Practicing what I teach

I’m recently back from an academic conference. The Urban Affairs Association is my very favorite conference: it is interdisciplinary, attracts academics and practitioners, and there are always more interesting sessions to attend than there are hours in the day.

I go to listen, I go to learn, I go to share what I’ve been learning in my own research. I invariably spend part of the conference trying to sort out my feelings of resentment (?) about being surrounded by people touting all of the amazing community-engaged research they and their students accomplish — all at R-1 institutions, with tiny little teaching loads, graduate assistants, and institutional mechanisms in place to support community-engaged research. *I don’t want to be there! Not for a million bucks! But I do want to do that.*

One session I attended was a panel of community organization leaders, discussing their new collaboration. The panel was moderated by a faculty at a Miami University who introduced himself by saying “most of my research is action research alongside community partners.”

“most of my research is action research alongside community partners.”

This is what I want to be able to say when I introduce myself in 5 years time, at the same conference. Enough messing around, doing the kind of research other people *think* I should do. This is what I feel (literally) called to do. Now I just need to learn how to do it, how to bring my students in to this quest, and how to build institutional infrastructure to support this work.

Social change, not service. Action research alongside community partners.

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Welfare, Individualizing – locating the structural analysis

This is what I had to tell my upper level social welfare class today: Folks,

I’ve been thinking a lot about some things that are troubling me in our discussions lately. I’m trying to figure out (a) exactly how to explain what is worrying me, (b) why we have gotten here, and (c) how to try to convince you that this is a problem. Let me give it a try here – and feel free to sound off in the comments. These are just my IDEAS.

(1) As you have heard me mention, almost every day for the past 3 weeks, I am concerned that we are INDIVIDUALIZING our understandings of social welfare, need, and social workers. We are spending a lot of time saying things like “well, it all depends on the case worker” or “it is different for every family,” etc. Be wary. If this is true, if we cannot come up with some generalized or systematic or patterned understandings of need, of problems, of social welfare programs – then there is NO POINT in either research OR policy. No point. We need to have more generalized conclusions about what = need, harm, appropriate action, effective social work, etc. Otherwise – there are no policies, no practices, no employee evaluations, no research to evaluate the effectiveness of policy, etc. When we devolve down to individual variation we not only argue against sociology, but, really, against every social science.

(2) When we individualize like this, we end up focusing on BLAME. Who is a better case worker? Which kind of parent is worse? That doesn’t do us too much good either. Watkins-Hayes’ point WAS NOT that efficiency engineers were worse, or were wrong in their understandings of the social work profession. They simply applied for and occupied a different job: one that was actively created by their institution. Social workers are not necessarily doing right or wrong when they remove kids from homes; they are using institutionally shaped understandings of appropriate family life and child care characteristics in order to perform an important job task. What is perhaps MOST interesting to think about is these institutionally-shaped understandings – not the individual implementation of them.

(3) My goal for you in this class is to examine critically the social forces that have shaped these policies. If you stay at the level of individual family/case worker, you are going to get intellectual whiplash in the last two weeks when I FORCE you back to structural thinking, as we explore neoliberalism and charity. And I will not let you dwell at the level of the individual, or of platitudes, when we do this work!!

(4) Why am I being so adamant? The rest of American society WANTS you to think about the individual, and only the individual. The individual who is at fault for being poor, the individual who chooses to do good works – or not – in their voluntarism. Sociology (and related disciplines, we don’t corner the market) is a place to challenge that. To say that the individual MATTERS, sure, but in the context of social forces that shape our choices and interactions. Please keep challenging yourself to push past the easier answers, engage what we have to offer here.

Keep on pushing, thinking critically, and engaging in class. BIG thanks.

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Battlestar Gallactica and Community

Why the BSG finale pissed me off.

And I was going to say – disappointed me – which is true. But I’m actually pissed off about it. Just the last hour.

Here’s why:
*It’s not the (in my view) cheaping out in terms of resolving stuff for characters – I didn’t need that much resolution.

It’s because this show was so great because it was (in my view) about how we – individuals and communities – deal with ourselves in both mundane and extreme situations. These folks are put in this incredible, anomic (sorry, I like sociology) situation. They then have to navigate things like: how do we organize ourselves? How do we decide what is right (like airlocking, torture, inter-special relationships, forgiveness)? What is wrong (abortion, airlocking, torture, etc.)? How do we come to terms with what we and “the other” have done to ourselves, our society, etc.?

To me, this show was never REALLY about technology.

So then we come to a finale, where the “resolution” comes about through:
-un-grounded anti-urbanism. (Lee: let’s not build a city, let’s instead spread people out and start over from scratch). Really? Was urbanism the problem we’ve been wrestling with all this time? So what we need to do, then, is destroy the remaining bonds of community and commonality we may have forged over the past 4 years? Because rugged individualism is ACTUALLY superior to any form of community?

-a bizarre sense of how a return to a pastoral society would prevent any new social ills, and heal wounds of existing ones. Let’s all return to hunting and gathering, because the mode of production is the only problem humanity has faced. That makes me sound insufficiently Marxist perhaps (and I don’t want to be insufficiently Marxist) – but I CANNOT believe that after grappling with these bigger questions, the solution is in turning back the hands of time.

THEN the bizarro future vision (with Chip!Six and Chip!Baltar) indicating that trouble looms, because these blasted human/cylon folks have had the audacity to regroup and industrialize, form cities and think about robots. So that DANGER then is painted as inevitable human progress leads to inevitable disaster; OR the danger is averted because of our BLOOD. Not because of our decisions, but because we’re now half human half Cylon? Either explanation is distasteful to me.

I feel burned.

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Schooling and Fairness

Today. Schooling. Other stuff.

For the past 4 years I have been teaching a sociology of education course, and a cross-cultural education course. I think a *lot* about schooling and inequality; and the processes that maintain educational and social inequality.


Today was actually a pretty intense, emotional day. I helped interview applicants for the high school I went to. They had 256 applicants for 50 spots. (Is a public high school, a magnet) It’s a gifted/talented school, but not solely for “identified” gifted kids, also a high priority for economically disadvantaged students. It was a really great experience for me 25 years ago – and has been for many others over the years.


So we’ve got student after student who, when asked what they would change about their middle school, say things about wishing their weren’t so many fights in their school, or that theother  kids actually cared about learning, etc. That there was less noise so they could hear and concentrate and learn.


There were also amazingly bright kids, in a variety of ways, who bubbled over with enthusiasm when they got to talk about the area that they think is most awesome (computers or art or math or music) —– but what I can’t get out of my head are the students who I am afraid for: the ones who seem committed to learning, to education, but who express a real sense that this committment is going to be squashed at the schools where they are. And I want to understand how and why this is.


One kid, in describing both his middle school and the high school where he now is for 9th grade, talked about worrying every time you leave your classroom – what’s going to happen? And the fights and the hassles. And I think: not much has changed since I went to that same middle school. But I got through it – I got out. I skipped 8th grade to go this high school, and was in an environment where it was fine to be smart and to work – because we were all the nerds. And if that hadn’t worked out for me, my family would have had the resources to make *something* else happen for me. I wasn’t going to be squashed by that school environment.


So I’m filled with this renewed love for my high school. Had a long talk with a young woman who graduated from it 3 years ago who seems to have embraced both a love of learning and a commitment to service that makes me sure the place is still doing something right. But I’m also filled with real, on-the-ground, not pie-in-the ivory-tower concern about these other kids —- the 200 who won’t get in. Some will find other good, nurturing places. What will happen to the rest?


I want to make a clear connection between these micro stories and micro processes and the BIGGER political issues right now swirling around our public schools. And those connections are there, believe me. But what is deeply in my heart right now is a worry and a sadness. Again, I met amazing kids today – it was not all glum BY ANY MEANS, but I just kept thinking, as the young woman I worked with said, what will happen to the kids that get the no? Why can’t we make school a safe, nurturing, non-scary place? For all of our kids?

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Gendering children, birthday parties, costumes

 I just had an amazingly traumatic experience, at a 4 yr olds’ birthday party.

The kids were great – although mine was tired & cranky and a little ill-behaved.

No, my problem was with adults involved – not even all of those.

It was a princess theme – it was never gonna be my bag. But the way it was enacted  was that two princesses (Cinderella and Rapunzel, if you must know) came to the party. First they sang every DisneyTM song in the book, while insisting all children present hold hangs and sing along. (See an embedded assumption already?) When trying to decide which of the songs from Tangled TM to sing first, Rapunzel asked if the 4 yr old bday girl wanted the “romantic one” or the “fun one” first. The question was never answered because, see, your average 4 yr old isn’t tuned in to “romantic” as useful organizing concept.

Round about this time – Simon tuned out. As did a couple of the girls, one of whom was repeatedly told by her grandmother to go sit with the girls (in the circle, observing entertainers) rather than play with Simon. She refused.

Then they moved on to face painting – HERE Simon was happy. He was shown the page of “boys designs” from which he happily chose Spiderman.

By this point, I’m feeling vaguely nauseous about the whole thing, but ok, tolerable.

Then after getting his AWESOME spidey face on, he goes to the other side of the table, where my friend Rapunzel is painting fingernails. He asks for paint, she freezes. I tell her it’s ok, she says – AND I QUOTE – “I don’t paint boys nails.” I don’t know how to explain just how terrible this is, to me. I didn’t argue – I didn’t make a fuss, it’s not the fault of the kid whose party it is – so I didn’t want to muss uip her bday party.

When I think about it, I cry. Each time.

Costumes, dress up is supposed to be about imagination, about dreams, about trying on different personalities and experiences and for god’s sake having pretend adventures.

Yet it is SO THREATENING to SOMETHING that a little boy wants nail polish that was just can’t do it. HE doesn’t get to pretend wildly if it coincides too closely with training girls on how to be appropriately beautiful and fancy.  Nor does he get to wear his leotard to gymnastics without us worrying how he will be received, because only girls where those kinds of costumes.

And it’s not just him. I’ve seen Zoey experience the other end of this too. I’ve watched them both go, at the age of 3-4 from wanted to be frogs or dinosaurs when they grow up to expressing the desire to be only gender appropriate things – race car drivers and princesses. Hey, both are fine (except I think a princess needs a job too, or at least a good strong hobby) – but it is no coincidence that their preschool – probably all preschools – produce these aspirations.

And I KNOW that the key thing is that both our kids are happy, and healthy, and believe they can be whatever they want to be. This is the mantra Andy and I have been chanting to each other for years now.

But I think the little stuff DOES matter, too.

But I am sick. Literally sick about this. I am disgusted both with our society, writ large, and with our daily actions that contribute to making society writ large such a monstrouslygender-constricting thing.

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4 years ago, about violence and non-violence in children’s play

I’ve been thinking about this A LOT, and I want to write about it —- and I *welcome* thoughts, suggestions, etc. But, at the outset, I want to say how much I *don’t* want to be heaped with biological determinist thinking about boys and violence, ok?

Simon just asked me on the way home from the gym, again, why I don’t want him to play “killing games.” This question, and my increasingly freaked out demands, have been a recurring topic in our house over the past year. (He’s now 4).


I come from a place of non-violence (well, non-violence against people; I don’t have so many problems with violence against things – another story for another time). But it is a hypocritical place, and my specific location on some sort of non-violent/violent tolerating continuum moves a lot. LATELY, I can’t stomach the mysteries I’ve been devouring for 15 years, or the action movies I’ve enjoyed for so long.


I have had a visceral reaction against hearing my kids playing hitting/kicking/punching/shooting games, for as long as my kids have tried playing these games. First I tried to speak out against this – then thought that was a losing battle, and that I know people who haven’t taken such a stand and their kids haven’t turned out psychotic…especially. So I adopted a more non-interventionist policy —– and in this environment, Simon’s obsession with guns, with violence, with killing TOOK OFF. Also, his violent play with ACTUAL people – like Zoey, Andy (not me – they know Mommy don’t play that), and even the cats – escalated.

So I instituted a moratorium on “killing play.” I’ve tried to substitute instead other kinds of superhero-type adventures that can be about stopping bad guys and evil plots, but not about killing.


But he keeps asking. And he keeps trying to ask my why I like “Princess Bride” if I don’t like killing. And it is hard to present as internally consistent. I’m finding it hard to move past: sad, hurtful, forever. I’ve tried to suggest that the world is such a full, interesting, wonderful place – how unfortunate to only focus on this one aspect – no dice.


Finally, this:

(a) I think it is VERY possible I am making a mountain out of a molehill; but it feels important.

(b) This also feels to me very much part of the gendering process he’s undergoing – esp at his preschool. HEAR ME: gendering process, not “all boys are born to be violent.”

(c) I dunno. I think Andy and I are doing a pretty good job at opening our kids minds to things – to trying to get them to be open to many things, see multiple perspectives, etc. But on this one thing, which is more, perhaps, about closing off an avenue – I feel a little helpless.

(d) He’s a good kid – don’t be scared of him (hee). Violent play took a real nose-dive after moratorium.


It’s going to be ok, it’s going to be ok, it’s going to be ok.

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Opposition to ratfarming – yes! That’s better!

I’m still working my way through the readings for DOOO this week. I start feeling overwhelmed – the kind of overwhelmed that comes mid-semester, when the grading keeps creeping in, and the conference is 2.5 weeks away (and involves a paper on data I’ve not yet had time to analyze…), and I have somehow agreed to also overextend myself on the child-rearing front.

And I read the first piece, and wonder if I now have to re-jigger how I think about research. How will networked, open, digital shape how I view my local, qualitative, often applied research? Is this a bus I must get on? Not sure, read on.

And then, bless her, Kate Bowles describes my experience – the experience of many academics – to a T. The scrambling to keep up, the push to work on no matter what, out of fear of what will await us if we don’t. The personal failure and shame that is part and parcel of what we do, and how a reputation economy is developed. Further, she discusses WHY blogging has been good for her – how it can be about ideas, about self-expression, not about promoting her brand:

“These not-work practices now need protecting against the seductive but ultimately quite sleazy pull of the attention economy.”

This grabbed me. I think the talk of PLCs and of owning your reputation on-line and all that – important, surely, but felt so oriented towards figuring out how to “amplify my signal.”  I enjoy the thought of a space in which I can reflect and think and post and share – and people who are interested can explore, and see the work I’ve done, and maybe that can provoke some conversations. I’m increasingly excited about the possibilities of some innovative pedagogical tools. But I emphatically do not want more ways to feel that I am participating in this greedy “attention economy.”

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I can see the future…not sure how to get there

The readings we’ve been engaging with about developing personal learning communities or environments (I prefer communities, because I would…) have been encouraging, exciting, motivating – and overwhelming. Just a tad. I understand the idea that we should be intentional and thoughtful about who we make the time to follow/read – absolutely. And that we should not just be takers/free-riders, but should also be actively contributing towards the vibrant intellectual (and political and social) communities we are taking part in.


I’m just thinking through how to use twitter (no need to read all tweets, pick up at a particular time, and move forward; follow lots of different interesting people, so you can find some golden nuggets in the 140 characters; and the organizational beauty of the #). Haven’t found the beauty, the job, the gold yet. Much less thought through how I want to participate, contribute.

I’ve got the barest skeleton of a site here; am still troubled by the aesthetics. Even as I think about questions of what I will have permission to post on my site – how that impacts the utility of what envision in research and teaching through my domain.

And I am still trying to think through how to make my experience of my domain one that enriches me, as well as my potential future students and peers. The often self-congratulatory tone of much social media is a downer for me. How to invest time and energy in this project, without it pushing the same buttons? Maybe I can’t yet see the future. But I glimpse its hazy outline.

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Digital selves, physical selves, interactional selves

The DOOO readings for week two raised issues of how we present and understand our digital selves, and encourage us to think about how our digital selves are created and controlled.

Baym & Boyd use Mead and Cooley and the “Looking Glass Self” as a way to get us thinking about our mediated selves. The idea that we develop a sense of self out of interaction with others is something very familiar to me – in fact, I use an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to help teach about this idea. The episode suggests that when students and teacher ignore a young woman, when they do not respond to her attempts at interaction, not just her sense of self is affected – she actually disappears. I’m not sure I believe in a literal interpretation of the Buffyverse, but it certainly complements a view that social views, interactions and cues create real meanings for us. (In other words, reality is socially constructed: I’m a sociologist, ok?)

To apply this to my own world, my own digital self takes me a few more steps. It is clear that my digital self is not the same (TO ME) as my physical self. Those I interact with only digitally have a partial sense of me, not the holistic sense that those who live with me share. But that is true of many (all?) of our relationships in our “modern” world right? (Nodding here to Durkheim and to Wirth.) But though my students see me differently than the folks I know from the gym – I have a significant element of control over those interactions. I control what I post on facebook – or here. But I don’t control what others may post about me (nodding here at ratemyprofessor – but without linking to it. I don’t need to encourage them, or accidentally view my own ratings.). Rather than putting my head in the sand about this, I am beginning to think through how and when and where I am willing to try to wrest control and ownership of my digital presence back from others.



*btw, Ryan, I still can’t tell when I’m passing by reference or by value. I’m embedding some links – but for Wirth, I have the pdf. Would that be better? And if so, is that value? Heavens.

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