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Over the years I’ve had a number of “good” classes of students, but I can’t recall a good class conversation about race. This is a problem, because without the ability to think about the ways that people understand race it is harder to tear those understandings down and introduce a sociological perspective (even if the sociological perspective is sometimes debated). The Whiteness Project, A new series from PBS, and related videos online, provide a possible solution to these problems. As the “About” section on the webpage notes:

The Whiteness Project is a multiplatform investigation into how Americans who identify as “white” experience their ethnicity.

The project is conducting 1,000 interviews with white people from all walks of life and localities in which they are asked about their relationship to, and their understanding of, their own whiteness. It also includes data drawn from a variety of sources that highlights some quantitative aspects of what it means to be a white American.

This is great for the classroom because it allows instructors to show a brief video clip and then discuss the ideas it contains, the likely origins of those ideas, and sociological responses. Essentially, it shifts the burden of revealing the types of ideas that many white Americans hold from students to video clips. Take Jason, for instance, who says that he has not received any benefits from being white an discusses blacks blaming problems that have long-since been solved (you know, like slavery and discrimination) for their current situations. Or Harold, who believes that whites are the ones who suffer from discrimination today.

Using these videos as a starting point will allow students to do the work of critiquing the ideas present from a sociological perspective. I’m looking forward to trying it out.

Via Slate

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In keeping with the theme of the early struggles of now-famous sociologists, Shamus has a post at Scatterplot featuring Mark Granovetter’s rejection letter and reviews from ASR for his paper on the strength of weak ties, then called “Alienation Reconsidered: The Strength of Weak Ties.” As Granovetter notes in Shamus’s post, the framing changed significantly between the version that was rejected by ASR and the version that was accepted by AJS.

The history of the sociology job market contains some interesting peculiarities. For example, George Herbert Mead received an M.A. in philosophy from Harvard and then went to Germany to work on his Ph.D. Before his dissertation was completed, he accepted a faculty position at the University of Michigan where he taught philosophy and psychology before later following John Dewey to the University of Chicago. He never completed his Ph.D. (Imagine the field day that a certain job site would have with his hiring today!) It was, I suppose, a different time. (A certain job site does have a field day with discussions of full professors whom it is argued couldn’t get a tenure-track position in today’s market with their current records.) The cases of Howie Becker and Erving Goffman show that not all of the big names in sociology had such an easy time on the job market while reinforcing how different things were back then.

At ASA in San Francisco this year, Howie Becker was the discussant on one of the “Young Ethnographer” panels (the one without Alice Goffman). About the papers, he said something along the lines of “How am I supposed to talk about such different papers at the same time” and then moved on to a discussion of his belief that the best ethnographic work (he actually stated that he prefers the term “field work”) is typically conducted by young people in graduate school who have the benefit of time.* Early in his career, he and his fellow University of Chicago graduate Erving Goffman (if this had been the session with Alice Goffman he could have brought things full-circle…) were unable to find work. So they conducted research.

According to Wikipedia (which has incorrect information about Mead’s education and, thus, may or may not be a reliable source of information on the biographies of sociologists), after completing his Ph.D. Becker conducted research at the Institute for Juvenile Research, in a postdoc at the University of Illinois, and as a research associate at Stanford before starting as a faculty member at Northwestern. Although things might not have seemed too dire because he received his Ph.D. when he was only 23, it was over ten years before Becker started what today would probably be considered his official career. Goffman, meanwhile, worked as a research associate at the University of Chicago and then for the National Institute for Mental Health before beginning as a faculty member at Berkeley.

Becker’s point in discussing the job market woes that he and Goffman experienced at ASA this year was that they both relished the opportunity to focus on research during those years, even as their friends took pity on them. My point in discussing them is to highlight the evolution of job market pathways in the intervening years. While a candidate today might be able to get a postdoc, the increasing reliance on adjunct labor means that the prospects for somebody without a tenure-track job who wants to stay in academia are much more likely to include cobbling together a poverty-level salary from various adjunct positions than earning a comfortable living conducting research. The outcomes of these pathways are also clear, since adjunct teaching leaves little time for building a publication record that will result in an eventual tenure-track job.

Despite what might have been perceived by their friends as early-career stumbles, Becker and Goffman went on to have illustrious careers in sociology and made large contributions to the discipline. How many similar contributions does the current opportunity structure within academia deprive us of?

*Later in his career, he claimed that he found time for field work by being a bad departmental citizen. It is best that we don’t mention the advice that he solicited on this topic from a few esteemed audience members.

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Did you already send this?

Current and former students often ask me to write them letters of recommendation for various things and I typically say yes. As I’ve said in the past, when writing these letters it is helpful to know what students are saying in any required statements so that I can ensure my own statements support those points. The only problem with this is that students often provide me with these materials after they have been submitted to the organization in question, even though I would classify the quality of their work in these statements as rough at best.

One might think that students who are attempting to obtain an internship, scholarship, or entrance to a graduate program might put more effort into the required personal statements than they would a brief class assignment, but this does not appear to be the case. This is not entirely the fault of students, since most of them are not trained in this form of writing and they might not feel like they have a go-to person to answer their questions (unlike a class assignment). Nevertheless, they should still assume that things like proofreading and the use of paragraphs and specific examples will strengthen their arguments that they should receive an internship, scholarship, or entrance to a graduate program.

As a writer of letters of recommendation, low-quality personal statements also put me in a difficult position. Obviously, I want to support my students and help them become successful. On the other hand, it is difficult to make a strong argument that a student was among my best or was a good writer or whatever other seemingly-arbitrary characteristics institutions say they care about when the student’s personal statement looks like it was written in fifteen minutes and then edited by a cat sitting on the student’s keyboard. In the future, I might need to request that in the future students provide me with a draft of their personal statements and allow me to help guide them through the process of revising and editing it as a condition of writing a recommendation.

I might not have the code that will allow all of their applications to be successful, but I’ve got to be a better editor than their cats.

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Changing my signature

Over four years ago, I discussed my move away from signing e-mails with my first name in grad school but that I hadn’t settled on a replacement since starting as an assistant professor, stating: “My current unsatisfactory practice has been to let my e-mail signature, which includes my full name and contact information, stand in as a closing and signature, but this leaves my e-mails feeling unfinished.” This year, I decided that needed to change.

At the beginning of the semester I decided to start signing e-mail to students “Professor Smith.” In some ways, my new institution made this easier because the norm on campus is for students to call faculty “Professor,” whereas there was no strong norm at my previous institution. My hope is that this will also help students think about professionalism in the e-mails that they send me, maybe even leading to things like complete sentences and the use of the subject line. If nothing else, at least my e-mails feel complete.

Like some faculty members (and probably more than many others), I have a tendency to be picky (or, as I prefer to think of myself, “detail-oriented”). I care about the way that things look and the way they are presented and I like things to be done right the first time. This is true of my own work as well as things like student assignments (is there a shortage of staples in the world?). When changing institutions, it turns out, there are a lot of details and a lot of details for people to get wrong. As a result, I’ve been concerned recently that pickiness would be perceived as being a pain in the ass, especially in the months leading up to the start of the academic year.

This started early in the summer as I selected my office furniture (and its placement). The person who was in charge of ordering everything remarked on my slightly unusual placement preference for my bookshelves by saying that “hopefully they’ll install them in the right places and if they don’t… it will be okay.” I also felt picky when discussing my computer and its software, since some software that I needed had more functionality in Windows but I wanted a Mac with Windows running in Parallels for the purposes of using this software. If making these purchases for myself I wouldn’t have been concerned but I wondered how ridiculous these requests looked to the IT people who ordered everything and got it set up.

Things continued when I arrived on campus and went through the steps necessary to acquire office keys, an ID, and business cards. There was a delay in getting an office key (which turned out only to be a day or so) and the ID camera wasn’t working when I went to have my picture taken (is there anything with a higher failure rate than ID cameras?). Worst was my order for business cards. On the first proof the administrative assistant sent me, my rank was incorrect (not that I would mind being a full professor) but after that was corrected I noticed that the second proof omitted my middle initial, which I use professionally (this was omitted on the first proof, too, but I was too concerned about the rank to notice). Each change probably took somebody five seconds, but I could feel my reputation as a pain in the ass growing.

Since the beginning of the semester, things have settled down considerably. I don’t think that I have made any egregious requests and I’ve actually found myself struggling to get used to allowing the department’s administrative assistant and student assistants do things for me since my previous administrative assistant was also burdened with the work of five other departments on campus. On the other hand, I did just hand back the first round of papers for a class, so instead of going away, the perception that I’m a pain in the ass has probably just shifted from staff members to students. Where it belongs.

Stores in the United States often helpfully designate the items for sale as “for girls” or “for boys.” These designations are particularly helpful when the only difference is the color of the items, since in those cases color-blind people might make a mistake. Gift card sections are typically not much different, though the labels get a little redundant when there are also images of ponies or robots, since even color-blind people can recognize the difference between super-feminine ponies and super-masculine robots. Shopping in Target recently, I noticed a section of Halloween cards that were labeled not only “For Kids,” but “for “for a boy” and “for a girl.” You can see the cards below:

photo 1Since both cards appeared to feature the color orange, which is neither pink nor blue, I wondered about the distinction between the two and got them out to look more closely:

photo 3The card on the left is clearly a poorly-wrapped mummy (if it had been better-wrapped its skin may not have turned orange) while the card on the right is an orange owl (which is apparently possible). Based on its hat, the owl is possibly also a witch (or maybe a pilgrim). So maybe the mummy is for boys because it is a boy and the owl is for girls because it likes to wear pilgrim witch hats? Those don’t seem like strong reasons for gendering these cards, so let’s open them up and see if the inside of the “boys'” card is blue and the inside of the “girls'” card is pink:

photo 2Nope, just more orange. So the lesson Target has taught us this Halloween is that poorly-wrapped mummies are for boys who are “totally awesome” while owls wearing pilgrim witch hats are for girls who are “very special.” It is a good thing that Target labeled them for me because otherwise I may have thought that each was equally suited to both boys and girls, which would have been a huge mistake. Now I know how color-blind people feel (which explains why they get so upset about it).

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