Monday, January 31, 2011

What Beanie says

Beanie overheard StraightMan and me talking about the continuing discussion about "tiger mothers" and she asked me what that meant. I think I said something about especially strict parents who do not let their daughters have sleepovers. To which Beanie replied: "But you let me have a sleepover."

So then I asked: "Do you think your parents are strict?"


"You do?"

"Because you get upset when I forget to listen to you and things like that." Then she laughed. I tickled her.

We both decided that what I am is not a tiger mother, but a "kitty mama."


Sunday, January 30, 2011

What Are You?

As a parent of two "mixed race" children, I read this article in The New York Times with interest:

The crop of students moving through college right now includes the largest group of mixed-race people ever to come of age in the United States, and they are only the vanguard: the country is in the midst of a demographic shift driven by immigration and intermarriage.

The article, part of a series called "Race Remixed," is interested in raising questions about what the growing population of biracial and multiracial individuals "means" for our society. For example: "Optimists say the blending of the races is a step toward transcending race, to a place where America is free of bigotry, prejudice and programs like affirmative action."

In fact, we prob'ly need to acknowledge that a fair amount of "blending" has occurred in human history, and it seems not ever to have resolved thinking about difference as a problem.

What I think is far more compelling in the article is hearing from individuals like the college student who, when asked, "What are you," has learned to answers: "How much time do you have? Race will not automatically tell you my story."

I think the student got it exactly right. A question like "What are you" is important and meaningful in the United States today b/c it is a socially accepted and culturally pre-inscribed way of hearing someone's story about who they are: In other words, it is asking what others have said and continue to say about who you are.

I wish we might start to question what kind of stories "race" really tell us.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


Wow. Unfortunately, I have nothing wiser, wittier, more insightful, or more intelligent to say because my mind has been blown away by Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.

I am responding to the scale of both the slave trade and the database: There is information here on about 35,000 slaving voyages that transported more than 10 million Africans to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries.

The database is the work of two historians, one based at Emory University (US) and the other based at Hull University (UK). You can search the database and view maps, charts and tables, and images of manuscripts and drawings of some of the people who were enslaved. There also are educational materials, such as lesson plans, that grade 6-12 teachers can use in history / social studies classes.

A review of the database and of a new book, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, appears in the current issue of The Nation. Reviewer Robin Einhorn notes that the United States, in fact, had played a smaller role in the Atlantic slave trade: Less than 5 percent of Africans were sent here. "These larger and smaller numbers, of course, have no moral significance. Even the lower figures are shockingly high," Einhorn writes. "But even if they weren't, the relevant crime was any participation in the slave trade - or slavery itself - rather than some degree of participation."

Think about the fact that a reason why a database of this kind could be amassed is that there was reasonably good bookkeeping and inventorying of enslavement: It was a commercial trade.

What I find especially astounding is the African Names Database, which provides information on more than 67,000 individuals (out of more than 10 million): Here, they each are named.

Armchair Anthropologie

A year after his passing (shortly as his 100th birthday), there is a new biography of Claude Levi-Strauss that I am putting on my wish list to read.

Here is a link to the review in the current issue of The Nation that drew my attention to it.

I confess my ignorance of the connections between Levi-Strauss and the Surrealist artists who were his contemporaries - and their participation in "a cheerful bohemian existence in New York":

With his friends Max Ernst and Andre Breton, he sought out the most enchanting pockets of the city's flourishing cultural ecosystem, stumbling on communities that preserved traditions long ago abandoned in the old country. In his mini-memoir "New York in 1941," Levi-Strauss fondly recalled attending Chinese operas under the first arch of the Brooklyn Bridge, conducting a mock-ethnography of Fire Island and reading out translations of President Roosevelt's speeches on Free French Radio.

I think I need to find a copy of "New York in 1941." Not to mention to ethnography of Fire Island.

(Hint to undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology: The review itself could be a tidy introduction to Levi-Strauss and his "structuralism.")

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Laugh not to cry

America's Finest News Sources gets it exactly right again.

I especially liked the reference to anthropologists (in the sixth paragraph).

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Product or process?

That is the question that I ask myself when I go through the pile of "projects" that Beanie and Bubbie bring home from school. What I do is store it all in a flat box, then sort through it every other week or so: Meaning when pieces spill onto the floor.

I typically recycle, reuse, or repurpose "process" as soon as it emerges from the backpack: Construction paper glued with elbow macaroni or beans or "shapes" that demonstrate the development of scissor skills from Bubbie usually goes straight into the circular file while worksheets and last week's homework, returned with a smiley face drawn on it, from Beanie become grocery lists or even "practice" paper for more drawing by the kids.

It is harder to tell you what "product" is. In fact, I go through the product bin when it becomes near full and start re-categorizing pieces as "process."

This is a task of modern parenting, I suppose: I am relieved to know that I am not alone, as this story in The New York Times demonstrates:

No one has quantified just how much art children create at school, said David Burton, a professor of art education at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. But having worked in the field for more than 40 years, Dr. Burton refutes the notion that present-day parents have coddled and attaboy-ed their children into overproducing.

Art classrooms of the 1960s and ’70s followed “a philosophy of make and take,” Dr. Burton said. That is, at the end of every 40-minute class, an art project would be ready for Mom and Dad. Art educators today have been trained to encourage a deeper exploration of material, process and theory.

At the same time, Dr. Burton said, tots now start scribbling with ergonomic crayons by the age of 18 months: “Years and years ago, people — even art educators — believed that children would just waste materials when they were really toddlers.”

I have to disagree with Dr. Burton. I believe that the amount of children's art has escalated. Every parent I know has curatorial problems.

How do you solve yours?


I consider this neither product nor process, but a promise: It is Beanie's New Year's resolution for home:


The lack of activity on my blog during the last week might have indicated to you that my so-called life is even less lively than usual. The semester started last Wednesday. I will get over it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Take action for our neighborhood schools

For parents and community members in my city, this is a follow-up to a previous post urging involvement in the school district's space utilization study - which will have impacts on where our children attend elementary school across the entire district.

For example, the study might result in the sixth grade being moved from the four elementary schools to the middle school - or the reorganization of the elementary schools into grade "cluster" schools (like K-2).

So, clearly, parents, teachers, and students ought to participate in every step of the the process, involving themselves in how the decisions ultimately become made.

As our local paper reported today, an initial meeting of the space utilization meeting will be held this coming Tuesday, January 25, at 7pm in the cafeteria at the Oneonta High School.

If you are interested in being involved in the study, you can call the district clerk Eileen Lishansky at 433-8323, ext. 300 - or just attend the meeting.

Can we put the tiger mama to rest?!

I would like, as a friend declared herself on Facebook, to be done with Amy Chua and all the hullabaloo about tiger mothers. Here, however, are what I hope might be two parting shots:

A piece in answer to Chua in The Wall Street Journal on how a parent can teach a child that even when you fail, you still can live to tell (and even succeed).

Five words that I am surprised to be able to utter: I agree with David Brooks:

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

Frankly, I still feel like I could use extra help with understanding social norms. This is why, I suppose, I had to pursue a PhD in cultural anthropology.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The brown doll

This past weekend, we visited friends in the Boston area, where we had the opportunity to visit the Museum of Science. In part b/c it was MLK weekend, I was interested especially in taking Beanie to see the exhibit, "Race: Are We So Different," which the American Anthropological Association developed as a public education project.

The AAA's Web site, developed as a companion to the exhibit, is here.

What I think the exhibit and the Web site do well is rooted in the holism of anthropology:

Looking through the eyes of history, science and lived experience, the RACE Project explains differences among people and reveals the reality – and unreality – of race. The story of race is complex and may challenge how we think about race and human variation, about the differences and similarities among people.

The exhibit also reveals what I consider a weakness of anthropologists: It depended quite a lot on text. While there were a number of videos, I wished that there were more interactive displays, which I think could communicate well to children and adults.

For example, one that Beanie liked a lot had her place her hand under a camera. An image of the back of her hand, and in particular, her skin tone, became integrated into a grid with images of other museum visitors' hands and skin tones. It was fascinating for us both to view how diverse skin tones really are.

Another display had us compare our skin tones with pictures that had been partially covered. Lifting the covers revealed the faces of the individuals whose skin tones matched ours: To see that the persons who "matched" us did not look much like us communicates a lesson about whether or not skin color tells us much about "what" or "who" individuals are.

Beanie spent some time playing with a pile of "multicultural" puppets that were placed in an area for children's interactions. Interestingly, Beanie's comments were on the uniforms that the puppets wore, not on the skin tones - for example, there was an astronaut and a police officer (which both happened to be dark). She and I started a game in which she chose a puppet that was supposed to look like her father (a "white" chef puppet that she chose with a bit of trepidation because, after all, it was a chef...) and like me (a medium toned puppet with dark hair - in fact, a doctor in a white coat with a name tag that read "Dr. Lopez"). For herself, she chose a lighter toned puppet (which I suppose could be seen as "white") with long dark hair: Beanie wants to grow her hair "down her back."

The moment that made me both hopeful and heartbreaking came when Beanie and her friend, N, sat together in a chair and watched a video called "A Girl Like Me."

There is a sequence that shows footage from Kenneth and Mamie Clark's "doll study" in the 1930s and 1940s, in which African-American children were shown a white doll and a black doll and asked which doll was the "nice" one and which doll looked like them. (The Clark doll study became part of the argument on the detrimental effects of racial segregation in education in Brown v. Board of Ed.) The experiment is repeated in the film: Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Ed, most African-American children continued to choose the white doll as the "pretty" one.

N, who had been swinging his legs jauntily when he sat down to watch the video, turned still then sank further and further in his chair as he watched the sequence. Beanie's eyes widened. "I would choose the brown doll," she kept repeating. To herself? To me? To the children on the screen? "I would choose the brown doll."

Although I had seen the video before - I taught it in class - I found it incredibly difficult to watch with Beanie and N. Still, it never crossed my mind not to watch the video. I am glad that I was there to be part of that moment with them.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ancient Chinese secret?

I am reproducing here a few comments that I made on Facebook in response to a friend posting this article: "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior."

Written by a professor at Yale Law School who is publishing a book about parenting, the article is (in my opinion) rather self-congratulating about a parenting style that another friend described as "quite pushy and hyper competitive."

As a parenthropologist, it took me effort to give benefit of the doubt and try to read past author Amy Chua's Western-versus-Chinese contrast to see what else she might be saying.

For me, parenting, in addition to its joys, is about humbling moments and continual soul searching. So, reflecting on how you were parented yourself seems a productive place to begin.

Personally, I have thought a lot about what I feel my parents (and admittedly, this means primarily my mother, which is itself worth further commenting upon...) did quite well, and what I now make efforts to do rather differently. It is true that I sometimes think about these differences in terms of culture. (Chua's parents immigrated from China - my parents from Korea.)

At the same time, I think it also matters that parents raise kids at particular historical moments. So, it is not just "cultural" differences that account for different priorities or practices for parents.

Clearly, at this particular historical moment, parents in the United States are faced with a lot of anxiety about raising children.

The problem, I suggest, is not that American parents are not doing a good enough job. It is that we are having to do our best under conditions that continually undermine our efforts. As anyone with kids will tell you: This is not a family-friendly society.

Re: Chua. The point that continues to stick in my craw is the continued propagation here of an East-West contrast. A few years back, there was a book written by two Korean-American sisters called Top of the Class that was more or less a tribute to "Asian work ethic" and "Confucian values" - in contrast, presumably, to the liberalness and permissiveness of "American" parenting.

As a cultural anthropologist whose research interests include parenting, for me the question is not whether or not Chinese or Korean mothers are "superior." (What does that even mean?) Instead, it is how and why it is (again) that East and West become held as opposed reflections on each other - this time on the thorny issue of parenting.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Support your schools!

In recent posts, I have been making all kinds of pleas, like to love your library and to recognize the post office as an important and meaningful institution of democracy.

Today, I am making my plea to the parents in my city’s school district to get involved in a study on space utilization, which might have implications down the road for where our children attend K-6.

Last night, the superintendent spoke at the PTO meeting at the school that my daughter, a first-grader, currently attends. (I expect that my son, who will be 4 in May, will start kindergarten there in September 2012.) During the meeting, which more than a dozen parents, teachers, and school staff attended, the superintendent outlined the need for the district to undertake a study of space utilization. These included further cuts anticipated in the state budget, which has provoked the board’s interest in saving costs such as the rent paid on the district’s Main Street offices.

In addition to an inventory of how space currently is used in the four elementary schools, middle school, and high school, the superintendent said that for the sake of comparison, the study will examine the costs and benefits of two other scenarios that have been implemented at other school districts across the country with declining enrollments: One in which the schools are reorganized to bring grade 6 to the middle school, and one in which the schools are reorganized in so-called grade clusters (such as a K-2 building and so on).

The superintendent noted that enrollments were not declining in the elementary schools, with projected “bubbles” to come, based on live birth statistics for the county. The decreases in student population can be seen in middle school primarily.

He also emphasized that the closing of a school is not a scenario being discussed. He said this specifically for the benefit of the parents at our elementary school, which in the past had been targeted for possible closure.

However, the potential impacts of the district’s study on space utilization clearly matter for more than one school and one neighborhood.

I laud the school board’s effort to collect and study data first in order to make informed and intelligent decisions for the long term. The superintendent noted that a study like this had not been undertaken in more than 10 years.

To this end, I urge parents, teachers, students, and other community members to involve themselves in the process. We need to participate in every step in order to ensure both that our perspectives are considered, and that our priorities remain in focus for the school board.

For me and for a number of parents whom I know, a neighborhood school is part of the foundation of a quality education.

Unfortunately, we live in times when services for the public good (like state parks) are treated as luxuries that we can do without, and short-sighted savings seem to trump longer-sighted values. So, I worry about the kinds of sacrifices in our school that might be made in the name of fiscal responsibility and austerity.

I think it is critical that we continually ask ourselves at what cost will the savings come? What price are we willing to pay for savings? Based on what we might learn from the space utilization study, we might need to consider questions like: Will $15,000 in savings for the school district (which does not necessarily take into account the impacts on other parts of the community) be worth moving your sixth-grader to the middle school? Or: Will $7,500 be worth removing your children from your neighborhood school to a K-2 building across town? Or: How about $1,250?

It is not that I do not trust the school board's sense of responsibility or their responsiveness - it is that if we as parents and community members wish to see our concerns remain in focus, then we need to work actively with board members to make sure that they do.

The school board has been seeking participation from community members to form committees to undertake the study. (A meeting about the study will be held on January 25. E-mail the superintendent’s office to become involved.) In turn, the committees will be seeking input from parents, teachers, and students. Be sure to give it to them!

Above all, I think we need to stay informed – and keep each other informed – about what is happening. For example:

• Talk to your school’s principal and to other parents.
• Be involved in your PTO.
• Visit the city school district’s Web site.
• Click here for a PDF of the school board meeting calendar - then go! Take a friend with you. There is a meeting this Wednesday at 7pm at the middle school.
• Share and repost this blog entry on Facebook :)

Monday, January 10, 2011


Thank you, Gail Collins, for saying in your column today what StraightMan and I have been telling each other all weekend:

Today, the amazing thing about the reaction to the Giffords shooting is that virtually all the discussion about how to prevent a recurrence has been focusing on improving the tone of our political discourse. That would certainly be great. But you do not hear much about the fact that Jared Loughner came to Giffords’s sweet gathering with a semiautomatic weapon that he was able to buy legally because the law restricting their sale expired in 2004 and Congress did not have the guts to face up to the National Rifle Association and extend it.

Regardless of how one interprets the Second Amendment and the "right to bear arms," I like to think that other Americans generally agree there is no reason for a "right" to carry a concealed semiautomatic weapon to a shopping mall, a bar (as Arizona state law apparently allows!) or a school or college campus (which Arizona sensibly does not permit). Or as the sheriff of Pima County, Clarence Dupnik, himself told reporters: “I have never been a proponent of letting everyone in this state carry guns under almost any situation, and that’s almost where we are.”

This morning, I read through news accounts of the shooting, and what really shocked me was how quickly it happened: About 15 seconds. Why do we need such efficient gun technology to be so readily available to anyone? Honestly.

Yesterday, I cried when I read about Christina Green, the 9-year-old girl who was killed in the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords. It made think about my own little girl (and little boy), and made me realize how intolerable I find the thought that any of us needs to fear for our safety in terms of gun violence.

The solution is not to retreat behind metal detectors and tighter surveillance - or to abstain from participation in public events like Giffords' meet-and-greet at Safeway.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Love your library

This is a shout out to the public library, which serves us all intellectually and spiritually with a wealth of books and other materials; fairly and justly by making its materials available and accessible to everyone in the community; socially by providing us with a place to be; and sustainably.

Responding to a question about e-readers, Susan Cosier writes in her Green Guru column in the January-February 2011 issue of Audubon magazine:

A book made of recycled paper requires two-thirds of a pound of minerals (primarily gravel for road construction), whereas an e-reader uses 33 pounds for its electronic components and infrastructure.

She cites a study that suggests that "e-reader owners have to read 40 to 50 e-books to break even on most of the environmental costs."

(As an aside, I read in The New Yorker a few months back that the Kindle, which uses so-called electronic-ink technology, uses less energy than the iPad. By how much, it did not say.)

So, I want to start 2011 with a reminder to myself and a call to my friends to show love to your library: Use it. Support and defend public funding of it.

For those on campus, this includes your college or university library: Make time to play in the stacks! I always walk away with a ton of titles that inspire me.


The "break" between semesters for me is typically slower, saner, and just as filled with work. (I know the other academics are looking at this while they are not writing that paper or revising that article they planned to - so get back to work!) Slower and saner means that I allow myself to read the piles of back issues that have accumulated in the magazine basket that I keep in the downstairs bathroom. (Which is supposed to tell you not about my toilet habits, but about the near-guilt that I feel when I do not put my month's worth of The Nation and The New Yorker out of sight. Blurgh.)

So, on a note related to my soap-box moment on the library, I want to draw attention to another public good that is much too much taken for granted: The United States Postal Service.

As John Nichols wrote in The Nation (in the April 26, 2010 issue! - I think this must have been lost behind a Title Nine catalog - because I have a weakness for outdoor performance wear and the life it might represent):

Americans do not often talk about the Postal Service as a crucial underpinning of the democratic infrastructure, but we should. At a time when 35 percent of all Americans and 50 percent of rural residents have no broadband Internet access at home, the Postal Service is universal. Its 596,000 career employees travel more than 4 million miles to deliver more than a half-billion pieces of mail each day. It goes to extraordinary ends to assure that no citizen or community is neglected; it contracts commercial planes to move parcels across the country in a matter of hours, yet it still sends bush planes into Idaho's River of No Return Wilderness Area and organizes mule trains to deliver mail, food and supplies to the Havasupai Indians on the floor of the Grand Canyon.

The Postal Service maintains a network of more than 35,000 retail outlets--the largest in the world, with more locations than McDonald's, Starbucks and Wal-Mart combined--which are visited by more than 7 million Americans each day. The postal workers they encounter in these offices and on their doorsteps are reflective of their communities, as the service has historically been and remains one of the surest sources of employment for African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, women and the poor. In short, the USPS forms a vital network of service, connection and community that provides the steadiest link between Americans and their government. As Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) chair Ruth Goldway puts it, the service is "part of the fabric of the nation."

In 2011, how about we all rethink (and rephrase in our talk) what the post office is all about? Not a business, but a public service that not only treats people with fairness - I am dumbfounded by the extraordinary reach of the post office (bush planes and mule trains?!) - it also makes fairness possible in the form of absentee ballots. The measure of its success ought not to be its profitability.

Buy some stamps today?!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Post-Christmas tree

So, StraightMan and I took down our tree and put it out at the curb last night. This morning, in the time it took to take Bubbie to his nursery school, the city workers had hauled it onto their truck and taken it away to be mulched.

Shedding its needles like a man in his late 20s can lose his hair: It was time for the tree to go. (Let it be known also that StraightMan has kept his hair.) However. I wanted to hold out for as long as I could: I do not wish for my children to think of me as one of those People who Pack Up the Tree on New Year's Day.

So, I admit that I talked about the idea of spruce butter. Kind of a lot. Did not do it. Wonder whether or not spruce hot chocolate or spruce martini might work?

Then I read this post, which I missed during finals week, on feminist philosophers: "Christmas Trees Not So Harmless."

The post quotes a recent report on a study that finds:

Reminders of Christmas can make religious minorities feel ill at ease — even if they don’t realize it. When people who did not celebrate Christmas or who did not identify as Christian filled out surveys about their moods while in the same room as a small Christmas tree, they reported less self-assurance and fewer positive feelings than if they hadn’t been reminded of the holiday, according to a new study.

Not so surprising, but I guess I thought it is worth reminding ourselves (and with data!) of the taken-for-grantedness of Christian ideas and practices (including public displays and gestures) - and how and why inclusion really ought to matter.

A question

A friend posted this link on Facebook, which immediately caught my attention because I had been asking myself and my students exactly the same question: Why Aren't US Students Rioting Over Crazy Tuition Hikes Like College Kids in Europe?

When I posed this question to students in my field methods seminar, they looked a bit blankly at me. Apparently they missed the coverage on Fox. (Which is usually what I saw on the screens mounted in the waiting areas outside the lecture room where I taught my ANTH 100 courses - not sure who chooses the channel, but I do not think it is necessarily the students.) I described to them the alleged "attack" on Prince Charles and his wife as their Rolls Royce took a wrong turn through the throng.

No response.

So, I found the comments in this alternet piece interesting, including Tom Hayden's observations about what prevents students from being more politically active today:

The challenges they (students) face on their campuses are far different than the past and perhaps more profound. Tuition costs at UM in 1960 were one hundred dollars, and I can’t remember if that was for a semester or an entire year. So I could obtain my degree, edit the paper, go south to the civil rights movement for two years, return and enter graduate school, and never feel I was falling behind in the competitive economic rat-race…A student today falls tens of thousands of dollars in debt, even after holding two part-time jobs, a burden which limits their career choices. Dropping out for social activism brings competitive disadvantage.

I think that my students would agree with alternet's observation about what college means today:

Public higher education is no longer seen as serving the broader social good. And if you can afford college—likely through high indebtedness—the four, five, or six years you’re there are spent making yourself more employable. Colleges aren’t enabling greater democratic citizenship anymore, they’re producing wage earners. There is a trend towards privatization and commoditization that’s quite troubling.

Which is not necessarily to say that my students would disagree with alternet. In fact, I think my students see themselves as managing, as best they can, what has been handed to them. Which itself is a stance that at times frustrates me: They see themselves as reacting, and they do not see themselves as participating, much less creating and re-creating. Is this a millennial / post-9/11 thing? B/c I just do not remember feeling so sad and defeated already at age 20: I still do not feel that now at age 40.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A touch of Mellencampia

Fourth of July. State Fair. Eat the Bird. Winter. That is how Richard Russo described the seasons of upstate New York. Winter being all that time between eating the bird and Fourth of July.

Spending the holidays here at home - our first Christmas in our entire married life together (14 years!) not spent in transit - left StraightMan and me feeling a touch of Mellencampia:

Got nothing against a big town
But my bed is in a small town
Oh, that's good enough for me

Yesterday, Beanie and I marched in the First Night parade! She and her friend Pants each operated an arm of the golden Sun King puppet, which Pants' father carried.

When I say puppet, think more like Big Bird, not Elmo. I helped Beanie and Pants and Pants Pater to navigate low branches and New Year's drivers and to operate the arms.

All along Main Street, neighbors and friends and teachers called out to us. Afterward, Beanie said she wanted to march again next year.

Small town values :)