Reading List 2011 (8/166)

Recent reading:

  • Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, Joan C. Williams
  • Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life, Annette Lareau
  • Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua
  • How to Tutor Your Own Child, Marina Koestler Ruben
  • Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
  • Good Wives, Louisa May Alcott
  • Little Men, Louisa May Alcott
  • Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott

Today, I am grateful for books that change the way I see the world. While I read Williams and Lareau quite a while ago, I still find myself referring to them at least a couple of times a week. In my own head, I probably refer to them a dozen or so times a day, because they both expose and name some pervasive elements of modern American life that otherwise appear perfectly normal. Between the two, they’ve given me a much better awareness of how pervasive class is in our so-called classless society.

Williams takes on issues of gender – and argues that, like it says on the tin, men and class matter if any serious progress is going to be made on work-life balance issues. You may not agree with her going into the book, but I found that she made a deeply persuasive case. She shows how different the issues working-class men face are from those of, say, the upper-middle-class, and how the patterns of child-care and work life require very different solutions. She does a lovely job presenting the research without it being too dry or too anecdotal; she tells a lot of stories, but then connects them outward to larger issues to make her point. In the second half of the book, she applies her theories directly to political activism. She persuasively shows how the way that work-life balance issues are being presented by feminist activists is a major problem for building coalitions with working-class women and with men of all classes, and that a better understanding of the needs of all working Americans is the first step toward a work-life balance that works for everyone. It’s a deeply inspiring book, and I will be going back to it for inspiration when I finish my dissertation and take on a new set of research projects.

Bonus: if, like me, you find “intersectionality” as currently used in feminist discourse problematic, but you still think that issues of class, race, sexual orientation, etc. are enormously important, she will give you a useful set of tools for incorporating them in a productive (and scholarly!) way.

The Lareau book is more tightly focused, as it largely reports on her research on differences in child-rearing practices between poor, working-class and middle-class Americans. What she found surprised her: poor and working-class families were very similar in their child-rearing practices, though with different levels of resources and family stability. Middle-class families, on the other hand, used a very different set of practices and norms. The former, what she calls natural growth, focuses on letting the child develop on their own; the latter, concerted cultivation, focuses on active and instrumental improvement of the child at all times. Lareau shows how these two models of child-rearing extend deeply into many different areas of family life, from who the kid spends their time with, to how the parents relate to the child’s teachers, to how in-family conflicts are resolved. She ends by arguing that concerted cultivation produces children who are well-suited to our schools, which reward middle-class behavior, but who are also entitled, selfish and dependent on adults. While she largely focuses on the data, she certainly believes that there’s a lot to be learned from both styles of child-rearing – even though only one is socially rewarded and reinforced in our society.

I found the Lareau book particularly interesting because I grew up outside the mainstream of American culture, in a religious culture that incorporated elements of both child-rearing philosophies as well as religious traditions. As children, we were encouraged to develop our talents through hard work and academic focus, but we were also instilled with a great respect for adults, particularly (but not only) family members. We spent relatively little time in formal, same-age activities, and lots of time with siblings, neighborhood children, and community members, but we also were taught to have strong opinions and argue for them, even with adults. I bet that there are similar sub-cultures, especially among religious and immigrant communities, whose approaches to raising children incorporate the best (or sometimes the worst!) of both worlds.

Once I finished the Lareau, I had to run out and acquire the Tiger Mother book, because I figured I could read it through a concerted-cultivation lens and see Lareau’s observations at work. What I found surprising, though, was that Chua – like my family! – combined an ethic of high achievement with more working-class notions of respect for elders and for authority. I wonder if the book was so controversial because it violates people’s social expectations!

How to Tutor Your Own Child, on the other hand, was a pretty great example of the ethic of concerted cultivation at work. If you aren’t sure how Lareau’s model applies in real life, read this book! However, it’s also pretty good on the learning theory front, and I found it surprisingly useful for thinking about how to mentor and work with graduate students.

Finally, for a little breath of fresh air from children who have to achieve, achieve, achieve, I picked up the Little Women series. While it would be easy to find them overly sentimental, I’m always charmed by the domestic incidents of the series, and how they get tied to living a virtuous and meaningful life. Admittedly, I couldn’t stop thinking of Alcott as a proto-Mommy-blogger!

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and happy reading!

2 comments

  1. I’d be curious to hear the nutshell version of your thoughts on intersectionality as currently used in feminist discourse.

    • Jess says:

      I find it’s often used in one of two ways that are distracting / derailing, and they happen often enough that I kind of twitch every time I see that word – even though I rather agree with its underlying concept.

      First, the word is often used to actually stop conversations about gender and turn them onto issues of privilege / bias in general. Race, class, sexual orientation and the like are relevant when we’re talking about feminism – but sometimes gender is really the thing you want to look at, study and explore. I get why people get upset when they feel the other issues that affect them aren’t being addressed, but (my) feminism requires support of those issues – it does not make the issues identical to one another.

      The other way is overspecifying (as opposed to, I suppose, overgeneralizing). If you aren’t of my particular race-class-orientation-etc. combo, don’t talk about my world! I obviously don’t agree with that – I think people can know one another across boundaries of experience, which is more or less what all functioning human relationships are about. I suppose I also get why intersectionality gets used this way – because many people don’t work to take the experiences of others seriously. But I think that with enough care, you can both generalize and particularize meaningfully.

      I like Williams’ framing of “gender, the experience of which varies by class and race.” That’s something where you can both analyze the similarities and the differences across different groups. You can say, this is the range of gendered experiences, and here are the common threads running through them.

      I also like that Williams decenters the “wealthy upper-class white heterosexual cisgendered” assumptions of who feminism talks to. Her point is that if we look more carefully across the whole spectrum of what women are, we come up with answers for what feminism is (and does!) that aren’t based on the lives of a tiny fraction of American women.

      Make sense?

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