The Ultimate Privilege

My mother would have called me a picky eater, if the term had been popular when I was a kid in the early 1980s; instead, people often said I was spoiled. I turned my nose up to onions, didn’t care for orange juice, and had a physical aversion to ground meat (that was my mother’s fault, though; she brainwashed me to believe, from a very young age, that ground meat was dirty). Many years later, and after a couple of near death experiences, I realized that my aversion to onions was actually an allergy and oranges cause anaphylactic response in me. It only takes a few times of not being able to breathe after inhaling orange vapor that the light bulb clicks on and you realize maybe you shouldn’t eat oranges. Or be near them. Or be in the same room when someone is peeling one.

Even my three children, as young as 4 years old, notify servers at restaurants, “no onions or oranges on my mom’s plate, please. She’s ‘lergic.”

Food allergy is real and deadly; don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

When I was a kid, food allergies were often seen as children being “spoiled” and ungrateful. They were terms I didn’t understand. I had violent physical reactions to certain foods; why would anyone think that I was “spoiled” if I didn’t like oranges because they made me vomit?

I know food allergies. Let me make this clear: the following is NOT about people with food allergies.

We’ve largely lost the term “spoiled” when describing a child who refuses to eat certain foods, mostly due to a better understanding of food allergies, and I would argue that that is a positive step forward for kids everywhere. But I’ve noticed a trend since my daughter was born almost 7 years ago that has made me rethink the phenomena of picky eaters. I used to think that picky eaters were like me: they didn’t like a certain food because they probably had an allergy or sensitivity to the food. But more recently, “picky eaters” seem to be everywhere, and at a much higher rate than what is statistically possible to account for food allergy. An estimated 1 in every 13 children in the U.S. has a mild to severe food allergy; in the real world, I see a much higher rate than that of children who refuse to eat certain, common foods in America. My theory about picky eaters having undiagnosed food allergies just doesn’t fit.

I’ve spent the last quarter century raising and feeding children. No, I am not a nutritionist, but I am a sociologist who studies the Sociology of Agriculture and Food; I watch for patterns in food consumption both at the macro and micro level. I’ve watched my kids and other children’s food habits long enough to notice different patterns.

My kids have fairly broad palates, despite my own issues with certain foods, and in fact, they’ll actually tease me about how tasty burgers are and laugh when I say, “no thanks!” They’ll eat everything from Octopus to hot dogs at the ball park, Brussels sprouts to beets and everything in between. I’m grateful that my kids have broad palates.

But in other kids, I see, what I would identify, as narrow eating patterns.

As example, my husband and I visited family members a few years ago and the only thing their 5 and 8 year old children would eat were things that were orange. And protein shakes. Grilled cheese sandwich? It’s orange: yes. Quesadilla? It’s orange: yes. Mac and cheese? Yep. Chicken nuggets? Of course, they’re orange, but only the ones that come frozen in bags. So while the parents and my family (except me, I just ate salad) ate amazing homemade meat loaf, the mom made grilled cheese sandwiches for the kids.

I thought this family was an anomaly, and then I started hearing stories and complaints from other families. Many of my friends with children report feeling like short order cooks, because they make different meals for each family member, every night, because no one will eat the same thing as another family member. Child only likes chicken nuggets and carrot sticks? That’s what he or she has every night. For a year. Narrow eating. 

Look at a child’s menu in most American restaurants and you’ll see the same, unhealthy items repeatedly, despite going to restaurants of varying national or ethnic origin. What are the most common menu items at major chain restaurants in the U.S.? Hamburgers, cheeseburgers, pizza, chicken tenders, french fries, and macaroni and cheese. Narrow eating.

But guess what? At home, children eat largely those same foods: pizza, chicken nuggets, and pasta (macaroni and cheese) are among the top ten most common foods children eat in America.

We’ve created a generation, or maybe two generations, of narrow palates where children and adults prefer to eat only a narrow scope of food, and because we live in the land of plenty, we have the ability to turn our noses up to other food.

A few years ago, I started feeling weird about this trend, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt so uncomfortable with children refusing to eat food that was offered to them in the course of a regular meal if they didn’t have allergies to that food. For what it’s worth, I do make accommodations for my kids, as long as they still eat what I serve at dinner. You don’t like ranch dressing on your salad? Fine, you get to choose your own dressing. But you’ll still eat the salad. And no, there is no other food option in the house.

A few nights ago, I served my family beef stew with cooked carrots, potatoes, and celery. As I set a plate of food in front of my nearly 7 year old daughter, a very interesting thing happened.

“Do I have to eat the carrots?” she asked me, her arm draped across her forehead in despair. I stopped serving the other plates, and had an epiphany moment and realized, ‘ah, this is why I am uncomfortable with children refusing food. This child is ungrateful. She is privileged, and is ungrateful.’ The thought occurred to me, ‘this is what it means to be spoiled. This is what everyone was talking about when I was a child. They didn’t realize certain food made me sick; they thought I was ungrateful for what was offered to me.”

That epiphany moment began several months ago, when I happened on a book I was reviewing for one of the classes I teach. I am interested in Southeast Asia, and so when looking for new books on the topic, found a memoir titled, When Broken Glass Floats. The book begins in Cambodia just prior to the Khmer Rouge occupation in the mid 1970s. For 5 years, the book follows a pre-teen girl as she is forced from her comfortable city life, into the work camps under the Khmer Rouge, and finally, to freedom. I thought I would learn about the politics of the Khmer Rouge, but instead, I learned about real privilege, or the lack thereof. The book is a testament to the will to survive, and a stark glimpse into the tactics of starvation and work used by the Khmer Rouge to control the people of Cambodia. It is a heartbreaking account of children stealing away from their huts in the middle of the night to hunt for food, of pilfering more broth to curb their growling stomachs, of praying for death to end the suffering. It is here, in these pages, that I cried at the thought of my own three children being worked and starved to death, separated from their family.

Slowly, we wade in, with both hands stretching the mosquito net open. The pan floats in front of the net, guided by the arching top of it. Our plan is to scoop the net up beneath the branches. The fish are usually there during the day when it’s hot. Under her breath, Ra whispers urgently to me to hand over the pan. After pushing the pan to Ra, I reach out to touch the dark shadow in the center of the net, wondering what we’ve caught.

 

“Prawns, lots of prawns!” Ra’s excited.

 

The thought of prawns lifts up my spirit. I can’t wait until we finish fishing. Hungry, Ra and I eat some. I grab a few from the pan and shove them in my mouth. They struggle, their tails flick against my tongue. Some are the size of my little finger. Others are bigger.

But it is also here that I saw how privileged we are, that we have a safe home, and abundant food. And that is a privilege.

My children will often try to bargain with me to not eat certain foods, and eat other food instead (“no carrots, but I’ll eat the potatoes, Mom”), and even decline healthy meals at home if they know they are headed to school, where they will be offered more palatable food. They know there will always be enough food, and so they decline food; that is privilege.

As my daughter stared disdainfully at the plate of food I had prepared for her, a plate that will likely never be empty, I contemplated how to respond to her.

I wanted to tell her, “Evelyn, darling, you are privileged. You are so privileged that your belly has never felt the real pangs of hunger, that you’ve never had to go without a meal, that you’ve never had to beg for food, that you have the choice of a hundred different items of food in our home. You are so privileged to live in a home where your parents have been privileged with the opportunities presented to them, so they could provide for you. You are so privileged, that you turn your nose up to food when millions of others would grovel for a bite, just one bite, of what you have.”

As I suppressed my urge to tell my daughter of her privilege, I realized that “picky” eating, narrow eating, is not picky at all: it is privileged. My children, and I, have the luxury of choosing not to eat, if the smell is off or the texture is wrong or the temperature is slightly too cold. There will always be more food to choose from either now or in the very near future. We are privileged.

“Evelyn, be grateful for what you have,” I tell my daughter, “others don’t have even this.” She stares at me uncertainly, picks at her food with her fork, and finally eats her carrots.

It is a privilege to reject that which would sustain life for others, and to look disdainfully on it, and be ungrateful in the face of it. That is the ultimate privilege.

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Ethnography, Stigma, and Protecting a Potentially Spoiled Identity

Originally published here at e.com in April 2007. It’s one of my favorites and still makes me laugh out loud, I hope you enjoy it too. -Julie

This blog is about why ethnographer Erving Goffman’s observation of stigma are important not just to ex-cons, but also to professors like me on foreign exchange programs. Goffman, as many sociologists and anthropologists know, observed the maneuvers of the marginalized and stigmatized in society, and then wrote about how they thought about their disability. He saw that the marginalized were constantly managed their spoiled social identities because they feared public exposure of their disability. To make his point he wrote about ex-cons, ex-mental patients, prostitutes and others. Such stigmatized people, he wrote, are acutely conscious that at any moment any pretense they maintain of being a “normal person” can be unceremoniously disclosed. Mental patients, ex-cons, and prostitutes always wonder if a passing person knows them from their “other” life, simply recognizes the habits and tics they carry with them from that life. What this creates is a “hyper-vigilance” on the part of the stigmatized as they move through their daily routines. They watch everything, and are always wary. To control the stress, the stigmatized avoid situations where they are easily exposed—they fear being the fool, humiliated, or even attacked. Their greatest desire is to be socially invisible, even as they move through the necessary routines of daily life.

In fact, I was mulling over Goffman’s wisdom when walking to the bus stop on my way home two weeks ago. My mind though switched off when I realized that once again, as it is with many new American residents of Germany, I needed to manage my identity with respect to my highly imperfect, ungrammatical, and accented German. I can of course manage this by remaining mute in many social situations. This is surprisingly easy in places like supermarket checkout lines where the numbers on the cash register, hand gestures, and smiles help me pass without disclosing my stigmatized status. But finding the right bus home creates higher risks of disclosure than the supermarket checkout line.

Because I have yet to master bus schedules, I arrived thirty minutes early at my stop that day. Not wanting to stay on my feet, I spied an almost empty bench—only one fellow there to ask “permission” to share. I did this with hand motions, eye contact, a nod, the universal “ok,” and then scrunched into the furthest corner possible from my fellow bench warmer. Terrified at the thought that my bench mate would initiate a conversation, I took the only English language book in my backpack out (Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, no less) and buried my nose into it. This was effective, and the man sharing my bench ignored me. But five minutes later we were approached by an older man who politely asked if the spot between us was “free.” I nodded, smiled, motioned, and grunted, protected once again from having to say anything. But the situation was now more hazardous. There were now three of us on the bench sitting uncomfortably close, and the potential for being unmasked as a linguistic incompetent had uncomfortably increased.

Anyway, I soon decided I wasn’t that tired anyway, and got up and wandered back to the bus stop, even though I was still 15 minutes early. There I leaned against a post, and again tried to bury my nose back in my book. Soon though, I was distracted by what happened next at the bus bench. A woman with dogs on leashes came up. One of the dogs started to sniff at the older man’s bag. There was a brief exchange, and then the woman with the dogs went on. The older man then stood up, picked up his bag, and walked over to where I was standing and then, horror of horrors, he began talking to me. I more or less understood what he said, but could only muster the barest of responses:

Man: Did you see those dogs? They sniffed through my bags!
Me: Grunt.
Man: People should control their dogs, shouldn’t they!
Me: Grunt.
Man: Don’t you think it is an invasion of privacy that dogs will sniff through my bags?
Me: Certainly.

Thankfully, the bus then arrived, resulting in a change of subject. We got on the bus, and then further horrors, he sat near me! What would I do? Too nervous for Max Weber, my hyper-vigilance sensors went up, and I studiously avoided his occasionally friendly gaze, fearing that my incompetence could be further revealed. In this context, I bolted for the door when five minutes later we arrived at the place where I needed to transfer buses. I rushed off the bus, eager to re-embrace the anonymity that would be available on the next bus. But then things became worse. The man was following me onto the bus—he was going in the same direction I was!

With relief, I saw him settled with his bag into a seat far from mine. But still my anxiety did not dissipate until I reached my final stop ten minutes later. Off I stepped, and finally regained my anonymity as just another normal person, anonymous and obscure on a busy German street.

Such hyper-vigilance is exhausting, but also routine when you are a discreditable minority of any kind. Goffman’s mental patients, ex cons, prostitutes, and others were always aware that someone from their former life will strip away the sense of normalcy they desired . But the same principles applies to foreigners in all places, linguistic minorities, ethnic minorities, racial minorities and others who fear a part of their identity will unceremoniously at any time subject them to ridicule, or a loss of honor.

Like the ex-con and mental patients, I seek the comfort of blending and belonging while here in Germany, something I take for granted at Chico State. The sad thing for me was that as a result, I passed up language learning opportunities on my bus ride. In retrospect, I know that I should have bravely plowed ahead, and attempted a conversation with both my fellow bench warmers. After all, intellectually I know that Germans are almost always unfailingly kind to foreigners attempting to learn their language. I know too that it is educationally correct to have a conversation with the two men at the bench, rather than avoiding them. It would also have been enriching to engage the man the one who “followed” me on my two bus rides in small talk about the weather, dogs, his bag, or anything else. I didn’t of course because I value the anonymity of being normal more. As a result, I hid my stigma behind props like Max Weber’s book, and avoid the random encounters of social life which in English, I often delight in.

Both sociologists and anthropologists glamorize the intellectual stimulation of the cross-cultural experience I am having. I still believe it is glamorous, and I will continue to encourage students to go abroad and study languages. But there is another value to study abroad experiences, particularly for students who are from the default normative category of their own country. At Chico State, this includes me, as well as the many middle class suburban white students in my undergraduate classes. But studying abroad is also about becoming an outsider who will evaluate every potential social encounter for its capacity to strip away the comfortable anonymity we gain when we hang with people like us. My chance to be an exchange scholar in Germany is of course partly glamorous. But my story is also the one that Goffman wrote about. I am sure that in one year, I will speak better German, and the memories of my constant hyper-vigilance dissipate. But in the meantime, I look forward to the mental exhaustion of both language learning, and stigma management.

For what it is worth, I sleep more here in Germany despite the pleasant Fall weather. Hyper-vigilance is mentally exhausting!

Reference

Goffman, Erving. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.

Why I Chose Not to Get a PhD

This was originally published here on ethnography.com in April, 2012. Why did you choose to get a PhD (or not)?

I got to spend some time with a friend recently that decided some time ago to restart her PhD work.  She is already ABD, but is starting the dissertation over from scratch.  My question was “Why?” She is a well-respected professional, and within the her field a PhD will likely be of limited benefit professionally compared to the mountain of work ahead of her, not to mention the expense involved.

In the course of the conversation I was reflecting on my own choice to not get a PhD and thinking that it might provide food for thought for a larger audience. Not to mention the pitfalls of getting to attached to getting one.

When I started my graduate work in anthropology, I had the same expectations as most people: I thought I would wind up teaching at a university or maybe in some kind of think tank. Rather than going directly into a PhD program (I already had a B.A and MS.Ed in other areas), I chose what was then a terminal master’s program at the University of South Carolina. I thought at the time, doing a MA first would enable me to get into a better PhD program, in reality I don’t think it makes a difference either way. Future graduate students should also take note USC now has a full-fledged PhD program that started several years after I finished my M.A.  Well, as time went by, my interests and goals evolved.  Not an unexpected thing to happen as you spend a couple of years learning about the in’s and out’s of a discipline. Looking back, I believe that one of the most significant course changes was when I decided that I was more interested in applied work rather than working in academia. I won’t mince words, once it got around the department that I was not planning on pursuing an academic path, it felt like I was pretty much dropped like a hot rock as far as most of the professors were concerned.  One professor [to remain nameless] didn’t mince words either, she told me flatly that any student that was not planning on a professional academic career as an anthropologist should not expect any interest on the part of the instructors. My thesis advisers promptly dropped any interest in my thesis work as well, and it shows. Before you think it was awful, I am talking about significant small moments in time that occurred during my grad work, not the entire school experience. I got an excellent education, I had some great instructors and I would go back to South Carolina again.  At that time, quite simply, applied anthropology as looked down on as well as only getting an MA. Things have become considerably more enlightened in the discipline overall since then.

Compounding the issue of being primarily interested in applied work, my research interests in two divergent areas were not seen as worthy of anthropology: One was the area of intentional violence. My graduate thesis was based on intensive research with a prison population, and that evolved into interest in two areas: terrorism on the one hand and serial homicide on that other. Both of which I was curious to see if they could be studied almost as a cultural language or the semiology of the acts. The second was in a totally different area; due to my long-standing technology interests (I had always put myself through school as a computer jock) I was becoming much more interested in the intersection of culture and technology. It turns out that the latter interest would serve me very well later in ways I never imagined.

But given all that, I STILL wanted that PhD.  Why?Well, as it has and had for so many others it became for me the difference between success and failure.  I was $150,000 in debt and looking at more, I had years of education behind me and more to go.  To me, getting those three little letters was the difference between being a legitimate scholarly person and a nobody.  I got so nutty about it that I wouldn’t even date someone that was not getting some advanced degree (That stupid arrogance likely cost me some excellent relationships.). A PhD was a ticket too studying the topics I wanted, a life of scholarship and (the applied part) once I got the ticket, I would be able to pursue applied endeavors at will.  Yes, I was indeed blind to how the life of a university professor really looks.

So what happened? Shatteringly, but in reality lucky for me in the long run, I did not get into my first two choices for a PhD program, but was accepted to the applied PhD program at the University of South Florida. Given my interests were then more fringe topics, there was no one there that was doing work even remotely related and I was concerned I would be suffering from a real lack of mentor-ship.  Also, the connections you make in your PhD program can be very important when job hunting, having dissertation advisers that can make introductions later was a concern.

Then, the proverbial last straws. I went to a AAA meeting and on the job board were four or five lonely looking position announcements for very low paying positions (as they usually are), seeking scholars of a few countries in Africa. The next factor was watching from a distance as the USC anthropology department was fielding applications for a new position. There were not dozens of applications – there were hundreds, and from people with long publishing histories, all from the top tier programs at the time.

I realized quickly after that I could not justify continuing on with more graduate school. The math was fairly stark: Endure additional crushing debt load, to take that fairly small chance that I might get the job I want, at a salary that would barely cover my debt, rent and food, in an environment that I really didn’t like all that much.

Understand, I was never much for the publish or perish game, or the nasty politics that can emerge in academic departments, so I was ill suited to the profession anyway.  But that is not the reality I was thinking about at the time. I remember the moment I knew I was going to quit pursuing the quest for a PhD.  It was devastating.  I called up a friend of mine that had made the same choice after going ABD and bawled my eyes out.  “It has all been a complete waste,” I told her, “All the years, all the work, all the money has all been flushed down a toilet and I have nothing to show for it.” I don’t remember what she said to be honest.  I am sure it was supportive and reassuring and none of what I was thinking was true.

I can tell you this much: all of the thoughts I had about not getting my PhD equaling failure were and are utter bullshit. Why do I say that? Here is what happened once my head cleared, I got the emotional cobwebs out and started to assess what I wanted to do.

I wanted to keep studying culture, I wanted to be involved in technology and I wanted to get my hands dirty using anthropology to actually do something. First I got a job working full-time at the university as a computer jock, and I started by regaining my life: I got involved in the local old-time and Irish music scene in the area, I made friends that had nothing to do with anthropology, I worked with a friend leading canoe trips on the local river and started rock climbing and generally having a pretty happy life.

And I also did research, lots of research into the life I wanted. I scanned journals and periodicals, professional trade journals looking for any connections of people working in anthropology or social science and technical fields.  Design Anthropology was in its infancy then, and I was lucky enough to find an article about some anthropologists combining anthropology and technology skills to help companies develop new products. Then by coincidence, another graduate student appeared in my office and showed me an article about the very same company and said “I think I found your job.” She was right of course, after that it was just about the job hunt (another long post). Was all my education and training a waste? Hardly. I was a trained anthropologist, with extensive technical expertise, had years of experience watching how people interact with technology, and had a couple of years’ experience in a consulting environment from my previous graduate degree. Those were all qualifications people were looking for. Once I cracked the code of what I wanted to do, and where it was valued, I was fielding multiple offers precisely due to all the effort I initially thought I had wasted by not getting the PhD.

For me, it was far and away the best choice then and is now. I have had a great career, multiple actually, and for all of them that MA in anthropology has been a major factor in my getting those positions. At this point, I really don’t have a personal or professional need for a PhD, and a vanity PhD seems like a waste of everyone’s time on already strained university budgets.

So, that’s why I didn’t get a PhD.

Sweet Salvation

Sweet Salvation was originally published at www.norcalblogs.com. 

December 2006, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

There are three facts that exist on the southern tip of Baja Mexico: 1) this is a desert, 2) until very recently, even though the entire area is surrounded by ocean, there was very little drinking water here, and 3) it is desperately cut off from the rest of the world.

We arrive at Los Cabos International airport early in the afternoon. The flight from San Francisco, just over three hours, transported us from a rainy and cold winter morning to a sunny, 85-degree afternoon. The flight is nearly empty; Matt and I have an entire row of seats to ourselves and so when we approach the small airport a few miles inland of the Sea of Cortez, I scoot to the window seat and raise the plastic window shade of the airplane window and watch as we descend from 30,000 feet into the barren Baja desert.

The narrow Baja California peninsula, which has an average width of less than 60 miles, runs over a thousand miles from the border with the United States at San Diego, to the arched rocks at Lands End in Cabo San Lucas. Although the flight from Los Angeles is only 2 hours, it takes two full days of driving on the two-lane highway the Mexican government completed in 1973 to reach Cabo San Lucas.

Before the road was completed, very few inhabitants called southern Baja home; soon after, the region was granted statehood and ten years later, Americans began to converge on the isolated area. Today, Cabo San Lucas is home to 40,000 people, most of whom are transplants (or seasonal American and Canadian residents) from mainland Mexico who followed the tourist trail to the peninsula in search of jobs and a better life.

The first stop we make in Cabo San Lucas, after we check into our condo and drop off our luggage, is the Costco two miles from our condo. In Costco, we scan the much-familiar warehouse aisles and are transported almost immediately back to America when we see the layout of the store is nearly identical to that of the Costco in our own town.

We push our oversized cart between stacks of high-definition televisions, are tempted by the smell of muffins in the bakery, and then, are reminded by the young woman giving samples of tequila, that we are still in Mexico. After picking up thinly sliced steak for fajitas, soft Mexican cheese (a local specialty), and salad fixings, we add a 36-pack of bottled water to our shopping cart. Even though purified water is delivered once a week to the condo, we are skeptical of the term “purified” and wonder just how clean the water can be. I wonder, ‘is there anyone in Mexico who actually regulates distributors of “purified” water?’

It takes a few days to get over my fear of the large purified bottle of water in the condo but after using it to wash vegetables and brush my teeth (and not getting sick), I give in and pour myself a glass of water from the 5-gallon jug. It is then that I start to question where the water in Cabo comes from.

There are no rivers near Cabo San Lucas and because this is a desert, ground water is rare; the nearest source of groundwater, spring fed from the small mountain range that rises in the middle of the peninsula, is 30 miles away in San Jose Del Cabo. But even the relatively clean water that comes from the mountain is not enough to feed the 40,000 people in Cabo and the ever growing tourist population along the coast. Every few days, residents of Cabo’s impoverished barrio run out of water.

In Cabo, the answer to the water shortage problem has come from the ocean that surrounds the peninsula. Small desalination plants have existed in Cabo for several years now; the technology has gotten much less expensive in the past decade so large resorts and private residents can afford to buy the equipment needed to remove the salt from the sea water. A few months ago, a large desalination plant, designed to meet the water needs of all the residents in Cabo, began operation just outside the city.

The desalination plant has come as sweet salvation for the residents of Cabo San Lucas.

But I wonder how long the salvation can last. And at what price.

There is a reason that thirty years ago, Cabo San Lucas was all but desert with few inhabitants; it is naturally uninhabitable and unable to environmentally support a large number of people. But like so many other places on Earth, we built roads to transport people and goods, water and fuel where the Earth does not want us. Usually, those places are the most vulnerable; their ecosystems are fragile for some reason and the gentle balance of nature can easily shift to a dangerous tide.

Build a high-rise hotel close to a beach which is the only place a specific type of turtle hatch their eggs, and you lose the entire species. And with it, any other plant or animal that relied on that turtle.

Build a desalination plant and destroy the kelp fields, the coral reefs, and kill the fish in the area because of the high concentration of by product dumped back into the ocean.

I am reminded of Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” and wonder, if others know that there is water, if they build more desalination plants, will more people come? Will more high-rises be built? Will the precious ecosystem of Baja be able to tolerate the stampede?

I wonder, when will it stop? When we lose one turtle? Or a thousand? When will we say, enough?

Second-class PhD

“I never thought I’d be a second class citizen,” he lamented. “Where I come from, education is the most important thing. A man with a PhD is respected, listened to.” He shook his head gravely. “What did I do to cause such treatment, that I wouldn’t be listened to by my colleagues?”

He dug a shovel into the ground and leaned into the wooden handle. “What did I do?” he asked again.

He is a temporary, although full time, lecturer at Chico State, one of the hundreds of people in the California State University system who have earned the highest level of education in their respective fields of study, have years of teaching or private sector experience, and still are classified as temporary employees.

The problem is not of individual creation: this is a structural problem. Over half the California State University system faculty are now lecturers, and that number is increasing each year. The structure of higher education in America is now relying on part time or temporary faculty more than ever. Most lecturers teach only a few classes a semester, but here’s the real truth: 19% of all full time faculty in the CSU system are full time, temporary lecturers, who are at risk of losing their jobs every year, despite performing well on the job. All lecturers are considered temporary in the CSU system, even if we’ve been teaching at the university full time for 10 or 15 years, and thus, are easy to dispose of.

But being a temporary lecturer is not just a part-time gig for most people in the CSU; they don’t get a sense of value and worth at a “real job” and just see teaching a a side job. This is their real job.

At the California State University, we are different from most other temporary lecturers and instructors at the college level. We have some security in contracts after 6 consecutive years of teaching in the same department at one university, we are provided health benefits for teaching at least 6 units a semester, and we are unionized, which offers a degree of protection from unfair treatment. Although not more importantly, full time lecturers earn a decent middle class wage, although still not close to what professors with the same experience and level of education earn.

We are in a much less precarious situation than many of our colleagues who are either not protected by 3 year contract and or who work at other universities and community colleges In the U.S. A majority of community college classes and students are taught by “temporary” instructors, and at those universities and colleges, unions are few and far between. Both faculty and students suffer for it due to low wages, feelings of insecurity, larger class sizes, and inconsistency in faculty mentors who are committed long term to the success of students, among other, less apparent, issues.

It is often the invisible differences that are the greatest offenses, and it is so with tenure track faculty and temporary lecturers. There exists a difference in social status among the tenured/tenure-track and the temporary lecturers at the CSU system, and my colleague with the PhD (let’s call him Dr. Lecturer) is the epitome of that status difference. Whether correct in his assumption or not does not really matter: Dr. Lecturer knows he is disposable in the college, and feels as if he’s treated differently. He feels as if his opinion does not matter as much as tenured faculty in department discussions, as if he must never speak up about injustices he feels, as if he can never request a specific schedule, as other tenured faculty do and are granted. He fears retribution from his department chair and the college Dean, if he asks for the same considerations that tenured faculty enjoy. He never questions the status quo, or decisions made in the department, because he’s afraid of losing his job, or being given a schedule that takes him away from his children more.

Being a “temporary” lecturer means being disposable, or at least telling people in a subtle way, every day, that they are disposable.

Marx called this phenomena alienation: the worker is treated as if he or she is disposable and as a result, becomes mentally separated from the product of the work, and has little or no investment in that work. Workers work not because they are invested in the job and care about the outcome of the work, but because they are afraid of losing their job.

Imagine if, every day, your employer told you and reminded you that you are disposable, that your presence at your company could be replaced tomorrow, that you are worth less than the person working next to you, who has the same education and less work experience. How would you feel about that employer, and that job? How would that make you feel over time about yourself?

I shake my colleague’s hand as I leave him to his yard work; he invites my family and I to dinner soon. “Thank you,” he says to me as I say goodbye. “You always respect me, and I appreciate that. Thank you.”

Academia is not what I imagined it would be when I was growing up, or even when I was an undergraduate. I imagined a place of equality, and fairness, and deep respect for colleagues and students. I imagined a lot of things, but I never imagined a world where Dr. Lecturer would be disrespected so thoroughly because of his title, that he would thank a colleague who showed him respect.

Teaching Ferguson

Black Lives Matter to Teachers

To me, a professor that effectively teaches about race and ethnic relations (as they play out in the U.S.) is as valuable as any Physics or History prof. We aren’t always seen that way (by White administrators, conservative White students, and many of our White communities), but after teaching this topic every semester for six years, I know that it takes more than patience and courage, which I was often told is something I had. To stand up in front of a group of adults and tell them things they don’t want to hear or learn about, well that takes guts. Not every prof has ‘em.

After several years of teaching and providing diversity-related professional development to academics and academic administrators, I learned that they fear the following regarding race/ethnicity in their curriculum:

  • Losing control of the classroom
  • “Angry” students of color
  • Don’t want to talk about their own background with students (primarily said by profs of European descent)
  • Too “political” a topic for a general ed course
  • Might get in trouble with administration

When I helped make the film If These Halls Could TalkI saw with my own eyes how important it was for teachers to talk about race with their students in the classroom. And, to help them learn to talk to each other about race. Admittedly, it is a risk, especially in courses that are not in the ethnic studies curriculum, e.g., freshman comp or micro-economics. That is where intersectionality comes in to help profs (especially White profs who don’t live this reality) link oppression’s and systems. The lives and experiences of people of color are absent in K-12 education, kids learn exactly what the system wants them to and it’s often the same old same old “In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue” blah, blah, blah crap. It’s up to profs to turn that nonsensical shit around.

This is why Ethnic Studies Curriculum requirements (at the college level) are so important. K-12 students are inconsistently educated about race relations, really young kids and teens learn about race depending on the politics of a local school district, region, or state. And though they should be taught about the factory-like nature of education and how a racist system benefits from that, they aren’t. That’s why race and ethnic relations ought to be taught across the curriculum in college rather than only as part of a major, a “theme” or general ed elective, there’s a whole history many of our young people don’t know and that their parents didn’t learn either (for an example of that, click here).

I know, I know, keep dreaming, but if you my daring, risk-taking profs are willing, you can do this, you do have the guts. If you’re an adjunct, well I was an adjunct too. So do it anyway. Trust me, solidarity and speaking to issues of race and ethnicity is noble and in line with your own interests for fair and just labor. It’s not the same struggle mind you, but it intersects as oppression’s so often do.

I hope many of you are teaching this semester about the death of unarmed Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson, MO police officer. I hope you are still talking about Trayvon Martin, he would’ve turned 20 years old this last Thursday, February 5th. Renisha McBride too, who if you recall was shot to death when she went asking for help. Or as one blog put it, “The Dangers of Being an Accident Victim While Black.”

Teachers, speak up and teach righteously. Show them how #BlackLivesMatter.

Resources I like (If you can add to this list please do so in the comments)

Conversations with My Son: on Death and Becoming an Angel

“Mommy, why do people die?” he asks me as he snuggles next to me just before falling asleep.

“Well,” I tell him, “people get sick and they get hurt, and sometimes that causes them to die.”

His body starts to hitch with tears, so I pull him closer.

“My grandpa died!” he sobs, and I try to shoosh him as I wipe tears from his face.

“Yes, Grandpa got sick and died.”

“I don’t want to die, Mommy! I don’t want to die and be an angel!” he cries uncontrollably and buries his face into my shirt. “Mommy, will you die, too?” he asks. My heart hurts as I try to find the right words, so that I don’t lie to him, but also to comfort him.

“Mommy will be here for a long, long time,” I tell him. “I’ll be here when you grow up and become a daddy and when you have grand babies too.”

He thinks about this for a moment, but its not enough to stop the tears, nor the hitch in his breathing as he tries to comprehend a life as an adult.

He’s my gentle child, the extra-senstitive one, who hurts to the very core at life’s injustices and notices when people are cruel, and understands that bad things happen, and that people die. It’s got to be tough for a just-turned-four year old to understand so much about life already, and to already be contemplating life without his mother by his side.

“Mommy, I want to keep you forever,” he tells me as he snuggles in closer, wraps his arms around me, and falls asleep.