Grading tips for ADHD teachers

Grading makes me feel bad. When students don’t get it, it is too easy for me to get stuck thinking about how I should have communicated better. It’s the last time I want to give them discouraging feedback. Feeling bad is a problem when your ability to start tasks is tied to your dopamine processing. Then there’s the task itself: grading is usually repetitive, detail oriented, communicative, and subjective – all of which are big executive function challenges.

But I’ve been grading student research papers as a person with ADHD for more than 10 years. So even though I still have some big areas for growth, I’ve learned a few tricks that help me get through it. And since my Google search only turns up results for how to grade students with ADHD, and no grading resources at all for educators with ADHD, I thought I’d try and start the conversation.

Tip 1: Complain loudly

The “grin and bear it” approach to discomfort probably really works for some people, but for me, all it does is guarantee a slow crescendo of distraction until I can no longer even read the words on the screen. It is the discomfort itself that demands my attention.

But if I can text a friend, or whine in my alt social media accounts, or – best of all – announce aloud that this is actually the Worst Thing Ever, it now has the coveted position of my whole attention. Which means it is now subject to distraction itself. And since, of course, it is not really the worst thing ever, my attention is easily caught by all of the newer and more interesting things that are being communicated in the student essay I’m reading.

This may or may not work on the same principal as fork theory.

Tip 2: Time your tasks

Show me a person with ADHD, and I’ll show you a person who already knows this.

The Pomodoro Method is old reliable, but when I’ve got major grading tasks (like I usually do at the end of the year), I like to do a little more math estimating how long each grading event takes so that I can compete with myself. I think of it like the swim meets I did growing up. Intermix sprints and distance, but make sure you leave time to hear the cheers and get a breather between events. I gamify as much of my work as I can (and I love physical games).

The breaks of the Pomodoro method are great because they help disrupt the problem of diminishing marginal returns, but there’s nothing magic about 25 minutes. I find that disrupting mid-assignment is usually unhelpful – I just need to make sure I’m leaving enough time to be my own cheerleader.

Tip 3: Don’t grade in the Learning Management System

As a professor with ADHD, I’ve worked in Canvas, D2L, and Blackboard, and all of these have wonderful options for automation that everyone with executive function challenges should be maximizing. But sometimes even my super helpful grading rubrics in Canvas sometimes aren’t enough to get me on task.

If I’m worried that students are going to feel bad about their grade, sometimes it helps to open a separate document where I can privately write out my initial thoughts and assessments without the pressure of fearing my kneejerk reactions to a student’s heartfelt work will accidentally crush them. (I spend a lot of time thinking about the critical feedback I receive, and even though I realize my students may never even glance at my notes, my concern is a significant barrier to starting the task.) Iterating in a “draft” takes the pressure off needing to organizing the right words to say. Iterative notes also help with a weak working memory. Of course, I’d rather work in the Canvas Speedgrader, but sometimes it’s just not happening, and slow is infinitely better than paralysis.

If I’m overwhelmed by the scale of the task (“next up, 40 student papers”), I might switch to a more relational approach. I always allow students to submit work late, which means I’ve got a lot of random re-grading, so I will often go student by student (much fewer tasks, all delightfully different) rather than “batching.” Added bonus is that I feel much more connected to each student’s learning trajectory and will occasionally write a final email to that student as a reward (for myself) for finishing up with them.

Tip 4: Co-work

I used to grade in coffee shops, but since pandemic I often join Zoom co-working sessions. Check in at the beginning of the co-working, set check-in times and an end time.

When I have students who seem to have executive challenges (e.g., struggle to get work in on time), I will sometimes see if they are interested in being invited. I have hosted a few Zoom co-working sessions that are just me and some students. Mostly it helps with self-monitoring and self-control (ie., executive functions). In a pinch, I’ll co-work via text with a friend.

Tip 5: Prioritize your regular self-care

When the pressure is higher, it’s easier to drop the strategies you already know work well for you. For me, that’s moving my body (dancing to raucous music, walking the dog, attempting TikTok fitness challenges), meditating, and making sure to end your work day at a consistent time. Ice cream, alcohol, and all-nighters are pinch hitters who are always pushing for a chance at bat in stressful moments, but I do much better work if I can set times for the really helpful stuff at the start of every work session.

When my mood is already low, none of these strategies will turn me into the paragon of efficiency I’d love to be. In scenarios where paralysis looms, self-care builds momentum for valuing my own contributions (which is, at the end of the day, what my students need from me).

Tip 6: Stop writing random blogposts

But commenting on someone else’s random blogpost would be a great 5 minute break! Tell me what works for you!

How is theory like spaghetti?

I am not a good cook, so I frequently ask silly questions like, “how long should I boil this?” My family members are not bad cooks, so they have no idea what the box says, and instead give me answers like, “until it’s brown and has the right texture.” But we have found synchrony in the cooking of spaghetti. How do you know when spaghetti is ready to eat? It’s ready when you throw a piece of it against the wall and it sticks.

I am a pretty good anthropologist, so I no longer have questions like, “what counts as theory in my paper?” But my students are still learning, and my thoughts on which models of power are most relevant to their data are about as helpful as the color brown. Luckily, cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz provides this piece of guidance:

“Theoretical ideas are not created wholly anew in each study; as I have said, they are adopted from other, related studies, and, refined in the process, applied to new interpretive problems. If they cease being useful with respect to such problems, they tend to stop being used and are more or less abandoned. If they continue being useful, throwing up new understandings, they are further elaborated and go on being used.”

I have fixated on the words, “throwing up new understandings.” Tempting though it is to think of theory like vomit, the spaghetti metaphor probably works better. Take that “related study” and “throw it up” against the wall; if it sticks, if it gives you a “new understanding” – or better yet, a new question – you have found theory.

Foucault, I tell my students, throws up lots of new ways of thinking about the world for me. I introduce my students to Foucault, but I know that they’re still struggling to understand what is meant by a “technology of the self” in relation to a contested chronic fatigue syndrome diagnosis. If they throw that idea against the wall, it’s still going to be a slimy noodle. If they need to keep cooking their Foucault, it’s probably not good theory for them yet. But the idea that a diagnosis isn’t a neutral experience for a person with chronic fatigue syndrome might be just right.

What I love best about this definition of theory is that it honors students as real researchers. Of all the things I’ve given them to read, good theory is what stuck.

Research, Teaching, and Community

I just started a new research project! The idea is to learn more about how multigenerational Latinx families collaborate to help keep everyone in the family’s body healthy. And it’s personal. For the first time, I see my own family as my primary stakeholders, closely followed by my friends and community here in Oakland. And even though I’ve never done research so close to home before, I am realizing it’s not a totally new experience either. Because this is how I try to teach.

Like many educational anthropologists (a category I sometimes place myself in), I have been significantly influenced by the work on “Funds of Knowledge.” One of the ways that has filtered into my regular course design is that I design courses to try and ensure that some of the contexts (like “young” parenthood or chronically ill parents, legal status negotiations in families with recent immigrants, balancing work and school) that are regularly classed as “barriers” are instead treated as practical knowledge that can be leveraged as educational resources (insights into distributions of care work for family members, institutional negotiations of legal status, entrepreneurship). Each school is different, each class is different, but by working in inquiry driven assignments, I can create opportunities to encourage students to think about who their “stakeholders” are.

I turned to anthropology after starting my career working in direct service with the Latinx community where I grew up in (Maryland side of the DC metropolitan area). I had recognized myself falling into some of the common pitfalls of that work (in short, the ways I was sustaining rather than dismantling some pernicious aspects of racism through white saviourism). But even as I learned how to critique my own non-profit practices from anthropology, I didn’t see – at least at first – some of the ways I was distancing myself from accountability in my daily work. First and foremost, I have been insulated by the special status of “academia” (both as a researcher and a professor) in a way I never was as a facilitator of after-school programs, health coordinator, and case-worker.

As I have become more aware of that privilege of that insulation (if we take privilege to refer to actively sustaining a system in order to benefit from inequality), I have begun looking for ways out. The effort to assess my teaching in relation to where students come from (and the funds of knowledge they bring with them), was the first step. And this research project is one more. I’m afraid of screwing up and of seeing the impact of that in the lives of people I care about, but there is no doubt in my mind that this is the kind of anthropologist I want to become.

Enlightenment is a Curfew

On Monday, Oakland youth led 15,000 people in a peaceful march. As the protest began, a curfew was announced. As the shadows of tall buildings got longer, the police attacked. On Wednesday, sit-ins and spread-outs formed small pockets of adult and family dissent from the curfew across the Bay. The Anti-Police Terror Project boosted a suggestion from Senior and Disability Action for disabled, senior, and immune-compromised people to hold their signs in front of their own homes. The police restrained themselves to lurking.

Instead of marching, I taught my last synchronous Anthropology of Aging class of the quarter. Race had been largely absent from this version of the syllabus*, but the themes of contingencies that wear us out made it easy enough to conclude with race closer to the center. It wasn’t enough. I invited my students to stay for an optional extra hour to get more deeply into turning our course themes into activism on behalf of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade. When no one* came, I closed the Zoom window. It wasn’t enough.

My pedagogy is heavy on inquiry-based learning, attempting to create a space where students can take risks and make use of their funds of knowledge. I’m an academic, so it is easy to continue to build my library of BIPOC social scientists and work them into my syllabi. But because I came to academia through self-critique of my direct service and activism work, epistemology felt safer than action. So I have prioritized helping students understand epistemology over supporting them in taking resistant action. Activism needs to have a bigger place in my pedagogy. But it isn’t enough.

A friend of mine recently pointed out that non-Black people trying to act in solidarity “need to own the fact that we are making choices about which Black people, voices and leadership to center in moments of struggle … to be willing to exercise self-leadership that is informed by Black leadership AND one’s own convictions” and to be ready to “be wrong” about our actions without confusing that with approval-seeking.

I’m not sure I have either the humility or self-esteem she points out are necessary to walk that path. But here’s what I am sure about: it’s not a path I can walk alone. Approval-seeking is easy enough to do no matter how isolated a person is, but vulnerability and mutual aid need some kind of network. Unfortunately, I’m very new to the communities where I live, and I have very few people* in my life – BIPOC or white – who are intimate enough to want to check my racism. In the face of that dilemma, I have been trying to reason it out on my own with the depersonalized popular and scholarly resources that are widely available. Yikes.

Kant, who told us that the motto of Enlightenment is “Sapere aude!” (“have courage to use your own reason”), was not a fan of revolution. He called for the free thought and speech of scholars in the public sphere while affirming that in the private sphere, “one must obey.” I doubt Kant would have been very impressed with Colin Kaepernick.

But of the infinite arguments to be made with Kant, the one that inspired me most as a budding life course ethnographer was with his central metaphor: “to escape your self-incurred tutelage.” In other words, enlightenment is supposed to be growing up, becoming a full rights-bearing citizen by taking on the responsibilities of adultish reason rather than childish listening. His celebration of the contingent graduation from social childhood to adulthood was a key that unlocked my understanding of how the naturalization of age grades (life stages) synchronize private and public marginalization, particularly through the institutionalization of gender, race, and class. Enlightenment, and the ideas of progress and becoming that go with it, seemed to be nothing so much as the moment when a middle class white boy became a middle class white man granted the authority to make rational decisions for the rest of us.

Eventually, I came to see tutelage, the “inability to make use of [one’s] understanding without direction from another,” as a site of resistance. I no longer want to “grow up,” instead I want to grow old embedded in networks of care. I don’t aspire to throwing off the “yoke of my guardians” anymore, but I do want to rethink who my guardians are these days. My children, a couple of my neighbors, community leaders I want to know better, and, yes, some of my colleagues, too. I want to replace my search for approval with my work to merit the trust of my network.

When I march, or sit in, or teach, I pay close attention to how those near strangers are reading me and I hope I am avoiding their disapproval. That world of approval-seeking has remained separate from my world of true accountability. At home it is the care and need of household members, not their approval, that shapes the ongoing patterns of my actions. Their lives matter to me in a way that the lives of acquaintances do not. I aspire to intimacy and my efforts are endlessly fallible and incomplete at best. But that is the work, and so I do it.

This Fall, as I begin the next round of improving my syllabi with the new things I’ve learned, I will be working to let my own inquiry be much more in the service of the actual lives who have mattered and do matter to me. It won’t be enough, but it is the work.


* 1. The syllabus this semester built around Margaret Lock’s Encounters With Aging and Caroline Bledsoe’s Contingent Lives. I’d love to discuss strengths and weaknesses of that approach with anyone interested, but for what it’s worth, I would not make that choice again because it didn’t leave enough space to discuss aging and race.
* 2. Shout out to Cathy, who did in fact come after I had given up and left. Shout out to the rest of my students, too, some of whom shared with me a little about actions they have been taking in their own networks all week.
* 3. If you’re reading this, you’re likely already in my life in some way and I welcome your critique both as a way for me to learn and as a way for us to deepen our relationship. If you are seeking a volunteer for accountability, feel free to reach out to me.

Group Led Reading Quizzes: a learning process

Quizzes are great retrieval practice. If they’re super short and low-stakes (like a Kahoot!), they can also be a good way of making sure the whole class is on the same page to start the day. But every time I use quizzes to assess student learning, I feel like what I’m really assessing is how much students think like me. And a good quiz takes a long, long time to make. They’re really at their best at supporting students through the “remember” and “understand” parts of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but I’d rather be investing my precious prep-time in helping students move into application, analysis, evaluation, and creation.


So this Spring, in my Anthropology of Aging class, instead of giving my own quizzes, I had students make reading quizzes in small groups. The groups exchanged quizzes and took them. Then I graded them on the quizzes they made rather than the quizzes they took.

There were downsides – students were not always able to identify what was most important about the readings, and they were certainly no better at designing good questions than I am. There was a bit of a learning curve on how much time we spent discussing the quizzes. But there were enough upsides that I’ll definitely be using them again.

The best thing about the quizzes was that good questions really did reinforce key ideas for everyone, and weaker questions worked as really useful class discussion prompts. After they had taken the quizzes and self-graded, I asked students to identify which questions they wanted to have explained, which gave the creating group a chance to talk at more length about what they thought mattered and why, and gave me a chance to redirect anything heading off in the wrong direction. It did the awesome pedagogical thing of really being able to build off of where students are, rather than just gauging how far away they are from me. And it clearly did give students a sense of ownership of the material in a way that made me feel really good.

The icing on the cake is that those questions are a useful gauge to make sure that I’m appropriately scaffolding the concepts I teach.

Next time, here’s how I’ll lay it out:

  • 6 question quizzes cover 2-3 readings each, and I tell them ahead of time which readings are best for which categories of question
    • For example, “Keyword questions should come from Bledsoe 2002 or Johnson-Hanks 2006; Writing Techniques questions should come from Johnson-Hanks 2006 or Sokolovsky and Cohen 2009”
  • Questions
    • 5 categories of questions: 1 “main point” question, 2 “keyword” questions, 1 “course concept” question, 1 “writing techniques” question*, 1 “comparison between readings” question
      • Questions should pull out the most useful points from each category
    • Multiple Choice (3 answers) or True/False
    • No trick questions
  • Group work
    • Each student contributes at least two questions to their group’s Google Doc, and they collaborate there (preferably using the chat feature) to choose and edit the best 6 questions (where I can see version and chat history to confirm everyone posted questions).
    • Each group needs to submit their questions and answers before class so that I can add them to the day’s Powerpoint. Answer keys should include a very short summary of who wrote which question, and who did what administrative (printing, organizing, editing) work.
    • Students are responsible for printing

This time, I included an individual annotation grade as part of the assignment (I walked around the room and checked off that they had annotated the readings covered in the quiz). But I felt like I left in a lot of room for BS, so I’ll probably do annotation checking differently next time.

I did four Group Led Reading Quizzes over 10 weeks this quarter, and I had them all exchange quizzes and take them at the same time. Next time, I think I’d rather have one group lead at a time, but have a quiz every week.

There were plenty of other take-aways at the end of this year (my first full academic year as a professor since completing my PhD!), but this one has the benefit of being easy to replicate, low-prep, and particularly good for new classes (or old classes with a lot of new readings). Hope someone else can get some use out of the idea, too!

* Because I ask students to write ethnographically at the end of the class, I ask them to pay attention to the writing techniques in everything they read and later experiment with applying some of them.

How old are you? An activity for the first and last day of class

When I teach cultural anthropology, the goal is nothing less than a total epistemological shift. I want them to see themselves, and the world around them, in context. I want them to end the class knowing how to go about answering questions they couldn’t have even imagined the first day.

First and last days of class are special in course design, because they frame the course. You are supposed to start as you mean to go on, and finish strong. Better yet if you can tie them both together in one big bow. This semester, I let my icebreaker do a lot of that work for me.

On the first day of class – which happened to be on “Aging and Culture” – I asked students to introduce themselves by answering the question “how old are you?” without using a number. On the first day of class, we followed that activity up with an analysis. How were they defining age? Were we talking about kinship? Institutional identities? Experiences of our own bodies? How were those things shaped by particular circumstances? What did they think might be universal? It set the tone for the questions we would ask throughout the course.

On the last day of class, after students finished their presentations and a Gallery Walk, and after I did my best to articulate where I hoped they would go next with what they had learned, we did the icebreaker again. I changed it a little. This time, since we had talked about chronology and how it was related to sociocultural infrastructures from disciplinary time to (post)colonial inheritance law, they could also use numbers. But, I added, the context of the age identity they shared should be meaningful to them.

Just like the first day, I took a turn first to confirm my expectations with a clear example. But what followed was a totally different experience. Everyone knew how to answer and so they could turn their attention to appreciating their peers’ reflections instead of worrying if they got it right. It brought home how much more thoroughly they could appreciate the context of their own answers. Even though the theory and methods they learned were necessarily incomplete – don’t we deepen our analytical skills with every project we undertake? – the icebreaker offered an ending to our semester long journey. A signpost where we could stop, and rest, and look around together at the horizon we had made together.

It was a good icebreaker. Good enough that I might use it in a cultural class that has little to do with aging and the life course. But it was also a special – a truly wonderful – group of students, and I will carry them and this semester with me as a touchstone of how transformative a good class can be for a teacher.

AAA 2018 – Queering the Life Course

“Queering the Life Course” would have been a way better title than what I actually slapped on my poor paper for this year’s AAA. Sure, you may not be any more interested in “queering the life course” than in my actual title, which is, unfortunately, “Quotidian Present or Normative Future.”[ETA: jk! see note below!] But queering the life course approach is exactly what I’m hoping to do, so it still would have been a better title.

Another title I might have gone with is, “An analysis of 10th grade moments in urban Quito.” Or, because I set the bar pretty low, “Bailando, Happy Birthday, and a solo violin: three (queer?) times in a 10th grade age horizon.” At least those titles more accurately reflect that the majority of this presentation will be storytelling and not jargon.

Soy el futuro del pais

FB meme that made the rounds a few years ago …

Strained titles aside, I am very excited to get up and get evocative about interactions with three of my informants from Colegio Conquistador, a municipal high school in downtown Quito where I did my doctoral research. When I was in the field, I had one of those cool things happen where an everyday interaction that I observed gradually appeared a lot more meaningful. It turns out it makes a great story. And, adding cake to that icing, it’s a great story that I think makes a strong case for a particular methodological approach to analyzing age. Specifically, it’s great for showing how to add queer phenomenology to the life course approach.

I want to tell you more about it. And I will! At my talk! Which happens to be on Part 1 of the panel, “Anthropological Engagements in Queer Theories, Part I: Potentialities of Queerness” on Wednesday, November 14 from 12:00-1:45pm. Yifeng Cai put this whole thing together, and George Paul Meiu will be the discussant on my panel. (If you haven’t read Meiu’s article, ‘Beach-Boy Elders’ and ‘Young Big-Men’: Subverting the Temporalities of Ageing in Kenya’s Ethno-Erotic Economies, do yourself a favor and go read it now.) Frankly, I also heard Paula Martin give an amazing paper at last year’s AAA, and they’re on my panel, too, and I am super excited to see what they come up with this year.

I hope I see you there! Also, if you have a talk you want me to come to, please drop me your deets in the comments.

** [ETA: it turns out, I recognized how terrible that title was a while ago, and I changed it on the AAA site and then promptly forgot that I’d changed it. So you’ll actually find it in the program and on my CV as “Queering Youth Becoming: Socially Mobile Students in the Here and Now”]

Dixit, for an end-of-unit review in a theory heavy course

Making good tests is hard. And especially in theory-heavy classes, where my goal is primarily for students to become proficient at actually using the big ideas they are learning, I worry that my tests will reflect who among my students already happens to think the most like me, rather than what they have really learned.



So when we came to the end of the second Unit of the class on aging and culture, I had already committed that I would not test them. Still, I wanted to give them the benefits of the opportunity to practice their retrieval, not to mention more chances to show them how much they have learned about the material.

We had already used group-based sketchnotes a few times in the semester to try and translate their understanding of course and reading concepts into a visual representation. Students discussed the concept in their group and revised their drawings in relation to what they learned from each other. The drawing was great, but it became quickly clear that the visual metaphor could work with almost anything if their sense of the concept were strong enough. In fact, the more theoretically dense the topic was – and in a class working heavily with comparing epistemologies of aging across sociopolitical contexts, the topics were often dense – the more useful the visual metaphor seemed to be in solidifying their knowledge of it.


The winning card for the objective “Define adolescence as a “technology” and discuss embodying politics in bodies through time.” Lots of groups chimed in with connections to Foucault and disciplinary time that I didn’t see until they said them.

So instead of using Kahoot! to whip up an on the spot competitive version of a test, I brought my big box full of beautiful Dixit cards to class. The premise of Dixit is that a person chooses an ambiguous word or phrase to describe the surreal art on their card, and then the other players put down their own cards with a similar theme and try to guess which is the “real” card. In my variation, I put the unit’s objectives on the powerpoint and selected a card that I thought might be the best metaphor for that concept. Each small group chose their own card, and then a representative from each group guessed which one I had put down (because it was the “best”). They could not, of course, choose their own card. The group that put down the card that won each round was asked to explain the logic of how their image represented the particular objective, and then others in the room explained why they had chosen that same card.

I got to hear students articulating – without a hint of the anxiety that so often comes when asking students to speak about heavy theory – a strong and nuanced grasp of exactly what I had been hoping they would learn. They got as many points for other groups choosing their card as they did for guessing mine. In fact, they almost never chose my card, but if they didn’t touch on an element that I thought needed mentioning, I took the time to explain the metaphor on my card as well.

It took about 30 minutes to do 5 rounds, but it was worth every minute of class time. I think I actually like playing the theory version of Dixit even better than the real version! Anyone wanna come over and play some anthropological life course theory Dixit?!

P.S. Check out the Tabletop episode on playing Dixit that made me want to buy it in the first place!

“A Bad Age for Citizenship” at the AAAs – 11/30 8am

This year, at the American Anthropological Association in Washington, DC, yours truly will be chairing a panel. The session is early (8am, Thursday, November 30, 2017), but I’ll be there with my coffee in hand and now that you’ve made it here to read the description, I hope you will, too. Let me try and convince you.

Every year, the closer I get to the November conference, the more my inner groupie flutters at the chance to exchange ideas with people I respect. But this year is extra special because I have all but guaranteed this by having some of those people on my own panel! Even better, everyone is talking about a topic I think is really important: age as citizenship.

The panel, titled “A Bad Age for Citizenship: Barriers to belonging in the school years,” has mePatrick AlexanderSally Bonet, and Cara M. Morgenson presenting papers and Caroline Bledsoe as the Discussant.

If you haven’t heard of Caroline Bledsoe, allow me to fangirl on you for a minute. Bledsoe’s book, Contingent Lives: Fertility, Time, and Aging in West Africa, totally changed how I thought about age. Reading it was the point at which I decided I wanted to make my anthropological career about theorizing the life course. And, yeah, that MIGHT have had a little to do with why I asked her to be our discussant. But another reason is that she came out with this great article in 2011 with Papa Sow that took the implications of cultural variation in aging to another level, and got me thinking about a lot of the themes we go into in this panel.

She’s not the only one on my panel I’m stoked to meet – we have a really great line up. And as excited as I am to hear their papers, I’m even more excited to get to talk to them face to face and ask them questions about their work.

Here’s the official abstract, and I hope you’ll come and say hi to me after!

AAA Session Abstract: Youth and families around the world face a dilemma when school is simultaneously a critical site for establishing youth as citizens and a site of social differentiation, exclusion, inequality, and danger. Responses to this dilemma are shaped by imagined futures of familial social mobility as well as histories of familial exclusion; these responses are both constrained and made possible by the intersections of local, national, global, and transnational age-based rights and responsibilities (Bledsoe and Sow 2011). This panel contributes to AAA 2017’s conference theme of anthropological engagement with contemporary crises of inequality by diagnosing barriers to social justice where they intersect with schooling (arguably the most important hybrid global and local institution for remedying national inequality). Using school-based ethnography as a methodological starting point, this panel discusses how youth and intergenerational age identities limit and produce possible solutions to the differentiation of school-based citizenships. The papers on this panel examine student citizenships set in uncertain futures and precarious presents, as well as the intergenerational and often transnational strategies for overcoming barriers that stretch across the life course. The research focuses on youth, parents, and educators in Ecuador, Britain, the U.S., as well as the transnational “betweens” occupied by refugees. Building on the anthropology of youth allows these papers to highlight the importance of youth cultural practices, thus centering variation and differentiation over a search for a generically acceptable boundary between youth and adult rights and responsibilities (Bucholtz 2002). Drawing on the anthropology of education has grounded our interrogations of school-based citizenship through ethnographic analyses of how global and national directives are locally implemented and contested (Levinson 2011). And making use of the theoretical contributions of life course anthropology has highlighted the importance of situating these questions within their temporal, intergenerational, and changing biocultural contexts (e.g., Johnson-Hanks 2006, Lynch and Danely 2013). Sitting at the intersection of the anthropologies of youth, education, and the life course, this panel examines the contested belonging that youth and their families must confront while engaged with schooling.

World’s Okayest Academic: on taking maternity leave as a grad student

“I had one mom who emailed her dissertation to her committee from the labor recovery room!” That’s what my (well-intentioned, lovely) midwife told me on three separate occasions. Her story joined what seem like infinite others about junior faculty nursing one-handed while typing with the other, new mothers trading the well-known “sleep while they sleep” advice for a few more minutes on their latest chapter draft, and generally trying (with mixed success) to keep from falling behind. Even in the semi-anonymous social networking spheres where academic mothers go for support, this academic version of the “supermom” seems to be tacitly accepted.

my favorite “World’s Okayest Mom” mug and the baby’s spoon post-canine intervention

This is not to say that we aren’t all aware that the academic job market is structured in such a way that women are disproportionately penalized for having children (whether in inaccurate assumptions about productivity loss or in measures of productivity that disproportionately privilege childless academics and fathers), but it seems to be treated as an incontestable reality that no one can hope to effectively resist. You can, of course, drop out. Many do. Or you can push through and hope that you will be one of the lucky few who makes it anyway.


I was pretty stressed out about this choice a couple of weeks ago. I am close, very close, to being done with a dissertation draft that I think is good enough to actually defend. I am also close, very very close, to my due date for my second child. And that had resulted in the birth of my next child being my de facto deadline for the dissertation so that I can avoid the worst repercussions of productivity loss that are the reality of the first weeks (months) of labor-recovery-and-parenting-a-newborn. It would still be great if it works out that way, but if it doesn’t, you won’t find me sitting on a hospital cot emailing my committee. I do have an incredibly supportive adviser and committee, but it wasn’t their support that finally woke me to the ways I had internalized the oppressive dichotomy of super-aca-mom or failure. For that, I have to thank Victoria.

Victoria was in middle school when she had the baby that led me to recruit her for my Master’s research back in 2010. She was small-bodied and serious, and I struggled to establish rapport in our interview when I couldn’t get her to crack a smile. Speaking quietly but clearly, she told me that she never asked her mom for help at night when her new baby woke crying. Although she lived with her mother and sister, she did her utmost to avoid asking them for any help beyond what she needed to be able to continue attending school (for which there was no daycare, nor any support resources of any kind). She did not go out with friends. She studied and she raised her baby and she felt that she had ruined her own life.

She was, in some ways, the exception among the teen moms of my study. She was the youngest, not just chronologically (14), but socially (everyone else had at least started high school) and she had no age-mates who shared her experience. Although my other informants did not share Victoria’s sense of failure, they did share her desire to communicate how little help they sought or accepted and universally credited their new identities as mothers as inspiring a desire to complete (or in some cases, return to) school.

As I interviewed them, I became more and more disturbed by their sense of accountability for being successful students and mothers within a system that told them over and over again that they did not belong there, or anywhere. But, for all that they might have internalized responsibility for oppressive circumstances, they, like most young parents, found ways to resist, too. I was most impressed by a young woman who turned what her school likely wanted to be a “warning” roundtable of young parents into an opportunity to build solidarity and share success stories.

Building on the work of feminist social scientists concerned about similar dynamics since the 1980s, I attempted to translate all this into observations about “age and citizenship” in my Master’s thesis, and then used those observations to develop the research questions for my PhD. Mostly I thought of myself as leaving the public indignation for academics for whom political activism was a more central identity, but at some level, I also accepted those structures as a reality I could do little to change. When I became a parent myself, I thought often of my MA informants, but mostly while reflecting on my relative privilege: how much easier my age made it for me to request and accept help from my parents and in-laws, for example, and how much easier having a partner out of school and halfway through his career made it for me to balance professional and parent identities. I swore to myself I would resist social pressure to define my mothering through self-sacrifice and proudly bought myself a mug that read, “World’s Okayest Mom.”

Lately, as I reach the end of my second pregnancy, I find myself thinking again about the lessons I learned from my informants. Many of the challenges of transitioning from grad school to junior faculty are similar: at the top of the list are a promise that self-sacrifice is the only reasonable path to inhabiting a good academic position and the suggestion that lower productivity is a result of (poor) personal choices or irrational priorities. There is plenty of advice out there for new graduates on how to make the most of the competitive and generally crappy market, but little of it really challenges the ideologies of personal accountability for structural inequality. Which is where the lessons from my informants came in again. This time I want to honor their experiences by rejecting the implication that I can take credit for the privilege that led to my easier first experience of parenthood. I still have plenty of privilege, of course, notwithstanding my anxiety dreams about future productivity loss costing me a slim chance in a bad job market. But today, I reject the normalization of steady and undisrupted academic trajectory and embrace, at least temporarily, a new identity: “World’s Okayest Academic.”