asking the wrong questions about protest

Originally published in Race, Politics, Justice About protest as a complex multi-actor field.

We social movement scholars are in the news a lot these days. There have been massive protests since the election of Donald Trump. Reporters want to know: will the protests be effective? Do protests work or are they just ego-trips of protesters? How can protesters be sure they can win? These are the wrong questions because they presuppose that people can just make the right choices and gain victory.  Continue reading “asking the wrong questions about protest”

did bill clinton cause mass incarceration of black people?

Short answer: Bill Clinton’s policies contributed to maintaining and increasing mass incarceration, but they affected Whites more than Blacks. Edit to short answer: Over in my full post on my own blog, I added graphs of the federal system, where Black imprisonment did go up under Clinton more than White imprisonment did. Federal system is smaller than state systems, so the overall patterns are dominated by state systems. The full post also gives graphs for other races.

Graph state imprisonment by race
National rate of being in state prisons, by race, 1978-2007.

The vertical line at 1995 represents the first year Clinton’s crime bill could take effect. Black state imprisonment leveled off during the Clinton years while White imprisonment continued to rise steeply. The Black/White disparity declined in the Clinton years. The steep rise in the Black imprisonment rate occurred during the Reagan/Bush years and the drug war, which was at its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before Clinton took office.

Graph of Black/White disparity in state imprisonment
Black/White disparity in rate of being in state prisons 1978-2007


More details and data sources over at my academic blog Race, Politics, Justice.

everyday sexism

My local newspaper is one of many that did this. Notice “salutes wife’s achievement” is  and “former first lady.” Not former Senator, not former Secretary of State. I don’t agree with all of Clinton’s politics and understand that others disagree with more than I do, even enough not to vote for her, but you have a sack over your head if you don’t think there is sexism in this race. And, just to be clear, I learned from a friend that it was a woman night editor who made the editorial decision to run it this way, offering a lame excuse about what photos were available (as if you don’t have stock photos of the presumptive party nominee). And that editor provided no excuse for referring to her solely in terms of her relation to Bill. Gender bias isn’t just a male thing.
ClintonWSJ 2smaller

And, just to be clear, here is what they published at the comparable point for Trump. They used a stock photo. Continue reading “everyday sexism”

responding to attack

I was in the news briefly in the context of an attack our university by way of an attack on one reading assignment in one of our lecturer-taught classes. Our institutional strategy is to avoid adding energy to the attack by engaging it, instead to let it die from its own weakness, so I’m not going to link to the relevant news stories or provide identifying details, but I thought it would be instructive to give some background and reflections that are both potentially helpful to others at public institutions and of interest to the broader state of higher education.

I received an email as department chair from a talk show host about one reading assignment in a class, complaining about its “vulgar and racist language and obscene focus.” I initially wrote a long response that explained how one uses “edgy” material in teaching, explaining that sexual material is appropriate for adults, and that we still can express sensitivity and concern for student sensibilities without censoring ourselves. I referenced my own discomfort as an 18-year-old student when a lecturer discussed the sexual imagery in Thomas Mann. My initial response also included a snide remark about how students with real concerns usually raise them with the instructor or chair, not talk show hosts. I almost sent it, but then at the last minute realized that I’d better check my response with higher ups, given that the tone of the email sounded more political than actually offended. Continue reading “responding to attack”

community controlled police & building trust

I’m slowly edging out of the blog closet by linking my online personas and calling your attention to two of my essays on my academic blog Race, Politics, Justice. These include a review of an article by Madison activist M Adams and her collaborator Max Rameau advocating community controlled police and a more reflective essay about the problem of creating trust when structures promote distrust.

Anyone who has been working on this issue knows that the problems of police violence and racial disparities in policing are difficult to address because they are so deeply connected with fundamental structures of inequality. We also seek constantly to maintain our understanding of the good intentions of many actors in the system and the complex interactions that constrain everyone while also maintaining a critical perspective and willingness to work for improvement and justice.

commenting on someone else’s closely related work

A graduate student I know asked for advice and I don’t know the answer, so let’s see if any scatterplot readers do. How do you build good relations with someone whose work is closely related to yours without inadvertently over-influencing each other or encroaching on each others’ turf? The research involves reading archival sources and interpreting historical events, and the student has learned that a student at another university is working with overlapping archival materials and is addressing similar research questions employing similar frames for what was going on. The two projects are not identical in their full scope, but there is a point of definite overlap between them, on the order of, say, one chapter in a three chapter dissertation. Can they read and comment on each other’s work without risking loss of independence of discovery?  What boundaries should they set? I don’t do this kind of research, so I don’t have a lot of experience to work from. The student prefers to have a friendly “yay we are working on the same topic” relationship, not a competitive relationship, with the colleague. This is a pretty small research area where everybody knows everybody else in the area.

My own ideas: (1) full disclosure at the outset: each informing the other that there is some overlap; (2) cite each other’s draft papers in your own drafts as someone who is working on similar ideas. (3) in making comments on the other person’s paper, stay within the frame of what they have written, don’t “give away” your own paper ideas by way of comments. Instead, you can share your own working papers with them and have them cite them.

Question: is the person whose work is less far along at a disadvantage in this process? Should the person who has not written up a draft yet avoid reading the other person’s work until they have their own draft?

Are there other pitfalls I have not thought of?

participating while privileged

I’ve been asked to participate in a session at a conference for academics and activists that is supposed to help set the tone for how academics ought to behave when interacting with community people. It turns out that I am considered to be good at this. This is the kind of accolade that is very dangerous. The minute you think you know what you are doing and are confident of your ability to mix well across lines of culture and privilege, you will mess it up. It is like bragging about how humble you are.

Since I seem to have been anointed, at least temporarily, as having some expertise in this area, I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts, partly in preparation for the session. Continue reading “participating while privileged”

revolting reviewers

My essay “The Revolt of the Reviewers” [I think the link may be paywalled] has just been posted online at the American Sociologist. It is an invited followup to my scatterplot rant from 2013. I am surprised to see my article posted before the others in this special issue that is focused on journal publication issues and look forward to reading what others in the issue have to say. In my essay I gripe about sending papers to too many reviewers and a broken R&R process and then segue into thoughts on why we have more than one reviewer per article anyway (don’t we trust each other’s competence?) and discussions of the structure of publishing and its relation to the scholarly need to accumulate knowledge. A rather self-indulgent and cranky piece that rather befits an older scholar who has little to lose. But hopefully it contributes to useful discussions.

Update: here is a link to a preprint of the article.

religious observance policy limitations

My campus’s religious observance policy is pretty good, although vague around the edges. First, we are urged to avoid scheduling mandatory exercises on days when “significant numbers of student would be impacted.” In practice, this means try to avoid Passover, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana; the updated version of the policy also mentions Eid al-Adha although, candidly even avoidance of Jewish holidays for exams is hit or miss and there is very little public attend to Eid on this campus.

Second, and this is the part I want to both praise and comment on, we are to provide a non-punitive alternative for any student who says they have a religious conflict with a particular date. There are reasonable constraints on this: the student has to tell the instructor the relevant date(s) within the first two weeks of class (not the night before an exam), and there can be “reasonable limits” on the total number of days requested. The policy explicitly says that “students’ sincerely held religious beliefs shall be reasonably accommodated with respect to scheduling all examinations and other academic requirements” and that “A student’s claim of religious conflict, which may include travel time, should be accepted at face value” because “there is no practical, dignified, and legal means to assess the validity of individual claims.”  Pretty good.

So where are the problems? Continue reading “religious observance policy limitations”

you might want to read your school’s tenure policy

There has been a great deal of publicity about the change in the tenure policy at the University of Wisconsin. It is a big change, but what very few people have recognized is that the nature of the change is moving Wisconsin from the best tenure policy in the nation to a tenure policy that is comparable to or slightly better than most other public universities and substantially better than most private universities. All universities reserve the right to lay off tenured faculty in financial emergencies and nearly all reserve the right to lay off tenured faculty when they close departments for “programmatic reasons.” Typical language states that the university should try to find a position for the person in another unit for which they are qualified, but does not generally guarantee that such a position will be found. Public schools generally have more steps through which they must go before closing departments and laying off tenured faculty; private schools typically say deans can just do it if they want to. Typically you have to work hard to actually find your campus’s tenure policy but you might want to go look. We have one faculty member who flamboyantly resigned saying “tenure is dead,” but the actual tenure policy at the school that person is moving to looks very similar to the new policy at Wisconsin.

open letter to students of color

NOTE: I did not write this letter. I am posting it here as a model for what support looks like and because some people will find it helpful to have it in a place they can link to. For those of you not at Wisconsin, the context is that campus police entered an Afro-American Studies class and removed a student charged with putting up anti-racist spray-painted graffiti around campus, then took him downtown and filed criminal charges against him, thereby publicizing his name. This was in the context of a wave of hate and bias incidents on the campus; students in these cases faced campus misconduct charges, not criminal charges. Tony Robinson was a young biracial man shot last year by a police officer in a Madison neighborhood near campus.

18 April 2016

An Open Letter to the Students of Color of the University of Wisconsin-Madison

            From The Faculty and Staff of the Department of Afro-American Studies

The faculty and staff of the Department of Afro-American Studies is thinking about you and keeping you in our hearts at this time of extreme stress and tension.  Your anger is justified, your fear understandable.  The disruption of Professor Almiron’s class, and the arrest of your fellow student, King Shabazz, while important in itself, is only the most recent in a series of events that has been steadily escalating in recent months and weeks.  What so many of you are experiencing isn’t a sign of individual weakness.  It’s a version of post-traumatic stress syndrome, a mental health crisis as serious as those following campus shootings or natural disasters. We admire the way many of you are holding up but we understand what a strain this represents.

In recognition of that fact, we call on faculty across the campus to respond to the crisis in a spirit of care and generosity as we near the end of the semester.  Further, we ask the administration to affirm that call, as well as to offer public assurances that these events will not interfere with King’s plans to graduate at the end of the semester.  Further, we ask that emergency mental health support be made available to all students affected by recent events.

The most important part of our message to you is simple: do your best to keep your eyes on the prize, and know that we’re there to support you as you walk a difficult path.  We know you’re feeling torn between the demands of your studies and your desire to take an active role in responding to what’s happening.  Let some of the burden be shifted to our shoulders.  Continue reading “open letter to students of color”

graduate student associations

Although it has had a teaching assistant’s union since the 1970s, my department has just formed a Sociology Graduate Students Association in the past two years. They are interested in learning about the structure and functions of graduate student associations at other programs.Is there a sociology graduate student association on your campus? What does it do? How is it structured?

Our students would also like to identify graduate students at other institutions who could tell them about the how the graduate student association works in your department. I think this is especially so if you believe it works well. If you would be a good contact or can suggest one, drop a comment and I’ll email you for more information. I can see your email address if you comment.

guilt and entitlement

I teach an “ethnic studies” course so I’m always in interaction with students about how to think about legacies of the past as the impact the present. I had a new thought this year in responding to the standard white student comment that goes “my ancestors weren’t here when genocide/slavery happened, so why should I feel responsible/guilty?” I asked the students: so who is more entitled to possess land or privilege in the US today, whites who are descended from the white people who participated in the genocide [slavery] or the whites who are benefiting from that past even though their ancestors did not participate? The students had no easy answer (of course), but it did seem to me to move the conversation in a new direction. Because maybe the people who went to the trouble to have blood on their hands in some way are more entitled* than those who just reaped the benefits of White supremacy without paying its material and moral costs.

I also called their attention to the way in which White Americans typically view themselves as the spiritual/national descendants of the Pilgrims and as inheritors of the national [White] dream, even when, in fact, their ancestors arrived after 1880. If you are going to claim the Pilgrims, you have to claim the whole package of Manifest Destiny and the White nation, seems to me.

* Since you don’t know me, I’d better make it clear that I’m trying to push a conversation here. I’m not actually arguing that White supremacists ought to be entitled if they committed murder, I’m trying to challenge the idea that there is no moral weight to inheriting and benefiting from a system created by past crimes. And I’m not comparing Whites to indigenous people or Afro-descent people here, either, but different groups of Whites to each other.

tech support?

Jeremy used to maintain the look of this blog. Is there anybody with admin privileges who can figure out why the format went wonky and fix it? I think this involves knowing things about WordPress. If you know how to fix it but don’t have admin privileges, let me know and I can fix your permissions.

online student evaluations?

The topic here is online vs. paper evaluations of course by students. I’m a department chair. The staff person who handles our paper evaluations (mandatory for instructors to administer) says we’d save a lot of labor with online evaluations, agrees that the problem with online evaluations is low response rates, and asks whether this could be solved by not releasing a student’s grade until they have done the evaluation. What is the experience on other campuses? What are response rates to online evaluations? Are there any systems in place to require that students evaluate? NOTE: Students can turn in a blank evaluation form or refuse to fill it out, and the staff member proposes that the student’s right not to respond could be coupled with mandatory evaluation by having the first question be “I prefer not to answer” which would get credit for doing the evaluation. What are your campus’s policies?