Being a Sociologist

Why I Prefer Todd Schoepflin’s perspective to Orlando Patterson’s

My friend and colleague Todd Schoepflin tweeted earlier today about having enough points on a ‘sub card’ to get a free sub. It’s an exciting moment. I’ve been there, and that sub really does taste better. It’s revealing about the value of money and food, I’d argue, and how emotions and physiological experiences are context dependent. I might be over interpreting that, fine, but there is certainly room for an interesting sociological analysis of sandwich transactions.

Todd later made a somewhat self deprecating tweet about ‘tweeting the mundane.’ I think sociologists can and should say revealing things about the mundane. Most of every life is mostly mundane. It is the routines of the mundane that makes sociology possible in the first place, and it’s a part of human life that I think sociologists have a unique opportunity and skill set to explore. I believe this even in light of the recent conversation on my social media sources about Orlando Patterson’s complaint that sociologists have made themselves irrelevant. First, I’d ask irrelevant to what? Next, I’d say I just don’t think it’s true that we’ve ‘made ourselves’ irrelevant. I think it’s at least as reasonable to argue we’ve been ignored and demonized by policy makers for doing exactly what we should be doing – questioning the ideologies of the powerful.

Yes, sociologists should make their work available to policy makers and do everything we can to affect change through such channels. I know several sociologists who do this very well without finding the limelight or writing Piketty-esque books. But it would be a shame if our collective effort was aimed at becoming part of the power-elite at the expense of paying close attention to how and why folks buy subs, make subs as employment, sit in traffic, parent in public, fall in love, manage the work/life balance, and all the million other mundane things most of us do most of the time.

The Dolphin Dolphy Day Interview

As I wrote last week, after a series of Dolphy Day tweets, I was contacted by Le Moyne’s student newspaper to be interviewed about my Dolphy Day opinions. The nicely done story, by Editor-in-Chief Aubrey Zych, appeared in today’s Dolphin, and here is a related student response also published today. It’s clear there are varied opinions about Dolphy Day at Le Moyne, but since I’ve been here, I don’t recall this much discussion or recognition that there are people, including students, who have problems with the tradition. It’s good that we are talking about it, and I hope we continue to do so. If the tradition goes like usual, however, no one will think much about it until next spring, and it will continue to be as disruptive, dangerous, and exclusionary as ever. One thing is certain, I’ll continue to tweet freely about the things I want to see changed, as well as the things I love about Le Moyne.

With Aubrey Zych’s permission, below I’ve posted my complete responses to the emailed interview questions.

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My week on Twitter with ‘off-Twitter’ consequences

This week, via Twitter, I had several interesting experiences. Here I’ll just summarize and describe them, but I’d like to think more about how these stories relate to identity, power, and community. Monday, April  14, was Dolphy Day at Le Moyne. If you’re curious about what Dolphy Day is, I guess you could look here. I don’t know if there really is a good account of what the day ‘is,’ but over the last few years perusing the hashtag #dolphyday would give you some impression. This year I saturated Twitter with tweets critical of the day (I’m surprised I still have followers). I meant to criticize, on intellectual grounds, what I feel is irresponsible student behavior, bad institutional policy, and the basic disrespect of students, staff, faculty, and campus neighbors the day ritualizes. One of my least interesting but most sincere tweets was used in this article from syracuse.com. A number of students responded to me in defense of Dolphy Day, some rather aggressively, others very respectfully. As a result of my tweets, I got an email from a recent Le Moyne graduate very eloquently defending what she considers the good parts of the day. I had students approach me offline to tell me they liked what I was saying, but none telling me they disagreed. A few students asked me how they could communicate what they dislike about the day to administrators. One administrator on campus told me I wasn’t acting as a good colleague. I was also asked to do an interview for the campus newspaper about my opposition to Dolphy Day. I’ve asked the reporter if she’ll let me post the interview here on my blog, and I’ll do so once her story is published. I think it’s a good thing that what I and my colleagues did on Twitter, as well as on a very long ‘reply all’ email chain, might help start a real conversation about what Dolphy Day is at Le Moyne, and how it might be done differently and better.

Then, on Thursday, I had 2 unrelated Twitter experiences that I think are less about being a ‘public scholar’ and more about being a member of a supportive community. In the morning, I had a relatively long Direct Message exchange with a colleague and friend I met via Twitter about some non academic issues I’m finding it hard to talk about with others. It was really nice to have that chance, and it simply wouldn’t have happened without connections I’ve made via web based social networking. Thursday night I went to a Syracuse Chiefs double header, and midway through game 2 I tweeted a picture of view along with my seat location.

The view from my seat at NBT Bank Stadium.

The view from my seat at NBT Bank Stadium.

A Chiefs fan that I follow, and who also follows me, happened to see the tweet and it turned out he was sitting one section over. As we figured that out, he walked over and introduced himself. It turns out he’s a teacher with a great interest and knowledge about baseball. He even wrote his college senior year thesis about the economic impact of minor league baseball teams on their home cities. It sounds like a very interesting project, and I’ve asked to read it.

Each of these experiences are examples of how Twitter, and social networking more generally, have the potential to create community, to foster larger conversations about change, and to be integrated into our offline lives.

Baseball and sociology: A little chatter

I’ve been a baseball fan longer than I’ve been a sociologist. I’ve got memories of playing as a kid (I threw a 3 inning no-hitter and then got taken out of the game!; I made a great catch once in t-ball; once I hit a bases clearing triple, etc.). My Glory Days came before I was 15, and they were only so glorious. My other childhood memories about baseball are about being a fan and learning about the game. I recall my dad teaching me to watch the catcher’s mitt to get a sense for how the pitcher was doing. I remember trips to Milwaukee County stadium to watch the Brewers in the American League. Occasionally we’d use box seat tickets my dad got from someone he knew through his work. Once in those seats I got a ball that an ump tossed into the stands between innings. Those are good memories, thus far unadulterated by analytical thought.

This Midwest League ball sits on my desk year round.

This Midwest League ball sits on my desk year round.

Over the years colleagues who know about my enjoyment of baseball have suggested I turn my sociological eye to the game. There is certainly a lot one could wax sociological about, but I’ve resisted because I thought why turn something I enjoy so much into work? However, recently I have blogged a bit about sports and tweeted some sociological takes on changes in the MLB. In particular I’ve been sending some Weber inspired tweets about instant replay as rationalization. I’m not someone who values the ‘human element’ for sentimental reasons, but rather it’s that I just don’t understand how replay will significantly improve the game. I think the cost of chasing certainty will be some of the spontaneous emotionality of the game which is sometimes the result of feeling like you’re on the wrong side of a bad call.

Seeing some of these tweets, fellow sociologist and friend Todd Schoepflin asked if I’d answer some questions for an interview he’s put up on his blog. I was happy to, and it was fun. Here’s a link to Todd’s post.

 

Why I do What I do

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.

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Wrestling with C. Wright Mills

I am by no means an expert on C. Wright Mills. I’ve read a couple of the excellent biographies and treatises on his work. Like many sociologists I do find him inspirational, and I’d love if my writing had the same eloquent urgency as his best does. Still, it’s hard to read his work today and not see holes. There is little to nothing about race or gender in any of his writing. It’s so absent, it’s stunning. How could a self fashioned radical, so concerned with human freedom, have been so silent about people who were so oppressed and who’s movements were beginning to take shape even as he wrote. It’s glaring, and I struggle with it when I take him as a model.

Nonetheless, what I find in his work is a thoroughgoing call to take the perspective of the radical if you are to produce sociological understanding. You must be radical, he seems to say, even as you look at those things that you cherish. Also, his work is humane in a way that so many other sociologists’ work, then and now, simply isn’t. You can read a lot of sociology and reach the end wondering if the author ever wondered at all about the experience of being human. You must be humane, he seems to say, if your work is to be the least bit relevant.

You must be radical. You must be humane. It’s stunning how often those two things are one and the same.

Thinking about faculty salaries

The ASA released its 2012-2013 Faculty Salary Brief for Sociology and other Social Science Disciplines. It reports that the average salary for sociology faculty is $75,580. Full professors make, on average, $95,052, associates earn $70,431, and assistants $58,779. The analysis reports recent trends, small differences between public and private schools, and some inequality across Economics, Political Science, Anthropology, and Sociology.

I never know what to make of reports like this. What jumps out to me the most is how much more, on average, Economics professors make than the other disciplines studied. I don’t care so much that ‘it’s more,’ but rather that it points to what I think is an important issue in faculty pay that we don’t talk about very much (at least not in my faculty circles) which is the inequality in faculty pay within institutions. I understand the argument that some folks make about some disciplines having opportunities to make more money in other types of work, so the school has to play in that market (i.e. I’m not going to be opening a corner sociology store any time soon). I guess that’s fine as far as it goes, but once someone has chosen (yes, ‘chosen’ is a tricky word) to work in higher ed, and at a particular institution, shouldn’t that matter? We are compensated in other ways (time, autonomy, status, etc.), and we all pretty much get those regardless of our discipline. So, aren’t we all pretty much doing the same job at the same place? To what extent can differences that are so stable by discipline be justified?

I also can’t help but notice that those are pretty good salaries, relative to many salaries. These kinds of reports should be delivered, I’ve always thought, along with some data on U.S. median household income and income distribution. Are sociologists paid less than faculty in other disciplines? Yes, many are. Are sociologists and other faculty paid less than similarly educated professionals? Yes, many are. What do faculty salaries look like relative to administrator salaries? Are faculty, on average, paid well relative to the U.S. income distribution? Yes, many are. It seems to me that reports of salaries must always be interpreted relative to inequality within the profession, and in the economy as a whole. This approach, I’d argue, allows us to take seriously other work related issues like inequality in faculty job access (adjuncts, tenure track lines, professors of practice), job stability (who gets tenure?), and pay by gender, race, age, etc. Further, it allows us to think about how our economy as a whole values the work we do, as well as how it values other kinds of work. I think those are more interesting and important questions.

What do you think?

Professor to Professor on Twitter

Yesterday at Le Moyne we had a discussion about uses of Twitter in academic work. We focused primarily on how it might be used for teaching, but talked a little bit about how it might allow professors and students to be part of a larger research and professional community, beyond the college. I’d say our conversation was skeptically received by most of those in attendance, but then again they were in the room on what was by far the most beautiful Friday afternoon of the semester.

My colleague Lara Deruisseau, a bio prof here at Le Moyne, made a very interesting point about Twitter and community. I had commented about how Twitter might help us overcome the tyranny of small departments at liberal arts colleges by connecting to professionals all over the planet. Lara, however, drew our attention to the fact that, over the last year, several of us have come to know our Le Moyne colleagues from various departments and offices on campus much better because of our Twitter interaction. These web networks have enhanced our local community in important and powerful ways. Our increased collaboration will certainly have (postive) effects on our curricula and pedagogies.

This strikes me as excellent confirmation of claims about the place of computer networks in daily life. I’m reminded specifically of work by Barry Wellman like this essay about computer networks as social networks (notice the date – he was on this early!) or this one about person-to-person communities. In particular, something that is exciting is that networks like Twitter make it possible for communication at the college level to be professor-to-professor rather than department to department, or, more cynically, professor-to-department-chair-dean-chair-department-to-professor. Especially in the context of increased administrative and procedural layers, Twitter might be seen as a place where faculty collaboration/inspiration can happen person to person.

You’re saying what with those data? Regnerus and the NHL Lockout

There are few things more upsetting to sociologists than poorly used survey data. It’s frustrating to see data interpreted without any context or consideration of how the survey method might affect results. A very serious example of this is evident in the ‘Regnerus Affair.’ The bigger parts of the story are certainly questions about the review process, Regnerus’ relationship with the project’s funder, and the political implications of the work being published. But, I’d guess most sociologists who read the piece after it was published reacted initially to the study’s just plain bad operationalization of ‘same sex families’ and the uncritical thinking about the causal relationship between family socialization and children’s outcomes. That measurement of same sex families wouldn’t have passed my undergrad Methods course, and it got published in a respected journal.

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Here’s my card, and I’m sorry

Thanks to the timing of the two sessions I was a part of, I spent the better part of the last 4 days at the meetings of the Eastern Sociological Society. When I saw that I had a 3:30 session on Thursday and a 1:45 on Sunday, I was a little upset at the inconvenience. In the end, however, I spent more time at this conference than I have at any for several years, and I enjoyed it a lot. If you don’t believe me, see my numerous tweets about it, which seemed to earn me some followers and drive some away. The twitterverse is fickle!

My Sunday presentation was titled “Command Performance: Narrative, Institutions, and Performing Obedience.” In it, I’m trying to say something helpful about the nexus of interaction, institutions, and culture as it applies to action. I’m interested in why we do things that reflect moralities we disagree with, and I think institutional and interaction orders have a lot to do with it. As I was actively writing my talk most of the weekend (yep), I was hearing most of the presentations through that amplifier, and seeing most of the activity of the conference through that lens. There was a mini conference on institutions that was very good and helpful for my thinking, and there were great sessions on crime and inequality too, at which I learned a great deal.

I think the most interesting thing I saw, however, was a brief interaction between two graduate students who were meeting each other for what appeared to be the first time. I wasn’t part of it, I just happened to be sitting right next to their conversation about shared research interests. They were excitedly sharing their interests, and planning on following up during the conference for the classic ‘let’s have a drink’ interaction ritual. As one of the students handed the other a business card he said, to paraphrase, ‘I know this is cheesy, but it’s got my info on it.’ In this exchange I saw so much of what I want to understand. He was following the norm of the discipline to make connections and share contact info, but at the same time he was judging his own behavior by indicating that there was something unseemly about efficiently sharing contact info. Is it because it was a business card, which does seem a bit old school in these days of email and Twitter? Did he feel that it was too utilitarian and ambitious during an interaction that included the friendly ‘let’s get a drink’ routine, even though ‘let’s get a drink’ clearly meant let’s talk about our work? I don’t know, but I do know he was doing something many of us do to serve the interests of our careers within this profession, using an institutionalized practice, and judging his own behavior as somehow ‘less than ideal’ as he did it. That’s fascinating!