Teaching “Stratified Reproduction” in Practice

Shellee Colen coined the term “stratified reproduction” to describe the process whereby childbearing and childcare tasks are distributed, valued, and experienced unequally. Poor women (especially poor women of color) who become mothers are undervalued or reviled, even as they are relied upon to provide the labor of caring for the children of the rich. They struggle with poverty and oppression as they raise children who in turn face seemingly overwhelming obstacles. Their male partners are often stigmatized as “deadbeat dads.”

In Spring 2017, I launched a practicum-based undergraduate seminar at Brown University entitled “Stratified Reproduction: Race, Class and Parenthood,” which confronted these struggles and stigmas head on. Students in the course read broadly in the anthropological and sociological literature on becoming parents and raising small children in the context of deepening national and global inequalities. As they did so, they spent several hours a week volunteering with one of five local Rhode Island organizations that provided home visiting services for low-income parents of infants and toddlers.

In the Trump era, these problems—and the anxieties that accompanied them—have become magnified. During one of the  practicums, a student found that her colleagues were despondent because they expected their organization to disappear by the fall, due to expected steep budget cuts in social services.
Students were matched with a partner organization, where they completed a qualitative research project in collaboration with mentors. In addition, they engaged in participant observation at their organizations and posted field notes on the course blog. Students wrote research reports that functioned both as the students’ final project for the class and as their final deliverable to their organizations. They presented their projects at a final, celebratory gathering at the end of the semester, where organization representatives were invited to see the final products of the course.

Stratified Reproduction was the product of a two-year course development process supported by an innovative program at Brown University called the Engaged Scholars Program (ESP). The mission of ESP is to provide opportunities for students to pursue community-driven, reciprocal projects through collaboration between Brown and the people of Rhode Island.

As an anthropologist, I initially had reservations about ESP. What could it mean for an inexperienced college student to undertake a project with a community organization that was truly “reciprocal” in nature? I was wary of providing a “good experience” for the students that might serve as a burden for cooperating organizations. I was wary of the potentially voyeuristic nature of having privileged Brown students conduct ethnographic fieldwork among people living in deep poverty, many of whom also suffered from substance abuse and mental illness. I also was wary of some of my students who themselves had struggled with mental illness becoming “triggered” by what they saw. Finally, I was nervous about the logistics of organizing such a course. Would everyone get to where they needed to go, when they needed to get there, given that none of the students had cars?

I decided that I was not going to offer the course unless I believed that the students were truly going to be able to contribute in meaningful ways. In a presentation that I made to potential partnering organizations last summer, I described my number one goal as “contribute to the mission of partner organizations.” Goal Two—“contribute to student learning and understanding of the academic issues they are studying through real-life experience and hands-on research”—was purposefully put forward as a secondary priority. My pitch to organizations was this: I will give you two eager, bright students and you tell me what you think you might be able to do with them. The only requirement was that the students have the opportunity to 1) shadow staff and/or conduct a few interviews with staff or clients and 2) conduct original research. Otherwise, we would leave it to the organization and the students to work out particular arrangements.

Projects ranged from developing guidelines for a “safe sleep” campaign, to interviewing clients and staff about retention issues, to running a focus group with teen moms. The open-ended format meant handing over a considerable amount of autonomy to the organizations—which had costs. Several of the projects were not as ethnographic as the students and I had hoped, and most were late getting off the ground, with research not starting in earnest until a few weeks before the end of the semester. As a result,  some of the students’ findings were limited in scope. But at the end of the term, the organizations seemed pleased with what the students had done. The only complaint was that there was not enough time to do more.

For the students, the practicum experience offered insights about bureaucratic inertia and the frustrations of an overburdened, underfunded workforce trying to do social service work with extremely vulnerable populations. In the Trump era, these problems—and the anxieties that accompanied them—have become magnified. During one of the  practicums, a student found that her colleagues were despondent because they expected their organization to disappear by the fall, due to expected steep budget cuts in social services. This anxiety hung over everything that the student did.

At the same time, students learned that their colleagues believed in the mission and the importance of what they were doing to a remarkable degree. This is what ultimately made the whole exercise so hopeful. Those trying to help new parents in need were not always succeeding, but my students learned that they really and truly were trying. And part of that trying included an openness to listening to what even a naïve college student might have to say. One of the lessons that I learned in offering this course is that I worried much more than our community partners did about whether my students could contribute anything of value. “It’s just really useful to get an outside pair of eyes on all of this,” one collaborator told me. “I thought the students were great.”

Katherine A. Mason is an assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University, where she coordinates the Anthropology Department’s Engaged Scholars Program. Her current work examines the experiences of women in the US and China who suffer from postpartum mood disorders.  

To submit contributions to NAPA Section News, please contact contributing editor Alice Larotonda ([email protected])

Cite as: Mason, Katherine A. 2017. “Teaching ‘Stratified Reproduction’ in Practice.” Anthropology News website, May 31, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.464

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