Saturday, February 25, 2006

Today's Teen Anecdote: Nationalism and Pokemon

Megblum, the eldest of the Gruntled children, will be our guest blogger next week. I wanted to share a happy home scene from her life as a high school senior.

Friday night. She wants to go to the dance with her friends. But she is taking an online course in European history with a paper due to today. She comes to me to say "All I want to say is 'Congress of Vienna; Peace of Paris; Difference? Nationalism.'" But she thought she should write a bit more than that. So she was at the computer surrounded by books, typing away, when three of the boys arrived. They understood her priorities, so they prepared to wait. They got out the Pokemon cards of their boyhood, settled around Megblum's feet, and played Pokemon as of old as she typed.

When she was finished, they all went to the dance and had a fine time.

Warms the cockles of a dad's heart.

Friday, February 24, 2006

In Sweden, All Romance is Teen Romance

Deborah Tannen, in I Only Say This Because I Love You, tells the story of a Swedish couple talking with their daughter about how she should and should not spend time with her boyfriend. The daughter wants to have an adult romance with her boyfriend. Her mom wants their meetings to be like a play date among children. Tannen tells this story as an illustration of the clash of parental and teenage frameworks for the same activity.

What strikes me about this story, though is that the Swedish mom can’t contrast casual dating with the marriage narrative, because Sweden doesn’t have a marriage narrative anymore. In the way that has become normal these days in Sweden, the parents are not married. Their daughter is 14 and her boyfriend is 17.

The mother and her boyfriend hung out, had sex, had kids, moved in together, all of which was supported by the state. If they broke up, little in their lives would change materially or socially. There was no marriage that they entered into on purpose and before the world that made them one flesh, and there would be no divorce to sever that tie.

The daughter wants to do the same thing. The parents can't say "wait until you are ready for marriage," or even "wait until you can support a family," because there is no normal marriage narrative either way, and there is a normal state support narrative either way.

In Sweden, without marriage teen romance and adult mating are becoming the same.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Weird Names and the Fantasy of Uniqueness

Recently I wrote about the odd given name "Chasity." This brought a response from SQ that "I'm sure Chasity is uniquification of Chastity." I think "uniquification" is exactly right. These parents believe that it is possible to give their child a unique name. Moreover, they think it would be a good thing for their child to have a unique name.

Years ago the British sociologist Basil Bernstein studied the speaking styles of working class and middle class Londoners. He noticed that they were likely to use different ways of speaking, which he called the restricted code and the elaborated code, respectively. The restricted code is best used when all the people in the conversation know one another and have many shared understandings. Sentences tend to be concrete and specific. The elaborated code, on the other hand, is more abstract and general, filling in points that might be obscure to people not in the speaker's immediate circle.

Bernstein thought that working class speakers used a restricted code most of the time, even when talking to strangers, because most of their social life was spent with people they knew talking about things they all knew. Middle class people, on the other hand, often used the elaborated code even with their intimates. Each code is an effective way of speaking in the right circumstances, and each can be mysterious or cumbersome in the wrong circumstances.

I think working class parents are much more likely to try to give their children unique names than middle class people are. If you think primarily in terms of your social circle, then it is easy to imagine coming up with a unique name. You are also likely to refer to people only by their first names in your group of regulars, so one fancy name would do. I think this is why rappers often go by one name.

If, on the other hand, you think that your child will live in unknown places in the great world, then you are more likely to see how unlikely it is that you can come up with a unique name. Your family name is more likely to be part of how you are known and referred to.

I think the middle class also avoids uniquification of their children's names because weird names and, especially, weird spellings (or, in the case of Chasity, misspellings) of common names is itself a sign of lower class origins.

In a middle class world, William is a dignified, if formal name, as ordinary as a kitchen clock. Weeyum, [which I hope I made up] on the other hand, suggests parents who were thinking more about yelling the name in the neighborhood than how it would appear on school and job applications.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Do Students Email Professors Too Much?

In a widely circulated New York Times article this week, reporter Jonathan Glater notes:

At colleges and universities nationwide, e-mail has made professors much more approachable. But many say it has made them too accessible, erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance.


He quotes professors at big universities -- Syracuse, William and Mary, Georgetown, UC Davis, MIT -- who are distressed that students turn to them for information, directions, and advice. The Times, not surprisingly, found a way to make this a story about fear – the fear that professors have of offending the students who will be evaluating them.

I am glad to report that the professors quoted in the story who are from small teaching colleges saw these informal email communications as a teaching opportunity. An Amherst professor saw it as feedback about blind spots in his course, while a Pomona teacher took it as a chance to teach etiquette and power relations in communication.

What this story says to me is that this generation of students relate to their professors in the same close and informal way that they relate to their parents. Many people have noted that the current Millennial generation of young people have close relations with their parents – much closer than was the norm for the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers who are now their professors. Students today do write emails at all hours asking and telling things that the "never trust anyone over 30" generation would not have dreamed of sending to their teachers. I do not think that this means students today are pushy consumers.

Students today are trusting children. We teachers should honor, serve, and teach to that trust.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Daddy's Girls vs. Mama's Boys

Emily King and Kelli McGrath at the Family Class Blog have raised the interesting possibility that children oriented toward their opposite-sex parent might better learn to speak the "genderlect," to use Deborah Tannen's term, of that sex. Being bilingual in the speech habits of both sexes should be an advantage if you can keep the difference straight, though it could easily become a source of confusion if you don't. The general drift of the class's comments, though, has been that these two conditions are not really symmetrical, even if they would carry linguistic advantages. "Mama's boy" is a term of abuse in a way that "daddy's girl" is not.

So here is the question: do daddy's girls talk like daddy, and do mama's boys talk like mama? I don't think there is any real science on this, because the terms themselves are not that precise. Here is my first guess, though. Daddy's girls are allowed to be more feminine in that role, because they are under the understanding protection of their fathers. Mama's boys, on the other hand, are not more masculine in that role, because they are not protecting their mothers, since they are still kids. So mama's boys may indeed learn to talk in a feminine way – looking at who they are speaking to, listening to the words said and to the emotions not said, trying to be equal to the person they are talking to, rather than one-up. All of which would stand them in good stead in friendships with women – but may work against them in courtship. This may work well for gay men, but create real conflicts for hets.

On the other hand, my eldest daughter says "All the best girls are daddy's girls." I don't think this is a scientific statement, either, but I ain't fighting it.

Monday, February 20, 2006

"Only to My Girlfriends"

Deborah Tannen talks about talk. In a series of books on gender differences in speech, she has come back to the ways in which women use talk to establish connection, similarity, and equality with other people – especially with other women. Women often use what Tannen calls "troubles talk" as the common currency of social relations, sharing common difficulties inflicted by the world, work, children, and, especially, men. The point of sharing troubles is to bring connection. The usual response of other women is to bring sympathy – "you poor thing" – and empathy – "I know just how you feel."

Men, on the other hand, like to joke, banter, and argue about the world, politics, women, and the old standby, sports, as the common currency of social interaction. They are more reluctant to talk about their troubles. When they do so, they are usually looking for a way to solve their problems. From other men this kind of troubles talk normally elicits advice – "here's what you wanna do."

The contrasting styles of men and women are ripe for miscommunication. She tells him her troubles often, and he doesn't know why. He tries to offer helpful advice, and she gets mad. He finally tells her his troubles after much prodding, and she doesn't even try to help solve them. This can be an endless cycle of misunderstanding.

For men, having trouble in your love life is a secret. Telling it to others puts you one-down to them in status. You only reveal such secrets to the most select company, and only if the situation is dire. For women, having trouble in your love life is normal, since men as so inconsiderate and incomprehensible. Sharing those troubles is a gift that you give to other women, to establish connection. A big romantic secret is a big gift that you can generously share with your friends. It makes you the queen-for-a-day of the group, and establishes a bond among those in the know against all outsiders.

Presidential historians recently rated the top ten presidential scandals of all time for the University of Louisville. Bill Clinton's sex scandal with Monica Lewinsky ranked #10. (This seems high to me; I think history will drop all sex scandals down below military and corruption scandals, but that is a male-type argument for another day).

Why did the Lewinsky scandal break? Bill Clinton, the married father who was President of the United States was nonetheless carrying on an affair in the White House with an intern his daughter's age. Not only was this wrong, it was insanely risky. He kept it utterly secret, even, it appears, from his best friends. He, in the way of men, assumed that she would see the danger the same way, and mention it to no one. He asked her, "You haven't told anyone about us, have you?" And what was Monica's fateful answer?

"Only to my girlfriends."

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Ambivalence Kills

Recently I proposed the idea that the besetting vice of centrists is complacency. Annie at Ambivablog offered a thoughtful response to this idea and other "Musings on Moderation." She suggests that the vice of centrists is indecision – "seeing too much on all sides, becoming so snarled in subtlety and complexity that you can't factor all your insights quickly enough into a vector for action." I think she has a point – and Lord knows centrists have more than one vice.

The title of this blog is a phrase I live by.

Some have suggested to me that decisiveness is another word for rigidity and even simple-mindedness. The world, they say, is not black and white, but shades of gray. The more appropriate attitude is ambiguity, if not ambivalence.

I disagree. I am all for subtlety and nuance. I'm a Calvinist – I know that all people are likely to think we understand more, and more justly, than we really do. But action requires judgment, choice, decision. When we are ambivalent, we still have to act. Acting ambivalently makes us more likely to screw it up, to do conflicting things, to fail to think through the consequences of our actions. Worse, our ambivalent actions make it impossible for other people to act reasonably in response to us, since our actions are not done for a clear reason in the first place.

I was asked in church this morning why mainline churches, like ours, keep declining. I blurted out, only somewhat flippantly, that we lose our kids because we don't know what we believe. On reflection, this still holds up pretty well. Most people in mainline churches personally accept the traditional faith of the church. But they also believe that tolerance and pluralism are even higher virtues than orthodoxy. So they are ambivalent about what The Church believes, even if they are not torn about what they themselves believe. And this ambivalence makes it very difficult for a church to teach its own children what it thinks is right, nor to invite others to join the faith. That way lies death, and we have forty years of decline to show for it.

Picture a squirrel in the road, its head flickering back and forth at the two opposite curbs, uncertain which way to run, while a car is rushing toward it.

Ambivalence kills.