Abolition is in the public eye like never before. In five years, we’ve gone from “require body cameras and implicit bias training” to “defund the police.” Longtime abolitionist Mariame Kaba is in the New York Times: “Yes, we mean literally abolish the police.”
As a discipline that has had much to say about racism, policing, and incarceration, where do sociologists fit into this new picture, where abolition is not simply a fringe position, but one front-and-center in current debates?
In times of political turmoil, we often wish that there were more sociological perspectives in the popular media. This is especially true when issues of power and inequality are involved. One of the best ways for sociologists to make our voices heard is to write something ourselves, but writing for the public is different than writing for other scholars. How do you know if your contribution will be valuable? What makes a great op-ed? And how do you get it into the right hands? In this blog post, I detail my own process for deciding when and how to write for the popular media.
In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted a study on conformity to authority that is now infamous among social scientists. The study was relatively straightforward. Participants would be asked to administer shocks to another human who had performed poorly on a test. They were told that doing so could help the poor performer learn to do better. If a participant resisted administering the shocks, a member of the research team would insist that the participant continue for the good of the research. The shocks increased in intensity over the course of the study, reaching a level that could be lethal. In reality, there was no one receiving these shocks, but a paid actor would pretend to be hurt, leading the participant to believe that they had caused real harm to another real person. As a surprise to the researchers, over half of participants administered the final “lethal” shock. The findings from this study are commonly used to explain how genocides are perpetrated. Milgram and his team argued that ordinary people are willing to commit incomprehensible acts of violence so long as someone in authority assures them it is the right thing to do.
I first encountered the Milgram study as an undergrad in an introductory psychology class. By the time I graduated, I learned about the study in at least three other classes. Each time, the discussion was essentially the same. Our professor would insist that the findings from the study are important, but that the study is unethical due to the harm it caused participants. That harm was described as the emotional trauma of walking around with the knowledge that you could—and would—murder another person if someone asked you to do so. There are other ethical issues as well, including the deception used by the research team and how difficult it was for participants to withdraw their consent to be in the study, but they were also tied back to that main concern: the weight on the conscience of a participant who administered that “lethal” shock.
As a professor, I was prepared to have the same discussion with my students in Science, Power and Diversity as we discussed research ethics. But when it came time to do so, I had a different perspective on the Milgram study that comes from my own work with perpetrators of sexual violence—and how hard it is to research them.
Recently, I have seen a number of senior scholars asking for advice on Twitter about how best to give a constructive peer review to a graduate student whose work they find fundamentally flawed. It’s a good question and a particularly important one. (And, as a graduate student, one I feel particularly qualified to answer.) For many graduate students, peer review is the way we get our first exposure to the discipline beyond our own departments. Our experiences with peer review shape the way we see our broader field and our willingness to pursue careers within it.
Those first (and often, repeated) rejections also take a big toll on graduate students’ mental health. I have yet to meet a graduate student who didn’t ask themselves if they belonged in academia after receiving that first rejection letter. No matter how much academics try to normalize rejection as part of the process, graduate students’ impostor syndrome flares up and it can become really difficult to sit down and start writing again. If you’ve never had validation that your work is good, it can be hard to believe that you can produce something great.
It’s easy to recognize that senior scholars sending out long, tough reviews want to improve the scholarship before them, but you can’t improve the scholarship if you scare the scholar out of pursuing the project they submitted for your review—or out of academia altogether.
Facing my own particularly harsh rejection this week, I spent some time thinking about the reviews I have found the most helpful at this stage in my career—and those that were such a gut punch that I disregarded them altogether. I came up with a list of recommendations for reviewing articles you imagine have a graduate student as an author.
Currently, I’m one semester into what I anticipate will be two years of data collection for my qualitative dissertation. There is a lot of good advice I got in the first four years of my PhD to prepare me for this moment—memo often, get a writing partner or two, bring your questions and confusions to trusted colleagues (or Twitter), schedule regular massages to stave off repetitive stress injuries and chronic back pain. Still, there is one arena that I wasn’t fully prepared for and that’s just how much spending your days in interviews or participant observation can affect your relationships with the people you love most. I always knew that writing a dissertation could be an isolating experience, but I never understood that one reason why is that qualitative work is so unbelievably emotionally exhausting that you have nothing left to give your loved ones–even though you need them more than ever.
As I move into the new semester of data collection, I have reflected a good deal about how to do better at balancing being a researcher and being a fully-functioning and social human. On the top of the list is communicating more clearly with my friends, family, and partner about how dissertating can impact the relationships we’re trying to build and strategizing about how we can strengthen them anyway. Here’s what I intend to say:
Yesterday, I passed my publishable paper requirement. It’s a triumph and a milestone worth celebrating, particularly because I failed my first defense.
I was really, really surprised that I had failed. I had done everything students in my program were supposed to do to pass the publishable paper requirement. I developed the paper in my methods classes, brought the paper to a workshop, took a class on academic writing to edit it, presented it at a conference, and I received positive feedback every step of the way. A lot of that positive feedback came from members of my committee. Two members had even recommended an earlier draft for publication at the top journal in my subfield. Just before my defense, the chair of my committee had talked about how she expected the paper would pass easily, leaving time for my committee to discuss expectations for my dissertation. Walking into my defense, the requirement felt like a formality and an opportunity for some additional feedback before I sent the paper out to the next journal on its long road to finding the right home for academic publication.
It’s that application time of year again and my inbox is flooded with emails from prospective students asking for advice about how to apply. To benefit everyone who didn’t have the courage to hit send (which we know can be raced, classed, and gendered), I offer you the advice I give out the most regularly. Continue reading “tips on grad school applications”
As sociologists, many of us are deeply involved in work on politically-relevant issues in our professional lives, but we hesitate to bring them into our personal worlds. It can be daunting to confront your most stubborn relatives or involve the family members who still think you’re a psychologist. Still, there is a lot to be gained from engaging the people you care for the most on topics related to your version of sociology. Changing hearts and minds isn’t impossible and bringing more of your political academic ideologies to Facebook is one way to do that. To help you, I offer my guiding principles for political Facebook engagement.