Monday, July 30, 2007

Status in Academia, or What is in a Calling?

I have a lot of friends who believe they have been called to ministry (specifically ministry in the Unitarian Universalist church). I have always liked the idea of a calling. In a world so full of choices, it seems comforting to feel so drawn to a particular profession that you just know is what you are supposed to devote your life to. Let's just say that when I started graduate school in sociology, I wanted to be a professor, but I don't think I would have ever used the word calling to describe that want.

However, I do believe that people are called to be professors (and I've grown to understand that I was called to be a professor, too). The trick is that to fulfill the professor job requirements, we are really asked to have a calling for two different professions with two different (and not always compatible) sets of skills.

Professors are expected to be excellent teachers (which is no small task) and excellent researchers (which, again, is no small task). The general public tends to think that a professor's main job is to teach, which has led many a discouraged graduate student to become quite frustrated when talking with his/her parents. However, within academia, a place where theoretically you're paid to teach the thousands of students who pay tuition, teaching is rarely supposed to be the main focus of our endeavors.* Instead, we are supposed to write, and procure, research grants that actually bring in a lot more money in total than the tuition of students.**

This system may shock those of you who believe, like I did until about my third year of graduate school, that the university system is a highly noble mecca of learning. It is a highly noble mecca of learning (sometimes), but teaching often takes a back seat to research interests.*** This problem is brilliantly discussed in the PBS Frontline film (and companion book) Declining by Degrees.****

This gets me back to sociology. I, like many sociologists, study inequality. As a discipline, we have done an excellent job of documenting inequality and trying to find solutions to ameliorate it, especially in the realm of status differences. However, we are also excellent (like many humans) of overlooking the "inconvenient truths" that we don't want to see.

Teaching in our society is undervalued. In traditional occupational prestige tests (please email me for citations - I just don't want to look them up right now), teachers score much lower than doctors, lawyers, and even professors. Despite the immensely important job of educating/socializing our children that they do, teachers are not given status commensurate with their tasks.

The same is true within many academic institutions (especially the big state schools that so many students get funneled into every year). Professors who spend time being excellent teachers are not given the prestige/status of those professors who spend time doing research. This seems easily explained with pure economic theory (at least in the eyes of the university). Research brings in more revenue, and revenue is good for the university.

I'm not advocating that we abolish research (it does help to pay the bills). However, I do think that more balance needs to be struck between the status accorded to teaching vs. research. And I also think that our values need to shift somewhat. Professors and graduate students are constantly complaining about the lack of quality in our students. I think it might behoove us to work a bit harder to stimulate intellectual excitement, instead of the alternative.

Lastly, to get back to the idea of a calling in academia...I'm not really sure whether there are a vast number of people who are ideally suited to both teach and do research (although there are definitely a good number of excellent teacher/researchers in sociology). However, I would urge those of us called to do research to remember that we are bright, capable people who can learn to teach well with some work. Similarly, those of us called to teach will be better teachers if we understand the messy process of research, and are up-to-date on the latest developments in the fields that we teach. Even the strongest calling requires perseverance to maintain.

*I am speaking specifically about research schools here, but even at smaller state schools and liberal arts colleges, research is an important component of the tenure process.

**Did you know for every grant that professors bring in, the university automatically gets 51% of the money? This is one reason why grants are written so large. And why the university takes notice when a professor brings down $1,000,000 in grant funds. Guess who will get tenure now?

***In our department, the faculty pretty much leave the graduate student teachers alone, unless we have very low course evaluations. At my most cynical, I imagine their attitude is that we should strive to be mediocre teachers (not too bad, or the students will complain; not too good, or our research will suffer).

****Incidentally, I believe that all people working in higher education should have to see this movie, but I'm not sure how to implement my evil plan.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Consequences of Adoption

I receive health tips in my email a couple times a week from These tips are usually quite helpful, and quick to read.

Today I received this tip about weight. In a nutshell, the tip encourages people to pull out old family photos and compare how their ancestors looked at the same age and their own current weight. I really like this idea - it's a nice baseline to have when contemplating our own weight.

But, this is another one of those health-related benefits that knowing about my birth family would give me.

I was adopted the day I was born, and I have no real desire to meet my birth mother. She's not my mother, and while I hold no contempt for her, I really just have nothing to say - we're not connected.

However, I would really like to know my genetic history. Fortunately, the technology now exists for me to get a full genetic profile of proclivities for certain diseases. Unfortunately, this knowledge might also limit my future elligibility for healthcare, so I will probably not utilize it any time soon.

If I ever go in search of my birth mother, it will be to find answers to health questions, nothing else.*

*My mother did tell me a few years ago that my birth mother gave up two babies prior to giving me up. I do have the curiosity to find them - it's a different case with them.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Sociological Props

The other day I heard a very interesting interview on Talk of the Nation with Eboo Patel, an American Indian Muslim. Patel has written Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation to discuss his thesis that if we want to stop not only terrorism, but violence perpetuated by gangs in our own streets, that we need to teach children peaceful ways of belonging, and most importantly, religious pluralism (just as groups like the Taliban an al-Qaeda spread messages of hatred, and religious extremism/domination among children).

Patel made a very reasoned argument. I was most impressed, though, by a particular point that he made. Patel said that to truly combat violence/terrorism, we don't need a psychological or political understanding of the problem. Rather, he says we need to take a sociological view of the phenomenon. Specifically, he argues that the problem of terrorism lies at the institutional level of analysis. Terrorist groups often target young children within their schools, and start teaching their message very early in the life course. Patel says that there is a lack of such institutions teaching our children religious pluralism and peace among religious groups. He advocates for the creation of more.

Patel must have paid attention in his sociology classes in college, and I am both impressed with his dedication to his cause (and his solution, which I agree with), and his use of the sociological imagination to find a solution to a real world problem.

I encourage you to listen to the interview and/or read the book. My description has only touched the surface of what this amazing man has to say.

Monday, July 16, 2007

8 Random Facts

Tom has tagged me with my very first blogging meme. I'm kind of excited about being noticed enough to be tagged with a meme, but that might be the same fleeting-type of excitement run into when first added to somebody's email forward list, only to rue the experience later. However, I do appreciate the gesture.

Here are 8 random facts about me:

1) I have played the piano since I was 5, and have sung in numerous choirs and a cappella groups since the 4th grade. Although these loves have not been pursued much since graduate school, I once dreamed of singing on Broadway when I was in high school.
2) I once drove Michael Stipe's red Volvo 240 station wagon (oxidizing paint and all) - for those who are curious, it smelled like the flower section of a craft store. And, for reasons listed in #3, I was significantly less nervous about driving Stipe's car than I might have been otherwise.
3) My family has always driven Volvos. I currently drive a Volvo 240 sedan, my mother drives a 240 station wagon, and my father drives a 740. I expect the trend to stop soon, since cars are now much safer than they once were (my father used to be an emergency physician, and had good reasons for keeping us in bullet-proof tanks).
4) After college, I drove across the country a couple times (in my Volvo). Once, I stayed in a "hostel" in Memphis. This hostel was actually one bedroom of a duplex, run by a man named Patch, a burly fellow with a long blond ponytail and (you guessed it), an eye patch. There is much more that could be said about that experience, but we'll leave it at this for now.
5) If stranded with only one meal selection for the rest of my life, the menu would read: steamed artichokes, crusty sourdough french bread, Fontina cheese, an excellent bottle of Chardonnay, and Swiss chocolates. Mmmm.....
6) I was just given the most amazing late anniversary present! - a planter box filled with potting soil, two types of flowers and a strawberry plant. I'm about to go out and plant the following: basil, oregano, rosemary, parsley, a jalapeno pepper plant, and tomatoes. We'll see if I can achieve 10% of the green thumb my mother has.
7) My hair is a mystery color. Sometimes it is classified as blonde, sometimes as brown, sometimes as red. I just think it changes with the lighting and my outfit. The sun also contributes from time to time - in the summer it's usually much blonder than usual.
8) If I could be anything I wanted to be right now, I'd go to work for National Geographic as a photographer.

That's it! I'm supposed to tag 8 people. I'll tag half that many, and leave it to the more established bloggers to tag more: TDEC, Beth, Slag, and Drek.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Sociology is Right in Our Own Back Yards

I have been fortunate to have a mother keen on showing her children the United States. During numerous family vacations, I have explored national parks from Yosemite to the Blue Ridge, travelled through corn fields in Nebraska and had ice cream from the Ben and Jerry's store in Vermont, and smelled the summer both in the hot, dry West, and the moist, warm South.

Given all this, it should come as no surprise that I'm pretty fond of my homeland. It probably also won't shock anybody that if I had my way, our national anthem would be focused more on the beauty of our great nation, rather than a bloody battle. My favorite patriotic song is "America the Beautiful," and the sentiments in the song are true to my experiences exploring this amazing country (scroll to the bottom of this page for a visual representation).

The 4th of July was yesterday. As the daughter of a former Quaker, and a liberal vehemently opposed to the War in Iraq, the 4th has been difficult for me the past few years. I love my country, but it is difficult for me to fall in with patriotic fervor when I hear that many of our young troops took the opportunity yesterday to reenlist - in fact, it makes me feel queasy. However, this post is not designed to be a rant against the current president and his posse. Instead, I'd like to talk about what does make America beautiful.

In travelling, and living, in different parts of the U.S., my parents gave me a gift. They helped me see, not with words, but through observation, the many ways that Americans are similar, despite differences in accents, social class,* race/ethnicity, religion, etc.

The truth is that we are all Americans. People in red states are just as friendly (and sometimes more so) than people in blue states. And as a sociologist, I know intellectually that there are similar processes underlying all of our behaviors. But it's deeper than that. We are all connected by kinship to this country. That same kinship causes young men and women to reenlist, while it causes me to go to peace marches and structure my classes in such a way that my students can learn the tools necessary to view societies objectively (at least this is my hope). It also causes me to want to know ever more about the world we live in, both geographically and sociologically.

It is too much to hope that all Americans will get to experience the richness of our country. Despite apathy on the part of some, there are real socioeconomic barriers to travelling around the country for many.

However, regardless of how much of our country we may all individually see, the 4th of July for me is in large part about remembering what makes us whole, and what makes us beautiful. Personally, the beauty of the people and places that are already within our borders is enough, and remembering such beauty causes me to feel quite patriotic.

*These two movies are actually quite interesting looks at the social implications of status characteristics. I highly recommend both of them.