Almond Harvest in the Valley

The author worked as an EMT and paramedic in northern California from 1993-1997.

The call came just after 5:30 on a cold Autumn morning. A possible broken leg woke my partner, Russ, and I from broken sleep. As I stumbled to my ambulance, I rubbed sleep from my eyes and wrapped my jacket tightly around body. Russ claimed the driver’s seat, found the highway that divides our small town into north and south, and headed east toward the sunrise, to the fields and orchards that frame the town.

The rundown shack sat in the middle of an almond orchard, it’s dirty windows covered with old sheets, pillow cases, and towels; anything to protect the inhabitants from daylight during precious hours of rest.

We approached the shack hesitantly, listening to a multitude of male voices murmur in Spanish inside the clapboard house. The front door swung open, and as I stepped into the dimly lit room, half a dozen men scattered into the corners of the building. A man in his early twenties lay in their wake, writhing in pain as he lay next to a woodstove in the center of the room. A heavy air of stale cigarettes enveloped the young man, and his dirty, worn jeans and long sleeved cotton shirt hung loosely on his unnaturally thin frame. His head rested on the four inch step that he had tripped over while getting ready to head to the fields.

Surrounding the woodstove, a dozen or so thin, narrow mattresses filled the floor, a foot or less of open space between each. In the background of the living room, men shuffled in a small, makeshift kitchen, scraping together leftover beans and corn tortillas for breakfast.

We spent nearly 20 minutes stabilizing and splinting the man’s shattered ankle; he would be lucky to walk on it again after surgeries, casts, and months of rehabilitation. Without those things, he would likely never be able to use his lower leg properly again. His work in the fields of California, picking peaches and oranges, raking almonds, hand picking strawberries in the unrelenting Sacramento Valley heat, was undoubtedly over.

Men and women work 12 to 14 hours a day during California’s harvest season, which begins in April with strawberries, moves to peaches, watermelon, tomatoes, garlic, and ends later in the fall, with almonds and walnuts. If you eat a strawberry this year, it was likely picked by a temporary farm laborer in California. We grow over 400 different crops here in California, and the vast majority are planted, tended to, and harvested by migrant farm laborers who earn just at minimum wage, or less than $19,000 a year.

This is what many of California’s farms are built on, what they’ve been built on since the 1940s, when American men went off to war, and farms still needed to be worked. Hispanics from many countries, but mostly Mexico, harvest the fruits, vegetables, and nuts that feeds America and the world. It is the dirty little secret of cheap produce in the United States.

…our state produces a sizable majority of American fruits, vegetables and nuts; 99 percent of walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach, and 69 percent of carrots and the list goes on and on. A lot of this is due to our soil and climate. No other state, or even a combination of states, can match California’s output per acre. – Western Farm Press


We finally loaded our patient into our ambulance, transported him to the nearest hospital. He had no identification, no driver’s license, insurance card, and refused to provide us with his name. He was undeniably an undocumented worker. He likely would never receive the care the needed beyond the visit in the emergency department, would lose his job, would receive no sick days, Worker’s Compensation, nothing for his destroying ankle. And there would likely be 5 men eagerly waiting to take his job when he didn’t show up.

It was conditions like these that Cesar Chavez fought against in the 1960s and 70s in California, striking with farm laborers and starving himself for weeks on end to bring attention to the plight of the workers who feed the United States, but often cannot afford to feed themselves. These migrant farm laborers are not permanent employees, often don’t understand US employment law that would protect them, and often find themselves in the employ of people who would exploit them.

Regardless of the controversy that surrounded him late in his life, in his early days, Chavez sought to fight for people who were being exploited with low wages, suffered in unsafe working conditions, and fell prey to unfair employment practices. He stood up for the men and women who often couldn’t stand up for themselves.

Today, we celebrate Cesar Chavez, and the principles he stood for, and remember the farm workers who labor every day in this country to provide food for us all.


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 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 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.

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 

Travelling Notes—from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport

I’m on a rather strange trip from Chico, California to where I live, via Sacramento, California where I had a meeting on Thursday, and then onto Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania.

The usual hurry up and wait of travel applies, except for the first day in Sacramento, when I went to a meeting of the committee which will advise Chico State’s president on a hire for a senior executive position.

The meeting went well—the usual range of nervous and earnest candidates making a case those of us who for them are a bit of a cipher. I suspect that I would like most of them in other circumstances, but such interview situations are so contrived—for both the interviewees, and interviewers. To be honest, I much prefer to be on the interviewer side of things.

For dinner we went out to an African American Soul Food restaurant. One of the people on our committee recognized Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson when he came in and quietly sat down at a table. Johnson is both a political and sports celebrity. It was interesting to watch him during his low time—it was not quite anonymous, but he was very accessible. A number of times patrons came up to greet him and take a picture with him. Other times, he quietly worked on his mobile electronic device.

My flight to Los Angeles the next day though was delayed by another celebrity who was not so low key. President Barack Obama was apparently in Los Angeles to tape a television program the night before, and departing for Washington (or somewhere else) that morning. Anyway, all the airspace in Los Angeles was cleared for the departure of Air Force One. And we in Sacramento were delayed—and I suspect the whole days schedule was disrupted by the morning shutdown. For me that meant my flight to Amsterdam was delayed, and I missed my flight to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.

And so there I sit typing away in the Amsterdam airport, about to finally board my plane for Tanzania. Fifteen or twenty years ago I came here once or twice per year—but not recently. The airport is a bit older now, but still as always under construction. One of the really odd things is that most of the signs are now mono-lingual in English. The written Dutch language is very low key—there are few signs in that language; I recall reading a statistic recently that 95% of Dutch people are conversant in English. I guess that that reflects that statistic.

As for the languages I hear, Schiphol is still ever international, though of course there is still a lot of Dutch.

Singing in Sociology Class

Occasionally I break into song, particularly when teaching my Classical Sociology class. Classical sociologists Max Weber, and W. E. B. DuBois wrote about the importance of music in defining group boundaries. In the case of Max Weber, he noted that dominant groups typically have myths and stories which glorify a past of some sort. A great way to illustrate the importance of these songs is to break into song in a fashion that illustrates the the stories that separate the dominant from the subordinate. Thus, the South in the US Civil War marched to the tune of “Dixie” a song which glorified old times of cotton plantations, and southern industry of the early 19th century.

But, as Weber also wrote, subordinated groups also have ways of expressing their views about the hidden honor of their own group. The South was built on the backs of millions of subordinated African-American slaves, who dreamt of future redemption, a desire that they too expressed in music. In the case of the slaves, these are what W. E. B. DuBois called the “Sorrow Songs” because they expressed both joy and sorrow at the same time. Today, such songs are better known today as spirituals. Two such well-known songs are about crossing over the River Jordan, and passing into the Promised Land are “Swing Low Sweet Chariot and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” Julia Ward Howe’s song “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to which the northern armies marched in the Civil War is also a song of expressing a desire for future redemption. The Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” is another obvious song of this genre.

For years, I have been able to go to class and sing (badly) a few bars of any of these songs. And suddenly half the class would be filling in the rest of the lyrics. More recently, this has become more difficult. Last semester while teaching about W. E. B. DuBois, I began singing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” a song that I sang as a child both in school, and in camp. Few of my 1980s born students had heard of it. Earlier in the semester, I had tried “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” with only slightly better results. Why would my students not share such classic songs?

Answers to interesting questions often come in unusual places. On New Year’s Eve, I went to the home of an elementary music teacher. She complained about the declining role of music, or what she called “cultural literacy” in the public schools. She pointed out that in recent years music, art, drama and other subjects have given way to new emphases on basic literacy, and math, to the exclusion of all else. But, she said the creeping cultural illiteracy actually goes back earlier than this. To understand how music has been slowly disappearing from the schools, she explained, you need to go back further, to the 1960s when cultural and policy changes began to effect what is taught in the school.

For example, she pointed out that basic piano skills were until thirty or forty years ago part of teacher education, at least for primary school teachers. Music was a daily occurrence in each of my primary school classrooms (many of which had a piano), and my teachers who were presumably trained under the older policies, continued teaching until at least the 1980s or so. With the demise of the piano requirement for all teachers, my students were slowly pushed for their musical education towards Barney the Purple Dinosaur, Sesame Street and, since they were children of the 1990s, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. For whatever reason, the creators of these new cultural resources did not include the songs that emerged from the Civil War and were so important in my own elementary school career in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Which of course raises another question for me as I prepare for a new semester. What songs can I sing in class to illustrate great sociological points about the nature of sorrow and joy in subordinated groups, or the glorification of the past by dominant groups? If “Dixie” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” won’t work, what would? What is the common musical heritage that a child of the 1960s can share with children of the 1990s?

I will again teach Max Weber on the nature of subordination, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in a couple of weeks, and would appreciate any ideas you may have. If anyone reading this has any ideas, please let me know.

And no, I will not sing “Oops I Did it Again” by Britney Spears!


Originally published here in January 2009.

The Injustice of Justice: Jury Duty in America

Our legal system in the United States is a wondrous thing. If you are arrested and charged with a crime, you have the option to a jury trial. Theoretically, we pick a representative sample of 12 of your peers to sit in judgment of you. Except if you are already a felon, or disabled, work in a profession where serving on a jury would be a hardship for you, are self-employed, or are the primary caregiver for another human. Or if you have a medical issue that is exacerbated by sitting for long hours. Or have a medical appointment you can’t reschedule. Or if you have already paid for a vacation during the scheduled trial period. Or are pregnant. Or a college student who might miss classes. Or you just might be one of those people who ignores the jury summons. Or you may not be a registered voter or have a driver’s license. Or you may not understand English well.

If you are any of those people, you will not be represented by your peers.

As I sat in the hallway with 200 or so other prospective jurors this week of my county courthouse, most people considered the call to jury duty as an inconvenience they would beg and embellish the truth to get out of. The prospective jurors chatted amongst themselves about the ways that jury duty inconvenienced them, about the “waste” of a morning they would spend as potential jurors, and how their time was more important than the trial at hand.

My favorite excuse of the day, which I overheard while grading papers on my computer, sitting on the floor of the hallway waiting to be called to the courtroom, was from one of the county employees. Her uniform shirt identified her as a county employee, and as she chatted with a friend, also called as a potential juror, she said she was “too frickin’ busy for this shmit” (I wondered who she thought she was fooling with the language tweaking), and that with “just my luck”, she’d be chosen for a civil case that she wouldn’t be able to conflict out of. Missing out on pay wasn’t a concern for her though, because her county job ensured she would still get paid fully for her jury duty by her employer, she told her friend. Because here’s the thing: her employer knows how important serving on a jury is.

And the State of California understands as well. State law protects employees and students from being fired or harassed for missing work or school due to jury duty. Regardless, the majority of hardships that day were school or work related.

At first, it was amusing, and I listened and commiserated a bit with other potential jurors. But after awhile, I wondered when the privilege of jury duty had become so disdained in our culture.

My group of fellow prospective jurors was called to the court room almost 3 hours after we arrived at the courthouse. We sat in rows on each side of the courtroom, were handed a court calendar, turned off all of our cellphones, and waited for the judge.

During his introduction, the judge reminded us that it’s a privilege to serve on a jury, and to live in a country that gives the People a voice in the legal process. And then he asked if anyone had a hardship claim that needed to be considered for dismissal. The range of hardships was a long laundry list of medical issues, work issues, school issues, hearing issues, and vacation plans. Nearly 150 in total.

I had fully intended on asking for a hardship dismissal, by the way. I’ve got two young kids who rely solely on me for transportation back and forth to school and I work as a college lecturer; missing three weeks of class time for a trial would have been a hardship on my employer. But the judge was very clear: the exemption would be granted only if it was a hardship on ME, and honestly, it wouldn’t be since I wouldn’t have to report until 9 am each day and would be done by 4:30. My students would survive without me for three weeks.

What was left of the 200 or so prospective jurors after the hardship dismissals? Well, folks like me. And like my mother. Of the prospective jurors who filled the court room for a civil matter this week in my home county, just over 40, or under 25%, remained after the “hardship” phase of jury selection. We were a group of nervous-laughing, mostly 40 to 65 year old, overwhelmingly white men and women who have been privileged enough to be healthy enough, wealthy enough, or civically minded enough to show up and not have matters pressing enough to be excused from jury duty. All of our legal knowledge probably was gleaned from watching fictional legal dramas on TV.

And this was before the Voir Dire or “conflict” stage in which attorneys often “shape” the jury to favor their cause and dismiss prospective jurors for clear conflict (if a juror worked for the company being sued, they would be dismissed immediately).

As I looked around at the other remaining prospective jurors, I realized my odds of being chosen for the jury had become great: I had a one in three chance of sitting on the jury. Except, I knew I would likely be dismissed for bias during the “conflict of interest” phase.

The case was an asbestos case, and the building I work in, in fact the floor I work on and the one right above, has been the subject of a “cancer cluster” inquiry. The suspected cause of the cluster? Asbestos. And guess what? I’m one of the cancer survivors. My colleague, Andy, was not so fortunate. The building was deemed “clean” and that asbestos was not the cause of the relatively high rates of cancer in a very small section of the building, but still, sitting on that jury, I would have had a hard time separating my feelings from science.

But we never got to the “conflict” phase.

The judge and attorneys must have known I, and the majority of other jurors, would be dismissed due to bias or conflict, After the prospective jurors gathered in the courtroom and all the hardship cases had been dismissed, the judge called the attorneys to his bench, leaned in close and whispered in not-so-whispery tones, shook his head gravely while staring unbelievingly at the lot before him, finally sat up straight, and addressed the prospective jurors.

Just like on TV, he thanked us for our service, told us we were dismissed, and bid us farewell.

But my brush with potential jury duty gave me an insight I’ve never had before, since I’ve never gotten this close before.

We tell people in America that they can have their day in court, a fair trial, a group of people who are able to give them that chance to explain what happened to them without preconceived prejudices about your race, ethnicity, social status, and gender. In practice, that only happens with unbiased jury selection; the reality is much different.

We pretend, in America, that people who understand you, people who have been in your shoes before, people who might share your perspective, and thus be more likely to treat you fairly if you are tried for a crime, will be those who then judge you, but we are wrong. We are so wrong. Certain groups, based on a range of characteristics including age, race, education level, and socioeconomic status, are more or less likely to serve on juries, creating “shaped” juries. The consequences of a “shaped” jury, either by self-selection or by attorneys and judges, are catastrophic.

If you’re thinking of committing a crime in America, wait a bit, if you have time, until you are 50 or so. Don’t be a felon already, or pregnant, or caring for a young child or an elderly parent. Don’t be attending college, or chronically ill; don’t have any vacation plans, but do have an understanding employer who will pay you for your jury time. You might get close to having a jury of your peers, as long as you aren’t a racial or ethnic minority. In other words, be just like me, although I miss the age mark by a few years. I’m still waiting for the big caper.

I knew the issue of bias in juries before answering the call for jury duty, but didn’t grasp the extent of it until I sat in the courtroom, and watched the process myself. I hope you get the privilege soon as well, to be a prospective juror. When you do, take a look around, listen to the folks around you, and try to stay until the end, to see who’s left to judge the accused. Then look at the accused, and see if the jurors are truly a jury of peers.

For a summary of the article about age bias in jury pools, jury selection, and the consequences of older and younger juries, check out this site.