the sweet spot

Northwestern sociology traditionally does consequential faculty deliberations like this: the person to the left of the chair is given the floor and says their piece, then the person to their left says theirs, and so on around their room, and only afterward is a more free-for-all discussion format used. I’ve only seen this system in action for a couple meetings, and I’m already smitten with it. It feels contemplative, orderly, and fair.

Still: I’ve become a teensy bit obsessed with the question of, given this system, what’s the best place to sit from a strategic standpoint–what’s the seat from which one can exercise the most influence on the ultimate decision that is made. There is a bunch of deliberating groups research that would suggest that, typically, you want to be the first to speak. However, consequential faculty deliberations are not the task for which these studies were done. Among other things, at least in collegial places, there is strong normative pressure to maximize the extent to which you sound like you deeply respect and see the reasoning of previously expressed opinions, even when actually you completely disagree with them.

I think, certainly, if you have an opinion that you think weakly conflicts with the consensus going into the meeting, you are best off going at the beginning and trying to get a domino effect going. If you are hoping to carry the day with an opinion that goes more strongly against consensus, I suspect maybe you should sit toward the end and try to rattle people with some kind of melodramatic or dire statement, although I’m skeptical of that working unless you’ve built up a lot of intradepartmental street cred.

For decisions where the consensus is unclear and could go any of various ways, my suspicion is that you want to sit somewhere between 2/5 and 3/5 of the way through the group: enough that you have a lot of input to work with, so you can fashion your opinion as consistent with general views but pointing toward your desired conclusion, but still not so late that people feel like the decision has already solidified by the time it is your turn.

Of course, a countermeasure to any such gaming of the system would be to wait until everyone is seated and then randomly choose a starting person (perhaps with a rousing round of “Spin the Treo”). My guess is that most faculty anywhere would be against doing that, because faculty members are professionals, and if there is anything being a professional does to your habitus, it is to convince you that you are insulated from the mundane social psychological dynamics that affect regular folks.

[something nice here]

A number of my classes in graduate school incorporated peer review. It was “practice” for when we were further entrenched in the big, bad world of academia and would have to write real reviews. Now that I am a full-fledged member of that world, and responsible for reviewing a variety of papers, I’m thinking that the “practice” wasn’t as helpful as I hoped it would be.

I used to write nasty reviews. We all did. We wanted to show the professors how smart we were and how other students’ work clearly wasn’t up to par. There were no hard feelings. That was what we though being a grad student was all about.

Well, now that I’ve actually read real reviews of my own work and listened to enough Q&As, I just can’t be as nasty as I once was. I make a conscious effort to pepper this “constructive criticism” with niceties. However, I haven’t yet figured out how to write it that way. Instead, I sit down like this morning and let the nastiness “constructive criticism” pour out of me and actually put inserts in the review text of [something nice here] so that I don’t lose my train of thought. That way, when it comes time to re-read the review and make sure it’s constructive before sending it out, I’m sure to slip a little niceness in there.

I’m working on this with questions, too. I envy those who have perfected the sandwich technique [strength] [criticism] [nicety]. I think I’ll start practicing it with my kid to get the hang of it. “I really like your coloring there. Your violet oak tree shows a creative use of the color purple. If I could just make one comment: Maybe you should work on staying between the lines. You might also reconsider the use of crayons. Markers may be a more effective tool in this case. This is quite interesting, though. Thank you for sharing it with me.”


“The name is the thing. It’s like trying to come up with a name for a band. I want it to suggest quirkiness without being precious.”
“Quirky – precious = us!”
“Nix on Pub Sociology II: Electric Boogaloo. Nix on Quirkass Sociology.”
“I think some of my students weren’t yet born in the days of Kickass Sociology.”
“I can’t even contemplate the birthyears of my students.”
“Can we nix sociology in the name altogether?”
“That would be my strong preference.”
“Also, no ‘blog’ or ‘weblog’ in the name this time.”
“I agree. I didn’t know you could call your weblog anything other than [name] weblog back when I started mine.”
“Old skool. People needed to know what they were reading back then. Now, it’s like when a women’s hockey team wants their name to play off the fact they are women: Chicks with Sticks!”
“Exactly! We are not Chicks with Sticks.”
“Except, Chicks with Sticks wouldn’t actually be a bad name.”
“I guess it’s not really right for us.”
“Not quite a fit.”
“If we were starting a band, I’d be totally into Chicks with Sticks. I could wear drag and stomp around stage menacing the audience with a cricket bat.”

my first post

In this, my first post, let me say two controversial things.

1.) An open note to sociologists: Dear Sociologists (particularly my fellow ethnographers) – Please stop writing the same book. The year was 1943, and with “Cornerville” we learn that downtrodden communities were not normless. They had social organization like everyone else. In many ways they were just like you and me Thank you Mr. Whyte. But now we get it. Why do we keep packing our bags for a trip we are never going to take? Do we really need another book telling us that the ghetto is socially organized like other social spaces? That poor people are just like you and me (only poor)?

2.) I now teach at a fancy school. And I’ve gotta say, there is a downside to having a very competitive admissions process (we accepted around 8-9% last year). And that downside is this: our students are boring. Or least mine are. They’ve all “bought in”. They are very hard working. They are very good at telling me what I’ve told them. This is all very nice. But they’re not interested in much other than what I want them to tell me on evaluations. I don’t want to say that they’re just a group of people who have “sold out” for a steep career trajectory. But they are. Yeah yeah, it’s not their fault. They’re just working within the structure of rewards set-up for them. And they all have to work like crazy to get in (even the privileged ones). Getting good grades, running the school paper, spoon feeding sick kittens.But the perverse effect of all this “total candidate” requirement is that students don’t develop interests, they learn to meet requirements. So I can’t really blame them for doing what they had to to get in. But there’s something sad about it.

Maybe competition breeds efficiency. I’m sure they’ll all be great at their jobs. They certainly are better students than I ever was. But I’ve never felt so like a meat grinder in my life: creating a uniform mass. So I say, away with competition! Or perhaps I am beginning to support Karabel’s idea that some percentage of each class should be made up of a randomly selected group of people who simply have to meet a minimum requirement (assuming that if you meet this requirement, you can perform reasonably well in the school – and given that we give out 50% A’s, anyone can do reasonably well!).

hamster, step off that wheel!

While Tina and I are not exactly sure what is going to happen with this blog, one thing we have mutually resolved at the outset is that we will not let any kind of aspiration for it compromise its spirit. And in this spirit, I offer as recommended reading: The Underachiever’s Manifesto, by Ray Bennett. (Bonus: As you might expect, it’s quite short.)

Some selected quotes:

“The pleasures of underachievement are many, but they are all too often lost in the pressure for success. (Or, SUCCESS!) The achievement lobby is powerful, and underachievement is, surprisingly, not as easy as it should be… Never mind that no one agrees on what it means to be ‘the best,’ and that it’s actually impossible for everyone to be it, whatever it is.”

“[T]he addiction of achievement leaves behind failed relationships, unhealthy bodies, corrupted minds, or some terrible combination of all three. It’s a sickness that would be considered an epidemic, but of course too many doctors are afflicted with the disease to recognize the symptoms.”

“If something is worth doing at all, sometimes it’s worth doing half-assed.” [This one is so much more obviously true than the more familiar “…it’s worth doing right.”]

“For every life potentially improved and extended by _modest_ exercise, there’s another that has been significantly impaired or shortened by the insane drive for intense physical activity.”

The book discusses the underachiever approach to work, finances, romance, and even religion. As someone who has a mixed set of attitudes about achiever-orientation, I found the book not just amusing but genuinely interesting, as it prompts one to consider what are the real arguments against doing something other than settling for comfortable mediocrity.