Monday, December 19, 2011

Visions of sugar plums and Marcel Mauss

How I spent the last week: Giving finals. Grading finals. Drawing long eyelashes on Beanie and her seven comrades-in-arms for five performances of "The Nutcracker."

Watching Beanie march on stage before a packed house - it was something to see. It makes me wish every child had opportunities like this. To perform and to transform and to learn - and to teach her mother what it means rise to the occasion and act with grace. I am so proud and so hopeful for her :)


I like to think of Christmas as the Mauss wonderful time of the year.

Yuk, yuk, yuk.

A friend posted on FB the following link to comedian Jimmy Kimmel's shtick urging parents to punk their kids with prank Christmas presents.

She posted the link, commenting that while she found it side-splitting, she also wondered whether or not it was abusive. Others then mused about the potential for children to draw lessons about gratitude from the stunt.

I hope not. As a parent, I hope that my children never learn to be grateful for a gift deliberately selected to be just plain bad.

As an anthropologist, I also hope that they learn a bit about the meanings of gifts.

Marcel Mauss observed that a reason why it might be better to give than to receive is because gifts create obligation to the giver from the recipient. Or as anthropologist Lee Cronk wrote in an article that is widely taught in introductory anthropology classes, gifts always come with strings attached.

It is at this point when I am teaching on gift economies in ANTH 100 that I need to remind students that it is not necessarily "bad" to be under obligation. When you think about it, feeling obligation, as individuals and as groups, enables us to live together. We call it a sense of responsibility and of belonging. I think when my students start to feel the weight of obligation as "bad," they are responding to their understanding that giving gifts can be assertions of status and power - and receiving gifts (or feeling obliged to receive them) can be experienced as a loss of status and power. (For more on this, see the classic ethnographic film, "Ongka's Big Moka," with the memorable line from Ongka, "In giving so much, I have knocked you down."

As much as we tend to want to forget that status and power exist between adults and children and within families, they do. This is perhaps what prompted my friend to think aloud about whether or not the prank Christmas presents were abusive.

I will open myself to accusations of being utterly humorless and say that I think punking your kids with prank Christmas presents is mean.

Of course, having no sense of humor is my specialty as a woman, in particular a feminist, and a member of an ethnic minority in the U.S. The former also makes me fiercely sarcastic.

However, I say with complete sincerity: Enjoy your winter holidays :)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Tips for battling your Inner Grouch

Disclaimer: No provocative anthropological content in this post. Go to Anthropology Report or Living Anthropologically for something intelligent. This post is for the weary, like me. A few reminders for the comadres and compadres who are giving and grading final exams this week:

1. "Put your own mask on first..."

Today I awoke and realized how ill I had been for the last two weeks or so b/c I experienced health again! I had forgotten what wellness felt like.

Last Friday, I finally took myself to urgent care, not for the hacking cough that has been lingering for about a month now, but b/c I thought my eye had gone septic: Redness, swelling, pain. Turns out it was an allergic reaction to erythromycin, which I had been using to treat the pink eye that I had caught from Beanie! A shock to me b/c my parents, both doctors, dispensed erythromycin with liberality. It is not an exaggeration to say that my mother always had a few in her purse. Just in case we had a bit of soreness in our throats that needed to be quelled.

BTW, the cough? Bronchitis. The dull ache in my ears? A touch of an infection in both ears. I was prescribed a horse pill of an antibiotic and an inhaler (which cost $40!)

StraightMan, I am sorry. I should have listened to you a full 10 days earlier.

2. I am a feminist, but I have to admit that at age 41, a little lipstick and eye liner can go a long way to brightening my own impression of myself.

Fellas, you can achieve the same effects with a trim of nose and ear hair! (Oh, come on, just admit it: At age 41, that is where it is growing now.)

3. Enjoyment needs to be practiced. Preferably among a dozen or more lovely individuals who have been gathered together to drink pomegranate punch and swap Christmas cookies! (I baked Mexican wedding cakes.)

4. Speaking of the bakerly arts and sciences, these atom cookies from the baker / blogger / biological anthropologist at Not So Humble Pie look good for the winter holidays! Cookies will not cure what ails you, but they offer little bits of comfort, which are good to take.

Back to grading :)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Keeping up with the Times

Just a quick comment on this piece on "The Dwindling Power of a College Degree," which appeared in the NYT Sunday Magazine for November 27:

Computers have hurt workers outside factories too. Picture the advertising agency in “Mad Men,” and think about the abundance of people who were hired to do jobs that are now handled electronically by small machines. Countless secretaries were replaced by word processing, voice mail, e-mail and scheduling software; accounting staff by Excel; people in the art department by desktop design programs. This is also true of trades like plumbing and carpentry, in which new technologies replaced a bunch of people who most likely stood around helping measure things and making sure everything worked correctly.

As a result, the people whose jobs remained valuable in that “Mad Men” office were then freed up to do more valuable things. A talented art director could produce more work more quickly with InDesign. A bright accountant could spend more time thinking of new ways to make and save money, rather than spending endless hours punching numbers into an adding machine. Global trade works much the same way. It’s horrible news for a textile factory worker in North Carolina, but it may be great for a fashion designer in New York.

Has it, in fact, been great for that art director and accountant and fashion designer? Or, in addition to producing more work quickly, thinking of new ways to make and save money, and so on, are these workers not also having to take on paperwork, maintain correspondences by voice and e-mail, and schedule meetings and what not via Outlook? The technologies do not do the work on their own - they still require people to run them. Except that those people are no longer dedicated staff that (in my opinion, more efficiently) manages the operations of a workplace.

In the workplace of higher ed, I recently heard from a colleague that how a few of her now-approaching-emeritus faculty member typically handled attendance (until quite recently) was that they circulated a sheet of paper asking students to sign in - then passed along the sheets to their full-time department secretary to keep track of student absences! So that the older faculty members could not understand how and why younger faculty members complained that they could not "count" attendance in their grading. Hint: Because it takes a lot of time to keep track of student attendance. Time that younger faculty members do not necessarily have b/c we have absorbed a lot of workplace operational work ourselves... (Not to mention whether or not it is even appropriate to ask department secretaries to do work like this...)

Here is what I found a bit frightening:

A general guideline these days is that people are rewarded when they can do things that take trained judgment and skill — things, in other words, that can’t be done by computers or lower-wage workers in other countries. Money now flows around the world so quickly, and technology changes so fast, that people who thought they were in high demand find themselves uprooted.

I think we tenure-track faculty members cannot take for granted that professors will always be needed. (We know that they are not always wanted...)

It is happening already, believe it or not, in K12 schooling. Read this piece, "How Online Learning Companies Bought America's Schools," from The Nation's November 16 issue.

The new normal sucks.