Are Indexes Obsolete?

I’ve spent the last two days indexing our new book on Max Weber’s sociology. I am doing it the old-fashioned way, just as it has been done since, well, the 1990s or so. Which means I have a Word document open on my desktop and go through the document on a hard copy page by page, alphabetizing as I go. The only concession I have to the 2000s is that I will occasionally do a search of the electronic copy of the manuscript to find a key word in the PDF. But mostly it is yet another read-over of the manuscript itself, and alphabetizing into Word. It seems to take about 5 minutes per page. But, I just shudder at thinking what it must have been like to write an index before the invention of word processing!

I can imagine it is some kind of software that would do this for me in about two seconds. But as my author’s instructions point out, it is still better to have a real person, especially an author, do this because you also need to index themes, etc., that computers can’t “see.” So, ok, fine. But I really wonder, will indexes become obsolete with the availability of software that searches whole texts? In fact, I usually use such software, rather than actual indexes. You may have heard of the software I use to replace indexes, they are called “Google Books” and “Kindle!” But now as plow one last time through my book, I wonder about how many times I actually use an index anymore? What is your impression? Do you use books in the same way you did five or ten years ago? If you had our book on an electronic reader (as I suspect most readers will), would you use the index I am now writing?


Waters, Tony and Dagmar Waters editors and translators (2015). Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society: New Translations on Politics, Bureaucracy and Social Stratification. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


The McDonaldization of Higher Education

George Ritzer proposed one of the most significant contemporary sociological theories when he developed the theory of McDonaldization.

We have a tendency to McDonaldize, or rationalize traditional processes in Western culture. We like being able to bet on an outcome following a set pattern of small steps, that lead to a larger outcome. Through this rationalization process, we compartmentalize tasks, evaluate at each level, specialize skills and in the process de-skill individuals, which makes us better at our individual jobs, but less competent overall. It’s a fantastic model for building cars on an assembly line, as Henry Ford did a century ago. And when you make a billion hamburgers and oversee millions of workers, it’s a perfect business model that makes each worker replaceable at a moments notice, because the function of a worker is replaced, not the person him or herself. Ironically, in a highly specialized system, no one has a highly complex skill set. As an employer, having a perfectly McDonaldized work environment, where labor is cheap, tasks are completed more efficiently, production is more predictable, and we can prove our own worth by the number of hamburgers we sell in a given day, is the best scenario for financial success in America.

I’ve watched the McDonaldization of the Education system for the last 10 years or so, but the pace of the process of rationalization has accelerated in the last few years.

In higher education, this rationalization was first highly developed and very successful at for-profit universities. I considered teaching at a for-profit university many years ago and even completed the for-profit university’s instructor training, was assigned a class to teach, and after seeing the curriculum, realized I didn’t want to teach that way. Every day, every hour, and every 15 minutes was dictated by the course outline, every assignment was created by the university, and I was to follow a strict grading rubric that left no room for using my own judgment on what constituted a superior paper, and what was just mediocre. As long as a student completed X, Y, and Z, they would pass the assignment and the class. Quality didn’t matter, either in individual assignments or classes. Once a student completed enough of X,Y, and Z, they would complete the class; once they completed enough classes, they earned a degree.

Traditional universities used to balk at educating people this way. A few universities were so opposed that instead of traditional letter grades, professors wrote summaries of each student and recommended whether a student should move forward to a new class or not. Professors looked for quality, not quantity, when our system of higher education was first created.

As a child, I dreamed of being a college professor for many reasons. I had a vision of being able to read great works of literature, develop new ideas, write books and articles that changed the way people think, and guide students in their quest for knowledge. I craved information when I was a kid, and craved the conversations that my parents and aunts and uncles had around my grandmother’s dinner table every Sunday. I read the local newspaper every day by the time I was ten or so, and enjoyed debates with my teachers and catching people off guard with trivial bits of current events.

In short, I loved to learn, and I loved to help others see the world in a different way than they had before.

As an undergraduate student here at Chico State, even 20 years ago, we were expected to write in every general education class we were required to take, and we received extensive feed back from the majority of our professors, then would re-write, and resubmit. It was a give and take learning process that allowed the professor to gauge how well the student understood the course’s material. I fell in love with the process, the learning that could occur, the knowledge transfer, and every time a professor would say, “I never thought of it this way.”

I loved my college years, not for the social aspect, but for the knowledge and the quest. I got to take classes just because they sounded interesting. I spent nearly 9 years earning my undergraduate degree part time at a community college, then a university, earned over 200 semester units (a bachelor’s degree was 124 at the time), and I don’t regret one class in that time. The knowledge was the most important thing.

Today, the California State University system does not require writing in general education classes and fewer and fewer professors require writing in their classes as a result. There is very little back and forth interaction to gauge development and understanding. Assessing student progress and understanding of the material presented in class is completed largely through multiple-choice tests, and nothing more. If a student completes X, Y, and Z, then they pass.

This rationalization is the result of higher demand on faculty and campus resources and has changed education, from less quality to more quantity. In California, only about 35% of students complete their bachelor’s degree in 4 years, and just over 65% graduate within 6 years. It is a rate that is unacceptable to the general taxpayer who subsidizes the tuition for California students, and to the Administration, who market the California State University system partially for how quickly a student will likely graduate. As a result, the Administration called upon the California State University system to increase the number of students we serve at each campus, and decrease the time it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree. At the same time of this demand from Administration, there has been a loss of approximately 600 full time faculty at the California State University system since 2008, with a decrease of only 3,000 Full Time Equivalent Students [FTES] in the same period.

The only way to fulfill this request is through rationalization.

Rationalization is edging in on the California State University system through highly specialized professors with vast expertise in only one or two topics, downsizing bachelor degree requirements to fewer units, streamlining general education requirements and decreasing course options, increasing frequency of student assessment of teaching, and the removal of any subjective course assignments to gauge student comprehension of material.

We are doing okay with this model, changing the way we teach, adapting, as Darwin would say, to our environment in order to survive. We’re doing okay, but maybe not for long.

Our most significant issue throughout the university system is this fact: we have lost an enormous number of faculty since the Great Recession, and we are not replacing faculty at a fast enough rate to keep up with the current demand, let alone the projected increased demand in the next 5 years or so.

President Obama released a proposal in early 2015 that would provide free tuition at community colleges nationwide for 2 years for certain programs, so that our youth might have a better chance of having more opportunities for employment. As you can imagine, a presidential proposal that helps my own job security is something I support. There are problems with this proposal, though, especially in a place like California, where we have an inordinately high number of community colleges, and not enough faculty to serve those students today.

College and university faculty often teach at more than one institution, with part time faculty, especially, teaching 2 or 3 classes at each institution. If community colleges begin to offer faculty more classes each semester, the already stressed California State University system (and others like it in the state and across the nation) is likely to suffer since those faculty member may give up classes at the CSU. To make up for this demand, class sizes increase, number of classes increase (full time for lecturers at Chico State in 2005 was 4 classes; today, it’s 5), and faculty will burn out faster due to the increased stressed of the job.

But here’s the big problem with President Obama’s proposal, one that cannot be quantified as easily, but will have many more long-term consequences: all colleges must adopt accelerated associate’s degree programs like the ASAP program at The City University of New York.

Accelerated programs have their place, I understand that, and in the President’s proposal for community colleges, he outlines funding for technical colleges, which is where acceleration fits well. Accelerated technical programs, where individuals learn invaluable skills such as computer engineering, auto collision repair, and my own history of paramedic and emergency medical technician, will be the basis for a large portion of jobs in the next 20 years in America.

But liberal arts colleges are not the place for accelerated learning, and McDonaldization, with the most emphasis placed on arbitrary evaluations, the number of students one professor can pack into a lecture hall, and the number of passing grades a professor assigns in one semester. Education at the college level should not be about rote memorization with regurgitation of facts 3 weeks later on an arbitrary exam. Learning, new ideas, innovation, and progress do not happen that way. The greatest lesson we teach through liberal arts colleges is to think critically, to question, to analyze. We cannot teach that, nor can students learn and create new ideas, in a system that emphasizes speed, efficiency, and completely rational thought above all else.

We must be allowed to continue to teach outside the box, rather than teach our students to fill in the circles of a test bubble. President Obama’s proposal undermines education and learning in the liberal arts tradition, it crushes innovation, and critical thought, and that is the last thing we need in America.



Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood, and the Great American Past time

In college, the most fascinating class I had the pleasure of being part of was an undergraduate elective called Sport and Society (sorry Tony Waters). An Education professor by the name of Don Chu taught the class, and I took it because I thought it would be an easy A and I could harass all the jocks in the class for their misguided reverence for all things sports related (I’m a sociologist; we generally aren’t much for sports. I apologize.). The class was also a Sociology course, though, and would count toward my Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, so even though I saw no redeeming quality in the class, I signed up anyway.

On the first day of class, Dr. Chu walked into the packed 50-seat classroom, dressed in a pair of pressed jeans, a fresh dress shirt, and a sport coat, set his thin briefcase on a desk, and proceeded to tell us the rules of the class. We could have two excused absences throughout the entire semester; if we were going to be absent, we were to notify Dr. Chu beforehand, and he would decide if the absence was excused or not. If we missed more than two days, we would be unceremoniously dropped from the class, no exceptions. We were allowed the first five minutes of class to get to our seats before we would be counted as absent. If we entered at five minutes or later after the class began, we would have to stand at the door, ask permission to enter from the class, and if we were granted permission to enter, we had to sing a song of the class’s choice before we could join the class. You get the picture, right?

I considered dropping the class that day, but something about Dr. Chu made me stay, and so I did, as did every other student who was there. I think I took his rules as a challenge, honestly, but was still a bit offended when halfway through the semester, I had a medical appointment (I was injured on the job as a paramedic and there were some appointments I could not miss) that I couldn’t reschedule, so I called him the day before and left a voice mail, then sent an email to him to let him know I wouldn’t be there the following day. When I went back to class two days later, he didn’t acknowledge me at first, then halfway through the lecture he picked me out of the class and said, “Well, Ms. Paiva, it’s so nice of you to join us.” I never missed another class, nor was I ever late.

This was the thing about Don Chu: he never used notes, he rarely wrote on the board, and he lectured with one foot propped on an empty chair. He wasn’t funny, necessarily, or particularly entertaining like some eccentric professors I had known and who shall remain nameless, but he was passionate about sports, and the role they play in society. His knowledge of sports and society was endless, and it was captivating to participate in his lectures.

I became enamored with the class fairly quickly, probably due to the fact that I could see no redeeming quality in sports previously, and dedicated a great deal of time to the papers and assignments. Sports finally made sense to me from a sociological perspective, and I still use Dr. Chu’s lessons in my own classes today.

I was thinking about Dr. Chu, and the baseball player Curt Flood, recently as I watched the Hollywood movie “42” which is about Jackie Robinson.

It wasn’t until Dr. Chu’s class, and the research paper I completed on Curt Flood and the Reserve Clause, that I truly understood how those with power can write the laws that benefit them most, to subjugate and oppress those with less power. Baseball players in Major League Baseball were treated like and considered property up until Curt Flood came along; players were tied to a team for life, and had no choice of going if they were traded to another team. It was considered a privilege to play in for MLB, and Owners, for many years, kept players under their thumb with the Reserve Clause. Players had no leverage for higher salaries, better working conditions, or where they would play with the clause in place. A player could not break his contract and go play for another team, because every team was MLB. Pretty sweet for the Owners, not so much for the players.

In 1969, Curt Flood was traded to another team, and he refused to go. He sued the MLB for the right to be a free agent, the case went to court, and he lost. The outcome of the case paved the way, though, several years later, for two baseball players to play as free agents and effectively end the Reserve Clause.

I was reminded of Flood while I watched “42” which, given my lack of interest in all things sports related, introduced me to the struggle that Jackie Robinson faced in the 1940s as the first African American to play for MLB. Yes, I’ve heard of Robinson, but didn’t know much of his story, and even though it was Hollywood’s version, it was still an inspiring, and humbling movie to watch.

As a white, 40-something female in America, its easy to forget (yes, you can think it: my white privilege) that discrimination and racism were so blatant and pervasive in our recent history. It was difficult to watch some of the scenes, particularly the scene when the opposing team’s coach berates Robinson repeatedly, calling racial slurs for all to hear as Robinson is up at bat.

But Robinson’s story reminded me that sports was the first real inroad to equality that African Americans made in the U.S., especially in the South. Prior to Robinson joining MLB, segregation was still prominent in the South, and open discrimination was tolerated. Workers in other occupations would likely be segregated in the 1940s, but not for Robinson, not in baseball. He traveled all over the U.S. playing ball, and with every new city and every new town, he was shown as an equal on the playing field.

He was a man equal to all others on the field in 1947. That’s the power and importance of sports.

Every once in a while, I hear someone say, to the effect, “ugh, why do they keep making these movies about racism and sexism and oppression and can’t people just let it go? It’s 2015; we’re not that way anymore.”

But we are that way, I believe, or we have the capability to be that way again, given the right or wrong circumstances. And I believe that movies like “42”, and “12 Years a Slave” and “Mississippi Burning” and “Norma Rae” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and a thousand other movies about inequality, and oppression, and discrimination, remind us of what we once were, and where we could be again. We need to be reminded, so we don’t repeat the past, because even someone like me, who studies and writes about inequality every day, forgets so easily.


Look Mom, No Paywall! My Mirror Neuron Article Available for Free!

For the time being, my most current academic article “Of Looking Glasses, Mirror Neurons, and Meaning” is available from Perspectives on Science for free, free, free! Meaning no paywall, so you don’t need access to a university library account to get a copy, nor do I have to send out individual PDFs to whoever may request a copy. Please, download away!

The article has a heavy dose of “social science vs. natural sciences,” and asks why do neural scientists need an expensive MRI machine to judge whether and how someone is thinking. The general idea of their “mirror neuron hypothesis” is that when you watch someone doing something, you can imagine what they are thinking—and that this can be observed on an expensive MRI machine. My argument is that sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists have been doing this for a hundred years by simply watching people, and talking to them. Indeed, in my view this is in fact “grandmother knowledge,” meaning that it is something that your common-sensical grandmother knows.   But because grandmother does not have the patina of “science,” so for some reason the expensive MRI is more valid.

The irony I point out though does not have to do with your grandmother. Rather it is that in proposing the “mirror neuron” hypothesis based on MRI data first generated in the 1980s and 1990s, the hot-shot scientists bypassed the exact same metaphor from 1902. In 1902, Charles Cooley an economist/sociologist/social psychologist described his 2 year-old daughter’s “looking glass self,” and the fact that she imitates those she observes. He and his successors have spun off a substantial literature as a result, which continues to go unacknowledged in the scientific literature. Anyway, that is my argument—please download a comment if you agree or disagree. Dowload here (if you did not click above).


Christmas Carol 2014 in Chico, California, USA

Last week, we were invited to a friend’s house for a night of “Christmas Caroling,” seemingly a nostalgic throwback to old times when make-your-own music was part of the sentiment of Christmas. We showed up, duly bellowed out a songbooks of traditional Christmas songs like Hark The Herald Angels Sing, Silent Night, We Wish you a Merry Christmas and so forth. We were as a group in tune, out of tune, and graciously accompanied by a skilled pianist and cellist.

By 9 p.m. we thought it was about over, and people were starting to edge toward the door. But no, that is when Michael announced that we were going to go door-to-door. Meaning we would bang on people’s doors, and start singing our repertoire. Worst of all, we would do it without the skilled accompaniment.

Typical responses were “are you out of your mind?” “It is too late.” “Someone will call the police.” And of course the modern American standby: “You’ll get shot!” Or to paraphrase the movie “A Christmas Story,” “You’ll shoot your eye out.”

But Michael was persuasive. So we duly trotted out, and banging on doors, and confronting random bicyclists with our version of “music.”

The casualties? A round of applause at one house, thank yous from others, and worst of all we were pelted with chocolate. As for the random bicyclists they stopped and produced cookies for our whole choir of out-of-tune singers. And no one shot us, or even showed up armed.

So to all a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and have a Blessed New Year!


Fellowship (Gemeinschaft) by Franz Kafka (1909)

Fellowship (Gemeinschaft)


by Franz Kafka



We are five friends, one day we came out of a house one after the other, first one came and placed himself beside the gate, then the second came, or rather he glided through the gate like a little ball of quicksilver, and placed himself near the first one, then came the third, then the fourth, then the fifth. Finally we all stood in a row. People began to notice us, they pointed at us and said: Those five just came out of that house.

Since then we have been living together, it would be a peaceful life if it weren’t for a sixth one continually trying to interfere. He doesn’t do us any harm, but he annoys us, and that is harm enough; why does he intrude when he is not wanted? We don’t know him and don’t want him to join us.

There was a time, of course, when the five of us did not know one another, either, and it could be said that we still don’t know one another, but what is possible and can be tolerated by the five of us is not possible and cannot be tolerated with this sixth one. In any case, we are five and don’t want to be six. And what is the point of this continual being together anyhow? It is also pointless for the five of us, but here we are together and will remain together; a new combination, however, we do not want, just because of our experiences.

But how is one to make all this clear to the sixth one? Long explanations would almost amount to accepting him in our circle, so we prefer not to explain and not to accept him. No matter how he pouts his lips we push him away with our elbows, but however much we push him away, back he comes.

The above is fast-becoming my favorite text for teaching about the German concept of Gemeinschaft. The concept is fundamental to the sociology of classical sociologists Fedinand Toennies, and Max Weber; both based their sociology on the German concept of Gemeinschaft.

Gemeinschaft is a social group or identity rooted in a sense of belongingness. Members of a Gemeinschaft share personal loyalties to each other because of who they are. They have an “origin story,” share a present, and by implication will share a future together. Families and marital couples are a Gemeinschaft. But so are college fraternities and sororities, doctors guilds, nurses associations, lawyers’ bar associations, fellow citizens, militaries make up their own Gemeinschaft within a larger society. The academic Gemeinschaft dominate universities, college graduate have such respect each others degrees, and political groups do so too. For that matter, it applies to ethnic and linguistic groups as well. The point being that loyalty and privilege is on the basis of inherited or earned rights. Thus when you understand that someone is a member of your group, you offer them a special type of fellowship out of loyalty and mutual obligation, just like the five friends, who did not need a sixth., and do not need to justify why they do not want the sixth.  It just is.

These are the groups in which we as human thrive.  But on the basis of Gemeinschaft we also exclude.

Gemeinschaft is in contrast to the German Gesellschaft, which is a instrumental relationship for which there is no loyalty or future obligation. The market transaction is the most obvious type of Gesellschaft relationship, where you sell your goods, labor, or anything else for hard cold cash in the anonymous marketplace. Money is the nexus, not loyalty or human connection, and once the transaction is complete you have no responsibility to each other.  This type of relationship is the most common one we undertake in the modern world, as we sell our own labor, and buy the labor of others in order to survive, respecting only the lure of cold hard cash.  The classic example of a Gesellschaft-type relationship is the hired killer described by Max Weber. You pay, the killer kills, and the next time you see each other on the street, you ignore each other. Classic Gesellschaft.

And unlike with Gemeinschaft, the Gesellschaft does not need to exclude, except when you do not have money. Thus in the Gemeinschaft, only when there is loyalty and privilege, is there exclusion. Not everyone can be a member of the Gemeinschaft, and in fact the point of a Gemeinschaft is that there is someone who is not part of your group. And of course the point of having a group is that someone else is not part of your group. To be an insider you need an outsider. Which is the Kafkaesque point that the ever-cheerful Franz Kafka made about the nature of the “Fellowship” which is Gemeinschaft.


Kafka, Franz (1909) “Fellowship.”   translated by Tania and James Stern, from Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, edited by Nahum N. Glazer.  Random House, 1946.

Waters, Tony and Dagmar Waters, translators and editors (2015 in press). Chapter 4 “Classes, Staende, Parties” in  Weber’s Rationality and Modern Society.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.




The end of the semester, again

The end of the semester is always bittersweet for a college lecturer. Unlike elementary and high school teachers, college instructors go through a cycle of 16-week long relationships with different classes. I teach, on average, 4 to 5 classes each semester, with a total of 220 to 250 students per semester. It’s a lot of students to keep track of, a lot of grading, a lot of lecturing.
Twelve to fifteen hours a week, I’m in front of the classroom, trying to figure out the most effective way to impart lessons that range from Durkheim and Functionalism to how to perform sociological research to how different populations affect the environment; it’s a bit like being a stage actor, I suspect. During each class, I stand in front of 50 to 120 people, trying to engage with them. I ask them questions, give them information, sometimes I bare my soul with stories of my own experience that might relate to the lessons we are learning from the textbook. Unlike a stage actor, I don’t get applause to know how my presentation is going; I must rely on the small details of the students in my class. I look for the slight nod of the head, a smile that says, “ah ha, yes! I understand!”, and the raised hand, ready to be called on so the student can add to the conversation, or ask a relevant question. I relish the days in class when students have so many comments and questions about the topic at hand that we get sidetracked, and I throw my script out the window, and we discuss real-life sociology. But those days are few and far between, never often enough. Most days, if I get 20% of the class to contribute to a discussion, it’s a good day.

There are many students who never say a word in my class throughout the entire semester. They usually sit around the edges, every once in a while in the back of the classroom; never in front. But every semester, at least 25% of each class never speaks up, never talks to me after class, never comes to my office hours, and maybe most frustrating for me, is many of those students don’t give me the nod, or the slight smile, but that’s okay. My motto is, ‘as long as I make at least one person angry or happy or I kill the hopes of dreams of one student, it’s all good, and I’ll show up another day.’

By the end of the semester, or maybe even by the 14th week, most of my colleagues and I are exhausted by the hours in front of the classroom, the countless hours grading until 1 in the morning, tens of office hours with students discussing many aspects of a student’s life and often times, the struggles they face.

Honestly, teaching, of any kind, may not be physically difficult, but it is emotionally and psychologically taxing at times. By the end of the semester, we are all ready for a break.

But with the end of the semester comes angst of a sort. How do we say goodbye to our students? Unlike elementary and high school teaching, when the semester is over, we will likely never see the majority of the students we made a connection with again; it’s a bit of a loss each year. But more importantly for me, I ask myself, somewhere toward week 15, did I teach them what they need to know? Did they get enough from me? Did I make a connection with enough of the students? I worry, particularly, about those students on the sides, and in the back of the classroom: the ones who never spoke up.

And then, when the last lectures have been spoken, and the finals are almost over, it happens invariably: I start getting emails, notes in my office mail box, handshakes at the end of the final class, mostly from those students who didn’t speak up. “Thank you,” they tell me, and then give me a nugget of some sort, maybe a lesson they remembered, or a story that touched their heart, that tells me, they got it. They hug me, and say goodbye, and I tell them good luck, and I truly mean it. And I know that I’ll come back again, even without the applause, because they bring me cookies during finals week, and send me photos of their babies a few years later, and hugs when I see them around town, and they stop by my office, even years later when they’ve gone on with their lives. And that makes it all worth it.