The Back Story Behind Culture as Comfort

14.01.2012 The Back Story Behind Culture as Comfort Comments Off on Back Story Part 2

Back Story Part 2

After my first semester teaching, not only my career but my second career as a mother began to settle into a routine.  I got more sleep but I also found that the class preparation I did for one semester, largely shaped how I taught the class the next time.  Yes, I’d fiddle with the content, the assigned readings, etc. but the structure was pretty much the same.  Not surprisingly, I kept teaching about how children learn culture using the innovations I had come up with for the first time or two I taught the class.  And my critical awareness of how little textbooks handle the subject faded into the background and I focused on the things Jr. faculty focus on – publishing in order to secure tenure.  Being a single parent (married but my husband lived in another city as he pursued his PhD) also affected how much I could devote my time to ideas that interested me but which were not central to my discipline and thus less likely to be rewarded.  Yes, I kept watching as Sophie in her late infancy and toddlerhood continued to learn culture and “identities.”  As you’ll see in Culture as Comfort a huge concern of hers as well as other kids her age was learning and then disciplining each other around gender.  Gender in toddlerhood is hugely important and highly monitored.  It fascinated me and I recorded Sophie’s encounters in my memory (but, alas, not in systematic notes) and I also watched as she in her 3s and 4s negotiated her belonging in preschool along what I considered “ethnic” lines.  As a dark-haired, brown-eyed kid in a class mostly of blonde, blue-eyed kids (this was Vermont after all), she expressed some understanding that she was different.  As I explain in the book, we came up with a way to help her understand this.  Since I was teaching courses to undergraduates on race and ethnicity, her wrangling with her own physical identity also interested me, but I did not go out to see what anyone was writing about children learning these “identities.”  Truly, I was so absorbed with the day-to-day strains of teaching, mothering and trying to publish.  Plus how do you go to conferences away from home as a single parent?  I takes a lot of coordination; sometimes I’d drive to NYC to where my husband was; sometimes I’d take Sophie along and sometimes my parents would cover for me.  As the first grandchild, Sophie was doted upon a lot and my parents were young enough to keep up with her (plus they had retired early so were more available at least during the summer months when they were not that far away.  In the winter they lived in Florida which was not convenient for grandchild care.)

In short, the early career years were nose-to-the-grindstone years and I kept alive the spark of Culture as Comfort in simple ways that would become helpful later while writing the book.  Tenure is great but it also has a big downside in terms of willingness to experiment as a young professional.   The rules are pretty clear about tenure and you follow them because you have to (after all I was the main breadwinner in my family and teaching was about having a job not just a career).  But the six years of conformity to the rules constrict your (at least my) thinking and, largely unawares, you learn to master the system, not question them.  Had I taken a chance and gone with my “instincts” at this time, my whole career would probably have been quite different.

14.01.2012 The Back Story Behind Culture as Comfort 1 Comment

The Back Story Begins…

The Back Story Part 1

Have you ever been hit by a realization of something so fundamental, so seemingly commonsensical that you wonder why you didn’t think of it before?  That’s pretty much what happened to me and what inspired me to begin the long journey toward what has become the book Culture as Comfort.  The story involves trying to explain culture through the lens of how we learn culture as young children and I chronicle not only my intellectual path in this blog, but also the trials, tribulations and (occasional) triumphs of trying to get the book published.  It’s also a story about my career (as opposed to life since at least in my case these are not synonymous) as an anthropologist, primarily the love for the perspective and the continual growth of my disenchantment with academia.

Although I could start way back in graduate school (and I should in terms of wrangling with academic institutions but that would make the blog more about academia than about Culture as Comfort ), I begin in the fall of 1992 whenI had both recently graduated from Columbia University with my PhD in Anthropology and given birth to my daughter, Sophia.  Her timing was impeccable as she arrived late enough so I could deposit my dissertation and graduate and early enough (she was 2 weeks early) so I could take her to graduation with me.   I was teaching my first semester as a new faculty member in the anthropology department at the University of Vermont and had been assigned Introduction to Anthropology.  It turned out to be the best coincidence that Sophie was born just before I began because I started teaching about culture as I witnessed her learning “it.”  So, as luck would have it, I began thinking a lot about how babies learn culture and found that the textbook I ordered for my students paid really no attention to this.  Yes, the section on the concept of culture (a mere couple of pages out of a textbook running hundreds of pages) mentioned that people learn culture but that was it.  Nothing about how we learn culture, whether people around the world all learn culture the same way or if this differs – much like economic, political, kinship, religious, gender, etc. systems that the textbook spent loads of time discussing.  Why not?  I didn’t know then and I really didn’t have much time to look into it because with a young child, a new career, no family around (even my husband lived 300 miles away as he was pursuing his PhD), I barely had time to eat let alone ponder big issues.  But the next semester when I taught Intro again and Sophie was at that great interactive age (plus sleeping solidly through the night as was I–finally) I started to think about how people learn culture.  I took long looks at what Sophie was doing and began to hypothesize that babies (1) imitate what they see, (2) learn by direct instruction from others (e.g., “Don’t touch that!”) and (3) learn through trial and error.  I didn’t know then that anthropologists up until the late 1970s had spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out “enculturation,” the specific term in anthropology for learning one’s first culture.  And I also did not know that psychologists and neuroscientists were beginning to chart the way we learn especially in early infancy.  I just stumbled into my own insight given the serendipity of early parenthood coinciding with early careerhood.

Subsequently, I’ve learned that our best insights will typically come early in our careers precisely for the reasons articulated in my book – the longer you stay in a “discipline” the more disciplined you’re likely to be so that it becomes harder, but not impossible, to think outside those boundaries.  [Link to paper/chapter about innovation early in life – one on music].  Link also to “Late Bloomers” essay in Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw which argues that innovation not linked to age.

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