Structure and Agency in Starbucks

Sierra is a recent graduate of our B.A. program with a double major in Anthropology and Religious Studies and a minor in Spanish, and she plans to continue working with us to pursue an M.A. in the Fall. She has previously produced independent research on cemetery artwork and the category of myth at the University of Alabama and worked as a research assistant for a variety of groups and projects at UA during her undergraduate career.

Recently, I was denied closure at a Starbucks drive-thru when a specific group, working within the structures of society, interrupted my daily caffeine ritual. As my 1997 butter-colored vehicle creaked to the pick up window, the hand that usually supplied me with my beverage was instead holding a bright card with bold turquoise lettering that read “Something extra to show you God loves you.” Operating within the structures that favor standard American English, my barista briefly explained my purchase had been taken on by a third party as my drink mechanically moved from their hand to my cup holder and I pulled away. Continue reading

We Are the Beneficiaries

vogons

As I sit here making the Spring 2017 class schedule for our department I recall the many times that I’ve heard academics lament being involved in administration. (That they equally complain about no longer being much involved in the governance of their institutions is an irony too rich to overlook.) “My condolences” is the witty reply many offer when learning that a colleague has fallen on the dagger (yes, that’s how it is portrayed) of becoming a department chair, coupled with such profuse congratulations at news of one stepping down as to make you think that it was equivalent to having your wrongful conviction overturned. Continue reading

Agency, Structure, and the Myth of the Immaculate Perception

Picture 7

National Public Radio on the weekend played a story (an interview with Neal Gabler, the author of an Atlantic article on the same topic) about how hard many in the US have it economically. Continue reading

“It’s Absolutely Essential That You Continue, Teacher…”

obedienceThe other day, my REL 245 class, concerned with investigating some of the background assumptions that make it possible for many scholars today to study religion in America in terms of choice — as if religious consumers are shopping in a competitive spiritual marketplace — took a look at Stanley Milgram’s famous series of psychology experiments; dating from the early 1906s, this series of experiments examined the role authority plays in human action and decision-making. Continue reading

Critical Thinking with Izzy, Episode 1: Structure and Agency

IzzyAnyone who is a virtual or actual friend of mine knows that we have a dog, Izzy — a 7 year old boxer that we’ve had for 6 years. (Ok, let’s just be honest: she has us.) Why? Coz I’ve posted a pick or two of her over the years.

She’s cute, what can I say?

Last night, seated in the living room, it occurred to me what a great illustration she provides of how we can talk about structure — as in social structure — and agency, and doing so in a way that doesn’t emphasize the one to the exclusion of the other, as if we are all mindlessly determined by forces larger than ourselves, on the one hand, or, on the other, as if we are all following our bliss and freely inventing ourselves every moment of the day. For it is surely somewhere in the middle, no? As I’ve said on plenty of other occasions, none of us invented the grammar that was pounded into us as children but, in the midst of using it, we can tweak it too — ain’t that right? And if we’re successful in the tweaking, then those who come after us will think that’s just one more of the rules they ought to be following.

But back to Izzy…

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Turtles All the Way Down

It’s the day after our inaugural lecture in 2012-13’s series on the place of the Humanities and Social Sciences in the contemporary university and I’m troubled by the student feedback that I’ve heard so far. It’s come from some of our undergraduate majors, who attended, as well as from an assortment of students enrolled in my 100-level introductory course who also attended. (“Write me a one page description and you can earn some extra credit in the course”–the professor’s old trick to get students new to the university to think a few new thoughts, and, as we used to say, expand their horizons.) Whether or not it was the intended message of the speaker–Prof. Gregg Lambert from Syracuse University–the students seems to have heard a message of lamentation for the future of the Humanities–not a description of how we got here or a renewed defense of our relevance but, instead, a (to their ears at least) dire message from a senior professor concerning the fact that they may be deluded to think that grad school might be for them (since they’ll possibly be mired in student debt that will take them decades to repay–making grad school sound like a bit of a scam); because they’re all just human capital, spewed into the global market from a never-ending pipeline, why continue in their studies? As one first year student who attended the lecture said to me today, sounded both intimidated and incredulous: “Declaring a major may be the most important decision of my life?!” Continue reading