Between Minecraft and Spine Graft

I lost part of my parental backbone when I acquiesced to downloading Minecraft to a fourth device in our household. I suspect it’s because my heart, at times yearning for the years when my now 11-year-old son was smaller, was warmed by a yet-unsurpassed display of cuddly tendencies from him as he cared for his Minecraft plushies that serve as compadres in his online Minecraft adventures.

(For those unfamiliar, imagine a fairly non-violent video game that is like movable building blocks in an endless world where you create whatever you want [with friends who are sitting next to you in real life and running around next to you on the screen], and you run into characters in the game that are now sold as stuffed animals at Target). (And for others of you who understand the word plushy to mean something that is more appropriate for an adult audience, that’s not what this post is about).

My son is a kid. Indeed, he throws the plushies around and adds crash noises when they collide.  But he also gently tucks his plushies into bed.  He covers them in tiny chenile blankets that used to flank his crib bumpers. He hugs them. He sets them on the desk when he plays his game online. He gives them names like Bomby and Mr. Stamps. He pushes them into my cheek and says they’re giving me a kiss. He asks me to mend them when a friend’s dog bites a hole suspiciously near the place where bodily waste would come out if plushies could poop.

He cuddles with them. Like a little kid. Like a nurturing parent.

And so is born in our household a bridge between childhood and teenagehood. And as each day goes by and he asks if he can go explore the Minecraft world behind what seems like an increasing number of closed doors, I realize that he is soon going to be the teenage explorer, followed by the adult explorer. And there’ll be less cuddliness and innocence. At least for me to see.

When my son was a baby he was not tremendously cuddly.  He was born huge and energized and really just wanted to spend his time looking around, moving, and exploring, since he had spent a lot of time cooped up in utero.  I think it just felt good to stretch. He looked out into the world more than he looked at me. But now that he’s got long legs and feet almost as big as mine and more strength, he sits on my lap and hugs me and leans into my neck when we sit and talk about his pixelated world.  Even more than when I could hold him in my arms. He is turning into a man and I see nurturing and softness and cuddliness and kindness. And I get to see this now that he has gangly arms and legs and a voice that’s lower.

I did not know that the soft little cuddly creatures that are supposed to represent hard-edged pixelated creatures in a video game would serve as symbols of the bridge between childhood and teenagehood for my son. Or that they’d make me see a softness in him that I saw less of when he was tiny. They are making me look backward and forward at the same time, and I have decided to notice it and love it. Not as someone who looks at Freudian mother-son stuff, though that could be interesting. But as a sociologist who loves to look at how life stages can tell us more about ourselves than we often notice. Transitions are often the times in life when we see things more clearly, or notice things that we didn’t see before.  When we change jobs, we see our vocational strengths and weaknesses more clearly. When we move, we see our living preferences more clearly. When we are sick and then hopefully recover, we notice our bodies more. When we lose someone, we understand ourselves better.

For boys, sometimes we fail to notice the softness, a failure that often gets more pronounced over time.  Unless we don’t fail to notice.  Unless we don’t fail to recognize that transitions show how someone can be both soft and strong, both pixelated and plushy. And that they have always been this way.

If we construct our “giving in” to our kids’ whims as losing our spine or missing a backbone, then I can best classify my back bones as made of part rock, part cartilege, and part pudding. In the case of Minecraft, which by some accounts is a pretty great way for him to spend his time and learn to create worlds with his friends and get inspired to maybe someday be an engineer, and by other accounts means he’s turning his brain and social skills into mush, I have decided to turn this “giving in” into a set of moments in time to consciously notice his transition into a new stage of life, and to frame it in a way that, perhaps, dispels how we think about boyhood and manhood.

These are the moments when I get to see hard-edges of a pixelated late kidhood meshed with soft edges of plushies nestled in his arms. Isn’t that what all of our lives are like?  Hard edges and soft edges both. I choose to work harder at noticing the soft edges of boyhood.


Between Smörgåsbord and Polyamory

I decided to break up with a restaurant this week, but they don’t know it. They may never know it, because I am only one of their many partners (note to people reading this who are my friends who have restaurants — it isn’t you).  We — this restaurant and I — are in a polyamorous relationship, which means that we are both okay with having multiple partners, and if we break up with each other we still have others to love. I refer to my adoration to the multiple eating establishments within a three mile radius of my house as Big Restaurant Love.  The ones I love the most are ones where I like what they cook, I like how it feels to be in their presence, and they like having me there (or they pretend really well).  Setting aside the problematic analogy of an economic exchange with a relational one, the big picture here reveals that they are in more relationships than with just me, and I am in more relationships than with just them.

But I can’t quite say that our relationship roles are the same. Because I am mortal, I participate in Restaurant Serial Monogamy, which is an academic term that means I am physically present in at most one restaurant at a time. But they get to have multiple partners in their presence at the same time.

In the case of my recent restaurant break-up, I thought about leaving a post-it note on the table with the phrase “It’s not me, it’s you. We’re through.”  But instead I left a tip, I left a smattering of chicken bits, and I left the premises. Besides, I didn’t have any post-its.

So what went wrong? Because I am a card-carrying member of the Clean Plate Club, I did eat most of my food. It cost more than my previous two lunches combined, after all. Plus, I was hungry and the server never returned to ask me how it was until I had tried most of it.  Despite eating it, I found the chicken to have the texture of rubber, I wondered whether gray was the new hip color for pico de gallo, and every time I looked at the guacamole, it made me think of a little pile of boogers.  And I’ve never even seen a pile of boogers.

Anyway, more than the food texture and aesthetic, the problem at this restaurant was that the food was overpriced, the server seemed mostly annoyed that I was there, and there was no appropriate response to my eventual reasonable complaint (which did not include reference to boogers, by the way — that was just in my head).  And it was evidently enough to make me decide I am not going back.

Sometimes when I teach about relationships, I talk about the principle of least interest with my students. This concept can be loosely defined to mean that whoever has less interest in a relationship actually has more power because they can afford to leave.  While this grossly oversimplifies relationship struggles, removes all semblance of romance from intimate relationships, and is technically grammatically incorrect (it should be the principle of less interest, at least if there are two partners), there is something to this.

Let’s pretend for a minute that breaking up with a restaurant requires the same consideration as breaking up with a person. In the deliberation of either, you can wonder what criteria should be used to decide a break-up is in order.  If it’s a short-term relationship, it’s easier — the other party hardly knew ye.  If you’ve become a loyal customer and then figure out you hate the place, you may turn that seething hatred that grows over time into a decision to give a long passionate speech at an opportune moment and storm out the door. “This is the last time you forget the paprika on my Eggs Benedict! I’m through with you!”

The moment of truth for a restaurant comes when there are too many people with the least interest. The moment of truth for the patron is when she realizes that her angry departure will have little to no effect on their well-being.

I was a waitress for half of one shift at a steak and eggs joint in 1991, so I know how hard it is to work in a restaurant and establish high quality relationships with customers. Okay, I don’t, but I do leave generous tips.  It only takes me about 90 minutes to establish empathy for any given occupation if I try it. (note to self: write blog post about how mosquito bites make it particularly difficult to have a job that consists of evening neighborhood canvasing for an environmental organization in 99% humidity, a job which I held for 90 minutes).

In the town of 5,000 people where I grew up, we customers had a lot to lose by disliking a restaurant. Since there were so few, disliking one meant removing huge degrees of freedom for our weekend nights. But where I live now and with the resources I now have, I live the luxurious life of restaurant choice, which means I have the privilege to pick and choose. And I can go to multiple places in one week and they don’t even question my loyalty!

But then again, if I never come back to some of these “choice” places, they may not notice.  So, who has more or less interest now?

I’ll tell you who has the least interest in my well-being — the one who decides that a pile of boogers can pass for guacamole.


Between Coffee Pod and Coffee Pot

Despite my being the sleepiest human in my household, I am the only one who drinks coffee. Not swayed by the dangers of coffee stains on my teeth from viewing 1970s Topol toothpaste commercials (for cigarette stains too!), I succumbed to the warm caffeinated elixir sometime in my first years before tenure. I figured that coffee was a more sophisticated choice than Mountain Dew with my breakfast. Since then, coffee has been a part of all of my days. Like a tiny bitter friend who beckons to me when I wake, whispering “I know I’m not great for you. But you love me anyway. And I make you wake up, which is a requirement for you to function as a productive human being who does not intentionally stab people with a ballpoint pen.”

It was just a few years ago that I gave up the 12-cup pot coffee maker for a single-serving one, made by the Pod People. I did this so that I would stop drinking 12 cups of coffee in the morning, or, in more glamorous days, continually soaking ladyfingers in cold coffee for what I will label “Michelle’s failed tiramisu adventures of autumn 2009.”

Beyond the subject of the production of coffee, which I’ve talked at length with sociology students about in terms of labor, migration, inequality, and terrain and temperatures closer to the equator, I have always found the consumption of coffee to be more sociologically intriguing, at least as it plays out in people’s lives that I see regularly. And I’m not just saying this because I live in the Pacific Northwest, birthplace of complicated and pretentious coffee orders. I couldn’t quite put my (lady)finger on what was intriguing about it until a handful of friends started recently lamenting their problematic attempt at upgrading the office coffee station with single serving cups full o’ coffee grounds made by the Pod People. The process has gone something like this:

Office folks: “Let’s use this new-fangled Pod coffee machine, and then we can each have different flavors and do less dishes. And then Susan in accounting will be able to have tea pods, too.”

Other office folks who are politically minded but also like hot chocolate: “I dunno. It’s kind of wasteful. But maybe we’ll end up using less water. Okay. And then I can also have hot chocolate.”

Office manager: “Okay, great, seems like less mess and will make people happy. Plus, adding the word ‘pod’ to our office vernacular must mean we’re technologically savvy. Pods also seem better for capitalism and the illusion of options for my employees. That, along with more caffeine, may increase productivity.”

And then,

Office manager: “Hey, somebody keeps using all of the vanilla hazelnut, which is my favorite, and our monthly coffee budget has been used up and it’s only the 5th day of the month.  From now on everyone has to buy and bring their own Pods.”

And then,

All, in their minds: “Why don’t any of us get along anymore?”

You see, a communal coffee pot in a workplace, wherein people who finish the last drop of the pot participate in the social contract to replenish the next one, is a dying breed in the list of “normative office activities that yield community-building” breeds. Now replaced with Pods, it is no longer the case that we need to think of the next person as we pour ourselves a cup of Joe.

My office building still has the communal pot. Used to the motion of grab-pod-then-lift-then-push-then-immediately-get-coffee, however, I am not a daily consumer of the office coffee. For me, my unlikelihood to frequent the pot is precisely because it makes coffee about other people.

It’s not that I don’t like other people. It’s that I define coffee consumption as a fairly solitary action. (Give me a beer, and that’s a different story, and usually a different time of day). Oh, and I’m also self-centered and lazy.

Coffee is my morning solitude. My transition into a day that is filled with people, not a way to commune with said people. I am the anti-social coffee drinker, which I use as a lubricant to become social. And by social, I do not mean chatty and outgoing, as when I drink beer, but rather I mean able to complete a sentence and open both eyes when finishing that sentence. I include my family in this, by the way, as in “Don’t ask me a question about Minecraft, your report card, the broken toilet, or that pile of doggie vomit in the corner until I’ve had a cup of this magic.” This is quite different from what I remember seeing in adults as I was growing up – church-goers sitting after a wedding or funeral drinking cups of light brown Folgers and eating jello salads; teachers gathered over coffee with my dad in the teacher’s lounge with stained mugs that said things like “World’s Best Paid Teacher” and “My Dog Ate Your Kid’s Homework” and “You Can Count On Math Teachers.”

I wrote my PhD dissertation on home-to-work boundaries, and based part of it on the work of my friend Christena, who actually studied, among other things, how people used beverages to signify the transition between home and work (warm bevvies with caffeine in the a.m., cold ones with alcohol in the p.m.). This was a great way for my brain to understand the material manifestation of time and social boundaries, and to understand the role coffee plays in my life. My home self sits alone in a big rocking chair in the quiet with coffee in the morning. My work self meanders in the hallways pleasantly running into colleagues and students and chatting, usually without a coffee cup in hand.  (My coffee shop self is the subject of a different post, but suffice it to say here that coffee shop social interactions can be both isolated and social, and it’s always fun to watch the isolated folks get their alone moments bursted open by that friend who just wants to chat for 30 seconds but then keeps talking because their latte is not ready yet).

Anyway, what I wonder is whether the infiltration of Pod People coffee machines will change the nature of collective behavior in workplaces. It may be much easier to mandate individual accountability and reinforce self-centeredness and the illusion of choice with Pods than it is with a machine that requires thinking of the next set of mugs the 12 cups will fill.  However, it may be that this vision idealizes the generosity of actual people who drink from a communal pot. After all, there are at least three coffee-spattered signs hanging above the communal pot in my office building saying things like “Hey, you! Yes you! Fill the coffee pot!” or “There is no ‘I’ in coffee – fill up the next pot for your friends.”

Add a Pod People machine, and those signs (and their social contract implications) go away. “Coffee for one” replaces “All for coffee, and coffee for all.”

As for me, the consumption end of the coffee bean is more about my mental health and transitions during my day than it is about a social contract.

I wonder, though, on a larger level, what ramifications the individual Pods may have on the collective coffee pot among friends and colleagues.  If we all turn into Pod People, might it stop occurring to us to think about when someone else’s coffee cup is empty?

Between Naughty and Nice

Which is worse – to be artificially nice or to be genuinely mean? Actually, I prefer to be genuinely nice. Besides, being artificially mean just makes people end up looking like a tiny puppy growling against a ferocious lion: surprising and fiesty at first, and then just stupid.

I have mixed feelings about being nice (Is nice a feeling? Can you have feelings about feelings? Can I be suspicious of my suspicion?).

On the one hand, I find it tremendously important to be kind, communicate with my family and friends with sincere care, model kindness to my son, and put myself in someone’s shoes in order to show care and compassion because that’s what I’d like to be shown. I carry proudly the nickname “Minnesota Nice,” and abide by the Golden Rule whenever it occurs to me that I should do this. Two of the most difficult moments in my adolescence were when I was falsely accused of doing something mean. It cut to the core to have people think I was capable of meanness, lying, and intentional attack. As a grown-up, I have found that being nice to students is more likely to yield good dialogue and enhanced learning than being mean. I come from a long line of people who think hospitality is a great virtue, and the greatest gift you can give someone (and yourself) is to know that people have felt they have been treated with kindness. Kindness is respect. Be nice. Work hard. And sometimes, work hard at being nice.

I have been taught and I believe in an ethos of community building that is grounded in respect. I have found myself physically ill at the behaviors and spoken and written words that have come out of some people’s mouths for the sake of calling attention to problems – not the calling attention itself, but the way the attention is called or the frequency with which it is called. It makes me sad when people hurt, and words can hurt. They have hurt me. They have devastated people I know and love. They are easy to spout, they are often based on incomplete information, and they are hard to take back. My entire set of research and personal ethics standards are based on compassion and doing as little harm as possible, precisely because I’ve seen and felt the damage that unkindness can yield. In no uncertain terms, then, I think it’s important to be nice to people.


This version of my ethics falters when viewed in other parts of my story. Nobody can be nice all the time, except maybe the guy who works at our local UPS store (seriously, I have no idea how I can leave that store happy every time, when all we’ve discussed is how many days I want a package to take to arrive safely at my in-laws’ house). Ever since I can remember, my dad repeated to me, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.” This was a man whose most stunning display of angered curse words was a monotone “Oh bunk” after breaking his toe, a tone that probably stemmed from early medical trauma, uneducated immigrant parents, and an unfaltering sense of gratitude just to be able to walk, talk, and hear out of one ear. Starting around age 13, when most of what my dad said to me began being increasingly classified in the “ugh, Dad is so weird” rhetorical category, I responded to his recitation with “I think you’re wrong. I think you can say something that is not nice if it helps the person. In fact, I believe I am doing that now. But telling you you’re wrong is not necessarily being unkind.” I carry with me pride in my ability to be direct when I need to be, and it started during that conversation. It can save time. Just think about all of those Minnesotans who say “no” three times when asked if they want that last piece of tator tot hotdish in order to be nice. If people just said, “sure, I’ll take it” when they wanted it, everyone would just know what’s what. It may not be as (unnaturally?) nice, and it could lead to three months of rural-Midwest quiet hotdish resentment, but it does less damage in the long run because it’s honest and direct. Plus, if I was always nice and never said anything critical and kept quiet to ensure everything was all hunky-dory, I’m certain some of the sexist crap that I’ve experienced in my life would have persisted.

I never asked my dad whether he agreed with me in the end about my claim that being critical can be helpful, and therefore (oddly) a nice thing to do, probably because I didn’t want him to say, “Oh bunk, Michelle, I disagree.” But I think he would have found it to be a pretty reasonable claim. As long as I said thank you after I proposed it, and didn’t support any unsupportable meanness in myself or any other human beings.

Besides occasional misrepresentations of Midwestern holiday recipes in social media outlets, there are troubling news headlines in our midst. Headlines that show fear, inequality, anger, misrepresentation, and breathlessness. Many instances that call for criticism. Not many nice people. Not easy to take a side without some not-niceness to someone you know or love. Lots of silence because it just feels like the nicest thing to do.

Because of all sorts of reasons that classify me in the “decent life chances” category of life (secure job, white, old-ish, sometimes smart, tall, safe, well-networked, able to express whatever I want without fear of losing my job), I am in a privileged position to be able to choose whether to be nice, whether to evaluate others’ niceness, and whether to classify not-niceness as necessary if the circumstances align with my own political beliefs. Sometimes I’m not nice, and I spend some time managing that wake (and my nice-socialization has trained me to have a very low threshold of what constitutes a need to manage a wake). I know my friends would probably classify me as the nice version of direct. No death matches or “Dance Moms” for me or I’d run into a corner and cry. But I have honed a bit of passive aggression, as well as the more direct high pitched holler that I learned from various matriarchs in my family, a holler that usually comes out because I’m stressed or strained and the only thing that there’s room for in my psyche is a loud raspy voice that says “all of you people need to just shut up and pick up your stupid socks that are all over the floor!” And here’s the interesting part: sometimes the people I want to shut up the most are the ones who are saying we need to be not-nice precisely because people do not have equal access to the privilege of choosing niceness. Nice paradox. Head spinning. Nobody wants to have their own privilege revealed.

The point is, even if I don’t want to hear it, if I wanted to be not-nice, I could be, and it wouldn’t really be attached to my life chances (except maybe the fun likelihood for women to be labeled as hysterical or bossy when they’re just giving directions for how to get to the interstate in the most direct manner, dammit). For the most part, I can afford to vacation in the land of naughty, because it never disrupts my nice privilege. I have what Bourdieu would have called “nice capital.” How Santa would classify it I’m not sure, but I know I’d likely end up with a present that may be a little smudged with coal, rather than a lump of coal itself. And it wouldn’t have anything to do with an empirical calculation of my inherent niceness.

After all of this wrestling, will I still teach my son to be nice? Absolutely. You can take the girl out of Minnesota, but, despite my revision of my dad’s mantra, you can’t take the Minnesota completely out of the girl. Will being nice help my son in his life? Perhaps, depending on how much he thinks others’ views of him matters. Will being nice make him happy? Maybe, depending on what he figures out brings him happiness. Is a better question to ask whether I ought to teach him the ability to understand privilege so that he is able to enter any friendship or loving interaction with understanding that niceness is judged differentially based on qualities over which we have little control? Yes.

What I learn from my son the most, which is what I think my dad was always trying to say, is that the best way to love is to try to understand what someone’s circumstances are before you evaluate them as naughty or nice.

Nice going kid.

Between Spouse and House

I have spent some of my free time in the last two months watching two shows regularly: “Married at First Sight” and “Love it or List it.” The first, an FYI-channel program based on a Danish TV show (“Gift ved Første Blik” — yes, “gift” is Danish for “married”), has as its premise three couples who are matched using social scientific compatibility measures, then married, and then asked after a few weeks whether they “want to stay married, or get divorced.” The second, one of the many HGTV shows I like to refer to as residential real estate porn, has as its premise couples (usually) who disagree about whether they should sell their less-than-adequate house even after a designer remodels it but never to their full expectations because of predictable mishaps, code violations, and varmints hiding in the attic that require a $6,000 extermination fee. The alternative is to move to a different house that meets their needs better. Designer v. real estate agent. Spouse v. spouse. Old house v. new house. The couples are asked, with all of the musical tension and awkward staring of a Bachelorette rose ceremony, “Do you want to love it (long pause) or list it (longer and more annoying pause)?”

Full disclosure: I love both of these shows. They’re like crack for people like me who are fascinated with the intersections of spaces, relationships, and expert advice.  Heck, I write about how spaces and relationships intersect, and try to tell anyone who’ll listen how awesome my research is.  [Note to self: get my own cable access show…]

Despite being reality shows, these shows are escapes of fantasy into romance and real estate that I do not occupy, that I do not want to occupy, but that contain moments and deliberations that come just close enough to my own life that I stay hooked.  Also, I’m a sucker for good design and relationship advice (as I give advice on both quite regularly), and I’m a full audience participant when advice in either realm is just plain stupid. For example:

“Why the hell would you put that kind of faucet in a traditional kitchen!?”

“What do you mean, she should write down all of the things that she is doing wrong in their relationship!?”

Or, just to confound Neal so he doesn’t know which show I’m watching, I yell, “That is NOT the way to talk to somebody who has to share your newly decorated bedroom!”

Does the marriage show objectify the spouses, as if they are things to be done away with like houses, or does the HGTV show anthropomorphize the houses, as if they are entities with which we can break up or to which we can stay attached like lovers? Do you want to stick with your old house (spouse) or move to a new house (spouse)?  Do you want to stay married to your old spouse (house) or get divorced in the hopes of finding a new spouse (house)?  Fun with word substitution!

Is this just a fun game of metaphors, or is there something sociologically interesting going on here?

My high school speech coach said it’s good to present things in threes.  So, I will now articulate three interesting things these two shows have in common:

1. Both shows rely on experts for authority on family decisions. This blurs the boundaries between private family life and public entities. Of course, the intersection of family decisions with institutions outside of the family is nothing new (neighbors weighing in on how high to build the barn, my grandma hiding her pregnancy as long as possible so she wouldn’t get fired from a school where she taught). And of course families have relied for a long time on help from therapists, clergy members, real estate agents, and designers (I get all my marriage advice from decorators).  But the televised representation of it means now it is an even more commercialized blurred boundary, and a doubly commercialized definition of “expert.”  And, as I alluded to when I first talked about my intrigue with MAFS on this blog, there’s a difference between a trusted and invested neighbor or boss and an expert who only develops a bond with you as you work on your trust issues/bathroom remodel trials and tribulations together.

2. Both shows frame couple decisions as autonomous and agentic, despite being scripted to highlight drama, and despite obvious structural influences and constraints imposed by the experts. I think the expert voices are probably among the most sincere and legitimate voices in both marriage and real estate, and on both shows. But there’s something interesting about the finished product that is careful to show the couples saying things like “You (tile pattern/wife) were meant for me” or “I chose you (husband/stainless steel appliances).”  We love choice and freedom and claiming we are in charge of our own decisions. We love this so much that we will continue to say we have decided something in front of those who have led us toward the decisions in a careful dance of compassion and expertise.

3. Both shows presume the preference of both marriage and home ownership, two goals that are impacted by factors such as social class, family influence, geographic location, and the role of men and women in decision-making processes. What does it mean to be married?  It means to live together and aspire to own a home. What does it mean to decide whether to stay or move to a different house? It means you have agreed to some sort of long term commitment that you’ll share space because you are defined by your relationship with this other person. Despite the fact that family and housing patterns are not monolithic across time or geography, we see strikingly similar versions of both when we flip the channels.

I have actually submitted an application to a reality show that was a competition to be a host and designer. Quite obviously, I did not get that gig. I suppose I’ll need to be satisfied with being an intrigued and smart viewer. As they say, I have a face for research.

Or maybe I will track down that cable access channel…


Between Disciplined and Interdisciplinary

I am part of a proud discipline whose past professional society acronym began, way back in 1905, as ASS.  Thank goodness the American Sociological Association stopped calling itself a Society years ago, and just studies it now instead.

I must admit that I really like sociology. I see it as a distinct area of study, with boundaries and unique approaches, and members with surprising musical abilities — all of which separate it from other fields. I want people who are hired in my own sociology program to proudly call themselves sociologists. And I always perk up a bit when I see a piece of research done by sociologists cited in the New York Times. I’m proud of my field of expertise, its history, its methods, its theories, and its likelihood to attract people who like to jam with their musical instruments after a conference session on the merits of applying cultural capital to blues music.

But I’ve always done sociology with inspiration from lots of other areas of study. I can’t study families without knowing a little about child development. I can’t study schools without knowing a little about education theories. I can’t study love letters without watching lots of really bad romantic reality TV shows.

This summer I have spent some time thinking about what it means to be in one particular academic discipline or another, or to have one word that defines your entire career. For those of you people who have paid jobs that, in my ignorant imagination, are easy to define to small children like “firefighter” or “doctor” or “contortionist,” being a “sociologist” can be tricky to define.

Like when I gave a talk to my son’s 4th grade math class on the uses of math in sociology. I said that sociologists study people and their behaviors and attitudes, so that we could try to understand them and maybe predict things so that problems are less likely to occur in the future.  This definition was immediately followed by a girl’s astute question: “So does that mean you can read people’s minds?”

Now, while I don’t expect ten-year-olds to fully grasp what it is that I do on a daily basis for paid work, and while I sometimes think I can read people’s minds, I worry that I sometimes have a hard time explaining what I do.  Lately I’m having trouble.  I’m having trouble, though, for really cool reasons — all of which relate to the fact that sociology cannot operate on its own.

Nor has it ever done so.

Nor can any discipline of study.

As we see news and social media feeds of racial tension, war zones, fundraisers for debilitating diseases, and Miley Cyrus, we also see people interpreting, scolding, praising, and thinking of good questions that researchers ought to ask if we are to understand our social world.  And the thoughtfulness, if aggregated, seems to emanate from a collection of voices that could never be easily placed into one discipline: some sociologists, sure, but also parents and teachers and kids and clergy and economists and counselors and computer experts and and and…

The voices are not from one place with clear boundaries and methods and theories and musical abilities. They are from everywhere. And from the borders between the places. And sometimes, like with the too-frequent news stories of violence here and there, from the borders where the places struggle to co-exist.

This fall, instead of teaching one of my usual classes, I’m taking a class on one of those strange and wonderful topics that is hard to define: global studies. The idea is to combine a bunch of smart professors in a classroom (plus me), read good readings, talk together, and design events and courses that use the best of all of our academic disciplines and the new cool overlapping or conflicting ideas that emerge from our brains after spending 3 hours a week in one room together. Sometimes it’s worrisome to put that many professors in one room because we are, after all, all of the dorky know-it-alls from junior high gathered in one place. But I’m optimistic. A new class that I’ll get to team-teach with a non-sociologist colleague may emerge. Like Global Childhoods. Or Lego Design.

The neat-o thing about sociology is that we can study why professional organizations exist, how they do what they do, and why they sometimes maintain boundaries for reputation’s sake, but really delve into other fields of study all the time. If there’s one thing I know I will need to continue to hone as a college teacher, it is that solving problems or being creative or landing on other planets will require work from at least a dozen different “disciplines” with a myriad of epistemologies, a hybrid of methods, and a blur of theories.  Keeping tidy boundaries around the name of the discipline that is calligraphied on my diplomas won’t cut it (nor, as my education historian friends know, has it ever).

Maybe my approach is best described as a theme and variations, like in a musical composition. I’ll keep my theme — it’s what I know best. But I’ll make it better by rearranging the notes, adding another instrument in the score, and improvising more.


Between Parent and Child

To be a parent today, more than ever, means being able to sift through countless online and paper “listicles” of advice, scary news, views of children in other places that succumb too much to violence that stems from adult conflict, and clever kids’ room decorating tips on Pinterest. This is overwhelming.

I believe many of us parents have titles like the following in our libraries and social media feeds:

More or Less: How to Raise Overscheduled Kids and Then Feel Guilty About it and Then Schedule Them in Fewer Activities but Then Add to Their Schedule to Keep Up With Other Parents Whose Kids Will Get Into A Good College

The Professional Parent: How to Spend as Much Effort and Organization in Parenting as You Do in Your Professional Career, But Know How Much of Your Parent Self You Can Show at Work To Be Seen as Just Family-Oriented Enough

Social Trust is Overrated: How to Avoid Subtly Showing Your Mistrust of Everyone Except People Who Look Like You To Your Kids

Don’t Let Your Kid Be Independent: How Not To Get Arrested For Letting Kids Do Things By Themselves That You Did When You Were a Kid

Up The Ladder: How to Raise Your Kids According To Your Social Class Without Knowing You’re Perpetuating Social Class Differences for the Next Generation

Americans Are The Best: How to Handle Living in the Best Country in the World That Does Not Support You With Policy if You Are Both a Worker and a Parent

Americans Aren’t Doing It Right: How to Raise Your Kids Like French/Italian/Chinese/Martian Parents Do, and Also How to Eat Like Them With Your Kids in Restaurants and Not Gain Weight

Sometimes I think parents, despite our valiant efforts to be the grown-ups in situations with our children, are more like toddlers with flailing appendages trying to learn what we should and should not fear. Trying to control a world that is uncontrollably filled with tall and demanding people that we’re not sure we should trust. Or so we perceive in our toddler-parent brains.

I recently asked my mom, now in her 70s, whether she thought the difference between the parent and child roles seemed wider between her and me than they are between me and my son. Because she always seemed way more grown-up to me than I am currently acting with my kid. She never laughed when I farted at the dinner table, for example.

In this discussion, Mom and I figured that the answer to that question lies squarely in the proliferation of technology and communication. Kids have long figured they knew more than their parents, but now we don’t even know what counts as good information to know. And we parents rely on preteens to show us how to scroll through Buzzfeed without accidentally clicking on porn.  The kids are teaching us more than ever. And that makes the gap between parents and children narrower now than when I was riding my purple banana-seat bike to the local swimming pool every summer. Even though that beautiful purple bike gave me more freedom and independence than I give my kid.

I could read all of those books. Or, Neal and I could do what we did when we had Aaron as a baby: read excerpts from the fluffy baby whisperer one, read excerpts from the technical medical one, throw both out the window and wing it, and then return to them three months later to realize we had done it pretty much the way the fluffy and medical experts had told us to do it.

Now that my son is a preteen, rather than actually reading the myriad parenting columns, books, and diatribes, I have a better idea. My plan is to have my ten-year-old son digitally catalog all of the parenting advice websites in order from “Most Useful For How to Raise Me” to “Meh, You Can Delete This From Your Cache.”

Surely his technological prowess will prepare him well for deciphering what is and is not useful information.