Archive for the ‘fabio’ Category

in memoriam: pauline oliveros

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

December 18, 2016 at 12:20 am

Posted in fabio, sick jamz

charles bidwell: 1932-2016

Charles Bidwell passed away a few weeks ago. He was a professor of sociology and education at the University of Chicago and well loved by his students. He was one of the most prominent researchers in education in the mid 20th century, so you’ll likely see tributes and commentary from education researchers in the months to come. I won’t repeat his many, many professional accomplishments. Here, I want to offer some personal thoughts since he was my M.A. adviser and served on my dissertation committee.

First, he was an extremely charitable reader. When you discussed a new book, or a new theory, he really enjoyed getting down to the bottom of things and seeing what was really interesting about the book. Even though he was a very even keeled writer, he seemed to enjoy authors who could say flashy things. For example, remarkably, he was the only instructor I had in the sociology program who taught Foucault. He loved picking sentences from Discipline and Punishment and just mull over the cryptic meanings. This also carried over into student writing. Even if a student struggled, or was less than perfect, he could always find the good and gently guide the student.  I think this charity reflected a deep joy of scholarship and a desire to be surprised by writing. It is not surprising that mentored students who went on to do things that were unusual at the time, like network analysis in education, or social movement studies in higher education.

Second, he was extremely charitable toward students, myself included. He was easy to find and easy to talk to. His students surely remember going to his office and sitting in this nicely crafted wooden chair with the UoC logo on it. Even when he was clearly exhausted, and getting on in years, and even sick at some points, he found an amazing ability to smile and be encouraging. At an institution known for its world class leadership in grumpiness, Charles was a beacon for many.

This final story illustrates these two tendencies coming together. My dissertation defense was a tense affair. One faculty member was known for really hammering students during proposal hearings and dissertation defenses. The defense made me so incredibly anxious that I literally ate an entire  box of Pepto Bismol tablets just to suppress my nausea.

The hearing starting as usual, with my summary. But right before the hostile prof could begin the Q&A, Charles begins with a very lengthy commentary on my work. And it went on, and on, and on. And then Charles would alternate with a third professor, who also had his own lengthy commentary. This third professor then dropped three separate drafts of my dissertation on the desk and then starting talking about which revisions worked and which didn’t. It was clear what was happening. Charles was “running interference” to prevent a blow up at the hearing.

After a while, crank prof said, “Charles, I can’t get in a word edge wise.”

Charles responded, “I’m emeritus and I’ll say what I please.”

“We couldn’t get you to stop when you were chair.”

Twenty minutes later, I had my Ph.D.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street  

Written by fabiorojas

December 15, 2016 at 12:26 am

telluride thoughts 2: what i learned from my students

Telluride Thoughts 1

In this post, I want to tell you about what I learned from my students. To review, last summer, I taught a six week long seminar on “The Black Struggle for Freedom” for uber gifted high school students. We read everything from abolitionist writings to Octavia Butler’s novel, Kindred.

First, of all, I really learned to trust students. Normally, teachers assume that students know nothing and that you are here to set things straight. I was constantly surprised at how creative students could be and how much they will engage if you give them the chance. These students were enormously gifted and it showed. One student did a presentation where he communicated what he learned through monologue in the format of a talk show. And yes, he interviewed himself! Probably the funniest class presentation in my career. Others put together films about Creole speech, tribal disputes in Eritrea, and negative stereotypes of Black women in popular culture.

Second, I learned that students are human beings with ups and downs. In a normal college class, you see people in large groups, maybe two or three times a week. In a Telluride seminar, you meet every day, for a minimum for three hours. Instructors also have one on one meetings and they may have meals with the students. There are also field trips (which did happen once, when the class went to see Sweet Honey in the Rock). With this much exposure, I could see the ups and downs, the good and the bad. I see a more complete profile of the person.You don’t love them less. You love them more. They aren’t warm bodies in chairs. They’re complete people, warts and all.

Third, I learned that it’s ok to let students take control. Not too much control, but more control than is normal in a college class. We began with two weeks of normal college style “let’s discuss the readings.” Then we let students do debates, class presentations, and other activities. There was even a spontaneous dance one day, Footloose style. Not everything worked. Some of it didn’t work at all. But that’s ok. Students have access to the readings and they were beginning to absorb the major points, which is appropriate for their age. The bigger point is to encourage people to be active in their lives. And if that included a few in class debates that melted down, that’s ok.

Next week: what I learned from the readings.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

PS. I haven’t mentioned our courageous TAs. The Telluride Association hires two young adults (usually graduate students or late career undergrads who are program alumni) who operate as resident assistants/coordinators/class facilitators. They were fantastic, but I won’t delve into it here. Just want to recognize their awesomeness.

Written by fabiorojas

December 13, 2016 at 12:15 am

honey, we have to talk about sears

A little while back, I asked how Sears was able to survive as a firm. Once a titan of the American economy, Sears was now a shell of its former self. From a write up in Salon (!) magazine:

Sears Holdings, which owns Sears and Kmart, reported on Thursday a loss of $748 million for the three months ending on Oct. 29. This is the company’s 20th consecutive quarterly loss, and worse than the $454 million loss the company posted in the same period last year. Revenue fell nine percent last quarter to $5.21 billion. Same-store sales, a key retail metric, dropped 10 percent at Sears and 4 percent at Kmart. The company lost $1.6 billion in the first ten months of the year, compared to $549 million in the same period last year, according to its regulatory filing.

These grim numbers were announced a week after the departure of two top-level executives: James Balagna, an executive vice president in charge of the company’s home-repair services and technology backbone, and Joelle Maher, the company’s president and chief member officer. Former Goldman Sachs banker Steve Mnuchinalso resigned from the Sears board last week after President-elect Donald Trump nominated him to head the Treasury Department.

When we discussed Sears, CKD suggested the issue wasn’t firm profitability. It was the relative benefits of bankruptcy court vs. a massive real estate sell off. If so, then the pattern of executive hires and behaviors makes sense. But that raises a deeper point. Why didn’t Sears keep up with the rest of the retail market?

Jeff Sward, founding partner of retail consultant Merchandising Metrics, doesn’t share Hollar’s optimism.

“What does Sears stand for?” Sward told Salon. “Sears unfortunately stands for so many different things that I don’t think there’s anything that’s a standout. I would go to Sears for appliances and tools, but I’ve certainly never thought of them as a headquarters for apparel.”

Sward says the issue isn’t that Sears doesn’t have good products and competitive prices. Instead, he said, the problem facing Sears is that it isn’t the first choice for buyers of any of its core product categories. If consumers need tools, they go to Home Depot or Lowe’s. If they want outdoor or work apparel, it’s Dick’s Sporting Goods, not Sears. Electronics and home appliances? That’s for Best Buy. And who’s buying apparel and shoes at Sears?

The bottom line is that the department store model of the early 1900s is incredibly hard to sustain in the modern environment. Where discovery of the “big box model” by Home Depot and the online model of Amazon, a lot of department store chains either folded or refocused. Sear, with way too much real estate and sluggish executive team, couldn’t make the pivot. Not surprisingly, you then attract investors who are more interested in hollowing out the firm, like the Sears/Kmart holding group that also took on Borders before it died.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street  

Written by fabiorojas

December 12, 2016 at 12:36 am


50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

December 11, 2016 at 12:18 am

Posted in fabio

sociology and the legacy of parsons

In this post, I want to think about how Parsons and structural functionalism has influenced modern sociology. I have been thinking about this since I got a hostile peer review for an early draft of Theory for the Working Sociologist. In the first draft of the book, I began with a very uncontroversial stance. In the mid-2oth century, Parsons attempted to unify sociology through structural functionalism. That was rejected and now we have a world of competing schools of thought. The book would then be a guide to the “post-Parsons” world. Even though no one disputed the truth of this approach, the reviewers thought it was horrible to bring this up. In a later version of the book, a separate reviewer went ballistic because I had “too much Parsons” – a total of 3 paragraphs out of 70,ooo words! People were touchy. I had run into the Parsons Taboo in sociology.

Now that the book is done and about to come out, I want to spend a few moments thinking about Parsons in a less knee jerk way. Even though I am not Pasonsian or a functional structuralist, I do think it it is interesting to consider his impact on the field. Here’s how I see things:

First, Parsons had a big impact on the teaching of undergraduate sociology. The introductory course in sociology has lots of ideas that Parsons promoted, such as the conflict/consensus approach to theory and the ascribed/achieved distinction in stratification. His followers, such as Robert Merton and Kingsley Davis, still appear in intro texts. And, of course, teaching social theory as the culmination of Weber and Durkheim is all Parsons. Later, the profession added Marx, the network folks added Simmel and we are now in the process of adding DuBois.

Second, a lot of sociologists use a vulgar functionalism, which takes rule/norm following as the basic theory of human action. It is not uncommon to see papers in all kinds of fields employ the “over socialized” theory of action as the unstated default. It is mainly scholars in areas such as culture or gender, where there is a thorough exploration of culture, who routinely start off with Garfinkle/Goffman view of interaction that rejects the Parsonsian approach to norms.

Third, a lot of sociologists were directly affected by Parsons. Swidlerian toolkit theory is probably the most popular theory of action right now and her 1983 article starts off with a full bore attack on Parsons (too rigid), as well as an attack on rational choice (actors need to simplify things). So a lot of cultural sociology today is still an attempt to create distance the profession from functionalist accounts of action. Furthermore, there are still highly influential sociologists, such as Jeffrey Alexander and Niklas Luhmann, who were either students of Parsons or who developed some version of neo-functionalist theory.

Finally, I’d note that the reception of Parsons in modern sociology is highly cohort dependent. If you got your Ph.D. in the 1970s or 1980s, you probably thought that Parsons was the Great Satan. If you got your Ph.D. later, he was an afterthought in a theory course and you probably never read a single word of Parsons.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. Did I get the story right?

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 


Written by fabiorojas

December 9, 2016 at 12:01 am

open borders and the rawls-munger test

While discussing a recent paper on public opinion and slavery in the pre-Civil War South on Econ Talk, Michael Munger gets into the arguments made for slavery:

Munger: …  what Montesquieu asked was this: ‘We always hear people talking about how great slavery is. And you say, well, slavery is beneficial to you and it’s beneficial to the slaves; but it’s mostly slave owners who say stuff like that.’

Russ: Which makes you think.

Munger: Well, suppose we all go into a room. And when we come out, some of us are going to be slaves, and some won’t. Now, do you still believe in slavery? And if that’s then standard, then okay. But otherwise I’m not persuaded that this is really a moral argument about how we should live our lives. And so, what’s interesting is: there are these conventions. And then there are these challenges. And I think Rawls deserves credit for having said, ‘Here’s a standard that it would have to pass.’ … I don’t know we’re going to end up believing. But if you think ‘Yes,’ then in order for you to persuade anyone else that it’s actually just, it would have to pass these sorts of tests. It’s not exactly the same thing as understanding persuasion. But it is a way of problematizing the conventions that come down to us that we just accept because they are traditions.

Excellent point. I call this the “substitution test” for an ethical argument. For any policy X, you are free to make the arguments for why people A and B should accept X. Then, you have to put yourself into the position of A and B. If you wince at X at any point, then that’s probably a good reason to think twice about X. It’s related to the Rawlsian argument that one should evaluate policy from an “original position,” stripped of our actual interests.

Application to open borders: Say you are arguing that we should shut out all Syrian refugees because we’re afraid of terrorism. If you woke up and found yourself to be a Syrian refugee, would you make the same argument? If you faced death and torture in Aleppo, wouldn’t you want to argue that not all Muslim people are terrorists? Or that collective punishment and guilt by association are wrong? Or that maybe you should be given the chance to prove that you aren’t a terrorist? Or maybe that the value of saving millions of lives outweighs a few lives lost due to a few terrorists that the police didn’t screen out? Or that you’d be willing to pay an extra tax to compensate people who were harmed by migration?

In other words, most people people in the position of the Syrian refugee would not argue for shutting the gates and voluntarily returning to the burning ruble. Instead, they would almost certainly consider much more modest policies for addressing the perceived problems with migration so that lives could be saved. There’s a lot of moderate middle ground that people ignore when they promote closed borders.

Restrictionists, the ball is in your court.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

December 8, 2016 at 12:31 am