Doing Research = Doing Dirty Work

When I was in college, I thought doing scholarly research meant something very fancy. I admired the professors who taught me then. Some of them were invited to testify before Congress for immigration reforms. Others presented cool research, and wrote beautiful novels. It seemed to me that a scholar, especially the public intellectual one, was highly regarded because they have read a lot of books, articles, and they know a lot.

I was so wrong.

I learned the hard way that doing research especially in an American institution means doing a lot of dirty work. By dirty work I mean the kind of unnamed, unappreciative, unglamorous labor like cleaning data, creating tables, organizing archival materials, recruiting participants via emails, phones, Facebook, writing research manuscripts, editing them many many times, and sometimes answering emails from your co-authors. Everything is labor intensive, time-consuming. Most of them I would categorize as clerical tasks.

I first learned about doing this type of work when I was working as a research assistant for a couple of anthropologists of religion after my college years. My job then was mostly doing archival research, plus writing ethnographic observations about community activities in Berlin. The work was lonely, very lonely. Everyday I went to the Federal Archive in Berlin-Lichterfelde, ordered folders of written materials, skimmed through them, took notes, and then ordered copies. It was my 9 to 5 job. There was no place to hang out at the archive. Everyone around me was either a seasoned historian writing a next book for their job promotion, or a PhD student in history or cultural studies trying to write their dissertation. We had nothing in common. People were quiet there. Maybe it’s just a German public space etiquette. People tend to speak in very low voice in public spaces especially one that is designated as a research area.

Sometimes I got bored with reading governmental administrative records, I would order film rolls to read and skim newspaper articles. The film room was in another hall. It was separated from the main archive reading room. The film room was full of machines where you can read newspaper articles that were digitized into film rolls. Thanks to digitalization of archive materials, most people nowadays would not know how these machines work. They look like archive newspaper reading machines from the 80s movies. The films are called microforms, or microfilms. A researcher often orders many film rolls. They would then place it on the machine properly, align the lenses for projection, and then would manually roll the films one negative at a time. There is no search button, there is no jump button, you just have to move one at a time to look for some relevant materials.

The only sound that came from that room was the clicking sound when one rolls the film from one negative to another. It was click click click…. Every once in a while, I would hear people print some articles. All the chitchats were kept very low, I could barely hear anything else.

My young adulthood was full of moments like those when I would venture into archives, explore ethnic cultural scenes alone. The process of writing memos each night was also very lonely. There was only me and my computer staring at each other. In many ways, this period living in Germany trained me to be extremely reflexive, writing with intensity, listening to whispering around me, and feeling comfortable in my skin because I knew that nobody was doing what I was doing, and people didn’t care about what I was doing. I was the only one who knew what I had to do, and that I had a deadline. Regardless of how boring and repetitive the job was, I had a sense of purpose. I became bolder during the process.

What motivated me every day to go to the archive 1 hour away from home was that I would be touching some historical artifacts that 99.99% of the world population did not even know that they existed. The topic of interest was so obscure that 99.99% of the world population did not care about. But I cared, and the fact that this event made me one of the very few people on earth care about it emboldened me. I had the privilege to care about something that most people did not care about. It felt empowering. That was the moment when I started to appreciate doing research dirty work: the data collection process.

Then I came to the PhD program. My first official research project that felt organized, and purposeful was a research about food startup founders in New York City. I interviewed food startup founders in the city to understand their challenges of producing food products for consumption in an ever changing food landscape, and in a city where food production has very limited space especially the shelf-stable items. The research process was intense. I had to email hundreds of people in order to score about 40 interviews. The processes of drafting the email, following up with them, going to their production space, interviewing and writing memos were tedious. It seemed that nobody appreciated my work. One professor in my program caught up with me in the elevator one day. I gave him a one-minute pitch of what I was doing. He told me that my research sounded fun. What an attitude! I thought to myself. I was doing it for myself, because I was curious, and that there was a small prize at the end: a publication.

Sometimes I asked myself often during this research. Is it really worth it to go through that extent the labor, the amount of work, the pain, and the various social anxiety, social isolation to produce a product of intellectual work, i.e., a publication? It felt that in the process of engaging in such a research, I learned so much about industrial policy of New York City, startup culture, and cultural changes in food consumption and distribution of the new economy, one that was filled with technological innovations, knowledge work, overeducated workers who were doing underpaid work.

Would I consider then what I learned through the process was valuable enough to justify for the time and labor investment that I put in such a project? It felt like worth it because I felt that on a personal level I have become so much more connected to the city that I live in: New York City. On a professional level, I can now speak with authority, and confidence about the startup culture in NYC, and some about industrial policy and urban culture of New York. It feels like I know so much more now than before I did the project.

Does it mean then doing research is to collect data and make sense of something that is going on, and that the researcher knows more about that subject matter than most people in the world? The idea that the researcher has dived deep into a particular subject matter, and is one of a few experts can justify all other costs including social isolation, psychological distresses when things don’t go well, not to mention financial losses. The social prestige of being a researcher, the fulfilling feeling of knowing might trump many of the moments when I sweat out collecting data, and the frustration that sometimes doing research means that there’s no outcome at all.

I feel more comfortable now than before about doing research. I also hedge more now than before when it comes to a research project. I care more about the concrete outcomes and impacts of each project now than simply focusing on the discovery aspect of research.

However, I think one thing hasn’t changed for me which is that for any research project regardless of the outcome (which is oftentimes a publication), I treasure the fact that I can and will learn something new in the process. That all what matters at the end of the journey.

Uncovering Social Assumptions

Your job as a researcher and an academic is to make known social assumptions.

In one of our regular phone calls, my advisor told me that I should be able to write about social assumptions, who has those, believes in them, and acts accordingly in the world. It was in the context when one of my dissertation chapters did not fully crystalize the social tension between content moderation and the often taken for granted absolutist freedom of speech in American culture. When I write, I take freedom of speech at face value. I assume that it is actually guaranteed for anyone living in the United States. My blindspot was pointed out. The assumption is that everyone interprets freedom of speech to mean that anyone can say whatever they want. But it’s not what actually is written in the law. The law protects dissents from government’s persecution.

This idea of absolute freedom of speech is a socially constructed idea, but it has had real life consequences. Thus as a sociologist, it’s my professional duty to make this assumption explicit, and to draw the various contours of the debate between content moderation and freedom of speech.

This is a challenge. I’m kind of stuck thinking about it at this moment. I feel like I want to throw the chapter in the air, and write something new.

Uncovering social assumptions is a hard job. Having the ability to observe how people behave, and translating this observation into words are not easy. It feels to me that my thinking is still not clear on this debate yet, thus writing about it is such a challenge.

I have two solutions to become unstuck. The first solution is keep reading on the debate, and think about it a lot. I often find running, going for a long walk, or sometimes taking a long bath helps. The second solution is to let it run in the back of my mind, while writing about something else. Maybe once I write about that something else, how to resolve the debate between content moderation and freedom of speech would come to me. The second option is sometimes labeled as”productive procrastination,” or honestly “wistful thinking.” It’s my wish that the writing would become clearer. Many a times, I find that laboring on a problem for a long period of time, and keeping at it might be a better idea. At this point, I will do intermittent thinking about this chapter while writing about another chapter to feel that I’m actually making some progress. Hopefully by the end of this week, I won’t feel too stuck anymore.

Techno-Developmentalism and Tech Talent Problem

I wrote a summary of the article “Upgrading China through Automation,” by Sociologist Ya-Wen Lei for Montreal AI Ethics Institute last year.

In the article, Lei introduces the concept techno-developmentalism, which she defines as “developmental agendas that prioritize the pursuit of technological advances, R&D and industrial upgrading.” What I observed from the article is that in order to become a techno-state, the Chinese government incentivizes high tech research and development, using robots in industrial production with the goal to increase productivity. They also value inputs from high-skilled workers, ie. tech talents, while ignore concerns from low-skilled workers.

This article got me thinking about the state of digital economy transformation in Vietnam. If Vietnam was to follow China in implementing the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it would also have to put a lot of investment in infrastructure, and tech talent. This is an unavoidable path.

I then discussed with my colleague and favorite co-author, Khoa Lam, a Machine Learning researcher at BABL AI to write an op-ed and report about the state of tech talent in Vietnam, and the various challenges that AI companies would face given the current educational infrastructure. Together, we did research for a period of three months, and used the next three months to write and edit our article, which has been published on The Gradient.

We found that there seems to be a shortage of tech talent, or simply engineering talent. Many engineers in Vietnam work in outsourcing industry, which means that they work on products that are part of some systems for companies overseas. Many of Vietnamese overseas partners are game companies in China and Japan. The AI startup ecosystem is nascent, there’s a strong demand, but formal education in AI and data science has only been recently established. In fact, only starting from 2019, universities throughout the country could start to offer AI and data science as college majors.

Bootcamps are also stepping up to fill certain labor market gaps. However, they face strong cultural resistance because as a credential-based society, managers strongly prefer those with formal education in AI, data science, and computer science.

After outlining the various details around the lack of tech talent in Vietnam, we outline a few solutions. For more detail, you can read here…

Town Fairs and Political Recruitment

Last weekend, I went to a small town music and art festival in my small city. The entire main shopping street was blocked off for the fair. It was full of energy, activities. The entire street was bursting with smells of the summer: BBQ, popcorn, cotton candy, chocolate and frozen fruits, etc. Rock music was the order of the day. There were two stages at the beginning and the end of the street. Everyone was putting on their most festive summer clothes and sung glasses to enjoy the event. Kids had an entire block to paint. Dogs also had dog treats tent. Local stores could rent tents right in front of their stores to promote their foods, clothes, and crafts.

Almost at the end of the street, a sign caught my eye. It said “Republican Party of Town XYZ.” The line in front of it was bustling with noise. Three muscular looking young men were staying behind the table, and passing flyers to young folks who were inquiring about their activities. The visuals were striking to me. Instead of a plain elephant symbol that normally stands for the Republican Party, the chosen flag of this booth was the blue lives matter flag. It occupies more than half of the booth background. It often signifies threat to me: a woman of color. The many layers of symbolism and signals at the booth have kept me thinking about the various political currents in the small city I live in.

The folks who were behind the table, and the young folks, a pretty diverse group on the other side of the table talked with zeal about the various activities and ideology that they believe in. This signified to me that the Republican party at least in the era that I live in are trying to recruit younger members. This is an interesting phenomenon.

As I toured the entire street, I wonder whether I would encounter the equivalent of such booth from the Democratic Party of my town. It did not exist. On the other end of the street, there were three different separate booths that represent liberal political activism. One had to do with stopping nuclear weapons; another was about reproductive rights; and probably one was about environmental causes. However, none of these booths exhibited any zeal, the high level of energies that the other one exhibited. I felt sad. It looked to me that the liberal causes that used to energize a lot of people did not get the same level of excitement at this particular summer fair.

What is going on here? Has the the Democratic party in my town become complacent. Do they think that using micro-targeting recruitment online is enough? Or that since my town is squarely located in a blue state area, it’s not worth their efforts?

I am certainly not well-read or well-informed enough about these matters to make a prediction. However, what I saw last week definitely have raised many questions in my head about on-the-street political activism. Especially as the Mid-term election of 2022 is here, I cannot help but observe political movements with anxiety.

Withdrawing from Social Media

I quit Twitter two weeks ago. It used to be my place to go to for news. I followed reporters, opinion writers, commentators, and academics on the platform. They often retweet what they write, or their summaries of interesting articles. It was inspiring to read an author’s own summary of a research paper for example. I thought I could learn from their thread-writing style as an academic. Some people just do it so well.

I used to think that writing Twitter threads in a very succinct and interesting way is a young person thing. I was so wrong. I saw that many New York Times opinion writers including Paul Krugman roll their Twitter threads in a super engaging way. Maybe the New York Times provides them with Twitter engagement lessons such that they could go online and engage their readers through their own personal brands.

Then the richest man on earth bought Twitter.

Many academics, writers, and colleagues remain on the platform. To many, it’s their public square. Without it, their community disappears. Some have chosen to distance away from the platform but not necessarily quitting. They keep their presence on the platform, but stop producing new content. They become passive consumers of other people’s content. Maybe sometimes they would use it like a message board: posting some announcements about their book talks or TV appearances.

I quit.

The decision wasn’t particularly stressful or traumatic. It am not a famous academic. I don’t have a clearly well-defined community that I am attached to on Twitter. I didn’t have a lot of following. I wasn’t a micro celebrity. My purpose of using Twitter was to keep up with trends in research, and cool stuff in AI ethics. I was simply using Twitter to keep tabs on discourses that I care about. In other words, I have not gained much from the platform. So the idea of giving it up was very enticing to me when there’s a strong nudge.

There was a withdrawal period when I did not know what to do with my extra time. Theoretically, I should use that time to read books, articles, and write my dissertation. But my brain can only take in so much every day. It got bored, tired, and even hurt if I don’t take a break, or don’t give it a dose of inspiration, or social interaction.

I am learning to adjust to my new life without a Twitter account.

First, I get back to the practice suggested by Jaron Lanier: read newspapers on their own websites. Do not use social media to get the news. I used to disagree with Laron Lanier’s doom evaluation of social media. He believed that social media platforms are terrible. They destroy democracy, and our mental well-beings. My critique of his assessment of social media is in line with other social scientists such as Mary Gray. I argue that social media is not simply an economic engine where the users get information, and get some psychological rewards for scrolling through a lot of content. The part that Lanier forgot about is that it is “social.” That means, for a person who was coming of age when Facebook was getting on the scene, and maturing with Facebook, my identity and my generation’s identity are attached to Facebook’s identity. To keep up with my friends, the easiest way is to use Facebook. The social aspect of it makes it hard to quit. It’s not Facebook anymore for other folks such as Gen Zers. It might be Tik Tok or Snap, or Instagram for them. The idea is social media has become part of the social for everyone.

I am not really wedded to Twitter in the same way that I am to Facebook. Twitter is more like an informal networking place for professionals. It was useful for writers to brainstorm, to get their ideas out, and a lot of times to respond to angry readers, and harassers.

So to replace my news reading activities, I go to the New York Times website and read the news. Possibly I will subscribe to the Washington Post soon. My go-to news and magazines that I admire, and would like to contribute some day include the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. For news in Vietnamese, I read VNexpress, Vietcetera, and sometimes Vietnamnet.

This has become my new practice now: periodically checking the websites of the above-mentioned news organizations. Currently I have thoroughly enjoyed the Times’ 3-part series on Tucker Carlson. I highly recommend this series to anyone who is interested in how Fox News and talk shows have influenced American politics, as well as radicalizing American voters.

By my withdrawing from a platform, and not contributing to its statistics such as time spent scrolling, or producing content for the platform, I am actively withdrawing from the attention economy where information is the commodity. Sarah T. Roberts observes in Behind the Screen:

The content is just too valuable a commodity to the platforms; it is the bait that lures users in and keeps them coming back for updates to scroll, new pictures or videos to view, new posts to read, and new advertisements to be served.

Roberts writes about content in the context of commercial content moderation where social media platforms would keep using content moderators to sort through illegal content such as child pornography, terrorism, copyright infringement, etc. The workers would be psychologically affected and would never recover from the demange of seeing those content. Even with artificial intelligence, real human beings are still literally behind the screen working to ensure that the Internet is usable for the majority of people. Platforms want users to continuously generate content because that’s their commodity. There would be no way that content moderators’ job would disappear in any time soon.

My act of stopping using a platform is a way to stay away from this cycle of content production, moderation, and attention.

Finally, to get my dose of social interaction, I have started to talk to a friend, a colleague or a reader at least once or twice a week to generate new ideas, and feeling that I am a part of some loosely defined community. This is working for now. I hope that I will be able to truly exercise digital minimalism at some point. As of now, I think my distancing away from social media suffices for this period of my life.

The Problem with Students’ Mental Health

In April, the discussion around mental health issues among students increased significantly within the Vietnamese diaspora. Whenever I visited a Vietnamese speaking Facebook group, some people would talk about mental health awareness, or mental health service access for students. These discussions started because a student from a highly selected high school in Hanoi committed suicide. The media response was intense. Commentators wrote about depression, high school pressure, tiger parenting, etc.

As I argue in my latest piece for VnExpress, “We Need Professional Mental Health Services in Schools,” to understand students’ various mental health problems, one has to connect these issues to institutions where the students are embedded in. These institutions include the family, the school, and others. Furthermore, the fundamental lack of knowledge of psychology and mental health in general makes the problem worse. Mental health problems become invisible, and they should not be. Finally, I also argue that students’ (and everyone’s) mental health was worsened during the COVID-19.

By pointing out that the lack of care to students’ mental health problems as a problem that schools and families can work together, I argue that each group of actors can contribute to solve this problem. Parents can learn about different types of mental health issues. Teachers can get training about mental health issues. Schools can have therapists and counselors on staff, or work with community organizations to provide services to students. These actionable steps could be implemented at home, at school, and by civic organizations.

For more detail about the case that I was arguing for, see the full article…

H

White by Law

Law then constructs racial differences on several levels through the promulgation and enforcement of rules that determine permissible behavior. The naturalization laws governed who was and was not welcome to join the polity, anti-miscegenation laws regulated sexual relations, and segregation laws told people where they could and could not live and work. Together, such laws altered the physical appearances of this country’s people, attached racial identities to certain types of features and ancestry, and established material conditions of belonging and exclusion that code as race. In all of these ways, legal rules constructed race.

White by Law by Ian Haney López

In White by Law, Ian Haney López examines prerequisite cases–cases based on racial restrictions on naturalization. By closely deconstructing supreme court justices’ and judges’ arguments on why certain people could be naturalized based on their “whiteness.” According to the 1790 Naturalization Act, only “free white persons” were allowed to be naturalized. Free Black people were also allowed naturalization in certain places. However, according to this act, everyone else including native Americans, and Asians was excluded based on their race.

Only in 1952, the new Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 barred racial and gender discrimination in naturalization. This means for almost 200 years, immigrants who lived in the United States who were not defined as white would not be able to obtain naturalization, and thus many rights. Many of those naturalization cases went all the way to the supreme court, where justices actually decided whether they were white enough based either on “scientific” definition of who a white person was, or on “common,” i.e. social, understanding of who a white person was. By actively defining whether the person who is seeking naturalization was white enough, the judges, and justices contributed to the social project of racial categorization.

What I really appreciate in Lopez’s work is that he argues that whiteness is a relational category. It cannot be defined by itself. It has to be defined in relation to what non-white means. By defining the people who were seeking naturalization as none-white, the justices, and judges, even the plaintiffs themselves solidified the white racial category.

Laws are powerful, and in this case of naturalization law it decides what the makeup of the population should be. This point is powerful. Laws and demography are actually related. Those are not two separate fields. The interactions between those two fields shape the society that we live in.

This brings me to the recent story of Amy Wax, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, who has consistently expressed racist views against Asian and Black students and scientists. Most recently she made national news by expressing such views on Fox News. Many have called for UPenn to fire her for expressing racist views. Other are angry because she said that people of color are angry and envious of Western people’s achievements. To them, it’s not that people of color are angry against any Western achievement. The truth is that people of colors’ contributions in those achievements were written off, silenced, and stolen. Credits are never given where they were due is the main point of contention.

What is most worrisome in this case to me was that her view might be the view of many in the legal profession. The legal profession still behind in diversity, people of color particularly women of color still hear that they do not belong in the profession. Research in sociology has shown that elite law firms have a “pedigree” hiring practice, meaning that they prefer to hire students from elite schools who would participate in the same kind of elite extracurricular activities, and internships. One aspect of this homophily coded language is the race factor, where racial homophily between the interviewers and interviewees plays a role.

The racial and class makeup of the legal profession aside, I wonder how many people of color would succeed in such a profession where the partnership system in large firms in a long run ultimately weeds out who would rise to the top of such firms. I have heard cases of women and people of color either get laid off or voluntarily leave the firms because they did not fit in or did not appear to be the partner type.

I think that this problem of racial diversity in law would not go away. It does not look to me that after the 2020 success of Black Lives Matter movement, the legal profession would suddenly want to diversify itself. Most organizations in the United States reacted after the societal change after #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter. However, it feels to me that the legal profession is a much more conservative industry than others such as tech or media.

While the nation is celebrating the appointment of the first black female supreme court justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, the legal profession also gave me a chilling feeling from what a female professor could say about other racial groups especially the highly educated ones.

When I was in college, I was convinced that I should go to college. The first class that I took was a first year seminar entitled “The First Amendment.” We wrote memos on First Amendment cases, spanning from the 18th century to the digital age. I enjoyed the class thoroughly, and had high hope of my being able to become an employment lawyer. However, the more I read about how expensive a law education was, and how as a women of color I would be sidelined, I gave up shortly after. It was not for me. Many things screamed out loud that it would be such a suffering journey, and I would not even know why I had to endure such a journey, and to what end.

Eventually I ended up in sociology, I feel much happier in this profession. I find values in my identity, and that my many different identities would give me an edge in knowledge production. Not only has sociology empowered me with knowledge to describe the socio-political and cultural forces that shape who I am, it also has appreciated the unique point of view that my lived experience allows me to provide. I feel like I do not have to follow any mold to be successful, but instead I have been inspired continuously by great work of other scholars whose identities are also very unique.

Which Company has Sabbatical Policies?

As I am about to leave academia shortly, I have already started missing the idea of academia. I miss writing about a topic that takes a lot of thinking and debates to crystalize. I miss days on end spending on reading, reading, reading, and nothing else. I miss debating with my colleagues. I miss inspiring young students, and guiding them through their research projects. And most intensely I miss the idea of “a sabbatical year.”

Before I started my entry into the scholarly life of a researcher, many struggling postdocs and researchers that I met at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Ethnic and Religious Diversity justified to me their decision to become academics to be the “flexible hours, and life style.” To them, becoming an academic is a vocational calling, an almost religious idea that your career, your vocation is made out for you, and predetermined. It has an air of prestige, of honor, and of divinity to it. This divine calling of the profession also cloaks in it many dark sides, and corners of academia. The many factors that as an undergraduate I never thought about: exploitation, racial dynamics, immigration, and the two-body problem. Furthermore the idea that one can choose one’s vocation signals a privilege idea that it’s within one’s power to choose it or not.

Credit: Unsplash

I gave academia a try. The only time that I really felt as though I belong, and this is my calling was my last year. Only more than half a decade into the journey did I feel like I got a hang of it. I had a strong collaboration circle, people with whom I can bounce ideas, and write articles with. I started to have fun writing articles, and writing responses as well as rebuttals against some of the most harsh and unreasonable comments from journal reviewers. I felt like eventually I understood what this profession meant. I also started writing op-eds for various venues, and felt that the public also engaged with me. Maybe I could eventually become a public intellectual one day.

Yet, I am leaving academia in about a month. Many of those skills, and accomplishments that I have been building for a career that I deemed not really for me might all go wasted. Furthermore, I already feel nostalgic for the idea of sabbatical. How would I be able to take a year off to research and write about something that I am extremely passionate about, to engage with cutting edge research in my discipline(s), field(s).

In the United States merely 4 percent of companies offer paid sabbaticals, and 16 percent unpaid ones. An employee only gets to enjoy one to two-weeks of sabbatical after five, seven to ten years in service. These statistics don’t look really appealing for a book project for example. The lengths of the break are too short. Who can do anything substantial within only one to two weeks? This version of sabbatical is more like having time to deal with long-term employees’ burnout instead. Job burnout should be considered as physical and mental health problem that the government and companies should simply have policies to address their employees’ emotional, physical and emotional healths. Instead, they borrow academia’s sabbatical idea as a way to not have to deal with the problem of burnout in a systematic way. I am not arguing that academics do not get burnout. As the prime examples of the intellectual workforce, academics might have more burnout than others due to the amount of administrative work, and the publication demand especially for young faculty members who might or might not have tenure.

I know cases where so-called “independent researchers” resigned from a job, got affiliated with a university as an unpaid fellow for a year to write a book, and then independently found another job after the book project was completed. This round did not sound enticing to me. Maybe for a rich person who was born with a trust fund, it would not be a bad option if they are really passionate about their writing project. I do not want to go back in time when only the rich and the privileged can produce intellectual work. I want to be a part of the enterprise as who I am, and I want to write on the side, or on the job. I just want to be acknowledged, and the credit for the work that I do, and get supported from any organization that I will be a part of.

Google used to have a 20% rule where employees can devote 20% of their time towards side projects that they think might help Google’s products in some shape or form. This sounds like a cool idea for a tech company where products change very quickly. The company however discontinued this program in 2013. Though this idea is not really similar to a sabbatical year, it is akin to a sabbatical day of the week. I can use that day to read, write, and recharge. At the end of the day, it was a good way to use my creative energy.

Because of the transformation of the academy whereby the majority of faculty now are adjuncts, the phenomenon of adjunctification. The neoliberal university cuts costs by reducing tenure lines, overtraining PhD holders, and increasing class sizes. These changes make securing a tenure track job more of a myth than a career choice. With these changes, I can foresee that there would be more PhD holders in industry. This effect would not necessarily colossal, but the impacts would be palpable in many industries.

With more academics going into industry, I can foresee the idea that some of them still want to keep produce rigorous academic research work. Every once in a while they also want to write a high impact book. Some of them still regularly write op-eds. Those these activities are not necessarily rewarded in annual evaluations. They are part of these people’s identities. Maybe their identities were what got them the job to start with. I wonder how companies can start incorporate these eccentricities of employing a PhD holder into their yearly evaluation. I wonder which companies have more generous sabbatical policies for employees to take advantage of.

If such a place exists, I would love to know. That work place would be a dream come true for me.

I finished My First Marathon

Last sunday (April 25), I finished running a marathon, the Brooklyn Marathon. I was the first time I ran it, and I finished it. The result was abysmal. I came last out of 2800+ people who ran. To me, it was a badge of honor because what mattered was that I ran and finished.

I believe that running a marathon is a perfect analogy to conducting a dissertation research. In the fourth year in my PhD studies, I signed up for the first half marathon (13.1 miles). It took a lot of time and effort, but I also finished it. The first time I felt like I could push myself to finish something quite strenuous. Running and finishing a marathon is also a way for me to validate my own perseverance, and to believe in myself when few or no-one around me seem to quite believe that I can do something that arduous.

This time around I attempted a full marathon, a full 26.2 mile run instead of a 13.1 mile half marathon. I know by now that I could run a half marathon fine, especially if I train myself a bit before the run.

Starting about 7 weeks before the race, I signed up for a membership at a nearby gym. The weather in New York City has been very cold this year even now when May is almost here. I thought running on a treadmill could resemble some part of running for a marathon. I went to the gym every other day. Each time I ran for about 5 miles within an hour. It’s not too bad of a speed for me. I did that pretty regularly for about the last 3 weeks prior to the race. One would think: 5 miles per hour means about 5.5 hours for the entire marathon. This is very slow, but not too bad. I feel like I can handle 5.5 miles of running outside in the cold weather of New York.

I was so wrong!

On the day, I maintained about 5 miles per hour speed for the first half marathon. I finished the half marathon (13.1 miles) within about 2 hours and 40 minutes. That went as expected, and it was the fastest that I ever ran a half marathon. My training did work.

Then at the point where all the half-marathoners went to the finish line, I was directed to the 14 mile. It was such a lonely mile. Nobody else was running with me anymore. The audience who was holding signs for their loved ones was all there for the half marathon runners. The moment that I turned to the second loop, no more audience on either side of the road. There were only neighborhood people who went about with their sunday activities such as going to church, to synagogue, or to do chores. The worst feeling is that it seems like other marathoners were slowly passing me by. One after another told me that I could do it, but left me behind for like miles.

The second half of the marathon was an intense inner fight between my head, my legs, and my feet. I kept thinking to myself: “Ok, one more mile would already be the longest race that I have ever run. If I quit, I would still win.” I kept counting in my head: “one step at a time, and one mile at a time.” The race could only be run and be won that way. This is similar to writing a dissertation, one word at a time. There is no other way around this process.

My training did not prepare me for the last third of the race. By mile 20, I was no longer running. My legs and my feet, especially my ankles were giving up on me. They were overworked. My training never prepared me for hours number 3, 4, 5, 6, and even hour 7. I started walking. Ever once in a while, when the cops parking on Ocean Parkway Avenue to protect the race looked at me, I would pick up myself and jog a bit. But my feet were under great stress.

I thought to myself: even if I have to walk this walk of shame, I would walk. So I walked the last 7 miles of the race.

Instead of 5 and a half hours as expected, the race lasted 7 hours for me. It was also with great pain.

Hydration

Another part that I did a disservice to myself was that I did not fuel myself up before the race. I saw other runners bringing bananas, and energy gels to keep themselves excited, and strong for the race. I did not eat anything. That was a huge mistake. The only thing I had that morning was half a liter of water. I did remember to hydrate myself throughout the race. This was not difficult. I also carb-loaded myself the night before according to a friend’s suggestion. After the marathon, I read more about carb-loading, and realized that I should have done it at least 3-7 days before the race. Well, lesson learned. I will do it properly before the next marathon.

Energy Gels

Regardless of the intense inner struggle between me and my body, I did enjoy the scenery of the race. Brooklyn during the spring, and early in the morning was exquisite. I was able to get a glimpse of Manhattan, of the Williamsburg bridge early during the race. We ran by Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Steiner Studios. I was in awe of the idea that Brooklyn has such huge studios. I knew that many movies have been made in New York, but such large area dedicated to film sets in precious real estate of Brooklyn was a surprise to me.

In the second half of the race, we ran inside Prospect Park, and around the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I smelled nature. Cherry blossoms were blooming. They filled the space with a sweet, pleasing, and refreshing smell that reminds me of college time.

Now the race was behind me, these sweet memories really made me feel like it was worth it. My sister told me to stop running marathons. To her I could keep training on the treadmill with her, but running a marathon was too taxing on my body. However, I disagree. I feel like I have become hooked to long distance running. It is all the memories associated with the race that really make me want to come back. So I will keep doing it. I will keep signing up for races in neighborhoods and cities that I would never have otherwise discovered on foot. My next stops are the Newport Half Marathon, Prospect Park Half Marathon, and the Philly Marathon. The training will restart again next week.

Fox News at Fitness Center

Sociologist Cynthia Miller-Idriss wrote an op-ed piece “Pandemic fitness trends have gone extreme — literally.” The piece is about the social phenomena whereby far-right extremists in the United States and Europe have opened gyms, fitness classes, martial arts centers, as gateways to recruit young people, especially men. She argues that there is a long history of extremism and fitness because of the obsession of masculinity, strength, and competition. Youths are then invited to join private discords where radicalized ideas, images would then be shared. These online off the public square spaces that are supposed to be about fitness are dangerous places, and which are often go under the radar.

She then got a lot of push back from Twitter users criticizing that the title was click-baity.

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Her main response was that title was not under her control, which I highly doubt. If the title is not under her control, she should have boycotted the outlet, in this case MSNBC for engaging in unethical journalism–using clickbait headlines to get views, which mainly benefits their ads income.

Misleading title aside, what is relevant for the discussion of this blog post is the idea that the fitness culture and whiteness culture are intertwined in the U.S. And that fitness centers can be gateways to radicalism.

In preparation for my marathon in April, I diligently went to the gym to run 5-6 miles every other day on the treadmill. Professional runners would can argue that it was not really marathon training because the treadmill is different from real roads. However, I did see a difference. What mattered to me was that I trained regularly, and that my breathing was regular, and that I felt that I could endure a long race.

What became a surprise to me was the availability of TV stations in my gym: 10 of them in total with number on each screen. I never actually paid attention to TVs at the gym because I am short sighted and when I run on the treadmill I often take my glasses off.

It changed, when I went to an optometrist’s to have my eye checked up to renew my driver’s license. The doctor said that my eyesight has worsened. The only reason that my eyesight got deteriorated so quickly from the previous checkup was that I did not wear my glasses regularly enough. Since then, I decided that I need to wear contact lenses anytime I would go to the gym. This was the moment when I started to see.

The first thing I noticed when I actually could see when I run was Fox News. The station is number one. It had always been in front of me. I just never paid attention until now. Next to it is CNN, then ESPN, and the rest. I never paid attention to anything else but those three.

This is when the trouble started!

I have a moral opposition to Fox News. This opposition has nothing to do with information, or communications. This opposition has to do with how Fox News has become more radicalized, and single handedly made the American polity more polarized. Researchers at Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard have documented in detail how Fox News during the 2016 Presidential election did not exercise professional journalism ethics, i.e. fact-checking, trafficked into the mainstream conspiracy theory, and misinformation. Fox News becoming radicalized was a long process, and it happened long time prior to the 2016 election. Given that it’s a mainstream news organization, without professional journalism ethics, its products should not be circulated. Period!

I then started asking many questions about the relationship between Fox News and fitness centers.

Why is Fox News is prioritized in fitness centers? Are fitness centers right-leaning? Are fitness centers contributing to radicalization of American people? By juxtaposing Fox News next to its main competitor: CNN, does it help counter the amount of misinformation that Fox News blasts out everyday? When Fox News is “on mute,” does it reduce the essentialization, and emotions involved in listening to such a channel, does it reduce its radical effects?

Regardless of the answers to those questions, I feel bothered by the fact that I have to see it whenever I am in the gym. Is there a way for me to boycott it besides cancelling my membership? I cannot pretend that I am not seeing it, and the channel being #1 signals that the gym (in this case a chain) situates itself in a particular political position as well as a particular culture that appears to be at best unwelcoming, and at worst threatening to me: a woman of color.

What should I do? Am I to boycott the gym by canceling my membership, engaging in consumer activism? Or am I to keep going to the gym, and subject myself to Fox News, which I 100 percent object for its lack of journalism ethics, bad effects to democracy, and it’s clear political as well as moral opposition to people like me? Or shall I point it out to the gym for them to change? I highly doubt the last option is a viable option for me.

They just don’t get it!

Recently I read a New York Times op-ed entitled “The Limits of ‘Lived Experience.” The title caught my eye. I thought I would gain some brilliant insights about phenomenology, a branch of philosophy where the concept “lived experience” came from. I thought I would be enlightened by some sophisticated critique of the “lived experience” idea.

I was so wrong! I got upset, even angry after reading it. The title is misleading.

The article turned out to a bemoaning of a bygone era where privilege people can go to any underprivileged community to write about them. It’s a grievance about something they were entitled to, and that entitlement was lost as the result of other groups have gained more power vis a vis the privileged. The author totally did not understand the concept “lived experience.” They wrote:

So what is this vaunted “lived experience”? You may recognize it by its longstanding name, “personal experience,” or less excitingly, “experience.” But “lived experience,” with its earthy suggestion of authority, says to other people: Unless you have walked in my shoes, you have no business telling my story.

No, I screamed in my head. Personal experience is not lived experience. Who taught you that? If you know how to Google, Wikipedia tells you:

In qualitative phenomenological research, lived experience refers to a representation of the experiences and choices of a given person, and the knowledge that they gain from these experiences and choices.

The Wikipedia definition suggests that lived experience is an epistemology. Simple put the idea is that the knowledge that you gain about life is filtered through not only your “personal experience,” but also your identity, and who you are.

I had no idea why the op-ed was published. I used to have very high opinion about the Times’ editorial board, but maybe I thought of it too highly. At the end of the day op-ed editors are not academics who are versed in ethnography, research ethics, or philosophy. They were also not peer-reviewers who would reject this op-ed based on its lack of theoretical sophistication.

Some readers recognized the privilege and whiteness framing of the argument. They sense that the op-ed was about gatekeeping. It is about underprivileged communities after decades or centuries of oppression who have learned to gate keep their experiences, and their stories to have them not told by a privilege person any more.

One reader commented:

it is clear from this tired and reductionist “argument” that Pamela Paul does not understand the concept of lived experience in its entirety or within the context of any kind of framework or theory about systemic oppression. She gets so many things wrong in this puff piece–from her reframing of what she thinks is the main argument to the “turf war” to what people of color and especially artists of color are actually asking for–that I wonder about her merits in scoring such an esteemed position as an opinion columnist at this newspaper. Rather than a nuanced examination of an issue that requires a dialectical approach and the necessary weigh-in of field experts, all I see here is merely a person with an opinion–and an uninformed one at that. And, well, there are lots of people who have those.

Yet another:

This neglects an awareness of power and the historical dimension where privileged groups have been telling the stories of others for a long, long time, and currently make up the vast majority of storytellers. I’m all for people who are not in privileged groups telling the stories of dominant groups– that outside perspective makes sense as we have been forced to adapt to the dominant culture- but I don’t think it works as well the other way around, as evidenced by some of the off, distorted, and frankly at this point unneeded, continuous portrayals of less powerful groups by more powerful groups- I’m thinking west side story, the help, aunt Jen ima, every sports team with a native mascot- and the argument that it works both ways just reeks of a giant blind spot

The article did not mention a single word “white writer.” However, the arguments were entirely based on a white racial frame, the idea that society is centered around whiteness, and that whiteness allows itself to intrude, and hurt another group or many other groups, and extract from them.

The argument of the article screams in my face: “I am a white person. I want to write about group X, Y, Z. Why can’t I not write about them anymore?”

Nobody would say no. You can write about them, but coming from your own experience. Do not steal their materials. Do not pretend that you understand them. Do not pretend that you do not get financial rewards, prestige, and power over them. Some critics also pointed out that writing “with lived experience” is different from “writing from lived experience.” The idea of having some “lived experience” opens oneself to the worldview of another group through their daily experiences is powerful. No one would reject a writer of that time-consuming yet rewarding practice.

As a sociologist, I love reading ethnographies coming from anthropology, and sociology. However, when the writer, often a privileged PhD student coming from a prestigious university in the U.S. or in Europe tries to understand how a suburban Vietnamese family navigates the urbanization process at the edge of Saigon, I feel icky. On the one hand, I appreciate that they have tried to understand their world view, their struggles, and that their writing helps me understand certain bigger socio-cultural and political processes that happen in Vietnam. On the other hand, I feel disappointed, and unjust because after the fieldwork, when the data was totally extracted out of a town on the edge of a third-world metropolis, the anthropologist is gone, disappeared, got back to the comfort of his university to write, and publish the book, and got the tenure with a 6-figure salary. The family might be contacted or might never be contacted ever again. The cycle then repeats. It’s a cycle of extraction, a cycle of silencing. It could also be empowering, but the work is barely translated to Vietnamese to empower the locals. Empowerment remains the job of local civil society workers, and local social activists.

I am not arguing that a native Vietnamese would have done a better job in producing knowledge or treating the research subjects with more care, or giving them more dignity through daily interactions or through the pages. However, at least I don’t feel like the knowledge that should have been coming from Vietnamese subjects is now attributed to a often privileged man.

I am also recognizing that this is not a black and white world where a writer/researcher should or should not do it. I want to emphasize that writing “from lived experience” or “with lived experience” is a very grey area. It is an ethically slippery slope. In order to do it the practitioner needs to take a lot of care, to be reflexive, and to be aware that the imbalanced power relation between them and the subjects that they are writing about exists.

The author of the New York Times op-ed was not the first person who has raised the question why that is that a privileged person has been excluded from opportunities to write about another group. However, my question is why other groups don’t ask the other way around? That is, why people of color don’t have the nostalgic feeling that they have lost the chance to write about white people from a white person’s perspective?

The answer is simple. That was not allowed, thus not a common practice. I was never encouraged to write about myself my entire life. My parents were never encouraged to write about theirs. So were my grandparents, and my great grandparents. Their stories have always been lost. I never had the urge to pretend to be someone else and try to write about them. I never had the time, resources, or even the opportunity to do so. However, the group who felt as though their opportunities of a practice that used to be theirs have been taken away because it’s no longer appropriate suddenly questions about their declining opportunities: the opportunity to have a faux identity and write about that.

I actually feel bad for the writer. One the one hand, probably they have always wanted to write. Yet sometimes their writings resulted in rejection because what they write no longer fits in the current political economy of multiculturalism. On the other hand, subconsciously they feel that they deserve to do it the way it used to be.

However, the right question to be asked is not about what to write about, and how to deliver it, or where to have it published. The right question to ask is what is the political economy of writing, why there are so many writers, who have produced a genre of what I would call “ethnic voyeurism?” Why has such a genre been valorized for such an extended period of time, and why everyone is trained to like it, to emulate it, and to hope that one day similar pieces of writings would share similar subject matters, aesthetics, and appraisal?

Writing is political. The writer is shaped by the institutions, the environment around them. If all writers go through similar creative writing curriculum, they would share similar aesthetics, similar tastes in subject matters, and how they could execute their writings.

Writing is a career, and an occupation that is subject to not only cultural changes but also macro-economic forces. According to the Census Bureau, there are currently almost 50,000 writers currently in the United States. This number excludes all the self-employed writers, and underemployed writers who work at odd-jobs while writing their next big novels or screenplays.

I wish I can help this writer by giving them Sein und Zeit by Heidegger so that they could first correct their theoretical mistake in trying not to understanding the term “lived experience.” However, having read the article, I feel that it would be a serious waste of time because they would just never get it–the idea that a privileged person descends on someone else’s life to write about it without having to think about all the socio-cultural and political implications is over.

Last Mile of Dissertation Writing

I am currently running against time. My dissertation deposit date has been set. The only job I have at this point is that of a full time writer.

My day is typically organized as follows: waking up, getting a cup of coffee or tea, reading a bit, writing 200-300 words of summary of the reading, saving that little piece of writing somewhere, resolving some comments from my advisor, reading some more, writing some more …. I then take a one to two hours of lunch break like what I am doing now: writing a blog post while taking a break from thinking about or thinking through the dissertation project.

Credit: Unsplash

A dissertation project involves a lot of discrete and unnamed tasks. For a person who has never written a book before, this would be considered as the most demanding book-length research and writing project that I have ever undertaken. It means one immerses in the process, and figures out necessary steps along the way. It takes a lot of courage, and lots of inspiration to be able to wake up and immerse in this cognitive demanding work.

I was overwhelmed at the beginning. It felt like there were so many words to be written. It felt like there were many data analyses to be done in Python and R. It felt like so much literature review needed to be done. It felt like there were so many more books to be read. It felt like so many more conversations should be had for me to clarify my thoughts, and solidify what I think or believe in. It felt like I did not have a strong position or any argument at all. It felt like there were many outlines that need to be written. Those steps were all mixed in my head at the beginning. They are still pretty much like that in my head now. It still feels like a mess.

Now having finished some part of the dissertation, I feel much more appreciative of the mutual relationship between reading and writing. Whenever I am stuck, I would pick up a research book, disappear into a room, read it from cover to cover, take notes of important insights. The next day, I wake up, everything feels still fresh in my mind, and I would feel guilty that the previous day I did not produce any writing the previous day. Then I would sit down at my work table, and produce some amount of writing materials. At this point, ideas, and insights are still very messy. They are not necessarily organized. However, I feel happy that I have produced something concrete. At that point, I tap myself in the back, and then repeat the process.

A friend of mine suggested that writing a dissertation is like walking or more like running a marathon. You put one foot in front of the other. You repeat the process until you reach the finish line. Regardless of how lonely, how painful, or how boring the process is, that is how all dissertations have been written. I agree.

Credit: Unsplash

Shifting my focus away from the arguments, the structure and the final product of a dissertation makes it less stressful. Focusing my attention on the process of how the dissertation is being produced has a liberatory effect. I have actually grown into enjoying the writing process. I can now say that I embrace the many discoveries I find along the way. The more I read, and the more I write, the more I feel like I have immersed into a world of arguments, and scholarship which would inform me, and shape my opinions about the social phenomena that I am investigating. I feel content.

It seems finally I know what it means to be a full time writer.

Cultural Barriers in Tech for Women

It’s frustrating to me that women are still facing hostile cultures in many fields today, and I’m especially upset that these issues are keeping women out of the tech industry. These are such exciting jobs. They’re fun. They’re innovative. They pay well. They have a growing impact on our future, and there are more of them every year. But it’s more than that. Tech is the most powerful industry in the world. It’s creating the ways we will live our lives. If women are not in tech, women will not have power.

As the number of men in the sector grew, fewer women went into tech. Which made it even harder to be a woman in tech. So even fewer women went into tech, and men began to dominate the field.

Moment of Lift : How Empowering Women Changes the World

The question of gender imbalance in the tech industry is the question of power. It has partly to do with how culture exacerbates and reinforces the problem. It has a lot more to do with how power recreates itself, and perpetuates inequality.

On Catching Up

The idea that one ought to catch up with something that one is supposed to know but not knowing it before hand is prevalent among academics. Lately I have been reflecting on the instances that I felt like catching up to my peers was the overwhelming urge, and feeling.

The first time this happened was when I entered college. I felt like I had to catch up with everyone. First, as a non-native English speaker, I felt like I had to catch up with everyone regarding English. The idea of catching up with a native speaker in their terms was overwhelming. English is not a simple subject matter. It’s a whole life experience. As a native speaker, one gets at least 18 years before me to master the language. In my case, I had to catch up with academic English mostly. It was something that I struggled with especially in terms of vocabulary. My strategy then was to read a lot of books especially non-fictions. Somehow I had no desire to read fictions back then. Fictions were convoluted, not straight-forward. One had to read between the lines in order to figure out the themes, and arguments in a work of fiction; whereas non-fictions provided me with the arguments early on, and laid out evidence in ways that my mind seemed to be able to appreciate. That’s how I started acquiring more vocabulary. Now having learned a couple more languages, I wished I should have just spent lots of time talking, chatting, and debating with my friends. It would have been a faster way to acquire working vocabulary. However, I made do with the way that my 19 year old mind came up with.

At the end of my college career, one of the school administrators asked me at a lunch or breakfast meeting regarding international students. She asked what my college experience was like. I answered honestly: I had a lot of fun. I learned a lot, made friends, and got a fellowship in Germany waiting for me. This sounded like I had a good time. Then the subject changed. She asked if it was a good idea to separate international students at the beginning, and have them take an “English catch-up” course in the first semester. I was fuming with the question but trying to answer it in a polite way. I remember vividly, I said “No. I think the best way is for them to take a lot of humanities classes and do group projects.” That was how I learned, and I thought “English catching up classes” was a total bullshit idea. There’s no class that could help me to catch up with “English,” a living entity that changes every day. Plus, making students sit in a formal class, and telling them that they are deficient seemed like a terrible idea to me. I hate people to tell me that I was deficient in something. I’d rather learn it on the side, and prove them otherwise. Another piece of evidence was that I took classes with my peers without any of those catch up classes, and I felt that not only I was able to perform well, I was pretty sure that I outperformed most of them. And I am not talking about stereotypical Asian/International Students majors like math, economics, and STEM. I was taking one to two humanities courses such as history, arts history, philosophy, and cultural studies every semester. They were not easy, and I managed well. The question was coming from good intention, but it revealed this “veil of ignorance” from an administrator who had no idea how education actually worked.

The second moment that I felt like I had to catch up with people around me was when I moved to Germany, and working with social science researchers. I felt completely out of my element. Everyone was able to speak 4-5 languages. They all had earned their Ph.D.s from fancy name institutions. They had years of training in field methods. And they seemed to know so much that my little reading experience seemed to pale in comparison. They asked difficult questions, and often raised the question “why do you want to research this/that?.” This question made me extremely uncomfortable. They also seemed to work in cliques, camps, and they seemed to all know each other. I felt dizzy as I was figuring out how life worked among established and rising scholars. It seemed to me that catching up in this context was so much more difficult because the goals were utterly blurry. Was the goal of catching-up to be able to converse with these people? Was the goal to be able to publish scholarly articles? Was the goal to obtain a PhD title like them? Was the goal to gain respect? Those were competing goals that I was not able to sort through which one was priority.

I realized at the end of my stay in Germany that obtaining a PhD credential would probably help me achieve a few of those goals along the way. So I applied to doctoral programs, and got in a few. Ironically, I ended up accepting an offer to a Sociology program, which was again totally out of my element. So the process of catching up started all over again. I had never known what sociology meant prior to my PhD courses. I had never taken a sociology course in my undergraduate career. The only thing I knew in college was that my economics advisor told me to not take statistics with sociology and other social science students because it would be too easy, and not well structured. My impression in college was that sociology was not as dogmatic as economics, and that the structure was relatively loose.

So there I was, entering a terminal degree in social sciences without knowing much about it. I felt an immense desire to catch up with my peers who had read Marx, Weber, and Durkheim throughout their undergraduate studies. They seemed to know who the classical sociologists were. They knew the professional rumors. They raised questions about the importance of W. E. B. Du Bois’s writings in American sociological tradition. I felt like these debates totally went out of my ears. There was no context for me to fully grasp the discussion. Even now, 6 years down the road, I still feel that I am catching up with my own profession. I am never fully comfortable talking with another sociologist. There always seems to be something that I do not fully understand. It’s the feeling of being a non-native speaker all over again. There were always contexts whereby certain phenomena arose and I just didn’t know those behind-the-scene stories.

The catching up feeling to me is similar to how I feel like a non-native speaker. If I’ve gotten over the initial hurdle of shame, and utter my first words in a foreign language, I would ask simple but important questions. Sometimes, it feels like I ought to sit there and listen while others bullshit about things in a language that I was not supposed to be good at. Though I’m not eloquent in the language, I knew that the content being uttered was totally garbage. The feeling of being invisible, and being silent without anyone forces you to is irksome at best, and defeating at worst. Yet, I’ve gotta carry on, and work my way through.

Sometimes I ask myself, at what point would I stop “catching up?” It feels like never. There would always be situation where I have to catch up with something. However, there are some catch-up moments that feel manageable, and that one knows how to do it. Other catch-up moments feel like a life time project. Maybe catching up is a frame of mind. Some people conceptualize catching up as a challenging exercise to gain knowledge and skills that they had not gained before. I sometimes get into situations where catching up seems to be a mode of being, my Dasein. It is the way how I relate to the world, to human relations. It’s my Dasein moving through the Western world, having both “minor feelings” as well as out of element feelings. Maybe some day I will feel at home in my profession, and my surrounding environment. Maybe I will continue to feel like I need to catch up painstakingly with other people, and feel that I have never arrived.

On the Mekong River: The Latehomecomer

The twelfth longest river in the world, the Mekong is known in both Laos and Thailand as the mother river. Along the border between Laos and Thailand it stretched three-fourths of a mile wide. The Mekong River saw the deaths of more Hmong people than any other river.

The Hmong had been people from the mountains. They were not good swimmers. Only the men, when they were boys, had gone shing and learned a little bit about the push and pull of water. They knew how to keep aoat. They knew a little about how to move in water. Few of the women or children could swim at all. My mother and my grandmother both did not.

The Latehomeomer – Kao Kalia Yang

A World without Email: Initial Reactions

As I am reading the new book A World without Email by Cal Newport, I cannot help but thinking about the neoliberal self-help undertone of the book. The book’s premise is that our way of work communication is deeply broken, and in order to increase work productivity, we should change this emailing system. Besides, the book’s various big claims without any evidence such as emailing has stalled America’s GDP growth rate has given me many cringes. The book falls into the self-governing genre, or the idea of self-governance if there’s a problem. This idea is akin to Facebook’s attempt to self-govern hate-speech, harassment, misinformation, and porn. Third party’s involvement in making sure that Facebook is held accountable is irrelevant. I value that the book indeed points out an important workplace communication problem, which is emailing. However, the explanation, and the possible solutions that the book proposes are alarming to me. The goal of the book is to help knowledge workers unlock productivity. In other words, if you follow the book’s advice, you will be more productive. Read: produce more outputs in a shorter amount of time. The goal of the book is not to help knowledge workers to figure out work/life balance, and get back to the managers and say that it’s way too much, and you’ve gotta stop.

Even though the book never self-claims that it’s a research book, it is definitely filled with social science research, mostly coming from psychology. This is a strength of Cal Newport’s writing. He’s able to summarize a vast amount of literature, and makes academic literature read-able to the wider public. Well yes psychology and organization psychology in particularly has been obsessed with the idea of how one could self-govern, and self-improve to increase organizational productivity. The field definitely embodies the modern science of governmentality, a term that Foucault coined. In a capitalist society, in our case now more like a neoliberal society, one has to self-govern to fit its goal. In the classical capitalism, workers need to be on time, and clock in the appropriate number of hours to fit its production goals. In the neoliberal society, everyone is an entrepreneur. They should take risks, and achieve financial fulfillment while also having an authentic sense of self. In the current incarnation of neoliberalism whereby knowledge workers such as AI researchers, ML engineers, academics, and journalists are delivering more valuable outputs for society, their ways of working should be scrutinized. And of course, there’s a way to fix their supposedly “broken way of working.” There are more hours to squeeze in for them to produce more knowledge work.

The book sometimes lacks the “epistemological humility” if it is a research book. At one point in the introduction, the book posits that probably email is the reason why American GDP growth rate has been stalled in the past three decades. This is a totally unsubstantiated idea without any data and real evidence to back up. Connecting GDP growth to the cause of email as a mechanism is totally a wild conjecture. Maybe there’s some evidence to suggest this idea at a firm level, which I highly doubt. Projecting this idea on an economy level is simply not true, and dangerous.

On the one hand, I appreciate Newport’s well written analysis of how emailing interferes with one’s ability to do “deep work.” As an academic, I acknowledge that emailing does get in the way my brain works. Sociologists of technology and work have also written about how communications tools such as cell phone and email have affected workers’ subjectivity, concentration, and interfered into their personal lives. Most sociological research shows that these communications tools are way to squeeze more productivity out of workers without much successful large-scale resistance strategies. In other words, workers are entering in a rat race, and feeling burned out over time. On the other hand, I think he totally misses the entire political economy of how knowledge workers currently work. Maybe cutting down on email is an option for a professor with tenure (such as himself), a software engineer with a 6-figure salary. It’s not an option for an adjunct (like myself), or a freelance journalist (such as the majority of journalists), or podcast editors (such as most professional podcast editors).

Knowledge workers mean many different categories in this current world, and the type of workers that Cal Newport talks about are the few that have the luxury of full-time work, and not having to worry about where their next gig is. In other words, Newport writes for the privilege few whose jobs are not yet affected by the gigification of the economy. Knowledge gig workers such as freelance graphic designers have Upwork and Fiverr to work as their main platforms to find gigs. While it’s true that their work requires concentration, it’s also true that most of their “work” hours are spent on finding another gig. They have to be “always on” if they want to get a request from another work “requester.” Their boss will not wait if they do not respond to the on-demand request immediately. Similarly, freelance journalists’ work hours are not only in writing an important investigative piece, but spending almost the same number of hours to pitch the idea to news organizations that would constantly bid down their price per piece, thus make them work even longer hours.

What is dangerous about what Cal Newport suggests is that only our way of working is broken, our economy and how the work structure is designed is completely flawless. I call this “aspirational neoliberal thinking.” If you can think and work like the winners of this knowledge economy, you will come out at the end successful. The entire background of full-time jobs disappearing is irrelevant in Newport’s increasing productivity discussion. Put it simply, the picture that he is painting is that if you have a job, be ultra-productive with or without email. If you don’t have a job, it’s also ok to not have emails and be productive. This book fits into the dominant narrative of American society: productivity is important, and we should all strive to be productive all the time. The book serves to validate the dominant self-governing ideology and disregards structural issues such as unionization, automation, labor law, compensations, and workers’ bargaining power.

At one point in the book Newport cites an example of an American academic couple who spent a short amount of time in Germany then came back to the US. They described their work time in Germany as “leisurely,” taking long lunch breaks walking around the campus which has a castle on it. They romanticized their time in Germany and attributed their feeling good time in Germany as not having emails. This recounting of a story again totally misses the entire work, organization, and cultural structure of Germany that separates work/life, and leave workers (in this case tenured academic workers) with a lot of bargaining power. In other words, the retelling of the story is relatively naive, and missing a lot of the causal factors that actually shape how a worker feels at work. Emailing is not the only reason that an American knowledge worker feels burned out. Emailing is one of the many ways that shape American workers’ subjectivity at work and outside of work hours. The underlying issue is that they have less power relative to capital owners, who are increasingly relying on technology to monitor, and extract their labor. Legal systems, organization work culture, and even self-help books are reinforcing, and upholding this existing power structure that makes the worker feel like they have to work more to get more out of their knowledge. But the question is to what end?

I am still reading the book. Once I finish the book, I will write another follow up about whether the framework espoused in this book actually works, or whether the book is another self-help book that valorizes the self-governing productivity ideology, and helps cement a toxic work structure and culture that suggests that workers burnout problem is their own problem. Why burnout not a medical condition whereby workers can legally take paid days off? Why it’s either super productive and burnt out, or quitting your job? Why workers have to choose between being super productive or not having a job at all?

Anti-vaccination & Dying of Whiteness

Yesterday, I watched a news segment that reported the rates of COVID vaccination in rural counties in the Midlands of America. One county had only 5% vaccination rate despite the relative abundance of vaccines. This scene was the opposite of what has been happening in urban centers of America. New Yorkers have been scrambling to get a vaccine appointment as the New York state just announced that people who are 30 years and older are now eligible. The bottleneck in big cities are the lack of supplies, and the availability of vaccine appointments which are released on a daily basis by different vaccine centers. This entire labyrinth of bureaucratic mess has created so much anxiety for residents. In theory the technology is there to make things more streamlined. But well it’s America! There are an abundance of resources as well as an abundance of systematic redundancies and bureaucratic paperwork that everyone has to go through.

Now back to the story of lower rates of vaccination in rural counties, whose demographics are almost exclusively white. The news reporter interviews folks who are on both sides of the vaccination debate: those who have been vaccinated, and those who refuse to get vaccinated. The reasons anti-vaccine people give have to do with freedom of choice, that they know how to protect their bodies, and they don’t want government’s intrusion in personal choices. This is the narrative that one often hears about in the US: the government violates one’s choices over one’s body, and lifestyle. In a sense, these folks reproduce the narrative that the government is not in the business of my governing my body. The government should be out. The few who have been vaccinated make the case that they don’t understand why people do not take it. There are no reasons not not get a shot. I wish that the news segment would go deeper into presenting more voices because I want to hear more about the nuanced differences in perspectives between genders, households, and age cohorts. However, the viewers are only given a limited amount of information in this 24/7 news cycle. In order to do a more systematic analysis of why and how anti-vaxxers deny their right to be protected, one would have to conduct a lengthy social research. I ought to say this is an extremely important and interesting research right now.

One interesting bit of information that folks on both sides of the vaccine debate both agree on in that particular town is that everyone has received information from Facebook. In other words, what we are seeing during the COVID-19 pandemic is the rise of health information sharing groups on Facebook which provide users with both information, and misinformation. Facebook has become a public square where important public health information is being distributed, debated, and also distorted. This piece of information gives us some insights in the importance of Facebook in our public life in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

The moment when the news segment fades away to give air time to other news, I could not help but think about the book “Dying of Whiteness.” The main argument in the book is that rural white folks in the heartland of America would rather die or make themselves and their families suffer in regards to public health because of the deep rooted resentment towards imagined others (mostly black and brown folks, and immigrants). This resentment politics permeates in all aspects of life. The idea of not getting vaccinated because of distrust against the government, to protect one’s freedom is definitely also rooted in this resentment politics. However, in this case, it seems that this is the resentment against the government which has become intrusive, as well as the idea that our (white) way of living is being threatened by a government that increasingly does not look like us. Even if our health, our family’s health, and our community’s health are worsened because of our actions motivated by resentful affects, as long as we can use our bodies to protest government’s action, we have at least won a symbolic battle. This is to me scary, and dangerous. Yet living in America for about 10 years, I no longer feel that this is a place where lives are respected, and that human beings are valued. Maybe this is where this society is going. Maybe the hardening of one’s heart is happening in America.

Epistemology of Ignorance

Epistemology of Ignorance: Whites do tend to have, however their own peculiar inclinations, affects, practices, and modes of perception. Mills has developed the influential idea that whites operate with what he calls an epistemology of ignorance: a set of substantive epistemic practices designed to protect their belief that society is basically a meritocracy, people of color are responsible for their troubles, and racism is a thing of the past. Mills’ persuasive point is that, in our shared world, with its recurrent headlines about police shootings and disparities in poverty and unemployment, it takes no small amount of work to interpret these facts as consistent with raceless meritocracies. “Part of what it means to be constructed as white,” he reasons, is to operate with “a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social identities.” This means that white children are systematically taught to become delusional.

The Future of Whiteness – Alice Alcoff

Whiteness Unmarked!

As “whiteness” has lost its unmarked, default status, we now have more scholarship on white women in the military, or white men’s level of participation in sports, or white family formation.

Linda Alcoff

Journalists and Bloggers Benefit from Urban Poverty

A growing list of bloggers and citizen journalists offer to deliver drillers’ content to vast new audiences. Given the resources required to provide wide exposure, these individuals turn out to be quite distinct from their clients. Demographically, they tend to look a lot like those assisting drillers in making music videos – they’re older, more middle-class, and often college-educated. Despite their social, economic, and sometimes racial differences, these people are increasingly responsible for curating images not only of their clients but of urban poverty more broadly. In fact, much of what the public knows about the city’s urban poor communities is based on the work of bloggers who intentionally deflate and profit from negative stereotypes.

Forrest Stuart

Hyper Education vs. Neoliberal Parenting

Most parents do not readily accept that they reproduce a neoliberal parenting model and, instead, are quick to criticize “tiger parenting” as a distinctive problem. Hyper education does not seem child centered (despite Indian American parents and children’s references that it can be) but appears plainly geared toward human capital development and a future work self. What should be recognized is its overlap with mainstream contemporary parenting that is equally invested in preparing youths for work and adulthood, and critiques of it should be made correspondingly.

Pawan Dhingra

Hyper Education

Three reasons emerged for their choice of academic achievement: a sense that other popular pursuits (e.g., sports) are not viable for them, a need to build up human capital given their lack of social capital and possible race-based hurdles in college admissions, and parents’ own familiarity with extracurricular education based on their upbringing. The result is an investment in education as an after-school activity and having more of, although not a complete, say in children’s pursuits. This is an Asian American style of concerted cultivation, one that resits assimilation into the mobility strategies of their American peers, which they fear will not serve them as they do others.

Pawan Dhingra

New Year Reading Progress

In the last post, I wrote that I would read 8 different books, which are a mixture of fictions, short stories, and sociology monographs. So far, after the first week of the year 2021, I have finished one novel. The novel is Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee. The novel deals with a very heavy subject matter. It is about serious mental health, and immigration family relationship. To a large extent, it is also about love, family relationships, strong female figures, and racialization of Asian individuals in Western society. This was definitely a page turner for me. I devoured the novel in one day. Now my next goal is to make headway with my sociological reading. To start off, I’ll take a read of Front of the House/Back of The House.

January Books

Following are the books that I have planned to read for a long time. Because it’s my winter break here, I’ve got more time at hand to read novels, and sociological books that I want to catch up on reading. January’s reading list is a little bit longer than usual, and hopefully I can go through all of them in time for the new semester to begin.