Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Holiday Doldrums and Blog Reflections

More than any of the posts thus far, this one is the closest to writing for the simple sake of writing. This is going to be a self-indulgent post, so if you happen to be reading this and have better things to do, go do them.

I’m writing this post from behind a small, tent fort that my children have been playing with since Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Commercial Economies and Human Connections

I’m in the midst of switching my 16 month old son from the daycare he’s been in since he was 12 weeks old to another that currently makes more sense for him and my family’s life. There are many reasons for this that are unimportant to this blog. Despite those many good reasons, the decision had me tangled up in guilt. When I originally called the owner of the daycare, I hemmed and hawed before making the call. I felt like I was making a break-up call to a romantic partner rather than ending a commercial relationship. I felt guilty because the caregivers have spent a lot of time with my son, developed attachments and he’s surely developed attachments to them. But, as I’ve reminded myself repeatedly, I’m paying them, so I have every right to remove him without any emotional baggage.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Hard Second Looks at the End of the Semester

It’s mid-December, which means I’m deep in the midst of grading papers and giving final exams. Despite being under mounds of end-of-term course bureaucracy, I do my best to end each semester with some kind of wrap up that communicates to students my abiding enthusiasm about anthropology, curiosity and learning.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Content of the Form: Teaching New World Archaeology

One of the courses I teach is called “Archaeology and Prehistory.” It’s a strange, amalgam class that is very ambitious, trying to cover a tremendous amount of ground in what are always very short semesters. The first third of the class covers fundamental archaeological method and theory. The second focuses on the classic transformations (like a “greatest hits” collection) of human groups--the emergence of stone tools, the peopling of the Earth beyond Africa, Behavioral Modernity, etc. The third section, for the most part, focuses on ancient farming societies or “complex” societies”...so there are many potential topics to explore.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Quick Take on Talking about Race

I’m almost finished talking about the “race” concept in my cultural anthropology class. As much as possible, I’m emphasizing two important points--humans are biologically variable and that the usual conception of “race” found in American culture is a social construction that doesn’t adequately describe that biological variation (though it does nicely serve as an ideological justification for social, political and economic stratification).

Saturday, November 26, 2011

More Harm than Good--Perils of Teaching about Anthropology and War to those Who've Been There

Easily, the majority of my students have had very provincial experiences by the time I encounter them. Despite living an easy hour drive from New York City, a good percentage of them have never made it there (and you know what you can do if you make it there). Far from having international experience, for many, their young lives have taken place entirely in the county, much less the country, of their birth. For them, that means that an intro to cultural anthropology class exposes them to very new peoples and ideas.

Increasingly, however, another population of students is filling my classes; a group that has traveled much more extensively and that has had repeated and sometimes very intense interactions with folks from very different cultural backgrounds. I’m not sure what the student profile looks like at four-year schools, but at my two-year one, students who are returning veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are becoming a small, but important segment of the student population (A piece last year from the Chronicle indicates that community colleges and for-profit schools are the most popular choices for recent veterans).

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Nádleehí, Ways of Knowing and Mutual Inclusion

Real cross-cultural understanding is sometimes a hard thing to get across. Often, I find that students are interested and can appreciate other ways of seeing the world, but a core ethnocentrism remains. When talking about very different cultural worldviews with students, I get the feeling that there’s a sense of “isn’t that quaint,” but that Western culture is still more closely aligned with reality and that other understandings of the world are a bit backwards. In other words, Western culture has less baggage that obscures our vision of the functioning of the “real” world. One of the subjects where this is the most apparent in the discussion of gender.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Teaching New World (pre)History

One of the persistent dilemmas I’m faced with as a teacher is how to get across important information in a way that makes a difference, both for a student and the larger society. As a professor at a community college, I don’t see my primary professional obligation as producing new anthropologists. Instead, I’m out to promote an understanding of other peoples and other ways of life through a critical examination of ethnographic and archaeological records.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Metaphors, Marbles and Monopoly

As I've noted on this blog a few times, I'm a big fan of metaphors that simplify complex concepts, making them accessible to college freshman and sophomores.  I was pleased to see my recent post on the metaphor of a "Braided River" to describe human population history received some attention (though, I definitely didn't develop that metaphor myself--see the comments on the original post for more information on original references).

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Adorable and Transgender, Innocent and Subversive

I ran across this photo the other day thanks to Feminist Frequency. In light of Sociological Images’ usual skewering of sexist Halloween costumes, I found this pink Darth Vader so striking--in a good way.

The costume is cute, subversive, adorable, transgender, innocent and well-executed all at once. It’s a bundle of culturally contradictory (again, in a good way) messages about gender. There’s the combination of Darth Vader--usually gendered as male. The tall, dark menacing figure with one of the deepest voices imaginable is the most iconic character in a movie series that is known for its heavily male fan following. But the costume’s pink coloring genders it female. As far as Halloween costumes go, it’s not the usual female costume because it’s not creating a “sexy” persona (unfortunately, this trend is not confined to costumes designed for adults. Women and girls can use male costumes as a sense of empowerment, but this pink Darth Vader’s empowerment can’t derive entirely from that as it’s full pink--the most completely gendered color.

Since I first saw the image, it's been stuck in my head as such a simple and great example of how symbols so central to our culture and gender ideology can be remade to send very different and even radical messages--all in the package a child's costume.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Talking about Modern and Ancient Peoples

Update: 11/21/11:  Just ran across this earlier blog post by PZ Meyers that uses the same metaphor, much earlier than my use.

I just finished reading John Hawks’s recent post discussing a new paper by Pontus Skoglund and Mattias Jakobsson, which examines the presence of Denisovan heritage in living peoples. I’m no geneticist, so I’m not offering any take on the bulk of the post, but I was struck by his final paragraph. In it, Hawks discusses how even a “small” drop of Denisovan DNA still translates into quite a big modern, genetic splash:

I should mention: less than one percent of a half billion people is still a very large number, added to five percent of the indigenous population of New Guinea and Australia, and smaller fractions of other island populations. The total amount of Denisovan legacy present in living people probably exceeds the population of Earth at the time the Denisovans lived.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Reproducing Gender Inequality

Sitting through the strange pre-Halloween snowstorm in New York, hoping not to lose power.

Just ran across another great post at Sociological Images. It again examines the sexist double standard between women and men in Halloween costume choices. Lisa Wade provided a nice, quick analysis with the following quote:

This pattern — women can dress like men, but men don’t dress like women — suggests that there is, in fact, something demeaning, ridiculous, or subordinating about presenting oneself to the male gaze. Most men feel stupid, gross, or vulnerable when they do it. This isn’t just about conformity to different gendered expectations. If it were just about difference women would feel equally weird dressing in men’s clothes. Instead, when women adopt masculine ways of dressing and moving, they often feel empowered.

So, when men do femininity they feel ridiculous and when women do masculinity they feel awesome. This is what gender inequality looks like.

Halloween costumes present another way that gender inequality is produced, reproduced and normalized. This past summer, I wrote a post with a similar punchline describing the covert meanings associated with frequently used curse words. Bringing such mundane examples to light contributes to making them less taken for granted and hopefully helps to break them down as well.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thought Experiment on Remaking Economies

Update 11/2/11: Because I'm either prescient or ignorant (much more likely), I just ran across an article describing the incipient development of an alternative currency system within the OWS movement.

the Alternative Currencies Working Group at OWS is putting out for consideration by the General Assembly a software-enabled gift currency called PermaBank, that's premise is "to develop and deploy a set of technologies that align 'financial services' with the principles of permaculture." PermaBank would enable individuals and groups "to post their wish/requests and gifts/offers and indicate whether they've been completed." It would also use paper money and credit cards (on a local credit union).

It seems the currency will formalize and organize an economy that has already spontaneously sprouted, enhancing "the efficiency of the gifting culture that currently exists within Liberty Plaza."

The article also mentions a few other local alternative currencies and institutions that advocate them.

Original Post:

Over the past couple of weeks, inspired by Occupy Wall Street and Florida Governor Rick Scott’s critique of anthropology, a couple of the blogs (Living Anthropologically and Neuroanthropology ) that I regularly read have been exploring potential, anthropologically-grounded ways toward a more equitable economy and society. Those posts got me thinking about how to operationalize anthropological ideas for the purpose of social change. This post is an exercise in that kind of thought.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Students as Individuals and Consumers

Yesterday, my administrative duties included conducting a classroom observation of an adjunct faculty member. These observations have the potential to become very uncomfortable, cringe-inducing experiences. Thankfully, this wasn’t one of those situations. I observed a seasoned instructor who had an easy rapport with students and was clearly in command of the material he was presenting, which he made quite interesting and engaging. Another pleasant surprise was the level of active participation from students in the class (unfortunately, the completely passive class does exist).

While my methodological training is in archaeology, I’m increasingly seeing classroom discussion as an opportunity for ethnographic examination of the cultural worldview of my students, who are largely lower to middle-middle class who’ve grown up in the suburbs of New York. They do provide an intriguing window into how this local population internalizes and embodies larger cultural discourse.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Children's TV and Race

As the parent of two small children, I’ve become somewhat of a connoisseur of children’s television programming. While I’d like to be one of those parents that could say, “my children just paint and dance, they’re not interested in TV,” I’m not (and it does really seem like I should be one of those parents). Sometimes, recourse to television becomes a necessary evil--say, like when you’re trying to do something as complex as wash dishes.

I’m well aware that television continues to be an important agent of enculturation in American culture that communicates important symbols to children. So, I do try to monitor the content of what my kids are watching so that it’s consistent with the values I’m trying to impart. I’ve got a lot of things I’m trying to do in raising of my kids, but specifically, I’d like to contribute to the breakdown of racist thought and action that still structures much of the American experience. While many advances toward racial equality have been made in recent decades, we still live in a society in which race is a major dimension of social division and stratification.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Rick Scott, Free Markets and Pollyanthropology

I’m feeling the normative pressure to write a post addressing Florida Governor, Rick Scott’s recent comments about the value of liberal arts college degrees, particularly those in anthropology. The basic gist of his comment is found in the following quote:

If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. ...So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.
Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.

Anthropology blogs, listserves and Twitter feeds are full of responses to to the governor. Anthropology bloggers have quickly responded with detailed and specific statements of anthropology’s many benefits. To my knowledge, the most comprehensive compilation of responses can be found at Neuroanthropology. The response of anthropologists has largely been heartening to see a nimble and reasoned defense of the discipline. My post here won’t add too much that hasn’t already been said. Many of the posts I’ve read detail pragmatic messages to communicate the practical relevance of anthropology.

While I completely understand and support the need to promote the economic benefits of anthropology, I just wish it wasn’t so (I feel like a “gosh-darnit” might be appropriate here). I know I’m being a bit idealistic, pollyannish and naive, but it doesn’t change the way I wish things were.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Columbus Day Revisited and Student Ambivalence

Just finished up a class that began with a discussion of conflicting views on Columbus Day. Most of my students expressed the general, “it’s just a day off” attitude and that none of them were out enthusiastically celebrating European contact with the New World. Why could there be much controversy? To be fair, not all students held this view as the student that asked the question in the first place, self-identified as Puerto Rican, expressed skepticism about the legitimacy of celebrating Columbus and his achievement. Most of the those students that seemed uninterested in the question were part of the generic Whiteness that defines so much of “normal” experience. It’s not that the quasi-silent majority was a group of pro-Columbus partisans, but more that even examining the holiday was equivalent to arguing over the existence of Santa Claus (a recent post on Living Anthropologically refers interested readers to how Columbus continued to serve as a symbol for American immigrant groups to negotiate a white identity).

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reflecting on Deaths: Steve Jobs and Fred Shuttlesworth

On my long commute to work this morning, I listened to the concatenation of NPR stations that I can receive on my way up. This morning, coverage was almost completely dedicated to the death of Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs. While death is often a sad event, especially for the friends and family of the deceased, the coverage struck me with how extraordinarily reverent and hagiographic the discussions were. Jobs’s life and career were frequently described as “visionary” and that he “transformed our culture.” Big words.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Myth Making and Child Rearing

What should have been expected event given the time of year, took me by surprise yesterday. I picked up my son from his new daycare provider--an incredibly nice, sweet and nurturing person--and my son began rambling on about ships on the ocean, brave men and new lands. It took me a few seconds, but then I realized they had been talking about Christopher Columbus and his voyages to what would become the New World. “Brave men” out on missions of “discovery.” My cognitive gears slowly began to churn as I thought about all of the implications and ramifications of what had been presented as a children’s story. My son is the child of two anthropologists who have politically left views...how do I deal with what, to the daycare provider is an innocent and simple tale?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Shameless Parental Promotion: New Title Image

Yes, the new title photo is of one of my children. That’s the main reason it’s there, but there are more. At the level of graphic design, I think it’s a very good picture of him in which he looks like an especially thoughtful one year old and its composition nicely balances it with the site’s title.

At a conceptual level, my children are major inspirations for this blog. Staying at home with them over the summer drove me to seek an outlet for me to think about things other than diapers and playgrounds. And, my relatively new role as a father has encouraged me to reconsider my experience as a recipient and purveyor of the symbols of my culture. While I never really was, I am definitely not now a passive receptacle, but a major agent of my children’s enculturation.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Grad School Geekiness vs. 101: Round 2

In a previous post, I discussed the tension between indulging one’s more esoteric academic interests while teaching 101 level classes. I do have to report a couple of major successes in getting my 101 students to dabble in a bit of archaeological geekiness.

A couple of weeks ago, I was discussing the transformation of material culture from a dynamic society into the static remains of the archaeological record. In discussing this, I was employing a simplified version of artifact life histories (similar to the concept of chaînes opératoires). As I was doing this, I posed the question of how one could decipher aspects of an artifact’s life history from what an archaeologist would find in the archaeological record. For example, how could you reconstruct the procurement of the raw material used for an artifact, how could you ascertain its method of manufacture and how could you infer patterns of its use? Three students came back with answers that clearly paralleled the “four dimensions of artifact variability” as defined by Michael Schiffer in Formation Processes of the Archaeological Record. For those who don’t know, that’s a very important book in archaeological theory, even if not the most exciting of reads.

For whatever reason, I really got into formation processes and other aspects of behavioral archaeology. However, I can completely understand how some find it not the most interesting component of archaeology. But, the fact that a group of 18-20 year old students were actively thinking along those lines was quite gratifying.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Assumptions of Progress

As part of a reading group that I’m not sure is getting off the ground, I’ve started James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. I’m not even one hundred pages in, but I have been struck by the simplicity of its insightful premise. Its simplicity, however, runs counter to many still prevailing assumptions of Western culture concerning folks living “traditional” or “indigenous” lifestyles. Basically, he argues that the many “tribal” or “hill” people of Southeast Asia are not ancient holdovers of a pre-civilized era, but:

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On Ablow and Bono

In recent days, the latest entry into minor celebrity/cable news feuds has bubbled to the surface. Psychiatrist and Fox News contributor, Keith Ablow, caused a small stir by advising parents not to let their children watch the new season of Dancing with the Stars. Specifically, he argues that the presence and supposed celebration of Chaz Bono could impair the normal development of children’s gender identity during formative periods. Of course, Chaz Bono’s controversial personhood stems from his undergoing transsexual surgeries and hormone therapies, changing his body from looking like that of a woman into a man.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Correctness of Political Correctness

As I’ve noted in a previous post, I have a decent, one way 45 minute commute to work. While I’m not particularly happy about this, it does provide ample opportunity to observe folks’ behavior on the roads, including how social, cultural identity and values are expressed through automobiles. Nowhere is such expression more obvious than on bumper stickers. Today, I noticed one that stated, “Proud to be Politically Correct." Initially, it glossed over my conscious thought, but something about it snagged my thinking. What do folks mean with the terms, “politically correct” and “politically incorrect”?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Biology, Masculinity and Fathers

A recent New York Times piece, “In Study, Fatherhood leads to Drop in Testosterone,” on research into testosterone levels and fatherhood has recently received a lot of attention, particularly from colleagues teasing me about my children. In a nutshell, the research indicates that levels of testosterone drop once a male becomes a parent and even more when the man actively participates in child care activities. The work does represent how anthropology works to integrate biological and cultural phenomena for a more complete understanding of human beings. We’re fundamentally both cultural and biological beings and separation between the biology and culture is often largely the consequence of units of analysis used by the investigators.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Grad Student Geekiness vs. Archaeology 101

Since I’ve been teaching, I’ve faced the recurrent dilemma of whether to indulge in graduate student geekiness or best serve the needs of students in introductory anthropology classes. The grad student in me loves the life of the mind and thinking about complex, interesting, and just cool topics--like the formation of the archaeological record. But, the archaeology 101 teacher in me realizes that most incoming college students just aren’t intellectually primed to engage with such ideas. Many are just coming out of “teach for the test” environments that seem to discourage thinking about big, interesting concepts.

I know it’s really not an either/or situation--getting geeky or dumbing down to a point of accessibility--but it is one where a delicate balance is needed. Sometimes, I can’t keep my inner geek down, but I have to remember to temper him.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Greeks and Romans on The(ir) Brain

It’s that time of year, when a new batch of students strolls into my class eager to learn about the wonders of the ancient world. Before I get started, though, I have to disabuse them of previously held notions of what archeology is all about. Every semester, I have students who didn’t get what they bargained for in a class called, “Archaeology and Prehistory.” I can see it in their eyes, hear it in their questions and finally in their course evaluations at the end of the semester. They expect the course to all about Greek and Roman archaeology with a bit of other European societies (what I think they hope to be the “real” Middle Earth) thrown in. That seems to be the only archaeology they think exists. They’re disappointed that I don’t really address such societies in my course. I have had several end of semester student evaluations lament my lack of coverage of Classical societies. While those ancient cultures are completely legitimate topics, I don’t cover them. Like many anthropological archaeology courses, I focus on non-Western history. And more than that, students that are ignorant of non-Western histories are just the ones that should be learning about them.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The More Things Change...Saturday Night and Natural Light

My posts usually attempt to tie some anthropological perspective to some experience that’s popped up in my professional or parenting life. This post, not so much. This is just a random, wistful recollection and reflection.

As someone who’s spent a lot of time studying archaeology, I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about the passage of time. One of the most general contrasting set of contours of history is the tension between change and continuity.

As I was sitting around tonight, ideas of change and continuity came to mind. It’s a Saturday night, I’m in my suburban New York home, my wife is putting my three year old to bed and my one year old has been sleeping for an hour. As a parent of small children, I’m of course spending a Saturday evening at home.

Twenty years ago, a warm Saturday night would likely mean driving through a New Mexico desert in one of my parent’s cars, searching for an illicit party where I might get to chat with a girl I had a crush on.

Much has changed, but it’s still a Saturday night. And in both 1991 and 2011, I’m drinking a Natural Light.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Road Rage and Bubbles of Protection

On one recent morning, I was driving home from a routine pediatrician visit with my two kids when I witnessed something that unsettled me for the rest of the day. So far that morning, my activities had been the epitome of the mundane--dressing and feeding kids, driving, waiting room, exam room and driving home. All that put me deep in the grips of the behavioral auto-pilot that routine activity fosters.

But, as I was turning left at a lighted intersection, I noticed two cars carelessly pulled off to the right shoulder ahead. A stocky, blond man was stalking outside of the driver side of one car when he turned and began throwing punches through the window at the driver. After a series of small stops and starts, the driver finally pulled ahead so that the pugilist could no longer land blows. By this point, I had turned and was on my way. However, this display of violence shocked me out of my routine and unnerved me for the rest of the ride home. I began to think about why this violent act shook my sense of the world around me, which led me down the road of pondering the nature of humans, violence and society in which I live. I don’t live in a world free of violence, but I do occupy a bubble of protection that shields me from much of it.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Weather Worries and Human Impacts

I spent this morning assembling a cache of supplies to get my family through the impending Hurricane Irene. Candles, matches, milk for infant, water, sandbags (my first purchase of this item, ever). I’ve never been through this kind of pre-disaster situation before, so I’m full of anxiety and worry about my kids, my home, my car and everything else that makes contemporary life in the US feasible. However, as I’ve noted a lot in this blog, I have it relatively easy as a member of the middle-class who still has a job with a decent salary. It’s nothing new to say that while natural disasters can impact anyone, those impacts are much more dramatic on the poor. Katrina still lingers in the public memory as a prime example of this.

As I was checking out at the local Home Depot and grocery store, I couldn’t help but feel for the folks ringing up my purchases. They were working, while I was able to leisurely prepare for the storm. Many of those folks also likely rely on public transportation to get where they need to go. That’s got to add quite a few points to the degree of difficulty in disaster preparedness. My clerk, in particular, was a laid-off teacher looking for other work, but had to take a job at the grocery store to make ends meet. I had to consider myself so fortunate to still be on the other side of layoffs. I also thought of my father-in-law, who works an evening security job on the weekends. He won’t be able to hunker down in his home. He’ll have to drive through the hurricane to get to and from work to get that needed paycheck. I know there are many more like that among the 80 million people predicted to be impacted by the storm.

Here’s to hoping it’s all hype and that I and those folks all get through the storm unscathed.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Asking and Answering Big Questions

One of the first things that really drew me to anthropology was that it asked really big questions about what human life is all about. I think I might have gone done the road to philosophy if I hadn’t liked my intro to anthropology professor a lot more than my philosophy one. Even though it’s been almost 20 years since my first anthropology class, I still get excited about those big questions. One of the biggies being, does God or the supernatural exist? Many, I think myself included, would say that social scientists cannot and have not business addressing that question. However, I recently ran across a book in which the authors claimed that social science was in a unique position to ask and answer that question.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Ominous Tweets and Pessimistic Ponderings

This morning as I was waiting for my co-op’s resident plumber to check out a leak in my bathroom, I skimmed through my Twitter feed, which was full of messages about the impending re-collapse of the economy. Links to stories about stock market volatility, bad job numbers, decreased manufacturing and the European debt situation flooded my feed. While short, no link was more dramatic than Kevin Drum’s warning of the coming economic and social apocalypse.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Blog Recommendation: I'm Not a Racist, but...

I just discovered the blog, “I’m Not a Racist, but...” It’s great and a valuable effort toward an anit-racist society. The blog is based on a simple idea that easily and elegantly demonstrates the continuing rampant racism in United States, among other places. The blog simply collects screen shots of Facebook updates that include the phrase, “I’m not a racist, but.” This phrase is necessarily followed by a racist statement. This kind of talk is sometimes termed “elite racist discourse” because the speakers are attempting to distance themselves from a negative social identity--a racist--but at the same time engaging in racist speech (I discussed “covert” racist and sexist speech in this post). While I love, the site, I am saddened that it finds material and that it is needed.

In class, my students always chuckle when I mention elite racist discourse because they’ve all heard it before in casual conversations. However, I always get the impression that none think it’s that bad or that big of a deal. I’m betting some of this is simply because it’s part of their ambient linguistic environment and they have trouble pinning down many specific instances. I think this site helps to illustrate that such talk is bad and a big deal. When you scroll through post after post of clearly racist sentiments, you realize exactly how racism is still very common in the US. It stops being, “that’s just how people talk,” or “it’s just a joke,” to “wow, that’s awful.”

The blog brings to light a nasty underbelly of American/World culture that should be seen, examined, mocked, and finally deconstructed. I applaud those who run the site.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Reflections on Bad Parenting, Part III: Why Don’t I Have any Friends?

In some recent posts (part I, part II), I began a series of written meanderings on some of the anthropological lessons I can take away from my summer spent with my kids. Mostly, I’m rationalizing why I don’t enjoy spending so much time with my children. In the first post, I noted how the suburbs contribute to a feeling of disconnectedness since they’ve separated me from some important social relationships. At a basic level, I don’t have friends or family who live close by. However, one might argue back to me that there are plenty of people living in suburbs that one could create new meaningful relationships with—dude, can’t you make friends? Admittedly, I am not the most gregarious of folks, so I do have trouble interacting with new people on a general level. However, specifically, the traditional culture of gendered parenting in our society further complicates my ability to create new friendships. The fact that I’m a stay-at-home father in a sea of stay-at-home mothers creates a gendered zone of social awkwardness.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Grass isn't always greener on the other side

I’m currently serving as chair for my department and one of my most time-consuming duties is finding qualified adjunct faculty to cover many of our department’s section offerings (we’re lucky in that I think it’s about a 50/50 ratio of full-time to adjunct). While I don’t particularly enjoy this part of the job, digging through resumes and emails reminds me of how much harder it is on the other side of the process. I really do feel for all of the potential instructors that I’m putting calls out to two weeks before the semester begins.

I adjunct taught at a full-time equivalent level for four years prior to gaining my current full-time, tenure track position. I clearly remember the anxiety over if I would be able to get enough courses to pay my bills I would debate with myself just how many campuses I could realistically teach to meet those needs. I also have vivid memories of injuries and illnesses that I so hoped were mild as I didn’t have any health insurance. I can also recall getting courses the week before the semester and having to prepare classes at lightspeed.

I am blissfully happy not to have those same worries now. However, I can’t forget them and will always empathize with the trials and tribulations of those great many still making a living as adjunct faculty members. And, with public budgets being slashed around the country, I can’t help but worry that my current cushy position might not be around forever.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Some unoriginal thoughts about online education

I’m just wrapping up 12 weeks of online teaching over this summer—three sections in total. All in all, I’m exhausted…days filled with wrangling two children and nights filled with discussion boards and essays. While I can see some value in the online format (all students forced to write a lot and actually participate), I also think we are losing something important as education increasingly goes this route. Real teaching and learning does go on online, but it also seems like it further makes a college degree another commodity and not an experience that enriches human life (I know I’m sounding romantic here, but I do want to be idealistic about teaching and learning). The lack of face-to-face sociality seriously diminishes the significance of the process.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

My Sorrowful Authentic Self: A Reflection on Bad Parenting, Part II

In an earlier post, I wrote about how cars and suburbs have made modern parenting more difficult than it needs to be.  In that post, I noted how even though others built the world of cars and suburbs, those actions have made my parenting a difficult task.  As I reflected a bit on that post and other parenting frustrations, I came to appreciate how my very self was also constructed by others.  And in the first place, it was many selves, like myself, that built up the world of cars and suburbs that I originally started complaining about (I know that’s a confusing and/or crappy sentence, but I kind of like it and think it makes more sense once you’ve read the entire post).   All of the preceding verbal mess is my way of trying to express the whole notion of structure, agency and every other similar term used to describe how people build symbolic and material worlds and how those worlds in turn build people.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sucks Stinks

(READ THIS BEFORE MOVING ON—the following post contains repeated instances of curse words, including one that some find particularly offensive—the “f-word” [that’s the last time in this post that I do not use the actual word]. I use the words in this post to analyze their semantic functions through an anthropological lens. I also spend the entire post criticizing their use, not because they’ve been defined as “curses,” but because I think their use has other, nasty social consequences. This warning may seem overboard, but if anyone from my institution of employment comes across this post, I want to be clear that this is not the case of a professor going off with f-bombs for some polemic purpose. I’m doing this because it’s anthropologically interesting and relevant.)

Why Sucks Stinks
I never thought I’d be one of those parents to watch my language around my children to avoid cursing, but it’s happened. More than anything, I don’t want them to suffer the consequences of using foul language in some non-home context…some teacher or other parent scolding them for doing something that may have seemed normal at home. So, my wife and I have become active patrollers of our language.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Summer in the Suburbs: A Reflection on Bad Parenting

Update (10/14/2011): A recent Sociological Images post discusses how American infrastructure is so car friendly and includes a number of telling photographs of the problems that pedestrians face.

Part I
As noted in my initial post, the origins of this blog are found in a summer spent nearly exclusively with my two children and the myriad difficulties embedded in such a summer. Throughout the summer, something has gnawed at me; I have repeatedly wrestled with the fact that I’m not enjoying much of this summer. Aren’t parents supposed to revel in time with their kids? Everyone is constantly telling me to “enjoy this time,” because it “goes by quickly.” Am I a bad parent because I’m not enjoying it? The answer may well be “yes” (while relevant to my situation, I won’t often discuss my personal psychology—I don’t have the training, and that’s embarrassing), but I’ve also come to the conclusion that parenting in the contemporary US occurs in a context that is unusual when compared with much of cross-cultural human experience, and that makes parenting hard*. Specifically, it’s hard for a single adult to successfully manage and meet the needs of more than one child. I am in awe of single parents.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cultural Relativism, Excuses and Understanding

In a recent New York Times op-ed, anthropologist, Mike McGovern offered an examination of the background of the woman involved in the alleged case of rape against Dominique Strauss-Kahn. It’s well known that problems emerged with her credibility and the accounts she provided for investigators. McGovern’s piece was simply one that provided a greater context for the woman’s life, as she is an immigrant from Guinea and McGovern is an anthropologist who specializes in West Africa.

Robert Fulford of the National Post wrote a response piece earlier this week that criticized McGovern for using a “coarsely applied version of cultural relativism” to excuse or explain away any of the woman’s potential guilt for deceiving investigators. While cultural relativism is a multifaceted and, at times, contentious concept, it is not “an idea that long ago lost its professional moorings and became a dead weight on serious thinking” as Fulford argues.

McGovern’s essay nicely shows this. He gives the social, political, cultural backstory of a woman in the news to show that she wasn’t simply some Westchester County debutante looking to make a quick buck off of a rich older man. She was a woman who had come from a difficult place in difficult times, when bad choices were often more available than good ones. McGovern provided the context which makes her actions a bit more understandable, not excusable, but understandable. In my opinion, making it easier to understand other people is one of the noblest missions of anthropology and cultural relativism.

Update: Just after I made this brief post, Living Anthropologically posted a more thoughtful and informative response in line with my own.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


The following is a quick stream of consciousness take on the purpose of this blog.

Over the summer of 2011, I was teaching three classes online, but more importantly, serving as primary caregiver to my two small sons, one three years old and one almost one year old. While I love my kids and they are the amazing, wonderful creatures that all parents proclaim the greatness of, I became increasingly weary during these child-centric months. I began to crave adult interaction. As such, the internet increasingly served as an outlet of communication and a proxy for socialization with grown-ups. Problem was, I often didn’t have anyone specific to communicate with. Who wants to hear about the minutiae of my days with kids, oh yeah, Twitter. While I’d initially thought it trivial, I began to experiment with Twitter, sending out tweets about kids, politics, and anthropology. Surprisingly, there was some satisfaction in doing this.