Review: Mallamall

Mallamall (Lalita Krishna, DER) is a documentary on globalization and the changing face of retail in India. It explores the growth of the Indian middle-class consumer market through the development of malls, and explores how the mall boom affects retailers and vendors in smaller street markets.

Mallamall is a riff on the old superstore-versus-mom-and-pop-store battle, but set in India against the backdrop of globalization and liberalization. The film follows three primary storylines, if one may call them that. There is the high-powered NRI-returned executive in Delhi (or more properly, Gurgaon) who shops in the National Capital Region’s (NCR) swanky malls and rattles around in a mansion with her daughter and a small contingent of servants, improvising Mexican cuisine with mall-bought Indian ingredients. There are the various employees of Canadian company Perennial, Inc. and its very new Indian subsidiary. Perennial is a retail consultant trying to get a foothold in India and tap into the booming retail market. And then there are the small vendors of Bangalore’s KR Puram sandi (street market), who are in imminent danger of having their livelihood taken away and the sandi razed to make way for a mall. Headed by the indomitable retailer-activist-farmer’s advocate Yele Srinivas, the film follows the vendors’ protests and battle for their sandi and their livelihood.

As the film moves between these three stories, we get a good sense of the underbelly of Indian retail, and also of the very real impact these malls are having on small retailers, not just because their clientele may be moving away to superstores, but also because their markets themselves may be moved to make way for malls. As the film shows, malls affect not only rich consumers, but also poorer ones, and smaller retailers are closing shop.

In India, I’ve shopped in malls, and I’ve shopped in local markets. I confess, I enjoy the experience of shopping in local markets more. But there’s no denying that what malls do, more than anything else, is clean up the retail experience. Imagine doing your shopping in the Delhi heat, dust flying everywhere and on everything you buy. Now imagine stepping out of that heat into a (relatively) sanitized, air-conditioned environment. That’s what malls bring to the retail experience. However, Mallamall clearly demonstrates that this sanitization comes at a heavy price.

There were a couple of small issues with the film. There were some typos, like, in one place, “Perennail” instead of “Perennial”. The music was too loud in parts, drowning out voices. I had another issue with the film, and it was a big one, but to be honest, I’m not entirely sure where the blame lay. I had no narration on my copy. Now, the DER website credits a narrator, and there’s a narrator on the trailer, so I don’t know if (1) there’s no narrator at all; (2) my DVD was flawed; or (3) something glitched because the DVD player in the room wasn’t working and I ended up watching it on a PC. Whatever the cause, it really got in the way of my appreciation of the film, because without narration, there’s no sense of context. That said, I watched the film with a handful of students from my Anthropology of Work class, and they thought it was great, so I don’t think it’s inaccessible to non-Indians even without the narrative. If someone contacts me and clarifies this issue regarding the narrative, I’ll update this comment accordingly.

The documentary is interesting, holds the viewer’s attention, and very informative. The visualization and imagery is excellent, although the camera lingered on some scenes a little too long. Nevertheless, it drew me in and gave me a strong sense of home. The juxtaposition of the lifestyles of different classes is also very well done, and the film has an overall poignancy that is subtle but powerful. I really felt for the sandi vendors, and I felt awful that I hadn’t really thought about what malls did to local markets before.

Mallamall worked well in my Anth of Work class, folded into discussions of globalization and the changing nature of work (in this case, the retail industry). I can easily see it being used in a class on globalization or retail. At 74 minutes, it works well for both longer and shorter class periods. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in India, globalization, the retail industry, grassroots activism, consumerism, work, or any combination of the above. It’s very accessible to undergrads, but also has value for researchers who might be interested in any of the aforementioned areas. Watch it. You can’t help but learn from it.

I have to say this, however, and it has no bearing on the content or quality of the documentary. The title is a godawful, groan-worthy pun.

Mallamall; 2012; Lalita Krishna, Documentary Educational Resources; 74 minutes, color.

http://www.der.org/films/mallamall.html

Posted in Delhi, documentaries, India, teaching | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Contingent faculty at 2013 AAAs

The American Anthropological Association’s Committee on Labor Relations has a new charge: to poke through the mess that is (that are?) “the labor conditions of anthropologists”, and to suggest a course of action to the AAA’s Executive Board with respect to these conditions.

One of the things the CLR is doing is sponsoring a workshop on academic labor, with a focus on contingent faculty, at the 2013 AAAs. (November 21, 12:15 pm-1:30 pm).

I will be participating in this workshop. So, fellow contingent faculty, please help me take your voices to the AAAs, even if you are attending, and especially if you cannot go.

I won’t have much time, and I’d like to use that time efficiently to foreground the problems facing contingent faculty (by which I mean adjuncts, part-time faculty, full-time contract faculty, grad students, and all the overeducated, underemployed, and underpaid anthropologists in precarious work conditions out there). I know the problems are legion, so suggestions for focus are also welcome. For instance, “office space/collegiality would be nice.” Other than more pay and job security, which are well-documented issues, what other aspects of labor conditions should be highlighted? And what would you like the AAA to do about it? Do you think the AAA can do anything about it, other than making membership and meetings more accessible to contingent faculty?

Contingent faculty are a diverse lot, and our experiences are diverse. I’d like to go armed with data of some sort so I can convey the breadth of these experiences and the issues non-TT /non-tenured faculty face.

Please write me at anthrocharya[at]yahoo[dot]com. If you will be at the 2013 AAAs, please come to the workshop to talk about your experiences and issues.

The CLR also has a new listserv–you can join by going here.

I’ll keep this post updated. Also, this is not a research project (insert IRB-not-required- disclaimer here) but standard ethical practices of anonymity nevertheless apply.

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Fear, Anger, Femininity: Sexual Violence in Delhi

Growing up in Delhi can be quite an experience. It’s big, loud, dirty, and noisy. Delhi must be learned. It must be negotiated. I grew up in Delhi. I navigated public transport, walked through dusty streets, drove from one end of the city to another, and all the while learned and lived the rules of being a woman in Delhi’s public spaces.

There are probably more rapes in Delhi than in anywhere else in India. Last year alone, there were 572 rapes reported in Delhi, and 657 cases of molestation (1). And those are just the ones that got reported. If you’re a woman, Delhi is a bad place to be. Delhi women learn to negotiate these dangers with behavioral modifications and uncertain prayers. There are some unwritten rules to being a woman in Delhi. These rules reinforce the blame-the-victim mentality in cases where women are molested or raped. Was she wearing a short skirt? Was she alone? Was it dark? Or, as the evil creatures who gangraped a young woman in a bus this month asked, why was she out in public, after dark, with a man?

A woman who is sexually violated is often considered to have presented some sort of provocation, but the truth is, being a woman in a public space is provocation enough for some patriarchal Delhi men. They see women as possessions, as objects to be controlled, and, frighteningly, as sport. The staring, the harassment, the groping, the rapes, these experiences that violate and traumatize women are often shared masculine performances of fun.

Growing up in Delhi, I grew up in an atmosphere of sexualized domination and an all-pervasive, quotidian, vague-but-real terror. The fear of walking alone at night. The fear that the men “teasing” me might decide to do more. The fear that nobody would help me, even if they heard my cries. The fear that no one would believe me. The fear of rape, of murder. It’s a pathological fear that is rooted in social discourses of honor and shame. Sexual violence is a powerful weapon of gender oppression because of its association with shame. It isn’t just a sexual violation, it’s a social and psychological one.

If you haven’t been a woman in Delhi, you might not understand this fear. It’s normalized, everyday, internalized. It lives under the surface of your skin. It lives in the quick walk, in the bowed head, in the extra-large safety pin clutched in your fist as you travel in a bus. It lives in the slight speeding up of your heart as you walk home after dark, in the pounding of your pulse as you race away from the van that slid to a stop next to you, door sliding open and laughing men inside.

The fear is matched by a constant, simmering, suppressed anger. It’s not possible to live in a state of endemic oppression and chronic fear and not be angry. It’s just, mostly, women don’t think about it, and when they do, they’re afraid to show it. What if you yell at the guy who groped you, and he pulls out a gun and shoots you? It’s happened. Not that women don’t strike back, but there’s always the knowledge that this might go bad, and that onlookers may not help you.

And this is what Delhi women learn to navigate. We normalize and internalize the fear and anger to such an extent that we often forget they’re there, particularly if we can afford to travel in the relative safety of private cars and live in the relative safety of cosmopolitan worlds (not that there’s no violence there). Privilege changes the nature of women’s movement in public space, because even as they move in public spaces, they carry their private spaces with them as protection.

The everydayness of fear alters women’s daily behavior and choices. What to wear, where to go, how to travel, what career path to take–from the smallest to the largest decisions, a concern for personal safety often underlies most women’s decisions, and, very often, it is at the subconscious level. Delhi women learn not to “dress provocatively”, which is meaningless—as though dress was provocation. Don’t talk or laugh too loudly in public. Don’t make eye contact with strangers. Ignore the men making obscene suggestions to you. Don’t stay out too late with boys. Don’t stay out too late with girls. Don’t stay out after dark alone. Be careful. Be alert. Beware. Role-expectations and presentations become internalized, and are followed because of the constant fear of sexual violence.

Violence, or the threat thereof, is used in a patriarchal system to create fear and keep women in their “place”. Public sexual violence becomes a punishment for women’s transgression into the public sphere, an arena that is traditionally male. Sexual violence is normalized and legitimized by the underlying perception of the very presence of women in public spaces as being “provocative” behavior (2).

As a paternalistic authority in a patriarchal system, the Indian state perpetuates ideologies of shame and honor in its legal system. The Indian state encodes many sexual crimes against women under the rubric of “outraging a woman’s modesty.” This stresses that what is important here is the modesty, not so much the physical, emotional, or mental well-being of the woman. What is modesty? Per the Supreme Court of India, “the essence of a woman’s modesty is her sex” (3). It is women’s sexuality that is carefully controlled under this seemingly innocuous discourse of “modesty”.

Ergo, women, if they want to be protected, must be modest. And this modesty is defined in highly patriarchal terms: staying indoors as much as possible, dressing in as all-covering a fashion as possible, being unobtrusive, and so on. There is a normalized discourse of behavior that is socially and culturally accepted and adopted, to the extent that even laws that ostensibly protect women from sexual persecution, in reality, only serve to protect patriarchal notions of women’s place in society and their fragile sexuality and honor. If we are to counter the reality of sexual violence, we must begin by dismantling the discursive structures of normalization of patriarchy and paternalism, of honor and shame, that perpetuate it.

What changed? Why are women taking to the streets to protest sexual violence? Surely, the brutal rape and murder of a young woman provided the catalyst. Perhaps it was just one incident too many. Surely, the fact that the young woman was from Delhi, a middle class student, just going about her day as all Delhi women do, roused Delhi’s usually apathetic middle class to rage. This was not a faraway Kashmiri woman, a faceless brutalized rural Dalit woman, unknowable and easy to ignore. Perhaps what struck a chord in Delhi’s middle class women was the thought, “that could have been me.”

I’ve been reading comments that talk about the clash of tradition and modernity in India, and how that might be at the root of this protest. I’m not comfortable with that discourse and find it homogenizing and exoticizing. What is indubitable, though, is that there have been significant social changes with the advent of globalization and liberalization. Perhaps the most significant one that I have noticed in my research is the awareness of possibility. Globalization brings with it changes in the flow of information—suddenly, people see the world. It’s at their fingertips, on their phones, in their living rooms. And the thought occurs—things don’t have to be this way. Arjun Appadurai has noted that in the era of globalization, imagination is a powerful force. It can be used to oppress, but it can also be use to resist, to emancipate, and to visualize new possibilities (4). What young India is doing today is imagining new possibilities for Indian women. Things don’t have to be this way. This could be a city, a country, where women don’t have to be afraid, or angry, or constantly alert. Where they could enjoy the same freedoms as men do, the freedoms to do the small things—wear what they like. Be outside after dark. Have a drink. Not be ogled. Not be touched without permission.

Things could be very different, if only things would change.

References

  1. http://www.ndtv.com/article/cities/one-conviction-out-of-635-rape-cases-in-delhi-this-year-311304?pfrom=home-otherstories
  2. Pratiksha Baxi, 2001. Sexual Harassment. www.india-seminar.com/2001/505/505%20pratiksa%20baxi.htm.
  3. http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2007-03-21/india/27870988_1_modesty-outraging-definition
  4. Arjun Appadurai, 2000 Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination. Public Culture 12(1): 1-19.
Posted in culture, Delhi, gender | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Anthropology and Common Sense: Fuentes, Béteille, and Public Anthropology

While reading Agustín Fuentes’ recent piece, Anthropology and the Assault on Common Sense, I was reminded of an essay by André Béteille, Sociology and Common Sense (published in Economic and Political Weekly in 1996). I re-read Béteille’s piece, and it fits so well with what Fuentes said that I thought I’d offer a short commentary, bringing that essay into the discussion. Discussions of common sense and how it is culturally determined are relevant to conversations about anthropology and public engagement or public education.

André Béteille is an eminent Indian sociologist who taught for many years at one of my almae matres, the Department of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi. He is currently Professor Emeritus there. Many people are not aware of this, but sociology, as it is taught in India, is very close to anthropology as it is taught in the U.S. Indian sociology students learn, among other things, a lot about British/European and Indian social anthropology and sociology proper, as well as social philosophy. So Béteille’s comments about sociology and common sense have relevance to discussions about anthropology and common sense.

Fuentes’ refers to Geertz’s point that common sense is “a cultural system” that can, as cultural systems do, vary among groups. As all introductory anthropology students know, therefore, assumptions about what is “normal” behavior may seem universal, though they are always culturally bounded or determined. As Fuentes observes, the realization that the “truths” we build our lives on are usually experientially ordained rather than “natural” (biologically determined?) can be difficult to face, and often meets with denial. Fuentes correctly says that this kind of anthropological perspective – one which explains how common sense perspectives vary culturally – is important, especially now. It helps us realize that “the process of becoming and being human is messy” (Fuentes). To give in to the assumption that what is “common sense” (the dominant way to do things) in a group is the only way, the natural way, to do things is dangerous and fallacious. Anthropology is an important instrument of generating social clarity in this regard.

So how can anthropology teachers and scholars help generate that clarity, or help people take a step back and see the lens through which they view society and culture? That’s where Béteille comes in. I’m going to extrapolate some of his comments about sociology to social science here, just so it’s easier to understand their value to anthropology.

The Sociology and Common Sense article was originally written, I think, partly as a way to demarcate sociology from, well, common sense. Béteille explains how sociology is distinct from common sense understandings of how society works, though it may seem superficially similar. At the heart of this difference, he says, is “a body of concepts, method, and data,” a “vast reservoir of sociological concepts, methods, and theories” that sociologists draw on. However, equally important is the ability of the scholar to be “alert and critical” of their own work (an attitude Fuentes also recommends). To be alert and critical requires the kind of clarity that I just mentioned, a clarity scholars both acquire, and learn to circulate, through their studies and training.

Common sense, says Béteille, is based on limited experiences of people and places. It is “particular and localised” and also “highly variable, subject to the constraints of time and place as well as other, more specifically social constraints.” Moreover, he notes that it is “unreflective,” because it does not “question its own origins and presuppositions.”

Nevertheless, as Béteille says, non-academics (“the civil servants, the bank managers and the engineers”) may present their common sense as social science. The simple fact of the matter is that almost everyone who lives in society has an opinion on it. These opinions, when they are part of the dominant discourse of the group, can become commonsensical, i.e. become naturalized to such a degree that they begin to seem like “truths,” or, at the very least, the most appropriate way of doing things (language ideology theory is a great place to explore these processes further). These discourses can then become interwoven into explanations of why society or culture is the way it is, or works the way it does. In other words, dominant discourses serve to justify the ways of life of dominant groups. Scholars and students of society are well placed to show how this process works, to expose it, and thereby to dull its effects.

Are they well placed to do so effectively?

At the moment, in the U.S., perhaps not. In order to be effective, two things have to happen: first, the people scholars are trying to reach (the general public) have to be listening, and second, scholars have to stop talking only to each other. (I realize this is a somewhat incongruous statement coming from a blog that is generally oriented toward anthropology, but I’m working on that).

These two things feed off each other. If no one’s listening, anthropologists preach to the choir. If anthropologists stop talking to the public, the public starts grumbling about ivory towers and stops listening.

Béteille has an insightful thought about communicating with the public. Because everyone has an opinion about society, and because sociologists are defensive about this and seek to distinguish their discipline from these commonsensical perspectives, they often take to saying the simplest things in very complex ways. And, as he puts it, “technical virtuosity becomes a distraction when pursued as an end in itself.”

The solution is, of course, to keep it simple and leave off the jargon. This is easy in principle, but many of us have forgotten how. Moreover, teaching, as Béteille says, is a “serious and unremitting effort to open the mind to new facts and new arguments, and the unsuspected connections among them.” It’s the unremitting part that’s really difficult, particularly when people aren’t listening to each other, particularly when scholars are convinced of an “anti-intellectual bias” in the public, and the public is convinced of scholarly prejudices against it.

Common sense is dangerous when used as a basis of social policy or explanation because, as Béteille comments, “common sense easily constructs imaginary social arrangements in which there is no inequality, no oppression, no strife, and no constraint on individual choice.” Nevertheless, if scholarship falls out of public discourse, then common sense takes over. Like magic, science, and religion, scholarship and common sense are modes of explanation. And when one is not available or accessible, another will fill the gap.

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Defining Culture Project: Call for Definitions

It’s been sixty years since Kroeber and Kluckhohn published their compendium of definitions of culture. I thought it might be fun to engage with this project again. So if you have a favorite definition of culture–either your own, or one that has been published since 1952, please share it with me. Please provide enough of a citation for quotes that are not your own that others may trace it, or say “(Mine)” if it’s yours.

You may send me a definition in any one of these ways:

1. Leave a comment on this post with your definition

2. Connect with me on Twitter (@anthrocharya). If your definition spills over into more than one tweet, please number them, e.g., 1/3, 2/3, etc., so I know.

3. Email me at anthrocharya[at]yahoo[dot]com.

If you’re an anthropologist, an ethnographer, or another scholar/professional who otherwise studies culture as part of your professional or academic activities, please place a capital “E” (for expert) at the end of your tweet, comment, or email. Students are welcome! Please provide citations.

I’ll make all the definitions available as best as I can, and try to analyze them thematically. I’m interested in what kinds of definitions of culture are out there, whether specific themes dominate these definitions, if definitional foci have shifted, and what the most common definitions are that people use, particularly in teaching and in popular media usages.

Thanks for stopping by! Please leave a definition 🙂

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Review of “Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir!” (Friedman and Talukdar)

PDBMS poster

Please Don’t Beat me, Sir! (P. Kerim Friedman and Shashwati Talukdar, hereafter PDBMS) is a moving documentary about the Chhara community of Gujarat, India. The Chhara community is one of almost two hundred groups that were designated as “criminal tribes” by the British Indian Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, a designation rooted in perceptions of the caste system as a rigid system with traditionally assigned occupations.

Under British rule, many Chhara families were rounded up and imprisoned in settlement complexes, where every aspect of their lives, including marriage, was regulated and determined for them. (For a detailed analysis of how the British codified and regulated Indian social structure through law, see Bernard Cohn’s Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge). In 1952, they were “denotifed” and released from the settlement complexes by the independent Indian government, but without any rehabilitation or redress. As one young Chhara man notes in the film, once released, they didn’t know how to “mainstream” because they had been imprisoned for decades.

Members of these communities continue to carry the stigma of being “born criminals” in contemporary India.  PDBMS explores this stigma, its sociohistorical contexts, and community reactions to it across generations. Among these reactions is a form of public group theater known as the street play. In many parts of India, street plays are a well-known form of social education and activism. They are an established form of grassroots education, but also, as one of the leaders of the Chhara troupe points out, “tools for protest.”

The Chhara street play troupe is called Budhan Theatre. Its stated goal is to “raise awareness about the condition of [denotifed] tribes,” those formerly designated as criminal tribes. In contemporary India, Chharas face the stigma of being considered born criminals, the weight of their colonial history, consequent significant police harassment and brutality, and poverty. The poverty was historically countered by stealing, and by brewing liquor, which is illegal in Gujarat (it’s a dry state with statewide prohibition).

Friedman and Talukdar do a very good job of capturing Chhara responses to these conditions of structural violence, how the street plays are conceptualized based on personal experiences, and how they are performed. PDBMS also touches on the complexities of how different generations perceive the community and its identity.  Chhara elders think of stealing as dharma, one troupe actor notes. Younger members of the community see it as a problem, a stigma, one they should overcome by being good citizens who follow the law. This is an ideological divide of sorts—for example, Dadi, the grandmother of one of the activists, says all her grandsons are “useless” because they none of them will steal.

The most charming and yet distressing scene in this film is one where a group of elderly Chharas sit in a circle discussing, with clear nostalgia for the good old days, their prowess at thievery, old ladies high-fiving each other as they reminisce about how fast they could run or how swiftly they could jump down from trees. Under the nostalgia, though, is the undercurrent of reminder—these were people who were, over their lives, repeatedly arrested, jailed, and beaten for what, in the end, is clearly the crime of being Chhara. The film shows how social stigma can be institutionalized and internalized, to the extent that fighting against it seems an impossible task.

The film, as I said, is moving. It covers a lot of ground, discussing social stigma, history, and institutionalized state discrimination and violence against the backdrop of the caste system. It also examines how age and generation affect Chhara identity, which I particularly appreciate as someone who works on youth culture, and because age is an often-neglected axis of cultural analysis. The filmmakers also touch upon gender, showing how Chhara girls marry and have children too early, and how their education is consequently neglected (and their dreams and aspirations left behind).

PDBMS is very well-made. While a few scene changes need better segues, on the whole it is polished, powerful, and tells a good story well. There are some lovely shots, such as one where a group of kids are mimicking a train during play rehearsal, and in the background a train streams past. I would have liked to see a little more of the filmmakers’ presence. In the few scenes where we do hear their voices, it adds greatly to the flavor of the documentary. However, this is a very minor quibble, and one based entirely on personal preference.

Overall, Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir! is an excellent documentary, and very useful to anyone interested in work on India in general and the caste system in particular, on contemporary dimensions of caste, on police systems, theater and activism, or age and identity. I can see it being used successfully in classes on India, introductory anthropology classes (sections on caste), and other classes that deal with social stratification and discrimination. I have to also mention that, despite the seriousness of the topic, I enjoyed watching this film. Without straying from the gravity of the theme, it managed to be fun and was very compelling. It’s worth watching, no matter what your academic interests.

Available at: http://fournineandahalf.com/pleasedontbeatmesir/

Running time: 75 minutes

Language: English, Bhantu, Hindi, Gujarati (English subtitles)

Posted in caste, documentaries | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A conversation with Rajmohan Gandhi

In April, I participated in a conference organized by the International Forum for U.S. Studies. The conference theme was “The Presence of America in India.” At the conference, I had the chance to have a brief conversation with Mr. Rajmohan Gandhi. Mr. Gandhi, for those of you who do not know, is Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson. He is currently a research professor at UIUC. You can read more about him on his website.

Mr. Gandhi is a good man. It shines off him. He is also an idealistic man (as was his grandfather). He gave a really interesting talk, among other things, about what the US and India can learn from each other. He pointed out that India’s presence in the U.S., politically speaking, was weak, through a “failure to be either a good enemy or a fully co-operating ally.” I hadn’t thought about it that way…

Another thing he said, which really caught my attention, was that we need civil movements at a grassroots level to change mundane ways of doing things.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, not least in the context of Occupy movements in the U.S. and Anna Hazare’s rallying calls in India (there are other problems there, but that’s not the point). One problem in generating change is apathy. Now I’m not saying that people are apathetic because they don’t care. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes, though, they are apathetic because they care too much and are overwhelmed, or because they care, but feel like they can’t make a difference. I firmly believe that we should keep trying, even if we don’t change things the way we want to, because in the end, our trials will make a difference.

Anyway, I want to know how to change apathy, so I walked up to Mr. Gandhi after his talk, and asked him (more politely) something to the effect of, “all this is very well, but how do we counter apathy? How do we change what people are doing?”

The answer he gave me was simple, but inspiring. He said that the thing to do was not to try to change people’s behavior, because that is very hard to do. What we should do is find someone who is doing, or struggling to do, something we think ought to be done. Then encourage and help them in any way we can.

The thing about this bit of advice is, as I said, it’s simple. It really is about the grassroots level, the individual level. It really is about changing mundane ways of doing things. It makes what was once overwhelming, easier. Find one person doing something good, something you think needs to be done. Help them to the best of your ability.

It’s been about two months since that brief conversation, and I’ve been thinking about this so much since then. My maternal great-great grandfather was Salem Vijayaraghavachariar. My paternal grandparents were Gandhians and freedom fighters. My paternal grandmother was told by Gandhi to learn and teach Hindi, and she did, for decades, to hundreds of people. My family has a deep-rooted history with the Congress party of the freedom struggle, and with Mahatma Gandhi. This meeting with Rajmohan Gandhi, this encounter with his simple, practical idealism (yes, I know that’s an oxymoron) resonated strongly with the semi-forgotten family histories and legends in me. Surely, I thought to myself, surely it is that simple.

I leave you with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi. It’s from his Collected Works.

“Compassion or love is man’s greatest excellence…Is there not cruelty enough in man? On our tongues there is always poison similar to a snake’s. We tear our brethren to pieces as wolves and tigers do…We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”

(VOL. 13, 12 MARCH, 1919 – 25 DECEMBER, 1920, p. 241).

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Technology Tools for Academics: Prezi

Prezi (prezi.com) is, as the website says, a zooming presentation editor. It has many uses beyond giving a formal presentation, and I will highlight a couple of those here. You can really zoom in on a prezi, which makes for a lot of fun when presenting with it. How is works is you set up a “path” (marked by actual arrows or not) through which your presentation moves. In effect, it’s a kind of storyboard, and allows you to set up a non-linear narrative path for the story you are trying to tell.

I like Prezi because it is non-linear, it moves around, and it’s fun. It isn’t quite as well known as it ought to be, so it’s also attention-grabbing when you use it. It transforms a presentation from a dull series of texts into a fun, almost-interactive experience. It helps engage the audience, and anything that can help with that is a wonderful thing, in my book.

I first noticed it when a student used it for a capstone presentation, but it really caught my eye when two students at USF, Janelle Christensen and Charlotte Noble, used Prezi to put together a slick and powerful protest. They were protesting FL governor Rick Scott’s rant about FL not needing to fund disciplines like anthropology. As you can see, they did a stellar job. You can read all about that here, and view the Prezi here. On a related note, I think that particular Prezi would be a good teaching tool for an intro class–a sort of “this is what anthropologists do” lecture.

Prezi has some options that are free. I use the Edu Enjoy version, which comes free to anyone with a .edu account. It’s better than the base version because it allows you to keep your prezis private. The base version requires them to be publicly accessible. There are three main differences between the free Edu Enjoy version and the premium Edu version: more storage space (500 MB v. 2 GB), support within 24 hours, and offline desktop editing, which is not supported by the base Edu Enjoy version. And, of course, $59 per year.

I’ve used Prezi in class, to have students do presentations. It works very well as a group assignment, actually, because students are responsible for their portion of the Prezi. I introduced students in my gender class to Prezi, and asked them to use it to put together a group project on gender advertisements.

Prezi has a “meeting” functionality, which allowed the students who set up the prezi to invite other students in their group to collaborate on creating it. So, every student worked on their individual part of the prezi. This created some variation in the flow of the prezi, of course, but it had three advantages. First, students were less worried about “carrying” someone whose work was not of the same quality, and therefore compromising their grade. Second, I could tell students’ individual work apart and determine if they required a separate grade from the rest of the group. Third, they didn’t need to actually meet to work on their assignment, which always poses difficulties to students with full schedules.

My students really enjoyed using Prezi, and turned out some excellent presentations. They were good enough to use as an art installation, and had circumstances permitted, I would have liked to set one up.

Prezi’s non-linear format also allows you to put a little more text on than you ought on a regular Power Point. This is because you can break it up into smaller segments, but also because the interface lends itself more readily to more text. I think it’s because it is, effectively, animated–that offsets the visual ennui generated by more text.

Prezi can be used to make posters. I actually had a student in another class who laid his final presentation out as a neat poster, and then moved through it section by section. I imagine, if you are used to thinking in an ordered way, a poster format allows you to visualize your project as a completed product and would aid in organizing thoughts. You can also print out your prezi as a poster. I haven’t done so, so I can’t comment on the resolution. Here’s a prezi from Sarah Walkowiak (2011) at Brandeis on creating effective posters in Prezi. Here is a brief discussion on the Prezi forums about printing a prezi as a poster, and here is the Prezi link on how to print your Prezi (generally, not specifically as a poster).

I also had a student who used Prezi to organize his paper. He set out his thoughts, linked them with arrows to show how they flowed, added text that would go into his paper, and generally wrote it out in Prezi first. In other words, it was a kind of map of his paper. The graphical and non-linear format allows you to visualize your ideas as parts of a whole, and to set aside sections that do not fit into the final version, but yet are relevant to the thought process. You can zoom in to work on a specific section, or zoom out to think about the set of ideas as they work together. I really liked that idea, and will surely be trying it out myself.

As far as actual presentations go, Prezi is, as I said, a lot of fun. It captures audience interest, it allows non-linear movement and thought (so you can jump back and forth between ideas quite easily), and the zoom functionality adds another layer of movement to your presentation. You can, for example, visually depict that one idea is contained within another.

Now for cons. I have to say, there aren’t too many. It takes a wee bit of getting used to and figuring out, but it’s easy to play with, and it’s well worth spending the time to figure it out. One minor issue I’ve faced when using it as a presentation tool is that it can be a bit vertiginous. The trick with that is not to zoom in and out too far, and to try to keep each section relatively close the one that came before.

I had to send my presentation to the organizers of a conference I presented at this spring. Prezi allows you to download your prezi as a zip file that contains files to run it on both macs and PCs. This file can be quite large, though, depending on your prezi (mine had videos and photographs). This is where Dropbox comes in. As I said in my post about Dropbox, I simply put the file in my Dropbox public folder, and sent the organizers a link to the file. No struggling with emailing it from my end, I didn’t clog up their inboxes with a massive file, and all they had to do was click the link to download the file.

You can run a Prezi from your desktop and you don’t need to be online to run it. However, unless you buy the Premium version, you will need to be online to create and edit.

The one thing I will tell you is that Prezi doesn’t work with all remote clickers. It didn’t work with the clicker they had at that conference, and I had not used Prezi at a conference before, so I hadn’t brought my own. It threw me off completely. When I’ve used it in class, though, our school clickers have worked. Here’s the Prezi Learn Center wisdom on remote clickers.

Finally, I’d like to give you a couple of links to get you going. Here’s one on Prezi tips, and here’s another about how to make a good Prezi. Both are created by Adam Somlai-Fischer.

I hope this has been helpful. Prezi has a lot of potential in the classroom and in research, and I’ve found it a very good way to get students involved in a project and audiences involved in your talk. As with any tool, it takes practice to make a good prezi, but I’ve become better at it as I keep using it.

If you have other suggestions on using it, please do feel free to post comments.

Note on accessibility: a brief exchange with Kerim Friedman reminded me that not all excellent software is accessible, and Prezi is not. It seems screen readers cannot read prezis because of flash content. This is an important con, and I want to make note of it (thanks, Kerim). Also, as this post points out, many (all?) state-funded entities are required to use accessible software, and that will include the classrooms of state schools. For more discussion, here is a list of prezi forum topics tagged with “accessibility.” I’ll keep an eye out for changes.

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America at Work: Dave, painting

This is Dave.

Dave, painting

Dave was painting the trim outside the Barnes and Noble where I live. I saw him as I walked in, headphones on, his white clothes standing out against the black surface he was painting. I remember thinking to myself, “people paint those things?” I hadn’t really thought about it before, but in my head, I had this unformulated vision of some kind of paintbot streaming past the building, painting as it went. I know, that’s silly, but like I said, I hadn’t really thought about it. And that’s the point, isn’t it? Very few of us think about it.

Very few of us think about the people who build and smooth the world we live in. The ones who tuck in hotel room sheets, pick up trash, fill vending machines, check electricity meters, or paint the trim on chain stores in anonymous malls. And yet, without these invisible people, our lives would be so much less comfortable, so much less finished.

So I walked back out and introduced myself to Dave (who seems like a very nice man). We talked to each other about our jobs, about following dreams, the recession, outsourcing… He has been painting since he was eighteen. He owns his own business, painting both residential and commercial properties. He showed me a thingamajig he invented and patented, for paint cans, to keep the brush from dripping and to save paint (below).

And as we spoke, I was thinking to myself (admittedly caught up in some lyrical vision of the U.S.), this is the soul of America, this is why immigrants come here, this is the American ideal. Work hard, love what you do, innovate, be yourself, and (at least in theory), anything is possible. (In reality, of course, the idealist proposition fails those constrained by structural impediments, but that’s a story for another day. The point is, there’s a lot more you can do compared to, oh, India for example.) As I watched Dave paint, swiftly but careful with detail, I thought to myself, this is America at work. In this time of recession, insufficient jobs, and truly hard stories from embattled people, watching Dave paint the Barnes and Noble was a sort of zen feeling, in the sense that my getting caught up in the movements of the brush and the quiet of the sunny afternoon led me to a kind of dhyana.

We chatted briefly, but I enjoyed that chat. He loves his job. And as we talked, I was reminded of why I love mine. I really like talking to people, especially people who like talking back. I like listening to them and telling their stories. There’s a multitude of stories here, watching America at work.

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Technology Tools for Academics: Dropbox

If you need to share a big file, or have access to your files from anywhere, or share a bunch of photos or videos, or are paranoid about backing up, Dropbox is for you. I don’t want to spend too much time going over how to use it–it’s not that complicated. What I’d like to do is talk about how I’ve used it, or seen it used.

Dropbox allows you to store files online, but also–more usefully–to basically sync these with your computers so they also exist on there. In other words, if I have a Dropbox folder on my desktop at work, and another one on my laptop at home, and I can pretty much move between them and change files. When Dropbox syncs, it updates the changed files. It’s just that simple. Here’s a great post from Ryan Cordell at ProfHacker on using Dropbox as backup. It’s about two years old, but still holds good.

I’ve seen different uses. Someone once emailed the ling anth listserv to ask us to help identify languages on video clips they were using for a class (excellent crowdsourcing skills). The files were set up in a public Dropbox folder. They sent us a link, we clicked on it, and bam! We were in the folder.

I’ve used the same function to share large files, such as a presentation, my dissertation, and anything too big for my email to handle. It works sweetly. I recently shared a downloaded Prezi (as a zip file) that was too big to email via my Dropbox public folder. Just put the file in your Dropbox folder, right click to generate a link, and email the link to the person you want to share the file with. When they click on the link, they will get a download window with the zip file in it.

There are also Dropbox apps for iPhone and iPad.

I haven’t yet used it for teaching, but I like Moodle and it does pretty much anything I need it do. However, if you don’t have (or don’t like) your e-learning platform, Dropbox would work as a place to share files with students, or a way for them to share files with you via their public folders.

I used Dropbox recently (Oct 2012) to collaborate with a colleague on something we were working on together. I simply created a folder with all the files we were using, then shared the folder with him. It worked excellently. We both worked on the same files, and the folder sat on our desktops, so we didn’t have to log into Dropbox each time. It worked just like any other desktop folder. We were able to keep track of changes to the documents through the website–if you log into Dropbox, it will tell you when the file was last changed. So if you are collaborating with someone on work, Dropbox is a very good collaborative tool.

The even shorter version:

  1. Dropbox is cool
  2. Dropbox syncs between computers and is great backup for that dissertation/journal article/book chapter
  3. You can easily share files that are too big to mail
  4. Potentially a useful teaching tool
  5. Apps
  6. Collaborative work made easier

And if you click the link in the first paragraph, I get some free space 😉

Do try it. Unlike a lot of services out there, this one’s actually useful. And it’s free!*

*The basic version.

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