On the Culture of Binge Drinking in a Residential College Town

Culture: The values, beliefs, behaviors, and expectations of behaviors or social norms of a given population of humans.

Do you know what I find amazing? I find it amazing that I never see people burning couches and cars in the streets of my neighborhood. And I find it amazing that I never find discarded red plastic cups in the gutters outside my house. And I never find my neighbors passed out in the bushes in front of my house. Never. Not once in the 7 years that I’ve lived in my neighborhood. And there is never a Beer Pong table set up in the front yard of any of my neighbors’’ houses, ever. It’s kind of disappointing, really, because from what I remember from my college days, drinking games can be fun.

My students laugh when I express my amazement at these events, or the lack of these events in my neighborhood, because more than likely, it does happen in their neighborhood. I have the privilege of teaching at California State University (CSU), Chico, which, unless you’ve been living under a rock with no internet access, was the first college in the U.S. to top Playboy Magazine’s first list of Party Schools more than 25 years ago. We unfortunately held that title for 15 years, only because Playboy didn’t bother to print another Top Party School list in that time. It’s been a dubious honor, one we were all more than happy to shed in 2002 (Dear Arizona State, thanks for taking the heat off of Chico and making us #2). But still, the reputation lives on, even with the current students, most of whom weren’t alive when we first were honored in Playboy.

I think, at the time, that we may have earned the title. During a few debaucherous years in the mid 1980s, Pioneer Days in Chico, which was the equivalent of Spring Break in Florida, produced, what some would call, the heyday of the party era in Chico. As a result of several years of increasingly publicized partying, local college students and thousands of out of towners flocked to Chico for special event weekends, and for Pioneer Days. Thousands of young people filled the streets of Chico during Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, and Pioneer Days celebrations, and filled the Sacramento River on Memorial Day and Labor Day, floating down the river with tens of thousands of other young people.

Chico made national news with alcohol-fueled rioting in the streets in the name of a good time, cars were overturned at the infamous intersection of 5th and Ivy Streets, and MTV even offered directions on how to get to Chico for Pioneer Days. The result was catastrophic, and stained the reputation of any student who attended Chico State at the time.

But 1987 was a long time ago, especially for popular culture references to still be relevant, without some continuing activity that reproduces the culture and supports the cultural references of Chico as a party school. Today, there is not as much of a debate in our little city about whether an excessive party culture exists; most residents of both the town and the university agree: there is a problem here at Chico that revolves around drinking alcohol.

Stories float through the halls of Chico State with a fairly regular pattern about alcohol related incidents both on and off campus, and in Fall of 2012, four young adults died in Chico due to alcohol related incidents. The fatal incidents range from the slightly bizarre (falling out of a tree while intoxicated) to the expected (driving while intoxicated) to the quiet (not waking up after ingesting multiple forms of drugs and alcohol). The non-fatal incidents range from waking up in bushes, getting lost on the walk home from partying downtown, injury or assault, sexual assault, or just not remembering what happened the night before. Both on the record and off, alcohol related incidents permeate the discussions around campus and have for many years.

Sit in a classroom in the few minutes before the beginning of class, and you’ll hear students boast about the previous night’s escapades, most with fuzzy detail, a bit of bravado, and a hint of awe that they survived the night. Listen at the Union cafeteria on Thursday afternoon and you’ll hear plans of the best places to find a party for the night, how much they can spend on alcohol, and who will be hanging out with the group. Honestly, the conversations probably aren’t too dissimilar than that of most other college campuses around the U.S.; recent studies have found that about 80% of college students in the U.S. drink alcohol, and of those, about half binge drink.

But what makes Chico, and Chico State, so different from most of the rest that at one time in our history, Playboy put us at the top of the Party School list? And what makes Chico culture so different, that in a 2011 study of alcohol consumption at California State University campuses, Chico students reported the most frequent use of alcohol, and the most alcohol consumed on each drinking occasion, of the 14 CSUs in the study, and 20% of Chico students report drinking enough alcohol in one sitting on a weekly basis to be intoxicated,

My students describe the consequences of too much alcohol, and too frequent consumption in great and heartbreaking detail, but the 2011 study illustrates the consequences much more succinctly. In the report, students reported risky sexual behavior, including not using protection, having sex with someone they did not previously know, and having sex with a new partner following drinking. Additionally, 16-20% of students who attended parties at either Greek organizations, in campus residence halls, and at private residences reported passing out after drinking at least once during the previous semester. Perhaps most disturbing, students at Chico State were the least likely to report there was a system in place at the parties they attended that was designed to look after anyone who became intoxicated, and Chico State students were the least likely to report that obviously intoxicated partygoers were refused alcohol at those parties. Chico has a culture of drinking alcohol unlike any other CSU.

How did we get to this spot? This place where students drink more frequently, drink more in each sitting, have riskier behavior, don’t bother to take care of their friends and fellow students when drunk, and continue to serve them alcohol when they are obviously too drunk to care for themselves?

I don’t doubt the statistics, by the way; the statistics mirror what my students tell me in class: they drink hard and fast, and a lot, at Chico State.

This is what we talk about in my sociology classes here at Chico: why does the party school behavior continue at Chico? What makes it different than all the rest? What is our culture here at Chico that perpetuates the behavior and reinforces the reputation? Also, how does the larger culture influence drinking patterns in our youth?

There are a unique set of geographic and environmental factors that play a role in the drinking culture here at Chico. Chico State is a highly residential campus, with a high concentration of student housing in a very small area.

Lack of late-night opportunities in neighboring businesses such as movie theaters, concert venues, and alcohol-free clubs for people under 21 years old contribute to the excessive drinking culture here at Chico. The biggest movie theater is over two miles away from the closest university neighborhood, and three to four miles from the farthest neighborhoods. There are no cheap late night movies on or near campus, no dance clubs geared for the under-21 year old crowd, and only two concert venues that have limited seating (both are small former movie theaters) with shows rarely scheduled.

Approximately 80% of the 16,000 students enrolled at Chico State live within two miles of the university campus. The residential area immediately north, south, and west of the university, is comprised of apartment buildings, dozens of old Victorian homes that can house 10-20 residents each, a dozen or so fraternity and sorority houses, and University Housing, which houses over 2,000 students a year. This concentration of student residences creates a climate where the norm is college life, where college hours dominate the neighborhoods (in other words, no pesky middle-aged folks with 8-5 jobs who will complain about loud parties). It’s not uncommon for house parties to flow onto front yards, sidewalks, and meander from house to house in a neighborhood.

Most students live within walking distance of the main party area in Chico, and thus, don’t worry about driving home from bars and parties, so no one needs to abstain from drinking to be a designated driver. They can walk, or take a pedicab, or just sleep on someone’s couch, at a moment’s notice, when coming home from a night out. Walking to and from areas where parties might occur is more convenient than going to the movies, taking in a concert (few and far between in Chico), or going to any restaurant in town.

Within the College Town are 8-10 liquor stores, depending on where one draws the boundaries of College Town, and in the adjacent downtown area, there are dozens of restaurants and bars that sell alcohol. Statistically, Chico has a severe over concentration of liquor outlets, and those outlets are centered in and around College Town. More access to alcohol outlets increases consumption and binge drinking.

Big houses: Chico enjoys large lot sizes, with very large houses that can physically support large parties. Walk down 5th Street on any weekend evening during the school year in Chico and you’ll find a party, or three or four. Everyone is usually welcome as long as they aren’t looking for trouble. Large porches offer couch seating and a place to watch people walk by, and invite them in to join in the fun.

Moderate climate: During the traditional academic year, Chico enjoys fairly moderate weather. Sure, it gets hot here during the summer, and occasionally, we have rain and cold nights in the winter, but generally, Chico enjoys temperate weather during the school year, which means large parties can congregate on lawns and streets. Also, college students walk in Chico, especially in College Town because of the geography of the area around the university, but also, due to the weather. It’s almost always nice enough to walk in the downtown area and College Town because of the weather. It creates a very social environment, and influences the number of people out in the neighborhoods.

A side note here: Incoming first year students are discouraged by the university administration from bringing vehicles to Chico due to the high rate of auto thefts in the area, but more importantly, the lack of parking space at the university. What does this create? A situation where students have to walk, ride a bike, ride the city bus, take a taxi, or rely on friends to take them out of the downtown area. Pedicabs are available in Downtown, but are limited in schedule, passengers, and area of service.

From the micro-culture of College Town, to the larger university culture, the excessive drinking culture at Chico persists. Faculty often condone drinking excessively by reminiscing of their own drinking exploits in college and canceling classes the day after big party holidays. Students are the servers at the downtown restaurants where their professors have dinner, and drinks, and get drunk. It is a not-so-subtle acceptance of both underage drinking and excessive drinking.

Consider this: students at Chico reported that they drank 2-3 drinks BEFORE going to parties; this is called “preloading”. Mostly, preloading happens with shots of hard alcohol. It gets the party going before students even leave their home. Why do they do this? My students report that they do it for a number of reasons, but mostly, they do it because they are afraid they won’t be able to find alcohol after they leave their homes since they are not yet 21. But at Chico, that’s not likely, given our culture. Regardless, preloading happens still. Once students leave their homes, they have another 2 or 3 drinks while they are out often due to peer exposure, then finish off the night with a drink or two at home. That’s the average. Some people drink less; some people drink more. By the end of the night, the average person will have consumed enough to be intoxicated.

Most students underestimate how much they drink and overestimate how much their peers drink and in the CSU alcohol survey, most students thought that their peers drank significantly more than they did. That skews the “normal” behavior expectations to the higher end of alcohol consumption, and increases one’s own alcohol consumption.

The underlying problem with alcohol consumption at Chico State does not begin with Chico State. Sure, we may help it along some with our climate, our geography, our access to alcohol here, and the lack of alternate social activities in the area, but these things would not be a problem if the larger culture, the American culture, didn’t contribute to irresponsible and excessive alcohol consumption as well.

Ask yourself this question: Where and when were you first exposed to alcohol? How did you learn how much to drink? What to drink? How do you know who to trust to make you a drink?  Was it modeled in your home with your parents’ drinking habits?  Was it your friends in high school, who had limited access to alcohol but likely binged when they did get access? Was it in college? Maybe, it was here at Chico State when you were 18 years old.

How did you learn to drink alcohol?

I ask my students this same question every semester. They giggle with nervous laughter when I ask them how their parents taught them to drink. Forgive the pun, but it’s a loaded question. A few, less than 10%, tell me they have never had a drink of alcohol, and they’ll wait to drink until they are 21, and do it responsibly. Fair enough. More students tell me they started drinking with their friends in high school or earlier, but the alcohol was usually beer, often pilfered from their parents’ refrigerator, and with limited access. A few tell me their parents allowed them the occasional beer or glass of wine at the dinner table in a limited manner. But the majority, the vast majority, tell me they learned to drink when they came to Chico State at 18 years old (most have some alcohol before they enter college, but they don’t start drinking regularly until college).

It’s a rite of passage, I hear people say about drinking regularly in college. Maybe, but maybe not. Regardless of the rite of passage argument, most people who learn to drink at college, learn to drink while partying with their peers. They tend to model the behavior of their peers at this age and in this environment, especially if they’ve never had responsible drinking modeled for them by adults previously.

We know, through extensive research, that parental attitudes and behavior modeled to children play a significant role in teen and young adult drinking patterns, either positively or negatively. Parents who binge drink, are more likely to have children who binge drink, and the opposite is true as well. Parents who tell their children that they disapprove of underage drinking, will have children who delay drinking compared to children whose parents are more permissive.

Parents are suppose to set the limits for their children, and we do that with bedtimes and eating vegetables and curfews on Friday nights, and who our children can hang out with, but many parents are afraid, or don’t know how to model positive drinking behavior to their children. Maybe parents, too, reminisce about the glory days of college drinking, maybe they binge drink, or fail to monitor their own attitude about underage drinking and shrug it off as not a big deal.

Regardless, we have failed, and are failing every day, as a culture, at socializing our youth and modeling positive drinking behavior, Binge drinking is on the rise, irresponsible drinking is epidemic, and as a result, 3 college students die each day in America due to alcohol related injuries.

Your children will likely come to a place like Chico one day. We have no limits here when it comes to access to alcohol, the weather’s nice so there’s always a place for a party, our students have a skewed view of peer drinking habits, and we let other young adults model the worse drinking behavior a young adult can see. It’s a place where the odds are stacked against your children in terms of responsible drinking behavior, and if you don’t socialize your children to drink responsibly, they’ll likely learn to drink here. And what they learn here, will likely stick with them throughout their entire life.

Originally posted at Ethnography.com, January 2015

Why the Super Bowl Matters, Especially to Sociologists

I think I’ve mentioned before, but I really don’t understand the lure of watching sports on TV. Or in person. Or from a skybox in a stadium with 50,000 other people. Generally, I don’t understand watching sports. So when I moved to Manhattan, Kansas, home of the Kansas State Wildcats with a Big 12 football team, I didn’t quite understand what I was getting myself into. When I rented an apartment directly across the street from the university’s football stadium, my friends couldn’t believe my good fortune. I couldn’t understand why that would be exciting; I was happy just to get housing close to my classes.

If you’ve never been to a Midwestern United States college football game, you don’t know American football. People in places like Manhattan, and Norman Oklahoma, and Lincoln Nebraska put the “fan” in fanatic.

The first Saturday of the new football season came as a shock to me.

It began on Thursday, with a few dozen people parking their recreational vehicles in the stadium’s parking lot, getting ready for the big game. They tailgated for two full days.

On the morning of the first game, the street outside my apartment became a parking lot, and driving anywhere from my apartment became impossible. I know, I tried. The wave of purple (Bleed Purple!) clad, ordinary looking people walking toward the stadium just before the game overwhelmed my car, and I feared I would be lost in a never-ending sea of purple.

I shook my head at all of those fanatics, and couldn’t figure out why they were making such a big deal about a football game.

But a few months later, as I walked through the student union toward a late night-dollar movie, I began to understand what the fuss was about. There, across the foyer of the union, stood a young woman clad in what people from my adopted home town of Chico, California, substitute for football fanaticism: a Sierra Nevada Brewery t-shirt. I had never seen the young woman before, but as my feet sped toward her, I didn’t care: the shirt, and the young woman, were a welcome reminder of home.

I nearly accosted the young woman in the Sierra Nevada t-shirt, and asked her how she came across the shirt. To my surprise, she was a native of Chico, and, more amazingly, the daughter of one of my old Sociology professors at Chico State. I nearly fainted with joy. We spent 5 or 10 minutes talking about Chico, then I let her go, although somewhat reluctantly.

I never saw the young woman again, but the connection I wanted to make with her because she wore that Sierra Nevada shirt made me start thinking about the reason I needed that connection. I never approached people in my home town when they wore the same shirt, but when I was 1800 miles from home, I couldn’t stop myself from approaching her.

As humans, we seek out connections with people, since we are social creatures. We crave bonding, thrive with positive reinforcement from others, and actually heal ourselves in times of stress when we seek out others for comfort. In traditional societies, connections with people are easier to make and maintain, since few people move great distances.

In modern societies, social ties are more difficult to make and maintain.

When I lived in Las Vegas, Nevada in the early 2000s, it was the fastest growing city in the nation, with 6,000 people moving to the city, and 2,000 people moving out every month. It was a city in flux, and a city where no one made lasting connections. It was especially hard hit after 9/11 happened. It was a tough city to make friends in. It was also the city with the highest rate of teen suicide in the nation.

Emile Durkheim argued that it was the connection to others, the strength of a community’s ties, that is related most significantly to long term suicide rates in a culture. When I think of Las Vegas, I don’t doubt his theory. When I lived there, I thought the break down in social ties was an anomaly, but in the dozen years or since I’ve left Las Vegas, I’ve felt the social ties in the U.S. break down at a faster rate. As a result of these weakening community ties, we are seeking other ways to recreate these ties more and more.

Have you ever asked yourself why Facebook is so popular? It’s because we have largely lost the social ties we had in traditional communities, and Facebook allows us to recreate those ties.

Today, the average person will move more than 11 times throughout his or her lifetime. Most of those moves will be before they reach 45 years old. Most children live in households where both parents work, and we are raising our children to not be home and connected to their neighborhood as much as in previous generations. Children and adults today spend more time working or in school, participating in sporting events, and traveling than they do in their homes and neighborhoods, and with extended family. In essence, we have broken the traditional social ties that Durkheim found to be a fundamental necessity in stable societies. We used to come together around our families, our neighborhoods, and our churches, but in modern society, today, those ties are broken over and over again throughout our lifetimes.

But there is one constant that many people, Americans especially, can cling to and identify with wherever their lives take them: national sports teams.

In a time when we feel the least connected with others, even our closest family members, sharing a connection with millions of other fans of football or baseball or basketball, and especially sharing a connection with other people who support your team, is invaluable.

Sports team affiliation transcends religion, gender, age, time, place, race, and socioeconomic status. Sure, it can create rivalries, but taken in a positive light, team pride can, and does, create closer social bonds and community ties. Hanging out with people on Super Bowl Sunday creates and recreates community, and from a sociological perspective, makes a more stable and predictable society, and that is good for all, even if you only watch for the commercials, and show up for the food.

So if anyone complains or asks you today about why you watch the game, don’t feel guilty. Tell them you are contributing to social cohesion and saving lives by recreating community ties.

In the meantime, I’ll be on a plane, headed for Kansas, maybe wearing a Sierra Nevada t-shirt. If you see me, give a shout out for Chico, but don’t ask me the score of the game; I don’t even know who’s playing.


Originally posted February 1, 2015 at Ethnography.com

A Late Tribute to Workers

I had some fun on Labor Day last year. My husband and I went to a Billy Joel concert on the Saturday before Labor Day, and as I listened to the Piano Man sing some of my favorite songs, I realized, his concert was perfectly suited for Labor Day, given the tone of some of the music. So I woke up on Labor Day, and wanted to share some of my favorite working songs with my Facebook friends, then spent the next few hours digging up facts about workers, songs, and linking to YouTube. I felt like I was educating, in a way. Tony Waters even participated in the fun, and I realized sometime in late afternoon that my multiple posts on FB would be great for Ethnography. So, without further delay, I’ll share my Labor Day musical tribute with you. I hope you enjoy.

Click on the link under each entry to be taken to a video of each song.


In honor of hard working people everywhere, today, I’ll share some of my favorite songs about working.

Dolly Parton – 9 to 5

7:45 a.m.

Did you know that longshoremen have one of the most dangerous jobs in the US? Here’s a shoutout to fisher men and women everywhere.
Btw- this in concert Saturday night was amazing.

Billy Joel – The Downeaster Alexa

7:56 a.m.

Did you know? Coal miners are 6 times more likely to die on the job than the average private sector worker.

Tennessee Ernie Ford – 16 Tons

8:10 a.m.

Did you know? Between 1969 and 1996, the Steel Belt region of the US lost 33% of its manufacturing jobs. Here’s a shoutout to all those men and women working the line.

Billy Joel – Allentown

8:25 a.m.

Did you know? Long haul truck drivers average about 100,000 miles a year, which means they are away from their loved ones much more than the average worker, and they are much more likely to die in a vehicle collision. Of the over 2 million long haul drivers in the US, about 700 a year die in crashes.

Kathy Mattea – 18 Wheels and a Dozen Roses

8:27 a.m.

Our favorite trucker song. Here’s a shoutout to all the big rig drivers delivering our food, clothing, household goods, cars, and toys.

C.W. McCall – Convoy

8:51 a.m.

Did you know? When a big box retailer comes to town, independent retailers are more likely to go out of business and unemployment increases because big box stores don’t employ the same number of employees as the displaced workers. Also, wages are lower at big box stores, compared to independent retailers, and cities and towns lose tax revenue for years after a big box comes to town.
Here’s to all the local, independent small business owners out there.

Alan Jackon – Little Man

9:48 a.m.

Did you know? There are just over 2 million farms in the US today, down from almost 7 million in 1935. Most farmers can’t survive on the profits of the farm alone so they either sell the farm, or go to work full time somewhere else, then tend the farm after they get off “work.” Less than a third of farmers in the US today have a family member who plans to take over the farm in future generations (For more on American farming, click here).

This is a shout out to all the farmers who toil in the earth, who feed Americans and the world with their labor.

John Mellencamp – Rain on the Scarecrow

9:51 a.m.

In the words of Paul Harvey: A shout out to farmers on this Labor Day.

Paul Harvey – So God Made a Farmer

10:02 a.m.

Did you know? There are over 2 million active and reserve military men and women working all around the world to protect and serve you today?
Here’s a shout out to the US Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and National Guard, both active and reserve, for your work today and every day.

John Michael Montgomery – Letters from Home

10:14 a.m.

Did you know? The greatest power ballad (don’t question me on this, just go with it) is also a working song?
Shout out to all of the traveling working men and women, whether you are musicians on the road for months on end, or weekly commuters away from home, this one’s for you.

Journey – Fathfully

10:23 a.m.

Did you know? The average American worker works 47 hours per week.

Article: The 40 hour workweek is actually longer

Alabama – 40 Hour Week

10:29 a.m.

Did you know? Country music used to be about the lives of people who grew up in rural America….
I learned a lot about how other people lived their lives from country music. I didn’t know what cotton picking was, but became interested due to this song. I never would have questioned what it was had it not been for Alabama. There’s not much harder farm work than cotton picking; the South’s wealth was largely built on cotton fields and poor people who scraped and scrimped every fluff of cotton to make ends meet.

Alabama – High Cotton

10:33 a.m.

And for all the families of long haul drivers.

Randy Owens (Alabama) – Roll On

11:23 a.m.

An ode to working housewives everywhere. And yes, this is for the women out there. Sorry guys who stay home and raise the kids: you’ve got my respect, but you’ve never been in this position of pregnant and taking care of several children.
BTW- Tony Waters, this is another Shel Silverstein classic.

Loretta Lynn – One’s on the Way

Happy Labor Day to you all!


Originally Posted at Ethnography.com, Septembe4 10, 2015.

The American Dream in a Nail Salon

“I left my country when I was 14,” he said.

“What city were born in?” I asked.

“I lived in Hue (pronounced ‘weigh’); it’s in the middle of Vietnam. Hanoi is in the top. Saigon is in the south. That’s where the American troops were. Hue is in the middle. The king? Long ago. The king lived there; the king’s houses are still there.”

I watch as he trims the cuticles of my finger nails.

“You want Pink Lemonade again?” He asks me.

“Yes, I like that color.”

“You need something new! You need red. Something hot. You always get Pink Lemonade,” he chides as he reaches for the Pink Lemonade.

“Pink lemonade was my dad’s favorite drink,” I explain. “Whenever I see my nails in Pink Lemonade, I think of my dad.”

“Oh,” he draws out, “your dad like your nails?”

“He died three years ago,” I tell him.

“Okay,” he says, “Pink Lemonade.”

“I lived in the refugee camp in Hong Kong for six years,” he said.

“Were your parents with you?”

“No. I went with my uncle. My mother, she die while I in the camp. I didn’t find out for 5 months. We didn’t have telephones or the internet,” he wiped a faint smudge of Pink Lemonade from the side of my finger with his nail.

“Did you go to school in the camp? Did you learn English there?” I asked.

“Well…they had English class. ESL? but it was slow. They talked slow. They said, ‘repeat after me: What’s your name?’ so I repeat after the teacher, ‘what’s your name?’ but I didn’t know what meant. I came here to Sacramento. I didn’t understand what you say. I went to school for three years and I learn American English. It so fast!”

“How old were you when you got to Sacramento,” I asked.

“Oh…I was 23, 24,” he shook his head, remembering.

“I thought you left your country when you were 14?” I asked.

“Yea! 14. I live in refugee camp in Hong Kong, then took a boat. I was on a boat in the ocean for 19 days,” he pauses, looks up from my hands, locks eyes with me. “No food. I had no food for 19 days. I was so hungry when I get to the beach, I see a crab.” he makes a scurrying motion with his hand…the crab…”I was so hungry I catch the crab, and just eat! I didn’t cook it. I was so hungry.”

“You must have been starving…” I say, because I can’t think of anything else. I think back to what I was doing when I was 20 years old.

“Yes. But I went to a new refugee camp in Philippines,” he looks at me again. “Phillippines?” he wants to make sure I know the Philippines. I nod my head. “I was in the Philippines for two and a half years. Then I come to Sacramento.”

“Almost ten years?” I ask.

“Yes, ten years. Just…” he makes a waving motion in the air with his hand; he wipes his eyes with the back of one hand. “Ten years…just gone…”

“How did you start doing nails?” I ask him.

“My friend. She do nails; she said I can go to school and do nails. I was working in a convenient store,” he shakes his head as he meticulously paints my nail.

“That’s a dangerous job,” I say.

“I worked the night shift. But I gotta work. I need money. So I work in the store. I have to work.”

“I understand that,” I tell him. But I don’t think I do, at least not how he understands it.

He’s 46 this year, born in Vietnam in 1970. He fled his home country in 1984; he arrived in the U.S. in 1993. He’s owned his own business doing nails for 8 years now.

We compare lives a bit. I tell him I’m 43; I was born in 1972.

“That was the bad year,” he tells me. “That the year when all the buildings destroyed.”

“That was the year when the U.S. had the most troops in Vietnam,” I tell him.

“Yes.” he says, “you 43?” I nod. “You call me your older brother.”


For more information about why many nail technicians in California are Vietnamese, click here: The Fascinating Story Behind Why So Many Nail Technicians Are Vietnamese

Chico State: We Have No Confidence

For, if anything, if a university is not a community where truth-telling is paramount, it loses its soul and forfeits its purpose. — Paul Zingg, Response to Resolution of No Confidence, December 9, 2015

On Thursday December 10th, the Academic Senate at Chico State discussed a Resolution of No Confidence in university President Paul Zingg, Interim Provost Susan Elrod, and Vice President for Business and Finance Lorraine (Lori) Hoffman. After nearly three and a half hours of pre-written statements, comments from faculty, staff, and students, and discourse between the Senators, the Senate voted 24-8 in favor of an amended Resolution of No Confidence in the ability of the three top CSUC administrators to manage personnel and budget matters effectively.

The primary focus of the University is student learning and yet, financial and business decisions have been made since 2004 and more recently, that are contrary to best learning practices. The best practices for learning in undergraduate education include:

Good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. encourages contact between students and faculty,
  2. develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,
  3. encourages active learning,
  4. gives prompt feedback,
  5. emphasizes time on task,
  6. communicates high expectations
  7. respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Source: Chickering and Gamson, Seven Principles for Good Practice in undergraduate Education (file available here)

During the Great Recession of 2007-2010, drastic and unavoidable cuts were taken to preserve the University and provide ongoing service with the least amount of disruption to students. Those cuts were necessary and unavoidable, but were also felt by all across the campus, although to varying degrees.

In the years since the Recovery of the U.S. economy began, the University has continued cuts to faculty, staff, and class offerings, increased class sizes, and replaced full time tenure track faculty with part time temporary lecturers, resulting in a model of administration of campus resources that is contrary to Best Learning Practices.

It is the new model of learning due to increased teaching demands dictated by the Executive Management, that resulted in the motion for the No Confidence vote by the Academic Senate. Criticism of the Resolution by President Zingg, Interim Elrod, and VP Hoffman included a lack of specificity in the resolution.

In his response to Academic Senate regarding the No Confidence Resolution vote, President Zingg argued the following:

There are many other aspects of this resolution that, I believe, fail the test of clarity and responsibility through innuendo and anecdote, unsubstantiation and vagueness. What, for example, does “the lack of focused leadership” mean? What personnel policies and processes have not been developed and implemented “effectively”? What is the definition of “effectively”? How have budget matters lacked transparency and good-faith information sharing?

In the spirit of truth-telling, clarity and responsibility, and without innuendo and anecdotes or unsubstantiated vagueness, we present the following:

  • Tenure track faculty decreased from 408 to 355 faculty between the years 2011 to 2015, a reduction of 13%. Tenure density declined from 69% in 2010 to 58% in 2014-15. These cuts have resulted in increased faculty to student ratios, which decreases contact between students and faculty in meaningful learning experiences,decreases reciprocity and cooperation among students, and also inhibits active learning, and inhibits prompt feedback on assignments,
  • Tenure track faculty have been largely replaced by temporary lecturers. While this has somewhat stabilized the faculty to student ratio, the work load for tenure track faculty in non-teaching duties has increased as there are not enough faculty to take on committee and advising work, assessment reports, retention and hiring duties, among other non-teaching activities that support student learning.
  • The number of staff decreased from 965 in 2009 to 891 in 2014 which increases demands on faculty due to lack of staff support, exacerbating the effects of higher faculty to student ratios.
  • Between 2010 and 2015, the number of full time equivalent students increased from 14,640 to 15,764, a gain of 8.4%.
  • While staff and faculty cuts have been deep, the number of managers and administrators has risen since 2004. Chico State had one of the worst losses of faculty in the CSU system, losing 14% of its faculty between 2004 and 2014, while the number of administrators has grown by 8% in the same time period.
  • While faculty salaries have increased by only 4% between 2004 and 2014, the salaries of the top 21 administrators within the Office for Business and Finance at Chico State have increased an average of 18% between 2011 and 2014* (Click here for Salaries of Management from Office of Business and Finance).
  • While faculty are fighting for, and being repeatedly denied, a 5% salary increase in the next contract, the President’s salary, although stagnant up to 2013, increased by 3% in 2014 and by 2% in 2015, a raise that equated to $5,758 increase in 2015 to President Zingg’s $287,885 salary, in addition to the $50,000 per year housing allowance and $12,000 per year car allowance the president has received in his tenure at Chico, a similar package other CSU presidents receive. Zingg’s raises in the 2014 and 2015 created a real increase in his salary of just over $14,000 since 2013. .
  • While faculty at 20 other universities in the California State university system are recovering their purchasing power since the Great Recession, Chico faculty have lost $13,154 in purchasing power since 2008, while President Zingg has gained $22,823 in purchasing power with his salary due to a 36% increase in the President’s base salary between 2004 and 2014.
  • Finally, the academic year 2015-16 budget was not released to individual departments until late November 2015, which revealed funding at lower levels than college deans, department chairs, faculty, and staff had been led to expect.  These cuts resulted in lecturers losing class assignments that had already been assigned, exacerbating the effects of higher faculty to student ratio, and also the projected loss of student employees who provide direct service to students in department offices, as peer advisors, and as library student staff. For lecturers, this means a loss of income for the semester and no prospects picking up other classes at other colleges since all scheduling at other colleges is complete early in the semester.

These longterm business and finance decisions have been the backdrop to a poor campus climate due to these decisions and because the Executive management has fostered a culture of fear of retribution due to longterm intimidation of employees to go unchecked. But more importantly, these business and finance decisions have compromised learning and inhibited Best Learning Practices at Chico State and for those reasons, we have no confidence in President Zingg, Interim Provost Elrod, and VP Hoffman.

CSU campus presidents have clearly prioritized managers on their campuses over tenure-line faculty in making their staffing decisions. That set of priorities has enormous ramifications for current, and future, students.
Not only are students today missing out on a stable faculty workforce over the course of their college careers; future students face an even bleaker prospect.


Source: California Faculty Association, Race to the Bottom: Salary, Staffing Priorities and the CSU’s 1% (file available here)

For direct links to resolution, responses, and data, click below:

Senate Document: Amended Resolution of No Confidence

Letter: Paul Zingg Response to No Confidence Resolutionfile available here

Letter: Petition Against No Confidence in Support of VP Hoffman

Report: Chico State Campus Climate Survey Results

Senate Document: Resolution in Support of Increased Staff

Data: *Salaries of Management from Office of Business and Finance

*Data compiled from www.transparentcalifornia.com

Temporary Lecturers Step From the Shadows at Chico State

Last week, Tony Waters commented to me that something has changed in me this year.

“You’re acting like an Assistant Professor,” he said to me late last week. “You’re not slinking through the shadows like all the other lecturers any more. After ten years you are starting to participat in faculty governance, and everyone was glad to come over to your house to meet the job candidate last week. It works! People respect your experience and views, and do want you to be involved in the department in the same way that an Assistant Professor would be, even if your are still a lecturer. Maybe if you act out the role, it might come true.”

I hadn’t really thought about it much.

I considered Tony’s observation and I realized, I have been acting differently as of late. Nothing specifically has changed, except that I have some longevity at Chico State now, more than ten years, and that means I have a contract that protects me, somewhat, as I walk through the halls. I’ve also learned the culture, how to talk to people, who to talk to, and who not to talk to, all things that make me more confident to speak up more, be more engaged in department and campus happenings. Also, as my teaching schedule has become full and as a result, I am more present day to day, I am more comfortable in my office, my building.

Most lecturers here don’t enjoy the same privilege of such longevity and security, and the confidence and comfort that comes as a result.

Tony’s astute observations were correct: lecturers at Chico State (and I suspect elsewhere), have historically stayed in the shadows around here, and recently, something is changing, but not just with me; other lecturers are stepping out of the shadows to have their voices heard as well.

Lecturers don’t stay in the shadows by choice, instead several factors make our presence on campus sporadic and uncertain, a little dodgy even, or maybe even “slinking,” as Tony observed.

First, we are temporary employees, regardless of how long we have been employed by the university. This category of employee works fine for faculty who teach part-time because they have full-time, “day” jobs somewhere else, and who might choose to teach only at their leisure. But the title “temporary” implies that this job is seasonal, or “as needed”, “back up personnel”, “fill in” and it is a reminder that we are not permanent. It implies that we are expendable.

We internalize that temporary status, and it makes us feel as not fully part of the university, like we don’t quite belong. But others also identify lecturers as temporary and because lecturers come and go with the changing of the seasons, the permanent faculty and staff see individual lecturers as expendable, and therefore, not fully part of the university.

A few months ago while chatting with the head of one of the departments at Chico, I asked about how a specific lecturer who I had recommended for the job was doing. She replied, “I guess fine. I don’t know. Is he even teaching this semester? I don’t even know which lecturers are teaching this semester, we have so many.” She laughed at her own lack of knowledge about which lecturers were teaching at that moment in her department.

But think about that: lecturers are so expendable that some department heads do not miss them when they are gone.

For the lecturer, though, perhaps the worst thing about being “temporary” is that it means, regardless of how long someone has served the college, they can be laid off without cause.

You might be asking yourself how that is different from any other job, so let me give you a scenario:

Doctor Lecturer (temporary) earns her PhD at a prestigious university but unfortunately, due to no fault of her own, is unable to secure a tenure track job at the time of graduation due to the economy (the Great Recession in the U.S. in 2007-2009). Doctor Lecturer finds a temporary teaching job at Chico State to make ends meet and teaches for 10 years at the university. Doctor Lecturer earns high teaching evaluations from both students and peers, contributes to research in her field by publishing journal articles, mentors students in graduate programs, and serves on university committees, even when she is not required to do so. Doctor Lecturer takes whatever classes are offered at any time of day or evening, without being asked what she would like her schedule to be. Doctor Lecturer teaches whatever class subjects are available to teach. Doctor Lecturer’s schedule is largely determined by what is leftover after the tenure track faculty have made their “wish lists” of their preferred schedules teaching classes in their specialty. After ten years or so, Doctor Lecturer is finally offered a full-time schedule of 5 classes per semester (but not permanent, tenure track appointment) after outlasting all the other lecturers in the department, and makes a decent salary.

Doctor Assistant Professor (tenure track and therefore “permanent”) earns her PhD at a prestigious university and happens to graduate from school at a time when there are a lot of new faculty being hired across the nation. Doctor AP secures a tenure track job at Chico State, and begins her career full-time a few months after graduation. Doctor AP is given a reduced work load in the first few years (2 or 3 classes per semester) so she has time to do research and publish, she serves on a few campus committees, and is paid full-time wages that are $15,000 – $20,000 higher than Doctor Lecturer’s full-time salary. Doctor AP is asked what the ideal teaching schedule would be, and consulted on which classes she would really love to teach. In addition to classes that she has to teach due to demand, Doctor AP would love to teach the same courses Doctor Lecturer teaches so one or two of Doctor Lecturer’s classes are assigned to Doctor AP. Since there are no other courses to offer Doctor Lecturer, and Doctor AP is permanent, Doctor AP gets the courses, leaving Doctor Lecturer with a reduced teaching schedule, and reduced pay. For each reduction of a 3 unit course, Doctor Lecturer loses 20% of her pay. In extreme cases, all of Doctor Lecturer’s classes are given to permanent faculty and Doctor Lecturer loses all of their classes, regardless of performance.

This difference in temporary and permanent status is not the fault of either the lecturer or the tenure track faculty: it’s a function of the institution of higher education. The institution relies on annual budget variations from the State revenue and also variations in student enrollment, so there needs to be wiggle room in the budget somewhere. That “somewhere” is in temporary faculty and temporary staff budgets, which falls under “Operating Expenses.” Other items that fall in that category are office supplies.

The recent motion to discuss a No Confidence vote at Chico State brought by a lecturer stems from the late November reduction in the Operating Expense budget at Chico State, and the resulting reduction in course offerings that lecturers had already been scheduled to teach in Spring 2016. We’ve lost about $5 million across the campus for the Spring 2016 semester. The budget cuts do not impact the salaries of permanent staff and faculty, and there’s only so much paper and staples we can save from the Operating Expense budget, so the next, and biggest, target, is lecturer pay.

We are under constant threat of these reductions in the university system, which leads to the second factor that makes us slink through the hallways: we are afraid of losing our jobs, and it makes us powerless. We slink because we worry about offending the wrong administrator, the wrong student, the wrong colleague, who might decide to make a complaint, or decide, at our next performance review, to skewer our reputation, and deny promotion or even deny us courses.

But that’s changing at Chico State, at least this week. The shadows are a little less crowded, and the voices are getting louder. The lecturers are stepping out of the shadows, and I suspect will make their way to the Chancellor’s office, and the Governor’s steps, before this journey ends.

Click on the links below for other posts about the work environment at Chico State and the university system from Marianne and Ethnography.com. 

Lecturers Lean In

Second Class PhD

Shared Governance or Managed Dissent at Chico State

The McDonaldization of Higher Education

When the Red Ink Stops Flowing

Chico State and Shared Governance: Lecturers Lean In

Festering discontent at Chico State seems to have reached a point of boiling over in recent weeks following the abrupt resignations of two provosts since 2012, the loss of dozens of faculty across the campus in recent years, and a 2015 Campus Climate Survey which revealed significant dissatisfaction among the faculty and staff. The underlying issues revolve around the concept of “shared governance,” a term which the administration at Chico State and the California State University Chancellor’s office claim to value, but many faculty and staff say isn’t happening.

Shared governance in the California State University system, in theory, means that decisions about how the institution functions are a co-operative process where the staff, faculty, and administration work together to decide and implement best practices. But somewhere along the way, particularly at Chico State, the practice of shared governance has disappeared, at least in the opinion of some faculty and staff.

Last Thursday, one of the lecturers at Chico State had had enough, and presented the Academic Senate with a laundry list of perceived affronts to shared governance, and claimed a lack of transparency in numerous areas including budgeting and scheduling of classes.

The lecturer presented a motion to Chico State’s Academic Senate to discuss a vote of No Confidence in our campus president, provost, and the vice president of business and finance. After passionate, impromptu speeches from several faculty, the Senate voted 29-3 to allow for a discussion to hear the No-Confidence argument at the next meeting, scheduled for Thursday December 10th.

In theory, shared governance would have representatives from all groups of staff, faculty, and administration of the campus at one, decision-making, proverbial table where issues such as budget, planning, workload, and class scheduling including class size and class assignment were discussed. Open dialog without the fear of retribution, and where every member’s opinion was welcomed, is the key element to shared governance. But theory and practice have veered in far different directions lately at Chico.

In practice, there are two tables at Chico State: the big table, where the administrators sit, making big decisions and the kids’ table, where permanent staff, tenure track and tenured faculty sit.

This division reminds me of my grandmother’s house, and Sunday dinner, when I was growing up.

Almost every Sunday afternoon during my childhood, my extended family gathered at my grandmother’s house for dinner. Most Sundays, there was enough room for the 10 or 12 cousins and aunts and uncles to sit together at the big table, but every once in a while, extra friends or out of town cousins would show up, and Grandma’s big table was too small to fit us all. When news came that too many relatives were expected for dinner, she’d send one of the boys to fetch her card table, a rickety old square of plywood covered in vinyl, with unstable folding legs.

While the big table was a massive slab of cherry wood polished to a high shine, adorned lovingly with an intricately embroidered table cloth, and topped with fresh bouquets of flowers from my grandmother’s garden, the extra table was just big enough for the younger grandkids, and always me, the youngest of the family, to gather around for dinner.

At the big table, the adults and older cousins ate off of my grandmother’s good, tulip embossed dish ware, and talked about politics, the state of the world, and caught up on the news of the neighbors and distant relatives. Big announcements were made at the big table, and big decisions were decided at the big table.

At the big table, large bowls of mashed potatoes and sugared peas and fried chicken were passed around the table generously, and the gravy boat was always well within easy reach when my father he wanted an extra ladle of gravy.

Sitting at the big table meant access to information that might affect you, the chance to chime in with your opinion if the right time arose, and at least, when the potatoes were passed around, people acknowledged that you were at the table and offered the same food, and seconds if you wanted, as the others at the table were offered.

Sitting at what was known as the kids’ table was different. I often sat with distant cousins who I rarely saw and barely knew, and who I didn’t have much to talk about with. Sitting at the kids’ table meant bickering over petty topics, like who had the best music collection, and who could produce, on command, the best exhibition of unbridled flatulence.

Sitting at the kids’ table was fun, and meant we didn’t have to hold our forks properly, we could hide our peas under a congealed lump of gravy, and we could swap food with our cousins if we didn’t like something on our plate. We could run off and play well before the adults were done at the big table, and never had to do the dishes, although we always had to clear our plate from the table, scrape the remnants of the meal into the compost bucket, and stack the plate next to the kitchen sink. We were free to wander to the back of the house to the “kids” room, where a stereo and oversized speakers, Monopoly boards, children’s books, and puzzles awaited us.

In the kids’ room, and at the kids’ table, we were free from the adult world.

But being at the kids’ table also meant that if I wanted a second helping of mashed potatoes, I had to trek to the main dining room, stand quietly behind one of the adults sitting at the table, wait to be acknowledged by an adult, and then ask politely, “may I have another scoop of mashed potatoes, please?” The adult in charge of potatoes decided if I had had enough potatoes already, and if he or she thought I could have more, he or she also decided how much more I could have, which was always less than what those at the table were allowed.

There was a hierarchy at my grandmother’s house, enforced by the decision makers, and never questioned by the kids, at least openly. We had been trained to sit at the kids table, and be grateful for what we got.

There was a third element in the hierarchy at my grandmother’s house, and there is a third element at Chico State as well: the people who can’t make it to the table at all because they either were never invited, or were too busy with other obligations to attend. At Grandma’s house, if we failed to show up for dinner, or came late because we had other obligations, we got second hand news and a small plate of leftovers with congealed gravy and a pile of peas. Leftovers were never the same as being there for dinner. And the information we received was old news by the time it reached a tardy cousin and all the big decisions had already been made.

By the time I was 7 or 8, though, I had decided that I didn’t want to be at the kids’ table anymore, and when my cousins ran off to the kids’ room after dinner, I stayed in the living room and listened to the adults talk and paid attention when the evening news and 60 Minutes came on. I leaned in, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg,advises, even though I didn’t know it at the time. And that’s what that lecturer did last week, and what I imagine other lecturers will do this week, when the Senate discusses the No Confidence vote: they are leaning in, demanding their place at a table, any table.

It’s been 18 years since the last time I sat at my grandmother’s for Sunday dinner, but I recognize the hierarchy just the same, although this time, it’s where I work. The discontent brewing and boiling over at Chico State is a lot like my grandmother’s hierarchy: those at the big table, those at the kids’ table, and those who were never invited to the table at all.

As a lecturer, I know I won’t be invited to the big table. Still, I take heart from the fact that the current rebellion was initiated by previously voiceless lecturers who are threatened with class cancellations and layoff two months before Spring Semester starts.  No, we won’t be invited to the big table, yet. But maybe, if we all lean in together, the lecturers at Chico State will at least get invited to the kids’ table, and maybe some of us will pull up a chair, and ask for seconds.

Conversations with Cristopher: The Color of Skin

One of the neighbor kids came to play at our house last week, playing and painting and hanging out with my 7 year old daughter, Evelyn, and almost 5 year old son, Cristopher. Kevin, the 5 year old neighbor, was painting with the kids, creating a landscape with people in it. Evelyn was teaching the younger kids how to mix primary colors to make new paint colors.

“Evelyn, I need ‘skin’ color; can you make ‘skin’ color for me?” Kevin asked.

I was nearby and because the sociologist in me wanted to see if Kevin saw his own skin as the “norm”, I asked Kevin, “what kind of skin color do you want Evelyn to make for you?”

I wondered if he would see his own skin color as the “normal” skin color. We often see our own skin color as the “normal” skin color, and in the U.S., products often, especially historically, have both covertly and overtly insinuated that white or peach is the “normal” skin color.

I wondered if Kevin would see his own skin color as the norm.

“Skin. Like, you know, the regular skin color,” he replied, as he painted on a large sheet of paper.

I asked Evelyn if she could make ‘skin’ color for Kevin to paint with.

“Sure,” Evelyn replied, and happily started mixing her paints.

I went back to slicing vegetables.

Cristopher, sitting at the table as well, painting an abstract masterpiece (he’s really a horrible painter; no skill at all, sorry, kid), piped up quietly but with confidence, and said what I wish I could have said, but didn’t, because it’s not my place with other people’s children.

“Kevin, human skin comes in all different colors,” he dipped his brush into a random color, brushed his paper with no focus. “It comes in black and gray and brown and white.” He shrugged his shoulders, dipped his paint brush again. “Humans are all different colors.”

It’s such a huge leap, to not see your own skin as “normal” or “regular”. It’s something I’ve never explicitly taught Cristopher; he’s only 4, I don’t have discussions about race or ethnicity with him. But somehow, he’s understanding that there is no “regular” or “normal” when it comes to skin color. He’s seeing it in the world around him, I think, that everyone is different, that his own skin color isn’t the “regular” color.

And if he doesn’t see his color as “regular” or “normal”, then he won’t see other colors as “irregular” or “abnormal”. It gives me hope that maybe if he’s able to understand that “normal” isn’t really normal at all, then he won’t place the value of a human in the how well their skin color fits his “norm.”

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.



What Your Teeth Tell Me About Your Social Class

A recent sorority recruitment video from the University of Alabama last month was critically received on the internet for what some claimed were racist overtones. The nearly all-white, bikini and lingerie clad sorority sisters portrayed pranced happily throughout the over-5 minute long video, never opening a book, attending a class, or even appearing to be affiliated with a learning environment. As a college instructor, the mother of a young girl, and self-proclaimed feminist, I mentally ripped the video apart when I saw it. I also conceded that the video was probably racially insensitive, but my biggest concern with the video and the women portrayed lay in another vein: classism. As I watched the women on the video, my working-class roots reared up, and I nearly screamed at my computer screen, “what college aged woman can afford those clothes? The highlighted hair? The manicured nails?!?” And then I vented to Julie Withers on Facebook. It went something like this:




We often focus on race and ethnicity as the great dividers in American Society, but in reality, I would argue that race and ethnicity differences are secondary to class today, as the great divider, and the sorority video illustrated that. Watch the video, and tell me how many ways Class is displayed. :

I pick up on the class things more than race. Who can afford those clothes? Those teeth? Manicures, pedicures, fake nails, tanning. The expense of bleaching and highlighting your hair like that? My students sometimes can’t eat daily because they pay tuition, rent, can’t find a job in our over-educated town with 30,000 other students willing to work for minimum wage; how can anyone afford the expense of paying sorority dues and buying the crap needed to belong to one with such high material expectations?

But the ultimate class differences are in perfectly capped teeth. Anyone can get hair and makeup and pretty clothes done for a video shoot; the teeth are the inescapable sign that scream “upper class” in the sorority video.

A fascinating article in the online magazine, Aeon, discusses the poverty of a crooked set of teeth brilliantly. The author, Sarah Smarsh, not a sociologist but definitely a journalist-ethnographer, tells the story of teeth far better than my ranting. Check out the article here.

My baby teeth were straight and white, and I wasn’t obese – an epidemic among poor kids that hadn’t yet taken hold in the 1980s – but I had plenty of ‘tells’: crooked bangs, trimmed at home with sewing shears; a paper grocery sack carrying my supplies on the first day of school while other kids wore unicorn backpacks; a near-constant case of ringworm infection (I kept a jar of ointment on my nightstand year-round); the smell of cigarette smoke on my clothes, just as cigarettes were falling out of favour with the middle and upper classes; sometimes, ill-fitting clothes, as when the second-grade teacher I revered looked at my older cousin’s shirt sagging off my shoulder and said: ‘Tell your mother to send you to school in clothes that fit you.’ In fifth grade, a girl noticed my generic, plastic-smelling, too-pointy boots – a Kmart version of the black leather lace-ups that were in fashion – and for weeks hounded me before and after school, kicking dirt on my shins and calling me Pippi Longstocking.” — Sarah Smarsh