Friday, March 28, 2008

The Sin of Gluttony

Boy, I am back, eh? I have had a lot on my mind and it seems more time to get it down. My newest fascination is with how much my students are unforgiving to people who eat too much and consequently put on weight. My colleague Kerry noticed the same phenomenon when he was teaching his seminar on the 7 deadly sins. Gluttony, he said, was the only sin that students were unwilling to attribute social forces as partially to blame. If you overindulge, especially in food, then you are weak-willed.
This conversation took place in my Philosophy of Psychiatry class where Dan Blazer, the author we are currently reading, made the observation that we have become a society more likely to attribute social origins to physical problems like obesity, rather than mental illnesses like depression. Blazer offers up a case study of a young woman who has sought treatment for depression and the physician notices she has gained weight. She has put on weight because she visits the hamburger stand across the street from her work daily. The patient attributed her depression to her weight gain and wanted to get a prescription for Prozac because she heard it would help her lose weight. At the end of this case study, Blazer points out that this patient was quite willing to consider the multiple ways in which social forces lead to obesity, but she couldn't see how her depression might be related to work stress.

I read this passage to my students to get their sense. Rather than deal with the observation, two very passionate students launched into an attack on the patient's willingness to attribute her weight gain to the over-marketing of fast food or the cheapness of fast food. "She should know better how to eat well. She is a computer engineer. If she wants to lose weight, she should just eat less."

I asked my students, however, if they believed that her depression was in part the result of work pressures, fear of losing her job, and stress over mortgage payments. They absolutely agreed that those were part of the problem. In fact, almost every student in the class believes that depression has social origins and they are deeply disturbed by a culture that wants to "pop pills" and "get a quick fix," rather than address the real underlying problems. They are Utopian in their thinking--wishing we could improve neighborhoods, provide better jobs, better education, universal health care, less stress in the workplace and schools. Many of them have downright indicted capitalism. I am, for once in my life, confronted with several Marxist students. Who would've guess? I am the one arguing for Prozac all class.

But, when I asked them why they were unwilling to attribute social origins to the obesity epidemic, they couldn't see the connection. Being overweight was a personal failing. Being depressed, however, was a sign that our culture is messed up. Why such a glaring inconsistency?

I have been trying to come up with some sort of helpful explanation for this. Part of it may stem from the fact that by and large my students are well off and have been socialized to be "healthy eaters" and thin. They are less able to make the connection to lower social class and higher rates of obesity. They don't know what it is like to manage a family, while having to work a lot, and therefore not having a whole lot of time to make "healthy food." Furthermore, healthy food is expensive, unless you grow a lot of it yourself. I think Michelle Obama actually has a great stump speech that addresses these stresses of "average families."

The other part of the sin of gluttony seems to be their buckling under to a culture obsessed with thin bodies--especially in the case of women. For the first time, I really saw the connection between anorexia and control. Being thin is not just about being beautiful, it is about having the ability to say "no" to all of the temptations that bombard us daily to eat food that is indulgent.

What do you all make of this?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Taking the Prof Personally

I was teaching an excerpt from Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling today in my 19th Century class. In this passage, Kierkegaard masterfully discusses the absurdity of faith. An act of faith is by definition, for Kierkegaard, unintelligible. I love teaching this. But, today I started analyzing something in particular about how my class responded to Kierkegaard (and, frankly, to all the other thinkers we have read this semester). The students stopped me mid-Kierkegaard-rant to ask if he was suggesting that it is better to be a knight of faith? Is it better to be Abraham? Should one aim to be this isolated, unintelligible knight of faith? Their eyes were intent, concerned, eager.

One student threw his hands up and said "this is just insane." I had to step back from their intensity and reflect on what must be occurring when they read these dead, old thinkers from years gone bye. They turn to them as sources of wisdom. They read each of these texts as if the writer is speaking directly to them and telling them how they should act, live, and think.

I don't think this is necessarily the wrong way to read these texts, but I keep trying to point out to my students that not every one of these writers is telling you what to do or what to think. Some of them are just exposing the flawed assumptions of certain institutions, laws, and attempts to ground morality. For example, when I teach Kant's Groundwork, I have to constantly remind the students that Kant is not prescribing what they ought to do. He is not telling them that they are failures if they cannot always act from duty. He is describing what is necessary for a moral philosophy to be truly universally binding. And yet, the students can't help but read the Groundwork as admonishing them for failing to live up to Kant's ideal of the wholly rational, duty-bound subject. Today they were livid that Kierkegaard was (they thought) prescribing a way to being faithful to the divine that would practically make them appear crazy to others.

No matter how many times I tried to redirect them to seeing Kierkegaard as making a specific critique of the Lutheran Church in Denmark and Hegel, they couldn't get away from taking Kierkegaard personally.

When class was over and I headed over to the daycare to see Maddie, I started wondering if I had that kind of power over the students and didn't realize it? That is, if I made pronouncements about what I think is the proper way to act, would my word--as an authority figure--force them to be put into crisis in the same way that these texts do? That is how I see it, by the way. If they didn't see these thinkers as wise or worth listening to, they wouldn't keep asking me with such passion why Kant says X or Kierkegaard says y. They are looking for some guidance from these texts. I am not sure why, but they are.

So, are they looking for some guidance from me as well? Do I have this much power over them? There are probably plenty of professors who have realized they do have this power and abused it long before I managed to see it. And, now that I am fairly convinced that I have reached a point in my career where what I say, what I reveal about myself, what I share of my preferences carries a kind of weight that I didn't realize before that it did, I am sort of nervous.

I am nervous about how easily one could get giddy from this power. I see far to many junior faculty fail to see how much power they actually have over students. In fact, they might even misread student reactions to them. Perhaps when students challenge them, it is not because they don't respect their authority, but rather that they are far too overwhelmed and challenged by what they assume is the wisdom of the prof. They feel indicted at times for not being as wise or being a virtuous as they attribute to the prof.

I dunno. Maybe they are just being asses. But, I can't shake the feeling that they are taking me far too personally.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Adopted Family

I am back. I don't know why. Maybe because Spring is in the air and I feel more hopeful and energetic. Maybe because I was nudged to return by others who keep checking my blog to see it stuck on the same old day in February. Whatever the reason, I decided it was time to make an appearance again. Maybe I waited so long that my audience will never return?

In any case, I was wondering if any of you out there have as strong of a need as I do to create their own family? That is, find people in your life that give you the sense of security and love that we hope to get from our biological families and bind yourselves together to get those goodies in a newly forged biological family. I do this. I don't necessarily have an awful "biological" family. I get along well with most of my family. But, I have always lived so far away from my family and I tend to get lonely without friendships that feel like family.

I guess I am thinking a lot about this because I am about to move away from the home I created here. I have colleagues in the department whom I think of as brothers. I have my senior colleagues that I feel like dear aunts and uncles. I have lots of women friends whom I have met that I rely on to get through many days. I share myself with these folks fully and I get so much from having all of them in my life, that I cannot bear to imagine what my life will look like in a few months when I pick up my stakes and move on.

My thoughts turned to adopted families today when I started reflecting on one particular work relationship I have with a professor in Religious studies. I used to think our work relationship could be characterized as the Office Husband/Work Wives dynamic, but I don't think this anymore. I see my need to have him in my life stemming more from a profound need to have a big brother. We had a falling out and we have never talked about it. I was pushed by someone to reflect on why we never talked about it. I don't really have an answer, but I think it is because I just don't want to sort out anymore the complicated emotions that led to that freeze. I have just found myself falling back into a dynamic with him that I had before.

I couldn't help but analyze why I really needed this friendship. After all, I cut him out of my life for a long time. But, the only explanation that I can come up with is that I desperately need a brother. Someone you can tease, joke around with, confess the most embarrassing details about yourself too, count on to be a good uncle and to be there to back me up against bullies. I used to have this with my biological brother, but we moved apart so many years ago. Maybe when I left for college? Maybe when I left for graduate school? Who knows. But, there it is, and so I have adopted a brother to fill this deep need.

So, what I wonder is do any of you have this deep need to adopt family members? If so, where do you think it comes from and, more importantly, why does it seem to manifest in a way that makes up for the loss of an actual relationship? That is, why don't I want to adopt a sister as much as brother? I have dear friends who I love like sisters, but the need to have them in my life seems to fulfill a more general need to have an adopted family. In the case of my adopted brother, it is a very specific and urgent need. Do any of you have this sort of imperative as well?