The Broad is Back!

May 5, 2013

The Unholy Trinity: Salt, Sugar, Fat

I just finished reading Michael Moss’s book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. It was full of very appalling information, and if you haven’t been paying attention for the past 20 or so years, I highly recommend it.  Luckily, I have a mother who is very aware of the evils of processing, so she passes the fruits of her research on to me.

Sometimes we tease her about her diet choices, but the woman will be 81 in a few months and takes no medications. Her blood pressure and cholesterol are low, and in fact her 40-something physician told her that she wished her numbers were that good. So obviously Mom is doing something right.  And she’s regularly mistaken for being in her late 60s. It’s partly genetics, but also partly vigilance.

As I was reading the chapter on Lunchables–and yes, that particular product has its own chapter–I realized how lucky I was to have “missed” them.  We left America in 1995 when my son was 4; we returned in 2007 when he was 16.  His entire schooling was in other countries.  By the time we returned, his tastes and preferences had been set. And in other countries, at least the ones we lived in, children’s school lunches were serious business.

My son went to school in Taiwan, Switzerland and Sweden, but at every school hot lunches were supplied every day, and children were not allowed to bring a packed lunch. They learned to eat what was put in front of them. If they didn’t like something, they could fill up on salad and bread.  Sweets were not allowed on school grounds, and the beverages served with lunch were water or milk. Plain milk, not chocolate.

So thanks to the rigidity of the schools he went to, I never had to fight the peer pressure of Lunchables or any of the other vile products marketed to children in this country. Although I almost always gave him plain oatmeal, sugary cereals were always available, but super sweet American cereals were not. When we came home to America on visits he was allowed a box of Froot Loops or Lucky Charms, his favorites, and I allowed him Pop Tarts, something I wouldn’t have had I lived here.  Ironic, I know, but as ex-pat moms, we just have different ways of working out our guilt.

Before we left America, I was much stricter. Until he was about 2 1/2 I had him convinced that rice cakes were cookies. The babysitter’s house disabused him of that notion, but at home, after the rice cakes deception was up, he got juice sweetened organic cookies. I was trying hard to give him good eating habits and not develop an overly sweet tooth.

Something worked as he’s not a sweets person. After the first few months back in the US, eating all the things he’d missed in Europe–Pop Tarts, donuts, root beer, sugary cereal–he mostly stopped. He felt glutted just like some tourists to America who come and eat all of our foods, loving it, but then are very happy to go home.

For me, though, reading this book was partly preaching to the choir.  Many of my students write papers about the obesity epidemic and almost all of them cite the cheap availability of fast food or convenience food as a main problem.  This riles me because I know for what you’d pay to eat at a fast food chain, even one with cheap menus, I could prepare a meal that’s half the price and immeasurably better for them.  I even once wrote a cook book (unpublished, alas) of cheap, unprocessed, healthy recipes.

And per pound, much junk food is much more expensive than carrots, apples or any in-season fruit or home popped popcorn not done in a microwave.  But as Moss points out in his book, we’re pretty much addicted to the salt, sugar and fat in junk food.

The overprocessing and over commercialization of food in America is a real and serious problem.  I have no answers for a quick fix.  As with everything, I believe education is an important step. More people should read Moss’s book. More people should read nutrition labels.

One interesting point that Moss does make is that poor nutritional choices are marketed at certain economic classes.  Upper middle class folks and above, well their children aren’t taking Go-Gurts and Lunchables to school.  I see this as problematic in two ways.

First, there is a perceived notion that “healthy” food is “expensive” food.  This is sadly true when it comes to organic in this country, but the fewer processed foods in the grocery cart, the lower the bill.  Even if we buy minimally processed goods, it’s still cheaper than buying convenience foods.  A can of tomatoes mixed with some garlic and herbs, dried is fine, makes a fine pasta sauce without the added sugar, fat and salt found in commercial pasta sauces. It also costs less.  A PB&J, even using natural peanut butter and spreadable fruit on whole wheat like I do, is still cheaper than an Uncrustables PB&J. I’ll get off the soapbox now.

Second, and I see this as much more insidious, children in certain socio-economic groups are getting poorer nutrition and are already facing high cholesterol, high blood pressure  and diabetes, all of which are debilitating. But what I see as even worse, they aren’t getting what they need for their brains to develop to their fullest potential.  In this way the academic divide between rich and poor is ever so slightly widened.  All I can think when I think of this is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which the strictly delineated classes are fed differently from gestation on. This, to me, is chilling.

I’ve written about food in America before, and I do see this as a major problem of American society.  If you’re looking for some hard facts about the situation, a good place to start is Moss’s book. But I think this might be something I come back to.

Follow up: Shortly after I posted this, I saw a photography project I’d seen before: One week’s worth of groceries from around the world. There couldn’t have been a better visual if I tried.  You can find an article about Peter Menzel’s project here.

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April 20, 2010

It’s a Crying Shame

A week or so ago, I was discussing a piece of literature with one of my classes, and I learned something totally unexpected.  No one in the class could come up with a working definition of “shame”.  We eventually managed to cobble something together by working backward from “being ashamed of yourself,” but the fact that they couldn’t even define the word shocked me. But then it made a problem I’ve been puzzling over in my job perfectly clear.

I have written many many times about changes I’ve seen in students since I returned to the States.  Most of, no, I would say all of them, are for the worse.  Students think nothing of telling me they haven’t done the homework, of plagiarizing half of their paper from internet sources, of skipping classes with impunity, of strolling in 30 minutes late, with headphones blaring, then getting tetchy with me when I call them on such rude behavior.

I would have died a thousand deaths before I admitted to a professor I hadn’t done my homework.  Well, frankly, I would have come up with a pretty good lie before I’d admit that I hadn’t looked at the syllabus.  But as lazy a student as I was, and I was, I almost always did my class preparation.  I would have been too ashamed of myself had I not upheld my part of the classroom contract.  I might not have put it into those words back then, but I knew my responsibilities and for the most part, I fulfilled them.

Nowadays? My students feel no shame.  Now I’m definitely not saying that I want students to live in shame, or worse, to wallow in shame.  But the penny finally dropped for me.  My students feel no shame because they don’t even know what the word is.

I realize that this is probably a simplistic view.  You don’t have to know what a word for an emotion is in order to experience the emotion, but I still think there’s something valid to be taken from this lesson.  So many parents don’t want their children to experience negative emotions.  We shield children from feeling guilt, shame, anxiety.  We wrap them in emotional cotton in order to protect their self-esteem. 

Nothing wrong with a healthy self-esteem, but shouldn’t it come from knowing you did a job well? Or at least correctly?  Is a self-esteem truly healthy that hasn’t been tested a bit? Am I that hopelessly old-fashioned that I think that learning needs not just rewards, but occasional punishment, especially at the college level. And shame really isn’t that bad of an emotion. I thought I knew what it was, but just in case, I looked it  up.  According to my friends at Merriam-Webster.com, it means: “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety”. 

Shouldn’t we be conscious of the fact we’ve done something wrong?   Isn’t that how we learn not to do wrong? We want to avoid the painful emotion.  It brings to mind a passage from one of my favorite books, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  In it, Elizabeth is talking with her father, Mr. Bennet.  Lydia has eloped with Wickham, and poor Mr. Bennet has realized his faults as a father and says to Elizabeth:

“Who should suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it.”
“You must not be too severe upon yourself,” replied Elizabeth.
“You may well warn me against such an evil. Human nature is so prone to fall into it! No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough.”

Even the famously indolent Mr. Bennet realizes the importance of feeling the sting for our own mistakes.  Some of us might beat ourselves up a bit too much, but for most of us the feeling passes quickly.  I have long seen, though, that for many of my students, there is never so much as a mere prick of their conscience. And I see that as a problem.

I truly want the best for my students. I want them to succeed in life and be happy and healthy.  And a little dose of shame to keep them on the path to success–being too ashamed to skip homework, to ignore the teacher’s words, to cut class, to be consistently tardy–isn’t that a good thing?

Now many of my students do apologize for not doing the work or for these kinds of negative behaviors, but almost every one of those students are either older or an immigrant, usually from Asia, where teachers are still held in esteem, or Africa, where teachers are esteemed and education is so precious. But for too many of them, academic wrongdoing isn’t even seen as a wrong doing. 

Eventually these students do get the punishment–they earn a D or an F for a class.  These grades lead to academic probation, to  getting cut from the more competitive degree programs the college offers, to repeating a course.  This adds time and money to their academic progress.  What a waste!  Wouldn’t it be better to have the tools you need to avoid these extreme scenarios? A little shame to keep you on the straight and narrow just makes more sense to me.

Just another little topic for me to worry about when teaching. Just another little lesson to add to the syllabus.  I’m supposed to be teaching college writing, and I am.  But like almost every other college professor I know, I’m also teaching life skills, which isn’t in my job description. And the fact that we are doing what parents and lower schools should have been doing, now that’s the crying shame.

March 9, 2010

The Contemplative Broad is Edging her way Back

It’s been a long time since I’ve really written, and I surely do have wonderful reasons for that.  I work too much.  Thanks to my wonderful sense of timing, I came back to America during a time of economic downturn, shall we say.  Because I want to live in New York City, where my family has lived for four generations now, I’m reduced to teaching part time, but I can’t live on one part time job, so for the three terms since I’ve been back in New York, I had three. Or four. In order to make less money than I need to live on. Welcome back, Broad.

But the other night it hit me that there might be another reason why I’m not writing about American culture anymore.  I’m too much a part of it again, and that makes it difficult.  One of the reasons I seem to thrive as an ex-pat, not something that everyone can manage, is that I prefer living life as a tourist.  I’m there; I’m participating; but I don’t belong.  The writer in me loves to be the observer, watching from the edges, dipping my toes in a bit, but never fully committing. I realized the other night that I feel like this emotionally much of the time.  That sounds ghastly, and I don’t mean it as such. I have a full and rich emotional life with friends and family I love deeply, but everyone who knows me well knows I need large chunks of time alone, as does anyone who spends a lot of time living an alternate life in created worlds.  So sometimes I pull back and think, “what interesting creatures.”  And it’s easier to do this pulling back when one is on the other side of the ocean or the globe itself.

So I find myself wanting to leave. I want to go back to my cocoon of geographical isolation.  When I lived abroad, I used to jokingly comment that in America people saw me as an oddball, and so I was just odd.  In Europe and Asia, my oddness is chalked up to my Americaness and thus given more of a pass.  It’s easier to have a reason for one’s oddness sometimes, so I prefer living abroad.  Many’s a truth told in jest.

But my biggest problem about writing is the longer I am back in America, the more appalled I become.  The educational system was bad when I left in 1995.  Now I’m back, teaching students who mostly weren’t in even school when I left the States, and their education has deteriorated to the point of farce.  For many years they’ve been taught to useless tests. There are more and more tests and less and less gym and arts and creativity and thinking.  But the tests are full of useless information.  When I get them as college freshmen, they can’t write, most have no basic grasp of grammar, and when it comes to having an idea of their own cultural context? Well, forget it.  My friends who are public school teachers are just as frustrated as I am.  And elsewhere in this column, I’ve written about problems with our students and education, so obviously this is something I am worried about.

I do not blame the students.  They are just as bright, just as savvy, just as eager as the crop I started with in the 80s, but what have they learned?  And sure, I teach at a NYC community college for the most part, but I’ve taught at very competetive schools, and I see problems across the class lines. 

But now I’m on the inside, and I just want to fix things immediately.  Passive observational columns don’t meet that need.

Health care is a huge debate, a mess really.  My son is one of the millions of uncovered Americans.  But after seeing the state of Sweden’s national health, I am very leery of nationalizing health care.  The best system I experienced was Geneva’s.  Health care was mandatory, but there was a very affordable government option for those who had no other choice.  My son was in the local cantonal hospital, and the care was good.  They misdiagnosed my kid, but I felt like they were earnestly trying to find answers, at least.  And I’ve written about the health care mess as well, but the more I see, the more disheartened I become.

And politics in this country.  I don’t even know where to begin.  I know that there was never a “golden era” of American politics, of politics anywhere, but, well. I’m speechless.  Luckily, Kurt Andersen isn’t, and he wrote the brilliant analysis “Is Democracy Killing Democracy” in New York Magazine in February.  I encourage you to read his article, but one statistic he gave got me thinking:

So part of the problem is most likely under-representation (though how on earth could we manage with 2100 senators, I don’t know), but another part is tied in with poor schooling, a lack of civic spirit on the parts of many, and so much else.  Believe me. It’s much easier to write explanatory essays for non-Americans than to figure out what’s going on in the here and now.
No, that’s not true.  I see things. I think of solutions, none of which are very politically correct, frankly.  I have much to say, but I don’t say it because it just would take too much time now that I’m so fully invested.  And as I said in the beginning, time is what I don’t have.
But now I’m going to try to write more frequently.  I think it’s good discipline, and oddly, people have been asking me to write.  So perhaps the Broad is back yet again.

July 12, 2009

Helicopter Parents and Hothouse Flowers

For a while now, I’v e been threatening to write about the state of education in America.  Well, I’m geared up and actually have some time.  But before I start writing about the schools, I have to say something about the people the schools service: parents and children.  And from the title of this blog, you can probably tell I don’t have great things to say.

For those who haven’t heard the terms, these are the new descriptors for today’s parents and children.  Helicopter parents are parents who hover around their children, and in the process cushion every blow, ward off every potentially painful situation.  Helicopter parents are the ones who are up at 2AM “helping” their kids with school projects, helping being code for doing the kids’ projects.

Hothouse flowers are the kids who result from helicopter parents.  They are beautiful, pampered and do just fine in the rarefied, protective environment of their hothouses.  But once they are exposed to the harsh realities of life, once they meet any kind of hardship, they give up—they fall apart under pressure.  When I was a kid this kind of kid was called a brat who was spoiled rotten, but there are so many of them now they have a less “damaging” moniker.

Before I get too far into this, I do want to say that not all parents and kids fall into these categories.  In my experience, I find on many levels these roles are class markers.  My students in NYC community colleges are pretty uniformly free of helicopter parents and most are not hothouse flowers.  Their parents tend to be working far too many hours to have time to hover—these kids are more likely to be latchkey kids who’ve been working for years before they get to college, even if they are still only 18.  As a result of this, I find this group much easier to teach.  Sure, they have terrible study skills and know nothing about how to succeed in college, but that can be learned more quickly than learning to lose a sense of entitlement.

As a college professor, I get to avoid parents for the most part.  Once a kid is over 18 it doesn’t matter who’s footing the bill.  The kid is an adult in the eyes of the law, and I’m not allowed to discuss certain topics with parents.  And it’s usually only in cases of extreme emergency that I ever really deal with parents on classroom issues—when a student is in the hospital, parents will call to tell me, but that’s it.  I love talking to parents at school events like plays and sports games, but that’s strictly social chit chat.

But friends who teach at higher ranked private schools than I do have horror stories to share.  At one school, the rule about plagiarism (stealing the intellectual property of someone else and claiming it as one’s own) are clear.  If your teacher catches it, there’s a mandatory meeting between the student, the teacher and the dean.  A friend called one student on the carpet and before the meeting got a call from the dean.  The student’s parents and their lawyer were demanding to attend the meeting.  Now I don’t know about you, but if my son told me he was in trouble for plagiarizing in school, my response would not to be to bring in the lawyer.  It would be to metaphorically (if not physically) hit said kid upside the head.  How dare he cheat!  But not these parents (who sadly are not the only ones).  No, these parents are teaching their kid if you break a rule and get caught, make sure you bring in help to bail you out.

The subtext of that lesson is: it’s okay to cheat as long as you don’t get caught.

Now really, the first time a kid gets caught plagiarizing, the penalty is a slap on the wrist—a scary meeting with the school authority to throw a little reality into the seriousness of what they are doing and that’s it!  Helicopter parents don’t want their kids to face consequences that might hurt them down the road, but that means the kids aren’t learning the lessons they need to learn.  But the lessons these parents are teaching are much worse.

The bottom line is if you don’t let your kids fail when the stakes are low, how will they handle failure when the stakes are much higher?

And schools are feeling the pressure from these parents.  All of my syllabi are very clear on plagiarism.  If you do it in my class, you will fail.  Depending on the level of offense, you will fail either the assignment or the class.  Well, two students were caught cheating on their midterm.  My first response was the throw them out of the class permanently, but I rethought that and decided that both would get a Zero grade on the exam.  I thought that was more than fair considering I had repeated my warnings against cheating right up to the moment of the test being given.

I mean, really? Do I have to tell someone that it is wrong to cheat on a test?

Well, the head of my program, the one who has to take the flak from parents and higher ups, “recommended” that I just deduct 20-30 points from their exam grade because a zero would be rather harsh.  So I did.  Both failed the exam by a few points, but a grade in the 50s doesn’t quite damage a final grade as nicely as a big fat zero will.  In another school, I was talking to my dean about failing a student who was totally unprepared for the level of work we were doing in class.  I was told that I could not fail that student.  End of story.  That student was to pass.

And people wonder why I am disgusted with my life’s work.

Hothouse flowers are funny to have in class though.  They provide cynics like me with endless hours of entertainment.  Students who miss deadlines expect me to accept their work no questions asked.  When they receive grades they deem unacceptable, they demand the right to do it over.  When they fail quizzes because they did not do the required reading, they want “extra credit” work so that they get a good grade in the class.  Ah, the laughs I get from these demands.  My favorite is when they are failing through sheer laziness, so they drop the course.  That way they don’t hurt their GPAs.

Grades are also a bone of contention with hothouse flowers.  They are above average in every way, so they deserve above average grades.  In fact, I have yet to find a student who considers him or herself average in any way.  In fact, while I’ve been away, Americans have become a country of extremes—above average students (according to my students, a B- is a bad grade) or failures.  A C grade means average work.  There are no averages, no C students, any more.  Well, I actually give students C grades.  As a result, I am known as a “really hard grader” (that’s the kindest way to put it).  Often it’s not put that nicely.

Oh, on a whole, we teachers do give C grades.  But while C used to be the biggest grade group in a class, it’s now a much smaller percentage. (Remember the old bell curve grading standard?)  I would say the B grade has become the “new average” with more and more teachers trying to give a B- instead of a C+.

Grade inflation is something that academics have discussed since I’ve been a teacher, 21 years now.  Even top schools recognize that an A today is not what an A was 30 years ago when I started college.  An A grade is still hard to earn from me, but they are easier than they were years ago.  The most movement comes in the B-C-D range.  I know that papers that would have earned a C- from me when I was a newbie (still using the standards of grading that had been used on me) are now earning a B-.  I’m not proud of that, but departments try very hard to use grading norms so that the departments’, and in fact the college’s, grades are on a par.

Recently I gave a senior in my class a C on a paper.  I thought the C was a little high because there were not seven sentences in the entire three page paper that did not have some kind of major grammatical or spelling error.  I really thought that was unacceptable for a college level paper, and part of me wanted to make the student do it over, but I decided to let it go.  See? Standards really are dropping.

The student was enraged.  Couldn’t understand the C.  Had never gotten a C in college level work before!  When I pointed out the reason for the C and mentioned that I had originally wanted to fail the paper, the student really blew.  Who did I think I was? (Somewhere along the line many students have started treating professors like staff.  That doesn’t sit well with me.  At all.)  I was hated for the rest of the semester, and I’m probably still hated to this day.  Such is life.  All the other professors had also let it go, but even worse, had given much higher marks.

scariest part of this story, though?  This student was an education major and has just completed a first year of teaching at a public school.  And the student teaches English.

Next time: what’s up with America’s teachers?


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