Thursday, August 31, 2006

The professor who became a freshman at her own school


Northern Arizona University anthropology professor Cathy Small decided to enroll as a freshman there during the 2002-2003 school year. This was to be her sabbatical project--an ethnographic study of college culture at a public university. She turned in her faculty card and parking permit and lived in a coed dorm, attending classes and taking careful notes--on those around her. She became a participant-observer, going to classes, reading the graffiti in the women's restrooms and probing feelings about cheating.

Taking the pseudonym "Rebekah Nathan" and calling the school "AnyU" to protect those she studied, Small compiled her findings into a book. (According to an article in the New York Times, a New York Sun reporter revealed her true identity last year.)

"My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student" is no dry-as-dust study, but rather an insightful and delightful portrait of ordinary student life. My copy is a hardback published by Cornell University Press ($24) but the book is also now in paperback ($14) from Penguin.

Part of Small's story is about her own ethical concerns over how to handle things told to her by students who think she is (just) a fellow student. She decided not to lie; yet she needed to reveal her true purpose only a few times.

Those around her in the dorms were just not that interested in what a 50-plus student was doing at the school. She was a writer, too, she said, and was going to write about student life.

True enough, and that seemed to suffice. Small determined that her book would not contain descriptions of sexual or drinking practices, and her comments on the group discussions in her sexuality class are kept general since they were confidential.

There is nothing lurid here. Instead, Small draws on previous studies and her own reflections to paint a nuanced picture of contemporary student culture.

As a professor, she writes, "It always comes as a surprise to me that students appear clueless about what happened in the last class, that only a minority of them have done the reading assigned, and that almost no undergraduates ever show up for my office hours unless perhaps they are failing."

After her experience as a freshman, she says, "I see now what I didn't see before. In the time between my Tuesday and Thursday classes in introductory anthropology I have taught only one other class, and I have spent at least some time on Wednesday arranging my Thursday class presentation. By contrast, my students have had at least four other classes in between, maybe more, and they have completed many other reading and writing assignments. ..."

They've gone to work, they've played, they've talked. What Small found was that instead of figuring out how to cram in all the needed study (two hours for every class hour is the expectation), students blocked out a limited time for homework and then asked a series of questions to determine whether this or that assignment merited the investment. Will there be a test on the reading assignment or will the student need it to do the homework or answer a question in class? If not, why read it?

There is a certain logic here, though Small's book is no apology for freshman culture, which has surprisingly little to do with academics.

Students want good jobs; their professors want them to be thoughtful citizens. Can the two, Small asks, be reconciled?

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

For those leaving cults -- sane advice from a Chico State University professor


We don't hear much these days about the Branch Davidians, Heaven's Gate or even Jim Jones. It's tempting to think that the cult movement has faded and that the world's attention is on more pressing matters -- like suicide bombers. But they are all of a piece, according to Chico State University Associate Professor of Sociology Janja Lalich.

In "Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships" ($19.50 in paperback from Bay Tree Publishing), Lalich and co-author Madeleine Tobias, a Vermont psychotherapist, make clear that modern day cults have not disappeared. "If there is less street recruiting today, it is because many cults now use professional associations, campus organizations, self-help seminars, and the Internet as recruitment tools" to entice the unwary.

Who gets sucked into a cult? "Although the public tends to think, wrongly, that only those who are stupid, weird, crazy and aimless get involved in cults, this is simply untrue. ... We know that many cult members went to the best schools in the country, have advanced academic or professional degrees and had successful careers and lives prior to their involvement in a cult or cultic abusive relationship. But at a vulnerable moment, and we all have plenty of those in our lives (a lost love, a lost job, rejection, a death in the family and so on), a person can fall under the influence of someone who appears to offer answers or a sense of direction."

For the authors, "a group or relationship earns the label 'cult' on the basis of its methods and behaviors -- not on the basis of its beliefs. Often those of us who criticize cults are accused of wanting to deny people their freedoms, religious or otherwise. But what we critique and oppose is precisely the repression and stripping away of individual freedoms that tends to occur in cults. It is not beliefs that we oppose, but the exploitative manipulation of people's faith, commitment, and trust."

Written for those coming out of cults, as well as for family members and professionals, "Take Back Your Life" deals with common characteristics of myriad cult types: Eastern, religious and New Age cults; political, racist and terrorist cults; psychotherapy, human potential, mass transformational cults; commercial, multi-marking cults; occult, satanic or black-magic cults; one-on-one family cults; and cults of personality. Chapters deal with the cult experience, the process of healing, stories of families and children in cults and therapeutic issues.

The book features riveting personal accounts from ex-cult members and offers a wide range of resources for the person who is trying to retrieve his or her "pre-cult" personality. Education looms large, for that can begin to break down the narrow black-and-white thinking cult members often display. Many cults redefine common terms or introduce special vocabulary making it difficult for members to make sense of the world outside of even their own inner aspirations.

The authors are also concerned about those in the education and helping professions who don't see the dangers posed by cults both to the individual and the larger community. Part of the purpose of the book is to make a credible case that any course of therapy needs to take into account a patient's cult associations.

"Take Back Your Life" is a book of hope, an excellent starting point for those thinking of exiting a cult and for those who are taking back their lives, one day at a time.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Friday, August 18, 2006

An Oroville man looks back on his life and his love of planes and trains


"My first memory," writes Robert "Lonnie" Dakin, "is of the 1939 World's Fair in San Francisco. I was 3 years old, and my father took me to see the train exhibit. I had never seen so many trains in one place.

"There were towns, villages, meadows and tunnels on a huge layout. The engines pulled the cars along shiny tracks. They whistled and clanged and little puffs of smoke came out of their smokestacks. I pressed my nose against the glass separating the teeming crowds from the make believe world of trains. I imaged they were traveling through faraway, exotic places. I kept my father there so long that we almost missed the ferry back to my grandmother's house."

Memories seem to tumble out as Dakin tells his own story in "The Flying Conductor" (a paperback published locally and available through I and L Publishing in Oroville; write inlpublisher For a year, Dakin writes, he dictated the book to his wife and gathered old photographs. "In the 25 years we have been married," he says, "she has heard these stories over and over. Each time I relate one I am always told I should write a book. Well, now I have."

Dakin's story is more of an oral memoir than detailed autobiography. The prose is simple, and the emotions are held in check. It's clear, though, that Dakin does better building train layouts or small airplanes than building human relationships. As a youngster he lived with his mother in Hawthorne, Nev., after his parents divorced, and he was neglected. "My mother ... had trained to be a nurse, like her mother, but she dealt blackjack instead. I was alone a lot and came to love the desert."

Dakin writes "When I wasn't running wild in the desert I was forced to go to school. ... At age 9 I was about 6 feet tall. I stuck out like a sore thumb in my third-grade class. Kids can be pretty cruel at that age and they called me names like Frankenstein or Igor."

Dakin loved math and science. As a kid he got a motorized bicycle; not much later he built a small airplane he flew. He continued to build things, including model helicopters he says were used in "Hawaii Five-0". (He was in the Air Force at the time, stationed in Hawaii, and got to meet Jack Lord and Tom Selleck.)

Sometimes Dakin would stay with his grandmother in Oroville. He attended Oroville High School and, years later, after retirement from the military, he returned to teach shop at Las Plumas High School for some two decades. As a kid he would climb nearby mountains and look down on Feather River before the dam was built. A lot of history is now under water.

There have been quite a few bumps in his personal life. In the service he traveled widely and built model airplanes in North Africa, but that was when he received a "Dear John" letter from his wife. His second marriage fared little better. But his third wife, whom he met while he was taking classes at Butte College, made him feel young again and her family gave him roots.

Dakin writes from the perspective of a 70-year-old man, still thinking about those ups and downs, but still a lover of planes and trains.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A marketing book for the Internet age


Marketing is all about turning consumers into Pavlov's dogs, salivating at even the mention of a brand name. That's a stereotype, but even among marketers themselves the received wisdom was that the most heavily promoted brands would have the most loyal following.

If that was ever true, it is less true today with the advent of the Internet. On the Web, consumers have access not just to the "big" brands but to all brands, all equally a click away. It turns out consumers are not dogs after all, but cats. How do you get a cat to stick around?

That's the question a new book for marketers sets out to answer. "Waiting for Your Cat to Bark?" ($19.99 in hardcover from Nelson Business), by Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg with Lisa T. Davis, is subtitled "Persuading Customers When They Ignore Marketing." The authors write that "increasingly, customers are associating brand not with a message but with their entire experiences surrounding the product or service." The central message of the book is that customers, like cats, have a "what's in it for me?" attitude, and good marketing works when it attempts not to manipulate but ("within the confines of profitability and integrity") to delight the consumer. Why? "Delighted customers become repeat customers."

But how does a business provide this delight? The authors have developed a set of conceptual and software tools they call "Persuasion Architecture," which they present in detail in the book. I found the first half of the book quite helpful in understanding how the democracy of the Internet has changed marketing; the latter part of the book seemed to indulge in more and more jargon ("masks," "wireframing," "waypoints," "persuasion entities") with more and more mentions of Persuasion Architecture. The Eisenberg brothers veer awfully close to wanting professionals in their field to salivate at the mention of their brand.

Yet I think the authors genuinely want to be helpful. The CD packaged with the book includes an 80-minute question-and-answer session video and the Eisenbergs are clear they don't have all the answers. The CD also features a PDF file of the entire book which can be sent to colleagues. A delightful touch!

The book is unified around an examination of three questions.

First, "who are we trying to persuade to take the action?" This involves the creation of "personas" on the part of the business so marketers can develop empathy and anticipate questions. "Personas are stand-ins for the various angles from which your customers view their problems and your solutions." As an example, the authors offer Best Buy. One of the company's personas is "Jill," "a soccer mom who is motivated to please and care for her family. She doesn't want an intimidating experience when she shops for appliances or electronics. She needs to feel she has a friend along to help." Empathizing with "Jill," Best Buy can develop ads that talk about "Hassle- and fear-free electronics shopping."

Second, "What is the action we want someone to take?" Imagine a Web page that gives product information but offers no way for the user to make a purchase.

Finally, "What does that person need in order to feel confident taking that action?" This involves answering relevant questions in a timely fashion. Imagine someone about to order a product online who wonders how much the shipping is. Does the site make the consumer complete the transaction before providing that information?

We cats value our time. So delight us!

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Corning writer offers novel about Iraq told through young eyes


Phil Dynan is a runner, artist and the Peace and Freedom Party candidate for the 2nd District of the California State Assembly (a post now held by Richvale Republican Doug LaMalfa).

He is also a novelist, and his just-published work, "Brother Eagle, Sister Moon" ($12.95 in paperback or $4.69 download at, tells two stories of modern day Iraq from the viewpoint of 12-year-old Yussef and his 16-year-old sister Nadia.

The author will appear at Lyon Books in Chico at 3 p.m. Saturday for a book signing.

The Corning resident bills his book as a young adult title. Though there are a few salty words the subject matter -- the war in Iraq and Nadia's being forced into prostitution -- is generally handled with discretion. Dynan says his writing enables him to express in gentle form his sympathy toward Iraqis as well as British and American troops. Dynan himself is harshly critical of the Bush Administration but his novel focuses instead on the friendship of the two siblings with Blackhawk helicopter pilot Sergeant Ernesto Alvarez of the 101st Airborne, the "Screaming Eagles."

Yussef finds himself separated from his large family and befriends an orphan goat whom he names "Tenika" after one of his sisters. "Yussef and Tenika spent almost 11 weeks together -- walking the plains, searching the hills and waterholes of Southwestern Iraq. ... They lived from the land, ate dates, berries and grass, and took water and milk where they could find it. They became friends. ... They had 'grown up' together and become young adults. Although they missed their parents ... they had learned to live within the boundaries of their world. ... They lived in harmony with each other and the beasts and other living things that surrounded them."

Then the pair stumbles upon a city, a "sea of humans," in which insurgents hold workers from Doctors Without Borders. Here, Yussef meets Dr. Yvette Prigent and he must mount a courageous effort to take a message to Red Crescent officials for help. He also meets Alvarez, who is about to propose to Prigent, and the pilot is willing to divert his helicopter to help Yussef find his parents. Things do not go well.

But somehow all the harrowing adventures lead to a good end. Along the way there is a healer, called the Ancient One, who touches the sergeant's wounds. He peers inside Alvarez's dreams and carves something on a piece of shrapnel taken from the pilot's arm. Finally, Yussef is reunited with his family.

Later, Alvarez returns to the family to ask Nadia for an extraordinary favor. He wants her to return to Samarra, to the kidnappers who had forced her into prostitution. They have taken several hostages, among them Dr. Prigent, and Nadia needs to guide the forces to rescue those abducted. Nadia undergoes intensive training in handling a gun and defending herself and eventually the chief kidnaper meets his end at the hands of a Fijian sharpshooter stationed with British troops.

At first "Brother Eagle, Sister Moon" struck me as kind of a fairy-story since at the beginning the reader is privy to some of the goat's thoughts. Yet as the novel progresses there is more realism -- though perhaps surrealism is the better term. There are no answers here to the larger conflict, only hints that one day, perhaps, even people can live "in harmony with each other."

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.