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.