Two summers ago I attended a writing workshop hosted by my colleague Dr. Maura Brady, a member of Le Moyne College’s English department. We were fortunate that Dr. Ned Stuckey-French, from Florida State, joined to lead our daily sessions. The workshop was about creative non-fiction and finding one’s voice. It was a valuable experience that has given me new ways to think about writing, and the work I do more generally as a professor. It’s helped me most as I think about what I’m doing with this blog, but I know it’s also helped me work with student writing, and in writing professional papers.
Out of that workshop, and a similar one the following summer, grew a project where a number of Le Moyne faculty have written essays about “Why I do What I do.” I have finished a fairly complete draft of my own essay, and I’m going to share it here.
What follows is a narrative about how I came to be a sociologist and my approach to doing this work. I hope it’s a good example of the genre of creative non-fiction, and maybe even a good example of public sociology.
Why I do What I do
I needed to declare a major. I was quickly approaching the end of my sophomore year at U.W. Whitewater, and I was undeclared. I was more than undeclared, I was uncommitted. I’d go home nearly every weekend, and regularly think about not going back. In retrospect this shouldn’t have been a surprise. During high school, I had no particular desire to go to college, and why would I? I’d hated school as long as I could remember. I didn’t fit in, I found a lot of it boring, and it kept me from doing the things I liked most: video games and listening to R.E.M. I was good at school, but experienced it as torture.
As I approached my senior year of high school, my mom said, “go to school or get a job.” I chose school because work seemed worse than torture. I unseriously considered Loras College, but I chose the school my two older siblings had attended, for no other reason. I arrived at UW-Whitewater with one clear idea about a major. It was: “Don’t major in business.”
Never mind that Whitewater was known for its excellent business programs, one of my favorite bands Possum Dixon had a song “Executive Slacks,” and that was much more persuasive than promises of jobs and money. The lyric, “I’m not trapped in your executive slacks” convinced me I shouldn’t major in business. It didn’t, however, suggest any other options.
There were no songs that directed me to major in sociology. I made that decision because the six credits I’d already earned toward that degree put me closer to finishing in four years than any of the other options I’d considered. Whitewater had a core curriculum, so I’d already taken an anthropology class, and in my quest to take every 101 class offered, I’d also taken intro to sociology. I liked the content of the anthropology class; learning about cultures and different ways of life was as fun as it was fascinating. Plus, it allowed me to say things like ‘your lifestyle isn’t for everybody’ more confidently than I had previously. Sociology 101 gave me the same kind of content, and, quite frankly, I thought it was easy. If I’m already on my way, and if this is what sociology is, I thought, then sign me up!
As I took more sociology classes, especially classes in social theory and social change, I realized that what I was doing in class wasn’t all that different from what some of my favorite bands were doing in their songs. What I loved about sociology was the abstract thinking that helped me understand structures of social power and criticize the world around me. Songs I’d been relatively mindlessly singing along with since high school were doing the same things. For example Bad Religion, my favorite band at the time, has a song “Inner Logic” with this lyric:
automatons with business suits swinging black boxes,
sequestering the blueprints of daily life
contented, free of care, they rejoice in morning ritual
as they file like drone ant colonies to their office in the sky
Just like Possum Dixon, they were criticizing the world of business. But this wasn’t only a song about the drudgery of corporate work; it was also about the power capitalism and related systems have over the daily lives we all live. Eventually, I came to realize that thinking sociologically made the world a beautifully complex place, and allowed me to say ‘outrageous,’ creative things like the artists I admired so much. Sociology also gave me the skills to present evidence supporting those claims. It is equal doses of provocation and verification, and I love it. In retrospect, I recognize that sociology allowed me to be the kind of creative and critical thinker I found in my punk rock heroes. It wasn’t that it was easy, like I had cynically believed, but rather that it fit the kind of thinking I was already doing and gave me the skills to do it better. In fact, now I see that a lot of people struggle to think about abstract systems, institutions, and culture. A lot of people don’t want to criticize the normal; some even think it’s dangerous.
I like to think that this basic spirit still drives my daily work, but I regularly confront the expectations of my profession. Graduate school does all it can to professionalize you, to turn aspiring revolutionaries into automatons. You publish, or you perish. You work at a research focused university, or you failed. Those who run graduate schools in sociology seem not to have understood the critical perspectives of Marx and Weber very well. They clearly never heard the second verse of Bad Religion’s “Inner Logic”:
graduated mentors stroll in marbled brick porticos
in sagacious dialog they despise their average ways
displaying pomp and discipline, they mold their institution
where they practice exclusion on the masses every day
Now, 8 years into my career, I am that graduated mentor and, worse, I’ve got tenure. I worry about being the “lazy middle class intellectual” Bad Religion mocks in “21st Century Digital Boy.” How do I do justice to the critical, anti-authoritarian spirit that lured me to sociology in the first place if now I’m a secure professional spending my days credentialing mostly middle class kids for jobs that capitalism is busy making obsolete?
My punk rock heroes still scream their answers through my speakers, but now I’ve got sociology role models too. I regularly remember what one of my undergraduate mentors told me: ‘sociology should help people to get along with one another.’ If careful reflection about how we live together doesn’t result in all of us living fuller lives, then it’s just ‘sagacious dialog.’ Sociologists should be trying to figure out how things like economic systems or religious traditions affect things like personal fulfillment and friendship. They should be doing all they can to share their insight with non-specialists, be they blog readers or general education students. Good sociology, my mentors teach me, can’t only be critical abstraction because at its core it is about human relationships.
For example, in his classic essay Culture and Politics, C. Wright Mills wrote about what he called the Fourth Epoch. In the Fourth Epoch, the rise of technological rationality without substantive reason results in:
“gentle scientists…possessed by an abstracted view
that hides from them the humanity of their victims
and as well their own humanity.”
Mills writes about the unintended harms of the sort of rationality that is part and parcel of the world of work that many of my students want desperately to join. The harms result from choices that aren’t sadistic, but:
“are merely businesslike; they are not emotional at all;
they are efficient, rational, technically clean cut.
They are inhuman acts because they are impersonal.”
Mills made an effort to be a public intellectual by writing for popular outlets about the issues of his time. He did sociology for the public, and he did it as a craft. It was a way of life that he hoped would change the world for the better.
When I do sociology, whether it’s writing professionally, blogging, or teaching, I try to follow the lead of all these mentors I’ve written about. My recent scholarly writing has been about friendships, about local activists, and about the mechanics of social power. On my blog, I try to communicate the sociological perspective in plain language and to write about issues that matter outside the boundaries of professional sociology. In the classroom, I work to model thoughtful critique of the social world motivated by a desire to make it better, and a collaborative approach to learning grounded in mutual respect. I do it this way because maybe someone who is where I was 20 years ago, with a penchant for criticizing the world around me but without any idea how to make it a productive life’s work, will discover the value of sociology.
Mills, C. Wright. 1963. “Culture and Politics” in Power, Politics, and People. Edited by Louis Horowitz. Ballantine Books: New York. – quotes from page 238.