In the leadup to the anniversary of last year’s January 6 insurrection, a couple of Tweets combine into some interesting questions about the relationship between support for democracy in theory; support for extant institutions of “democratic” governance; and frank policy failures. How should scholars support democracy and to what extent?Continue reading “defending democracy: institutions and principles”
Last week was my last week at UNC.
I never thought I would leave; I’ve loved my 20 years on the UNC faculty. I was hugely fortunate to be hired at UNC directly out of graduate school, and I’ve stayed since. I’ve had fantastic students (undergraduate and graduate), amazing colleagues, and great opportunities to learn and grow. Despite the seemingly never-ending string of crises UNC keeps facing, particularly since some big changes around 2010 (more on that below), it’s a wonderful, truly mission-driven, important place, and I’m proud to have been part of it.Continue reading “on leaving unc”
As I’m sure everyone knows, after an ambitious plan to open the campus for in-person instruction one week earlier than normal, we at UNC-Chapel Hill had to reverse course only a little more than week in, moving nearly all classes online and sending most students home. This post is my attempt to draw lessons from this very demoralizing experience.Continue reading “which lessons learned?”
This is a guest post by Jose Itzigsohn, written in response to my prior post .
Erin McDonnell organized a wonderful panel on Rethinking Sociological Theory and Andrew Perrin published in Scatterplot a thoughtful response to the panel that included a critique of my arguments. I asked Prof. Perrin whether Scatterplot would publish my response and he readily agreed. I thank him and welcome the opportunity to elaborate on the call to decolonize sociological theory.
Yesterday’s panel on teaching classical social theory was fantastic. Erin McDonnell did a great job organizing and facilitating, and the four panelists — Greta Krippner, Jose Itzigsohn, Zine Magubane, and Jocelyn Viterna — offered really thoughtful, measured, and inspiring ideas. The session was remarkably well-attended, particularly for summer: I think around 100 people showed up. Awesome!
I want to raise a few thoughts about what I hope will be ongoing discussions and reforms in this vein.
What is transmitted in higher learning?… Limiting ourselves to a narrowly functionalist point of view, an organized stock of established knowledge is the essential thing that is transmitted. The application of new technologies to this stock may have a considerable impact on the medium of communication. It does not seem absolutely necessary that the medium be a lecture delivered in person by a teacher in front of silent students, with questions reserved for sections or “practical work” sessions run by an assistant. To the extent that learning is translatable into computer language and the traditional teacher is replaceable by memory banks, didactics can be entrusted to machines linking traditional memory banks (libraries, etc.) and computer data banks to intelligent terminals placed at the students’ disposal. Pedagogy would not necessarily suffer. The students would still have to be taught something: not contents, but how to use the terminals.
I wrote a letter to the NY Times in response to Richard Arum and Mitchell Stevens’ “What is a College Education in the Time of Coronavirus?“. Unsurprisingly, the letter was not published, so I offer it here as a conversation-starter on lessons we should and shouldn’t learn from higher education’s current situation.
From 2016-2019 I had two positions that have taught me a lot about academic leadership and organizations. I led the process of redeveloping UNC’s General Education curriculum, “IDEAs in Action,” which was approved in April 2019; and I sat on the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) elected Council. These two blog posts are intended to explain some of the things I’ve learned from both of these experiences.
This post will deal with what I’ve learned from three years serving on the ASA council. The previous post dealt with my role leading UNC’s general education curriculum redesign.
From 2016-2019 I had two positions that have taught me a lot about academic leadership and organizations. I led the process of redeveloping UNC’s General Education curriculum, “IDEAs in Action,” which was approved in April 2019; and I sat on the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) elected Council. These two blog posts are intended to explain some of the things I’ve learned from both of these experiences .
This first post will deal with what I’ve learned from three years chairing the curriculum redesign process.
The current conventional wisdom, expressed for example in this NYT Upshot piece, as well as by Bret Stephens on MSNBC yesterday (June 5) is that the vocal “left” of the Democratic party has lost touch with the authentic base of the party, and therefore risks re-electing Trump by veering too far left.
I believe this analysis suffers from a theoretical mistake that enables its pundit providers to ignore certain empirical evidence while trumpeting other such evidence. Here’s why.
Alongside the well-publicized scandal of super-rich parents covertly buying their kids entry into super-elite colleges (as distinguished from super-rich parents overtly buying entry through donations, and just-pretty-rich parents doing so through opportunity hoarding), I am interested in two more general patterns in selective-college admissions these days:
- The incredibly low admissions percentages at elite colleges (public and private), publicized and often understood as indicators of college quality; and
- Many colleges closing for lack of financial resources, and many others below capacity (in these cases generally, though not entirely, less-selective institutions)
Finally, meanwhile, the “oversupply” of Ph.D.s, particularly in the humanities and some social sciences, is well-documented and anxiety-producing.
This post comes out of my work chairing UNC’s General Education Curriculum Revision effort. I’m posting it here on Scatterplot instead of on the Curriculum site because it represents my own view, not a formal statement from the committee.
Unusual among our public-flagship peers, Carolina requires all undergraduate students to enroll first in the College of Arts & Sciences, even if they ultimately major in one of the professional schools. This reflects a core commitment to the liberal arts as the foundation for all undergraduate education at Carolina. Implicit in this organization is the claim that broad, serious education in the liberal arts is the best way to prepare students for future study as well as for leadership, citizenship, and professional life.
This post is a longer-form discussion following this Twitter thread. The thread began with Steve Vaisey expressing interest in how gender scholars would respond to this article, which apparently shows that women in more-gender-egalitarian societies have personality profiles more different from men than do women in less-gender-egalitarian societies. It then presents evolutionary psychology as one way that people might interpret that finding, implying that gender-based personality differences might be “natural,” not socially constructed, since they are more different when society “gets in the way” less, i.e., when society is freer.
I have still not read the article, but only the abstract, so my comments are about the discussion that followed, not about the quality or interpretation within the study.
I heard Ken Stern on Morning Joe this morning, discussing his new book, Republican Like Me. This is not a carefully thought out response, but a quick thought and a question:
First, the title, which is an obvious paean to Griffin’s classic Black Like Me, serves at once to show the author’s earnestness and to imply that Republican-ness is like Black-ness: assumed to be unchanging, inborn, and genuine.
Second, the question. This is but the latest in probably at least a half-dozen books seeking earnestly to explain (often in crudely anthropological terms) the virtues of the right to liberals. Stern, in particular, references social division and “bubbles” as problems the book is intended to ameliorate. Are there any examples of the converse genre (books earnestly explaining the virtues of the left to conservatives)? If not, why not? And if not, doesn’t the apparent demand for this genre actually imply that the social division is uneven, with one side more interested in transcending the division than the other is?
David Brooks, liberals’ favorite conservative, came out with an(other) entirely Brooksian column today, this one riffing on Richard Reeves’s important, if flawed, book, Dream Hoarders. Reeves essentially argues that there are lots of structural barriers to the bottom 80% of the US income ladder moving into the top 20%, and that we should therefore pay less attention to the 99%/1% division than to the 80%/20% division. (A better version of a similar argument is in Chris Hayes’ fantastic book, The Twilight of the Elites.)
Brooks, though, knows better than all those zoning laws, rigged college admissions, and so on. Really:
I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.
Okay, well, not to get too academic about it, but what’s your evidence for rejecting the main thesis of the book in favor of, well, every Brooks column of the past umpteen years?
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”
Most of my Twitter sphere has pilloried this (correctly, I think) as mistaking the cause for the expression (or, at most, mechanism) of class-based exclusion. But then there’s a backlash (e.g., here), claiming insensitivity; that cultural capital is “real,” and that those making fun of Brooks are just showing that he’s right.
But here’s the thing. Brooks’ claim isn’t just that cultural capital exists, or that it is one of the ways inequality is expressed. He specifically claims that cultural capital causes the persistent inequality between the 20% and the 80%. That’s utterly implausible, if for no other reason than that learning the names of sandwiches is free (unlike expensive housing and college prep tutors). I believe that people with working-class backgrounds feel uncomfortable in the face of massified sophistication. That doesn’t mean the discomfort causes the inequality.
Other points on the column:
- It’s not plausible that the sandwich names are “completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class.” Most people, regardless of class background, are able to learn new terms for things (tweet, iPhone, MAGA, e.g.).
- Because of that, cultural capital is particularly susceptible to “inflation” — today’s highbrow signifier is tomorrow’s Beanie Baby.
- To wit, those fancy Italian names are kind of passe at this point–at least in my area, it’s stylized working-class food that signifies upper-class hip. Places like Merritt’s Grill and the Saxapahaw General Store.
- Food is a signifier, yes. It’s also an art form. Like other art forms, its function as signifier can’t be separated from its function as art. That’s the genius of Bourdieu (can’t believe I used those two words in the same sentence). But the way food-as-art is discussed leaves it more open to crudely anti-intellectual/anti-intraceptive positions than other forms of art would be. Could we imagine Brooks claiming that the chief message of Monet is “You are not welcome here?” Of Beethoven, or Hamilton? I’m not saying that whatever second-rate overpriced sandwich shop he went to is the Emperor’s Concerto, but there’s no particular virtue in bad tex-mex any more than in Muzak due to their similar accessibility.
Bottom line: culture matters, and cultural exclusion is real. But structure matters more in reinforcing inequality. If you want a much more serious take on how culture and comparison play in inequality, I’d recommend my colleague Keith Payne’s new book, The Broken Ladder.