title etiquette

I’m feeling awkward about names & titles today and thought I’d see what the scatterbrains think. In my department we train grad students to call us by first names, a custom I am very comfortable with, and I am part of a cultural group* in which children call adults by first names (although, of course, they call their teachers Mr/Ms X). When I was first teaching in the 1970s, I told my students to call me by my first name, but I stopped because the students would say things to me of the form “Hey Susie, can you tell me where Dr. X is?” All the men were Dr. X and I was the only first name. The disparity has died down, but you can still find formal documents like minutes of meetings in which women professors are referred to by first name and men professors by surnames. So I tend avoid telling undergrads what to call me and let them default to professor or doctor. As I get to know a student in a more personal way, I tend to encourage the switch to first name. Unfortunately, more and more young people have been raised like mine to assume first names, and I’ve heard that some orientation groups are actually telling incoming freshmen to call professors by first names. I realize this actually offends me. I’d rather offer the first name than have it assumed. Hmmm. Quite a bit of inconsistency there. I got caught off guard in the honors class the other day when a student asked me what he should call me, and I kind of mumbled and stumbled and ended up choosing professor. Although then I wondered later whether I should have picked first name, since this is a small class and I’ve invited students to my home for dinner.

So scatterbrains of various generations and cultural backgrounds: what do you think about all this name stuff? As you answer, it would be helpful to disclose your gender, approximate age and status as student or prof.

* I am very aware that people are reared differently on this point, that some parents rear their children to address all older people by title no matter what. That was actually how I was raised long ago – not allowed to call older people by first name, even if they suggested it, and I have met young people who are extremely uncomfortable using first names for older people. This is very much a class thing, I believe.

ask a scatterbrain: externals for tenure

External tenure letters are a vitally important part of the tenure process and therefore a source of anxiety for the applying faculty member. Many institutions give the applicant for tenure some role in constructing the list of people who are asked to write letters. If you are in a position to construct a list of people in your field, is it acceptable to send a note to ask them if they are willing to be on this list, or is that considered an unethical attempt to game the system? Or, as I suspect, is it officially considered unethical but in real life done regularly?


I’m impressed by the strategy of a blog called White Readers Meet Black Authors by Carleen Brice. The idea of the blog is given by its title, to encourage White readers to explore books (mostly fiction) written by Black writers, with an emphasis on what are sometimes called “mid list” writers, not the folks on the bestseller lists.  The problem the blog addresses is the segregation of books into sections of what are now called  “brick and mortar” book stores, an issue I hadn’t really thought much about until recently.* Any given book can be in only one section. It’s either romance or sci fi, but not both. People trying to sell books to publishers have to tell them what bookstore section to put them in: this is a major structural part of how the business works.

African American readers like to be able to find books by African Americans that feature African American characters. So having a special “African American” section helps to sell books to African Americans. But at the same time, having one’s book in the “African American” section hurts sales to Whites. So the site is trying for outreach, profiling books and authors who write in a variety of genres, including science fiction, adventure, mystery, fantasy, “chick lit,” romance. I’ve gotten brave myself and tried a few new authors, including Brice’s own Orange Mint and Honey, which I enjoyed quite a bit.

Sociologically, the only way to integrate is to cross boundaries. The usual assumption is that the role of Whites is to welcome minorities into “our” spaces. There’s lots of research that shows that most White people are uncomfortable moving into a space dominated by other groups. I’m just impressed by a strategy of friendly outreach trying to overcome that discomfort, and feel like it is an effort I want to support.

*On-line bookstores don’t have this constraint, and the significance of that is another issue.

the twenty page limit

In the comments to this post, somebody writes the following about the American Sociological Associations 20-page limit for conference papers:

Why have a page limit at all? … That would spare us the annual routine of stretching margins, squishing tables to the point of illegibility, and cutting huge chunks out of the reference section (a new trick I learned this year) in order to squeeze under this arbitrary limbo pole.

Sociology confession: Continue reading “the twenty page limit”

speaking of conference locations…

Consider this paragraph from a recent issue of the American Sociological Association’s newsletter:

[T]he Executive Office was directed to investigate western cities other than San Francisco for 2012 and 2016… At its meeting in February 2009, ASA Council reviewed site reports on Denver, Portland, San Diego, Seattle, and Vancouver. Denver was designated for 2012, and Seattle was chosen for 2016. Contracts with facilities in both cities have now been finalized.

Hmm, places in the West where you can have a big convention… San Francisco, Denver, Portland, San Diego, Seattle, Vancouver… and I suppose Los Angeles is out given how horribly the Anaheim conference is remembered… hmm… I guess there really aren’t any other Western cities with a lot of hotel rooms…

Oh, well, I mean, except for the city with the most hotel rooms and largest convention business in the country.

Can someone explain to me why ASA Vegas is never considered? SWS went there.

the strong program in the sociology of religion

The Immanent Frame has an interesting working paper by David Smilde and Matthew May on the state of the subfield of the sociology of religion. Highlights, quickly, are that there’s a lot of work on the sociology of religion; that most of it focuses on the US and on Christianity, and in particular on Protestants; and that the prevailing paradigm is a “strong program” treating religion as an independent variable predicting other outcomes. Studies that are funded are more likely — by a lot — to find that religion is “good” for people in some way, but the funding source (government vs. foundation, e.g.) is not a factor.

I am not a scholar of religion, though I am interested in the field, so approach this largely from the outside. While I find the independent-variable approach worthwhile, I do worry that religion as a dependent variable deserves lots more consideration too. This is both as a function of time (changes in religious matters over time) and in terms of understanding the origins and development of modalities of religious belief, thought, and practice. It’s too bad that, apparently, the “strong program” seems to have come at the expense of understanding the origins of variation in religiousness. (By the way, the “strong program” term comes from Jeffrey Alexander, who wishes it upon cultural sociology, except that in Alexander’s world culture doesn’t really cause or get caused — it just is, on its own, sui generis. The sociology of religion is to be commended for avoiding that trap.)

I wonder, too, if there’s an institutional explanation. Over the time period covered by the Smilde and May study, there’s been something of an explosion of data available for analysis on religion, particularly in the United States. Much of this data is cross-sectional, which encourages analysts to treat variables as fixed and causal (a.k.a. “independent”). To the extent that religion is a dependent variable, a temporal dimension is a virtual necessity, since one is looking for the etiology of an observed state (whether observed individually or societally).  Religion, like other social measures, is also treated in standardized ways, which again encourages analysts to think of it as relatively static.

I would love to see similar studies in other subfields as well. My guess is that over the same time period sociology in general became more causally oriented, used more secondary data analysis, and considered less the development of social states–thus I would imagine that the sociology of religion probably mirrors much of the rest of the discipline.

school is canceled!?!

I just received an email from Columbia telling me that school is canceled because of snow.* But only after 3. I teach in 10 minutes. Do I hold class for 50 minutes? I decided to “cancel” class — telling students they didn’t have to come (really) — but also teach it (as I’m here anyway, and will be away next week giving a talk**). Is that ridiculous of me? My time in the classroom is so short that I feel bad not being there. I wonder if the time will come that I simply won’t care.

* I think this is wise. Not for me or the students, who all live around here. But for the staff who do not, and who likely have to drive.

**If you’re in Philly, come! It’s Wednesday, noon, at Penn sociology.

ask a scatterbrain: fluff in recommendation letters

This one comes from a friend involved in the admissions process:

What to do about recommendation letters? What is the ratio of useful to fluff and distraction? How much is actual information versus hidden codes and coy signals? Today’s example is two letters from one senior professor, writing for two different students from the same department, applying to  the same department. One student is described as “by far the most  intelligent and diligent student I have ever taught.” The other is “no doubt  THE best student among all the students whom I have taught so far.” It’s  not fair to punish the poor students subjected to this, but it is tempting to disqualify both letters.

choo! choo!

The trainwreck is a-comin’. I got my first e-mail yesterday about how you can get hotel rooms very near the American Sociological Association conference hotels for at least $70/night cheaper than the conference price. Just to remind everyone, ASA’s underselling of its conference hotel agreement back in 2003–along with its decision not to pay a $43,600 penalty–is the primary reason that ASA is returning to Atlanta this year.

As far as I know, the location of ASA 2017 remains undetermined. I am going on record right now as saying if ASA 2017 (or, for that matter, 2018 or 2019) is in Atlanta, I will– well, I’m not sure what I will do, but something. Anyone else with me?

(Note: nothing against The South. In fact, I like The South so much that I believe it contains more than one city. ASA NOLA? ASA Dallas? ASA Memphis? ASA Havana? ASA Dollywood? Count me in!)

ask a scatterbrain: visit days

This question is particularly aimed at grad students: what kinds of things would you have liked to learn about grad programs before enrolling? I’m curious what kind of things are helpful at visit days. Obviously on our end it is a recruitment effort. But it is also important to match well with students. So, what’s helpful on visit days? Any things you wish you knew?

book proposal

I’ve been learning a lot about the book biz lately from avenues which I might write about some other time. But I’ve had an idea for how  academic publishers might improve revenues and increase the use of books in courses with e-book or print-on-demand abridged versions. Many of us assign parts of books to our students. The authors and publishers would prefer that we assign whole books, or enough of a book that we “require” purchase of the whole book. And sometimes we do. But the combined pressures of crowded syllabi and student concerns about textbook prices are counter-pressures. Continue reading “book proposal”