The Tattooed Professor Wants to Ban the Research Paper!


The Tattooed History Professor, Kevin Gannon, wants to ban the research paper. No! Say it is not true! Everyone knows that research papers are the only way students learn how to think in a sound reasoning fashion.

He says this is the case because some students can’t do it. They write tendentious introductions, to start with. Some of the papers his students hand in are well-done he writes, but it seems too many of the papers he grades

….begin with “since the dawn of time, man has engaged in conflict, and nowhere was this more true than in the Spanish-American War.” Some of them show wide research, and some don’t. Some of them are well written, and some are a word salad of colloquialisms and faux-scholarly terms lifted willy-nilly from

He proposes WordPress websites, oral exams, and poster sessions and other things in their place, particularly for younger students.

In part I agree with Kevin. But in part I also think that this is a cop-out to the forces at public universities which send faculty larger class sizes which mean that students will indeed write less simply because there was no one to respond to their writing.  This of course started earlier in high school. Getting students to write well is a years long process which begins during primary and secondary schooling, not when they pop full-blown into a university class in history, sociology, English, anthropology or anything else.

The only way to get students to write and reason well is to respond to them when they write those tendentious introductions—and this requires educated eyes on their papers beginning at an early age.

Educated eyes are of course expensive, and the truth of the matter is that in the United States such instruction is primarily reserved for those who will pay for it through systems of private schooling where class sizes are kept under control.  What does keeping class size under control mean at the college level?  Basically maximum 20 students per class–that’s what the private liberal arts colleges do in their writing classes.  In fact, that is what I had in my 1970s era writing classes at the University of California.

Sociologist George Carlin Expounds on the Need for Stuff!

We like our stuff.   Stuff in fact is what makes the world’s capitalist markets go round. There are some well-thought out ways of describing the nature of stuff, including Karl Marx’s description of how and why “fetish commodity” is necessary to keep us consuming and buying. Then there was Torstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. But these are both boring reads—except for geeks like me who like classical social theory.

For the rest of you, there is the classical sociologist George Carlin who also had a theory of stuff, which is linked here. Just remember, if we did not demand our stuff, we wouldn’t have a need to work, and then we wouldn’t spend, and everyone else would be out of work too. Then we would not only have more stuff, but the farmers wouldn’t grow any food because they couldn’t buy stuff in exchange for the stuff they grow, and then we would all be in a real pickle. Speaking of pickles, there was Larry the Pickle in the Veggie Tales who had an excellent rap about “Stuff Mart.”

But this blog is not just about Larry the Pickle, who in some respect is a sociologist, just like sociologist George Carlin. It is about the Carlin, who updated Marx and Veblen’s writings on the nature of stuff for a modern US American audience, which is performed here. The weekend is coming, so go out and do you duty by buying more stuff, preferably on credit, so that you, everyone else, and especially the farmers can have a job to pay back all your bills. Your country and the world depends on it!

The Ethics of Ethnography, and Alice Goffman’s Ethnography about Crime in Philadelphia

Gofman_bookLeon Neyfakh at Slate has written a review of the controversy surrounding Alice Goffman’s new ethnography On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City which is about the African’ American community of inner city Philadelphia, and their relationship with the  police.  The essay is called “The Ethics of Ethnograpy,” and discusses the role of Institutional Research Boards, the responsibility of social scientists for replicability, the nature of scientific generalization, and the nature of ethnography.  His article is good, and a quick read for anyone interested in ethnography.

Neyfackh’s review asks question about “What is Ethnography?” and how is it related to science, journalism, and literature. Neyfakh’s review can be accessed here.

Alex Golub at Savage Minds has also contributed a thoughtful analysis of how journalists like Neyfakh evaluate ethnography, which can be accessed here.As he points out, the techniques of journalism and ethnography may use similar techniques particularly when it comes to interviewing, but the overall project is fundamentally different.  Journalists are about the facts and “fact checking,” while ethnographers look for underlying principles, and that big word of social science, “generalizability.”

On the Run is now definitely on my summer reading list. So is a book cited in the article about the role of Institutional Review Boards in the vetting of social science research, Ethical Imperialism, Institutional Research Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965-2009, by Zachary Schrag.



We Need New Names by First Time Novelist NoViolet Bulawayo

I get much of my sociological imagination from novels, and I just finished one. It was We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. The story starts in the shantytowns of Paradise and Budapest in modern day Zimbabwe. The main protagonist is Darling, a then ten year old girl who develops intense relationships with five other children who together play “bin Laden,” steal guavas, and cope with daily life in the chaos of the shantytowns.

Parts highlight what the broader world of modern Zimbabwe means for such children—whether it is a father with AIDS, politicized gangs, pregnancy of an eleven year old, South African labor migration, NGO politics, and an aunt in the incredibly wealthy and far off America.

Darling joins her aunt in America, which is what the second part of the book is about. There she is pushed into a new world where school is easy, life predictable, but also chaotic. Darling becomes friends with other immigrant children, attending school, cultivating the relationship with her aunt and her Ghanaian partner, and seeking to melt in to the new American world. Darling’s worlds can come together only through Skype, particularly after her tourist visa expires, and she becomes and illegal immigrant in the United States, unable to imagine returning except via the internet.

The story Bulawayo tells of migration is of course an old one, but nevertheless worth repeating. Migrants leave an old world behind, and become part of a new world, but often at the expense of sacrificing the warmth of the remembered home. There is a becoming of a new identity, even as there is an “unbecoming” of an older one. In the end, Darling is challenged by her childhood friends in Zimbabwe who, via the instant communication of Skype, ask her if she is still Zimbabwean or not? She thinks she is—but her friends have questions. How can someone who is not sharing the hardships sustain the identity?

We Need New Names is a bit slow at the beginning, as the reader seeks to position themselves in the shantytowns of Zimbabwe. However, it quickly becomes a memorable read for anyone interested in child migration, Zimbabwe, migrants in US cities, and youth. Or someone who simply likes a good thoughtful story.

Comparisons to another recent novel of African migration, Amerikanah, which tells the story of Nigerian elite migration are perhaps inevitable. And while the themes are similar, We Need New Names is a different story—it is the story of migration told from the perspective of children of shantytowns, and needs to be read from that perspective.

The High Cost of Mean Bosses

Yesterday’s New York Times featured an opinion piece on rudeness and incivility in the workplace and the high cost of mean bosses. It’s true, mean bosses suck. I’ve only had a couple, and most of my bosses during my low wage service years were pleasant overall or mostly absent, which is nice too. When I was a higher ed adjunct, my “boss” was the department chair. Technically they are not “the boss”, they are the people who have the responsibility to schedule classes and push some additional, administrative paper. And this is the problem with department chairs: they usually lack management training and leadership experience, academia is a loner gig. But this often means that department chairs run things based on personality; if they are an asshole, it’s going to be a rough few years.

I don’t work in academia anymore. But, I am job hunting and wondering what kind of boss I will have next. So, give “No Time to Be Nice” a read and wish me luck.

9 types of bosses


Multi-kulti in a German Beach Resort


We brought my mother-in-law to the Baltic Sea resort town of Ahlbeck which is near the Polish border for her 90th birthday. My mother-in-law visited the resort in one of its former heydays of the 1930s. At the time she was ten years old, and very active as a swimmer—as 90 year olds will, they wanted to visit the memories of their childhood.

Ahlbeck is on the island of Usedom, which is mostly in Germany, though a tip of the eastern part is in Poland.   Along the coast is a strip of small towns featuring villas built by the wealthy nobility and bourgeois during the nineteenth and early twentieth century—they wanted weekend houses away from the hustle and bustle of Berlin where they could hang out on sandy but cold beaches.

After World War II, the town fell into disrepair under the Communist regime of former East Germany—bourgeois villas were to be a think of the past. In 1990, though, Germany was reunified. The wealthy of the western Germany and particularly the newly reunified Berlin had a new place to invest their money, and spend their weekends while creating a new Europe. The old villas were repaired, and even some of the dreary eastern bloc-style drab apartment buildings given new facades. Seemingly all that is left of the former East German influence are the FKK beaches described in tourist brochures—no clothing allowed.

Anyway, we had dinner at Italian restaurant last night, and talked to the waiter. He was from Brazil, but noted in accented German that it was ok to be Brazilian at a Italian restaurant, he could get by with Italian, too. The toilet seats in the bathroom had pictures of the Leaning tower of Pisa, and the Statue of Liberty in New York.

The next day I went for a walk into the next Polish town, where we found a coffee shop specializing in Belgian chocolate. We had a cup of coffee, and paid with our Euros, even though Poland still uses the Zloty as a currency. We talked to the waitress in German, though it was clear from her accent she was Polish, as it is clear from my accent that I am American. We then called my daughter in Thailand on the Polish internet.

Never did though get to see evidence of the FKK beaches. Even in June, everyone I saw was bundled up against the cool breezes coming in off the sea.

Another odd thing. I did not hear English on the street all weekend. There were plenty of languages, German of course, Polish, Romance languages (Spanish and/or Italian?), but no English. There were also Thai, Chinese, and Mexican restaurants, so I assume people from those countries were there, too. This is unusual in a German tourist town—every other place seems to be over-run with English speaking tourists (and others) from around the world. But seemingly not here.

But still, even in this remote corner of eastern Germany. Germany is indeed “Mulit-Kulti.”

New Mandarins, Old Meritocracy, It’s All the Same Thing, Really. Commentary from 2013-2048

The Daily Beast in 2013 published a piece about “the New Mandarins” by Megan McArdle.  The New Mandarins are those people who test well, get good jobs, write the tests tor the next generation, and then give birth to the next generation that will do well, and so on.  The problem of course is that as in Ancient China, the Mandarins become more and more remote from the people who they rule, and the connection between the ruled and rulers becomes more tenuous.  Revolt is one potential threat.

McArdle cites the Big Brother society of Orwell’s 1984, but another more sociological/anthropological treatise on the same subject is Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2030.  Young was a British sociologist, who sometimes turned to fiction, or in this case, semi-fiction in his sociological analyses. In The Rise and Fall of the Meritocracy, he describes the rise of the British Mandarinate starting about 1870.  The first part of the book is as a result historical overview of how the British Civil Service emerged between 1870, and about 1958 when the book was published.  It did it by creating a civil service testing regime, in which the technocratically skilled achieved great power within the bureaucratic system.  The system in turn guaranteed comfort and security for this new “meritocratic” elite (Young is the one who coined the term “merittocracy”as a dysphemism).  The British education system reflected a strong segregation based on class in the 1950s when Young wrote, peaking at the “Oxfrd-Cambrdige” nexus where of course, everyone tested well, and therefore earned a right to that nice level of comfort and security.

The problem of course is that everyone who does not test well was not guaranteed similar levels of comfort and security.

The second part of the book is putatively fiction, though, since it describes what would happen between 1950 and 2030 which presumably for Young was the future. Young’s prediction is of course that the ruling elite, secure in the legitimacy provided by their technical superiority as reflected by the “objective” test scores. Unusually, though we have a way to check to see just how prescient Young’s predictions. The American Journal of Sociology, a self-described elite “flagship journal” in 2009 published a review of Young’s book. The review, by Barbara Celarent of Atlantis University, was unusually postmarked in 2048, so has the perspective of hindsight. The hindsight it has is of the revolts that Young predicted for 2030.

In this fashion, it provides and excellent reference point to Megan McCardle’s commentary from The Daily Beast.




By Guest Writer: N. Jeanne Burns
A friend said recently that one definitive marker of social class is whether you know how to eat an artichoke. This probably isn’t true for migrant farmworkers who toil in or around Castroville, California, the self-proclaimed “Artichoke Capital of the World.” Or even for people who grew up on the Mediterranean, where the plant is native. But M.F.K. Fisher, who herself grew up surrounded by fields of artichokes, recognized the class-climbing rank of the thistle in her essay “The Social Status of the Vegetable.” And the distinction feels right to me, even seventy years later, despite other, more elite foods like pâtédefoisgras making a clear status statement. Maybe it’s because you can get artichoke hearts on home-delivered pizza or in jars at even some of the smallest grocery stores. But the flower itself is hard to find and looks threatening when you spy it on your produce shelves.I don’t recall the first time I tasted an artichoke, sometime in my twenties. It was probably in a dip, the vegetable’s real flavor and texture drowned out by mayonnaise, cheese, and canned artichoke brine. However, I remember the first time I saw an artichoke in the grocery store, looking more like a wall of soldiers guarding the asparagus than the tender, delicious vegetable I would come to love. I pretended to examine grapefruit while I watched several people pick through the bin and place two or four blooms in their carts. Iwas embarrassed because people around me seemed to know something I didn’t: how to turn that oversized greenpinecone into a meal.I couldn’t ask my mother, because she wouldn’t know. She’d grown up in Appalachian rural poverty and ate only what her family could grow. Artichokes didn’t appear on their table.Knowing scarcity herself, she made sure our working-class family always had sustenance, but never cooked more than we could eat at one sitting. The food stayed within the boundaries of her experience. Fried chicken. Canned green beans and raw bacon boiled together for half an hour. Fried pork chops. Collards and bacon fat, cooked until the greens were wilted, dark and shiny with grease. Fried salmon cakes made with fish from a tin. Canned peas boiled to mush. Mom kept a large tin of bacon grease by the stove to fry eggs, make gravy, and glaze biscuits. Her spice cabinet held only salt, pepper, and cream of tartar. She hated garlic.I’ve come to love more subtle tastes and textures than my mother taught me to appreciate.In my early thirties, I went with friends to a restaurant I’d heard was very good. The waiter brought tiny plates to our celebratory table. On each, a minute crouton cradling a smear of fresh mozzarella was covered with a fresh basil leaf and drizzled with a sweet brown liquid.”An amuse-bouche from the chef,” he said, “topped with balsamic vinegar.”We’d been waiting over an hour for the last of the party to arrive and were very hungry. By the time my friends and I downed the diminutive appetizers, wiped our mouths and returned the napkins to our respective laps, we wanted more and let the waiter know.

He laughed. “That was one-hundred-year-old balsamic–$250 per ounce.”

Its velvety sweet flavor hinted at a heavy red wine, but with a subtly sharp vinegar taste in the background. I’d never tasted something so good or so expensive. I wanted more.

After that dinner, for very special times my partner Liz and I wanted to mark, we splurged at restaurants where haricots verts are slender green beans, charcuterie is a selection of shaved deli meats, coulis is a thin sauce. I never liked steak until I felt my first bite of filet mignon melting on my tongue. And you would never have seen me eat a parsnip until I had tasted pureed root vegetables at a local French restaurant.

I don’t tell mom about my food escapades because I’m certain she’d be offended at the amount of money we spend on a dinner for two and be worried about how I dressed. “You wore hose and a slip, I hope,” she’d say, the o in hope drawn out as if there were a u after it. She never wanted her social class to show and taught me to mimic people I judged to be a higher class than I, as she had.

When my mother told me she first used a napkin when she was fifteen, in 1960, I had a lot of questions. What did she use to wipe her mouth before 1960? (An arm or sleeve.) Did all her friends and school mates wipe their mouths with their sleeves? (Yes.) And, finally, how did she learn to use a napkin?

An upper-middle-class family had come into the hills seeking a live-in babysitter and found my mother. She moved away from her family for the first time to take this summer job. When mom was asked to set the table, she was told to set out napkins (she doesn’t remember whether they were cloth or paper). She watched the family members wipe their mouths. She mimicked their actions, inferring correctly that people in a class above hers use napkins.

My neighborhood housed firefighters, truck drivers, and janitors so I first encountered middle class people in college. Since then, I’ve observed and mimicked cultural mores many times. I have failed at the part of inference sometimes.

My first time in college, I saw lots of well-dressed pretty women wearing safety pins that had been decorated with variously colored short ribbons that seemed to match their clothes. I made a color-coordinated pin for each of my outfits and wore them until a woman who was offended that I would steal her sorority’s colors dressed me down. I never again trusted what I saw to be appropriate.

Still, I watched and learned.

I grew up with paper napkins. We kept them by our plates and picked them up to wipe our mouths. If we were eating something particularly messy, I would spread out the paper and tuck the tip into my shirt. The restaurants we went to growing up all provided paper napkins. Sometimes they gave us rectangular and thicker napkins than the Viva brand we used at home, but they were always paper.

The first time I used a cloth napkin was at prom, which was held at the Hotel duPont, the nicest hotel in town. But I kept it on the table.

I was in my late twenties before I noticed people around me putting their napkins on their laps. This didn’t make sense to me. The mess I make when I eat is on my face or on my shirt. I never get stains on my pants because the drips drop at the shelf on my chest. Why wouldn’t I want the napkin closer?

I asked a friend when I first noticed the napkin in the lap, and she laughed at me, saying only white trash tuck their napkins in their shirts. A napkin on my lap still doesn’t make sense to me, because after my friend laughed at me, I became afraid of asking about social class conventions.

Finally, at twenty-nine, I had my chance. My friend Nils presented artichokes to go with the baked chicken he’d just taken out of the oven.

“How about artichokes for our vegetable? Fresh from my garden.”

I nodded and smiled, hoping to see artichoke prep firsthand, but knowing I would have to pretend that I already knew how to cook and eat it.

“You start the chokes while I get the chicken out of the oven?”

“No, I’ll take the bird out. It’ll only be a minute.” I didn’t even want to touch the artichokes because they looked painful to handle.

He palmed the blooms and told me a story about getting kicked out of the kitchen of his Navy battleship because the cook thought he got in the way.

So the leaves don’t hurt, I thought.

“He also didn’t want me to get my officer’s uniform dirty.”

“I don’t want you to stain your clothes either. That’s why I’m dealing with the dirty bird!”

As I tented the chicken with foil, I watched him cut off most of the stem and place the thistles into a steamer. The pot’s top teetered on the tallest one, so he balanced it on one edge.

“Have you ever had artichokes cooked any other way?” I asked.

“Hearts in brine, but those are steamed too. Have you?”

“Oh, I thought since you’d traveled the world in the Navy, you’d have seen some unusual things.” I moved to the kitchen table and started folding napkins that he’d taken out of the dryer a few minutes before into rectangles, wanting to keep myself occupied so he wouldn’t ask me to check on the vegetable. Or ask me to turn the fabric squares into a bird.

“I’ve seen lots of strange things. Nothing with an artichoke. I think there’s only one way to cook and eat an artichoke. To eat any thistle.”

After carving the chicken he placed one bloom on each of our plates, and a bowl of what looked like mayonnaise between us. The green globe smelled most like steamed spinach. He ate his chicken before picking at his vegetable.

Then he plucked off each leaf, one by one, dipped it into the sauce he called “broccolati,” which I now know to be aioli–mayo with lemon and garlic–and scraped the tender flesh off each leaf with his teeth.

I followed his lead until I got to a hairy blob. I didn’t know what to do, so I took my napkin off my lap and placed it onto the table, which I’d learned the year before, was the signal that you are done with your meal.

“You’re not going to eat the heart? That’s the best part!”

I wanted to eat the heart, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself by not knowing what to do with the hairs.

“No, I’m full. You go ahead if you want.”

Nils scraped the hairy ball out of his artichoke heart with a spoon, being careful to get every fiber but none of the vegetable’s center, cut the heart in four, and ate them without any aioli. While he scraped at mine I asked him how he learned to eat an artichoke.

“I don’t remember. My mother cooked them for us, and I suppose I learned from her.”

These days the Internet and YouTube how-to videos can teach me just about anything. I can, for instance, mimic my partner’s very privileged family when we go to very fine restaurants to celebrate a birthday or anniversary without worrying that I’ll be judged as white trash. I’ll use the tiny spoon to sprinkle salt on my dinner like everyone else at the table, and will learn later about why petite bowls and spoons are better than a salt shaker, with the poet Pablo Neruda’s tenderhearted warrior always on my mind.

I’ve used online video searches to learn how to make a lamb balsamic reduction, how to sprinkle fleur de sel as a finishing salt on a delicate endive salad, and how to slice open a mango, all things my mother would find too strange for her liking.

Though I’m sure she’ll like that I now keep a small jar of bacon fat in my freezer, because in the twenty-some years I’ve been out of her house, I’ve not found a better fat in which to fry an egg. The next time I see her, I’ll make a dip with mayonnaise, crème fraîche (telling her it is sour cream), and white truffle oil (telling her it is made from mushrooms), and I’ll teach mom how to eat an artichoke.

Class Lives

Published in Class Lives: Stories from Across our Economic Divide, 2014, Cornell University Press


Mathematicians Like Social Sciences, Too!

Robert Harrington of the American Mathematical Society is trying t understand how young mathematician use their scholarly products.  As an an “experiment” he tried out qualitative interview methods to investigate his question.  Here is what he found out:

As a scientist, I have ideas about what scientific method is, and what evidence is. I now understand the value of the qualitative approach – hard for a scientist to say. Qualitative research opens a window to descriptive data and analysis. As our markets change, understanding who constitutes our market, and how users behave is more important than ever.

You can read the whole article here.


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Stigma, and Learned Helplessness

Does the stigmatized individual assume his differentness is known about already or is evident on the spot, or does he assume it is neither known about by those present nor immediately perceivable by them? In the first case one deals with the plight of the discredited, in the second with that of the discreditable. This is an important difference.” Erving Goffman, 1963

I don’t have anything new to add to the thoughts I had when I wrote about PTSD in “Trauma Culture: Who’s a Normal Now?” But, I continue to read about PTSD because as someone with it, I believe the more people like me know, the less we suffer. Having PTSD is something I can talk about and give presentations on now, but when I was a student, I kept it a secret because I was concerned about the perception of others. I can speak to the experience of having a stigma that is discredited (I’m a fat, mixed race woman) but I feel that it is the discreditable whose experiences we understand less so.

Being discreditable is having to manage a secret, one that the bearer knows will change others perceptions the moment it hits air. We also know that if we tell our secret publicly, we risk everything. Having PTSD and doing the work of “passing” and concealing trauma impact physical and mental health but also learning and motivation. I came across one of the best pieces I’ve ever read about learned helplessness last week and it’s an important read for teachers and people in healthcare or social work.

And, here’s something for you from an open source, peer-reviewed journal about “Discredited” versus “Discreditable” identities and how those affect health disparities (mental and physical).