Patricia Greenfield is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UCLA, where she is a member of the Developmental Psychology group. Her central theoretical and research interest is in the relationship between culture and human development. Before taking part in a Zócalo/The California Wellness Foundation event titled, “What Are the Social Consequences of Racist Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric?” at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo, she chatted in the green room about doing research in Senegal, reading off tablets, and rowing in Marina del Rey.
What are you reading for pleasure?
You know, I studied technology and its effects, and one of the effects is that I don’t read the way I used to. I was looking at my high school reading list, and it’s incredible—a whole little notebook of what I read. But I read the L.A. Times every day.
What was the last good book you read?
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I’m a competitive rower; I row in Marina del Rey. This morning I was teaching kayaking to a group of underprivileged kids from the Boys and Girls Club, which was so much fun, at Marina del Rey. But Boys in the Boat is a fantastic book. There are a whole lot of levels. One level is how the sport of rowing saved this one boy who didn’t really have much in the way of parenting, and the people on the boat became like a family, in college. Another level is that rowing used to be a very elite sport. It started in England, at Oxford and Cambridge, and then at Harvard and Yale and Princeton, all the Eastern Ivy League schools have rowing teams, but there wasn’t much out West. And this is a University of Washington team, and the kids are all from working-class backgrounds, sons of lumberjacks and things like that. And they end up going to the Olympics in Berlin.
If you could time-travel to any period, where would you go?
I’m scared to go into the future, with what’s happening. With technology and everything, I think the de-personalization is pretty bad. I think I maybe would’ve liked to have been born when my children were born, in terms of social climate. They were raised with the women’s movement and gender equality and all of that, but it wasn’t so materialistic then, they didn’t have iPhones when they were two years old, etcetera. So I think it was sort of the calm before the storm, in a way.
Was there a teacher or professor who really helped set the direction of your career?
My mentor, Jerome Bruner. I studied with him, I took his graduate seminar when was I was a junior in college. It was about cognitive development and [Jean] Piaget, and it was very fascinating. But then about two years later I wanted to leave graduate school and travel, and my mother suggested that perhaps I could combine travel with graduate school. And I went to see him, and he said, “Do you speak French?” and I said yes, and he sent me to Senegal, after my first year in graduate school, and I did my dissertation research on culture and cognitive development, and it set my whole career. And I was friends with him until he died at age 100 about a year ago.
Where and when did you learn to swim?
My parents wouldn’t teach me, so I learned to swim at camp when I was about nine years old, in Maine. I taught my children when they were about two or three.
Do you speak other languages besides French?
I learned Wolof when I was doing my dissertation in Senegal. I’ve had a field station in Chiapas, Mexico since 1969, so I speak Spanish and I do my research in a Maya language, Tzotzil.
What device do you do most of your reading on? Do you have a tablet?
I hate it. I don’t even understand how people can do it! I had to get a Kindle and get a book that I needed for my research, fast. And I’m going crazy with it! You have to go through everything to get to any place, and you can only see so much at once.
So you’re a print person still?
Yes. One thing I studied in Senegal was the effect of print literacy on thinking. I’m just writing a chapter now on the whole span of print to Instagram.