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.”

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).

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!