America’s Cemeteries are Filled with Good Folks

We lose students all too often at Chico State. Some die from accidents, some from overdose, some by their own hand. Not many die as Melinda Driggers did last Thursday, though, on campus, in the middle of the day, in the middle of our Student Services Center.

We got an email Monday from the University, telling us of Melinda’s death, and my breath caught in my throat as soon as I saw the subject of the email: Passing of student Melinda Driggers.

Melinda was a non-traditional student. She came to the university after she had raised her son and twin daughters, after she had married and then lost her husband suddenly. She was the one who found him, unresponsive, much like she was found on Thursday. She performed CPR on her husband, that day, hoping to save her husband, and I imagine, her own life. She donated her husband’s organs so that others may live, and that her husband may live on. In a paper she wrote for me last semester, she said that knowing she had done everything she could to save him, and then donating his organs, brought her peace.

Her first semester at Chico, she became a Social Work major, and enrolled in my class. She was quiet, but a guiding force in discussions in my class. When she spoke, it was deliberate. She listened critically, and made invaluable contributions to the class.

I tell stories about my kids and my husband a lot in my class and often; she would nod her head in empathy when I complained about late nights spent with sick kids, the trials of married life, and juggling work and school and family life. She had been there; she had done that.

Life had worn her down by the time I met her. She carried a bit of extra weight, her hair was always a bit disheveled, and she always looked tired. The death of her husband had left her heartbroken, and trying to go back to school and rebuild her life in her late 40s had been an overwhelming experience.

Melinda never complained about anything though. When I mentioned the expense of college, time management issues, difficulty with school schedules, she would watch me intently, smile in a knowing way, then would shake her head slightly, nod in agreement, and go back to writing her class notes. She had been there, done that before.

She was worried about money, and doing well in school, and trying to survive after the loss of her husband. She was still traumatized over finding her husband unresponsive, performing CPR until paramedics arrived to take over.

There are a lot of Melindas out there, worrying, stressed over finances, then suffering a catastrophic event. Most who die relatively young are impoverished, most are hard workers who have just had a bad turn of events. They die younger, because of what the stress of “just getting by” does to a person.

This is what stress does to people like Melinda, people who, despite working hard, being good people, doing the best they can with what they have, still can’t make ends meet. I emphasize to my students every day in class: learn how to manage your stress because life is hard, and it’ll kick you when you are down and some of us have more of a safety net than others, and if you don’t figure out a way to handle the stress, you won’t make your 50th birthday.

Cemeteries are filled with folks like Melinda, people whose only fault was they lived in a world without a safety net for blue collar workers.

Melinda’s husband didn’t make it to 50, and neither did Melinda.

I walked into class Monday afternoon, the same classroom and the same subject, Sociology of Stress, where Melinda sat 7 weeks ago. Last semester, we talked about the stressful lives we all live in this fast paced world, and we talked about the diseases and illnesses that are more likely when stress gets out of control. We watched videos about the stress of inequality and poverty and wrote critically about stress, and the students analyzed their own sources of stress. We meditated and practiced Qi gong, we learned breathing techniques and relaxation methods, and still, for Melinda, it was too late. The stress of trying to get by, the stress of losing her husband, the daily stress of juggling family life and school life and volunteering hours, became too much last Thursday.

From the report from the University, I suspect that Melinda had either a heart attack or a stroke while in the Student Services Center, but regardless of the acute cause, the death certificate won’t mention the underlying stress that was the major contributing factor in her death.

I thought I was going to be okay when I walked back into that classroom, but as I scanned the room full of students, the reality of Melinda not sitting in her seat, her books open, her pen ready, her shaggy brown hair framing her glasses as she organized her papers, hit me, and as I faced my students, I didn’t hide my tears. Instead, I told them about Melinda, and I showed them where she used to sit, and we talked about learning how to manage your stress better, and about taking time for yourself, and learning how to say no to too many obligations, because this life is harder for some people than others, but you never know that it could be you, until it’s too late.

I hope you find peace, Melinda, and that finally, you can stop worrying.

The Best Book of the 21st Century (so far)

Junot_wao_coverIt’s Monday and I don’t know what you did this weekend but I finished one book (Americanah) and started another (Descent). Since I quit teaching, reading has returned as my favorite thing to do. I always had the time but never took it, something about the frenzy of teaching that made it so I could only make time to read books I wanted to during the summer. Several summers ago I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I’d read Drown, his collection of short stories and so I knew the novel would be good because you can tell a lot about a writer by a short story and his were wonderful, compact tales punched with reality.

Recently, the BBC polled several U.S. critics in search of the best fiction book of the 21st century. They ended up awarding it to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoPublished in 2007, it took Diaz eleven years to write and it’s no wonder. The footnotes kept me up doing late-night searches on Wikipedia and reading about the history of the Dominican Republic.

And it’s a fun and funny book, not something I’d usually write about a book that explores socio-political history, love, the immigrant experience, and what it means to be an American (and who gets to call themselves American). But that’s the talent of Junot Diaz. I don’t know what he’s like in person but I really liked Oscar Wao. Oscar is not a typical hero protagonist and is in fact, a huge nerd. If you were a weird, socially awkward sci-fi kid who loved Lord of the Rings and comics, you’ll love him too.

Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to. -JD

If you click the link to this article, you can see the top 20 books the critics selected. I was sad that my beloved favorite The Goldfinch didn’t make the top 20 but then that is how it is with books and critics. Many of my favorite books (The Four Seasons by Stephen King) will never make a critics list. But that’s for another blog. In the meantime, check out this list and head to your local library (you do have a library card, don’t you?). Of the 20 on this list, I’ve read and enjoyed #’s 1, 5, 6, 11, and 13 (now you have to click the link!). How about you, what are you reading these days?



The Toothache

“The Toothache” is excerpted from Marianne Paiva’s book Breathe: Essays from a Recovering Paramedic which tells of her life as a paramedic in rural areas of northern California in the 1990s. This particular story tells of the time she was called to take a man by ambulance with a toothache to the emergency room at 3 a.m. You’ll need to read the whole story to find out why this was the case! To understand the context for this story, you will need to read the whole book!

Marianne has since gone on to teach Sociology at California State University, Chico, and blog here at Copies of Breathe can be purchased for very reasonable prices at in both paper and Kindle versions.   TW


The Toothache

By Marianne Paiva

In paramedic school and in the field, instructors and veteran medics downplay the inherent stress of the job. Instructors will say, “As long as you know your job, you’ll do fine. Just always know your job,” and continue innocuous demonstrations such as how to stab an orange with a two-inch needle or how to start an IV on a life-sized plastic arm. And veterans, those people who have been in the field at least ten years or so, will laugh when you ask, “So, what’s the worst part of the job?” They don’t laugh because they think its funny; they laugh because if they knew, they wouldn’t be doing the job. But stress is the reason people leave so quickly, why the burnout rate for a paramedic is less than ten years. Why paramedics are more likely than the average person to have an affair, to commit suicide, and to use illicit drugs. It’s getting better; in the mid-1990s, the burnout rate stood right around four years.

 It comes from all sides in prehospital emergency medicine. The patient yells in pain; the family yells because you didn’t get there quick enough; doctors glare and occasionally, when you’ve really screwed up, they tell you to leave. “Get the hell out of my hospital before you kill someone!” Screaming doctors don’t cause the most stress; the most stress often comes from the unexpected and unlikely sources. When you are a paramedic, the most stress comes from the perfectly mundane. I often ask paramedics who have left the field, “why, why did you leave”? And they tell me stories of broken families, long hours, the managers who expected miracles all day, every day, and the one call—that final call—when they realized they were done.

The call came at 3:00 a.m. on a frigid winter morning in March 1997. A thirty-four-year-old man with an address just up the block from ambulance quarters, in run-down apartments we are all too familiar with, has a toothache. It’s my call and I wonder today, would this have been my breaking point if the call rotation had fallen to my partner? Would I still be working on the ambulance? But the rotation had fallen to me and the toothache was mine.

It takes only a minute from quarters to reach the low-income apartments where the man with the toothache lives. My eyes are still swollen with sleep and my boots are just barely zipped when I spot a Latino man standing on the sidewalk outside the apartments. The man, wearing a thin, worn multi-colored 1970s polyester coat, faded blue jeans, and work boots, bows his head as the lights of our ambulance flash in his dark brown eyes. A girl, no more than eight or nine years old, stands next to him. They are waiting for us, even though it’s nearly freezing and the girl is wearing only shorts, a thin shirt, and flip-flops. Her dark, wavy hair falls to her shoulders and makes a deep contrast to the pale pink t-shirt with the giant purple cartoon dinosaur on the front. The resemblance between the two is noticeable. She has his deep-set eyes and if the man ever let his hair grow out, it would be identical to his daughter’s.

I roll the window down as the ambulance nears the curb. “Did you call the ambulance?” I ask the father. He looks alarmed and glances at the girl.

“Yes, my papa. His tooth hurts.” The girl wraps her arms around her body and tries to capture some of the heat that escapes into the frigid air. The father nods quickly in confirmation.

“And you want to go to the hospital?” I can feel my partner, David, rustling behind the driver’s seat. He’s impatient and would rather be sleeping. And he forgot his Diet Coke. Before leaving quarters, on every call, David grabs a Diet Coke on his way out. On this call, he forgot.

The girl speaks quietly in Spanish to her father. He leans in to hear her, then straightens up and nods. Yes, he wants to go to the hospital.

An involuntary sigh escapes my lips as I open the passenger door and motion for them to follow me. Warm air and bright lights flood the girl as I open the double doors at the back of the ambulance. I wait for her to climb into the giant box, then over the gurney and onto a seat tucked away between the cabinets filled with blankets and medication and plastic tubing. Her father follows, taking his place on the gurney. He sits upright, with his feet still on the ambulance floor and his hands in the pockets of his coat. I pull the doors of the ambulance closed behind me and find the warm bench seat beside the gurney.

“Ready?” David calls from the cab of the ambulance. I look at the man and his daughter and wonder, can I ever be ready?

“Not yet, give me a few.” David turns to glance at me briefly and I shoot him a stare with one eyebrow raised, “Just wait, just wait.” I turn my attention to the girl and her father.

“Tell me what’s going on,” I ask the girl. I do not speak Spanish and my patient, her father, does not speak English. I know the routine better than I should; parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles rely on their children, often too young to read, to translate their pains and injuries to medical providers in emergencies. Children are kept from school to accompany their parents to doctor appointments and are allowed to see their mothers and fathers die because someone needs to translate from Spanish or Hmong (war refugees from mountain regions in Southeast Asia) or Laotian (war refugees from low-lying areas of Southeast Asia) to English and back again. When I was a rookie EMT, we responded to a medical aid for an elderly Hmong woman who spoke no English. Her husband and other adult family members who spoke no English surrounded the woman as she lay in pain, curled up on a couch in a small apartment. We relied on her grandson to translate. But it’s difficult to understand a five-year old whose second language is English and the paramedic didn’t know how to treat her. How do you treat a severe stomachache? We didn’t; we took her to the hospital and let them care for her. She died a few hours later. She had cancer of the stomach, but her grandson didn’t know how to say “cancer” and so she was in pain for longer than she should have been. If we had known, we could have requested morphine. We could have made her comfortable. Instead, she died in pain.

This girl speaks English well, though. Her father has been in pain all night and can’t stand it anymore. He needs a doctor.

“Why did you call the ambulance? Do you have anyone to drive you to the hospital?” Many people will call an ambulance instead of driving to the hospital themselves, thinking they will be treated faster. But if a patient can walk to the ambulance and gurney, like this man has, the triage nurse will escort him to the waiting room even though we delivered him through the back door.

“We don’t have a car,” she tells me. No car and I suspect, no friends they can wake up at 3:00 in the morning for a ride to the hospital, twenty miles away.

“If you go to the hospital, how will you get home?”

She shrugs her narrow shoulders. She speaks to her father in Spanish again. I pick up only a few words of the discussion, but enough to know that he doesn’t care how they will get home; he is in pain now, not later.

“The doctor will only give you aspirin, nothing else for the pain. Do you have any aspirin at home?”

“No”, she says, “We don’t have any money for aspirin.”

“Ok,” I say finally, “I need to see the tooth and call the hospital.” I snap on a pair of latex gloves and move toward the man. “Can you ask him to lay back so I can see his tooth?” The girl translates my question. I adjust the gurney into a reclined position and the father rests his head against the rough pillow. His tooth is abscessed beyond repair, the black shell of what it used to be hangs between other teeth that will see the same fate fairly soon. The stench—not morning breath stench but rotting flesh stench—knocks me back onto the bench. I wonder how he has been able to stand the pain until now.

The nurse on duty who answers my call is not happy. “A toothache?” she asks me, not believing what I have said. I called her so she will know I tried to convince the patient not to go to the hospital, because if I bring them a toothache at 3:00 in the morning, they will question everything I do later.

“Yes,” I confirm, “a toothache. I’ve advised the patient that treatment at the hospital will be equivalent to over the counter aspirin. He is adamant in his desire to be transported to the hospital.” She makes me wait for her reply.

“Copy Westside, ETA?”

“ETA twenty-five minutes. Do you have any orders for me?” Maybe she’ll let me give him a little morphine on the drive, but I don’t want to ask her for it directly. If anyone else is listening, I’ll be a laughingstock. But the nurse says “no, there are no orders,” and I am embarrassed to have asked, although I know my patient needs something for the pain. The nurse has obviously never had a toothache.

Since my patient cannot converse in English and his daughter has fallen asleep on his lap, and there is nothing I can do to treat him. I have time to think on the twenty miles to the hospital. I am surprisingly angry. Not at the patient or his daughter, but at the nurse, for not understanding a toothache and denying the man morphine. And at the way we treat undocumented workers in my town and country. The man refused to give me his name and wouldn’t provide any identification, a sure sign that he was undocumented and illegal. How desperate must we make another human before we break them? It is a long twenty miles. The father and I try not to stare at each other for too long but in the tiny ambulance, we catch each other’s eyes a few times. I try not to breathe through my nose, because the smell of the abscess is overpowering and makes my eyes water.

The nurses glare at me when I escort my patient and his daughter into the emergency department. “Take him to the waiting room,” the triage nurse tells me. “Couldn’t you do anything to persuade him not to come in?” The mild anger I felt in the ambulance flares and I walk back to my ambulance before I say something I will regret. I am done, I realize. I am done. I can’t take any more babies beaten and scalded with hot water. And mothers who extinguish cigarettes on their children and fathers who rape their sons and the people who cover it up. I can’t take the woman who goes back to the man who molested her children. I can’t take one more boy struck by a car on his way to school and my best friends being shot by their boyfriends. No more drug overdoses, suicides, and near misses. No more. No more nurses who turn their nose up as we walk into the department with a drunk transient. No more. And I can’t take any more toothaches in the middle of the night.

The next morning, as I am driving to school, just at the city limits entering Chico maybe two miles from the hospital, I see two figures walking on the side of the road toward me. One is small, dressed in shorts, a light shirt, and flip-flops. Her father’s polyester coat hangs around her shoulders, draping her like a dress. The other is a slightly built Latino man in his thirties. The man with the toothache and his daughter, who should be home in her warm bed, just waking up to get ready to go to school, are walking the twenty miles back home.

The girl shivers as she climbs into the front seat of my SUV; her father takes a seat in the back. He doesn’t say anything when he closes the door, but pulls the seatbelt across his shoulder and tightens it as I shift into gear. I glance at the girl; her pink cheeks warmed in the stream of heat from my dashboard.

“You’re not working?” the girl asks.

“Nope, not today,” I confirm. I wait while she settles into the seat. “Buckle up,” I instruct gently. She pulls the belt tightly and snuggles deeper into the coat. We drive in silence back the way we had come just a few hours earlier. Their little apartment appears even more run-down in the daylight. I wait as the girl’s father gets out of the car and scoops his daughter from the front seat. She has fallen asleep somewhere along the way. He looks slightly embarrassed at the situation. I smile, trying to tell him it is okay; she’s a kid, she should sleep. I shift into gear as he moves away but then he steps back toward me and I think maybe he has forgotten something. I wait.

“Thank you,” he nods slightly. Holding his daughter in his arms, he nudges the car door closed and carries her home.

Why we Make Stuff Up at, and by the way, the American Anthropological Association Decided to Dissolve Itself  

Two weeks ago, we posted a really great essay by David Van Huff “A Tale Within a Tale: The Dual Nature of Ebenezer Scrooge.” David wrote this story for my class, and it helped me see Durkheim concept of the “Dual Nature” of humanity in a new way, which is why I wanted to post it.  Anyway, in coming days we will post more such stories. What they will have all in common is that they are all fiction. So spoiler alert: Good social science can be made up. David’s story is in fact just an extreme version of this genre of social “science,” since not only did David make up the story, he also wrote the story about Charles Dickens character Ebenezer Scrooge who is also completely fictional—Dickens made him up too!

For that matter the all-time downloaded article from the American Anthropologist, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” is also fictional. It was made up by the sociologist Horace Miner who at one-time was a Lt. Colonel in the United States Army. Despite all this blasphemous conduct (sociologist, militarist, fiction writer), the article continues to be a staple of anthropology textbooks because it highlights so well how arbitrary cultural practices are always relative, and always taken-for granted.  People learn from it–the article enjoys its high status for good reason.

Oh yeah, and a couple of weeks ago, we republished Franz Kafka’s brief piece of doggerel Gemeinschaft/Fellowship.  That too, come to think about it was complete fiction, written by someone who was known for the oddity of his imagination.  And of course the “five friends” Kafka wrote about, as well as the sixth, are really quite made up!

Then there is sociologist Michael Young who in 1958 wrote a book The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1880-2033. The book invented the word “meritocracy” to describe the dysphemistic world where everyone is evaluated for merit by testing, and those who are successful create an isolated world in places like Cambridge (Massachusetts and England), where alone they rule over the masses who do not do so well on standardized tests. As a result of this relatively unknown novel (i.e. fiction), the word “meritocracy” entered the English language as being something very desirable—in fact it has become a political staple when politicians whine about favoritism and nepotism. Oddly, this was not Young’s point—he though the meritocracy was actually a bad thing because it leads to oligarchy, and the book explains why in ways that are chillingly real over 60 years after it was published.

And just recently I read A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka, which is a fantastic novel about modern England, World War II in Ukraine, migration, gender, and aging. Read it—it is great sociology (the main protagonist even teaches sociology at a British University).

And by the way, the classical sociologist W. E. B. DuBois wrote a great short story “Of the Coming of John” about two boys, one black, and one white, who grew up on a Georgia plantation at the turn of the century. The story is a tragic one which illustrates well DuBois’ main point about “Double Consciousness” and “The Color Line” in race. DuBois made it up.

But isn’t this blog then really about literature, and not sociology or anthropology? Shouldn’t such works be sent over to the Literature Department—why should serious social scientists even consider such work?  Bottom line, if you want the truth, and nothing but the truth check out your home town newspaper (mine is the Nevada County Scooper which you can read here).  Otherwise do not be afraid of too much fiction.

And by the way, did you hear that the American Anthropological Association finally decided to dissolve itself?

Yes, Feminism Has a Class Problem

From fieldnotes, October ninth, 2004: The Red Tent: A gathering of women

According to the program, it’s time for the final event at The Red Tent, titled: “Living our wholeness” with Donna Carlson-Todd, certified life coach. Before us is a petite blond woman in her fifties who is passing out business cards and telling us about herself and that we are here to celebrate what it is to be a woman. While finishing up, she says we need to stand and stretch, voice aloud what we’re feeling at that moment—everyone stands up and some “Aahs” and whispery moans are voiced from the group. Then she tells us to sit down at our tables where two sheets of paper have been placed during our stretch, one a worksheet the other a guide to it that outlines the “Universal cycles of change” and the “10 keys to living your wholeness”. Donna Carlson-Todd guides us through the worksheet, prompts us to fill out each section honestly, tells us no one will look at our answers. 

After a half hour of being guided through the worksheet, she asks us to stand again, to leave some space in front of ourselves. She tells us to close our eyes, imagine a circle in front of us—doesn’t matter how big—where we place (figured out from the worksheet we just completed) our intentions, groundedness, hearts desire, beliefs/imprints, and goals. We are told to imagine the colors in our circle, the feelings we felt when we filled out the worksheet. Then she asks us to step into our circle of intentions, groundedness and hearts desire, etc and then, step out, step back in again, “how do you feel inside your circle?” she asks.  A woman exclaims, “I feel better!” She asks us to vocalize how we feel, and several women’s Oohs, Aahs, and hums fill the room. She continues in a soft voice, telling us to step out (a woman behind me moans) then back in, and a woman exhales to my left. Then, Donna Carlson-Todd asks us to step out of our circles one last time and bend over and pick them up, hold them in the palms of our hands, and then close our eyes again. 

I’m not bored, but I’m feeling inauthentic, so I squint my eyes and peek at the women around me. Two women to my right are stroking their circles, another holds hers up, close to her chest, as Donna Carlson-Todd is telling us to place our circle to our hearts so that we always remember how it feels and have access to it. Then she tells us to sit quietly with our group and unwrap the purple blobs of cellophane-wrapped clay in front of us to create with it the feeling we felt in our circle of intentions, groundedness, etc.

So, I play with my clay, while everyone else at my table is quiet and busy with theirs. Fae is good, obviously knows what she’s doing, she’s sculpting a woman laying down with her arms entwined above her head, but the others are just making odd shapes that don’t look like much except Connie’s, which looks like a punk Christmas tree to me. I wind up making a heart shape, stick a rose petal in the middle of it and run off to the bathroom for some quick jotting.

When I return everyone is standing in a large circle holding hands and singing. I run in and stand between Connie and Monica and we are lead in several choruses of “Woman Am I.”

Woman am I

Spirit am I

I am the infinite within my soul

I have no beginning          

and I have no end

All this I am.

Several years ago I attended this all-woman gathering as part of my MA thesis research (participant-observation/ethnographic interviews). I wanted to explore the ways women relate to other women in organized, formal spaces such as work and feminist social gatherings. I grew up in a working class family where the women didn’t “return to work” they just worked. And mostly in pink-collar service work: clerical, food service, and light bookkeeping. I was the same as them and worked in low wage, service-oriented jobs with mostly women co-workers. The kernel of the idea for my thesis was the result of a few years of bookselling at Barnes & Noble where I worked with almost all women employees and a male boss. I may be a bad feminist for saying this aloud, but there was plenty of conflict among my women co-workers, what I call bullying and microaggressions these days when I consult with organizations that have problems with employee conflict.

Through my participation in The Red Tent (a public event held on a university campus that served as a means of ritualizing women’s experiences) I hoped to understand what is meant by ‘sisterhood’, this sense of community that middle class feminists talked about and what I observed was lacking at Barnes & Noble. In the process of interviewing women, I started to develop a hunch that the ways women relate in everyday life were influenced by larger cultural ideas (including from mainstream feminism) about how women should relate rather than how they actually do.

What I know now—after the research plus life experience—is that I was right, there are heavy expectations placed on how women should interact, and they are based on cultural and gender norms. That yes, women do have conflict with each other and that it has to do with the structure of the patriarchy. The big question however, the one that still sticks in my brain, is what of class norms? The Red Tent (and I’ve never told anyone besides my husband this) was one of the most awkward social experiences of my life; if I hadn’t been doing research I would’ve quickly made an Irish exit. Despite being a student, I didn’t feel connected to the white women there, I felt like an outsider in the most Goffmanesque way, the stigma of my social class was obvious, I didn’t dress like the other women or look like them, and I did not experience feelings of “sisterhood.”

I thought of all this last June when I read, “Does Feminism Have a Class Problem?” I’ve been stewing about it ever since, wanting to write a giant YES rather than bore you with my MA thesis and why I’m concerned about the state of feminism. Plenty of women have reaped the benefits of mainstream feminist policy, heck, where would middle class white women be without affirmative action? The problem is (and if you’re on twitter you already know this) is that mainstream feminism does little for women of color and working class white women. Mainstream feminism focuses on things like “leaning in” so that women can have it all and encourages women to push against gender norms and over work in the same way as men in order to secure the corner office. But, where does this leave a woman who doesn’t have the resources, the particular motivation, and/or the education to do these things? Where is feminism for them?

What Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In did best was expose the tremendous class and race divide in feminism. I saw it when I was teaching at a community college, several working class women who said they weren’t feminists because they were stay-at-home moms. Or the woman who thought a two-year degree and dental hygienist career was just fine, thank you very much; she said that she couldn’t be a feminist because they were “into getting more education.” The mythology of feminism being man-hating, well-known but what I heard was something more nuanced, it seemed like feminism was perceived as something academic and thus, completely out of touch.

Yes, feminism has a class problem (and a race problem too, which you can read about here and here). A little navel gazing isn’t a bad thing and singing songs and holding hands with other women is nice too; sisterhood is possible but hardly a guarantee in the competitive space of work. What’s nicer though is raising the minimum wage, family-friendly labor policy, free childcare for single parents (women and men) that are also college students, reproductive rights, and greater assistance and outreach for woman headed families struggling to care for elderly and/or disabled family members and children. Real stuff, because what middle class feminists don’t understand, is that leaning in was never a problem for busy, multitasking working class women. What I want middle class feminists to understand is that individual empowerment gets a real boost when the bills are paid, food is in the fridge, and gas is in the car. It’s the simple things, like good policy.

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr – Letter from Birmingham Jail

I remember the first time I had the horror and pleasure of reading Martin Luther King Jr’s, Letter from Birmingham Jail. I was somewhere in graduate school, buried in the depth’s of Taylor Branch’s epic Parting the Waters, when a passage that Branch mentioned drove me to find the letter King wrote in the margins of a newspaper while he was jailed for participating in non-violent protest in Birmingham in 1963.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like for King to read the statement from eight local clergy members that called for locals to withdraw support from King, to stop their demonstrations, and rely on negotiation to end segregation in their community, when negotiation had not worked before. I cannot imagine the fury, sense of injustice, and resolve that the statement must have provoked.

But in a rational response, King set out to answer the clergy who would seek to undermine him, men he considered much like himself, men of God, who were supposed to stand up for those who could not stand up for themselves. Instead of subjugating himself to the clergymen, as many people might have done while sitting in jail, King attacked the clergymen’s own religiosity, since they were condoning and supporting the status quo of inequality and oppression.

King’s message in the letter was this: all men are God’s children, and thus, equal in their value, and should be treated equally. Condoning anything else was ungodly, in King’s eyes.

He expected religious leaders to be the seekers of justice, which is what drew him to the public spotlight.

…I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greaco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town.

…I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…


King was most revered for his ability to stay calm in the face of injustice, to march without violence, to preach love and unity and hope, and to inspire with his eloquent messages. But for me, he seems most real when he was the most incensed, when he wasn’t as scripted. Something about his raw emotion speaks to me at a much deeper level than speeches like I Have a Dream.

When I discuss King with my students, I rarely discuss I Have a Dream as the most influential or charismatic example of King’s work. Instead, I give them a snippet, just two minutes and thirty-eight seconds of King’s last speech, and for me, the most important one. It was the end of a scripted speech given at a rally for striking sanitation workers, but King finished the speech in what some would say a prophetic way, since he was assassinated the following day. The last two minutes of the speech were a response to the bomb threat that had delayed King’s plane before flying to Memphis for the rally. Again, King could have hidden in fear, he could have bowed down to the threats, but instead, he flew to Memphis, he rose up, and ended the speech with thunderous words of hope, and faith, and a directive for his followers to continue the fight for equality, even if he wasn’t there to see it through.

Today, as we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to seek out the full text of some of King’s work, and remember what he fought for, because the fight is ongoing. It may not be happening in your town, but’s it’s happening somewhere, and King would call upon us all to stand up for injustice and to fight for those who cannot defend themselves.

Check out more about Martin Luther King Jr., and the modern African American Freedom Struggle, with dozens of primary documents available for viewing, at The Martin Luther King Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University

Are Police “God’s Representatives on Earth?”

Max Weber writing in the early twentieth century marveled about the advantages that modern societies have over the earlier societies. One of the things Weber remarked about was the “stable peacefulness” that are found in large areas of the country protected by the police. No longer when you, your brother, or your sister were assaulted did you need, or want, to take matters into your own hands and seek your own revenge on behalf of your clan and its gods to whom you were tied to by blood oaths of loyalty.

In modern society, few of us take such oaths. Instead we go through our day not worrying about assault, trusting in the power of the police to pacify society, and maintain the “absolute and stable peacefulness.” This is why I can walk and ride my bike all over town, and not really worry about being robbed, assaulted, or murdered. But behind this order is the fact that some people, the police, do take oaths, and are willing to intervene even violently in order to preserve the peace. In Weber’s words, the police have the monopoly over the use of legitimated force in a given jurisdiction. Or as Weber wrote using some complicated words:

 But of all the purely political factors [that are important], particularly enduring is the growing need for order and protection (“police”) in societies that increasingly become accustomed to absolute and stable peacefulness. The growing need for order and protection was a continuous process, moving from the solely sacral or conciliatory influences, to the blood feud where rights and security for the individual members of the clan were tied to oaths and responsibility for seeking revenge, to today’s situation when police officials become “God’s representatives on earth.” (p,95 in Weber’s Rationalism, 2015, tr. by Dagmar Waters and Tony Waters)

It’s that last line “God’s representatives on earth” that cause me to pause. Weber is saying that in the modern world, the authority of the police becomes sacred, and is assumed to be the guarantor of an absolute and stable peacefulness; and that in fact many invest it with a religious-like authority. And to a large extent, this is what we have. But to have this happen, the police are given every benefit of the doubt in confrontations with civilians, such as the recent cases in the United States in places like Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and elsewhere in recent months. In such a context, grand juries, police, prosecutors, and others search for reason why “God’s representatives on earth” are acting correctly, because to do otherwise, is to sub-consciously perceived as a threat to God, and therefore the peaceful order many of us take for granted.

Now, what would the police you know think of such a view?   The police I’ve known are a jaded lot, who have no pretensions to be anything close to God. But indeed, they are well-aware of the oath they have sworn on behalf of society, and desire very much that their presence and authority be respected.  Are such pseudo-religious rituals still important to the maintenance of modern society?  What would a society look like, in which the police were not asked to take such oaths, and assumed to be like the rest of us?

Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr – I Have a Dream

As a writer, I have an obsession with words, speech, poetry, songs…really, anything written or spoken or sung. My dream class to teach would be one that would analyze great speeches in history, and analyze them given their context in time and place. We would analyze one speech a week, and try to understand why the speech was written, what was happening at the time and place to find meaning behind the speech. I’ll probably never get to teach that class, but I do bring elements of that idea of class into the classes I teach today. We talk about Ronald Reagan giving the Challenger speech, and Adolf Hitler, and Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., among others. Often, students have never been exposed to the speeches, and most definitely have never heard the social history behind the speech.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday this week, I bring to you the story behind his most famous speech, just in case, as the great Paul Harvey used to say, you don’t know the rest of the story.

I hope you enjoy.

Are Indexes Obsolete?

I’ve spent the last two days indexing our new book on Max Weber’s sociology. I am doing it the old-fashioned way, just as it has been done since, well, the 1990s or so. Which means I have a Word document open on my desktop and go through the document on a hard copy page by page, alphabetizing as I go. The only concession I have to the 2000s is that I will occasionally do a search of the electronic copy of the manuscript to find a key word in the PDF. But mostly it is yet another read-over of the manuscript itself, and alphabetizing into Word. It seems to take about 5 minutes per page. But, I just shudder at thinking what it must have been like to write an index before the invention of word processing!

I can imagine it is some kind of software that would do this for me in about two seconds. But as my author’s instructions point out, it is still better to have a real person, especially an author, do this because you also need to index themes, etc., that computers can’t “see.” So, ok, fine. But I really wonder, will indexes become obsolete with the availability of software that searches whole texts? In fact, I usually use such software, rather than actual indexes. You may have heard of the software I use to replace indexes, they are called “Google Books” and “Kindle!” But now as plow one last time through my book, I wonder about how many times I actually use an index anymore? What is your impression? Do you use books in the same way you did five or ten years ago? If you had our book on an electronic reader (as I suspect most readers will), would you use the index I am now writing?


Waters, Tony and Dagmar Waters editors and translators (2015). Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society: New Translations on Politics, Bureaucracy and Social Stratification. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

The McDonaldization of Higher Education

George Ritzer proposed one of the most significant contemporary sociological theories when he developed the theory of McDonaldization.

We have a tendency to McDonaldize, or rationalize traditional processes in Western culture. We like being able to bet on an outcome following a set pattern of small steps, that lead to a larger outcome. Through this rationalization process, we compartmentalize tasks, evaluate at each level, specialize skills and in the process de-skill individuals, which makes us better at our individual jobs, but less competent overall. It’s a fantastic model for building cars on an assembly line, as Henry Ford did a century ago. And when you make a billion hamburgers and oversee millions of workers, it’s a perfect business model that makes each worker replaceable at a moments notice, because the function of a worker is replaced, not the person him or herself. Ironically, in a highly specialized system, no one has a highly complex skill set. As an employer, having a perfectly McDonaldized work environment, where labor is cheap, tasks are completed more efficiently, production is more predictable, and we can prove our own worth by the number of hamburgers we sell in a given day, is the best scenario for financial success in America.

I’ve watched the McDonaldization of the Education system for the last 10 years or so, but the pace of the process of rationalization has accelerated in the last few years.

In higher education, this rationalization was first highly developed and very successful at for-profit universities. I considered teaching at a for-profit university many years ago and even completed the for-profit university’s instructor training, was assigned a class to teach, and after seeing the curriculum, realized I didn’t want to teach that way. Every day, every hour, and every 15 minutes was dictated by the course outline, every assignment was created by the university, and I was to follow a strict grading rubric that left no room for using my own judgment on what constituted a superior paper, and what was just mediocre. As long as a student completed X, Y, and Z, they would pass the assignment and the class. Quality didn’t matter, either in individual assignments or classes. Once a student completed enough of X,Y, and Z, they would complete the class; once they completed enough classes, they earned a degree.

Traditional universities used to balk at educating people this way. A few universities were so opposed that instead of traditional letter grades, professors wrote summaries of each student and recommended whether a student should move forward to a new class or not. Professors looked for quality, not quantity, when our system of higher education was first created.

As a child, I dreamed of being a college professor for many reasons. I had a vision of being able to read great works of literature, develop new ideas, write books and articles that changed the way people think, and guide students in their quest for knowledge. I craved information when I was a kid, and craved the conversations that my parents and aunts and uncles had around my grandmother’s dinner table every Sunday. I read the local newspaper every day by the time I was ten or so, and enjoyed debates with my teachers and catching people off guard with trivial bits of current events.

In short, I loved to learn, and I loved to help others see the world in a different way than they had before.

As an undergraduate student here at Chico State, even 20 years ago, we were expected to write in every general education class we were required to take, and we received extensive feed back from the majority of our professors, then would re-write, and resubmit. It was a give and take learning process that allowed the professor to gauge how well the student understood the course’s material. I fell in love with the process, the learning that could occur, the knowledge transfer, and every time a professor would say, “I never thought of it this way.”

I loved my college years, not for the social aspect, but for the knowledge and the quest. I got to take classes just because they sounded interesting. I spent nearly 9 years earning my undergraduate degree part time at a community college, then a university, earned over 200 semester units (a bachelor’s degree was 124 at the time), and I don’t regret one class in that time. The knowledge was the most important thing.

Today, the California State University system does not require writing in general education classes and fewer and fewer professors require writing in their classes as a result. There is very little back and forth interaction to gauge development and understanding. Assessing student progress and understanding of the material presented in class is completed largely through multiple-choice tests, and nothing more. If a student completes X, Y, and Z, then they pass.

This rationalization is the result of higher demand on faculty and campus resources and has changed education, from less quality to more quantity. In California, only about 35% of students complete their bachelor’s degree in 4 years, and just over 65% graduate within 6 years. It is a rate that is unacceptable to the general taxpayer who subsidizes the tuition for California students, and to the Administration, who market the California State University system partially for how quickly a student will likely graduate. As a result, the Administration called upon the California State University system to increase the number of students we serve at each campus, and decrease the time it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree. At the same time of this demand from Administration, there has been a loss of approximately 600 full time faculty at the California State University system since 2008, with a decrease of only 3,000 Full Time Equivalent Students [FTES] in the same period.

The only way to fulfill this request is through rationalization.

Rationalization is edging in on the California State University system through highly specialized professors with vast expertise in only one or two topics, downsizing bachelor degree requirements to fewer units, streamlining general education requirements and decreasing course options, increasing frequency of student assessment of teaching, and the removal of any subjective course assignments to gauge student comprehension of material.

We are doing okay with this model, changing the way we teach, adapting, as Darwin would say, to our environment in order to survive. We’re doing okay, but maybe not for long.

Our most significant issue throughout the university system is this fact: we have lost an enormous number of faculty since the Great Recession, and we are not replacing faculty at a fast enough rate to keep up with the current demand, let alone the projected increased demand in the next 5 years or so.

President Obama released a proposal in early 2015 that would provide free tuition at community colleges nationwide for 2 years for certain programs, so that our youth might have a better chance of having more opportunities for employment. As you can imagine, a presidential proposal that helps my own job security is something I support. There are problems with this proposal, though, especially in a place like California, where we have an inordinately high number of community colleges, and not enough faculty to serve those students today.

College and university faculty often teach at more than one institution, with part time faculty, especially, teaching 2 or 3 classes at each institution. If community colleges begin to offer faculty more classes each semester, the already stressed California State University system (and others like it in the state and across the nation) is likely to suffer since those faculty member may give up classes at the CSU. To make up for this demand, class sizes increase, number of classes increase (full time for lecturers at Chico State in 2005 was 4 classes; today, it’s 5), and faculty will burn out faster due to the increased stress of the job.

But here’s the big problem with President Obama’s proposal, one that cannot be quantified as easily, but will have many more long-term consequences: all colleges must adopt accelerated associate’s degree programs like the ASAP program at The City University of New York.

Accelerated programs have their place, I understand that, and in the President’s proposal for community colleges, he outlines funding for technical colleges, which is where acceleration fits well. Accelerated technical programs, where individuals learn invaluable skills such as computer engineering, auto collision repair, and my own history of paramedic and emergency medical technician, will be the basis for a large portion of jobs in the next 20 years in America.

But liberal arts colleges are not the place for accelerated learning, and McDonaldization, with the most emphasis placed on arbitrary evaluations, the number of students one professor can pack into a lecture hall, and the number of passing grades a professor assigns in one semester. Education at the college level should not be about rote memorization with regurgitation of facts 3 weeks later on an arbitrary exam. Learning, new ideas, innovation, and progress do not happen that way. The greatest lesson we teach through liberal arts colleges is to think critically, to question, to analyze. We cannot teach that, nor can students learn and create new ideas, in a system that emphasizes speed, efficiency, and completely rational thought above all else.

We must be allowed to continue to teach outside the box, rather than teach our students to fill in the circles of a test bubble. President Obama’s proposal undermines education and learning in the liberal arts tradition, it crushes innovation, and critical thought, and that is the last thing we need in America.