adventures in writing for a larger audience

I’ve recently started writing for places that have larger audiences. Today a piece came out in Time, which will probably be part of something more regular (one a month) that I write on class, inequality, elites, and social science research. And earlier this summer I had an op-ed in the NY Times. It’s been a really interesting experience. Particularly because the editors at these places have a really strong hand in what you end up writing. I’m still very much an amateur at this stuff, so no big lessons yet, but a few things I’ve learned in the process: (1) your point has to be super straightforward. Being subtle, or, caveats, or, embedding your point within a larger argument isn’t really possible. So, for the Time piece part of what I was hoping to write about is “holding elite’s feet to the fire”: basically, that when elites felt constrained to pay taxes, they are likely to affirm their belief in such practices; but when they feel wiggle room to undermine this, they do. You can’t get that in 500 words. Especially if you’re trying to tell a story with some evidence that will appeal to people. So (2) this kind of writing is very different from academic work. Basically, with academic work you try to have a scientific attitude where you critically and skeptically evaluate your own argument. So if I look at the structure of my own book, in most cases when I make a claim the next section seeks to undermine that claim (or critically evaluate it). This isn’t what I’ve ended up doing in either of the pieces. You basically put your head down and bullishly make your argument. It can be kinda hard to do as someone who has been trained not to write like this. But still, it’s a good experience. (3) You have to deal with a huge worry of “what will my colleagues think of this?” Especially because of the second issue, no one will be terribly impressed by what you’ve written. And so it requires a little segmentation in your mind. “This is for a general audience.” (4) There is a certain degree of responsibility to your discipline when writing these things, because they’re not super common (we’re not political science or economics). And that can be heavy, and runs against the third concern. And finally (5) everyone has this line that writing these kinds of things is bad for your career — that you should be an academic first. I don’t have tenure so I can’t quite say what the ultimate effect will be. But so far, I have had no experiences that would support this view. People seem generally glad to see a little sociology in the more popular press.

topical humor?

Sent to me by my old advisor, I got a kick out of this… Happy job market!

One day while walking downtown, a well-known sociologist was hit by a bus and was tragically killed.  Her soul arrived up in heaven where she was met at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter (a social construction) himself.

“Welcome to Heaven,” said St. Peter.  “Before you get settled in, though, it seems we have a problem.  You see, strangely enough, we’ve never once had a sociologist make it this far and we’re not really sure what to do with you.” Continue reading “topical humor?”

putting my class online

So… I’m thinking of putting my Intro class online this year. Two questions: 

1.) Any resources I should look into for doing this? Things you’d recommend and/or avoid? 

2.) Any words of wisdom to push me over the edge one way or the other? Is this the greatest thing I’ll ever do, or the worst? Likely in between, of course. But experiential lessons would be most appreciated. 


ode to my father

I’m off to see my brother in London on Monday. He’s recently become a father. And it’s gotten me thinking about my own dad. He’s a pretty astonishing guy. At least to me.

My dad was born in rural Pakistan. He was born in a village, Futoke, in the Punjab region of Pakistan. You won’t find it on a map. It might have 500 people in it. Probably more like 250. I don’t know. Pretty much all of them are relatives of some kind. He was born in 1946, just before Partition (August 15, 1947). He is a child of Empire. Of course, this meant a lot and a little for his own life. His village had no running water or electricity until I was a kid (I remember when they put in “bathrooms” and got electricity). The most exciting effect of the empire on his family was that his father left back in 1957 as part of the Pakistani delegation for the Queens coronation. He was there to take care of and clean up after the horses that the military officers rode on. During that period, my grandmother had a break from having children.  Continue reading “ode to my father”

verifying results

Lisa Wade recently made me aware that a group of psychologists have decided to try and verify the results of every article written in three journals in 2008. I think this is a great idea. And the likelihood that the results can be replicated look pretty unlikely. As the Chronicle piece I’ve linked to points out,

Recently, a scientist named C. Glenn Begley attempted to replicate 53 cancer studies he deemed landmark publications. He could only replicate six. Six! Last December I interviewed Christopher Chabris about his paper titled “Most Reported Genetic Associations with General Intelligence Are Probably False Positives.” Most!”

If only 6 out of 53 cancer studies can be replicated, I shudder what to think what the social science data will say (in part because there is so much more noise in a lot of our research design).  Continue reading “verifying results”