Tracing Your Ancestry? Thank a Mormon!

Work in the summer continues and while the emphasis is on getting research papers written, I still keep an eye out for good “edu-tainment” pieces that might be useful in the classroom. One of the ones I have been trying out has been the genealogy series’ that have been shown on two networks: NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are and PBS’s Henry Louis Gates’s Finding Your Roots. I admit that while the NBC one is probably well produced, I am much more hooked by Gates’ series. It’s probably because the recent episode included two Asian American celebrities who are children of immigrants, comedienne Margaret Cho and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The series did a great job at reminding viewers that very often new immigrants arrive in America with lives full of tragedy that they will never speak of, not even to their own children.

Finding Your Roots: Martha Stewart, Margaret Cho, Sanjay Gupta

In Margaret Cho’s story, she never heard her father explain why their family left North Korea. As it turns out Margaret’s father’s father was branded a traitor for doing his job under the service of the Japanese flag in the early 20th century when they occupied all of Korea. For some Korean men like Margaret’s father, that’s a kind of family shame he won’t speak of, and didn’t, not to his own daughter even in her 40s.

For Sanjay Gupta, his mother experienced terrible loss as India was partitioned creating the new country of Pakistan in 1947. I was captivated by the map video that traced the path she and her family took from her home city, across the coastline, through the interior of India. She would not see her homeland again. And over 1 million people were killed in the partitioning.

In Cho’s case there was another remarkable dimension, the work of Mormon genealogists. As Gates explains, Mormons collect all manner of data that helps track down the ancestry of anyone who wants to baptize their families retroactively. Given the importance of baptism in the Mormon tradition, they take the work of ancestry documentation very seriously. As it turns out, there are records called (in Korean) “jokbo” which is basically a family record that apparently can be traced back to some prime individual (usually male I believe). The Mormon genealogy center has a microfilm copy of Cho’s jokbo! Apparently her family starts in the 1200s as was seen in the jokbo documentation (written in Chinese as is the Korean tradition).

For Gupta, his father’s lineage was still intact but this time it was held through a combination of oral history (his father visited the village that still has elders who remembered his father or Sanjay’s grandfather), and written documentation held on immensely long strips of paper material stored in a collection held by two brothers in their house (or a structure that doesn’t look fitting for preserving this kind of paper). It struck me how delicate these histories are held by living memory and preserved under conditions that could easily be subject to natural disaster or social disorder. Imagine if the Mormons can make a copy of this and store it in their archives.

So if you wind up searching for your roots, you may want to send a thank-you to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who are fervently working at preserving a wealth of data that can give us a sense of rootedness and meaning that is irreplaceable.

The Opportunity Cost of Cannibalism, A Reflection on Aging

For reasons that I don’t fully understand, I seem to be getting older every year; in fact, if memory serves, I have yet another birthday coming in the next twelve months. Part of aging for me, and I suppose everyone else, involves reflecting on how I’m changing with age. Of course there are the usual things—knee pain, graying hair, and the accumulation of millions of dollars, but in addition, my prioritization in day-to-day life is changing.

Specifically, I’m becoming more aware of the opportunity costs of what I think and do. Opportunity costs, as I understand them, regard what you are not able to do when you chose a course of action. For example, if a student goes to the bar on a Friday night then on of the opportunity costs is that they are not spending the time studying.

I’ve known the concept of opportunity costs since Econ 1A back in college, but how I’m becoming much more aware of it. As I approach my fiftieth birthday in October (gift registry information to come), somewhere deep inside of me a little voice is letting me know that I have a limited number of work days and evenings and sunny weekends left, so I should probably be careful about how I use them.

My heightened awareness of these costs comes through at different times. Earlier this week, during a summer school class, a student mentioned a recent murder case in which the assailant apparently started to bite into the victim (the “zombie killer”?—don’t care enough to look it up), and several other students excitedly chimed in with what they knew or thought about the case. My first reaction was something along the lines of, “that’s gross,” but my second reaction was thinking what a waste of brain space for anyone to think about, and yet it makes national news. Should we spend our time thinking about such a deed when there are things of beauty or need or promise in their own lives?

Over the past 5-7 years, I have cut back on my television watching such that now we don’t get regular stations (available here only by cable), and I watch maybe two or three episodes or movies a month, with the family, on Netflix. This simple action has freed up much mental and emotional space for things in life that I value more than participating in a rousing discussion of what happened on last night’s reality television show. When I do watch regular television, I’m come away wishing that I had that time back, but, even more so, surprised by how much time I spend thinking about it for the next day or two.

Basically, with age I am starting to be clearer in recognizing and enacting my priorities in life. Perhaps this is analogous to how I handle money. When I’m on a trip or am in some other situation where I have an initial sum of money to last me for a specified period of time, I am more of a spendthrift at the start—thinking that I have plenty—than at the end, when I’m much more careful in how I spend. So, my spending priorities sharpen as I have less money. Maybe same happens with life expectancy?

This probably underlies the transformative power of near-death experiences, where people realize that their days are numbered, so they had better get to what they want now before it’s too late. A friend of my extended family had a grave illness in his teens, and when he survived it against the odds, he decided that it was time to be a cowboy like he had always wanted to be. So, upon graduation, he moved from the East Coast out to Montana and set up shop as a rancher, a life situation that he enjoyed for several decades.

The irony, of course, is that we all have a limited number of days, it’s just our awareness of them that changes. I wish that I could have had a firmer grasp of this when I was younger, but maybe that’s not the nature of youth. Still, I’m glad that I’m getting it now while my knees can still get me around.

How Effective is Online Learning? Insights from Sociology of Religion Online

Part 4 of a Series on Teaching Sociology of Religion Online.

Earlier in this series of posts about my experience teaching sociology of religion, I wrote about the promise of delivering lectures online and the challenges I faced in actually doing it. Today I’ll explain how I finally created my first narrated presentation on YouTube, how I got small group discussions going on Elluminate, and how my 8-year old nephew taught me about online teaching all the while teaching me about the correct usage of metaphors and similies.

Once I finally sank my money into a MacBook Pro, I quickly mastered Keynote, with its built-in features to save recorded presentations as movie files and upload them to YouTube (thanks to an encouraging comment I got on a previous blog, I’m definitely a Keynote user now). With permission from my University of North Carolina colleague Lisa Pearce, I narrated over a presentation she had previously given to my class on her book A Faith of Their Own: Stability and Change in the Religiosity of America’s Adolescents. For years, I’ve been telling my students “I want to be on YouTube!” and now I finally did it! (If you click on the image below, my YouTube lecture will start.)

What amazed me was that making the narrated presentation was the easy part. It took longer to save it in the right format and upload to YouTube than to record my explanation of the slides. But thanks to Keynote and YouTube, the file is now compressed so students (or any viewers, including you) can see it without any problems. My previous problem was not in making the recording presentations, but sharing them.  Thanks to my Mac, and lots of encouragement and tech support, I found success at last!

I was so excited by my YouTube debut that I took my Macbook with me to visit my mom and brothers (and I used my super-powerful MacBook battery to recharge my Iphone during the 5-hour drive–I lost the car charger but the MacBook does the trick). As soon as I arrived to visit my relatives, I whipped out my MacBook to show them the presentation on YouTube. My crowing moment of glory was when my 6-year old niece sat down in front of my YouTube presentation and scrolled through it. I don’t know what she learned, but just the fact that I could present something in a format that is so portable and flexible is thrilling.

Later I peered over the shoulder of my 8-year old nephew who is taking an advanced online English class through the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth. His instructor is an avatar named Pilar. He was following Pilar’s lesson on metaphors, similes and idioms. I learned a bit from Pilar and her advanced 8-year old online pupils: perhaps when doing online teaching, it’s better to break content delivery (like recorded lectures) into shorter segments of 15 minutes broken up by an exercise, like applying a concept.

My nephew certainly engages with his online class and learns, as evidenced by how he spent the whole weekend asking me and his mom  to apply what he learned about definitions and usages of metaphors, similes and idioms. His mom and I, ummm…. had to look up things online to remember the difference between those three parts of speech and when I tried to give him examples of metaphors, he would correct me saying, “That’s not a metaphor, that’s a simile because it has ‘like’ or ‘such as’ in it.” To which I replied,  “I’m a college professor, and you are correcting me!”, but he seemed non-plussed and frankly he was right. So I stopped, put aside my hurt pride, and thought, “Well, these are my future students–learning online from the start. I had better catch up!”

Later during the visit, I delivered an online lecture on race and religion from my mother’s living room using Elluminate. As I animatedly lectured to my 15 online students, my mother sat in the background taking notes and, yes, bursting with pride. Mid-way through the lecture, I tried a new trick: with the click of just one button, Elluminate split all my students in groups of 3. I typed 2 questions in the chat box (what explains the racial segregation of American churches and what would you do to reduce racial segregation of your church if you were a pastor) and asked them to discuss them with each other.

We had never practiced this tool, and I didn’t warn them it was coming, so I wondered if it would work. It worked wonderfully! As the moderator, I could see all their mics turned on, and even read some chat messages. I popped into each of the 5 online discussion rooms, heard some of the main points, and learned a whole lot from my students. I then called them all back to the main room, had someone from each group summarize the main points of the discussion while I wrote it on the whiteboard. Amazing. One of my students later commented that online group discussions work better than live ones, because in a large class with 10 groups of three people, it’s often hard to hear what your own group members are saying.

The experience was all the more amazing that I did all that with my mom in her comfortable Lazy Boy chair looking on with delight. To wrap up that excellent session, I took the computer over to my mom and introduced her online, which provoked all kinds of applause and cheery chat messages from my students. How fun! When I held online office hours using Eluminate a few days later, one of my students even asked, “Is your mom there so I can say hi?” I had to disappoint her, unfortunately, but online office hours were great! No need to exchange Skype ids or phone numbers, I just created a special Elluminate session and used the new “meeting” tool in Sakai to set up office hours, which filled immediately.

I have 2 more weeks to go of this online summer course, so stayed tuned for updates on my next set of adventures in teaching sociology of religion online. I plan to reflect on online grading of papers and tests, among other things.




Fair Trade Battles

At the end of 2011, Fair Trade USA resigned from its membership in FairTrade International (FLO).  Just last month, an advertisement in the Burlington Free Press (Vermont) made headlines.  Equal Exchange, the largest fair trade coffee company in the United States, urged Green Mountain Coffee to leave the Fair Trade USA network.  Business Week and others covered the conflict.

This incident represents growing division over how to best help the population that fair trade was intended to represent.  Perhaps the central reason for the split between Fair Trade USA and FLO was the decision  of Fair Trade USA to work with large plantations and estates (instead of the traditional small farmers and cooperatives). Is it better to work with large farms to promote fair wages for workers, even if the ideals of democratic governance and ownership of the product by producers (requirements of FLO) do not occur?

While not trying to simplify all of the issues involved with a decision to include large farms, one issue at stake concerns the relationships consumers and producers have within alternative markets.  My guess is that most of us do not know the people that bake the bread that we eat, sew the clothes that we wear, build the houses we inhabit, or assemble the components in our computers.  One of the initial aims of the fair trade network created in the early 1970s was to try and make the market more personal.  Consumers were connected with producers through more direct buying relationships; narratives of producers were highlighted as important to the products themselves. You can drink coffee and know under what conditions (and where) the beans were picked.

As someone who studies the intersection of religion and the economy, I’m particularly interested in the role of Christian actors in alternative trade movements.  Religious organizations were important to the formation of the first alternative trade network (following the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in 1968). Yet twenty years before that, the Mennonite Central Committee was involved in selling artisan goods produced in the global South to consumers in the global North, in a precursor to what was to become Ten Thousand Villages.

Christians are a relational people, both in terms of their interactions with the Divine, and their interactions with other women and men. Different traditions talk about these relationships differently, but most highlight the importance of these relationships.  For example, the Reformed tradition prioritizes the covenant among God’s people, while Catholics are more likely to rely upon concepts of solidarity and the common good.

This most recent disagreement between Fair Trade USA and FLO should cause us to think more critically about the relationships embedded within our economic transactions. I do not want to argue in this post for or against the decision of Fair Trade USA.  But for those of us who try to engage in ethical consumerism, what do we value?  Is the central goal higher wages for producers and workers?  Is it something more? How do we see ourselves in relationships with those producers, and what does it mean to have integrity in such interactions?



Liking the Quotes more than the Books

I read, for the first time, Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to my family the other day. Seemed like a better idea than yet another iteration of “International House Hunters” on the television. I’ve been a fan of Flannery O’Connor for a few years, but upon reflection my interest in her may be less literary than biographical. I think she lived an interesting, and unusual, life.

A year or two ago my former graduate school advisor sent around some of his favorite O’Connor quotes, many of which are fantastic, provocative, humorous, etc. (a few of which I repeat below).

But it struck me the other day as I was reading aloud what turned out to be a rather strange, dramatic, and grim story that I may in fact like Flannery for her numerous, witty retorts rather than for the content of her actual writing. As I grimly concluded “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I found myself wanting to defend what I just read.

And I think it’s not just her. I find plenty of impressive quotations among authors whom I otherwise can’t seem to bear reading in their entirety. From The Confessions of Augustine to Plato’s Republic—two books I recently attempted, briefly, to read—I think I have “Classics envy.” I want to like that which I cannot seem to. There are some fine ones in Mere Christianity, but I found the book largely flat. Finally after 40 years, I’m actually making my way slowly through the Lord of the Rings, which—while not page-turners—can retain the attention span.

For an academic like me, this is all somewhat embarrassing to admit, not being attracted to the Classics and much great literature and all that. I want my kids to read them, and they indeed are reading more of them than I did at their age (or at any age, for that matter).

It’s not that I’m drawn to the NYT bestseller list, or to crime dramas. I haven’t read about hornets’ nests or wizardry, either. What do I read? Too much news, that’s for
sure. Classics envy, I tell ya.

So to conclude this dull blog day—next Monday will be more interesting, I promise—here are five nice Flannery quotes, though I can’t vouch for the totality of their originating sources:

“I’m blessed with Total Non-Retention, which means I have not been harmed by a sorry education.”

“On the subject of the feminist business, I just never think…of qualities which are specifically feminine or masculine. I suppose I divide people into two classes: the Irksome and the Non-Irksome without regard to sex. Yes and there are the Medium Irksome and the Rare Irksome.”

“Don’t let People and their Opinions affect you so much. I always count on a big percentage of Those Who Will Have None of It and do not let myself be concerned about remarks within that circle.”

“One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend upon feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention…. I find it reasonable to believe [orthodox Christianity], even
though these beliefs are beyond reason.”

“My cousin’s husband who also teaches at Auburn came into the Church last week. He had been going to Mass with them but never showed any interest. We asked how he got interested and his answer was that the sermons were so horrible, he knew there must be something else there to make the people come.”