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.

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