Language Learning, Stigma, and Protecting a Potentially Spoiled Identity

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 such 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!


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

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.

Ethnography, Tanzania, PhD degrees, and Something to Read at Bedtime


       Someone told me once that a PhD is a license to write for other PhDs.  As Donna Lanclos notes, this is different than making a living, and getting a full-time tenure-track job.  Nevertheless, as Donna herself demonstrated with her own book about childhood in Northern Ireland, this is a license that we can actually on occasion use.

       But, while a PhD may be a license to write, what is really fun is getting people to read what you wrote. And hopefully to do this, they do not need a PhD (indeed, a lot of really good ethnographic writing is actually done by people who don’t have a PhD, but don’t tell anyone!).  Having said that, here is my latest use of my license to write, and the result of something like ten years of back and forth in the wilds of western Tanzania, archives of Dar Es Salaam, and Chico where I tried to figure out how a very remote area became what we see to you today.  So, from African Studies Quarterly, presenting: “Social Organization and Social Status in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Rukwa, Tanzania.”  This is written for the other nineteen people in history, anthropology, and sociology who are interested in western Tanzania, and for Mark Dawson who is bound to find plenty of material for more existential musing.

      Seriously, I hope more than the other people interestedin Tanzanian history read this.  But, as I tell my students, such articles are perhaps best read for content in the mid-morning with a cup of coffee.  Unless of course you have insomnia, in which case you might try reading it in bed!