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 (slgrace@email.arizona.edu) 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).

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.

SalmacisNavez

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 “paleothea.com” (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.

cybelemeriaux

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 …

image

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.

 

Online Discussion Pedagogy

So if you’ve ever been in an online course – or even a face-to-face course with an online component – you have probably come across some variation of the Online Discussion Board. Modeled on the threaded bulletin boards that once defined internet communication, they are often imagined to replace the kinds of spontaneous conversation that emerge in face-to-face classroom teaching. The most common approach to these “discussions” is to require students to post a thoughtful post of a certain length responding to some sort of weekly prompt, and to read the posts of their peers.

I hate them.

cartoon gif="Thoughtful Discussion on the Internet"

Thoughtful Discussion on the Internet

I do not hate them because such posts are pedagogically useless – they aren’t. But they aren’t the equivalent of an in-class discussion, they’re the equivalent of being handed a worksheet in class with and being asked to write a short answer. There’s value there, particularly in the context of an online class, but its a different value. The problem is when teachers are seduced by the misnomer “discussion” and think that requiring students to read and respond to each others’ replies teaches them something.

The reason I hate them is because I actually think that students CAN get something out of online discussions, but only if teachers stop thinking that the genre accomplishes the same goals as face to face conversation or even open-ended online discussion boards. And that’s not possible if you’re using the space as an easy place to post short answers worksheets.

In case its not as obvious to you as it is to me, here are a few of the differences between the typical online course discussion board and the models it is supposedly built on:

  • Written replies in asynchronous forums, unlike real-time face to face conversations (or online chat), are not spontaneous or easily refined through quick back and forth discussion.
  • If a classroom teacher standing at the front of the room asked the class to respond to a question or idea, and went student by student so everyone could hear all the answers, that would definitely not constitute a discussion.
  • Face to face discussions with students often allow for students to signal their confusion or lack of clarity with nonverbal cues that allow the teacher to redirect in situ.
  • Most non-school online discussion boards have more lurkers (people reading but not participating) than posters, and responders are highly selective about who merits a reply.
  • In some types of non-school online discussion boards (e.g. more anonymous boards with changing groups of commenters), the majority of replies are not discussions of content but ad hominem attacks and critiques of style.
  • In some types of non-school online discussions (e.g. the threaded responses to posts in Livejournal), interlocutors have long-standing relationships that they have been slowly developing over long periods of time, and replies are as much about building and maintaining those relationships as responding to the content.

It follows that many of the things those communicative genres accomplish do not translate into the style of online discussion common to most courses.

But there are ways to run an online class discussion that might actually be a little closer to deserving the label. These maximize what the online discussion board speech genre actually DOES offer, namely:

  • an opportunity for a student to get a survey of their classmates’ ideas on a given issue
  • a space for thoughtfully crafted short replies

I think the key difference that this highlights is that online class discussions are valuable for having students take ownership of the reading by creating well-grounded critical questions. The responses from their peers are still “short answers” for the ones writing them, but when they are actually engaging with their peers’ ideas, there is value for the askers that wouldn’t be otherwise available. In other words, students get value from having other students engage with questions they have, not answers they have.

My approach in an upper level online class I am currently teaching is to have students sign up for a day to lead a discussion on a reading they have all been assigned. Then that student provides their peers with a short summary of what they think the major take-aways of the reading are, and provides a number of critical questions on the reading that the other students then reply to. The Discussion Leaders are given clear guidelines on how to create questions that inspire conversation related to the day’s topical goals, the larger course goals, and the lines of thought that will be useful for other assignments (e.g. papers). In this class I have seen students develop and articulate theoretical questions and lines of inquiry that I have not seen in other assignment formats. And I have seen students who formulated questions that betrayed a lack of reading comprehension get valuable correction from a number of students that addressed the issue more thoroughly than I, as a teacher, could have done in any single response.

While this particular discussion format won’t work for all levels or types of online class, I think that any online class discussion should keep in mind the particularities and differences of the formats – what is does do and what it doesn’t do – when they are designing their course activities.