thoughts from a tenured brown dude

Over at the Sociological Imagination, Brian Pitt has a post about being a minority graduate student. He asked specifically for my own thoughts on the topic and to comment on my own experience. What follows is a lengthy, but sanitized, description of my educational career, with comments about race, mentoring, and education. Since it is very,very long, it’s hidden under the fold.

1. I was extremely lucky as a child. My parents were very good folks and they worked hard to make sure that I was comfortable. Except for a few years in the early 1970s, my parents had stable work. I lived in Cape May, New Jersey, a small town on the South Jersey Shore. Some people had racial issues, but to be honest, most people in Cape May treated me well. It was a good place to grow up.

2. My mother started out dirt poor, lived in a dysfunctional family, and grew up in a ghetto. She escaped through school. She excelled in Catholic school and the nuns decided to help her get into the local teachers college in San Jose, Costa Rica. That eventually lead to teaching in South Jersey. My father came from a comfortable family of professionals in Colombia. After coming to America and having a few tough years, he landed on his feet and also became a teacher.

3. Early schooling: Latino children were few in my area. Most were low-income Puerto Ricans, many of whom lived in Woodbine, our local version of an ethnic enclave at the time. In my school district, the modal Latino child didn’t do well. I was protected, however, from racial stereotyping by teachers because they knew that my parents were teachers. Also, I consistently did well on standardized tests and was a relatively mellow kid in class, so it was probably hard to shove me into anything but the most competitive track.

4. Getting on the fast track: Since I was doing well academically, it soon became apparent that I would exhaust the offerings at my high school before grade 12. My high school didn’t have, at the time, AP courses, nor was it easy to travel to local colleges for advanced work. Sometime around grade 10, my father, a respected teacher in the district, made the argument that if the kid was going to take calculus by age 14 or 15, then early graduation was reasonable. The school board agreed and I was on track to graduate at the end of grade 11.

4. Getting to college: Having educated parents, I was used to the idea that college was important. A huge nerd, I realized that colleges were places where people liked science, reading, and computers. It also helped that my parents were highly indulgent with book purchases. For example, I got my hands on a book called “The Mathematical Experience.” It completely blew me away. And I noticed a pattern. Many of the cutting-edge physicists and mathematicians taught at UC Berkeley. I definitely was applying there. Also, the local libraries had some of the early college guides. I self-educated in how elite colleges worked by reading these books.

5. Applying to college: My parents didn’t “lean” on me to go to college since I was already a nerdy kid but they helped me in some obvious ways. They had me talk to people who had been to fancy colleges, or by getting on my case to fill out the applications with a type writer (yes, I’m old!) instead of my unreadable handwriting. At the same time, they weren’t the type of parents who planned out my life by telling me where to go to college or how to write my essays. I chose some colleges, I had good SAT scores, and I got accepted to some competitive schools. A combination of finances, outstanding reputation, and a desire to live in a sunny place led me to Berkeley.

6. Berkeley I: Berkeley was a very formative place for me in many ways. I met my spouse and  many of dearest friends there. Berkeley also had a profound effect on the way I think about the intellectual world. As I wrote on Marginal Revolution a few years ago, Berkeley is remarkable. It’s a world class institution, but it’s accessible to many kinds of people, not just the most privileged. While faculty and grad students may have stayed in their departments, the undergraduates could just wander from course to course and learn all kinds of stuff. That may be why, to this day, I find it strange that most academics live within their disciplines.

7. Berkeley II: Academically, I began as an engineering student, but a disturbing pattern soon appeared. I did well on mathematical problem solving and horrible in lab work. That’s a bad trait for an engineer. So I switched to pure mathematics. Then I did pretty well.

The switch to pure mathematics impacted me in a strong way. First, I was surrounded by some of the leading mathematicians of the world. Being surrounded by that much energy and creativity is addictive. I loved math and if I could just spend the rest of my life doing this it would be great. Second, math is a field where progress is made by combining ideas. Not in the nilly-willy way some folks imagine, but you realize that problem X is really problem Y in disguise. That’s deep, but we often don’t appreciate that lesson in social science. When we use math in the social sciences, we tend to learn one trick and then apply it endlessly (e.g., everything is an IV model, everything is game theory). There isn’t a whole lot of learning across fields or sub-fields, at least compared to mathematics..

8. Moving to Sociology: After a while, I realized that research math wasn’t going to be my game. I was doing well enough in graduate coursework, but I soon became interested in other topics. Also, I wasn’t on that Michael Jordan level that you needed to be if you were really going to succeed. Math is very much a winner takes all market.

At the same time, I started learning more about social science from people I knew, including friends like Bryan Caplan and Tyler Cowen. I took a course in mathematical economics and I audited some social theory. I worked for a management professor, Thomas Marschak, at the Haas school. After hanging out in Berkeley for a long time, I decided to switch. But what would I do instead? I figured that it was best to actually sit down and read some stuff. I trudged down to the dissertation room at the Doe Library and ordered a bunch of dissertations from a range of disciplines. Sociology just jumped out at me. There was a real interest in a wide range of phenomena, it was also a field that admitted both quantitative and qualitative work. That’s exciting to me .

9. Race and Berkeley: This post is a response to Brian Pitt’s comments on being a minority PhD student, so I’ll take a few moments to talk about race and my experience at Berkeley. Early on, I realized that race was an extremely big issue in American academia. I once stood up in my vector calculus class (math 50B back then) and noticed that the room was more or less entirely White and Asian males.

The Berkeley administration was desperate to have minorities enroll in the sciences and get minorities into the faculty ranks. They sponsored seminars and workshops, and some faculty instituted affirmative action in graduate admissions (which may not exist anymore). At one workshop, I connected with a professor off campus who took a strong interest, Carl Prather at Virginia Tech. At Berkeley, I did have a number of excellent faculty who took a strong interest independently of such efforts, such as Alexander Givental, who taught me an enormous amount about topology, and Ole Hald, my real analysis instructor. Later on, Robion Kirby, who is a well known opponent of affirmative action in the research math world, taught me a great deal of math as well.

What my experience at Berkeley taught me about race in the academy is that the era of overt racism is over. A hard working student of color can get connections and help. At the same time, there are still racial effects. For example, at the time I was there, the Berkeley math program tended to accept a disproportionate number of students from a few competitive universities. Berkeley math isn’t unique. Many competitive graduate programs run on that model. Thus, if you came from a disadvantaged background, you might not go to the right schools that would get you into the pipeline for the better academic jobs.

Even when qualified minorities get to competitive colleges, they often have trouble “navigating” the system. Education scholars like Uri Treisman think that this may be due to networks. Co-ethnics tend to form study groups that help even the weaker students. If you are the one Black student in the physics department, you may not get that extra boost that Asian and White students are getting from studying with their buddies. Most administrative efforts addressing the under-representation of minorities completely fail to address “pipeline” and department culture issues.

10. Sociology: With the support of my boss/mentor, Thom Marschak in the business school, I applied to some sociology programs. I was also supported by sympathetic math instructors and even a lecturer in sociology, Jim Stockinger (Leo Lowenthal’s last student) whose course I audited to learn about sociology. I got accepted to Chicago. It was the outcome I wanted, so I was thrilled. I was also excited about moving onto a new stage in my life.

11. Chicago I: Chicago is also a very distinctive institution. It’s one of the few institutions that is, in a  weird sense, absolutely certain that it’s the best and doesn’t need to copy other colleges. At least the social sciences were like that and I hope they still are. Chicago is the home of the department that kick started American sociology in the early 1900s and it’s the home of a distinctive and enormously influential department of economics.

At the time, the sociology Ph.D. program had a curriculum that suited my personality well. It was extremely unstructured. So I took sociology, geography, economics, education, statistics, and even a linguistics course.

12. Chicago II: I ended up under the wings of two senior professors, Charles Bidwell and Rafe Stolzenberg. Charles is a highly respected organizational scholar who works on school and teacher behavior. Rafe is a quantitative stratification, education, and family researcher. Though very different in outlook, they both realized that there was merit in research on disciplinary formation and were pretty supportive of a dissertation on organizational change in academia. They were extremely supportive on the job market as well. John Brehm in political science was also extremely supportive.

13. Race and Chicago: The situation was a bit different. First off, there are some prominent Black and Latino sociologists, so there isn’t quite a strong push for minority faculty members. However, racial issues did pop up. For example, one unnamed faculty member thought it was a pretty bad idea to write anything on the topic of Black Studies. This person thought it would mark me as a navel-gazing minority scholar. What that be said to a white graduate student? Interestingly, he told me that if I dropped Black Studies and picked up a more conventional topic, I could get hired at a great department, like Indiana. Go figure.

In the end, I don’t think race was a big factor in how I interacted with my mentors at Chicago. Even though I do think that people are drawn to co-ethnics, including professors, both of my advisers had a track record for working with students of all stripes. Each had pretty successful students, both white and non-white, and that speaks for itself.

An important question to ask is whether my experience is typical or not. I don’t think it is. If you read this blog, or know me personally, I am energetic and, in many ways, stubborn. Chicago is a school that’s notoriously cold, both in weather and culture, and people who aren’t so aggressive, especially minorities from disadvantaged backgrounds, might have a really hard time getting the support they needed, especially if they aren’t in fields that have critical masses of minority scholars (e.g., urban sociology).

14. Life on the tenure track I: I was highly successful on the job market and accepted a position at Indiana. My two writing samples were a computer simulation of an HIV epidemic and the paper on Black Studies  that would eventually come out in Social Forces. I am not sure how race affected my position in the job market.

Race was a different issue here. Indiana is a school in the lower Midwest, an area with relatively few minorities. Thus, it is very hard to attract minority faculty members or doctoral students. Also, Indiana does not specialize in the topics that tend to attract minority scholars in sociology, such as race/ethnicity, urban studies, immigration, or the racial/nationalist side of political sociology (e.g., public opinion data on racial attitudes). That’s changed somewhat since my arrival, but we still can’t compete with campuses that are heavily invested in those areas.

Despite these challenges, I am totally impressed with our graduate training. Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen many minority students do very well on the market. As I write this, our students are flying across the country to do interviews and they will be successful. If nothing else, I view this as an example of a “rising tide lifts all boats.” If the faculty treat graduate training with utter seriousness, it will  help minority students. If you treat graduate training as an inconvenient intrusion on your writing schedule, you’ll be scratching your heads wondering about what happened to the guy in your regression class from a few years ago. This isn’t to say that Indiana is problem free, but superior graduate training puts everyone in a better position.

15. Life on the tenure track II: The Indiana sociology program is also a very civil program. As I tell job candidates, we have our disagreements, some quite serious, but I just don’t see the bitter struggles that seem to happen at other departments. This is another example of a “rising tide lifts all boats.” If you can put a lid on faculty in-fighting and excessive committee work, junior faculty will do well. This also makes it pretty easy for junior faculty to get support from the senior faculty and from each other. That makes life easy for minority faculty, including me.

Regarding mentoring, there is an office on campus that keeps track of minority faculty issues, though I don’t remember much interaction aside from a reception or two. They did introduce me to a colleague who I greatly value, Jorge Chapa, a demographer/sociologist who ran the Latino Studies unit on campus. He’s now at Urbana-Champaign. Other than that, I don’t think I had much direct mentoring on the basis of race or ethnicity.

16. Life on the tenure track III: Perhaps the only time I really felt that race was an issue was in the review process. My major post-graduate project was an institutional analysis of the Black Studies field. I thought this was an interesting project and I thought it had been framed in a fairly mainstream way. However, during the review process, a number of reviewers resisted the idea of using Black Power as an example of a social movement to study. One editor, for example, wrote to me saying that they don’t publish “that kind” of scholarship. Others expressed dismay over the campus politics they experienced decades ago and thought I was taking sides in a long simmering racial fight. People were reacting badly to the topic. These criticisms were added to the criticisms normally leveled at beginners, which were much deserved in my case. Fortunately, persistence pays off and I was able to get the book published at a leading press (Johns Hopkins) and two of our leading journals took articles from the project (Social Forces and the Academy of Management Journal). The leading ethnic studies journals were kind enough to take articles as well (Souls, the Journal of Black Studies, and the Western Journal of Black Studies).

17. Life on the tenure track IV: The last topic I’ll address is teaching. Indiana students are mostly White on both the graduate and undergraduate levels. So I have never experienced the “tax” that some minority faculty talk about. I do a specialty which is not popular at Indiana (organizational studies) and I don’t teach race/ethnicity. So minority students, for the most part, don’t track me down for personal counseling sessions. But when I do mentor graduate students, I am insistent that they learn the rules of the game and be professional. It’s what I would say to any student, but it is especially important for students of color who may have to fight various stereotypes and misconceptions.

Written by fabiorojas

December 8, 2010 at 1:59 am

Posted in academia, fabio

10 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. A great read. I’m still a bit puzzled you chose Chicago of all places.



    December 8, 2010 at 4:50 am

  2. @Guillermo: They accepted me. Also, in the mid-1990s, they were at the top of the profession – Jim Coleman, Bill Wilson, the Comaroffs, Roger Gould, Yamaguchi, Bob Sampson, Marta Tienda, Ed Laumann, Andy Abbott, George Steinmetz. Hard to beat in terms of sheer intellectual impact. The related depts were also outstanding as well.



    December 8, 2010 at 5:08 am

  3. They still are a top-rank sociology department. My comment meant that moving from a pure mathematics background to a sociology department better known for its highly interpretive, qualitative studies* seems quite a leap.

    If it had a stronger demography outlook, I would definitely have applied to Chicago.

    * Yeah, I know they had Coleman and Becker, but still.



    December 8, 2010 at 12:00 pm

  4. You have proven that getting on the right track from the beginning due to good parental support is important regardless of one’s ethnic background. Your parents paid the price and set a good example for you.


    Clay Boggess

    December 8, 2010 at 2:08 pm

  5. @Guillermo: In the 1990s, Chicago was an amazingly deep dept. For quantitative research, they had Becker, Coleman, Yamaguchi, Stolzenberg, Laumann, Gould, Waite, Tienda and Barbara Schneider. In courtesy appointments, we had Jim Davis, Tom Smith, Larry Hedges and Tony Bryk.

    Each of these people is considered at the top of their area. Coleman and Becker for rational choice. Hedges is world leader in meta-analysis. Yamaguchi was one of those responsible for brining hazard analysis to sociology in 1990s. Davis and Smith ran the GSS, the most important data set in the social sciences after the Census. And so forth. When I joined the graduate program, Chicago was known as a primarily quantitative place.

    @Clay: 100%. I am eternally grateful for my excellent parents.



    December 8, 2010 at 6:40 pm

  6. Dr. Rojas,
    I can’t tell how much I appreciate the time you spent making this info. known. Hey, you have got to do an intellectual autobiography.


    Brian Pitt

    December 9, 2010 at 12:49 am

  7. This is peripheral but I love “The Mathematical Experience” too. I wish more people had read it – it’s a fantastically well-written book.



    December 9, 2010 at 1:23 am

  8. […] who has written a book about the Black power movement and the development of Black studies, and who is LATINO, said to the world that the days of old-fashioned racism are […]


  9. […] who has written a book about the Black power movement and the development of Black studies, and who is LATINO, said to the world that the days of old-fashioned racism are […]


  10. I do agree with all of the ideas you’ve presented to your post. They are very convincing and will definitely work. Still, the posts are too brief for novices. Could you please extend them a bit from subsequent time? Thank you for the post.


    February 16, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: