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.”

AAA 2017 CfP – A Bad Age for Citizenship: barriers to belonging in the school years

Call for Papers: A Bad Age for Citizenship: barriers to belonging in the school years
American Anthropological Association (AAA) 2017, Washington, D.C., 29 Nov – 3 Dec

Chair/Organizer: Samantha Grace (University of Arizona)
Invited Discussant: Caroline Bledsoe (Northwestern)

Youth and families around the world face a dilemma when school is simultaneously experienced as a site for establishing youth as full citizens and as 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). Just as the AAA 2017 theme highlights the diversity of anthropological engagements with contemporary crises of inequality, this panel seeks to diagnose the barriers to social justice where they intersect with schooling (arguably the most important hybrid global and local institution for remedying national inequality). In line with that goal, this panel’s discussion revolves around the theme of school-based citizenship as informed by a life course approach. Questions on that theme include (but are not limited to):

  • How do concerns about students’ futures guide family’s engagements with schooling in the present?
  • How are transnational citizenships shaped by familial constellations of age?
  • How do physical/bodily changes in youth and childhood impact expectations of students’ rights and responsibilities? And how do school structures and policies impact the physical bodies of students?
  • What can school-based language ideologies tell us about age and belonging? And how do discourses about civic responsibilities differentiate students?
  • How do concepts of “risk” shape student roles in their schools, homes, and communities?
  • How do school structures produce and constrain dangers to students?
  • How do (cultural and national) age identities limit and produce possible solutions to racial, gender, and class inequalities?

This panel seeks papers from the anthropologies of youth, education, and the life course that concern the differentiation of belonging and citizenship. The anthropology of youth has improved the interdisciplinary study of youth citizenship by highlighting the importance of youth cultural practices, and thus centering variation and differentiation over a search for a generically acceptable boundary between youth and adult rights and responsibilities (Bucholtz 2002). The anthropology of education has grounded interrogations of school-based citizenship through ethnographic analyses of how global and national directives are locally implemented and contested (Coe 2005, Koyama 2011). Life course anthropology has highlighted the importance of situating these questions within their temporal, intergenerational, and changing biocultural contexts (e.g., Johnson-Hanks 2006, Danely and Lynch 2013). This panel builds on the methodological strength of anthropological approaches in examining the contested belonging that youth and their families must confront while engaged with schooling.

Please e-mail proposed paper titles and abstracts (max. 250 words) to Samantha Grace ( by 5pm AEST, 4 April. Please use the subject heading, “AAA 2017” in your e-mail. I will let you know if your abstract will be included in this panel by 10 April. If included, you will be required to upload your individual abstracts to the AAA conference portal and register for the AAA by Friday, 14 April 2017 (5pm EDT).

School Choice vs. Equal Education: why we are talking past each other

With Betsy DeVos up for Secretary of Education, the debate over “school choice” is back.* Both sides of the debate agree that too many public schools suck, and both sides of the debate agree that children have a right to good education. But the conservative** solution proposed is to allow families to hold schools accountable by voting with their feet. The liberal side argues that, because not all families have equal opportunity to choose the “best” option, this sticks low-income families in the same crappy schools but with even fewer resources. Instead, the lefty solution is to minimize school choice in order to maximize community accountability for all schools.

You can argue this in terms of facts and figures, policy details, and assessments of different attempts to implement these systems across the country. But it seems like those arguments only convince the people who are already generally aligned with one side of the political spectrum. In other words, we are talking past each other. But why?

One big reason is that we are talking about rights in two different ways – ways we tend to associate with different age groups. In particular, I think this is (perhaps subtly) being framed as the right of parents to choose the best school versus the right of children to equal education. Or, in other words, the right to equal access and the right to equal remedy.***

The right to equal access is saying something like, you have the right to try and find work wherever you want, and no one can enslave you or make you a serf, and no one can refuse to hire you for irrelevant reasons (like being poor, Native American, old, trans*, etc). But equal access to work does not mean that you can be the president or a CEO or a professor just because you think that would be nice, instead you are accountable for your own specialized training and have to compete with other people on the same grounds of merit.

The right to equal remedy, on the other hand, recognizes that our society is not a level playing field, and is explicitly targeted at fixing that. The hands-down biggest way we have agreed to do that in the modern world is through education: all children have the right to be educated. It doesn’t matter if they have learning disabilities, it doesn’t matter if they refuse to do their homework, and it definitely doesn’t matter if they live too far away from a school. Unlike the right to equal access, equal remedy means that you have the right to go to the best school just because you think that would be nice. This whole idea of equal remedy justifies the (adult) framework of equal access. It’s how we justify to ourselves that our playing field is equal enough for adults to reasonably compete against each other based on merit.

So, back to school choice. It is, essentially, a framework of equal access and not equal remedy. There’s a reason we don’t talk about children “choosing” their schools: it’s because we recognize that is the responsibility of parents and adult guardians. We don’t frame children’s rights as equal access, because we don’t believe that children have the ability to compete based on merit. We already know that it’s adults competing on their children’s behalf.

That’s why, when lefties vociferously argue to protect public education as a right to equal remedy – that all children must have the right to education (in order to create a level playing field as adults) – they aren’t making any headway. Because the right already agrees with that. Instead, the right has reframed the debate to make it about families, not children, fighting for the best opportunities for their children. Just like how a parent, not a child, is responsible for working to keep their kids clothed and fed.

So, how can we start talking to each other? I think the starting place is to acknowledge the place that both ethical frameworks have in our society. Yes, we do think that it is a parents’ responsibility to fight for (and provide for) their children. And yes, we do think that children have the right to education, food, and clothes, even when their parents aren’t able to provide them.****

And from there, I confess, the next step seems obvious: parents should be able to fight for school choice and anything else for their children, but they must do it within a system that ensures children the equal remedy of education. But I’d love someone to argue with me.

*Of course, there are plenty of other things people have problems with about Betsy DeVos, but I don’t really have anything new to say about those.
** This debate doesn’t perfectly break down along the lines of left/right, conservative/liberal, Democrat/Republican, but it’s close, so I’m going with it.
*** I secretly think these terms are kind of confusing, but I can’t think of any that are consistently clearer, and these are classics – they are how T. H. Marshall distinguishes between civil and political rights on the one hand and social rights (like education) on the other in his long essay “Citizenship and Social Class“.
**** I could write a whole other essay about how we fail to convince each other of anything when we pretend the “other side” doesn’t agree with either of these propositions.

My baby: the Ancient Goddess (or, why to give creative research assignments)

In ninth grade, my English teacher Del Hayes (who would leave the next year to can fish in Alaska) gave my class an open-ended research assignment and I decided to make my first website. It was, more or less, a Wikipedia page on the Byzantine Empress Theodora, although in 1996 there was no other mention of her online (at least according to AltaVista) and Wikipedia was still a twinkle in someone’s eye. But I threw myself into the basics of HTML so that I could choose just the right shade of Hex Value, and I went to the Library of Congress so that I could learn more about Theodora than my school’s Encyclopedias could offer. It was enormously fun.


The Nymph Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, by Francois Navez (yes, that’s where we got the word from)

Shortly after, I put my feminist interest in Greek myths into code and started work on the opus that would become the website “” (my attempt to translate “ancient goddess” before I knew Greek). For years, it was the first hit on Google if you typed in “Greek Goddess,” and the work that I poured into it led me to major in Ancient Greek Language and Literature at Oberlin College (I had intended a more practical major in psychology). For more than ten years, I stayed up late into the night, posting pre-Raphaelite and WPA-art deco-mural paintings of goddesses that didn’t make the cut to D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths.

Then, as now, my interests were wide-ranging. My fascination with creating a beautiful database of woman-centered Greek myths waned as I became more academically competent in studying them (and I gave away the site), but the research skills I had learned translated easily. The limitations and merits of interpretation were some of the biggest takeaways. The strength of finding my own voice as a researcher was another. I went to work in my own community in the DC area after graduating, and soon the questions I was asking there drove me to graduate school.

Today, I am an anthropologist who does research in Ecuador on how rights and responsibilities change with age, and my love for retelling Hesiod’s myths of gender transformation almost never comes up. But what I know now, that I could not have known then, is that website was as important to my sense of self then as my anthropological work is now. And then as now, it was because of my personal investment and ownership of the work.


Cybele, by Erika Meriaux (seriously, look up the myths about her and Attis, who is lurking in the background)

So now when I teach, I, too, try to include opportunities for my students to come up with their own research projects. I keep adjusting my guidelines because too much latitude is overwhelming for students who are less excited or less confident. Students benefit from having some control over their learning process, but don’t naturally know the critical skills that come with learning how to research. But at the end of the day, my academic journey began the day I came to know myself as a creative contributor of knowledge, and I can think of no greater gift.

tl;dr Inquiry-based learning for the win!

On Civilization (V) and the Academic Job Search

I have a confession: I love the academic job search. I love it for the same reason I love playing Civilization. I like to play on a higher setting than I can usually win on, and whenever I start a new game I like to spend a few hours researching strategy guides for new techniques. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to prioritize using my limited production to the best long term effect. When I finally start the game I look for the land tiles with the resources my civilization needs most and then adjust my strategies as I get to know the competitive field. Looking for a tenure track job as a sociocultural Wu Zetian, from Civ 5anthropologist focusing on the life course seems to have a lot of overlap.

Although I took anthropology classes as an undergrad, I first really connected to the discipline when I came across the Washington Post’s obituary for Clifford Geertz on November 2, 2006. I was still working as a direct service provider at Identity, Inc, but I was already itching to engage the kinds of big questions that intellectually curious people ask when they regularly encounter systemic social problems. Although I am not the kind of person who clips things out of newspapers, I clipped out Geertz’s obituary and bought the book it mentioned: The Interpretation of Cultures. The second or third time I read it, the margins had started filling with questions, arguments, and emojis. I was already hooked by the time I started reading Abu-Lughod, Capps and Ochs, and Mendoza-Denton.

By the time I finally started graduate school, I knew that the job market was inhospitable but my whole-hearted conversion to anthropology demanded action. I believed in the truth-value of particularity and in the methods for paying attention when a culture “bodies forth and enmeshes you” (Geertz After the Fact 44). I wanted to learn it, but I also knew I wanted to teach it. So, from the beginning, I attended every professionalization workshop and anthropological pedagogy talk I could. I started reading teaching blogs, and following anthropologists on Twitter. For seven years I made preparing for the job search my break-time treat. So now? I am pretty excited.

I am still playing on a higher setting than I can reliably win on; in the current job market, I am a PhD candidate competing against people who have had two or three years to prioritize building their publication records over things like researching and writing a dissertation. But the game has now started, and I am enjoying searching out the few positions best suited for the kind of anthropologist I want to be. I hope, of course, that I will win the game – find the place where I can do the kinds of teaching and research that have motivated my adult life – but in the meantime, I am having a lot of fun just playing.

The Triple Interview: a qualitative life course method

Interview face on Liliana's patio

Interview on Liliana’s patio

Sometimes your informants lie to you and sometimes they lie to themselves. Sometimes they are wrong about things, sometimes you are missing the context to understand them properly, and sometimes they just change their minds. When you’re dealing with a vulnerable population – and youth are certainly that – how you work with that unreliability matters. There are plenty of methodological texts dedicated to improving interview techniques, and I have benefited from a number of them. But here is a strategy that I developed for my dissertation fieldwork that I thought worked out very well:

The Triple Interview

Step 1. Interview the kid first

Step 2. Interview the kid with a parent of their choosing

Step 3. Interview the kid and a core network of people that matter to them

Step 1 is easier said than done. Not only does the IRB require parent consent for kids (as they should), a lot of kids themselves want to make sure they have their parents’ approval for something as unusual as an interview. That means scheduling a face to face meeting with a parent and their child to explain what exactly they are consenting to, and then scheduling a second time to meet for the interview (never easy with kids). That’s because I learned that trying to do an interview with a kid after sitting down and plodding through forms with their parent is a great way to undermine rapport, which is the main reason you are doing the interview with the kid first. In an interview with a parent and child dyad, the alignment between parent and (presumably adult) interviewer seems almost automatic. In contrast, if you and the kid have a chance to sit together on your own, you have a shot at creating your own weird category of adult in relation to them. You’re a researcher, not their teacher, not their parent, and you can ask things then that a strong identification with another adult role would make a lot more difficult.

Step 2 isn’t so hard. At the end of your first interview you schedule the second one, and you ask the kid to choose the parent they’d prefer to be interviewed with. Then, when you go into the interview, you and the kid have your own confidential relationship. When parents say things that were expected, students will sometimes laugh and crow, “I told you!” But there are other times when the expected or unexpected thing is understood through a remembered explanation that you do not mention or even risk exchanging glances over.

Step 3 is a pain in the butt to organize, but well worth it. For my study, I wanted to make sure the core networks were broadly multigenerational, and usually ended up with a grandparent, a sibling, a cousin near in age, a parent, and an aunt or uncle. Once or twice, I ended up with friends of the student in the mix, and it had a really different feel.

In each interview, the themes overlapped and a couple of questions were repeated. Sometimes – okay, often – I looked to the kid to help me frame the question I was trying to ask. But it was fascinating and incredibly valuable to see how the kid changed – or didn’t – across the three interviews. Those moments are hard to explain in articles and books, but they spoke volumes about the relationship and expectations between parent and child, and about how the kid fit into a larger network of loved ones. Even more interesting, some of the kids’ answers changed dramatically between interviews. Some were hiding secrets that changed how you understood their world, some reconsidered their positions with their parents’ perspectives. For a life course researcher who includes youth and children among her informants, the triple interview is a valuable addition to methodological toolbox. I know I’ll be using it again.


Once upon a time the Nacirema …


I love this book …

I spend a lot of time daydreaming about creative alternatives for assessing your students. Are you shocked reader? I thought not.

Today I am particularly excited about my idea: children’s books as final or midterm projects for intro to anthropology classes. The basic assignment would look like this:

  1. Write and illustrate a book introducing one of the main course concepts to children. Include a final 1–2 pages with an “Author’s Note” for parents explaining the concept more clearly. Be as specific or abstract as you want in the children’s part of the book.
  2. Length: 9-31 pages long; 60-240 words of children’s narrative; 300-600 words of “Author’s Note” giving additional information about the topic.
  3. Illustrations: You do not have to be able to draw: if you want to make a collage or photoshop images together (including images photocopied from the texts you read in this class) go ahead and do that. These projects will not be published or sold and so they do not have to comply with copyright law. If you want to do the illustrations yourself, do whatever you want: paintings, cartoons, photographs, go crazy!
  4. Writing: The main narrative of the book should be something my 8 year old niece* would enjoy listening to, but don’t worry about censoring the material, she has very liberal parents. The Author’s Note should include at least two works cited (in Chicago style), and should give a compelling reason why you think this is an important topic to know about, as well as more detail on some of the themes you raised in the main narrative.
  5. Format: I want a hard copy to be handed in at the start of class. If you really want me to look at an electronic version, I will, but only IN ADDITION to a good hard copy, not instead. It does not need to be bound, there are no rules on paper size or stock.
  6. You will be graded on a) How well you represent the course concept you choose (60%), b) Presentation (30%) and c) Creativity (10%).
  7. I will return all of your books with comments on STICKY NOTES so that your masterpieces will be unharmed and yours to reminisce with for years to come.

Secretly, the “course concept” that started me thinking about this was a wish for a children’s books introducing the variation in cross-cultural marriage practices. But don’t you think it would work well for lots of intro to anth concepts?

Has anyone ever tried an assignment like this? I would love to hear how it went … The incredibly dorky fun of coming up with the ideas is reward enough, but talking about them makes it even better, so comment if you have questions or suggestions!


*I don’t actually have an 8 year old niece, but do keep your imaginary audience in mind.