Why was it more important when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, rather than the farmer Julius Agricolus? The Tattooed Professor rants about dependent variables

Kevin Gannon the Tattooed Professor went on a rant recently about the nature of historical knowledge and explanatory independent variables. Here is one of his pithier observations about how facts become historical facts:

In other words, the stuff that happened in the past isn’t by itself history. History is when that stuff–which is promoted to the level of “historical facts” by the historian–gets processed and interpreted. The stuff that happened, yet didn’t make this cut, remains in the ephemeral realm of just plain old “facts.” A pithy example used by Carr nicely illustrates this distinction. Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon: THIS IS IMPORTANT. Julius Agricolus the small-time farmer crosses the Rubicon: who gives a shit? (I took some liberties with Carr’s phrasing.)

Because he is on a rant, he can’t resist a temptation to take a potshot at us social scientists by observing:

Each of us as individuals are still fundamentally interconnected to one another through the structures and systems that we’ve inherited. There are no independent variables.***

Which is followed by footnote:

***Sorry, social scientists. But it’s true.

It looks like the professor with a custom paint job has been reading his classical sociology/anthropology quite carefully! Marx, Weber, and maybe even Durkheim would agree with Gannon. I just wish that the quantitative sorts with their obsessive search for the ever more statistically significant independent variable would also return to such basics.

Caddish Behavior as Described by Max Weber: Ethics, Romantic Love, and the Versailles Treaty Negotiations of 1919

In this extract from Max Weber’s classic essay “Politics as Vocation.” Max Weber is about to let loose regarding the insistence of the victorious Allies of World War I that Germany accept fault for starting the war in 1914, and feel “guilty” for doing so. He doesn’t like this, and compares it to the ethics of a romantic cad.


You will rarely find a man, who no longer loves a woman and therefore turns to another, will not feel the need to justify himself by arguing: “She was not worth my love, or she disappointed me”—or what other reasons there may be.


The woman has not only to cope with the sober fact that he doesn’t love her anymore, but also with the fact that he makes up a legitimacy for himself in a manner no chivalrous knight would.


He sees this made-up legitimacy as his right, and adds insult to injury by blaming the wreckage on her wrongdoing. The successful erotic competitor proceeds in just the same way; he argues that the adversary has to be the one who is unethical, after all, otherwise he would not have been defeated.


Of course, there is no difference; rather it is taken for granted that the winner claims with an undignified bossiness after any successful war: “I won because I was in the right.”


[This same phenomenon happens] when someone succumbs emotionally under the atrocities of the war and now, instead of plainly stating “It was just too much,” feels the need to legitimate his war fatigue to himself by substituting his feelings [for reason] and assert: “I was not able to take this war any more, because I had to fight for a morally wrong cause.”

The same phenomenon holds true for everybody who is defeated in wartime. So instead of looking for the “guilty culprit” like nattering washwomen— and especially when it is evident that the structure of society is responsible for the war—every manly and austere attitude [simply] signals to the enemy, “We lost the war—you won the war.”

This has been taken care of! Now, let’s talk about the conclusions… (pp. 183-184)

Weber is about to become involved with the Versailles Treaty negotiations on behalf of the defeated Germans.  At the Versailles negotiations, the Allies will present Germany with the options of accepting their surrender conditions, or face an invasion.  Weber’s position of course is of a (defeated) German nationalist. In such a circumstance, how could he proceed?  How could he victorious Allies proceed?

From Max Weber, (1919) “Politics as Vocation” in Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, translated and edited by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters, Palgrave MacMillan 2015.

A sample chapter from our book Weber’s Rationalism is here.

Originally posted at Ethnography.com on May 29, 2015

“Teach Like You Do in America,” While Still Doing it the Tanzanian Way!

The first time I was told to “teach like you do in America” was in 2003-2004 in Tanzania where I was a Fulbright Scholar at the Sociology Department at the University of Dar Es Salaam (see Waters 2007). UDSM is a large sprawling African university, spread across “The Hill” near the Indian Ocean coast. UDSM prides itself for schooling presidents from Tanzania, Uganda, Congo, and South Sudan and its many graduates who played critical roles in first the decolonization of Africa, and now the political leadership of many countries.

When I was at UDSM, the university suffered from the common short-comings of Africa higher education, including old facilities, limited computer capacity, a dated library collection, inadequate faculty staffing, low salaries, and the occasional strike by students. And despite UDSM’s record of creating much of eastern Africa’s elite, it made little dent in the ranking systems highlighted by The Economist. After all creating a future for an area of the world that is growing rapidly is not a metric in such ranking systems.

The pedigree of UDSM in 2003 was inherited from both the British colonial rulers, and more importantly the rapidly expanding Tanzania of the 1990s and 2000s when ambitious students were swept into the university far faster than faculty were hired. In this context I was told to “teach like you do in America!” But I was told it would also be nice if I included the revolutionary Frantz Fanon who wrote Wretched of the Earth on the reading list for my Race and Ethnicity class (I was also asked to include, Marx, who some of the better-read Tanzanian graduate students insisted was not an atheist!). Fanon fortunately gave me an African example which was far better than “teaching like I did in America,” which would have meant illustrations rooted in studies of U.S. American minority groups, which lacked resonance for my east African students.

Tanzania, certainly, has ethnic divisions, based in religion, merchant minorities, and most salient of all, “tribal” identification. But tribal identification was tricky for a foreigner to navigate in 2003, because during the pre-1961 days of British colonialism, such identities were a basis for political, legal, and professional discrimination. And so tribal identification was “banned” in independent Tanzania at independence, although of course such identities persisted, and do persist. But how to talk about this in a 90+ student race and ethnicity class? Indeed, when I first raised the issues of tribes, I received another visit from assertive students pointing out that that tribes were a subject inappropriate in Tanzania, since the categories no longer existed and “we are all Tanzanian.” It was nevertheless pointed out that I was free to use east Africa’s merchant minorities (Arabs and Indians) as examples. This was particularly the case I learned, if I reinforced the stereotypes of a student body steeped in family lore about how the greedy Arab and Indian merchant minorities took advantage of black Africans. And they still insisted on carrying my briefcase and books!

But for me, the most difficult task in the Tanzanian system was managing the large classes in a hot humid climate using blackboards with dusty chalk.  There were no computers in the classroom, nor could I distribute course materials by email. Everything was done with a blackboard and piece of chalk, the dust turning to chalk-mud on my skin and clothing in Dar Es Salaam’s muggy climate. Projecting an Excel spread sheet, much less requiring students to access computers, was out of the question. The culturally appropriate t-test (How many spoonfuls of sugar do males and females like in their tea?) I did on a dusty blackboard, and students copied, copied, and copied with pen and paper.

My classes were in large lecture halls—remnants of an impressive 1970s era building boom—which included an architectural masterpiece, Nkrumah Hall, which is featured on the back of Tanzania’s 500 shilling note. I gave just two tests, far fewer assignments than I do in the United States, where demands for student work in the form of homework sets and quizzes are considered to be pedagogic best practice. Following UDSM regulations these tests comprised 40% of the overall grade, with a final exam worth 60% (in comparison in California, my final assignment is worth 25% or less). All assignments were written in long-hand and needed to be hand-graded—no machine grading. I read every exam in my 400+ student social statistics class.

Student academic culture at UDSM was different as well—students were from diverse areas of Tanzania, and supported financially by extensive family networks and a government loan system for the majority of students who did not have enough money to attend. Students were older than my American students, and certainly had less money—no cars in the student parking lot! The rich Tanzanian student might have a scooter. Tanzanian students also had their own study rhythms, with a strong emphasis on collaboration which some of my expatriate colleagues defined as cheating. But collaboration also meant that in the muggy evening when the weather cooled off just a little bit, students gathered under the electric street lamps, where one student read out loud one of the few textbooks available, while the others listened. The culture of the university—and the future of Africa—emerge from such gatherings, more so than from my “American-style” teaching.

Student finance is what led to a student strike—a phenomenon unheard of in the United States in recent decades. The students receiving the “monthly” loan payments used them to purchase food, and pay for on-campus accommodation. Payments were frequently late—which meant that students might start eating less food later in the month. How did I know this? The unspoken cultural cue was that the males started wearing neckties in the sweltering heat as meals became fewer—the ties it was said, distracted attention from sallow cheekbones.

One morning in May 2004, I went to class as usual. But very few students showed up because a student strike to object to policies regarding repayment of student loans was scheduled that morning. At 9:01 a.m., we heard the sound of the rushing strike coming, and my students politely asked to accompany me to my office—they told me staying risked a beating from the striking students (for a description of a similar strike see Ernest 2011). A strike meant no classes, period, and striking students cleared the classrooms by waving tree branches. The university administration responded by summarily closing the university that afternoon, an order that was enforced by police on campus, with help from the army. Marching strikers were blocked from going into town on that hot day by tear gas wielding troops from the army’s “Field Force.” A whiff of tear gas later, I simply settled down…to mark stacks of papers. The shut-down lasted about two weeks, as I slowly made my way through the stacks of sweat-stained papers on our dining room table.

The final surprise in UDSM culture came as I prepared and administered my finals in late June. The course that I remember most clearly is that social statistics class. 400+ students showed up to take the final, a grading task I was dreading. And then, surprisingly, the finals were whisked away from me—one of my Tanzanian colleagues did the first pass, which was then reviewed by an independent outside reviewer from South Africa. Unlike the United States, professors do not have the final word on grades in Tanzania. Rather grades there are a product of a consensus. In this way Tanzanian faculty hold themselves to internationally validated academic norms, in ways that professors in the United States are not.

The above is from my recent article published at Palgrave Communications: (2015) “‘Teach Like You Do in America”‘Personal Reflections from Teaching Across Borders in Tanzania and Germany.”

The Fallacy of “Workforce Ready” in Public Education

The United States was set back on its heels in the 1930s by the Great Depression. As a result, the United States charged the high schools with making the children “workforce ready.” The hope was that the schools could train children for the workforce of tomorrow—i.e. the 1940s—when the manufacturing base of the United States would be revitalized, and prosperity would return. I this context, children were kept in school longer (and out of the workforce), with the idea that they would be able to recreate the successful societies that the planners knew—the cities of the pre-Depression 1920s. In this context, there was a reform of schools in the 1930s, undertaken with the broad hope that the children would be the factory line workers of the future.

     But things did not work out as planned—the schools of the 1930s and 1940s actually did a rather poor job of creating the 1920s. Instead the children of the 1930s created the world of the 1950s-2000s and beyond. To understand how utterly inappropriate the curriculum reform of the 1930s were for the future workforce it is useful to think of a child born in the 1930s, and what they actually “did” with the primary and secondary education they received from about 1936-1948. You know, things like send humans to the moon, invent computers, and have a PC on their desk by the time they retired.  For that matter, the children trained for the workforce today in 2015 will be part of a workforce in 2060 which we today cannot imagine.  And that’s ok.

The following is from my book “Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child.”

Why Do Modern Societies All Have Systems of Mass Education?

Every society needs a way to reproduce itself, its habits, values, and morals. Education is the “social thing” by which adults through a political process assert a right to control the upbringing of not only their own children but at the same time those of other parents (see Durkheim, 1956: 62). This is of course most developed in modern mass society, which extends across nations, and even continents. In small societies this occurs in the context of unscripted face-to-face relationships emphasizing the family unit. For centuries, as long as the productive unit was small and society limited to face-to-face relationships, this was adequate. The wisdom of elders was assumed and routinely reestablished, as was learning about the seasons, family, clan, housing, and the gods. As importantly, you learn who is trustworthy and what is right and wrong ( i. e. morals, in the context of daily life). Loyalty to the small group is particularly important in such societies.


But modern societies go well beyond the needs of small intimate clans and a division of labor based only on gender and age. They need to recreate society and transmit the knowledge too. They need to reproduce what Bourdieu described as the unspoken predispositions, that is a habitus that a society needs to recreate itself. It recreates itself by passing on predispositions for morality, hierarchy, loyalty, trust, respect, and sense of what is right and wrong. This internalized social system, underlies the cultural legitimacy necessary to maintain and reproduce society. The question every modern government faces is how will the habitus of legitimacy be created across a population, most of whom will never meet each other, but nevertheless come to recognize each other as sharing values and playing complementary roles in a vast society. In particular, who will do this when a diversity of roles emerge, which are not only patterned by age and gender but also by social class, caste, occupation, social status, skill levels, and a wide range of taken-for-granted status attributions.


Because much of the strength of modern society results from what is learned by the masses, school systems emerged in all countries to reproduce the legitimacy of the existing social and economic order. But as in small traditional societies, it is necessary that the habitus and daily ways of life are internalized in a fashion that protects the status quo and also creates a society that deals effectively with unforeseeable change. But the milieu is not the family, nuclear or extended. More typically it is the nation-state, which is ultimately why every modern society needs a system of mass public education in which a scripted habitus is transmitted in a predictable fashion, which re-creates cultural capital in the context of a vast global marketplace. As with socialization in small clans, such education is about the transmission of older taken-for-granteds to a younger generation.


The Transgenerational Transmission of Culture via Modern Society and Bureaucracy

The habits, thoughts, and values of one generation affect the next—no human generation reinvents itself without reference to parents and the past. In modern societies, such habits are ideally written down and are explicitly fixed by powerful bureaucratic institutions in a formal school curriculum. But even in such modern societies, other such habits, which are just as powerful, are not written down, but are acted out in the day-to-day interactions between the members of national societies, which are “six degrees of separation” from each other, even in the large national societies of 300 million people like the United States or the even larger societies like the European Union and the huge societies of China and India.


The long-term effect of such natural habitus is perhaps no stronger than in the school system, which begins to make its mark on the brains and habits of children when they are about five years old. The habits and beliefs that are developed at such young ages come to affect the nature of the school system for 70 years or more, as individuals in their role as a citizen, parent, grandparent, teacher, or politician draw on a habitus that provides a template to make decisions about schools until they die. What these people came to take for granted as five-year-old children affects how they see the world for many, many years and makes school into one of the most conservative institutions in society.


The Long Echo: How Nineteenth-Century Schooling Influences the Twenty-First Century

But the conservative rigidity of school policy did not simply start some 70 years ago with the first grade of today’s 75-year-old grandparents. Rather it dips back even deeper into the past, since the predispositions of habitus carried in the heads of the grandparents and great-grandparents sitting on school boards and state legislatures today was not created in a vacuum. Today’s policies are the product of the pedagogic, political, and economic interests of the school administrators of their day who in turn had a childhood habitus created for them some 40 or 50 years previously. Given this pattern, it is not surprising that many of the assertions made about schools in 2010 have their pedigrees in the plans, programs and predispositions created by people born in the 1870s and 1880s. A brief review of this cultural history provides a context for the changes that occurred in American education. Some of the earliest and still most useful descriptions of cultural history come from the French traveller, Alexis de Tocqueville who observed the United States in the 1830s. (pp. 30-32)




Here is Why You Should Not Listen to Popular Music–But Will Anyway!

One of my favorite sociological essays is Teodor Adorno’s 1941 “On Popular Music.” Adorno didn’t much like the popular music he heard on the radio in Los Angeles, and said so. He found it simplistic, monotonous, limited and manipulative. With an emphasis on manipulative. For besides being a classically trained musician, Adorno was also a leading critic of capitalism, and especially its need for endless consumption so that large corporations could generate profits. He found popular music to be a particularly insidious form of consumption because it generated so much profit, for so little effort. All the successful music producer had to do was produce the same beat, chords, theme, and lyrics and not only would endless profits flow into corporate coffers, but the workers themselves would be conditioned to work to the very beat of the factory by popular songs “stuck in their head.”

How simple? Well, seventy years later the Australian Band “Axis of Awesome” recorded the Four Chord Song. You can judge for yourself from their performance how very prescient Adorno’s point was.


As for the lyrics—there is a formula for that too. Here is how the Axis of Awesome writes love songs.  You take those same four chords, and add formulaic sighs, whispers, and falsettos. It is really that easy–listen to them sing about how dead easy a love song is to write


See what I mean about Adorno? He wrote in 1941 what the Axis of Awesome sang about in 2011.  And I’m willing to Benny and his Jets from the Axis of Awesome have never heard of Adorno!

There are of course songs which are less polished than the Axis of Awesome—songs that have electrified audiences, created social movements. Remember the music that brought down the US President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War???? Here is one of my favorites, sung by Country Joe MacDonald at Woodstock.  Listen carefully to the lyrics–they are hilarious!  And then go down below Country Joe to click on Adorno himself–and see what he had to say about such protest music.



Well, actually Adorno had something specifically to say about that. Here is the man himself speaking about the maudlin nature of “protest music.” The first part of this clips are in German, and the English subtitles begin at about 54 seconds).



Or to repeat Adorno’s words:

“I find, in fact, THIS SONG unbearable, in that by taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable, it ends up wringing something like consumption-qualities out of it.”

In other words, anti-war music was just another product to be bought, sold, and profited from. At the end of the day, Country Joe and all his friends at Woodstock just went back home.  And the concert-goers simply went back to work, so they could make enough money to buy the album, and go to the next concert.

Anyway, dear reader, if you still like popular music, despite Adorno’s critique, we are in full agreement. I still tap my foot and sing along in the shower with Country Joe and the Axis of Awesome, even if what Adorno writes makes much more sense.

And so for those of you who have listened to the YouTube clips, and read this far, please go back up and click on Adorno’s original article—it is really worth the read, if it is not required reading as it is in my class. But if you’re are not going to do that, here is Rob Pavalonian’s spoof on popular music, Pachabel’s Rant. I can think of worse ways to spend five minutes!


Comprehensive Firearms Education

A few years ago, one of my colleagues called to ask me a favor. She was organizing a “Town Hall Debate” about legalizing marijuana, and was having a difficult time finding someone from the university to sit on the panel who would argue in favor of legalizing marijuana. It took me a few seconds, but I responded “sure, why not?” and a few more seconds before I realized, as a non-smoker, I actually don’t have an opinion of whether we should legalize marijuana or not; how would I ever advocate one way or the other? But I had made a commitment to participate, so I did what I do best: I started researching marijuana, including the health effects, the legal ramifications, the financial implications. Anything marijuana related, I read. I learned a few things that I hadn’t known previously, and confirmed a few things that I had suspected, but had no proof for. Newsflash: smoking marijuana does damage to your lungs. But here’s the thing that I found most interesting: children who have a comprehensive education about smoking marijuana are less likely to abuse marijuana compared to children who are taught “abstinence-only” marijuana education.

We learned through alcohol prohibition in the 1920s in America, and through abstinence-only sex education more recently, that not talking about alcohol use, drug use, and sex, and not providing people with the tools to handle alcohol, drugs, and sex when confronted with it, has devastating effects. We also know that with comprehensive sex education, unwanted pregnancies decrease and with comprehensive substance abuse education and role playing, substance abuse decreases.

Prohibition and abstinence only-education fail to decrease undesirable behavior; education is key in changing behavior.

A few months ago, a close acquaintance of mine completed a course to gain a permit to carry a concealed gun. A staunch Republican, my friend believes strongly in gun ownership rights, shoots regularly, and legally owns many guns. But my friend had never taken a gun safety course. Mixed in with learning how to properly carry a handgun, learning the laws of carrying in California, and practicing how to shoot, the most important piece of education my friend reported to me from the class was how to properly store guns to prevent them falling into the wrong hands.

“Well, looks like we’ll be making some changes around here,” my friend said to me after the class ended. “I didn’t realize how much we were doing wrong storing our guns before.” It was a powerful statement.

Let me concede a few things here: we cannot stop all gun violence in the U.S.; that’s a valiant goal, but not a manageable or realistic goal. There is no way to round up the 300 million or so guns in the U.S., although some cities and counties are doing a good job of getting guns off the streets and out of the hands of criminals. And yes, I know, if someone is very determined to harm another person, and a gun isn’t available, they might be determined enough to find alternate means. There will always be people who feel a sense of anomie, disconnectedness, anger, and resentment, who lash out. And no, I’m not naive enough to believe that criminals will heed stricter gun control laws. But there are ways to reduce the number of guns available to people who might use them to harm themselves or others, a concept that gets support from both conservatives and liberals.

Our constitution guarantees the right to bear arms, but even with that, in a 2013 Gallup Poll, the vast majority of Americans supported criminal background checks for all gun purchases in the U.S. In other words, 91% of people agree that not everyone should have the right to bear arms. As responsible gun owners, we need to take every measure we can to keep guns out of the hands of children, particularly, and people who should not legally possess them due to mental illness and criminal history.

As I thought more about gun violence in the days that followed the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last week, and with every new opinion and article that I read, I became more discouraged at the seemingly vast chasm between the talking-heads, until I realized that the one thing that nearly everyone agreed on was this: not everyone has the right to bear arms. Conservatives blamed mental illness for Umpqua, despite no correlation between mental illness and gun violence, and street criminals for the rest of the gun violence in the U.S. (read between the lines: conservatives believe these groups shouldn’t have the right to bear arms) and liberals called for stricter gun control laws.

We cannot stop all gun violence, but we can work to reduce it, just as we’ve done with traffic fatalities. The key is education.

But here’s the thing: to buy a gun in the United States, no education is required. No education about how to carry, no education about the legal aspects of owning a gun, no education of how to properly store a gun in your home, office, or vehicle. Nothing.

Can we require people to take a gun safety course before purchasing a gun where they will learn just how wrong most people are storing their guns? Probably, but that requires more laws, more government involvement, more financial barriers that current gun owners might not be able to afford, and time to get everyone trained. It’s not a quick fix, and it’s one that would be tied up in legislation for years.

The one thing that can change today, now, and on a wide scale, is passive education about how to store guns so they don’t fall into the hands of the wrong people.

Two scenarios exist where guns fall into the wrong hands, and where proper gun storage can reduce that risk immediately: the first is guns falling into the hands of children and adults who don’t know how to use a gun and accidentally discharge the weapon, resulting in 600 or so deaths each year in the U.S. The second scenario is the theft and loss of guns.

Nearly 190,000 guns are lost or stolen in home and property thefts each year in the U.S., and another 25,000 or so are stolen from gun stores and gun shows. When a gun is stolen, it will likely never be recovered by its owner and is more likely to facilitate criminal activity. Some law enforcement agencies argue that stolen guns are the main cause for what seems to be an increase recently in gun violence in the U.S.

Many gun owners believe they will never be the victim of a property crime that would result in the theft of their gun, but often, thieves target homes and vehicles with guns because guns are easy to sell on the street. How do we prevent this? Through education on how to properly store weapons, and to encourage gun owners to protect their weapons at all times. We begin with passive education, such as billboards, television commercials, maybe even  Ted Nugent could educate people on the key points of securing weapons properly in your home and vehicle. Over time, implementing programs that would help people purchase gun locks, safes, and carrying cases, so we know guns are more likely to be secure. In the long run, we encourage people to take a comprehensive gun safety course before they decide to own a gun.

We can’t change all gun violence over night and we’ll never reach a point where we stop all gun violence in the U.S., but we can take steps in our own homes to protect ourselves, our neighborhoods, and our guns, by properly storing them in secure environments.

For more information about safe gun storage, click here.



True Believers and Personality Tests

I used to be a true believer in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I can’t remember when I first encountered the 93 question test but it was probably during grad school. I was at my height of believing in it though, when I was part of a two-year leadership development program at my old job. I learned a good deal about leadership and made great friends,but there was also an emphasis on personality types that overshadowed much of the programming. Thinking about different personalities and social dynamics is interesting and useful in some settings. But, the complete lack of objectivity (on self-report data that reveals only positive attributes) is not useful to predict behavior, hire employees, and otherwise assess one another and ourselves.

Of course, I thought my results were valid because I was feeling smug about how honest I was with myself and because the results made me look good. But I’ve changed my mind in the last couple of years and as usual, it’s because the facts don’t play out. There is research galore that says, “…it (MBTI) has no more reliability and validity than a good Tarot card reading.”  So, it can sound like science but it isn’t and is no more useful than using astrological signs as part of the hiring process. There is also big money involved for the company that sells the test and certifies “practitioners” (to the tune of nearly 20 million a year).

It’s cool if you disagree with me, I know personality tests and astrology are beloved subjects to many. I’m also guilty of this sort of American essentialism, wanting to think that there is some core essence that is me, the individual and that if I can identify those attributes then I can live a more positive, happy life.

Life is not so simple, though maybe we wish it was.

Read the article over on Vox and watch the video to decide for yourself.

Cowboy Nation

A few nights ago, my husband and I saw the new sci-fi film, The Martian. We arrived early, grabbed our pairs of 3D glasses and set off to find seats, towards the back and on the aisle. I’d felt somewhat nervous as we sat there, paranoid with thoughts about Thursday’s mass shooting in Oregon and because back in August, employees at the theater I was sitting in had called the police to report a suspicious person who was later found to be carrying a loaded .45. It turned out to be “nothing” but I still felt weird and watched as people came in and sat down. I thought my nervousness was a PTSD thing until I mentioned it to my husband when we were munching on wings in a restaurant after the movie. No, he felt strange too and like me, noticed that none of the patrons had sat in the first eight rows of seats nearest the exits. We were all seated in the rows above and behind the first level, and sitting close together at that. There were a few people that sat in the lower rows but they moved before the previews started.

I never used to think about guns when I went to the movies.

I did think about guns and mass shootings when I was adjuncting at Butte Community College. After a difficult semester, (you can read all about it here) I had a student show up trying to add the class he’d failed the previous semester. He was not the student who’d harassed me but I remembered him, he came to class daily but turned in few assignments and didn’t take exams, the assignment I remembered was the poster project. I’m not easily spooked but in the email I wrote to the college’s V.P. I said:

“I was very uncomfortable because he failed my class last spring and I felt there was something else, something odd taking place. I gave him my business number (good customer service might save my life someday) but I felt a great sense of threat from this student; he spoke often of violence in spring 2010 and did a poster assignment on methods of torture in other countries…”

I couldn’t stop the student from showing up because he was third on the waitlist; he was demanding of my attention before class and asked me to write him a letter of recommendation (I said ‘no’). The previous semester he’d glowered at me from the front row, followed behind me when I walked to my car to leave for the day, and made a point to tell me that he’d noted the make and model of my car and license plate. Now, he was back and this was the response from the V.P.:

“The concerns that you have from your past experience should have been documented and acted on at that time, which may have resulted in him not being able to take your class.  I would suggest that if this student does get into your class you send him to me for a discussion about his behavior and consequences’ for his possible future bad behavior!”

Yes, I’d screwed up during the difficult semester and did not tell admin about this student, I was dealing with too much and didn’t have enough support. I also second guessed myself. Now, there was little I could do and campus police made me feel like an idiot after they’d spoken with him; he seemed to “respect” and “like” me, he was seen as overly attached not as a creepy, giant man who followed me around on campus. I felt stupid for feeling scared but I still felt scared and intimidated. Fortunately, he dropped the course because of a schedule conflict but he continued to follow me on campus until I started carpooling to save money, he drifted away after that.

I think about that student when there’s a school shooting, one that is usually perpetrated by a young man who’d never made much trouble in the past. Often, a young man with a passion for weapons and violence in conjunction with a sense of being wronged or ‘dissed; a young man who feels he is a beta among alpha males, a man who can’t connect with women and is thus, lacking status.

After a school shooting, we argue about gun control on facebook and blame the incident on mental illness and bad parenting. We social justice activists argue with conservatives on twitter that are quick to blame the shooting on “Muslims” and certain that all we need are more guns and protection, including arming teachers. There’s an unsettling feeling as new information comes forward, the young man had a manifesto, his mother was a “gun nut” who stockpiled weapons out of fear of gun control, his father had “no idea,” and survivors describe him as appearing “happy” while he murdered classmates. He was a virgin who didn’t have a girlfriend.

This happens frequently enough that we know the pattern as it unfolds. I’m sure I’m not alone in predicting these factors following Thursday’s murders. Mass shootings are old hat for us here in the United States (“stuff happens”). As of October 1, there were 294 mass shootings in 2015, “more than one a day” according to BBC News. Given this, why can’t we stop them from occurring? Will it be gun control? Will “Good guys with guns” protect us? Australia initiated strict gun control after the worst mass shooting in the country’s history. Perhaps the Australian’s did something we in the United States are unwilling to do:

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Pascoe blasted American society as immature and unable to take basic actions to save lives: In his very fine speech this morning, full of sorrow and frustration, President Obama made a mistake: Australia is not like the United States. We decided not to be. We decided to grow up instead and become a more reasonable, rational society that explicitly values human life and prefers to think the best of people, rather than the worst. The US is too immature a society to be allowed to play with guns. It has never shed its Wild West mythology. Americans still use their courts to kill people, which sends a message in its own way… It’s a country that values property more than life.”

The U.S. is a revenge-loving, Cowboy culture, if someone offends or hurts us we want them to pay. Been disrespected or humiliated? Get a gun and feel confident! Feel powerless and afraid? Get a gun and feel confident! Our society scarcely addresses the issues behind the issue of mass shootings. Complicated things like drug and alcohol treatment, curbing the school to prison pipeline, and ongoing gender inequality/“macho” culture, problems not easily resolved.

This mindset, “‘Dis me and you’ll pay” is at the heart of much of our mass violence. It’s in our movies and TV, books, graphic novels, and video games. Our entertainment reflects who we are, not vice versa. I think that’s what I was thinking sitting in the theater on Saturday night, worried that someone was going to use us patrons as a proxy for their rage. It was similar to the fear I felt with the student who did his lone assignment on torture, feeling paranoid and trying to talk myself out of it. I don’t like fear or fear-mongering but let me say this, three days after the shooting in Oregon, four California students were apprehended by police for plotting a school shooting, they’d clearly outlined the targets for their revenge. The following Monday, October 5, the FBI issued a warning for Philadelphia-area colleges that there was a potential for a campus shooting.

The Umpqua Community College gunman’s mother is being called “paranoid” in the media but if you read her online comments, you’ll see the over-confident cowboy in there. It was true for her son too; witnesses describe him as confident and seeming to enjoy the momentary sense of power while killing.

Cowboy nation.

It’s what psychiatrist James Gilligan wrote about in his book Violence, where he says, “All violence is an attempt to replace shame with self esteem.”

The Problem With “Teaching Like You Do in America” While Abroad

What are the limits to globalization? Does it apply to the university systems of the world, or is one university system just about the same as every other?

My experience is that at least for sociology, it is not “always just the same. I have taught abroad in Tanzania and Germany, and in each place, I ran up against different cultural expectations about what a university education involves. Recently, Palgrave Communications published my article explaining why it is in fact difficult to teach abroad. The paper is open-access, and can be read here. Here is a brief excerpt from the introduction and conclusion respectively:

…after 20 years of trying to teach internationally, I find that despite policies supporting internationalization and inter-disciplinary efforts it is in fact exceedingly difficult to teach across borders, a result of deeply embedded national disciplinary habits. Fans of globalization try to pretend this does not exist, and that sociology, chemistry, literature, business and engineering are taught the same way everywhere in the world, which is why I was told in Tanzania and Germany that I should just teach sociology “like you do in America—it’s all the same”. But in fact when I did teach like I do in the United States, I inevitably bumped into local academic cultures that see the university differently. This happened repeatedly in Tanzania and Germany where I taught for 1 and 2 years, respectively, and even during a brief but cold week in December 2010 when I taught in a Chinese “social science” classroom in Linyi, Shandong Province, where the students wore parkas in poorly heated classrooms…..



….What can Tanzanian and German universities teach universities in the United States? I think that the American Ivy League, gold standard or not, needs a deeper appreciation of the human condition, which is found in the vibrant but cash-strapped UDSM, the intensely inter-disciplinary approach of German Cultural Sciences and Bildung. I am not particularly a fan of violently shutting down universities a la the student strike at UDSM, but I do sometimes wish that the careerism of American students would be tempered by at least a little bit of the social awareness that my … UDSM students had.




Waters, Tony (2015). “’Teach Like You Do in America’ Personal Refelctions from Teaching Across Borders in Tanzania and Germany.” Palgrave Communications. http://www.palgrave-journals.com/articles/palcomms201526

More Drama at Chico State: Bullies, Bullying, Administrative Power, Incivility, Cheese Cubes, and Cookies!

The meeting about shared governance at Chico State that Julie attended and reported on here at Ethnography.com “Shared Governance or Managed Dissent,” in the form of a letter from California State University Chancellor Timothy White has run into a brick wall.  The dispute has turned into an argument over the meaning of the word “civility,” and almost incidentally, the nature of bullying.Not a good frame work for addressing problems raised by the Academic Senate!

The Academic Senate  in fact just did the bidding of the faculty and staff at Chico State by sending a letter to the “boss” of Chico State, the Chancellor White of the California State University in Long Beach,. The letter to White complained about bullying by the administration at the local campus here at Chico State. White responded by writing a letter back, accusing the local campus of being incivil, because they didn’t follow channels by sending their complaints of bullying and incivility to the local administration, i.e. the ones accused of bullying.  No discussion, just a peremptory letter.

Of course bullying is always a strange charge to make—particularly if you want to “follow channels.” By definition, bullies are almost always more powerful than those bullied. This means that the boss types like White and the Chico State administration can more easily be bullies for faculty and staff than vice versa. Or for that matter, faculty can more easily bully students, than vice versa.

So if you follow administrative channels like White suggests, that means you complain about bullying to the…bully.  Not a good way to change the subject, and move on if you are the complainant.   Round and round the mulberry bush you go! And this is the corner that Chancellor White rather inartfully pushed Chico State’s Academic Senate into by accusing them of “incivility” because a letter to him was not copied to the Chico State administration. What can the Academic Senate do now? There seems to be no face saving way  out for all, except maybe no confidence resolutions. Or the alternative, more use of the “weapons of the weak,” which means work slowdowns, secretive meetings, gossip, and grumbling.  We already got that, which is why the Academic Senate called the meeting in the first place, and wrote the letter to Chancellor White.

Which is where Chico State is at right now. The problem is that there is less and less meaningful discourse between the administration on the one hand, and the faculty and staff on the other as they develop a mutual distaste for each other. Not a good sign, and it is too bad Chancellor White cannot find it within himself to use his customary smooth talk to push back confrontation. There still does not seem to be an acknowledgment by the administration that serious morale issues, such as those at Chico State, do not lend themselves to the customary methods of appeasing the masses with tasty snacks like cheese cubes, cookies and coffee,  which Julie described in her blog ,do not get to the heart of the problem.

Anyway, all things end eventually. Our President announced his retirement last month effective June 2016, and the new President will presumably start things off on a new foot. Just, please, no more administrators who do not recognize the relationship between power and bullying!  And cheese squares and olives are not getting to the heart of the matter, either.

Letter from Timothy White

Letter from Academic Senate