Archive for May, 2011

When I teach Intro I often end the semester by stating that I hope students will take something away from the course regardless of their major or future career path.  This is particularly true in the case of people who will eventually take on roles that affect the course of our country, such as those pursuing business, law, or education.  I feel better about these careers knowing that those who pursue them have had some sociological training.  In recent years, however, my sense of what I want these students to take away from sociology has been solidified as I listen to political rhetoric and talk to friends who took sociology courses (way) back in college but who have moved away from sociological ideas as a result of exposure to the “real world.”  What I want students to take away from sociology is this: You cannot draw conclusions about society based on the people that you interact with on a daily basis.

As a graduate student and an assistant professor I have heard friends, family, community members, and politicians refer to the “real world.”  When they do so, they almost universally mean the social world that they inhabit.  Their own experiences, then, are real, while those of others in different settings contain an element that they perceive to be artificial.  A businessperson may justify a decision to outsource jobs for greater profit margins by explaining that the people protesting the action do not understand the “real world” of business.  Similarly, somebody may justify a racist statement by noting that it is grounded in “real world” interaction with members of the racial group in question.  In each case, individuals privilege their own experiences over the larger body of knowledge that could be accessed through simple research about society as a whole.

Through this process, the lessons that we teach in sociology courses about race, class, or gender are likely to be overridden by individuals who interact with one or two people that confirm societal stereotypes.  Stereotypes about welfare recipients, for example, are rampant.  This morning on Facebook I read several assertions that many families have been taking advantage of welfare for generations with no acknowledgement that there have been strict work and time requirements on welfare since 1996.  A sociology student may recognize this, but a sociology graduate may not.  In my future courses I will spend a much larger amount of time emphasizing that individual experiences are not an appropriate basis for drawing conclusions about society.  If students take nothing else away from my courses I will consider myself successful.

Read Full Post »

This spring I gave a presentation at a conference in which I aimed to help graduate students determine if life at a liberal arts institution is something that they should consider pursuing.  In a lot of ways, the talk encapsulated my experiences through two years as a faculty member, touching on many of the themes I have highlighted here but in a (perhaps) more coherent way.  The majority of the talk is below:

I’m John Smith and I work at a private liberal arts school with about 2000 students.  Right now, you’re thinking, “I saw the name of your school in the program and I’ve never heard of it,” which brings me to my first point: a liberal arts school is not the place to go if you want or need status.  Even top-ranked liberal arts schools do not have the status of top-ranked research schools – Picture telling your grandfather that you got a job at Williams College (Williamstown, MA), the top-ranked liberal arts school by US News vs. telling him that you got a job at Harvard, the top-ranked research school.  I’m guessing that most people would get a much bigger reaction from their friends and family if they got a job at Harvard than at Williams.

So, if liberal arts schools aren’t for people who want status, who are they for?


The primary answer to this question is: people who really enjoy teaching and want to be good at it.

At a liberal arts school you will be working closely with students both in and out of the classroom, so it is important to mention that not all private schools have the same type of students.  While some have nothing but privileged students, my school has a diverse student body from a wide variety of backgrounds and with a wide variety of abilities.  During class discussions I am typically glad for this diversity, even if I wish that the ability levels of the bottom students were a bit higher when I’m grading papers and exams.

Still, the student body overall is similar to what you might experience as a graduate student teaching at a large state school.  This means that there are some weak students but there are also some excellent students, with most students somewhere in between.  At more selective schools there are probably more excellent students but less demographic diversity.

At my school I have a 3-3 teaching load, which means that I teach three classes per semester.  In general, my classes range from 25-35 students but this is partly because I am in a popular department.  Faculty in some departments have fewer and faculty in other departments have more.  I also advise 45 students, which differs a lot from department to department as well.

The range of students at a liberal arts school is important when thinking about your plans for research (or scholarship, as it is often called at liberal arts institutions).


People who want to work at a liberal arts school should not need an army of graduate students to be productive researchers (or to do their grading) and should enjoy the challenge of doing research with undergraduates, which often involves a lot of teaching about the research process.

It is also important to recognize that research can take a number of forms, even at highly ranked schools.  This may include things like conference presentations in addition to peer-reviewed publications as demonstrations of the “continued scholarly activity” that is necessary for tenure in addition to service and good teaching.

Given a higher teaching load than most R1 faculty and the fact that you will be grading exams, papers, and quizzes yourself, the reality is that you will not have as much time to spend on research as those at other types of schools.  This typically leads to fewer concurrent projects and fewer publications.

While there are general differences in research productivity, there can also be differences between departments on the same campus.  In my department, for example, everybody has a research agenda but research is rarely the main topic of conversation because it is not what people spend the majority of their time on during the semester.  In another department, however, the faculty publish much more frequently.  I’m not sure if this is a result of the types of graduate programs that the faculty in each department came from or the stages they’re at in their academic careers, but there is a definite difference and it can be difficult to go against the norms of your department.  For example, others in your department may not have much experience applying for grants or publishing in major journals, which can make it difficult if you want to do these things.  This is also something to consider if you are being hired into a department in which the standards have changed since the current faculty members have been granted tenure.

Obviously, I could work into the night and complete more research during the semester but the rewards for doing so are relatively small.  In the summer and over breaks when I focus mostly on research, however, small amounts of money are available if I am working on my own and larger amounts are available if I am collaborating with a student.  So research is definitely valued and supported but it is not my primary responsibility.

Nearby Peers

Continuing on the topic of research, something that I never heard anybody mention about liberal arts schools when I was in graduate school, and one thing that I found myself missing in my first year as a faculty member, was the community of those with similar interests that arose through departmental colloquia.

Because you will almost certainly be the only person with your specialization in your department, if you end up having a choice between jobs (however unlikely that may be in the current job market) you may want to consider the proximity of other schools that would allow you to form reading or writing groups.  There are a large number of schools in my area and I was able to join a reading group consisting of faculty from a wide range of research and liberal arts schools.  This helps me keep up with current research and it also gives me a connection to people who are more active in research than the other members of my department and can give me advice in those areas.

Campus Involvement

Beyond these teaching and research concerns, people who want to work at liberal arts schools should have a willingness, if not a desire, to be deeply involved in the workings of their institution and interact regularly with administrators and faculty in other departments.

To give you some perspective, the entire faculty of my graduate institution has met twice in the past 25 years.  At my current institution, there are monthly meetings of all faculty, and this is where major decisions about the curriculum are made.

Work-Life Balance

The final group of people who should consider working at liberal arts schools are those who are searching for the mythical work-life balance.  As I’ve said, during the semester you will be busy with teaching and over breaks you will likely be busy with research, but the ability to focus on these things at different times, and the corresponding emphasis placed on each when making tenure decisions, allows you to work without spending every waking hour worrying about whether you will be able to publish enough to get tenure.

Despite wishing for a higher level of scholarly engagement in my own department, I have never regretted my decision to work at a liberal arts school and, just as some likely have a hard time imagining why somebody would want to teach three courses per semester, I have a hard time imagining why somebody would want to work somewhere that gave journal editors and reviewers so much control over their futures.

How Can You Get Here?

Now that you have a better sense of whether you want to work at a liberal arts school, you are probably wondering what you can do to end up at a place like this.

The first thing you can do is go to a liberal arts school as an undergrad.  Because of the differences between liberal arts schools and the research schools where people get their Ph.D., schools see the fact that somebody attended a liberal arts school as a sign that they understand what is involved in this type of job.

With that said, I didn’t go to a liberal arts school and I still work at one, so there are some things you can do if you missed your opportunity to go to one of these schools yourself:

These include spending time working to become a good teacher.  This means assigning papers, essay exams, and involving students in class discussions.  Obviously, this takes more time and effort than lecturing from a textbook and giving multiple choice exams, but if you think of a class of 60 students as similar to teaching three classes of 20, you can get a sense of what a full teaching load at a liberal arts school is like.

Another thing you can do is teach classes that are likely to be in demand – schools are always looking for people who can teach classes like statistics, research methods, and social theory, so the ability to successfully teach one of those classes in graduate school gives you a valuable skill on the job market.  The fact that I had taught both statistics and research methods, for example, was a factor in each of the interviews I had.


In the end, the type of institution you want to work at comes down to what you want your daily experience to be like.

If you are interested in teaching, interacting with students and colleagues, and collaborating on research with students without intense pressure to publish, you should consider applying at liberal arts schools.

Read Full Post »

One of the ways that white male privilege is commonly illustrated in sociology courses is by pointing out the many places that this is considered to be the default category.  Women (who actually make up the majority of the US population) and people of color, then, are considered different than the norm.  The “surprising” success of two recent movies aimed at members of these different audiences also highlights this fact.  Both Bridesmaids, a comedy about friendship, and Jumping the Broom, a comedy about family, have gotten attention for being successful.  While friendship and family have been the subject of countless comedies, these particular movies are distinctive because they focus on female friendship and African American family in a humorous way.  Even their titles indicate this distinctiveness, since bridesmaids are typically women and jumping the broom is an African American wedding tradition.

So they are distinctive, but why is their success surprising?  After all, Jumping the Broom stars Angela Bassett, who must be a major movie star since I have heard of her, and Bridesmaids stars Kristen Wiig, who is sometimes the only reason to watch Saturday Night Live.  An Entertainment Weekly article about Bridesmaids sums it up nicely:

What the “exceeded expectations” line is really about is the movie industry, and the media, paying homage to the collective “wisdom” that occurs whenever Hollywood, doing that thing it does, remembers all over again, every couple of years, and with great stunned surprise, that there’s this weirdly esoteric, fringe-group demographic — I believe the term for it is “women” — who actually enjoy seeing their lives portrayed on screen every bit as much as men do.

Having established that women and African Americans may actually like to see humorous, though relatively accurate, takes on their lives, the more important question is why would white males not want to see these movies?  At what point does a movie go from having African American characters to being an African American movie?  When does a movie go from depicting women to being a women’s movie?  Women and African Americans go to movies featuring nothing but white males, but are white males so accustomed to being the center of attention that they can’t handle movies featuring people from other groups?  A recent paper indicates that there are likely two forces at work: White males are so accustomed to being the center of attention that they do not want to watch movies that they do not perceive as being marketed to them and movie studios do not think that white males will be willing to watch movies that they do not perceive as being marketed to them.  As stated in the press release:

In his study, Weaver set out to test if the perception was accurate and found that, all things being equal, minority cast members lead white audiences to be less interested in seeing certain films.

“I don’t think it’s because whites are uncomfortable and are consciously avoiding these kinds of films. The participants in these studies weren’t thinking explicitly about the race of the actors when they made their decisions. It’s more about a perception that if there are minority cast members in it, then whites don’t see themselves as part of the intended audience,” he said.

“And I think that’s in large part because of the way that films are marketed these days,” he added. “You have this whitewashing of the mainstream films, and the only time that you see minority casts are for films that are marketed very specifically toward minority audiences.

“Hollywood’s sort of given up on the idea that you can have crossover success with a minority cast,” he said. “You get this discrimination in the casting of roles, where they’re going to cast whites if at all possible to maximize the audience.”

Unfortunately, the success of Bridesmaids and Jumping the Broom is unlikely to reverse the trend.  Studios could possibly reduce the influence of these factors, however, by being willing to produce movies that include more than one (or zero) female and non-white characters.  If the cast of a typical movie better reflected the demographic characteristics of our country we may be able to stop seeing movies as targeted at “us” or “them.”

Read Full Post »

Although many colleges are just wrapping up their spring semesters, Microsoft is already taking aim at the back-to-school crowd with a free Xbox 360 for students who buy a PC with Windows 7 for $699 or more, stating that this gives students “everything they need for a successful new school year.”  I suppose that this deal makes sense for students who would have purchased both anyway, but I can’t say that many of my students need to spend less time studying.

Read Full Post »

Talking about the rapture is all fun and games until you think about the people who have actually bought into this (despite the fact that Harold Camping was wrong before):

The three teenagers have been struggling to make sense of their shifting world, which started changing nearly two years ago when their mother, Abby Haddad Carson, left her job as a nurse to “sound the trumpet” on mission trips with her husband, Robert, handing out tracts. They stopped working on their house and saving for college.

Read Full Post »

With the rapture coming up on Saturday, I think it is time to start making some post-rapture plans.  Obviously, those who are called to heaven will be doing some work for God (He is probably pissed that we finally caught bin Laden so he won’t be able to show us how easy it is when you’re omnipotent, but he probably has some weeding for the chosen ones to do in his garden, given that it has been untended for thousands of years).  Given that I haven’t done anything to get in God’s good graces (and my video game skill level is not particularly high), I am likely to be left below.  This leads to the important question of how the rapture will affect my summer.

Thankfully, given that the spring semester is over, I’ll have plenty of time to devote to looting the homes of the chosen ones, though I doubt that they have many exciting possessions.  After the looting, I plan to tune in to cable news for all of the post-rapture coverage (just imagine how worked up Glenn Beck will get when something actually happens!).  I particularly look forward to Monday night’s episodes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to see how Jon Stewart skewers coverage of the damned and how Stephen Colbert reacts to being passed over (I expect at least the level of outrage he expresses when getting passed over for an Emmy).

After the tumultuous first few days when we all come to grips with our fate, I expect the summer to be spent like any other, though the research I had planned will probably be dropped in favor of a new rapture-related project (possibly interviewing lifelong churchgoers about their exclusion in order to locate social structural causes of damnation).  My visit to Sin City for ASA in August was already going to be hot as hell, so not much will change there.  The real questions concern what to do when the fall semester rolls around.  Should I prepare a syllabus for the entire semester or just the first half?  Will my students (nearly all of whom I expect will still be around) be more apathetic than ever or will they be enthralled by the connections between structure, agency, and the rapture?  Will college football go on as planned?

Perhaps most importantly, if some of the faculty and staff at my school are taken up to heaven on Saturday, will the administration forgo replacing them since the only candidates left are proven sinners and, if so, will their salaries be redistributed in the form of a raise?

Read Full Post »

Modern Family may be the best family comedy since Arrested Development, but last week’s episode, entitled “Good Cop Bad Dog,” reinforced some family roles that were anything but modern.  The episode centered on each of the six adult leads trying to break out of their normal roles to varying degrees.  At the heart of these adults were Phil and Claire, who were shown at the beginning of the episode taking on their normal roles.  Claire, the stay-at-home mom, was disciplining the children while Phil was attempting to keep things light.  Phil, it seems, gets to do all of the fun things with the kids while Claire is forced to be the serious parent who keeps their household running smoothly.  Understandably, Claire was not satisfied with this arrangement.

As a result of Claire’s dissatisfaction, Phil and Claire spent the majority of the episode outside of their normal roles.  Claire took their son and nephew on the go karting outing that Phil had planned and Phil stayed home with the daughters to ensure that their chores were done appropriately.  Both found it difficult to succeed outside of their normal roles.  On this point it is interesting to compare the behavior of these parents to the behavior that television parents would likely expect from their children.  Countless hours of TV have been devoted to parents encouraging their children not to give up on things that they are not immediately good at.  When Claire and Phil were not immediately good at stepping outside of their normal roles, however, they concluded that they should stick to what they know, allowing Phil to return to being the “fun dad” while Claire returned to being the “nagging mom.”

Obviously, television comedies are not necessarily going to be realistic (there was certainly nothing realistic about Arrested Development‘s Bluth family), but for a show entitled Modern Family that includes a same-sex couple with an adopted daughter, I don’t think that a little realism would be too much to ask.  The disconnect between the show’s title and its gender roles are particularly evident in light of a recent New York Magazine article written by Roseanne Barr, creator and star of Roseanne, a show that expertly blended realism with humor for most of its run.  Barr’s article focuses on the difficulty she had finding others to help her maintain that blend.  As a result of these efforts, she states:

I honestly think Roseanne is even more ahead of its time today, when Americans are, to use a technical term from classical economics, screwed. We had our fun; it was a sitcom. But it also wasn’t The Brady Bunch; the kids were wiseasses, and so were the parents. I and the mostly great writers in charge of crafting the show ­every week never forgot that we needed to make people laugh, but the struggle to survive, and to break taboos, was equally important. And that was my goal from the beginning.

It is clear from the article that the battles Barr fought to break those taboos took their toll.  This might be easier to accept if those taboos remained broken over 20 years later.

Read Full Post »

The bloody exam

While I don’t recall ever using a faux British accent to complain about exams (I have used other things that started with f…), this year I had the distinct pleasure of an exam that was literally bloody.  During the exam, I noticed a student getting a tissue out of her backpack, which was not particularly peculiar.  Instead of blowing her nose, however, she just held the tissue by it.  Glancing in her direction a few moments later I could see that part of the tissue was bright red.  While her dedication to the exam was commendable, I quickly walked over to her and told her that she was free to leave the classroom (likely in a tone that implied that I strongly preferred that she do so).*  She returned a short time later and continued her exam with a tissue nearby.  When grading the exams I realized that there was, in fact, some blood on the exam.  Thankfully, there wasn’t a lot of it and it didn’t obscure any answers.  Regardless, I think that I prefer my exams to be bloody in the British sense.

*I don’t have any sort of “no leaving the classroom during an exam” policy, but I think that hiding a capsule of fake blood in a tissue, holding it to your nose, and breaking it would be an effective way around such a policy if a student had a friend with all of the answers waiting in the restroom.

Read Full Post »