Month: April 2013

Talking about mass killings, almost every semester

I’ve been teaching at Le Moyne since the fall of 2005. Minus one semester of sabbatical, that’s 15 semesters. If you count the recent Boston Bombings, I have led spontaneous sociological/criminological reflections on mass killings (usually shootings) that occurred during 10 of those 15 semesters. If you count conversation about Jared Loughner’s crime which happened immediately prior to the spring 2011 semester, then it’s 11 of 15 semesters. Most of those conversations were only a few minutes long because the shootings didn’t capture national attention like some others. Some semesters had more than one, or shootings which animated, unplanned conversations taking up an entire class. I recall that our conversations about Nidal Malik Hasan‘s shooting at Fort Hood lent itself to applying ideas we’d been discussing in Sociology of Religion, and that Seung-Hui Cho’s Virginia Tech shooting was particularly frightening for college students. I also note that we barely talked at all about Kurt Myers’ Herkimer shooting that took place just 70 or so miles from here, and that the ambush of firefighters in Webster (just 70 or so miles the other direction) happened in between semesters.

My approach to these discussions is usually to tell the students that they are educated adults and have a responsibility to think carefully about these events. I’ll tell them I don’t have any clear answers, but that together we can think of the right questions to consider if we want to achieve some understanding, and maybe work with others to end these sad events. They sometimes go a little like this post of mine after Newtown, CT. Tomorrow I’ll lead a less spontaneous, but hastily planned discussion about Boston. We’ll start the conversation with this essay comparing the bombings there with other crimes like Columbine. Maybe next time there is a mass shooting to talk about I’ll use this from the The Chronicle. But, I hope not because no matter how powerful these classroom experiences can sometimes be, I don’t want to continue having these spontaneous discussions.


Edit (4/25/2013): Add this to our discussion of Boston. A danger of the spontaneous conversations is the relatively high likelihood of ignoring the context of the high profile shootings, which includes our violent, racist, xenophobic, American culture.

Student Suggested Readings

On the role of sibling ties in the Boston bombing

Parents Deny Sons’ guilt and accuse U.S. of plot

I’m a man, man: Failed sex categorization in daily life

I’m a man who is quite regularly mistaken for a woman. It has been happening for years, it happens every six months or so, and it happened again just last Friday at the dining hall here at Le Moyne as a female colleague and I paid for our lunch. The cashier was a bit occupied and, seeing the two of us approach said, “I’ll be right there ladies.” She noticed and said sorry; we paid and went on our way. My sociologist colleague and I threw around some possible reasons that I’m so regularly confusing: I’m short; my hair is curly to the point it’s a natural perm; I was with a woman and the cashier saw her first. I don’t recall the first time it happened and I’d guess it probably bothered me, but it happens enough now that when somebody does it I often turn into a field sociologist and ask them why they thought I was a woman. Nobody ever gives a very clear answer, and almost everybody is fairly flustered by their called out sex miscategorization. I may never know why this happens, but it makes me think about some fun sociological questions too: How does it affect the interaction? Why do people say sorry? Can I learn anything about gender identity in daily life?


Baseball Salaries and Inequality

Are professional athletes paid too much? It’s pretty common to claim that’s the case, and here is a fairly standard example of the claim from Edward McClelland in today’s Slate. However, maybe the athletes aren’t overpaid, but are rather paid fairly relative to the wealth their labor helps produce for others. Here’s a good example of this argument from baseball writer Craig Calcaterra, which was a direct response to the ‘overpaid’ Slate essay. This is a fun debate to explore in discussions of social inequality. When I teach social inequality, I use this debate to focus in on how we, as a society, determine the value of work. Do we let the free market sort it out and trust that those getting paid the most are most deserving according to its logic? The classic functionalist explanation of economic inequality is that those who get paid the most must be doing the most important things. So, high pay indicates high social value. This explanation has been rightly debunked because it’s easy to point out many inefficiencies and counter examples that demonstrate that our meritocracy doesn’t really work very well. Calcaterra rightly points out these critiques when he writes:


Politely in the way: an awkward door holding ritual

Today I was sitting in a sandwich shop. Yes, it was Subway. I eat there almost as much as Jared. I chose a small table near the door because I was just one person and didn’t think I should take a booth, even though the table was so small it made it hard for me to do the reading I planned on. Perhaps this is why I ended up watching people as they entered more than I read. I’ve always been interested in ‘door opening’ behavior, and today I saw an interaction that got me thinking about obedience to civility norms and how they directly coerce our embodied behavior.

Outside, a male/female couple with a baby carrier approached the door from the right, while a lone man approached from the left. The man got to the door an instant before the female member of the couple, and opened the door from left to right so that she was now effectively behind it. Noticing the woman, the lone man stepped close to the door, standing inside it but not going into the shop. He held the door so the woman and the man could enter before him. He was, however, in the way so that the man and woman had to adjust their path to get around him. He was, at once, being polite and standing in the way. It was a polite, but awkward exchange.

The lone man could have very easily walked through the door he had opened, and the woman could have reached out and held it while waiting to go through. They had both taken straight line paths to door up until their meeting, being very efficient about entering. But, once they were at the door, the paths became less efficient in the service of civility. Not to mention that the lone man lost the spot in the sandwich line to which he had a justifiable claim. He got there first, after all. Now, the cost of his civility was being in the way, and being 2 further spots away from his 11 inch ‘foot-long’ sub.

The sketch below illustrates what I saw. A,B are the couple, and C is the lone man. Straight lines indicate ‘efficient’ paths, and curved lines indicate walking around an obstacle (in this case the door, and the polite, lone man).

Sketch of door holding ritual

Sketch of door holding ritual

Twitter Types: Vague Thoughts

Thanks to Todd Schoepflin for taking the initiative to get a conversation started about Twitter. We don’t really know what this collaboration will lead to, but hopefully something that contributes to sociological understanding of Twitter and other forms of social media, but really interaction more generally. Todd posted this over at his blog as a way to summarize our initial conversations.
Fresh off that interview, I posed a question about why people use Twitter, via Tweet a few nights ago, and @DrJasonCrockett and @socsavvy responded with some very interesting comments.