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 :)