Archive for the ‘sociology’ Category
I’ve taken a while to respond to the really interesting theory conversations that sort of started on my Facebook wall but have been carried forward by Andrew and Fabio. They both raise excellent points, and I’m going to move the conversation forward in two different directions: the question I really want to get to (at least the question I’ve been thinking about a lot) is about what mean to teach undergraduate theory under the Trump presidency. But before I get to that, I want to talk a little bit about why and how I think theory should be taught (or at least why and how I teach theory) which can help frame my answer to the first question.
When I taught high school English, I printed out what I called the big questions in huge font, placing them in different sections of the classroom. What does a life have to have for us to call it good? Why is there suffering? How should we deal with people who are different from us? How should we think about death, or love, violence or art? Given the contingencies of how knowledge has developed in the Western tradition, these are often questions we would think of as philosophical. Yet, at least as I taught my English classes, they’re also questions we encounter in great works of literature. My favorite part about teaching The Picture of Dorian Gray or Gilgamesh was the opportunity to help students think through these questions on their own, relating them to their own lives and to the world around them. And so yes, of course I wanted my students to do better on the New York State Regents’ Exams, and I actually came around on those tests inasmuch as the skills they needed for them were things that were generally pretty important (listening, writing, reading for comprehension). But the tests were side projects from the real goal of my class, which was to encourage and empower my students to live as meaningful of a life as they could. Importantly I wanted that meaning to include literature, but even if the literature piece fell away, I hoped the literature in my class helped develop a sense of the requirements of citizenship and a love of the big questions.
Substitute sociology for literature and that’s basically how I think about teaching undergraduate theory. I had a very productive conversation with a graduate student when I got to UCLA and I realized that most of these undergrads aren’t going to be sociologists and even if they are, they’ll get the theory they really need in graduate school. That’s not to say I dropped all references to sociology–they’re very much there—but my goal is no longer what it would be with grad student theory, which is to give students all the tools they need to write articles and books that can survive peer review. Instead, my goal can be more expansive. It allows me to pull much more widely than just from sociology, to have a much more diverse range of voices, and to emphasize breadth rather than depth (I feature 19 different thinkers, one for each lecture day except the introduction). And my goal winds up being quite similar to my goal when I taught English: I want students to come away from my class feeling more aware of the complexity of these big questions, more excited about asking them of themselves and others, and more empowered to act as citizens, even as they are aware of the complexity of ideas like justice, community, and the self.
Race, gender, sexuality, and class obviously show up here: they dominate the second half of my syllabus, and for good reason. There’s a certain conservative complaint that social scientists are so obsessed with race, gender, and class that they forget why life is meaningful at all. I understand the argument, and in some contexts I even agree with it. It goes like this: if we all care about is fighting inequalities related to race, gender, sexuality, class, status, and location in reference to the colonizer, sometimes we lose track of the reason life is itself worthwhile, or the kind of world we could have once, someday, when those equalities actually work themselves out. In other words, and more bluntly, why are we alive? Who and what are humans supposed to be? The focus on equality as as a means towards realizing those questions can sometimes be replaced by a focus on equality as an end in itself, forgetting those questions even exist, or narrowly answering them by saying the purpose of life is just whatever you want it to be, so that the goal is really just to make sure everyone has an equal chance to work things out on their own. The problem with some conservatives is they can then use this problem as a reason not to think about race/class/gender, writing these off as a distraction from the really important big questions. There’s obviously a lot wrong with that, not least that our sense of what makes a life meaningful is inevitably shaped by our location with various intersecting identities. Too often when someone says ask the big questions (like focus on character, or focus on wisdom) they mean bring back the dead white men. But I reject pretty categorically that the big questions will have to wait until we get a more just world. Art is part of the revolution, not the perks you get at its end. More importantly: Why is there suffering and inequality is one of the biggest questions there is, second only to what the hell are we going to do about it. It’s simply important to remember there are other questions too, with answers that make demands on us towards each other. Edward Said is a model for me on this, as he is for many things.
It might seem obvious but too often it’s not:you really don’ have to choose between a class about fighting to end inequality and a class about what makes life meaningful. That’s why I’m especially excited about a week in which I teach Rawls the first lecture and then Carole Pateman the second. Or exposing students to the concept of intersectionality through the work of Patrica Hill Collins, which from experience (see above), I know many of them find incredibly helpful. Encountering thinkers like Pateman and Collins, along with Arendt, Fanon, and Spivak, help students to become aware of both the problems of inequality and the real challenges of a life, which includes navigating between the demands of citizenship and the cultivation of one’s one talents and passions.
Which gets us to Trump. It’s hard for me to think of a more important role for theorists right now than to educate our citizens about issues of inequality, social interactions, and the basis of critique. So when I’m teaching Arendt or Habermas or Garfinkel, it’s not to teach the history of social theory for the purpose of social history: it’s to open folks up to new ways of viewing the world, raising questions that will, I hope, possibly make their lives more meaningful and, I also hope, give them the tools they need to recognize inequalities and injustices as they are happening. I want my class to give students tools for both their public and private lives. All the authors I’m teaching are still relevant in contemporary academic debates. They’re all people that academics should know. But I’m not teaching academics: I’m teaching human beings and citizens, and my goal is to help empower them to live as fully as possibly, alongside recognizing a responsibility to help others live fully as well. What the hell does it mean to live fully? I’m honestly not always sure. It’s a big question.
(I made some edits from an earlier version to better distinguish sociologists of education from ed reformers.)
Teaching a graduate seminar on sociology of education this quarter has helped me to realize that I’m actually a sociologist of schools rather than a sociologist of education. By that I mean that sociologists of education (as I’m calling them) are mostly interested in the processes of education as potential mechanisms to explain the real questions, which are about stratification. In contrast, sociologists of schools (as I’m calling them) look at how schools work, what schools do, and the experience of schooling. That kind of work is more commonly qualitative (whether historical, interviews, or ethnography) and often books. It’s striking: for nine of the ten weeks of this course I’m giving a book plus some articles, and the book is almost always what I’m calling sociology of schools and the articles are almost always what I’m calling sociology of education. And to be especially clear: that’s not a criticism. The sociology of education’s focus on stratification is vitally important, even more so given possible changes that might be happening under the Trump presidency. So I’m not calling attention to a problem as much as a difference.
The first book we read in the seminar—Jal Mehta’s excellent The Allure of Order—describes this process not within the sociology of education but within education reform discussions, which generally focus on the difference between inputs and outputs rather than what happens between them. The difference is that while the sociology of education brackets all but the most relevant questions about what happens in schools as a means of answering specific questions about stratification, ed reformers seem to have utterly circumscribed the understanding of what school is or could be. Of course ed reformers are a diverse bunch, but the ones who win tend to be similar. Mehta argues that this is a function of the power of certain “policy paradigms” and also the result of a weakened education field. Mehta gives a lot of reasons why teachers are a semi-profession, but the important point for my discussion here is that teachers are therefore unable to insist on the integrity of their process. For more autonomous professions like doctors and lawyers, it’s actually not the input vs. output that matters but rather the process. A doctor can get in trouble for malpractice and a lawyer can get in trouble for negligence, but these are both critiques of the process itself, not the different between inputs and outputs. In contrast, Mehta shows, teachers are told to do basically whatever they want: there’s a shockingly wide variety of ways to teach, with a pretty big pluralism and a relatively loose coupling between high level reform goals regarding outputs and on-the-ground procedures on how to achieve them provided they achieve them.
What’s interesting about this is how both academics and reformers can then discuss schooling as itself a black box, often with a language of (what some might call neoliberal) efficiency. Schooling ceases to be an intrinsic good and becomes a means towards particular individual or societal ends. I was struck by this at a talk I attended last night run by the AERA. They invited academics from around the Los Angeles area, and we heard Bridget Terry Long give a really excellent lecture on how to help low-income students get into college. I learned a lot, and the discussion afterwards was quite helpful. Yet what struck me was the way in which—except for two questions at the end (one of which was mine)—college was always framed as a means towards an end, a necessary way to achieve a certain amount of financial security and wider agency regarding possible life options. That’s of course true: the data is devastating.
Yet, as I said in a question, if we—those who work in colleges and universities—cannot make the case that college is a good in and of itself rather than a means towards particular good ends, then we’re actually all doing something pretty dangerous. We’re forcing students to spend a ton of money so they can have a particular kind of life. Even if—somehow!—college became free, we’d still be forcing them to spend a lot of time. Now I actually believe that’s time well spent and that college has a wide range of intrinsic goods, but that’s not often the way we academics and reformers talk about it. If college is not intrinsically good—if it’s just an arbitrary credential people need to have a degree of agency and a wider range of life choices—it seems to me the key task is not getting more people into college but rather trying to make a world where such an accreditation is not necessary.
So why do we require college? On its own and not just because they need it? Part of the answer, as Professor Long said in her response to my question, is because college allows students to spend time with people and ideas who are very different from them. Although, of course, colleges can still be quite stratified in terms of who goes where (or who’s there at all) and besides, there are much cheaper ways to produce the same effects: a required national year of service for example (look at how people talk about their experiences of the draft).
For me—and I know people think this is naïve—I’m a firm believer in the power of college to help people learn how to think and to be citizens. College should help students become comfortable with complicated ideas, capable of understanding debates referencing science, statistics, and history. They should read some great books by people who are like them and different from them, and maybe they should even learn some sociology. That’s a commitment I think many of us in the academy share, and it’s something I know many of us are passionately democratic about it. But even if that’s how we think about college, it’s not always how we talk about it.
Reading a lot of Hannah Arendt lately has made me think about the relatively quick move (only really a few academic generations) from demanding regular reference to European classical antiquity, often via familiarity with both the original Greek and Latin, to today’s academic standards, which are, all at the same time, much more localized and specialized but also much more diffuse, allowing references and cross-comparisons along multiple lines, some of them genealogical and linguistic (as Arendt does) but many of them simply comparative and broadly anthropological in the the (classical) Terrence sense of nothing human being alien to me (Charles Taylor, by the way, is one of the few who really bridges both worlds, both because of his age but also because of his remarkable abilities and wide-ranging interests.) I don’t think this change is actually a problem (I know some Latin, and I’m more familiar with the classical world than is your average sociologist, but that’s not saying much). However, for good or bad, this change actually speaks to Arendt’s worry that a lack of tradition creates a lack of common culture through which totalitarianism can brew. I think that argument’s an interesting one, but I don’t think it’s right, mostly because I think that a cohesive kind of tradition is a sociological reality we can’t really escape.
I posted the above paragraph to my facebook wall a few days ago, and I got some good feedback, namely that plenty of earlier sociologists (and other kinds of thinkers) didn’t care about the classical era either (and, of course, Arendt wasn’t a sociologist: in fact the “social” is the main problem in The Human Condition). Which is fair enough, of course. Yet certainly there’s this broader sense of being an intellectual plugged into an old intellectual tradition in Weber, Marx and Durkheim–and then as well in people like Foucault and Bourdieu, Goffman and Geertz (the last, of course, is not actually a sociologist, but my hunch lately is that cultural sociologists cite him at this point more often than do cultural anthropologists). You can also see this change in the way (much) older years of sociology journals have more essayistic feels.
So this is on one hand a question about how certain academic forms have changed not just the production of intellectual life but also how we define its requirements and content. In other words, there’s a sociological–and, I’m sure, organizational and institutional–argument to explain this change. As usual, I’m sure a certain kind of conservative wants to blame the fact that we can’t all quote Seneca on the cultural left, when it’s at least my hunch that the right’s own love of the market-with division-of-labor as a constitutive good-is much more to blame.
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.
I recently discovered an important little book from the 1960’s, written about an era 40 years prior. David Burner was a well-regarded history professor who passed away only a few years ago, probably most famous for his biography of Herbert Hoover. Yet his dissertation book is what struck me, titled The Politics of Provincialism: The Democratic Party in Transition, 1918-1932 (Knopf, 1968), the book describes how, to quote it opening sentence, “in the years of Republican ascendancy from 1920 to 1932, the national Democratic party transformed itself from an institution largely rural in its orientation and leadership to one that embodied the aspirations of the American city dweller—and most notably, the urbanite of immigrant stock.”
This tension between city and country—and its relative role in determining national elections—is nothing new in American—and by, extension, English—politics, and there are ever more op-ed’s every day, both pro and con, about how Democrats should think about rural communities. (Friendly facebook commenters reminded me, when I posted this yesterday at facebook, that the urban/rural division is also a mainstay of classical sociological theory and the work of Ibn Khaldun—thanks Graham Peterson and Nick Tampio!)
Yet it’s worth remembering that at one point it was Republicans who were the party of Yankee elites and Democrats the party of rural distaste for cities, especially that particular urban mélange of snooty elites and people-not-like-us (whether Jews, Italians and Irish then or African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims now). These historical transfers are not as clean as I’m describing them here, and race obviously has a huge part to play in this story. Yet this is the common message we all get, more or less: the Democrats placated angry whites as long as they could, ignoring Jim Crow, giving preference to whites in the New Deal and GI Bill, and only really having to turn around under LBJ’s passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts, after which Nixon and Republicans cemented the Southern Strategy and the parties traded places.
That story’s not wrong, but it ignores the way in which whiteness was itself very much a product under construction. Burner’s chapter on the Klan is quite good on this, focusing on how Democrats disagreed about how much they should hate Catholics, among other things. This comes to a head in 1928, in which there was a real election in the South for the first time since Reconstruction, pitting Southern white supremacy against Southern anti-Catholicism (unsurprisingly, white supremacy won). While Burner does pay attention to race in these discussions, my one real complaint is that he should have done a lot more of it.
His last page has an important quote: “In 1932, Roosevelt’s candidacy sealed together in common cause farmers and laborers, natives and foreign stock, country and city.” Burner attributes this to quite a few causes, but his most striking is his last one, “the crucible of the depression—which substituted for the divisions of culture and ancestry the common identity of the dispossessed” (252). That insight parallels recent claims that Obama only got elected at all because the recession was just so bad, yet it’s striking how, in Burner’s description of folks coming together, he leaves out African Americans, who had obviously already been in northern cities and were entering them in much greater numbers in the great migration. It’s a big problem for the book, but I’d still recommend checking it out for a careful study of an important change in American history.
One other bit: it’s interesting how much prohibition in that era mirrors urban/rural fights in our own, especially regarding the strong sense of moral urgency, manifested in a deep inability for some to live and let live precisely because to live in a certain way seems contrary to the good life itself. There’s an interesting article to be written about the parallels being worrying about someone else’s drinking and worrying about someone else’s sex life. What’s easy to lose here is how of course that worrying is sometimes very much about a kind of hatred but-and this is the bit that’s often forgotten–it is just as often about a kind of (deeply misdirected, patronizing, other negative adjectives) love, honestly believing that the good of society at large and the individual in question would be better grasped by living life as particular moralists would have you live it. Looked at this way, an obsession with grit in contemporary education reform and all sorts of other ways of thinking about “urban” problems take on a new light.
So: a kind of religious moralism within the Democratic party regarding prohibition allied itself with a kind of religious fundamentalism and nativism. Eventually, cities forced the Democratic party to chill out a bit, and the Depression helped many people to come together. Many, but not all. And so, about 50 years later, this otherwise quite good book about American politics has a lot of important things to say yet isn’t nearly sophisticated enough about race. Americans’ stories actually do change, but it’s striking how often they stay the same.