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?