A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Cincinnati premiere of Miles Ahead, the new film directed by Don Cheadle. A while back, I donated to the crowd funding project for the movie and got a ticket to this event so I was thrilled to see the project come to life. I thought Miles Ahead was a great film and I want to take a few minutes to explain what is impressive about it.
Any Miles Davis film faces two problems. First, Miles Davis was a horrible human being. He was a drug addict, wife beater, philanderer, plagiarist, dead beat dad, and a homophobe. I’m sure I’ve missed something, the dude was crooked. So you can’t make a truthful movie that presents Miles as a lovable or misunderstood guy. Second, there is no arc to Miles’ career. As early as high school, he was recognized as an extraordinarily talented musician. He was accepted to Juliard and offered a job playing trumpet in Duke Ellington’s band. Throughout his entire career, he was always pushing. There is no “high point” or great point of recognition. So you can’t make a movie that leads up to “the moment” when Miles finally made it, or when he overcomes some great adversity. His life is more or less a story of continual evolution.
Cheadle solves this problem by simply making it up. The movie is fiction and Cheadle uses various points in the action to cue flashbacks to moments that recall Miles’ life, mainly in the late 1950s and 1960s. A lot of reviewers were upset that the movie doesn’t review his early life, but that’s ok by me. It’s not a documentary. There’s even dialogue where Miles explains to another character that he’s not going to bother with the whole story of where he grew up. He’s just not into dwelling on the past.
I agree with the reviewers that the “plot” of the film – Miles has to recover a stolen recording – is hokey, but I forgive because the plot isn’t that important. What is more important is the film’s impressionism, attitude, and flare. And this is very consistent with how Miles played music and approached his personal style. Finally, I also note that the film does a good job covering Miles the horrible human being. It doesn’t dwell on the depravity, but uses his more introspective moments to explore the good and bad moments in his life. If you love jazz, you should definitely see this film.
This is part 2 of a book forum about The Scholar Denied. In this post, I will summarize what I like about the book. In brief, I think there is a lot to be said for Morris’ primary thesis that W.E.B. DuBois deserves to be called the true originator of American sociology.
Morris’ case works best when he sticks to the simplest data. For example, Morris correctly notes that many of DuBois’ contributions were published before the Chicago School. A telling example: DuBois’ theory of dual consciousness. This appeared in The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. Theories of dual consciousness appear much later, such as in Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant, which was published in 1918. Morris also shows that many of the Chicago School scholars had knowledge of DuBois’ work. There is also another section where Morris points out that DuBois’ use of quantitative data precedes others who usually get credit as the originators of statistical methods in sociology. These important points are made simply by noting the publication order of the relevant texts.
Another interesting and strong part of The Scholar Denied is a much needed rewriting of the Weber-DuBois relationship. In folklore, DuBois travels to Germany and meets the master. Instead, Weber and DuBois were graduate students at the same and saw each other as colleagues. I would need to be more of a Weber scholar to know if DuBois originated the theory of ethnicity as caste, but I am willing to entertain the idea.
Finally, let me focus on Morris’ contribution to the broader sociology of intellectuals. Of course, much of the story of DuBois is about encountering racial barriers but Morris is also careful to point out that there were structural issues as well. For example, repeatedly, Morris’ points out that DuBois didn’t have the resources need to institutionalize his group of followers. In one of my favorite sections, Morris addresses DuBois’ very small budgets and notes that his colleagues at Chicago actually were turning down money. It makes DuBois all the more impressive in that he’s managed to have a huge impact despite the limited resources.
Our new volume of RSO on “The University under Pressure” is now out in hard copy (electronic version here). Which prompted this post about the five areas where I think organizational sociology can really help us understand the current transformation of higher education.
Historically, the sociology of education, including higher education, has focused on stratification and social mobility. There’s lots of quantitative work on how social background (mostly class and race) affect whether students get to college, what happens once they’re there, and whether they finish. This is counterbalanced with qualitative work, often focused on cultural capital, that looks at how college mostly reproduces existing advantages.
In the last ten years, though, a growing body of work has emerged that looks at U.S. higher education through an organizational lens. There have always been specific examples of such research—e.g. Brint and Karabel’s The Diverted Dream (1990), on community colleges. But we can now point to scholarship from Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, Mike Bastedo, Amy Binder and Kate Wood, Joe Hermanowicz, Ozan Jaquette, Matt Kraatz, Lauren Rivera, Sheila Slaughter and her collaborators, Mike Sauder and Wendy Espeland, Mitchell Stevens, Gaye Tuchman, Melissa Wooten, not to mention myself or orgtheory’s own Fabio Rojas, that draw on organizational sociology to understand higher education—and this is hardly an exhaustive list.
And much more is in the pipeline. At Berkeley, Charlie Eaton and others are studying the financialization of higher education. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s widely awaited book on the for-profit sector will be out in a few months.
So why does this matter? Well, it matters because higher education is going through a period of intense change right now, and it’s happening at the organizational level. Social mobility will continue to be important, but even that is hard to understand without a sense of what the for-profit sector does, how public institutions are responding to a changed resource environment, and how organizational decisions channel students into tracks that help or hurt them.
With that in mind, here are five areas I think are ripe for study by organizational scholars with an interest in higher education.
He uses the terminology of the self-fulfilling prophecy but his discussion is much closer to performativity. Basically, he, correctly, notes that Moore’s law is not a physical law. Microchips will not become faster by themselves. They only become faster because of the time and effort invested in them.
And why does this happen? The public discussion of Moore’s law, according to Jones. I am not knowledgeable in engineering to know if public discussion of Moore’s law did in fact drive chip development, but the point is well taken. At the very least, a belief in consistent improvement actually led to a real improvement by providing incentives.
Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Gatekeeping by Julie Posselt is an exploration of how faculty in leading doctoral programs choose graduate students. The book is fitting successor to Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think, which was a book about how professors select elite fellowship recipients (see the orgtheory discussion here). The method is the same in each book – observe and interview academics as they deliberate and meet in committees.
Posselt provides a nice overview of how admissions committees operate. The take home points are intuitive and they should resonate with any faculty member who has served on such a committee: there are disciplinary standards; people choose others like themselves; there are internal politics and department level fit issues; people search for a hard to defined “talent” and diversity is paid lip service but doesn’t have much of an impact. There are also nice discussions of international students, conservatives, and students from low status schools.
Overall, a really solid contribution to the ethnographic study of group deliberation and a required reading for students of higher education and the disciplines. My one criticism is that Posselt gets the role of GRE’s wrong and comes to a conclusion that I would not have. She correctly notes that GRE are imperfect but in some sections of the book espouses the view that GRE’s are terribly flawed. Yet, in the conclusion, Posselt comes back to the view that GRE’s have only been “misused.”
As I’ve noted on this blog often, GRE’s are actually quite useful and that is backed up by enormous research. It saddens me to see that Posselt is not familiar with this literature. But there’s a deeper issue. Posselt’s ethnography reveals the importance of GRE scores. If it weren’t for GRE scores, graduate admissions committees would simply replicate themselves by choosing white, male Apple computer fanatics. You think I jest, but Posselt actually has an entire section about how professors like choosing students who mimic their personal style (she calls it “cool” homophily), which includes using a lot of Apple products. So I say this – the GRE’s may be flawed, but a world without them would probably be much worse.