Wild Thoughts

It’s time now for another installation of “Wild Thoughts” (previously and unimaginatively entitled  Updates and Shorts ), in which I catch up on all the stories I’ve been saving for a “future post” which never seems to get written.  First, some updates:

  • In Party Like it’s 1954 I described the loyalty oath requirement recently imposed on adjuncts in my school.  After a lightning-round of research on the Constitutionality and legality of the oath, and after communicating with a Faculty Senate member, I decided to sign the oath and pursue the fight once I’d secured my job.  I’ve learned of an unsuccessful legal challenge that was mounted by a full-time faculty member some time ago, and am hoping to get more information from him.
  • The Meskwaki adoption case I described as “settled” in my earlier updates post has encountered new complications. The motehr in the original case, who after being disallowed by the tribal government to allow her newborn son to be adopted by a non-Indian couple outside of the community, has turned the child over to Human Services after being involved in a drug-related arrest and herself testing positive for marijuana and drug use.  
  • Meanwhile, in the world of establishing ethnicity through DNA testing , the LA Times adds some context to the Wired piece mentioned by Kerim earlier.  What’s intriguing to me about the turn to DNA testing is that it essentially substitutes the uncertainty of competing sociocultural claims with the uncertainty of scientific claims — DNA testing has, so far, not come one whit closer to establishing ethnicity than the methods it replaces, but has become preferred for its air of scientificity.  What will be interesting is when the Pakistanis get wind of all this and start applying for tribal enrollment (Pakistanis often come up as “Native American” with current DNA testing methods).

And now for some things completely different:

  • Gerald Graff, an English professor, takes educators to task for obscuring from our students the “life of the mind”, rather than enabling them to more fully pursue it in his revcent book  Clueless in Academe . In  this interview , he discusses the growing gap between educators and the would-be educated, and the role educators themselves play in producing and maintaining this gap:

     I think we’ve gotten accustomed to a system in which the very few excel in school (and reap the rewards in the vocational world beyond) and the many stumble along and more or less get by, or get through, or fail. In some ways such a system suits us academics – it’s not our fault if the majority stumble or fail, we can easily say, that’s just the way it is; only an elite in any society is going to ‘get’ the intellectual club, etc. Insofar as this is a common academic attitude, I blame academics more than parents, whom it’s also our job to educate, after all.

    While I’m sympathetic to this viewpoint, and always open to suggestions to improve how we college educators can better do our jobs, I have to say that we also have to deal with the failures of an education system that has already done a terrible lot of damage to our students by the time we get our hands on them.  I have learnt from my students about high schools with not enough textbooks, overcrowding so bad classes had to be interrupted every 15 minutes so everyone would have a chance to sit in a chair, lunch breaks reduced to 15 minutes and lunchrooms with not enough food for everyone, and teachers simply unable to teach under these conditions.  Addressing the problems we face at the college level is going to require more than just finger-wagging at professors, however well-deserved — it is going to require reforms all up and down the educational system (reforms that should probably start with an admission that No Child Left Behind just isn’t cutting it)..  

  • Science Fiction webzine “Strange Horizons” lists the 10 Stupidest Utopias , ranging from Plato’s Republic to the Postwar American Suburb.  Anthropology, with its reformer’s goal of contributing to the improvement of society, has strong roots in Romanticism and its utopian project, and I think it’s worth noting how difficult it seems to be to imagine utopian societies that are truly better than their alternatives.

    “As long as necessity is socially dreamed,” Guy Debord says in his 1973 film The Society of the Spectacle, “dreaming will remain a social necessity.” Debord meant that in conditions of inequality and injustice, people will always imagine a better place. What constitutes “better” is, however, a matter of much dispute. We dream our fears as well as hopes, reflecting all the agonies and contradictions of the waking world; in dreams, demons rise from our darkest places. This is the dangerous element in utopian aspiration, the monster behind the smiling face. Utopias can embody the highest hopes of humankind and frameworks for continuous evolution, but they can also reflect our worst fears and sickest appetites—not to mention a mania for power and control that is latent in every person.

  • The Federal Resources for Educational Excellence program offers a directory of about 5 dozen free educational sites for social studies teachers.  Although aimed at K-12 instructors, a lot of these sites are useful for students (and non-students) of any age, including museum exhibits, excavation accounts, and multimedia explorations of regional arts and music.
  • Pick-a-Prof, a startup venture, is launching a pilot program to provide podcast versions of classroom lectures to students unable or unwilling to attend the class.  The lectures are not cheap — $5 for an audio recording which lacks whatever visible elements a professor introduces in the classroom — and no school is considering requiring profs to record their lectures (yet).  I cannot imagine these podcasts being considered an adequate substitute for class attendance (though how much further can video podcasts be, with the new video-enabled iPods now on the market?) and I’m wondering how Pick-a-Prof gets around the issue of students who may not want their voices included in the recording.  When I’ve considered recording my own classes (to post on the class website, for instance) I’ve always worried about the students’ response — will knowing they are being recorded disrupt the class? Will students be unwilling to ask questions or make comments at all? Can I release my lectures publicly without explicit permission from every student that talks in the recording?  These concerns aside, however, I can see one potentially very helpful use for these recordings: helping students to choose which professor’s class they want to register for, and maybe even eliminating classes that they might not be well-prepared for.  In any case, look for programs like this to start being more and more prevalent — and keep an eye out for how and for whom such programs are monetized!
  • BBC Radio broadcasted an interview with 6 market researchers using ethnography or other anthropological methods in their work — you can listen to the broadcast using RealAudio.  In one segment, one of the participants does an ethnography of another’s daily work, writing up a day of his collegeague following and filming a woman as she shops and uses products in her home.  Of course, the accompanying article begins with the old cliche of the anthropologist leaving the savages to observe the civilized instead, or in BBC’s words “anthropologists who no longer observe tribal people out in the jungle, but watch us instead.” I wonder if this trope doesn’t reflect a very deep anxiety about whether, if anthropologists find “us” worthy of examination, we might not be so “civilized” after all…
  • The growing incidence of obesity, not just in the US, but in the world as a whole , continues to worry both the WHO (for whom it is a health concern) and everyday citizens (for whom it is a moral concern).  Anthropologists Sidney Mintz checks in on some of the moral hand-waving surrounding obesity in the United States with a piece in “Johns Hopkins Magazine”, shifting attention from the moral judgements that dominate the discussion to some of the structural concerns that obesity should raise:

    I think that we Americans, in particular, are led down the path [to gluttony] by the much-touted insistence that sophisticated people should be able to do many things at once. How often are we told by people who want to sell us things that busy folks like us have no time, and must learn to multitask? Chronically subject to low-key distraction by the other things we’re doing, we may fail to notice what (or how much) we’re eating. Clever devices, like plastic cup holders in automobiles, make it convenient to consume almost uninterruptedly. Takeout and TV dinners, energy bars, and soft drinks everywhere encourage and enable us to eat continuously. Fortunately for the food producers, the eating that makes us sophisticated also makes the GDP rise. The nag factor — an American crotchet ensuring that children get to eat what they want, whenever they want it (nurturing their individuality, perhaps?) — also comes into play.

    The composition of the foods we are offered is an element in how much we eat — featuring as they do sweet and fat tastes — but also, of course, in how fat we’re getting. Sweeteners and fats have not only overtaken but surpassed complex carbohydrates — the carbs we briefly loved to hate — in everyday meals. That movement from carbs to fat and sweet has been going on at least since World War I.

  • The Wiyot Indians are trying to revive their culture and traditions from near-extinction.

    On earlier research trips to the North Coast, I met with Marnie Atkins, the tribe’s cultural director, and Seidner, the tribal chairwoman. They spoke of the tragic past of the place now called Indian Island. Wiyots knew it as their sacred village of Tuluwat.

    During the tribe’s world-renewal ceremony in 1860, it became the scene of a massacre by a gang of settlers. After, Tuluwat vanished under an industrial boatyard.

    But now this low island is back in the hands of the Wiyots. They are dismantling dilapidated structures and cleansing the land. They intend to raise a dance house here again, that Wiyot singing will once more echo over Humboldt Bay….

    “Here’s what I want to do,” Seidner explained. “Achieve major economic development. Finish this island project. See our language revive. And I want to bring back the dancing.” 

  • Ives Goddard, a Smithsonian linguist whose main area of interest is in the reams of Meskwaki-language documents produced by Truman Michelson in the 1920s, has researched the origin and use of the word “redskin” , historically used as a slur against Native Americans and as a name for our capital’s football team. Interestingly, Goddard found that the term does not seem to have originated as a slur — the traditional understanding of the word as originating in the practice of showing Indian scalps or skins to collect bounties seems not to be well-supported — but in fact emerged in the usage of Indians themselves, and only later attained it’s negative connotation.  Which is understandable, as early relations with American Indians were generally much more respectful than they become later, when Indians changed from often helpful neighbors to early colonists to “squatters” on land later colonists wanted to expand into.  Of course, Goddard’s work will be used to show that Indians really don’t mind being called redskins, and so the football team’s name isn’t offensive, and it’s just busybody white libruls who want to stick their noses in where they don’t belong who object to the name after all.  As a historian interviewed for the article says, though, “even if the Indians were the first to use it, the origin has no relationship to later use. What happened at the beginning doesn’t justify it today.”
  • Online magazine “Cut-Up” carries articles from an Amsterdam conference on “netporn”.  I find this kind of material fascinating because of the grey areas they show up between “empowerment” and “exploitation”, both of which are often found in the same activity. From the article “‘Because I’m Sexy and Smart!’: Black Web Mistresses Hack Cyberporn” :

    In a netscape that tends to silence the voices of Black women while it makes their bodies hyper-accessible, these self-authored professional websites offer exciting, radical possibilities and prompt a variety of vital questions.

    To what extent are websites created by Black porn stars part of the so called “democratization” of the hardcore industry via Internet technologies, and how do they force us to reconsider the place of minority communities, such as Black women and sex workers, in the broader cyber-economy?

    How does the Internet constitute a space for the production of counter-hegemonic possibilities articulated through the nexus of sexual, gender and racial identities and practices?

    Can netporn craft empowered, self-defined subjects out of the phantasmal myths and gritty surrealism of digitized hardcore? How do these digital interventions, or “hacks”, amount to a form of cultural labor, suggesting new points of departure for the study of online pornography?

  • I’ve discovered Tabsir , a great group blog covering issues relating to Islamic Studies, webmastered by Hofstra U. anthropologst Daniel Martin Varisco.  My favorite post so far is Varisco’s “How Pundits Fuel Nonsense” , a critique of the pablum passed off as hard-nosed wisdom by op-ed columnists and others who know next to nothing about Islam or Muslims. 

    The chief problem with Tucker’s absurd commentary is that it ignores the political reasons that motivate individuals engaged in acts of violence for a cause. Jihad is a complex issue within the history of Islam, but history suggests that it is far more a political than a theological or psychoanalytic issue. Tucker writes as though the victims of most of these bombs are in the West. Sensational news stories keep the World Trade Center and London subway bombings in the limelight, but most victims are not in the West and many bombers target fellow Muslims. Why is it so hard to admit that uncritical American support for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the unilateral taking over of Afghanistan and Iraq are sufficient to drive some individuals to extreme acts? Suicide bombing, which is hardly unique to Muslim extremists, is better understood by reading Machiavelli than Freud, Luther or William Tucker.

That’s all for now — plenty more where that came from, though, so watch this space for future Wild Thoughts installments!

3 thoughts on “Wild Thoughts

  1. Regarding university podcasts, I just learned of Standford University’s iTunes interface. The lectures, talks, and music are free – and presumably will work on other devices besides iPods. While I can see iTunes being convinenet for many students, I don’t quite understand why they require iTunes to download this stuff. Why not make this it available via a web browser as well?

  2. I m not enough into technicals and digital tools to answer tha ipod thing, still n00b on this ground and travelling textbased, but no!
    I do not consider the recording of lectures to be “a good&helpful attempt” towards increasing “the quality” of academic learning as well as the one of academic teaching.
    Compare two situations well-known to socio-cultural anthropologists: the recorded interview and the informal talk in regards of information flow.
    Far from making general statements on the specific inherent qualities of these two ethnographic practices, you won`t disagree that some situation of information flow within an informal aka nonrecorded talk would simply not happen if the talk was recorded.
    I believe the same mechanism work within a seminar or a lecture that is recorded and moreover published noneditedly on the internet.
    No. I think, this would do bad. As students deserve privacy within their process of learning, professors do as well.
    An alternative is to publish them lectures in textform that are written by the lecturers themselves. [Via blogs, for example.]

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