When the Red Ink Stops Flowing

A few weeks ago, I lamented that academia has turned out not to be what I expected. Since I posted that blog, many of my colleagues have approached me about their own experiences in academia, I’ve been inundated with emails from folks sending stories similar to the one I wrote about, and even sat down with my college dean recently to discuss the state of lecturers in our university. A few days ago, I came across an op-ed piece by Carmen Maria Machado that helped me clarify the difference between what I expected, and what is, in academia today. At least, my academia today.

Machado was the student of an adjunct lecturer during her undergraduate education, and the lecturer, Harvey Grossinger, expected greatness from his students, and in turn, he invested his life in his work. He filled student papers with constructive feedback, followed the progress of students after they left his class, and offered guidance for students long after the semester grades had been posted. As I read the commitment that Mr. Grossinger had, I was reminded of my early days in academia, almost 15 years ago.

There was a time in my career when I graded student work as Mr. Grossinger did; I carried stacks of written work home with me every night, kept my red pen handy, and read every word that every student wrote. I corrected grammar, spelling, typos, mistaken homophones, run on sentences, crossed out sections of unnecessary rambling, and offered suggestions for alternate words when sentences were awkward. It was laborious, and sometimes tearful, but when I first began teaching, I saw it as my duty, my calling, my job.

As I read Machado’s essay, I began to remember what I’ve lost over the past few years in academia. I believe that teaching, learning, and growing is a give and take process that goes something like this: I give you information, we chat about it in class, you read more about the topic, then write about it, and give it back to me. From there, I guide and correct not only your sociological understanding of concepts, but also, all of the mechanical errors mentioned above. We complete that exchange several times throughout a semester, and hopefully by the end, you’ve learned the difference between there/their/they’re. If the role of academia in America is largely to prepare individuals for the working world, then I’m not doing my job by ignoring errors that could make you unemployable to the average employer.

But somewhere along the way, I started skipping words in student essays, reading for content only, and mostly ignoring mechanical errors. I no longer use a pen to circle errors, and instead of paper, my students submit all work in files through their computers. I rarely correct run on sentences, and never insert commas for them, where commas should be.

As I read Machado’s essay, I mentally kicked myself and asked myself if I wasn’t doing enough in my classes anymore, if I wasn’t doing everything I could to read student work and give them feedback that helps them grow their writing skills. t wondered when the change happened. I wondered when I stopped being the teacher I expected myself to be.

So I began assessing my work over the past ten years or so. I knew I was grading the way Mr. Grossinger did when I came to Chico; I still have one or two students from those early years who remind me of just how rigorous my classes used to be. They send emails to me saying, “thank you for teaching me how to write an essay!” and I know they truly mean it.

So when did I change?

I started looking back at my classes, and realized, it was a gradual change. At the beginning, I taught only 2 or 3 classes a semester, and most of those classes only had 25 or 30 students in them. At most, I had 80 or 90 students each semester. As the years wore on, I regularly taught 4 classes a semester, which was considered full time at Chico for a lecturer in my department, and with more classes, I assigned a bit less writing. I averaged about 40 students in each class.

In 2007, I entered a full time contract as a lecturer, and was assigned 4 classes each semester, with a total of about 160 students each semester. As the Great Recession approached, class sizes across the university swelled as we cut back on the number of faculty in order to save money while trying to serve the same number of students. What started out as class capacities of 35 or 40 in 2005, rose to class caps of 46 in 2010, then 49 a year later, and 60 by Fall of 2011. At the same time of these incremental class size increases, the number of classes considered “full time” changed for both adjunct and tenure-track faculty. Today, adjunct faculty must teach 5 classes to be considered full time, and tenure-track must teach 4 classes each semester.

With each increase in the number of students in my classes, my writing expectations decreased more, and the feedback I could provide declined radically.

As sociologists, our central question is always this: how do the structures of the institutions around the individual affect the individual’s behavior? In this instance, we see that as the institution’s expectations changed, and demanded more classes and more students each semester, the constructive feedback declined.

Where does this leave my academia today? My teaching? I teach 4-5 classes each semester, depending on class availability, with each class averaging about 50 people. Full time, I teach, on average, 240-250 students each semester, every semester; that’s 500 students a year. I used to assign a total of 10-15 pages of typed original writing to each student. Do the math: that’s at least 5,000 pages a year at about 250 words on each page, or just about 1.25 million words. I miss a lot of those words these days. And students miss a lot of chances to learn to write well, and spell words correctly, and discuss concepts beyond what class time offers.

Maybe one day, when we’ve fully recovered from the economic disaster that was America in 2007-2010, we’ll be able to bring back those lecturers and teachers we lost during that time. Maybe we’ll see that education does really matter, when teachers are given the support they need to succeed. And maybe I’ll bring the red pen back, and the ink will flow across the pages, and I’ll teach like I expected to again.

Can Bad Grades and Graduate School Go Together?

Someone asked Ethnography.com founder Mark Dawson whether getting “bad grades” means for becoming an anthropologist. Every graduate anthropology program is different, of course, and there are no blanket statements possible. But, good grades are always a fantastic idea if you are trying to get into graduate school, in anthropology or any other subject. After all, the professors evaluating your applications mostly had good grades. And since the graduate school admissions process is in large part considered to be about identifying who will be a professor in the future (even if your goal is to be a practitioner), the admissions committee is typically looking for someone who will end up being something like them. Nevertheless, I urge people with not-so-good grades to apply, if that is their dream. Persistence, some life experience, cross-cultural experience, publications etc., can all substitute for the lower grades you may have gotten, and can no longer change. My own experience in the late 1980s is perhaps instructive.

I had a 2.7 gpa in my B.S. undergraduate program at UC Davis in International Agricultural Development in the 1970s. This got me into a M.S. program in Biology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where I graduated with a 3.4 g.p.a. Better but I was still not a future Malinowski. But the Peace Corps didn’t care, and neither did my next two employers in Thailand and Tanzania. So I had a great time working in both countries, learning the Thai and Swahili languages, and even doing some academic and professional writing about refugees. But I found I found among the people I respected the most were not only natural scientists (like me), but the two or three anthropologists I met up-country. The anthropologists had the best take on the culture and societies we lived in, and somehow were the best able to assess the frustrations and delights I took in living abroad. Anyway, after six years working in Thailand and Tanzania, I decided to apply for the anthropology program at UC Davis in the general belief that my publications, language skills (Thai and Swahili), and interest in refugees would make up for the less-than-stellar g.p.a. Wrong. I was rejected twice.

Instead, in 1988, I enrolled at California State University, Sacramento, where I took a number of Anthropology and International Affairs courses in a still not completed MA program. Some good grades from Sacramento State, and lots of personal lobbying at UC Davis finally got me admitted to the MA program in Sociology, which in turn led to the Ph.D. in Sociology. And today my professional affiliation is with sociology, not my first choice, anthropology. I am happy as a sociologist, but still admire the anthropologists I continue to come in contact with.

So grades always matter. Now that I have been a professor for ten years, and have given thousands of grades, I know what bad grades measure, more or less. Bad grades are often a measure of a lack of discipline. This means failure to take tests seriously, go to class, and a whole range of other things that do not lead to good grades. Going to too many parties also leads to bad grades, as do late night bull sessions with with friends, staying up late etc., etc.,All  are the most common explanation for a less than stellar g.p.a. Do not do these things. However, if it is all a done deal like it was for me, and you still have a passion for academics, do be polite and persistent in your applications to graduate school. Do not take the first no for as the definitive answer, and get a thick skin. Take extra classes to help redefine yourself. And when someone grumbles that you have a “rather peculiar g.p.a.” realize first that they have the power in this situation, and you may need to bite your tongue. And second, find someone who will be more sympathetic. More importantly perhaps, recognize that the comment is as much a reflection of their short-sightedness and lack of “real life” experience during their undergraduate career and after, rather than about where you are in the application process.

For what it is worth, here is a link to an article I wrote five years ago about students who, like me, get too many C grades, and even a D or two, as an undergraduate. It is called “The Trouble with Valedictorians,” and still reflects my view about people who have never received the insult of a D+ grade.


First published at Ethnography.com in 2007

The Social Construction of Offensive Words

Warning: The post you are about to read is about offensive words. It seeks to throw a spotlight on the social construction of offensive language, and illustrate how society’s interpretation of those words gives them power. In the course of this essay, some words you may find offensive may be used. And finally, any link that takes you to George Carlin will contain an entire dictionary of offensive words. Enter with caution.

Not much is sweeter to a mother’s ear than hearing her baby babble his or her first words. All of my children began their verbal era with the expected “coo” and “mamamamamamamama” and “dadadada”, but it’s been my 4 year old, Cristopher, who has upped the verbal ante in our house. Cristopher loves words and stories and music. He spoke his first recognizable sentences at just before two years old (“Grandpa, is the soup deeee-licious?”) and loves to “tell us stories with his mouth” which means he creates stories instead of just reading them from a book. But recently, Cristopher has been making up his own words, which is cute, and funny, and confusing, at least for a little while.

Most of what Cristopher makes up is gibberish, or substitutions for other words. But the most recent, and consistent word creation had me concerned, at first, until I realized a very important thing: his reality is not my reality; his history is not my history. We have different perspectives, even though we are mother and son.

The word started as “honkachew.” He would randomly use the word in sentences and I would repeat it back to him to reinforce that his words are important.

“Mama, honkachew.”

“Um, honkachew, Cristopher,” and I would go back to whatever I was doing. I couldn’t figure out a pattern in the word use, nor what it meant, and just assumed it was another of the dozens of phrases that Cristopher created.

And then a few weeks ago, the word changed to “honka” and I thought he was being funny and imitating one of his trucks honking. I didn’t try to correct him, and again, I would repeat the word back to him. And then about two weeks ago, the word changed once again. This time, the word was “honky.”

If you didn’t grow up in American culture, or maybe you didn’t grow up in the age of American culture I did, the term “honky” might not mean much to you. But in my American culture, and everyone’s American culture is different, by the way, the term “honky” is offensive to some. It’s largely used as a derogatory term for Caucasians.

As soon as Cristopher began using “honky,” I tried to correct him and change it back to “honka.” I was mortified that someone might think I had taught him that word, and was worried that he might say it at school. I could only imagine the backlash that would ensue if the child of a Sociology instructor who teaches the sociology of Ethnicity and Nationalism and studies race relations, shows up at preschool saying “honky” to random people. I was worried, and because of that worry, I didn’t much care what the word meant to him.

But then a few days ago, a not-so-funny thing happened: Cristopher had an issue with someone else, and his feelings got hurt because of the interaction. When he found me a few minutes later, I saw the look on his face and knew he needed me to comfort him. But it’s difficult for almost everyone I’ve met to say, “I need comfort,” or, “I need a hug,” or, “please hold me,” and the same has become true for Cristopher. Instead of asking for a hug, he held out his arms and quietly said, “Mama, honky.”

Several realizations hit me at the same time when Cristopher said, “Mama, honky.” First, I realized we were from different cultures, and in his culture, “honky” means love and comfort from your mother. Second, I realized that the meaning of words is what we create the meaning to be. Third, I realized, once again, how important it is to understand that your own culture is not everyone’s culture. And fourth, I realized, again, how easy it is to have misunderstandings between people and cultures, even with words that you never considered to be offensive or confusing in your own culture. Paul De Man (1973) examined this area of misunderstanding through a deconstructionist analysis of what was arguably the first television show to attempt to highlight the ridiculousness of bigotry and bigoted terms, All in the Family. DeMan argued that phrases and terms can be misinterpreted based, not only on literal or figurative interpretation, but also on the intent of the speaker.

Language is socially constructed. We create language both verbally and in symbols that the culture collectively gives meaning to, and then those words have power. Some words have more power than others. One of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits illustrated the power of offensive words, and the word “honky” nearly 40 years ago and George Carlin created an entire career out of examining “dirty, filthy, foul, vile, vulgar,” words and language because some words are so powerful.

Carlin made an astute observation about offensive words: everyone’s idea of what is offensive is different, and changes based on context. Carlin and DeMan argue essentially the same idea about language: words can be spoken either figuratively or literally, and must be considered in context, and unspoken by both but implied, one’s culture must be considered when fully understanding language.

The power of words changes over time, depending on how each culture views those words and constructs the power of those words. What was offensive to some in 1971, when All in the Family aired it’s first episode, is common today, but at the time, the words of the show were so offensive, a disclaimer was tacked on to each episode that stated, “The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show, in a mature fashion, just how absurd they are.”

We take much out of context and meaning when we hear what we perceive as offensive words, and the intent of the speaker often is lost. Sometimes, the intent of the speaker is all too clear, and maybe we should be offended. But here’s the deal: reading words and phrases and hearing people speak without understanding their culture and meaning, examining their intent, is a narrow, but very straight path to bigger misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and disconnect with those around us.

I almost let my own experience and history negatively taint my understanding of my son’s culture, but instead I stopped, and listened, saw his intent, considered his history, and hugged him instead.

For a behind the scenes history about Saturday Night Live’s Word Association skit, click here.

The Connection between Crime and Immigration: A Complicated but not Conflicted Issue

Originally published here in February 2010

My first book was based on my Ph.D. dissertation, and called Crime and Immigrant Youth (Sage 1999). I of course really like it when people read it, even though it is becoming dated.  In this context, I read the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) new “Backgrounder” called Immigration and Crime: Assessing a Conflicted Issue by Steven Camarota and Jessica Vaughan in November 2009 with interest.  This paper has since received wide exposure in the popular press.  In it the authors claimed to do a comprehensive review of the literature on immigration and crime, and pronounce that there would be startling new conclusions about the relationship, i.e. that immigrants were likely to be more criminal than the native born.  But then I read deeper.  Despite claiming to be a review of academic and policy literature, they did not refer to that which disagreed with their assumption that crime and immigration are tightly tied together. And indeed, their conclusions were predictable for an advocacy organization that explicitly indicates that it favors a “low-immigrant vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted.” So even though their report actually develops new data, it did so with one goal in mind: Demonstrating that immigrants are more criminal than the rest of us.  It is with this conclusion that I take exception.

In fact much data much more data about the negative correlation between immigrants themselves and crime than the report lets on (the citations below are just a small indication), which consistently indicate that immigrants themselves, except for crimes caused by immigration itself (e.g. violating immigration laws), tend to have lower rates of crime than the native born. The academic literature is also clear on another point: Immigrants are more likely to seek employment mowing our lawns, staffing our restaurants, cleaning our houses, and staff our factories than they are to commit crime. In fact, such populations by themselves tend to have lower arrest rates than native-born US citizens.  But this is indeed an over-simplification of the relationship, too.

Indeed, immigrants have such low rates of crime that one major researcher has proposed that a way to calm cities down would be to introduce new immigrants.  And while admitting more immigrants might work to bring crime in the short-run, I don’t think that this is the whole story either. The reason for this paradox is that immigrant populations are self-selected for behavior, and age, all conditions which mitigate against the impulsive behavior which most commonly lands people in American lock-ups.  In particular, criminal behavior and arrest is strongly related with age   and gender.  Males from about 15-22 years old have the highest frequency of theft, assault, drug use, etc., as anyone who has ever survived an American high school knows.  The average age for arriving immigrants, be they legal or illegal is in the late twenties.  So in many respects, it is not all that surprising that crime rates among them are lower than the general population.

What is more, immigrants are a self-selected lot, in the sense that those who leave home tend to be self-starters, energetic risk takers, better educated and more compliant than their less-energetic cousins who stay home. This is why scholars like Rumbaut (2009), Sampson (2008), Matthew T. Lee et al (2001), and my own book (Waters 1999) typically demonstrate that immigrants themselves are more law-abiding than native populations. This is one reason why immigrants are often a good deal for receiving countries like the United States.  Another country pays the costs of raising and educating them, they show up in the receiving country, and immediately get to work.

But this belies another problem with immigrant populations, which is that they do sometimes have a “second generation” crime problem.  This issue is unfortunately avoided in the Camarota and Vaughan’s report.  The fact though is that immigrant communities in which birth rates are high, and which are impoverished and centered inner cities, often develop gangs of their own.  This happens when the males born in the US (or who arrived as small children) hit the 15-22 year old age group. When this happens a strain emerges between some immigrant boys who do poorly in schools, and immigrant parents who are unable to control them in the context of the United States’ inner cities.  In this context, parents and youth alike are often isolated from America’s mainstream society.  This occurs because the parents are isolated in the impoverished immigrant community, while the youth are isolated as a result of marginalization at school, their own behavior, and ultimately the response of the justice system.  Notably this is not a behavior brought from home countries, but developed in the context of American cities.  Their cousins who remained behind in the rural areas of the third world do not have the same problem.  The really odd thing though is that in these same American-born families, the brothers or sisters or the errant boys are often doing particularly well—many become the paradigmatic immigrant valedictorian whose accomplishments are justifiably celebrated by organizations like CIS.

The problem of course is that immigrant success stories and crime stories are often inseparable, and as a result, are not particularly responsive to pat formulas relying on legal restrictions, and blanket deportation policies that CIS advocates. But, irrespective of what CIS writes about data being “conflicted,” there is indeed some clarity in how crime emerges in immigrant communities: It arises from the conditions of American cities.  And dealing with the conditions of American cities as they affect impoverished immigrant communities is the best way to deal with the waves of crime that do predictably occur, leading to more victims and arrests.  Acknowledging the complexity of such issues is what providing a good welcome to immigrants should involve.


Tony Waters (1999) Crime and Immigrant Youth. Thousand Oaks: Sage

Matthew T. Lee, Ramiro Martinez, and Richard Rosenfeld (2001) Does Immigration Increase Homicide?  Negative Evidence from Three Border Cities.  Sociological Quarterly

Graham C. Ousey, and Charis E. Kubrin (2009) “Exploring the Connection between Immigration and Violent Crime Rates in U. S. Cities, 1980-2000.” Social Problems, August 2009.  56(3):447-473.

Ruben Rumbaut (2009) “Undocumented Immigration and Rates of Crime and Imprisonment: Popular Myths and Empirical Studies,” at http://www.policefoundation.org/pdf/strikingabalance/Appendix%20D.pdf

Robert J. Sampson (2008) Rethinking Crime and Immigration, Contexts Volume 7.

Traveling Notes–Expect the Unexpected!

March 20, 2015

I am at Kilimanjaro International Airport, returning home after a five day whirlwind trip here. The reason for the trip was “business,” meaning that establishment of a relationship between two American universities, and a university in Moshi, Tanzania.

I am reminded thought the reason is not just business, but to experience the vitality of life. An important part of travelling is welcoming the unexpected.

And this trip has done it—despite being so brief. Just today—in the morning there was a 370 student welcome for us at an elementary school. Friday was sports day, and the students were all dressed in androgynous “sports uniforms.” Then a tour of a hospital where I saw my first orthopedic surgery. The doctor was screws into a thigh bone, a procedure which involved using what appeared to me to be a manual screwdriver inserted through a hole cut in the leg. The patient, we were told was anesthesized with a spinal block. He had a screen up so that he could not see what was being done on his leg–but he could feel the pressure of the screwing, and hear the sounds of what was going on.  Ye gads.

I’m nor sure which caused this surgery–but our guide told us that the most common source was motorcycle accidents.  With a bit of wealth, Tanzania is being introduced to motorcycles, and the broken legs that his leads to.

Then on the way to the airport we drove through an area of Tanzania which has in recent years been cleared to plant maize. The rains are about two weeks late. Every evening the winds kicked up, but no rain. But today was different. As we drove to the airport in our cab, the winds did indeed kick in, creating a dust storm which led suddenly to zero visibility—and a cab driver who had to stop suddenly when a bicyclist appeared out of the dust. What cleared up the duststorm? Rain! Indeed, a torrential downpour arrived just as we left the cab.

All of this was “unplanned;” if you asked me what would happen last night, I would have predicted some boring tours of a school, health facilities, and a taxi ride to the airport. But that is the purpose of travel—the delightfully unexpected!

The House on the Hill

This morning, I walked to the beach before sunrise. Its only 4 or 5 minutes from the 3-story condo complex we are staying at, and still within the gated community of Cabo Bello, so I felt safe enough to leave my husband sleeping in the pre-dawn darkness, leave a note on the kitchen counter, At the beach- be back around 9? and slip through the salted air to the cliff that overlooks Calinda Beach.

I walked around our building, past the family swimming pool, down the sandy hill that curves through palm trees, and out through the gate just beyond the complex’s sewage treatment pool. The construction workers had not yet arrived to begin a new day hammering heavy nails and pouring concrete into the 3 or 4 mansions being built just outside our gates so I turned left toward the cliffs where the new houses will sit and made my way to the end of the continent, and waited for the sun to rise over the Sea of Cortez.

The construction workers labor all day, from the moment the sun rises to just after it sets in the early evening. They carpool but that is the wrong word- for every vehicle available, there are 10 or 12 men who rely on its fuel and tires and gasoline to take them to and from the worksite. As I sit on the rock wall between two of the mansions on the cliff just before sunrise, a small pickup truck arrives with 3 or 4 men in the bed, another 3 in the front seat. Without turning off its engines, the truck unloads its cargo and as the last man sets foot on the asphalt, the driver shifts into gear and 15 minutes later, returns with another truckload of men.

I wonder where the men come from; are they the random men who stand on the street corners outside of Cabo Bello and downtown Cabo San Lucas, hoping for construction foremen to pick them for the days work? Or are they permanent workers, who earn a decent, living wage and know they will have work again tomorrow.

Wood is scarce in this part of the world; in fact, we have seen no real? trees in Baja except for the giant palms that seem to grow everywhere down here. Scrub bushes and many low, drought resistant trees pepper the barren desert around Los Cabos (as the entire tip of Baja is called), but no real trees that would make for good building material. Instead, the construction workers that I watch as the sun rises mix concrete in small, revolving drums and pour it expertly into the forms that will build the houses on the hill above Calinda Beach.

There is a very small middle class? in Cabo San Lucas; there are the many who live in the barrio on the north side of town (see Zona Residencia), who construct their homes themselves with whatever scraps they happen on over time and then there are the wealthy, who construct homes like the mansions that overlook Calinda Beach. In between the two extremes, very few people live on the west side of Cabo San Lucas, in rundown, but at least livable apartments.

I watch the men as they work on the mansions and occasionally, one man notices me staring and raises his hand briefly in greeting. I make my way back up the stonewall to the road and walk toward the construction crews at the nearest mansions, just across the street from each other.

The men watch me approach with curiosity; the camera in my right hand that dangles from a thin cord and loops around my wrist and my designer sunglasses give me away as a tourist, probably American, but I think that since I have been watching them so intently, they are puzzled.

Buenos dias,? I say softly as I pass two men in jeans, short sleeve shirts, and light work boots. Their shovels rest momentarily and in unison, they nod their heads slightly, the brims of their baseball caps covering their faces and reply, Hola, Buenos dias.?

I move on and although I feel the focused gaze of each man on the construction sites, I open my camera and begin taking pictures. As I round the corner of the concrete structure closest to the edge of the cliff, an older man with a crumpled cowboy hat and barely as tall as his shovel, startles me. I instinctively say, Buenos dias,? and he smiles at me like hes been waiting for me all morning. He nods deeply and I raise my camera, Por favor?? I ask and when he nods again and poses for me, I snap his picture. I smile and say, gracias,? and he beams again.

Truck in Zona Residencia

I spend nearly an hour watching the men work, taking pictures of the concrete monoliths that will have million dollar views of the Sea of Cortez, sitting on the rock wall. I watch as a man runs with his dog on the beach below. Finally, with the sun already high overhead and the day warming, I cross the empty patch of dirt from the edge of the cliff, back to the construction sites, and walk through the men again. The foreman, a burly man driving a new pickup with the name of his company stenciled on the passenger door, glares at me as I raise my camera and take one last shot of the house his men are building. The men turn away from me and focus on their shovels, pickaxes and wheel barrels with studied concentration and the thought, there is something the foreman doesn’t want me to see, passes through my brain, but I let it go and continue up the road, taking pictures of other completed mansions.

Later, as the sun goes down, I watch the men pack into the small pickup truck, ride away into the night and I wonder where they are going, where home is for them. I wonder, will what theyve been paid today be enough to put dinner on the table for their families tonight? I wonder, do they have dreams of living in the houses they build? Do they know that most likely, they will never be able to afford one of the houses on the hill? I wonder, what are their dreams? What are their realities? What makes them different from me? And I realize, nothing.

The House on the Hill was originally published at www.norcalblogs.com.