It’s Not How Many Times You Fall….

I began writing my dissertation in 2003 or so. My first year in graduate school at Kansas State University, I had the good fortune of enrolling in Dr. Robert K. Schaeffer’s graduate Social Change course. When Dr. Schaeffer assigned the requisite term paper due in every graduate level course I have ever taken, he gave me the best advice I could get: every paper you write in your classes should in some way contribute to your dissertation. So that year, I began writing my dissertation. I continued every semester writing a bit more of my dissertation, touching on subjects related to my topic (Job Satisfaction of Paramedics) in almost all of my classes. By the time I was done with my two years of coursework, I had the first 30 pages of history, research question, hypothesis, and methods complete in rough draft.

But then, disaster came. After I completed my coursework, I had to complete my two preliminary exams. The first, I passed without a problem. The second, not so much. In November 2007, I sat for my second exam, and a few weeks later, got a notification that I had failed. I was stricken, emotionally hopeless, and academically shamed. No one flat out failed their exams in my department.

I was given the option of retaking the exam in the next semester, and so I spent the next months studying, reading, and writing extensively on my reading list, and the next spring, sat for my exams again. I waited anxiously, but confidently this time given the time I had spent studying, for my results. On the Friday before Memorial Day, I got the email: I had failed, again.

I was nauseated with the depth of the failure. My graduate adviser informed me that I would be dismissed from the university due to my failure, and when I called him a few minutes after I got the email, he told me how sorry he was. And then he said, “maybe you should grieve your results.”

Thus started the longest fight of my life, and the fight that would prove my stubbornness, my hardheadedness, but ultimately, vindicate me in the long fight. I spent the next three years fighting for my exams to be read by outside faculty until, finally, in June 2011, I got the best email: I had passed my exams.

But my fight was not to be over. I presented my dissertation proposal to my new dissertation committee in December 2011, and then, three weeks later, was diagnosed with locally metastasized thyroid cancer in January 2012. I had surgery that same month to remove my thyroid, and still worked on my dissertation whenever I felt well enough. My dissertation chair was supportive, and gave me open ended deadlines so I could move forward as I could.

But then heartache struck in summer of 2012, when my dad’s kidneys failed, and I became one of his caregivers during home dialysis. Then in August 2012, at 4 months pregnant, I suffered a miscarriage. I spent two months after that suffering complications, and was rushed to emergency surgery to save my life in late October.

Again, I was recovering well, when in December of 2012, my dad became sick again, this time, with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Once again, I put my dissertation on the back burner, turned to my children and family, and for two months, alongside my sisters, while working full time teaching, I cared for my father while he died.

It took a few months for me to get back to my dissertation, but by May 2013, I realized I needed to get it done, for my own satisfaction, and for my dad, who didn’t really understand what I was doing at school, but who supported me anyway. So I began in earnest to write the first three chapters of my dissertation proposal, since it had to be rewritten since so much time had passed. I spent the next year working every minute on my dissertation. running regression models on a huge data set, teasing variables to see what was most significant.

And then, in May of 2014, I got an email from my dissertation chair: she was going on sabbatical and even though I was making progress, it wasn’t fast enough to finish before she went on leave. She wished me luck, and told me I needed to find a new chair. I spent the next 7 months trying to find a new chair for my dissertation, which, predictably, was difficult given the topic (no one in sociology has that expertise), and how far I was in the process. No one was comfortable taking over three chapters into the project. I was informed, once again, that I would be dismissed from the program if I couldn’t secure a new committee by May of 2015.

So I made a Hail Mary pass, and made a flight reservation to Kansas, then started making phone calls and sending emails to faculty who might entertain being my dissertation chair. I had three projects in my briefcase when I got to Kansas, wore a suit, greeted everyone with a handshake and warm smile. I have never been more of a salesperson than I was those few days in February of this year. I had nothing to lose.

On my last day in Kansas, while snow was blanketing the campus in stunning winter white, I met with the last person I had an appointment with; he was my last hope. He turned out to be the best hope, as well. I presented only one of my proposals to him, the one closest to my heart, and the one I believed in the most. I didn’t even tell him about the paramedic proposal. And he said yes.

I’ve been writing my dissertation for 12 years now, although my topic has changed, and I’ve deleted much more than what remains, it’s coming along pretty well. My deadline is October 2016, and because I’ve dreamed of being a college professor since the 4th grade, I’ll make it. I’ve not much to lose, and I’ve been at the bottom, and when you’ve been there, is when you work the hardest, and become the most innovative, and industrious. You learn what’s the most important to you. I was reminded of that while I was listening to these commencement speeches yesterday: sometimes you have to fall, to succeed beyond your dreams.

Here, in order of importance, are my picks for commencement speeches that best send the message, “it’s not how many times you fall, it’s how many times you rise up again, that’s important.”

The prolific Harry Potter author, who began her career working for Amnesty International, stresses the merits of failure and the importance of imagination, but not in the way you might think. As sociologists, I wonder if this is why we are so different from others: we have the imagination to see the suffering of others. If you have just 20 minutes to spare today, use it to listen to J.K. Rowling’s Harvard address to the graduating class of 2008.

“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” J.K. Rowling


What happens when you are fired from the company you co-founded? You create something even better. Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs addressed the graduating class of Stanford, 2005, with the message that sometimes, you need to get knocked down to be given the opportunity to be your best.

On creating Pixar, the company that recreated movie animation:

“I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love.” — Steve Jobs


Comedian Ellen DeGeneres offers advice for Tulane University 2009 graduates.

“Really when I look back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing. I mean, it was so important for me to lose everything because I found out what the most important thing is, is to be true to yourself. Ultimately, that’s what’s gotten me to this place. I don’t live in fear, I’m free; I have no secrets and I know I’ll always be ok, because no matter what, I know who I am.” – Ellen Degeneres


Binge Watching Ted Talks

While writing my dissertation, my routine goes something like this most mornings:

  1. Stop at the local pastry shop and get my favorite morning pastry: slightly warmed spinach crustada.
  2. Drive to my office at the university.
  3. Circle for a few minutes to find parking.
  4. Hope I don’t hit any of the bicyclists who drive the wrong way on one-way streets.
  5. Park.
  6. Walk to my office.
  7. Say hello to my colleagues.
  8. Find my office.
  9. Turn on computer. Answer any emails from students or administrators that might be pressing.
  10. Make sure nothing important has happened on Facebook that might be life altering.
  11. Find my earphones.
  12. Scroll through YouTube to find a full concert from one of my favorite musicians: Adele, Guns N Roses, Bruno Mars, Elton John, John Mellencamp OR alternately, scroll through and find motivational or educational speeches or lectures (a bit tough to write and listen to educational lectures at the same time, though).
  13. Post a sign on my office door: in effect, Do Not Disturb.
  14. Hit “play”

Yesterday was a Ted Talk day; I spent most of my afternoon listening to talks about culture, motivation, the state of the environment…a fairly eclectic collection of videos from many different great thinkers.I always want to share the great ideas I come across on the Internet, and also, writing a blog post gives me a break from my dissertation for a few minutes, so I thought I’d share a few of the Ted Talks on my playlist yesterday with the good folks at

Anyone who’s written a dissertation or thesis understands how easy it is to find excuses for not writing.

Rich Benjamin: Whitopia

Have you ever wondered what it’s like living in a different culture? Rich Benjamin wondered, too, and tells you all about it in this fantastic Ted Talk.


Sheryl Sandberg: Why Women Don’t Lean In

What does it really mean for women to lean in in the workforce? It means keeping your hand raised, not giving up your place at the table, it means never underestimating your self worth.


Bill Gates: Innovating to Zero

Gates offers options for alternative energy resources, highlighting the importance of investing in energy resources that will reduce carbon emissions to zero in the next 40 years.



Jane McGonigal: how to Add 7 1/2 Minutes to Your Life

How do you save your own life? Jane McGonigal started gaming, and reaching out to others. Watch Jane’s Ted Talk below to see how she increased her own resilience, and overcame traumatic brain injury through gaming.


Sirena Huang: An 11 Year Old and her Magical Violin

For your listening pleasure, a violin prodigy.


Kelly McGonigal: How to Make Stress Your Friend

No, you aren’t seeing double: check out Jane McGoniga’s twin sister, Kelly, in one of my favorite Ted Talks: How to Make Stress Your Friend.


Almonds in the Desert

August 2nd, 2015


This is the principle reason why California has a water shortage: agriculture where it shouldn’t be. One side of the freeway is the natural, unirrigated terrain; the other side is irrigated almonds. We should never be growing luxury crops in desert climates.

We’re in the San Joaquin Valley. There’s no natural source of water here, like in Chico; these almonds have to be watered about three times the amount of the trees in the northern Sacramento Valley. There are very few places in the world where almonds can be grown; the trees can’t freeze in the winter, must have lots of water, sunshine, and a long growing season; the Central Valley of California (Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys combined) is ideal, climate wise. But water in parts of the valley is another story.

Irrigation for crops isn’t universally bad or causing the drought, by the way, but growing luxury crops in places where they shouldn’t be grown, where there isn’t enough water for basic health and safety needs to be met, is perilous. Luxury crops are crops that aren’t essential for nourishment and are sold for significantly higher prices than staple crops.

An example of a luxury food product is lobster. You don’t have lobster every night for dinner, correct? It’s a splurge or a luxury; it costs more, it’s not readily available, and only grows well in certain parts of the world. A staple protein substitute for the lobster might be chicken eggs; they are easy to raise, readily available in nearly every part of the world, and fairly inexpensive, even organic eggs, but especially of you raise your own chickens. You need protein but how you get that protein can either be a luxury or a staple.

There were no almonds here or other large scale orchard crops before the California Aquaduct was the 1960s. If these almonds were feeding local populations, I’d probably have less of a problem with this new growth of almonds in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Or if these new orchards were creating jobs that otherwise wouldn’t be here. But they aren’t. Almonds are highly mechanized in production and harvesting. The jobs created by orchard crops could be put to work in more sustainable crops that require less water and can be laid fallow in times of drought (corn for human consumption, tomatoes, squash, melons) that would be consumed locally or even in the US. But they’re not; about 70% of California’s almonds are shipped overseas.

This is business, this isn’t farming. The U.S. agricultural complex grows more food than we can ever use in a given year; we have the ability to grow plenty of local food, if we used it correctly and then didn’t throw away so much food needlessly.

Californians are going to have to shift their thinking about water, even the wealthy ones who don’t care how much water costs as long as their grass is green (and mostly useless in the average residential setting). I turned half my backyard into a vegetable garden this year and have been feeding my neighbors and friends with tomatoes, cucumbers, and a ton of other veggies. It’s amazing, but I don’t miss the grass I tore up at all. It’s a shift in use and ideology.

My stomach hurts as we drive farther on Interstate 5, south from Stockton, Westly, Patterson, Los Banos, through Kettleman City, on toward the Grapevine. All around us, the landscape is polka dotted with dead orchards and brand new baby trees, evidence of one farmer losing his or her water rights, while another finds a way to water the desert enough to plant a new orchard. It’s gut-wrenching to see the wasted trees, the wasted water, the cost for farmers (about $10,000 per acre to plant new trees), and the risk that everyone takes, when we demand luxury crops grown in the desert.


Dead almond orchard in San Joaquin Valley                                                            New Orchard

Dead orchards, abandoned in the crunch for water and a few miles later, brand new orchards.

Where in the world is…Marianne?

I fell off the face of last Spring, the result of committing myself to completing my dissertation, teaching 5 classes, parenting, a few health issues that needed to be taken care of, and the coming summer, which was filled with lots of camping and traveling with my family. We spent nearly a month trekking all over California, finding the ocean in Fort Bragg in July, and again in San Diego in August,

To be honest, the real reason I fell off of Ethnography was I have been writing my dissertation proposal. I began from scratch in early March, and just sent the first rough draft of the first two chapters to my dissertation chair last Friday. My writing brain has been tired, burnt, overwhelmed.

But my brain is feeling rested now, or at least not as overwhelmed, and topics other than education attainment of Hmong immigrants are popping up in my thoughts, and yesterday, I wrote more sociologically on my Facebook page than I have in months, and I realized, it might be time to write again.

So, I’ll be popping in here a bit more in the next few months, hopefully regularly. But I’m teaching 5 classes again this semester, and I’ll be writing and editing my dissertation for the next year or so, and I’m still a wife and mom to two young kids, and one not-so-young kid, who still need my attention. And of course, there’s the dog, and two cats, and the fish to think about. But it’s all good, because I love writing for Ethnography, so I’ll be stopping by now and then to say hello. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy my day-late, but not a dollar short, contribution for today: a musical tribute to Labor Day.


Late December 2006

This morning, while sitting at one of the tables by the pool visiting with a resident of the complex, I noticed Palm fronds falling from the canopy of green above me. I followed the thwup, thwup, thwup? of a heavy tool beating in the air to the cascade of fronds falling to the sandy soil below and finally, looked up into the tree from which they fell.

A ladder, probably 20-feet tall, rested against the narrow trunk of a tall Palm and atop it, a thin, grizzled man in cowboy boots, blue jeans, a colorful long sleeved shirt, and baseball cap, stood. He held a 12-inch long machete in his oversized hands and swiftly, with precision that comes only from years of repetition, he cut through the stalk of each of the fronds attached to the statuesque tree, leaving only a few tall fronds in the very center of the crown.

He made quick work of each of the ten or so trees in the patio, some only 20 feet tall, some 30 feet. I watched for nearly 20 minutes, the man trimming four trees while I gazed up into the bright blue Mexican sky. After the fourth tree, I retrieved my camera and as the dark man with the thin face descended from a tree, I approached him. I smiled and said in English, amazing. He smiled and pointed up to the next tree with a full crown.

Trabajo, he said to me. I smiled again and with my eyes, followed his pointing finger to the top of the tree.

I pointed to my camera and in English said, May I?


Si, he nodded his head and stood beside his ladder, leaned into the tree and posed for a picture.

Gracias, I said, and although my high school Spanish class was nearly twenty years ago and I have forgotten almost everything Mr. Perez taught me, I asked, Como te llamas? What is your name?

Carlos, the grizzled man said to me.

Carlos, I repeated. He smiled his big smile again and waited for me to tell him my name. me llamo Mariana,? I replied, and I wondered where the sentence came from. It popped into my head as random as a star shooting through the night sky.

Mariana, he repeated and nodded his head in confirmation.

Carlos stuffed the handle of the machete into the waistband of the back of his jeans and took hold of the ladder, grabbing both sides of the metal contraption with his gnarled hands and hoisting it to the next tree.

Climbing Carlos

I watched as he climbed the 25-foot Palm, the heels of his cowboy boots catching each rung of the ladder on his way. Carlos stopped every few feet and smiled down at me and on cue, I raised my camera over and over to snap his photo. Finally, at the top, he turned his attention from my camera and focused his hands on the regal crown of the giant Palm.

He worked with determination on the foot-long ball of bark that had formed at the base of the crown, peeling away layers of brown husk like the layers of an onion. He worked until the trunk was smooth, the husk discarded to the ground below, the space where the ball had been was nearly flat.

The machete suddenly appeared in his large, chocolate hands and he stopped once more to look down at me, Are you watching? He seemed to say. I raised my camera and snapped the photo just as he dropped the machete on the tender flesh of the green stalk. He held the severed frond in one hand and the machete in the other, balancing high on the ladder as he posed for a photo. Bueno! I called up to him. He laughed and let the frond fall to the ground.

Carlos 5

Carlos spent the next few minutes chopping away at the fronds, letting each fall the way the first had, until brown husk and Palm fronds littered the walkway and shrubs below. Finally, he stuffed the handle of the machete into his waistband again and descended the ladder. When he was planted on the ground, I called to him, Carlos! Gracias! and gave my best smile to let him know I appreciated his time. He abandoned his ladder and walked toward me, pointing at the camera in my hands.

See, see? he asked, and pointed to himself.

You want to see the photos? I asked, and he nodded and smiled. He leaned over my shoulder to see the tiny image of himself in the tree, holding the machete, dropping the fronds. I’m going to write a story, I told him, escribe story, and I pantomimed writing with a pen and paper.

Si, story, he repeated.

Carlos, Cabo San Lucas? I asked Carlos if he lived in Cabo San Lucas.

Todos Santos, he replied. My husband and I had traveled to the tiny artists village a few days earlier. The village hung over a bluff on the Pacific Ocean, perched somewhere between modernity and an ancient Mexican village.

Oh, beautiful! I said to him. He nodded his head and agreed with me, beautiful.

I had learned how many, how much while shopping a few days before and asked Carlos, Cuantos anos? How old are you?

Cuarenta nueve, he replied.

Forty-nine? I confirm.

Si, forty-nine anos, he replied.

Carlos must think I am more learned than I am, for he breaks into rapid, nearly unintelligible to me, Spanish and I make my mind quicken to keep up with his tongue. I pick out a few words, but nothing that will make a sentence and I realize that my education, although good, was wasted due to my constant residence in the United States. When it comes to other cultures and languages, I am nearly bankrupt.

But I nodded my head and parroted a few of the words Carlos has spoken to tell him that some of what he said got through, that I was paying attention, that I will remember. He smiled and enveloped my hand in his surprisingly soft grasp, shaking it warmly for several seconds.

Gracias, Carlos, Gracias, I said and smiled.

Gracias, senora, he said, and dropped my hand. It was replaced almost immediately by the machete and as I walked away, he moved his ladder to a new Palm, climbed the giant tree to its top, and went to work, once again.

Carlos 6

Originally published at

Almond Harvest in the Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


When the Red Ink Stops Flowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So when did I change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Social Construction of Offensive Words

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

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

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

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

“Mama, honkachew.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The House on the Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truck in Zona Residencia

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

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

The House on the Hill was originally published at 

The Injustice of Justice: Jury Duty in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we never got to the “conflict” phase.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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