a mistake.

I am not sure what lesson there is to learn.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Keeping up with The Times

If you have been following the coverage on Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his sudden reversals of fortune, then this op-ed piece, written by an anthropologist who has lived and worked in west Africa, is worth reading.

When I first heard that there were questions about the "credibility" of the woman who had accused DSK, my thoughts flew wildly to the conspiracy theories that had been floated among DSK's defenders. Could they have been right? Was it entrapment?

Then I read what the woman had done: Told a story that would enable her to gain asylum. Claimed on her tax returns a dependent who was not her child. Apparently allowed a boyfriend of questionable character to open bank accounts in her name to launder drug money.

They might not be honest actions, but can we not understand and explain them?

I fear that Mike McGovern's point, in his op-ed, will be lost on too many Americans who feel that there are too many immigrants, legal and especially illegal, in "their" country.

Americans have constructed mythologies that justify how and why they arrived on these shores: A taste for freedom, a thirst for democracy. Pluck. Hard work. Sacrifice. We tell stories about the values and characters of individuals, glossing over the larger historical contexts in which persons act.

News coverage suggests that prosecutors are backing off because they feel that the issue of credibility makes the case unwinnable: Because the woman lied on her application for asylum (which enabled her to leave Guinea) and on her tax return (BTW, I want to know how "honest" are the filings of the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and so on), she cannot be believed.

Casting doubt on a woman's virtue, thus casting doubt on the accusation she makes: The time-honored method of ignoring inconvenient truths about men and power.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The country and the city

Blogging has taken a back seat to my priority this summer - which I wish I could say was "fun," but is in fact revising my book manuscript (itself a rewriting of my dissertation on pregnancy as a cultural and social experience in the U.S.) Of course, when the revising goes well (even when slowly), it really feels like fun!

So far, this summer is reminding me why I love my work as an anthropologist - also, why I identify as a professor. The difference between professors and teachers is not just college / university versus K-12. I think professors and teachers share a lot in common. Frankly, professors could learn much from teachers - I also know that I could not do as good a job at teaching 1st grade as Beanie's teacher has. So, I think teachers ought to be valued (and paid more for) the work that they do. Professors and teachers are charged to do different kinds of work.

Teaching is arguably the most important practice of what I do as an anthropologist, but it is not the only practice to which I need (and want) to give my efforts. For me, teaching is an act of translation, bringing ideas and insights from anthropology to individuals who might take no other interest in the discipline, but at least might take the concepts and exercise them in their everyday lives. So, it matters to me that what I teach is anthropology.


Coming down from my soapbox now. The New Yorker published a review essay by Nicholas Lemann of recent books about cities (in the June 27 issue), remarking on the shifts, not so much in numbers of people living in the cities versus the suburbs, but in notions about what our cities and suburbs mean, alternating between "urban crisis" and exile in the suburbs.

Personally, I had thought about my own changing attitudes about cities as related to my own life course: I grew up in the NJ suburbs, vowing to escape one day, which I did, living my 20s in New York. Then I moved to Ann Arbor, a "college town" that I consider an immensely livable city. I now live in what I describe to friends as the "urban center of a rural area" that is not quite a "college town" in the way that Ann Arbor or other more moneyed places are. However, it is a place where even a pair of anthropologists like StraightMan and me are able to do work that we find meaningful and to raise our children comfortably.

So, it is interesting for me to think about how my own experiences might fit into the bigger picture that Lemann describes in his review. For example, I have returned to the city only a handful of times since we moved out, and I always feel a bit "priced out," not just in terms of what it costs to spend the day on the town, but the cha-ching all around:

American cities generally, and New York in particular, have more obviously taken on the economic form of European cities like Paris and London: the city is for the rich (and the poor), and the outer boroughs and many of the suburbs are for the ethic working and middle classes. That complicates the old picture of men in suits and fedoras rushing to make the five-forty express to Scarsdale while the artists and intellectuals stayed behind in Manhattan. Culturally, New York increasingly operates on the farmers'-market model: artists, writers, musicians, and actors can't afford to live in the city center, so they come in only for encounters with the commercial supporters of their work.

Just living in their own private Idaho, I guess.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Catching up with the Times

Wow. My memory of the Carter presidency is hazy (b/c I was, like, 7 years old when he was elected), but I am not alone in saying that I am a fan of Jimmy Carter's post-presidency. For yet another reason why, read this op-ed, "Call off the Global Drug War," published in the NYT on Friday June 17th.

Imagine the kind of person that you have to be in order to be a president who says in a public address: “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.”

Thanks to Living Anthropologically for bringing attention to recent coverage on the failure of the "war on drugs."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

About A Singular Woman

For Father's Day, I treated myself (ha ha) to a copy of Janny Scott's A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother.

It might tell you a bit about the frame of mind I am in, as I am rewriting sections of my own book manuscript, but it strikes me (yet again) that a book as well done as this requires not just the talent and skill of the author, but the conditions (i.e., having time and means, thus liberty) to do the job right!

I am about a third of the way into the book, but I peeked ahead at the upcoming chapters b/c I confess that I am curious about S. Ann Dunham as an anthropologist. She died so young, but for most of her adult life, Dunham worked and lived as an anthropologist. I think Scott might have set out to describe who Dunham was, or at least might have been, to have us understand who Obama is, or might be, but it turns out that Dunham's work and life (in development) was significant in its own right. So, that it seems unfair to think about her only as a mother.

Among the "lessons" that I keep repeating in the courses that I teach, I like to tell students that a difference between other disciplines and anthropology is that in other disciplines, you expect to find the answer is this or that, but in anthropology, you start from having to understand the answer is this and that.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Just being quiet

This is a poem that Beanie's 1st grade teacher posted on FB:

There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
"I feel this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong."
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
...Or wise man can decide
What's right for you--just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.
~Shel Silverstein

Lately, I have been thinking about quiet and the need for it b/c I have been thinking about Beanie's beloved music teacher, Miss Susan, who died last month. During the memorial service that Beanie and I attended, Miss Susan's partner recalled that even though she was a musician, Miss Susan liked to keep her house quiet most of the time.

Sometimes, Miss Susan's lessons with Beanie involved clapping the rhythms (not even touching the piano). Previously, I had understood the lessons to be a way of learning that to hear or play music is to involve the whole body. Now, I think they might have been a way of learning to hear music inside.

It might just that as a parent of two children, quiet seems harder to come by, and so I appreciate it more. However, I am convinced that the noise and static of 24-hour soundtracks not only distract us, but they also disrupt our ability to hear our own thoughts.

So, it is not just that I feel the need for quiet for myself, but that I view it as necessary to have and be and teach to my children. I think that quiet is a much under-rated and neglected idea and practice for parenting.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sometimes they hear what you said

Tonight, as Bubbie took a bath, Beanie sat down to write a book and illustrate it. Because it is a work in progress, I was not permitted to read it, but she showed me the cover of her book - a picture of a mother and a girl. Beanie commented to me: "I made the mother with light skin, but I noticed the characters in books usually have light skin, which I think is unfair, so I decided to make the girl with a little bit darker skin that is more brown."

Sunday, June 5, 2011

What is the point of college?

Is it merely that I am sensitized to the topic of higher education b/c I work in it - or is there quite a bit of public discourse, including the publication of books and book reviews?

The latest installment appears in the June 6th issue of The New Yorker, which features a review essay by Louis Menand. In the essay, he features two books - Richard Arum and Jospia Roksa's Academically Adrift, which already has garnered a lot of attention and is based on an analysis of the College Learning Assessment (a kind of standardized test that is being used at a number of colleges and universities in an attempt to measure what a college education might "yield") and Professor X's In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, which is a kind of memoir based on an essay previously published in The Atlantic. I am unfamiliar with Professor X's work, but Menand makes him sound like a real-life William Henry "Lucky Hank" Deveraux.

This is fitting b/c in the public discourse on higher ed, I think we need to hear more (and take more seriously) about the experiences of the "teachers" - that is, the professors (who BTW do more than teach) and the adjunct instructors.

On a related note, I think we also need to hear more from students themselves - not just about the standardized tests that they take, ostensibly to measure what they have learned or been taught. This is where faculty feel frustration: As in the discourse on K-12 public schooling, the talk is all about "whether or not" (yes or no) students and learning and teachers are doing their jobs.

What, in fact, is the point of college for students? This is the point where Menand starts. Students bring diverse expectations (as well as experiences) to college - and this bears directly upon what they learn in college (and how and what professors also teach).

Menand describes three "theories" of what college is for Americans:

1. "College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test" that is used to sort individuals according to "intellectual capacity and productive potential."

I admit that I cringe at the thought, and wish that this were not true.

2. "College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing."

I imagine that a number of my colleagues oh-so-want this to be true: I want to believe. (In fact, I do.)

3. "College is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation. A college degree in a non-liberal field signifies competence in a specific line of work."

In fact, this is what I think a lot of students attending the four-year comprehensive public college where I teach believe this - or at least a lot of their parents do. Which is why I sit with students and talk with them about what to do with their major in anthropology - which they tell me they took b/c they "love" it, not b/c they think it is "practical," which I take to mean pre-professional. (In fact, about 60 percent of the majors in our department have anthropology as their second major. Not necessarily paired with a pre-professional major: I wonder whether or not there might be a perception that an anthropology major on its own might be fine, but pairing it with history or psychology or biology adds a bit of heft?)

Menand's conclusion is a bit bleak, as it suggests that the problems of higher ed might be much more difficult than simply testing students in order to assess* the value of collegiate learning and then weeding out the "bad" teachers - that is, those deemed ineffective at student engagement*:

*Buzzwords in higher education today.

Assuming that these new books are right, and that many students are increasingly disengaged from the academic part of the college experience, it may be because the system has become too big and too heterogeneous to work equally well for all who are in it. The system appears to be drawing in large numbers of people who have no firm career goals but failing to help them acquire focus. This is what Arum and Roska believe, anyway. Students at very selective colleges are still super-motivated - their motivation is one of the reasons they are selected - and most professors, since we are the sort of people who want a little gold star for everything we do, still want to make a difference to their students. But when motivation is missing, when people come into the system without believing that what goes on it really matters, it's hard to transform minds.

I think Menand is right to point out that a problem of higher ed today is that it is trying to be all things to everyone. On the one hand, I appreciate the idea of having college accessible to "everyone": Not that long ago, women and people of color and poor students were excluded from opportunities for higher education. It would have been unthinkable for someone like me to graduate from the privileged little community of the mind that I attended. The mission of higher ed, too, has changed, will change, and ought to continue changing.

On the other hand, I think the problem of "motivation" is not just what happens between between students and professors, in classrooms and on campuses, but the even larger system of the rest of life - or "reality," as my students call it.

When I talk with students, they are as likely to call college as a "break" as to describe it as an opportunity or a rite of passage. In their eyes, college is a last chance to "enjoy" themselves before "reality" - and the reality that they perceive is at best uncertain and at worst uninspiring and apparently unrewarding. They know that love can end in divorce as well as marriage, that women still bear the (unappreciated) burden of care, and that careers can be cut short as even the most loyal and experienced workers become "let go."

What, then, is the point of reading the assignments and writing the papers and acquiring those skills that standardized tests seek to measure? What is the point of college?

What needs to be "fixed" in collegiate student learning is not necessarily the teaching: Instead of blaming the professors, how about we take a look also at students? What needs to be "fixed" in higher ed is not necessarily just higher ed itself: What about the rest of the world that colleges and universities ostensibly "prepare" students to face? How about we try to fix that, too?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Half-cooked musings on meat, human evolution, and economic development

For starters, let me just say that I eat meat, and I like it. Any ambivalence I have about being an omnivore emerges from my understanding of the conditions in which food is produced. So, I agree with NYT food writer and now op-ed columnist Mark Bittman when he writes in his June 2 piece ("Meat: Why Bother?"):

In limited quantities, meat is just fine, especially sustainably raised meat (and wild game), locally and ethically produced dairy and eggs, the remaining wild or decently cultivated fish.

No matter where we live, if we focused on those — none of which are in abundant supply, which is exactly the point — and used them to augment the kind of diet we’re made to eat, one based on plants as a staple, with these other things as treats, we’d all be better off. We can’t afford to wait to evolve.

In explaining the modern taste for meat, however, Bittman calls upon The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse: "When you add 'It’s what’s for dinner' to the equation, you have a powerful combination: biology, economics and propaganda all pushing us in the same direction."

As an anthropologist, I take issue with Bittman's use of the idea of human evolution - and of human "nature":

Once, we had to combine hunting skills and luck to eat meat, which could supply then-rare nutrients in large quantities. This progressed — or at least moved on — to a stage where a family could raise an annual pig and maybe keep a cow and some chickens. Quite suddenly (this development is no more than 50 years old, even in America), we can drive to our nearest burger shop and scarf down a patty — or two! — at will.

Because evolution is a slow process, this revolutionary change has had zero impact on the primal urge that screams, “Listen, dummy, if you can find meat you’d better eat it, because who knows when you’ll eat it again!” At some point our bodies may adapt to consuming unlimited quantities of meat or — a better alternative — our minds will crave less. Right now, primal urge and modern availability form a deadly combo.

There is, in fact, a literature in medical anthropology suggesting that modern health problems like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes result from a mismatch between hunter-gatherer bodies and industrial diets - which S. Boyd Eaton, Melvin Konner, and Marjorie Shostak described in their 1988 article, "Stone Agers in the Fast Lane: Chronic Degenerative Diseases in Evolutionary Perspective."

This has become the basis of popular advice on diet and nutrition, including books like The Paleolithic Prescription and NeanderThin.

"The Caveman Diet," as it has come to be called*, is an example of what some anthropologists might call "paleofantasies."

*The term "Paleo Diet" seems to be preferred among advice mongers, apparently seeking to scientize their regimens.

It is pretty to think that "hunter-gatherers" - a gloss for "natural" humans - were not only closer to nature, but healthier and happier to boot.

I also take issue with Bittman's evolutionism in connection with economic development:

As better-educated citizens of wealthier nations change direction, however, those whose opportunities and privileges have been delayed until now have every intention of catching up, not only by buying cars and TVs but by “enriching” their diet. Remember, it’s our nature.

There is no instinct to buy cars and TVs. Not to mention that the "enrichment" of local diets is as much driven by the supply of the developers (i.e., the wealthier nations) as the demand of the developed.

It is not so much that I want to pick on Bittman, but the half-cooked ideas that he uses to present an otherwise reasonable proposition about eating less in terms of quantity and better in terms of quality.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The demise of the Korean deli

A friend posted on Facebook this article on the demise of Korean grocers in New York City, noting that it seemed both not a bad thing, but also a bit sad.

I know what she means. Not a bad thing in that running a mom-and-pop store is not just a job, but a livelihood that involves entire families. I think the only time that my aunts and uncles closed their stores might have been for funerals in the family. When I was planning my wedding, my mother reminded me that it ought not interfere with store hours.

Like the people interviewed in the article, I think my aunts and uncles regarded their stores as the best opportunities available to them here in the United States, but they hoped for still better opportunities for their children.

So, it seems sad that - at least according to the NYT - the wane of the Korean grocery store is a result (and a sign) of "the same forces that threaten all sorts of mom-and-pop businesses: rising rents, increased competition from online and corporate rivals, and more scrutiny from city agencies that impose fines."

For me, this is not just about the closing of Korean grocery stores, but also the narrowing of possibilities.

B/c while my aunts and uncles did not necessarily aspire to running a store, I think they will agree that it indeed enabled them not only to make a living, but to make lives for themselves and their children. It permitted them a degree of independence: I think it makes a difference that when they interacted with other (non-Korean) Americans, they were store owners and managers interacting with customers, not employees or laborers interacting with employers or bosses.

I disagree with the blogger at New York Press: Korean Grocers Move on to Bigger and Better Things. I appreciated that the NYT offered a bit more nuance in its account than that.

Bigger-and-better seems to be the story that we all want to believe: The American dream. Especially in a place like New York City, which specializes in cheering for the underdog. We do not want the story to be that Korean mom-and-pop stores are closing b/c small business no longer presents the possibilities that it apparently did for earlier generations. We do not want the story to be that the underdog will not win.