Monday, December 21, 2009

Measuring Success

Tomorrow is my baby girl's twentieth birthday. In the artificial construct of American age, it is the last year I can refer to her as a baby girl. Next year, she will be an adult.

There has been a lively discussion on the SACC listserv about measuring educational success. Of course, I think it is all bullshit. I hate when people try to apply scientific standards to human behavior. It can't be done. Anthropology has taught me that. And then to take it one step further and tell me I need to be able to demonstrate my effectiveness to the public? Please. Get your cultural hegemony out of my classroom.

Anthropology has taught me that humans are too much fun to waste time trying to control them. Let us relish the process. Celebrate the experience.

Like parenting. Or should the public have the right to measure my effectiveness in that regard? Should I make transparent and explicit my parenting plan? Should we devise models of my effectiveness? (Did I mention she got straight A's at UT this semester?)

Oh well, time to prepare for the annual Dim Sum birthday party. We are having it one day early this year. I don't know how it came to be that she celebrated in this fashion. One year, she just wanted to do it and so we do. And have continued to do so. I don't know what it means to her personal growth but it makes me happy and I relish the process.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Empire Zits: Pow, Zap

So, I saw this on the Huffington Post and it was just so way cool that I had to share.

Seems that empires are like zits. First they grow, then they explode, then, eventually, they just disappear.

My favorite part is in 1960 when African independence kicks in. I so knew that was coming. Pow. Zap. Too bad so sad.

Visualizing empires decline from Pedro M Cruz on Vimeo.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Monday, November 9, 2009

Tell me about your mother: how Jewish is she?

Interesting article at the NY Times about the legal battle brewing in the U.K. over determinations of "Jewishness" in school admission processes: "Who is a Jew?" is the central question. And the courts have tripped over the thorny issue of the inherent discrimination in the us/them reality of some religious faiths. When does religious faith become ethnic identification? For orthodox Jews ( at least those in decision-making positions at some schools): not when your mother has converted and not when she has converted Progressively. Ethnic discrimination foul, according to the British Courts.

Round 2: the attempted save of belief through practice didn't quite cut the mustard as “having a ham sandwich on the afternoon of Yom Kippur doesn’t make you less Jewish,” Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, chairman of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, said recently. The school seems to have ditched that evaluative measure.

Round 3: still waiting for the towel down and water splash. Any guesses?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Linguists: For Free

Well this Honors gig thing is really kicking my ass but I still feel more anthropologist than low-level abused administrator so I am back at my blog. I miss it.

I still feel a bit choked up about Levi-Strauss dying. Seems so stark to type that. I suppose we should celebrate the life and all that: 100 years of distinguished living but still its death and one can only spin that so far.

Anyway, I was in Washington D.C. this past week at the National Collegiate Honors Council meetings. It was useful for my new responsibilities but the best part (Ha! I am still full-time anthropologist) was the screening of The Linguists. It was awesome. It felt like slipping on a pair of comfortable jeans. We have all had fieldwork experiences like they depict. I skipped all the panels I was to attend and stayed all the way through the questions and answers. David Harrison was there and was a joy to listen to as he thoughtfully answered questions. The film maker (Ironbound films) announced that toward the end of the month copies priced for personal purchase will be available. They reached some licensing agreements which would allow for that. He, also, pointed out, that the video is streaming for free at Bablegum. He made it clear he had no intention to exercise any demands to pull it down. So, if you haven't seen it yet. Go enjoy it now. Here. But, hey, support their efforts and if you have the money--buy a copy. I plan on it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Meaning of Black Hair: Chris Rock, IMF Restructuring and Curly Kits

I notice Chris Rock (such a bummer that the You Tube of him on Leno from a previous post was pulled--trust me it was hilarious)is releasing a documentary entitled "Good Hair" exploring the meanings and issues associated with...well..."black hair". I didn't have to go very far to read lots of stories and reviews of it. Salon has three stories, specifically, on the documentary and ancillary links that pull up stories on Michelle Obama's hair and Tyra Banks' weaves. I haven't done a full Google on it but I was playing a little a game with myself betting that if it hasn't happened already, Stuff White People Love, will have a reference soon to black hair. If Salon is so obsessed with the issue isn't that a safe bet?

If you check out the commentary added to my last post you will find an interesting discussion about the ways that anthropologists walk the thin line of "relevance". I suppose the consensus is that we all use our cultural dialogues to begin the discussions but, in the end, we all want to move beyond to achieve the ultimate "relevance". I want to thank Barbara Miller for commenting and inviting us all to use the resources which support her textbook. Here is a link to her blog, Anthropology Works. It looks awesome.

So, reading about the Chris Rock documentary was fascinating in and of itself but it was more fascinating for me because it took me back to my original fieldwork days. I think I have mentioned before that I was in Tanzania during its initial IMF restructuring. I arrived on a pre-fieldwork 3 month visit in 1985 and then returned a few months later for a full year. During that time the deal was struck and the currency devaluation, government jobs layoffs, and deregulation of the economy slowly unfolded. I say slowly maybe because of the way I perceived it. I saw small signs of it before I left Dar es Salaam and headed up country and each time I returned to Dar I would see specific and dramatic changes. I remember standing on the street in shock staring at the bars of Kenyan Cadbury's chocolate spread out on a street vendors mat. This was a country I had come to know as lacking petrol, bread (no wheat flour)...oh heck, why bother to try to list. The country had nothing. I had to boil all my water and filter it because there was no bottled water at that time. At one time, surviving as an anthropologist was awkward beyond belief trying to figure the ethics of relying on a black market currency and then under currency de-regulation the constant re-assessment of the value of my grant clashing in my head with the local perspective of value that was taking over my daily thoughts--it was all too much disconnect.

But that was all terribly selfish reflection because in the midst of this the Tanzanian people were struggling with their new world. The borders were fully open and the markets de-regulated. Consumer goods were now available (even if few could ever afford them). And Tanzanians at all educational and class levels were debating the changes and the debates centered around "black hair", specifically "curly kits": those packages of chemicals and curlers which gave one the Billy Dee Williams-Jheri-Curl-kitted-look. Tanzanians at that time called them "curly kits" and they were the one object everyone wanted and everyone hated everyone else for wanting.

I suppose every anthropologist has stories about the things they were asked to obtain from the power of their whiteness, their otherness, their wealth and power; that thing that in the closed world of our grad student minds we forgot we had until thrust into the new role of connected outsider. They have a convenient label for it in Tanzania: mzungu, the Kiswahili word for "outsider". Literally? People who go around and around aimlessly. Nuff said. One of the first personal (not shouted out) requests I got was from the wife of one of my then-husband's contacts in Dodoma. She pulled me aside and asked me for birth control and a curly kit. (For those of you interested in the birth control issue. Tanzania, at that time, had only Soviet birth control pills available. The great ole' USA wouldn't supply anything other than the wing an a prayer rhythm method. It took HIV/AIDS to get the condoms in. Don't get me started on those policies and laws. Bastards.)

Next thing I knew the letters to the editor sections of the one English language and the two (that I recall) Kiswahili papers were full of righteous indignation about the issue. I devoured the letters, struggling valiantly with Swahili in its real--non-classroom--version. The debate was early Chris Rock. People warned of the dangers of losing natural African beauty (I always think of the late, great Miriam Makeba here). The arguments quickly moved into condemnation of a system which allowed scarce hard currency to be wasted pandering to individual vanity. The country needed so much. A generation of people raised in the beliefs of pulling together for the common good and then experiencing the disillusionment of its failure can have some powerfully interesting discussions about free market economics and choice. By the time I left, I saw a few glistening curly heads in Dar but never encountered one up country. Whatever politics and sense of identity might have been associated with sporting the Billy Dee look could be afforded by too few to count. But it made for a hell of a paper debate while it lasted.

BTW, you are damn right I walked away from that Fruit and Nut Bar in a wave of sanctimony. Then turned right around, came back, paid several dollars for it, devoured it on the spot in a non-Tanzanian wave of gluttony. I can't, honestly, say that it tasted all that good having been without for months. And, no, living in my own glass house, I don't dare toss a stone at those wanting perfectly curly, perfectly shiny hair. But Tanzania does need a lot more than that.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Making Anthropology "relevant": Do we really want to go there?

In my Real Life, I have been given a book proposal for a new intro to Cultural Anthropology to review. Its kind of bugging me as I make my way through the proposal because the unknown author seems to feels some compelling need to make Anthropology more "relevant" to students today. I suppose someone somewhere has some deep insight into what is relevant to students today, sorry. Don't think so. We all run around pretending to know our students and giving them that monolithic designation as if they are all the same. Maybe in some land of artificial, homogeneous people that would work. But, hello, we are talking about my Real Life, here, not a cyber-constructed reality.

So, what is the author really after? It seems like there are a lot more references made to American culture: American film, American internet experiences, American Second Life experiences. Did I miss something. Aren't we pretty much irrelevant these days? Dying on the vine. Throwing juvenile tantrums in our rapidly deteriorating playpens while we are ignored by the adults who really could care less about us--we aren't their children after all. Didn't I just read that we don't even control the internets anymore? How odd to argue we should be making Anthropology more relevant to the irrelevant.

And, since when do we really think education should consist of what they want to know? Do we really teach anthropology so they can understand themselves? Some of my best (funnest and well-received) lectures are completely irrelevant to the lives of students. Isn't that the point of Anthropology. How irrelevant we (Americans) and we (individuals) are?

I still have to read more. I hope things get better soon. Or I adopt another frame of mind--something more.....relevant?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ooooo....teachable moment alert...teachable moment alert

Have we all seen the recent discussion of Michelle Obama's ancestry? The New York Times has extended discussion/blog/commentary up with views of noted scholars commenting. Even one by an Anthropologist (yeah team). Its got some nice bits on race. I need to go read the others. I, totally, paused to rush back and tell you. Follow me back over there--here.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Culture, Class, and was "rape-rape"

While the New York Times is busy parsing out all the cultural meanings of the American versus French versus German interpretations of the Roman Polanski arrest (at least according to Americans). And The Guardian reminds us to throw class into the mix (Lovely how both papers are staying true to form in the interpretations of their columnists). I am relieved to find myself embracing my inner petit bourgeosie self (denial of my lumpenproletariat status is a game I play with do others) and sharing the WTF moment with Chris Rock:

And do I need to point your way to the succinct and some would even say (ME! ME!) correct interpretation by Kate Harding at Salon which is making its way across the internets and twitters when everyone else has a moment to spare from all those Ardipithecus tweets all pointing to the same Science article--yes, yes, yes. I don't need to be told yet again. Do not keep those cards, letters, and tweets coming. I know. Really.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Culture keeps us from going crazy and killing everybody

I just read that on an exam I am trying to grade. Hmmmmm.....I wish culture was working better for us. On second thought, given these exams, I wish it would stop working and someone would put me out of my misery.

Back at it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

De-evolution and Evolutionary Debate

Don't know about you but I am scheduled to cover Evolution in my General Anthropology (ANTH 2346) come this Tuesday. Not looking forward to it. 39% of Americans don't "believe" in it.

And this just in from the Daily Telegraph who is, once again, wallowing in their sense of British superiority about the rampant stupidity of their colonial backwaters. Seems the critically-acclaimed film about the life of Charles Darwin, Creation is "too controversial for religious America".

Here is the trailer:

Can't see the objection, it seems to have the proper degree of histrionics and angst. Perhaps if they ripped off some of those bodices, Americans would be more comfortable with the whole issue. *sigh*

Doing my part, as the new Honors Coordinator on campus, I have signed us up for the webcast lectures being billed as The Darwin 150 Project. Its easiest to get at them through their Facebook page. The first lecture in the series is almost sold out:

"The World Before Darwin" - Lecture 1 of "Origin of Species" 150th Anniversary Lecture Series - at Harvard University
Wednesday, September 16, 2009 from 8:00 PM - 9:30 PM (ET)

I am glad I am already signed up, fired up, and ready to go. Sign up here. If you still can.

Nat Geo has a blog up about the Facebook evopalooza. Heck, go to their Facebook page and look, I can't begin to link up all the coverage they are getting.

Has everyone seen the way-cool Evolution of Evolution extravaganza at the Nation Science Foundation? Check it out here.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Those Pyramid-Building Aliens

I was going to blog about the responses of our local school districts, here in the great state of Texas, to that powerful socialist force that is our President and his nefarious plan to hypnotize schoolchildren to do his bidding but it just makes me sick to my stomach.

Instead, I have been working on those pesky aliens. This semester I cried Uncle and dealt with it in a full, frontal assault.

First know thy enemy. This blog, Ancient Cosmonauts, is a lot of fun for exploring the "pyramid-building aliens" meme. This week in my Archy class, I pulled it right up in class and we had at it. A good number laughed at the pictures. They are the Stargate visualizations they grew up with, after all. Staying with the science of movies, the blog author includes this sentiment (I hesitate to call it an argument):

Do you really think this wonderful pyramid was built by the allegedly savages depicted in Apocalypto or is it more reasonable the line of Alien vs Predator?

Fun with bad archaeology time.

We played the embedded You Tube video and critiqued it, observing, for example, the legitimacy established by the "documentary narrator" voice.

Now, that was a fun one.... but here is the kind of thing you are really up against. A site with the name of Edutube with a .org address promoting this kind of stuff.

I guess most of us begin to critique this stuff from the whole Occam's Razor perspective:
As this site by the Chemical Heritage Foundation does. But I have grown to find that approach the tiniest of toe dips into the waters of where the corrective needs to go. You are, really, only using the parsimony perspective to get you to the Myths and Moundbuilders "it was the locals, stupid" meme. The Chemical Heritage Foundation link does it with the look at how cool those ancient, indigenous people were, they discovered the magical antibiotic properties of honey. Its a bit patronizing and simplistic but it is meant for school kids, after all.

Penn State's Donald Redford has a demystified explanation here which conforms, nicely, to the requirements of parsimony. It does, however, lack the sex appeal of aliens. Or if you just want some visual support without wasting the time for a whole documentary, some visualizations from the Nova documentary This Old Pyramid, are online courtesy of Creighton University here.

If you want to add greater complexity and sex appeal (if not, necessarily, undisputed accuracy), you can get into the whole ramp location debate (summarized in Archaeology magazine in 2007) in the context of Khufu and the, definitely, non-parsimonious work of Jean-Pierre Houdin for which there is a way cool 5 minute Nat Geo clip up at You Tube here.

These brief snippets aren't meant to be comprehensive. Feel free to add. Where is Bob? He could do a better job at this.

And, if all else fails, you can always give up and buy the t-shirt. Although, I prefer "Stonehenge was an inside job".

Guest Blogger, Bob Muckle, sent me the following by email. It was too long to fit on Twitter. I am going to post it up quick and since I am out late tomorrow, he won't catch me to take it down for awhile, in case he didn't intend to share. Bob is the slanty print-attach no meaning to that.

I don't routinely schedule a discussion on the pyramids, but sometimes it does come up. Like you I tackle it on a number of fronts. When I do tackle it, I usually use the framework of science to assess the explanations/hypothesis. I start with the ol' test of testablility. As in..."if you can't test it, throw it (the hypothesis/explanation) out." It is simply impossible to test for the fact that aliens built it. "How would you test for aliens?" I ask my students. They usually come up with a list of things, but I then remind them that just because you may find some previously unknown material or some such thing, one cannot make the claim that it is evidence of aliens.'

I also tackle it on the basis of compatability. That the Egyptians built the pyramids is compatabible with what we know of Egyptian civilization in general, and the evolution of funery monuments in particular. We can see the evolution in size, shape, and engineering of pryamide building.

I also use Occam's Razor.

And I remind students that it is bad science to accept one hypothesis by rejecting the others. This is what pyramidiots and others who use the "alien explanations" do all the time. Pretend to be scientific by generating a list of competing explanations and then ruling out Hypothesis #1, Hypotheses #2, Hypotheses #3, Hypothesis #4, and then concluding that it must have been aliens.

I don't use much on-line video on the pyramids, but on occasion I have pulled out "The Case of the Ancient Astronauts", a 1978 Nova production focussing on debunking the work of Erich von Daniken. It looks dated (hair cuts and cars, etc), but it is really quite good to show the alien vs. scientific/archaeological perspectives. It has a segment on the Egyptain pyramids that begins with von Daniken providing his explanation, and then it goes to critique. It also does this for the Nasca lines, statues of Easter Island, a Mayan sarcophagus lid at Panlenque, and some sites in South America. When I do show it, I provide an update (eg. von Daniken, while not so popular in North America is still writing books and going on lecture tours in Europe, and recently had a big theme park in Switzerland that I think went bankrupt). I also try to provide updates on current archaeological thinking about the pyramids, etc.

Of course there are many semi-scholarly/semi-scientific articles tacking the pyramadiots. Peter Kosso has a chapter called "The Epistimology of Archaeology" in the edited volume 'Archaeological Fanatasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads the Public.' It is reproduced in 'Reading Archaeology' which I edited (Univ Toronto Press, 2008). A good portion of the chapter is devoted to considering explanations of the Egyptian pyramids.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Plugging In, Again: crumple, toss, next

The preliminary figures are in; our enrollments are up over ten percent, which puts us over 30,000 system-wide. Two weeks have gone by that I can't recall. Here seems to be a day:

8:30 arrive on Campus, pass College Democrats bulletin board on the way to office, pull down picture of Obama that looks like Heath Ledger as the Joker which has been hung by unknown idiot. Hmmmm, this one (in full color) seems to still be wet. High quality printer. Must be faculty. asshole.

8:30-10:00 answer endless emails. Sorry about your flat tire, get the notes, sorry about your grandmother there is a copy of your syllabus on Blackboard, get the notes, hmmm, free pizza this afternoon, jeez, how loud does psych prof have to scream in lecture...louder than crazy hippy-trippy philosophy dude, apparently; sorry about the loss of your last three days due to bipolar mood swing, get the notes; yes, its okay that there are 7 copies of your Discussion Board post, Blackboard does that, especially, when you click on it 7 times; yes, the deadline for Honors by Contract is September 18, yes, just like it says on the form, itself; training announcement: delete; training announcement: delete, WTF forward from fellow faculty whom I like. *snort*, a few more of those and I might make it through.

10:00-11:20 teach.....blah...blah...blah no, the pyramids were not built by aliens....blah...blah....blah..... no the pyramids were not built by aliens. blah...blah..blah

11:20-11:30 break...sorry to hear that you couldn't get parking for the last week and a half, get the notes....(need to get something to drink, need to pee) Yes, history dude, I did realize that they think the pyramids were built by aliens....shit....time to start again (need to get water, need to pee)

11:30-1:00 teach...which class is this?......blah....blah...blah

1:00...where was that free pizza?

1:00-1:01 pee (ahhh, thank god)

1:01-1:45 pester Academic Dean re:Honors Program....blah, blah, blah

1:45-2:00 panic about said Program

2:00-4:00 Honors Lounge: form updating, file processing....yes, honors student, Jim Morrison was God (note to self: NOT)....yes, Chair of English we are going to make it a goal that your Honors English Comp class will not, again, be cancelled in a record enrollment period with an enrollment of are my preliminary plans to get your class with its bitchy-ass professor to make: we are going to try the new innovative method of enrolling dead grandmothers and flat tires into all Honors classes. No, we are carefully screening to remove all students who face three day loses due to Bipolar disorder and ones who circle the parking lot for a week and a half looking for a space..Yes, I feel sure this will work, after all, the students assure me that the spirit of Jim Morrison is guiding the Honors Program as we move forward into a new blah....blah....blah....

4:00-4:01: Where was that free pizza? Need water.

4:01-6:00 Blackboard, grade, post, grade, post, grade, post....closing last call for alcohol.......

6:00-6:01 remove still wet poster of Barack Obama as the Heath Ledger Joker from Democrats board......crumple,

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Too many students; too little trash

Whew! How many of those of us who teach anthropology are back teaching anthropology? We are packed to the gills with students. If they could have suspended them from the ceiling, I believe they would have. I think every class we have must be full. I know mine are. 39 students in my Intro to Archaeology class (yes, that is 3 over our limit which at 36 is waaaaay too big) and I haven't got a seat left. I do one of those dorky trash sorting exercises in the first week of classes. I am supposed to do it tomorrow. But I don't have enough simulated trash to go around. Its midnight here in H-town. Surely, there is an all-night simulated trash for simulated archaeology sorting and making inferences about material culture store open somewhere?

BTW, yours truly was called by Herr President of Campus sometime last week--the days have all run together. You are now blogging with the Honors Coordinator for our Campus. Yep. I was stupid enough to sign on for that. 7 14 hour days later and I can't help but wonder what I was thinking.

There seems to be an interesting discussion going on at my past award-winning post (that always cracks me up) on teaching pedagogy. I assume the comments are showing up under Discursion. Have a look. I think I won't have a chance until I am done with the whole trash issue.

Carry on.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Private Thoughts and Public Labels: From Potatoes to Gender

Houston lost a daughter. Austin gained a Longhorn. Mom still has the hedgehog; you saw that one coming didn't you?

On the road from Austin home to Houston, I passed (again) the sign for Old Potato Road, and had the same thought: is the potato old or is it the road?

Its all about the label, isn't it?

Just after Old Potato Road, NPR had a story about the controversy over Castor Semena, the South African track runner who improved a little too much, too fast sparking a flurry of rather tacky speculation about her gender; although why an improvement of 8 seconds in a year should translate into a gender identity issue is beyond me: only men can improve by leaps and bounds? Or: we are stunned; stunned, shocked, and appalled to discover that she was in fact, a man, all along even though we did not contemplate that when she was slower

But she looks muscular, has narrow hips and a deep voice. Exactly what is a woman supposed to look like?

Anyway, when classes start next week, I suppose we all have the ideal label--Castor Semena--for discussing the complexities of gender identification. Teachable Moment alert.

Juxtapose thoughts about Castor Semena with the news about the swimsuit model killed by the reality star and stuffed into a suitcase. Turns out she could only be identified by the serial number on her breast implants. What is a woman supposed to look like? Too many thoughts for me.

Cue Tammy Wynette: sometimes its hard to be a woman

...especially driving through a Texas night having said goodbye to a daughter.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Teaching Naked: Another one of those nothing new here movements

That got your attention didn't it. Do not picture your colleagues in this role. Not attractive. Nope.

The pedagogy debate rages on. Those of you paying attention to the Comments section will notice that the previous "lecture" versus Web 2.0 discussion (that award winning one) has become re-activated. Thanks to Informalethnographer (I don't know how he wants me to link him up and I will edit this if/when he lets me know). We have this piece from the July 20th Chronicle of Higher Education, When Computers Leave Classrooms, So Does Boredom: Teaching Naked Effort Strips Computers from the Classroom The idea is that we should use our classrooms for engaging discussions. Well, duh.

The piece starts with an indictment of Power point lectures, arguing that studies show students find it "dull". But then I notice the piece goes a bit wobbly about half way through; changing up its arguments and the conclusions it draws from what students are saying, arguing for hiving off the boring lectures into podcasts to be viewed by students before coming to class. Oh...they are so doing that. Not. And, hey, logic-wise, I have a question: will podcasting make these boring lectures less boring?

How about if the whole class is a combination of lecture and interactive discussions. This isn't new.

Bottom line: students want human engagement. Small classes and caring profs give them that. How hard is that? I have been doing for over 20 years.

Why make them watch these ghastly boring podcasts from hell with no interaction and maybe not quite current. How about if we just be real old-fashioned and have them do the assigned readings before class? After all, reading is FUNdamental. Remember? Then we can lecture, discuss, lecture, discuss. Imagine that.

Two observations:

Power Point. Its a crutch for faculty, as well. World's Most Beautiful Sociology Prof and I laughed our butts off (Damn, *whips head around* sorry still there) when new faculty couldn't do lecture because "computer in class was down". Class dismissed for her. Me and WMBSP would, simply, carry on. But....we know our stuff. Cue: smug.

Student Laptops: A have had several students tell me that they purposely leave them at home because the temptation to Facebook is simply too strong and they know they need to focus. Many do support a ban.

Hey, let's all skip and go naked. And could you pedagogy people stop acting like you have some new and innovative technique that is going to transform the world? The ridiculous "aren't I cool" self-promotion is wearing thin.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Teachable Moments Clips: Fun with Animals

Since we are, probably, all gearing up for another year, I thought I would share some of the useful clips I have found for Cultural classes. I think we would all agree that it takes some creativity to do an online Cultural class and I have worked rather hard at finding intro stuff that can generate new ways of thinking without overly-exoticizing or "tribalizing". I rather love this one on cowness (the meaning and consequent treatment thereof), I have it embedded in a wider discussion on ways of getting your groceries but do with it what you will:

How Americans treat their cattle: A Maasai perspective

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Patrice Lumumba

I am just speechless. How many moral laws were broken when Hillary Clinton opened her mouth and had the audacity to lecture the Congo on the instances of rape and sexual violence brought about by a war which, in many respects, we began and continue to fund?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Congo: The Advance Hillary Guard. Let's paint it unhealed, victimized, and plummeting and spiking

Hillary has made it to Congo (left Angola, not yet in Nigeria) and the main stream press paved the way. I noticed that last week (August 4) the New York Times had an article up on the phenomenon of male rape in Congo, "Symbol of Unhealed Congo: Male Rape Victims". Like all Africanists, I sighed as I saw it. One more story about those savage Africans. It just hurts. How to begin to explain why, how to bring up objections and explanations, re-framing and re-humanizing. Re-humanizing. De-dehumanizing.

How nice to feel I am not alone in my rants.

African Politics Portal is the first up with a great piece questioning the alarmist, unfounded sensationalism of the article which is, after all, based on the experiences of 4 men without much genuine exploration of the prevalence and meaning.

But follow African Politics Portal's links to a great blog Wrongingrights and your justifiable indignation will ratchet up a few notches--at least mine did. The piece is entitled "In Which the New York Times Both Sets 'Em Up and Knocks 'Em Down" and reveals the original title of the NYTimes article (since changed) was "Congo Plummets Into Rape and Murder."

I urge you to click on through to the blog. The Lucky Charms grading system for the article is breathtakingly awesome. I award it 50 billion green clovers and 1 perfect pink heart--cause you gotta have heart to keep up the good fight.

Following Hillary: Today: Angola.....Texas Tea, Black Gold...but what happens to the hillbillies?

Hillary Clinton has finished up in Angola and is moving on to Nigeria. Do I have that right? Can't say I follow her every move. I just assumed that because of the oil connection. Obama to Ghana=good political move, up with democracy; Hillary to Angola=oil, Hillary to Nigeria=oil. How do they say it? Oh....."enormous economic opportunity"....for whom?

First thing you know old Jeb's a millionaire. Kinfolk say Jeb move away from there. Its the standard problem of any oil-producing nation a lot of money from the crude but how to distribute it? And lets face it, all we want is for the oil to keep coming and we will do some pretty nasty things to keep it so. We are Mr. Drysdale, after all...just keep the hillbillies happy..or maybe, Drysdale's asshole son Milby who tries to screw them out of every last cent while Papa runs after him trying to undo the damage but allowing it to occur from the get go. Guess that makes Hillary the Miss Hathaway in this piece but somehow I just don't see it.

Funny how those pop cultural image resonate. Oil will transform Africa pulling them out of their hillbilly status. But, of course, the story is with those hillbillies back home. The Clampetts "get out" but those back home in unidentified hillbillyland, presumably remain in poverty and the gap widens.

There is a nice summary of the probles in a very simple, very readable book on oil in Africa, entitled Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil, written by John Ghazvinian. The book was released in 2007 and a Time article from that time sums up the issues for those of who don't have the time to become economists and Africanists. I read Ghazvinian's book when it came out and although it wasn't anything new to me, I thought it was a good overview.

For those of you who want more depth Africa Focus has a great new Bulletin just posted today on the situation in Angola; wealth flowing in to the hands of a few and the masses of its population not only marginalized but also displaced to serve the needs of Texas Tea. You can find the beginning of the Africa Focus Angola piece here. Enjoy. And share with your students.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

New SACC website up!

The Society for Anthropology in the Community College (SACC) has rolled out its new website at:

Go have a look, you will find all the usual background info, as well as a blog and under "Teaching Anthropology" some sample syllabi and a list of Archaeology Resources compiled by Guest Blogger and Neanderthal Admirer, Bob Muckle.

(Hope the Twitter issues are, finally, resolved. Testing, testing...)

Update: Ooo...posted too soon. Bob promises an updating of said list as soon as we are all forced (kicking and screaming--my words not his) back to our offices for another year....another semester....another rodeo.

Update 2: Correction: Bob did not promise to update the list. Bob only stated he would add it to his to-do list. Heaven forbid I be guilty of mis-quoting. Although, I am reluctant to let him off the hook on a mere technicality.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Ghastly" Cahokia

I see Salon has an article/book review up on Cahokia citing 'Timothy Pauketat's cautious but mesmerizing new book, "Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi"'

Its got all the most lurid details and a nifty title:

Sacrificial virgins of the Mississippi

Women don't get no respect, can't even capitalize "virgin". Guess I better go read the article because I can't for the life of me figure out how you can determine virginity from a skeleton. Damn hard thing to do with a live woman despite what the world's people may or may not believe. Not that I am any expert, although, I did play the part one Halloween...many years ago.

Updated Feminist Rant: I'm back (not quite but a little in the Jack Nicholson way). Did you see that shit? Was I right or what? Careful discussion of the framing of "native" Americans but a perfect willingness to play fast and loose with gender stereotyping. Just slip that label "virgin" right into the title with no evidence or reason to do so. Not cool, dude.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Achieving the Dream: A North American Development Project

I have been wanting to write a blog post on this whole "Achieving the Dream" initiative for a long time. Its a huge topic and it keeps getting bigger. Unfortunately, although I have been tracking this initiative for several years now, I can't quite figure our what is up with it. It all sounds really nice but the creep factor is pretty high for me: little hairs go up on the back of my neck when I read between the lines. Almost everything about it from the intent to the results on the ground reads as a top-down development project, you know the stuff we anthropologists like to critique the hell out of.

I am trying to condense, here. In essence, the Sallie Mae people ended up making so much money from repaid student loans that the were left with a pile of money to do stuff with. This money started the Lumina Foundation which underwrites the Achieving the Dream movement. (And, yes, the Gates Foundation has jumped aboard.)

Check out this passage from the Lumina Foundation web site under the "Our Work" tab:

Education is the foundation for individual opportunity, economic vitality and social stability. Lumina Foundation's goal is to raise the proportion of the U.S. adult population who earn high-quality college degrees to 60 percent by the year 2025, an increase of 23 million graduates above current rates.

This is the benchmark we must achieve to compete with top performing countries. To accomplish this goal, the United States will need to graduate nearly 800,000 more students each year from now through 2025. Raising college-attainment levels is crucial to maintaining an educated workforce, especially because America's most-educated population faces retirement age. According to data prepared for the Making Opportunity Affordable initiative PDF, the United States is likely to face an unprecedented shortage of college-educated workers by 2025.

To achieve this ambitious goal of increasing postsecondary degree attainment, Lumina Foundation, in partnership with other stakeholders, is focusing on three main milestones of progress:

■Student preparedness. K-12 education systems must prepare students for college success by ensuring that students: academically prepared, have knowledge about the going-to-college process and have access to financial aid information.
■Student success. Student success depends on a high-quality learning environment where programs, policies and practices improve the likelihood that students will attain their educational goals with the skills and credentials for the needs of an evolving workforce.
■College productivity. Postsecondary institutions must embrace a college productivity agenda, thereby changing the structure and delivery of higher education so that they are better equipped to increase the number of students through the educational pipeline.

You will notice that the rhetoric is being parroted by Obama, down to the dotted i's and crossed to-a-t's.

In 2004 the Lumina Foundation gave birth to the Achieving the Dream movement. Now, we are going to drop down to my level. At my college, this has meant we apply for money to fund initiatives to improve "student success". From what I have seen the money only lasts for a start-up period and then the college assumes the cost for continuing the project/program. The big caveat is the "Culture of Evidence" angle. All initiatives must be quantifiable in the world of education statistics--and, yes, I am going to say it. Those educational people have no idea how to collect social science date, let alone analyze it. But they do know how to increase bureaucracy, create their own jobs, and spend money.

Right now, for example, we have a mandatory orientation being tested. All neww students must come onto campus to watch a 40 minute Powerpoint, take a tour, and attend a "resource fair" (a bunch of table set up by the various campus offices). Some how this is supposed to improve student retention by making connections. I suppose the selection bias will weed out the less committed and, in that, it might work in a twisted kind of way. Maybe we can then have a special initiative to seek out and recruit those students who fled because of a low tolerance for bullshit.

In order to show success, we have to meet and exceed expectations for recruitment and retention. And what do you think that means for us faculty?

I have a couple thousand critiques of this stuff. Too much for one post. For now, I will confine myself to giving a shout out to the scope of all this. Go Google "Achieving the Dream" and look at the pages and pages of schools on-board. And while you are at it, try to find one piece of obective analysis and critique of these goals and methods. Just one. Try it.

So, who is making money off this stuff? Because I would bet my windowed office that somebody is.

Corporate imperialism?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Why Mombasa?

I was up on campus today and the World's Hottest Poli Sci Prof and I were talking about the latest Obama's birthday news: his Kenyan birth certificate. In my usual offhand fashion, I was laughing about it: "What kind of self-respecting pregnant white woman would be hanging out in Mombasa, anyway and at a government hospital? My gosh, the malaria rates on the coast? Hello, Nairobi was built in the high lands and all British government offices transferred up country back in the early 1900's, to save the woman and children from that shit."

Funny how the mind runs on. We were about to dismiss it, with that old caveat, why bother to look for logic in crazy but then I was reminded of that article/book chapter (?) written by the Comaroffs--had to be years and years ago--analyzing the meanings of a madman they had seen. He had quite a "look" Anybody remember that one? I recall some of the look he was rocking had to do with bits of flair reflecting the South African Railway. Any more detail would require me to find the piece. Anyway, that memory had me pondering the meaning of Mombasa.

If you are making up a version of reality, why that version of reality?

I guess its not a hard one. You couldn't think of a part of Kenya more "Arab", more "Muslim", and more "exotic". A set of associations most likely to channel the evil Hussein-centric view of Obama. Both Nairobi and the area of his father's family (actually, closer to Uganda than Nairobi) are more "British" and more "Christian" in their associations.

Cute that the myth developers, picked the government hospital for his birth, that so-called Ocean Provincial Hospital. There was/is a private hospital, the Mombasa Hospital run, originally, by the Holy Ghost Fathers, I believe. If we are making up stories, at least have her go to the more likely option: the place a "white woman" might, actually, have gone. But then the goal is not to invoke her whiteness in the attack on Obama, is it? Better to surpress that visual. At least they gave her a hospital. Very few Africans get that luxury.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President. Congratulations Hawaii. Perhaps we should all take a moment to remember Ann Dunham, mother and anthropologist. I think I would have enjoyed having a beer with her.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Time Team America: Teachable Archy Moments

PBS has a new (for me) archaeology show called Time Team America. It premiered July 8 and has a new episode up this Wednesday. It has a great support site and easy access to the televised episodes. Here is the blurb:

TIME TEAM AMERICA is a new science-reality series from PBS that sends archaeologists on a race against time to excavate historic sites around the nation. The team has 72 hours to uncover the buried secrets of their assigned digs using the latest technology, decades of expertise and their own sharp wits. Host Colin Campbell guides each expedition as viewers peer over the shoulders of diggers, scientists and historians at work. You never know what they'll dig up next!

I watched the one on the Fremont culture: Range Creek, Utah and thoroughly enjoyed it. Now feel free to tell me everything that was wrong with it. I was so blown away by the beautiful scenery and my hiking lust, I probably wasn't properly critically focused.

Check it out here:

The site has support info and videos that could be very useful in intro classes. Check them out. Here is the info which and videos which pop up under field school and you will find one on CRM and historic/prehistoric, as well. And there is a whole lot more.

Call it Archy porn.

Thank the World's Hottest Poli Sci Prof for the heads up.

"Uncle": Now Posting and Tweeting as Pamthropologist

Bowing to pressure, I am now attempting to provide blog updates through Twitter. I hope this works because I am lacking the time for technical difficulties. Heck, I still have visible speaker wires in my living room, dust bunnies under the bed, and a lack of attractive foliage in my front yard.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Welcome to My World

Enough said?

Now does everyone understand why I rant so much. Any and all expressions of pity, outrage, disgust, and disbelief are most welcome.

(Thanks to the World's Most Beautiful Sociology Professor for her iphone and WTF moment. Just when you think it can't get any worse, huh?)

Friday, July 31, 2009

Teaching Birther Babies

I see the Daily Kos has commissioned a quick survey generating the conclusion that some half of all Republicans could be classified as "birthers" with a dispproportionate number of "birthers" coming from the South. Not suprising to me. A dear friend and fellow colleague (20 years working together), had an "I just can't take it anymore moment" after hearing one too many Obama is the anti-christ comments at his Church the other night. He came home and posted his rant up on his Facebook page and within moments had 20 reply attacks. His second rant garnered 15 additional rants before everyone retired to their respective corners. Since it is a Southern Baptist church, I assume no beers were involved--although, judging from the comments they are a long way from the reconciliation moment.

Of course, the children of these people will be showing up in my classes. Flashback to the Spring Semester. Not the Cultural class but the Archaeology. Who woulda known the trouble would start there?

Somehow a handful of students hijacked every discussion with their own (often conspiracy-based) theories, everything from pyramids built by aliens, to government-sponsored death camps, dinosaur-human coexistence creation science myths, and, yes, every anti-Obama rumor you can imagine. I would walk into class and see them clustered in groups comparing notes, the "good" students looking like deer caught in the headlights, the "really good" students absent. Just me and the "mob" (*sigh* what to label them?) remaining. Even the typical foraging cultural ecology discussion turned into an attack: this is promoting socialist values--all that sharing of resources, you know, primitive communism, Obama is trying to do that.....

Now, you could find that a series of really good teachable moments and it should be and in the past, has been BUT, a good number of those needing the teachable moment are just not listening. They aren't using "scientific reasoning". The evidence doesn't matter, the reasoning doesn't matter, the strength of an argument--that package that we label "critical thinking" isn't there. Little birther babies.

Alternet has a very good article exploring the growing entrenchment of belief in the face of reason meme. Arguing, as it is entitled, Racism Is the Prime Cause for Debunked Obama Birth Certificate Conspiracy Theory, quoting Tim Wise, author of Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, the author argues:
The attacks on Sotomayor, the hysteria over Obama's criticism of the Cambridge police, and the persistent rumors about Obama's origins seem symptomatic of something larger, something Wise believes is "the culmination of centuries of ingrained privilege and hegemonic control."

To explain the devastating effect of Obama's presidency on those ordinary Americans who were quite happy with their white privilege, thank you, Wise quotes W.E.B. DuBois's concept of "the psychological wage of whiteness."

"A lot of white folks don't have much. They're struggling, they're hurting, but they've been able to content themselves with the idea that at least they're not black," Wise says. "So they get this psychological wage from their whiteness. The problem is, that's a wage which is diminishing in value. If you say to yourself, 'Well I may not have much, but at least I'm not black,' and then you look around and say, 'Shit, black is the new president!' -- now the value of your psychological wage is reduced in real dollar terms. Now you've got nothing."

In Wise's view: "The people who latch on to the birther stuff (working-class and struggling middle-class whites) aren't any more racist than elite white folks, but their way of expressing it is so much more raw and visceral, because: a) they may not have the filter that you get when you're elite (you sort of know when to check yourself), but also because they're the ones who feel the most threat."
As I read that I was reminded of the work of the great George Fredrickson, anyone out there remember White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (1981)? My Northwestern bias predisposes me to remember that one above his other books. Also, my own Africanist bias. In South Africa, that loss in "real dollar terms" and the threat of the rise of a competing black middle class brought about apartheid. In America, will the fear shut down out ability to engage in reasoned discussion? My fears of the coming year seem awfully real to me.

And my fears for my country. Paul Krugman's piece today addressed that same issue: Where is the health care debate going when most Americans can't/won't understand?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Gates-gate: The Ongoing Teachable Moment

I don't have a face-to-face class meeting at the moment and I hesitate to bring it up in my Distance Learning one, still finding Discussion Boards awkward for, well... discussion... so I can't contribute much in the way of suggestions and thoughts on the coming beer bash at the White House. I noticed Savage Minds brought the topic up without much committed or useful discussion--which surprises me a bit given our discipline but....its summer maybe we are all a little lethargic.

Its one of those moments where a number of issues intersect: race, class, and the town/gown tension we academics know so well. The latter, as frequent commenter Larry reminds me is the Jefferson/Jackson debate writ large in our current political climate of the supposed intellectual approach of Obama and the frontier moxie of Palin. (Quick, Farley Mowat, hide the wolves.) Guess whose side I am on in that battle of the network stars.

It is a ripe moment. A moment for personal narratives and the sharing of perspectives. It is also a moment when people dig their ideological heels in and refuse to budge. A hard one for students; particularly ones who parrot parental views and aren't quite sure of their own. Its fraught with peril for intro classes. You can lose them when discussing these issues. Welcome to the tightrope of we go.....hands flailing, knees wobbling.

Over the years, I have learned some ways of approaching such issues. IMHO, the trick is to get students to talk about race without talking about race. If you can get them to understand the consequences of social differentiation; give them an immediate and somewhat simplistic vignette from history. As MissivesfromMarx noted in comments on the last post here, you do really need to handle these issues early on in the semester. I find you need to get across two simple thoughts: we humans culturally construct the terms of our existence and, specifically, students have interited a world that they did not create.

I have two ways I do this and I will share one now and save the other for another time. After allowing some open discussion (student-driven) about the social meaning of race, stereotyping, and discrimination, I switch the issue to gender. Follow me on this does work for me.

I tell them that I arrived at the University of Virginia just a few short years after Mr. Jefferson's University was court-ordered to allow women to enroll as regular, resident undergraduates. It was not until 1972 that UVa admitted students without regard to gender. I arrived in 1978. The University had an overall enrollment of about 16,000 students at that time. Prior to 1970-ish that enrollment was almost entirely male. By 1978 it was 50/50. I ask them to contemplate the reality of that situation. In order for 8,000 female students to be admitted. 8,000 male students would have to be turned down. No doubt those turned down would feel angry, feeling they had lost a spot to a female. Perhaps they could even argue they had some score on some test that might show they were a better candidate. Then I ask my students how they think "I" (from the perspective of my gender)felt about that. You got it. Tough shit. How many years did I "stand down" so they could be privileged? Is it tough for the 8,0000 men who could have been admitted in 1972 but did not? Undoubtedly, but they weren't really "entitled" to be there in the first place, were they?

I have always found this to be an easier start to the Teachable Moment of the "race" question posed by Gates-gate. Switching the issue from race to gender, temporarily seems to diffuse all that invested anger so that the actual principles of affirmative action can be understood and the personal perspectives can be explored.

I find it a good first step. But, yes, there is a lot more still to go...

Update: OMG. You must check out MissivesfromMarx today. I swear I wrote this before I saw today's post there. Great minds think alike. LOL.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Tribal Musings: Isaac Mizrahi Style

I used to pick my textbook for the Cultural Anthropology class by instantly rejecting all texts which operated on the band, tribe, chiefdom, state model of political organization. If the book was organized around that premise or with a chapter devoted soley to that....out it went. It is a bitch to cover.

Hey students: Here we have these concepts which we used to think had some validity but now we don't really think so but we did think so once and maybe in a broad sense they did but now they really don't or at least we don't think they have the power that the once did and they are often misapplied or just plain wrong, although in their misapplication reality was constructed, which we are continually re-constructing and...get the picture?

Best to avoid the whole thing. Except, you really can't because, invariably, within the first few weeks if not days of class, some student is going to use the word "tribe" and what do you do with that? Cause they just hate, hate, hate it when you try to tell them not to use certain words because the perceive that as "political correctness" and you lose a chunk of them as they roll their eyes at your liberal bias. Because, after all, they already know the way the world works and you need to stop messing that up for them.

Heck, even Isaac Mizrahi uses the word. I was watching the final showdown on The Fashion Show (which was no Project Runway-but that is another discussion) and contestant Reco was trying to explain the guiding influence for his final collection as being the Aztec, at least he made reference to being inspired by a "high priestess of the Aztec empire" (maybe he meant Merlin?) but then I swear he later added the Maya to the mix. Isaac, looking perplexed leaped in there to clarify Reco's vision. "Oh, tribal." Thank you, Isaac for clearing that up.

Well, there were feathers. And pyramid shapes.

Here is the slideshow of his collection. Don't say I don't aim to please.

Which I suppose argues for the need to have the same kind of lecture about "tribe" that you have about race: we sorta made this term up, but it doesn't really work, but we thought it did so now its part of culturally-constructed reality.

Now about that term "band"........

And if you really into the anaylsis of Bravo T.V. reality; I suppose you could have a discussion of James-Paul's post-modern inspiration of "indigenous people" in a "modern" context which he represents by hanging bones from his models' hair and including marsupial pouches since indigenous people need to carry fruit. Kid you not. You can view it here.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Stupid Is As Stupid Does: Parsing Words and Protecting Feelings: Student Edition

While Obama was getting in trouble for saying the Cambridge Police "acted stupidly", I was dealing first-hand with stupid and learning just how difficult it is to correct stupid.

I have been helping to develop and facilitate workshops that help prepare dual-credit students for their enrollment in classes in the Fall. We have been experimenting with 3 day workshops which attempt to cover a range of suggested techniques in note-taking, reading comprehension, study tips, time management, plagiarism issues, etc., etc., etc. As the facilitator, I have been spending 4-6 hours a day with a group of 16 High School students. OMG. Kill me now.

Someone...anyone, tell me how to your respond to a student who says "I hate to read"?

How about this one. A critical thinking exercise which has them generate arguments in support of and in opposition to a proposition: Nurses should be paid more than lawyers. Student argument: "Lawyers should make less because they are slimy and are liars. They even represent criminals who they know are guilty and try to get them off." Now, try to fix that one up without making some sort of corrective statement. No other student offered an objection. Guess who had to fill the long awkward pause. I didn't use the "stupid" word but I did fumble in the search for the perfect corrective phrase. And, of course, in response, the student had that shut-down attitude going for them. "Well, that is my opinion and I am entitled to it."

I am really sympathizing with the President's words usage. Sometimes, the need to label actions and thoughts as stupid is just too much to resist. And it was: stupid.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Witchcraft and that Slippery Extra Step in Theories of Causation

WWE-PS. What would Evans-Pritchard say? Baseball Magic, anyone?

Check out Illustrator Christoph Neimann's Blog Post, entitled, Master of the Universe at the NYT. Fun Stuff

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Why Students Drop Out": Letters, they are getting letters....

The letters responding to the Brooks article are up at the New York Times, seems we are not alone. Here is an exceprt from the first one by Dalton Conley, a professor and dean for the social sciences at New York University:

David Brooks rightly claims that it is a national crisis that United States college completion rates have been flat for the last 35 years. But his diagnosis is incomplete.

He claims: “Lack of student aid is not the major reason students drop out of college. They drop out because they are academically unprepared or emotionally disengaged or because they lack self-discipline or because bad things are happening at home.”

This misses the important role that family wealth plays in college completion. In fact, my own research shows that only two background factors matter for college completion: parents’ own education and parental net worth. Race, what job parents hold — none of that matters.

This salience of wealth suggests that student aid has an important role to play, since for disadvantaged students, aid functions like financial equity in easing stress at home and blunting hard tradeoffs (between work and school, for instance). Financial aid and student psychological factors go hand in hand.

Put a couple of faces on that and you have Dolores and Rick.

The letters are most satisfying. Now, if only all those Ed.D.'s would just read them. I would volunteer to help them sound out the big words. Oh no, she didn't.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

David Brooks and the American Graduation Initiative: Rant Continued

I want to thank the Society for Anthropology in the Community College listserv for, once again, refocusing my rants. George you are spot on and I owe this post to you.

Just this past week, I caught a glimpse of the the paperwork of our new faculty performance evaluation and that has made me a bit faculty-centric in my perspectives. But lets push aside my panicked rant at being made responsible for my students' success and focus more specifically on the underlying political implications of Brooks' assertions. As is usual, for me, I am going to take the long way to my critique. Here is the main point: many Community College students do not have the luxury of focusing solely on their education and, contrary to Brooks' unsupported, uncited conclusions, finances are very much involved but in complicated ways.

Student engagement: what it really tells you.

Conference #2, on the third day. I went to a panel on the Students Statistics being collected by the Agency for Educational Stupidity. Facilitator wanted to pretend that it was "collaborative" so we were made to break into groups and discuss a student we knew who had not returned to school. Turns out the whole point was we were to conclude by the end of her little presentation that students who had made some connection were more likely to return. I, actually, had to listen to her stupid story of the merry janitor who knew all students' names and was the sole reason students came to class every day. Ya, that would, totally, do it for me. And I, totally, believe that story. Maybe we need more merry janitors? Throw in a few cafeteria ladies. Now that Isaac Hayes quit South Park, we could get Chef. (Note to self: did he die?)

Needless to say, I lost it, internally. I raised my hand and shared the story of the student I lost. Dolores (name altered). I had her in two of my classes. She volunteered for archy fieldwork and stayed through the rain. We ate pork rinds together. It was almost like we were "engaged". And then her father cheated on her mother and she spent weeks going home to a broken and bleeding family: nurturing her Mom and trying to deal with an increasingly defensive and authoritative Dad. No extended vacations for her parents to try to do whatever Mark Sanford and his wife are trying to do: Dolores family has to keep working. Eventually, her Dad cut out, leaving a family missing an important salary. Dolores found a job as a bartender to help out. When I would see her in the hall, the shirts were lower cut, the make-up heavier, the hair more dyed. And she talked incessantly with false gaiety about the partying she had done the night before. From the pores of her skin came that odor of day old drunk, it was her I was thinking of in my previous post. And, yes, I tried to talk to her, tried to speak of her grief and her need to care for, herself. And, yes, I was glad she had finished taking all my classes because I would not have wanted to grade her. Does everyone forget we need some objectivity with students? It went over like the proverbial lead balloon, except for the four faculty members who followed me out of the door, thanking me for saying it.

Or Rick (name altered) who had found his way to the Houston area and worked his way up to a manager of some sort at Starbucks. Brilliant student. But the really good ones get more responsibilities at work; often their promotions are their undoing. School can't always compete with the ability to make just enough money to be tempting. No future advancement but more than most have ever had. Rick's natal family was, apparently, chaotic. Mid-semester of his second class with me, he disappeared. I had been worried about his long hours and apparent exhaustion. Then one week before finals, he showed back up. His younger brother had been living out on the street and he went and he went back home to collect him. In the process, the normal student flu turned into a sinus infection. It went untreated as Rick has NO HEALTH INSURANCE. He continued to work, supporting and caring for his brother and the infection got worse. When he finally made it back, I caught him up on what he had missed and because he is brilliant, he Aced the final. I don't know if he will be back in the Fall. America would be well-served to give him a free ride at the Ivy of his choice. It won't happen. He missed so much he pulled "F"s in his other classes--no make-ups allowed there; a policy I support and Rick does, too.

I suppose Brooks' would argue these students don't need financial aid or that their parents should be held, somehow, personally responsible for their inability to create stable Leave it to Beaver home lives. Paging Sarah Palin; although in all fairness Brooks is appalled by her, as well. Or maybe, there is something more I am supposed to do to make them successful? Or, perhaps, Mr Brooks, there is something more America could do? That is if your conservative brethren could get their hands off your thigh and, actually, understand the world you live in and not your narrow view of the way you think it ought to be. And, yeah, it is about the money for most of them--in complicated ways. You can't heal them but you can point the way to their success by making your investment in their futures clear and meaningful.

BTW, just like Sydney who commented earlier, I also teach 5 classes of 35 as a normal load. I don't know most of my students' back story. It would be imossible and I can't run a classroom making special accomodations for all--and I don't. The good ones don't ask for it or want it. And sometimes it is really hard to sort out the truly challenged from the "slacker". It is quite a skill set to deal with that.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Ahh the good old days........

More on the the American Graduation Initiative, Obama's Community College Plan, the one of which David Brooks approves:

Undoubtedly, it is a great thing to be talking of more money for Community Colleges. But it is the part of the Initiative that has expectations beyond financial accountability that worries me. Check out this paragraph from the White House Press Release Fact Sheet on the Initiative:

Fund Innovative Strategies to Promote College Completion: Nearly half of students who enter community college intending to earn a degree or transfer to a four-year college fail to reach their goal within six years. The College Access and Completion Fund will finance the innovation, evaluation, and expansion of efforts to increase college graduation rates and close achievement gaps, including those at community colleges. Promising approaches include performance-based scholarships, learning communities of students, professors and counselors, colleges tailored to promote the success of working adults, and funding formulas based on student progress and success as well as initial enrollment. Resources would also be provided to improve states’ efforts to track student progress, completion, and success in the workplace.

Now, really think about what that looks like. We need to find ways in our classrooms to graduate more students who come to an open enrollment institution. Specifically, Obama wants 5 million more Community College degrees and certificates by 2020.

The last statistical data we have for my College, 66 per cent of our students were below the age of 24 with the highest percentage of students being in the 18-19 year old cohort. That means the vast majority of my students just graduated from High School and some 60 per cent of them require remedial courses before they can take a College level class; although they need to have 12 hours to qualify for financial aid (which over 30 per cent of them do--and we are very, very cheap to attend)so they will be in a mixture of remedial and college level if it can be managed. Our poor counselors are very creative and very tired. For example, many of our college classes in Sociology, Psychology, History, and Government have lowered their standards so that you can take them while taking remedial classes; despite the reality that the textbooks are written at a reading level beyond which they are tested to be able to read. Yes, read that again. True dat. So, in short, for a variety of reasons--and there are many--I teach a lot of very young not necessarily conventionally "successful" students and, yes, they disappear. A lot.

In the old days--say, twenty years ago when I first started, we thought that was a good thing. We figured that maybe they needed to go work a few years and figure some things out. Mature a little. Sow their wild oats. Earn some money. Figure out they couldn't earn enough and then they would come back. And they did. And they were better students. And life was good. Or good enough.

But slowly over the course of my career and more so in the past 5 years we have faced pressure to retain them. They track our drop rates. You are a failure if you don't retain them. So, you make accommodations and find yourself thinking more and more about how to keep them even when they don't want to be there--at least not now. Gradually, you are made to feel responsible for their success. And that makes it worse because when you begin to absorb that responsibility they lose it even more. There is simply much more negotiated terrain in your interactions. Case in point, I don't know of one faculty member who has not re-visited their make-up policies in the last five years. I even know faculty who have started to allow retesting. That is right, they let them take the test, again, when they haven't passed the first time.

*Sigh*. Even when you feel compassion for their youth and apparent ignorance, its just so hard because you can't be for them what they should be for themselves.

And in the meantime, you still have a core of good students who do want to be there. Some of them are very, very good. Some of them are positively heroic. Every single Community College Instructor I know can tell you of the single mom who juggles kids and job and shows up with her notebook out and her highlighter ready who hasn't been able to afford a trip to the dentist in years; a young gay man who has been kicked out by his family and is living on friend's couches and pulling all "A"'s or even struggling with "C"'s because he can't get a ride to class; or the young man who showed up for class and told me to wake him up if he fell asleep because he was driving a bread truck all night and he was staying up for my class and he didn't want to miss it. And you just know that you really, really want them to be proud of that degree and not sell it short. And it feels like we are being asked to sell them short.

Of course, the solution envisioned by the Initiative is some kind of special magic which we will be able to do with our teaching which will "engage" students and make them successful, perhaps those alluded to "learning communities". But does any Anthropologist really know of any instance when you can successfully change individual behavior? You can make the condoms available but has anyone truly been able to make someone put them on when its not his/her own idea?

Wouldn't it be nice if we could just give us Community College people the money we need to function properly without unreasonable expectations?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Community Colleges: All that and a bag of chips or two tacos short of a fiesta plate?

A friend of mine sent me David Brooks' column in today's New York Times. I think I was supposed to be energized and excited by it. Just like I think I was supposed to be "all-in" for the Obama administration's latest Community College announced initiatives. I guess when David Brooks is lauding a Democratic President its time to break out the parkas for the resultant frozen hell. But it is still hellaciously hot here in Texas. In my case, that article just opened all my floodgates.

Where do I begin?

Dear Mr. Brooks and Mr. Obama. I have been living under these very perspectives and expectations for a few years now and I would like to hit you both with big sticks. Too bad that I am soooo liberal I feel guilty thinking about acts of violence.

Recently, my Community College has been good enough to send me to two conferences both geared toward improving our success rates. You see, we Community Colleges only succeed in showing a fifty per cent completion rate for our students and it has been decided by the David Brooks of the world that we can do better. And here is my first problem, I think 50 per cent is a great rate. I think we are remarkably successful. After all, huge percentages of our students come needing remediation. (That rate is growing and I can tell in the students who show up in my class, btw.)

Those conferences. Real problem for me. I want to be positive. I want to drink the Kool Aid but my own undergraduate and graduate school experiences didn't prepare me for that. Back then, I was praised for critical thinking. Not in my present life. It isn't valued. Ala David Brooks and Barack Obama, we are to develop innovative measures and we are to be able to, well, measure them. Conference one: ways that I as a faculty member can "engage" my students. Conference two: ways that our college can become more "learning centered" and measure that success.

Here is the perspective we hear at these conferences as written in Brooks' column:

Nor is increased student aid fundamentally important. I’ve had this discussion with my liberal friends a thousand times, and I have come to accept that they will never wrap their minds around the truth: lack of student aid is not the major reason students drop out of college. They drop out because they are academically unprepared or emotionally disengaged or because they lack self-discipline or because bad things are happening at home.

Actually, I have many students who have severe financial issues and struggle to make it but I think of myself as "liberal" so I guess I just can't wrap my mind around that. Sorry broke students when you are choosing between that one hundred textbook and feeding your kids that just isn't the truth.

The second part is what hacks me off the most, simply, because I am deep fried to a crackly crunch with that thinking. It is true many of my students aren't ready for college. They are emotionally disengaged and lack self-discipline. Do you, honestly, honestly think there is a lot I can do about that? Does anyone seriously believe that you can innovate your way to engagement? If they stay out partying to the wee hours of the morning (I know they do. I smell it. If you have inhaled eau de day-after-student, you have taught at State U or JuCo. Its a smell you don't forget) does anyone seriously think that a Wiki will spur different life choices? And, of course, the answer is, yes, large numbers of people think that can happen. They probably don't, actually, teach. And when you teach long enough you realize that a good number of the party kids will, eventually, come back. Sometimes, its all good. Sometimes, its not but, hey, I can't control that either.

Funny, at conferences two, after breakfast while most of the audience was texting their loved ones or just anybody, somebody to relieve the stupidity; embedded in a twenty minute presentation, I thought I smelt the whiff of truth: in our six years of pursuing these innovated initiatives in our measures of our success, we can't show any. Completion rates remain the same. But then I can't really wrap my mind around the truth, so, I probably only think I heard that.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Thought for the Day and Possibly my only Sarah Palin Post

I wonder how old Sarah Palin thinks coal (clean or otherwise) is?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reason to Come Off Vacation Hiatus: A Vision of Community College Students,Today

This just came from Anthony Balzano fellow Community College teaching anthropologist (Yeah, team!), through the SACC Listserv and I had to share:

The Spring 2009 Cultural Anthropology class at Sussex County (NJ) Community College produced a video based on their own research among students at Sussex CCC in Newton, NJ. The video is, in part, a response to the work of Micheal Wesch at Kansas State.

Great Stuff.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

New Anthropology Place: Discuss amongst yourselves

We now have a place where we can all hang out together--online. Keith Hart and others have created The Open Anthropology Cooperative at

Go on over and check it out and look for the Obama group and join the discussion with me and Keith--that one is a bit lonely.

I think the site makes my blog radio. Oh well, maybe you will listen to me now and then when your internet is out, so to speak.

The Love I.E.D.: Teachable News You Can Use

Truth be told, for all that gets published on a daily basis, there isn't that much of use in the press for your basic anthropology class. One seems to be perpetually stuck with that view of culture that is both eternal and exotic. You know, the one that I think we can safely say the vast majority of students come with: "those people have a fully formed culture which sprang like Athena from Zeus's head and, man, its weird shit." To counter-act that view its always nice to find a story which presents "culture" in the process of becoming. Then, the anthropology professor can assert: "see, here we have common and shared human emotions, something we all recognize, being expressed in the terms given by the life experiences of the people--this, right here, is the heart and soul of our discipline, reality and meaning being constructed anew through the lived experiences of people--with all the shit attached." I always like to take away some shit but give some shit back because, generally, students are correct, there is always some shit when it comes to people.

Here in the New York Times is one such story, teachable news you can use: Lovelorn Iraqi Men Call on a Wartime Skill.

Here is the beginning of the story to get you started but click on through to read it all:
It goes like this: Boy meets girl. They exchange glances and text messages, the limit of respectable courting here. Then boy asks girl’s father for her hand. Dad turns him down. Boy goes to girl’s house and plants a bomb out front.

The authorities call it a “love I.E.D.,” or improvised explosive device, and it is not just an isolated case. Capt. Nabil Abdul Hussein of the Iraqi national police said that six had exploded in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad alone in the past year.

“These guys, they face any problem with their girlfriends, family, anyone, and they’re making this kind of I.E.D.,” Captain Hussein said.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Flat Tires and HIV/AIDS: blame it on the alcohol

Yesterday in the early morning, I had one of those oh-shit moments. Came out to get in the car for the 40 minute drive to an 8:30 class only to find a tire flat--not much time to spare and none to spare on the spare.

Ha! Daughter home from college with car and no plans until late in the afternoon. I'll just borrow her car--which was once mine, paid for by me, and insured by me. But, definitely, not mine anymore. Its a bit strange tooling down the highway over-accessorized. In front of me attached to the dashboard are fuzzy pink bunnies, fuzzy pink balls, and various figurines; stuffed animals peek at me from door pockets and over my should strapped into the middle seat belt, one Commander Cuddles, a large stuffed bear clutching red felt flowers to his fuzzy chest in a gesture of joy and supplication.

Once my eyes settled in, my ears started to notice the difference. Gone were my presets and, suddenly, I was listening to the morning show on HOT Hits957 and their special segment entitled "Whatcha doing at the Courthouse". Way. Check out the live interviews here.

Next up some actual music, specifically, that fine love song "Blame it on the Alcohol". Its your basic rationalization song--rationalization supplied by Jamie Foxx and T. Pain (stand up guy, uh?). Lyrics here. We watched the video in class today. Opie. WTF? Of course, my students had all the inside scoop, all the principal celebs featured in the male fantasy got together at our POTUS' inauguration. I blame it on the alcohol. Here is the Obama spoof version.

Why did we watch it? Does one have any difficulty arguing that maybe Africans aren't any more sexually promiscuous than us or that a woman might find it difficult to demand the use of condom in a sexual encounter, or that she might be viewed as a submissive object, or even the more benign "shit happens" after seeing that? Case closed.

I kinda missed Commander Cuddles today. It is strangely comforting to be playing Morgan Freeman to a fuzzy bear's Miss Daisy.

Oh the flat tire? Wasn't nothing but a nail.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

My Jared Diamond Post at Crooked Timber: Just Because....

Feeling somewhat frustrated with the lack of coherency in all the never-ending discussion, I posted this up at Crooked Timber where the thread of comments on their post, Diamond's Vengeance seems never-ending:

Perhaps, it is true that we need a more populist voice for Anthropology because there is much very basic anthropology getting lost in this thread and, I might add, the exchanges at Savage Minds.

When I conducted my fieldwork in the 1980’s and 1990’s (before IRB’s), I was told many a story in a pick-up truck. Those stories were the jumping off point for my research. I would have followed that story up with formal interviews, with the notebook out, quotes recorded as carefully as possible, and having obtained informed consent as to what would be recorded and what published. It would have taken a long time to contextualize the meaning of that story. (Read that last sentence, carefully, because it speaks volumes about what Jared Diamond failed to do.)

The ethics dilema: As an anthropologist, I am compelled to “do no harm”. The determination of harm can only come from a detailed participant observation experience in which we struggle (with much weakness and some arrogance) to determine the consequences of our research. I, myself, have a pile of fieldnotes with names, dates, and detailed stories. In graduate school at Northwestern, where there is a large African studies program, we young students—anthropologists, historians, and political scientists, alike—drank many a beer while pondering the fate of our yet uncollected notes: should we keep them ourselves, place them on deposit in the library to be viewed upon request, seal them up with a 30 year rule. But, most importantly, how will we know what is “harm” when we doing that recording? At no time would we have concluded that a story in a pick up truck from one individual admitting to acts deemed illegal in a modern nation-state be appropriate for publication. This would clearly be harm. This is clearly unethical.

(I often point out to my students that a film like China Blue, which was made inside the PRC with hidden cameras, could not have been made by an anthropologist. We are simply not permitted those liberties according to our ethical codes.)

But back to our main point. Diamond’s ethical lapse reveals the reasons why we cannot place any stock in his anaylsis. Diamond, apparently, had no rapport with what we anthropolgists might call a research population. He did not have the kind of on-going, “boots on the ground” (if you will permit the tortured metaphor), hard-fought, give and take relationship with the individuals he purports to discuss. Had he that relationship, we would not be having this debate. Nor would we be speculating on his possible alternate motives. It would not be about him, if you will; rather, we would be discussing the data that he brings to the table, the multiplicity of stories and discussions that he should be citing to support his argument. But that would have been just another boring ethnography and, after all, who wants to read that?

I venture to say that the story seemed “sellable” because it tapped into that great white hunter/intrepid explorer meme. Driving with savages is way more cool than watching birds or sweating over fieldnotes. Sucks to be professional and ethical. (Before everyone jumps on the bitter anthropologist attack, I am laughing my ass off in this last bit.)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

HTS and Barack Obama's Mother: Whose "Anthropology"

I have been kind of amused to see some discussion on other anthro blogs about the Human Terrain System and the idea that Barack Obama should know better than to support that endeavour because his mother was an Anthropologist.

But let's unpack that baggage shall we. What kind of anthropologist was she? Barack Obama's mother worked, at various times, for the Ford Foundations, USAID, and the World Bank. I have some sympathy for the work she was trying to do. I, myself, tried my stint with USAID in Tanzania. In the end, I realized how badly I was fooling myself: it is neocolonial. It is what we used to call; interference. Plain and simple. It isn't really anthropology. Not my kind.

I understand the seduction of it. Before I attempted it, I had already had a full fieldwork experience in Tanzania which left me in a kind of personal belief limbo. Flying into Newark (my Grandparents live in Jersey) we came right by the Statue of Liberty. With my fieldnotes piled high in my lap (yes the flight attendants were not happy with me but it was another time), I burst into tears at the sight of her. I was coming home. I felt the beginnings of relief. Good bye to the worries of clean water. I spent a full year plotting access to boiled water. It was always on my mind. Many things were always on my mind in Tanzania. They weren't in America.

Later would come the guilt. When you are offered the opportunity to "do something" about the guilt, is is very seductive. In the end, if you are very honest, you realize that development work like that, is all about you and your relationship with the guilt, or some other psychological reason. Because, in reality, there is, always, someone there, "in-country", one of "them", who can do better than you. There is always someone there that can do better than "us". And "us" is busy trying to create them anew in our image. It is our own arrogance that makes "us" want to save "them". And perhaps, perhaps "they" should be saved from "us". No?

But sometimes nationalistic sentiment prevails and perhaps a bit of personal arrogance, and perhaps a bit of professional arrogance, as well. And, maybe just maybe that is what Barack Obama learned from his mother. For to work for USAID or to become President of the United States, or to be an Anthropologist under the Human Terrain System means that you place America first and Anthropology second. For Anthropology recognizes the danger of thinking any one person or any one nation is better than any other and has the right to drive another's bus. At least, my anthropology does.