Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Claude Levi-Strauss in the Fifth Grade

St. John's Wort flower

Just because I've been working in elementary and middle schools doesn't mean I haven't been expanding my cultural horizons. A few weeks ago, a professional dance company visited Marlinton Middle School. I was working with special needs fifth graders in their classroom, so I went to the gym with them to continue my mentoring. (It usually went like this: "Sit down!" "Pay attention!" "Sit down! Please!") The dancers had an interesting, age-appropriate program, and the kids were fascinated, if puzzled.

In homage to Brazil, the company presented a short dance called "Black Beans and White Rice." I expected some snappy Brazilian music to accompany a visual interpretation of Arroz com Feijao (Rice with Beans). It was much stranger than that. The dancers were accompanied by a recording of a lady reading an essay about Claude Lévi-Strauss and The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology. It wasn't a rhythmic reading of poetry, it didn't feature dance-able background music. A lady (with a standard college-lecturer speaking style) read a long essay discussing the national dish of Brazil in a structuralist context.

I can't really tell you how the dance went. The kids enjoyed it, but I was distracted by a flashback to the 70's when, as a college senior, I took a graduate seminar in linguistic anthropology. We read The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology by Claude Lévi-Strauss, along with some Piaget, some Chomsky....I was completely baffled. I read the texts, and diligently tried to understand them, but the class discussion featured a lot of terminology along the lines of this course description: Claude Levi-Strauss: The Structural Study of Myth. I had the feeling that the professor and the graduate students were talking in some sort of code. I couldn't even figure out how to ask them questions.

Subsequently, I've had this experience many times. Most often, the code-talkers are trying to make their area of expertise seem more complex and important than it actually is. Web 2.0 and education theory are two topics that have a considerable literature in this style, but there are offenders in every discipline. Looking back, I doubt the anthropologists were trying to exclude me. The students were practicing their fluency in technical jargon of their field, a skill every graduate student must acquire. If I had been less shy, and had asked stupid, clueless questions, I think they would have tried to help.

Food, however, is a universally-intelligible language. Here are some attempts to elucidate the structure of feijão.


Dave said...

All code-talkers should be forced to perform for special-needs fifth graders in West Virginia. Might teach 'em some humility. Or at least amuse the hell out of everyone else.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Kind of cruel to the kids, though. They should have special permission to treat the code-talkers as they see fit.