Sunday, November 27, 2011

Teaching the anthropology of reproduction: Notes

T'was the Sunday night after Thanksgiving...

At least three of us in the household are sooo not looking forward to Monday. StraightMan is looking rather long faced about the pile of papers that he did not grade over his "break," which after all had been occupied with driving the four of us to my parents' home for Thanksgiving dinner, then driving us back again. While I slept both ways, still recovering from a cold and lack of rest. I feel creeping anxiety about the week ahead, but console myself that even though I still have classes to prepare for tomorrow, I washed, folded, and even put away all of the laundry this weekend! One must find solace where it can be found, like here in the kitchen near the box of wine that StraightMan has propped open. (Respect the box of wine. It is not your parents' box of wine.) Meanwhile Beanie is skulking around, peevish and bored with her dull family after spending the entire day yesterday stomping around the woods in this unseasonably mild weather with her best friend and her much more fun family, collecting acorn caps and milkweed to create "nature crafts."

Upstairs, I hear Bubbie taking his twice-weekly bath. Improvising his own lyrics to "Puff the Magic Dragon." No amount of gently suggesting to him that Puff lives in Hanalei will convince him that the dragon does not live in Hallowee (which BTW is not the same as Halloween).

Oh, to be Bubbie and four years old!

Some time this week or next, I will be required to give student evaluations in class. Which, despite the fact that I receive good numbers and even quite good written comments, I never can bring myself to read until an entire semester has passed and my memories have been dulled a bit. Kind of like actors not wanting to read the reviews for fear that they will not be able to continue acting.

In fact, I have had a fairly good time this semester teaching the Anthropology of Reproduction. This is a 200-level course that I have tried to teach once a year. It is now an elective not only for anthropology majors, but also biology majors in the human biology track at my college. (Another huzzah for the so-called teaching college! I mean, imagine undergraduate students at a research university being permitted such an opportunity to broaden their training.) The course is also cross-listed with Women's and Gender Studies.

The class typically has been overwhelmingly female, but there are at least a few more male students now than in past years (still only five out of 30), and they tell me that they are talking it about with their friends! On top of which, they and my female students alike make a point of describing reproduction as an issue for everyone to study.

As a teacher, this is just such a feel-good kind of class :)

A plea for syllabuses and suggestions on teaching the anthropology of reproduction just circulated on a listserv to which I belong (for the Council on Anthropology and Reproduction). In part b/c I am not convinced that I will get another chance to blog this week, I thought I might post my response here:

I assigned the edited volume, Reconceiving the Second Sex, this semester, and I am finding it has been terrific for provoking discussion in class:

Esp. memorable discussions so far on the chapters on sperm by Lisa Jean Moore and Helene Goldberg, which I prefaced with short "conversation starter" videos from YouTube. One is a 30-second TV commercial for a Belgian bank. (BTW, this might pair well also with Emily Martin's classic article on the romance of the egg and sperm.) The other is a 2-minute video of animation spliced together from Spike Lee's film "She Hate Me." I have not seen the film, but you get the gist from the clips, which play on the ideas that Moore discusses.

Also, an at times raucous discussion on the chapter by Laury Oaks on the male pill, esp. whether or not female students in my class trusted males to remember to take it! The readings and discussion on semen, sperm and the male pill followed readings and discussion of menstruation and the (female) pill, including menstrual suppression. So, I showed a PBS American Experience documentary on "The Pill" to preface discussion on Oaks and the male pill. It helped bring out discussion on how birth control can be experienced as a burden, a theme that other chapters in Reconceiving the Second Sex also explore.

Another terrific piece to read and discuss (not in Reconceiving the Second Sex) is Linda Layne's "The Home Pregnancy Test: A Feminist Technology?" Again, students had a lot to say, in part b/c they felt they really had not been esp. well informed. I showed two 30-second TV commercials from YouTube, one for EPT that featured a couple confessing their anxieties and hopes as reasons for wanting to know the results early (BTW, this commercial became lampooned on "Saturday Night Live") and a humorous one for a digital test ("the most sophisticated technology you will ever pee on") that we debated about who is the intended audience / market.

Hope that helps :) Curious to learn about other experiences with teaching anthropology of reproduction!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


OK, sooner or later, I will need to write that Kate Clancy a fan letter - I confess that I have not commented on her blog due to the fact that I would need to register as a user on Scientific American and it just seemed like a hassle - but I wanted to bring this to the attention of anyone who might be reading my blog and not already reading hers. Check out this post, "What Does It Mean to Do the Right Thing?"

As an aside, I want to say to Kate Clancy that I agree with her decision to continue blogging at SA (for now) and calling foul on what else might be published over there that is unscientific, sexist, racist, and just plain wrong.

I also agree with the commenter who noted that the person who should be leaving SA's blog is not her. I feel like I have seen or else have heard of this happening too many times - that is, the principled person takes a stand that in the end has no consequence for the transgressor and no impact on the institution, which continues to back the transgressor. This is not the fault of the principled person. This is the failing of the rest of us, who need to have her back!


I know that someone somewhere already has said something a lot smarter and more meaningful than what I will tap here about this, but is it not kind of interesting and cool the way in which the word / concept "occupy" has become re-occupied? Part of what is so brash about "Occupy Wall Street" is that it turns on head who is (supposed to be) occupying whom. That is, Wall Street is / has been the occupying power. At a PTO meeting at my daughter's elementary school a few weeks back - where we were discussing the possibility that our city's neighborhood schools might become reorganized in order to cut costs (e.g., closing a building, laying off staff) - I joked about a need for an Occupy Our Schools movement.

I was only half joking...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What counts (in tenure)?

I seem to have re-caught the cold from which I was recovering, so I walked around the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association - this last week / end in Montreal - rasping like an aging chanteuse who had loved her Gitanes a bit much.

My blog posts were put on hold for the last couple of weeks as I continued to prep classes and grade piles of papers and exams and in the wee hours after kiddos were put to bed, finished my conference paper then continued to edit it, right until the morning of my panel. Such is the academic parent's life.

Being at the meetings got me thinking again about a concern that is never far from my mind, which is what it means to be an academic parent or parenting academic, and in particular a female parenting academic.

A few weeks back, I posted a few musings inspired by biological anthropologist and blogger Kate Clancy on being a radical scholar. I stand by my musings with even stronger conviction today. At the meetings, friends were telling me about the pressure to publish or perish in their departments - and by publish, they mean specifically peer-reviewed journal articles. Not even chapters in edited books count for much. Much less contributing to a policy paper or testifying as an expert witness or blogging or organizing and presenting a paper at a well received and well attended panel at the annual meetings.

There are more than a few points to rant, like:

* It was noted at the business meeting of the Association for Feminist Anthropology that even while we all recognize changes in the structures of the academic publishing - with presses scaling back their operations - the expectations for tenure, especially at research institutions, have been slow to change. Undoubtedly, the expectations for tenure will need to change, but unfortunately, the female junior faculty whom I know fear falling into the gap. (I imagine that this is true for male junior faculty also, but for the moment, I am concerned with the challenges facing my female colleagues in particular.)

* Feminism has forced changes in institutional ideas and practices that now enable women to come into the academy, including women like myself and my female colleagues who work on issues such as reproduction - not because they are women's issues, but because they are also everyone's issues. It is clear that the institutions themselves are failing us. Note that I blame not feminism, but the institutions themselves. There continues to be both a bias against studying so-called women's issues and a misperception of issues like reproduction as not a men's issue.

* I have to ask, what is the point of peer review exactly? Ostensibly, it has something to do with validating the quality of the work that is being published, and that might be even more important in the age of "going viral." (On a related, but tangential point, here are a few considerations about the challenges that surround alternative forms of review, such as attempts at "crowd-sourcing" peer review, at the New York Times and at AAA's blog.) So, perhaps my rant is not so much about peer review - I recognize that there ought to be a process of some sort to check our claims and evidence - but about the particular kinds of venues (e.g., journals, but not edited books) and activities that count for tenure.

On a related note, I just read this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about anthropology professors who (gasp!) love to teach undergraduates. Of course, at a so-called teaching college like the one where I teach, the challenge is more to convince administrators and staff (and sometimes even other faculty) that research contributes directly to teaching.

In short, I find frustrating the reductionist thinking about what counts in a scholarly career.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Keeping up with The Times: The "app gap"

I logged on to blog and what do you know?! I never posted this little screed on the "app gap." Give a hint of what a terrific couple of weeks it has been here in the land of 2 academic careers + 2 kiddos = 2 much 2 handle.


At the moment, I am standing at the corner of Conference Paper Hell and Grading Nightmare, but of course, I have had my attention diverted.

StraightMan tells me last night that I ought to blog about this article in the NYT: "Screen Time Higher Than Ever For Toddlers." The article reports on a new study from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ longstanding recommendations to the contrary, children under 8 are spending more time than ever in front of screens, according to a study scheduled for release Tuesday.

The report also documents for the first time an emerging “app gap” in which affluent children are likely to use mobile educational games while those in low-income families are the most likely to have televisions in their bedrooms.

The article then goes on to quote a survey researcher who notes that "parents increasingly are handing their iPhones to their 1 ½-year-old kid as a shut-up toy. And parents who check their e-mail three times on the way to the bus stop are constantly modeling that behavior, so it’s only natural the kids want to use mobile devices too.”

That, to me, is the problem that ought to be the concern here. Instead, the term "app gap" seems to problematize that children from lower income households have unequal (less) access to apps.

The article quotes parents who download apps for their kids, justifying the amount of screen time that they permit:

"I’ll lie to myself that these are skill builders,’” said his father, Keith Lender, who has downloaded dozens of tablet and smart phone apps for Jaden and his 1-year-old brother, Dylan. “No, I’m not lying,” he said, correcting himself. “Jaden’s really learning hand-eye coordination from the golf game, and it beats the hell out of sitting and watching television.”

I find it interesting that this parent both expresses awareness of the criticisms about whether or not screen time is building skills - then repeats the claim about hand-eye coordination that has floated in public discourse since every 6th grader I knew (except me) had an Atari game system at home. In a moment of resignation, he remarks that at least he is not letting his kids watch television. Which BTW the AAP reports is the dominant medium in lower income households.

I leave open the possibility that screen time involving apps might be qualitatively "better" than TV, but you will need to convince me. (Dadgumit, I am a scientist!)

Look, even the nation's chief technologists are not convinced, as the NYT also reported, in an article on the Silicon Valley school of choice - a Waldorf school (!):

The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom school here. So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard.

But the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home.

iPad as a form of class warfare? You decide.