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?

Reference

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.

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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.

 

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Adjuncts Unite!

A is for adjunct

In a recent response to Tony’s piece describing the “three gifts of tenure” that I posted on LinkedIn (in my Sociology of Education group) a commenter said this: “The treatment of adjuncts is a national crime perpetrated on our education system and the unsuspecting public. Adjuncts receive about a third of the salary/benefits for the same course taught by a full-time faculty member. Unless we want to redress this injustice, talking about the plight of adjuncts is useless.”

What do you think? I think the commenter is correct and that any of us who have adjuncted for more than 3 years knows, it’s an unequal, two-tier system where two groups of teachers do the same job but only one is awarded a decent salary/benefits/occupational status. Can you imagine if these were side-by-side workers? It wouldn’t happen; the inequality works because the two groups of workers are separated and invisible to each other. From my perspective, change will have to come from the bottom up, not as individuals but as a collective. Individual adjuncts are not wrong in fearing their institutions, there is much to fear. But acting together to make the inequality visible, well that might be a good beginning to a series of actions intended to redress the injustice of adjunctification.

Next month there is a nationally organized plan to stage a walkout of adjunct faculty. National Adjunct Walkout day is scheduled for February 25, 2015. The protest will be taking place across the U.S. and is intended to highlight low wages and poor working conditions. It’s easy to talk but more important to walk so I hope that if you’re an adjunct reading this that you will talk to your colleagues and consider the value of this collective action. It is long overdue. Tell your students too; let them know why it is necessary, maybe they’ll walk out with you.

I say, take to the streets, let your administrators and tenured colleagues know that adjuncts will speak up, will do something rather than gripe in silence. Otherwise, the powers that be assume they’ve got you, your silence, your fear; they smell it and will use it, tell you every semester how valuable you are while they raise their own salaries and your colleagues file for food stamps. The adjunct movement is building steam, join it.

Here’s a few resources for information, if you have any resources (or thoughts!) to share, please do so in a comment below.

Click this link for National Adjunct Walkout Day on twitter #NAWD

Click this link for National Adjunct Walkout Day on facebook

Click this link and this link for forums and questions regarding National Adjunct Walkout Day

 

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“I’m Sorry, Next Semester We Do Not Have Any Classes For You!”

Scarlet Letter

The Three Gifts of Tenure

I will say it up front. Tenure is cool, and the opposite, “contingent” employment, really sucks. I was an adjunct for about two years in the 1990s, and I know from first hand experience that it sucked. Why?

Well there were a couple of reasons. First, was that I was constantly on the job market, since I did not know where my income was coming from the following semester. This is a condition that college teachers share with many workers in the modern economy, on the funny assumption that the more scared you are of catastrophe, the harder you will work.

Scared teachers do not develop their repertoire, either in teaching or research. Delivering a 15 week class takes 3-4 semesters to “get right,” meaning to get the rhythm of what you need to say, how it fits together, what assignments fit in best. And of course the jokes need to be right—and that takes practice, too. Three to four times, and it starts becoming easy—and 10-12 times it becomes boring, as your “lecture” notes yellow and turn stale.

A second gift of tenure is the capacity to develop a research program—you can only do this if you have a reasonable confidence. Research programs, whether they are your own, or your graduate students, take several years to manage and develop. Books? About five years. Articles, a little less.

And the third gift of tenure is that it puts you on an equal footing with your “boss.” This is important because, well, not all bosses, are that great at supervising teachers, whether they are tenured or not—just ask the adjuncts who are indeed supervised by Department Chairs elected by the tenured faculty.

This part of the gift of tenure has two different causes. . First is the fact that teaching is inherently difficult to supervise—a supervisor cannot watch any particular doing more than a fraction of their work, nor can they use a clock, or other mechanism to monitor anything of significance in the classroom. This is something that those who supervise teaching should know, but often do not acknowledge.

The second part of the problem is that the chairs and deans who hire adjunct faculty are not necessarily very good managers of adjuncts—they are hired by tenured faculty to serve (not manage) tenured faculty. Supervising adjuncts is for them just a side gig—the real action is with those who elected them, i.e. the tenure track faculty. As a result many are not necessarily very good at managing “contingent employees.” What does it mean to be lousy at supervising adjuncts?

–Not let the adjunct know what they will be teaching or take away an assigned class and give it to a tenured person at last minute

–Change up preps unexpectedly–Change class sizes erratically

–Use anecdotal student gossip to write reviews, whether it comes in hushed tones in the office, through written reviews, informal discussion with tenured faculty or ratemyprofessor.com.

—Otherwise keep the adjunct off-balance regarding their professional status.

And then of course there is the problem of pay, which like it or not is central what we do. The stories of adjuncts on welfare are of course legion. Not every campus does it, but paying $2,000-$3000 per class for a full-time adjunct (with ten courses being a full-load) is a recipe for penury, short-term employment, and high employee turnover. And what can I say? Quick turnover of teachers is harmful to teaching quality—and in the university world, “quick” means every 5-6 years. After all, how can you prepare a “full quiver” of classes a shorter time? Student success suffers from teachers who are not treated as highly skilled professionals, and have a tougher time developing as a professional as a result.

And this says nothing of a research program which oddly enough, some adjuncts still put together on the side.

My Appreciation for Tenure

I’ve had tenure since 2003, and it has been a blessing, particularly when I compare my working conditions to my adjunct colleagues who are constantly under threat of lay-off. What has it permitted me to do?

Accept new course preps, and explore new fields without fear of short-term failure, which in the adjunct world means a few students complaining to a dean or chair about you. Sometimes this happened, mostly it didn’t—but even when it does, I can be confident that the comments will not be taken out of context.

Re-establish the Asian Studies major, for which I was a “voluntary advisor” for three years. This is something I am enormously proud of—and would not have done without the freedom of tenure protections.

Publish three books, and finish a fourth. Write a number of articles, one of which received a comeuppance letter from the United States Ambassador to Tanzania. Because I was tenure track, I got an “attaboy” from my Chair at the time. Imagine if I had been contingent—I would have been afraid that such a high government official could get me fired, or at least put in the pathway of “I’m sorry it looks like there are no classes for you next semester.”

In short, my employment guarantee gives me the freedom to experiment without fear to my livelihood. Do some of my colleagues take advantage of this? Probably—but the fact of the matter is that the freedom my tenure gives me exists only in such a context. If I didn’t have an employment guarantee I would be back to sending out my c.v. every semester and keeping my head low, in hopes that I could put together a living, rather than developing a scholarly career.

I’m Sorry, Next Semester We Do Not Have Any Classes For You!

The opposite of tenure, lack of employment security, though actually drags the institution of higher education down further. To understand this, I need only listen to the whispered fears of my adjunct colleagues. They fear trying new things, requesting professional courtesies I take for granted, requesting justified raises, attending conferences, taking on new preps, or pushing back when more students are pushed at them (this is why typically adjunct faculty teach larger sections than their tenured colleagues). They are hesitant about expressing themselves frankly in meetings. Many fear becoming involved in the union not because of what they union does, but because they fear administrators will deliver the dreaded and vague message, “next semester we do not have any classes for you.”

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A Tale Within a Tale: The Dual Nature of Ebenezer Scrooge

A-Christmas-Carol-image-copy

By Guest Writer: David Van Huff

In passing, I met a hypothetical man some years back who laid claim to a tale within a tale, which has forever changed the way I think about a classic story from the past. For those of you who have heard the story the A Christmas Carol (Dickens, 1843) once, I’m sure you’ve heard it a thousand times again with little or no concern. True, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) has crafted a near magical piece of literature within the cover of this epic book; however, we now live in a culture that commercially assaults its inhabitants, all the while, converting timeless words, into mere recycled words for hire. Timeless words! My friend in passing talked of these often, and his story to tell seemed much the same.

Gil, he claimed, the name they gave him, told a different story altogether of Mr. Scrooge. Gil talked of a man he met in Paris near the end of WWI who went by the name Emile Durkheim. The famous sociologist, I asked!  Yes, Gil replied, but I certainly didn’t know him from Adam at the time. Turns out, Gil frequented the University Library while in Paris, and it was there, while quietly reading a borrowed copy of A Christmas Carol, where he made acquaintance with Mr. Durkheim. “Right away, Mr. Durkheim took notice of my choice of reading, and he didn’t hesitate to offer additional education on my chosen text”, Gil injected. The main character, “Mr. Scrooge”, Durkheim said, has inherited a dual consciousness, just like the rest of humanity; that’s the real story. He softly claimed.

Perhaps I should just let Gil tell the story from here on out: Without a doubt, Mr. Durkheim was the smartest man I ever met. What he said that day about A Christmas Carol, I’ll not soon forget. A tale within a tale is what he told, the same tale I tell you. Mr. Durkheim confirmed that all the characters were the same, Tiny Tim, Bob Crotchet, Marley, the other ghost’s, and of course, Mr. Scrooge. However, from that point, Mr. Durkheim started to say things I barely understood. He said I would have to know more about humanity before he could continue with the tale, and this is what he said: “First of all, there is the ontological explanation for which Plato gave the formula. Man is double because two worlds meet in him: that of non-intelligent and amoral matter, on the one hand, and that of ideas, the spirit, and the good on the other. Because these two worlds are naturally opposed, they struggle within us; and, because we are part of both, we are necessarily in conflict with ourselves” (Durkheim.pg. 157).

Somehow, what he said made sense. It’s not that I fully understood Mr. Durkheim’s philosophy lesson, but it was more the way he said it, with such certainty and conviction that convinced me. After my first lesson, he quickly got back to Mr. Scrooge. Mr. Durkheim said that Mr. Scrooge was a perfect example of someone who had lost contact with his moral self, leaving him a complete and total expression of his lessor, “non-intelligent, amoral” self. Outwardly, in A Christmas Carol, we know this lessor man as Ebenezer Scrooge, Durkheim confirmed. As the story begins, he was a man welded and embittered to the ideas of self, and self alone. I was amazed how quickly Mr. Durkheim’s tale within a tale had developed, and just then, at that very moment, I felt that Mr. Durkheim had somehow reached deep inside me with the same message he used to describe Mr. Scrooge. Was there somehow a little Mr. Scrooge in me as-well, I thought, and who really was this Mr. Durkheim anyway? For a moment, I started thinking Mr. Durkheim was my ghost of Christmas Past. Thankfully, Mr. Durkheim was willing to continue the story, because I was all ears at this point.

By now, Mr. Durkheim had somehow convinced me that a ghost from Christmas past was not a completely unrealistic concept. Mr. Durkheim, still very determined to tell this deeper version of the story, asked to see my book. He said that Scrooge’s character transitions throughout the book, further confirms his theory of a dual-human nature. Listen, Mr. Durkheim said, as Scrooge himself reveals his engagement with the ignorant side of humanity: “ If I could work my will,’ said Scrooge, indignantly, ‘ every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas,’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”(Dickens.pg 4) Notice, Mr. Durkheim said, there is not a speck of morality available within this comment, however, he continued, this does not mean that morality is absent from within the man: “To say that we are double because there are two contrary forces in us is to repeat the problem in different terms; it does not resolve it. It is still necessary to explain their opposition” (Durkheim.pg. 157). It would be years before I really started to understand Mr. Durkheim’s story in earnest, however, I continued to listen intently in the moment.

Of course, I had questions for Mr. Durkheim. One, in particular, was who told him this tale within a tale? Also, why didn’t Charles Dickens seize the opportunity to further enlighten humanity within the pages of his own book? I never asked Mr. Durkheim these or any of my other questions, but merely welled in anticipation for him to continue. Struggle, conflict and opposition, are not words I use lightly in describing this ever-present inner battle within all of us, Mr. Durkheim said; and I believe Mr. Scrooge would agree, as “ He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the Spirit, and his face was wet with tears” (Dickens.pg 79). I pondered my own inner battles, as Mr. Durkheim confirmed the dual-nature of humanity within just a few short moments.

At this point, I could actually anticipate where Mr. Durkheim might go next with the story, and I couldn’t wait to hear his thoughts on Tiny Tim. However, I didn’t ask him, and he didn’t offer. He never did mention Tiny Tim, or Bob Cratchit, and for years I wondered why? Reason being, as I presumed much later, Mr. Durkheim was passionate about teaching, and the teachable moment resided in Scrooge; literally, within Scrooge, the man. “It was not without reason, therefore, that man feels himself to be double: he actually is double. There are two classes of states of consciousness that differ from the other in origin and nature, and in the end towards which they aim” (Durkheim.pg.161) Mr. Durkheim said with confidence. I started to connect further with Mr. Durkheim as the story progressed, and I realized that Mr. Scrooge’s dual-nature would complete a full direction shift within the confines of a 30 minute engagement with Mr. Durkheim. In other words, whichever inner-nature laid hold of Mr. Scrooge, (or any of us, for that matter) that would be the direction of his or her “aim” in life.

A fully transitional, dual-nature experience, from amoral to moral would reveal a striking contrast of character, Mr. Durkheim confirmed. Still grasping my book, he reads on: “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angle, I am as merry as a school boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all in the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!” (Dickens.pg.79)  No need for deliberation, the jury in my head had long ago settled the case. Mr. Durkheim was right on all counts. I actually found life easier after my talk with Mr. Durkheim on that dreary post war day in Paris. In many ways, there is a degree of peace available as one further understands the inner battles that lie within us all.

I never saw Mr. Durkheim again, and he simply handed me back my book, offered me “Good day” and blended off into the hurried University crowd. Had his story been an essay, he would have gotten high marks for execution, content, and his uncontended theses. Simply stated, that: “The main Character, Mr. Scrooge, had inherited a dual consciousness; just like the rest of humanity” (Assumed Durkheim) To this day, I have never met a man who could make a statement like that and back it up in such perfect order; proving throughout the discussion, the overwhelming evidence of a dual-natured humanity. The story Mr. Durkheim told me, the tale within a tale, is the same tale I tell you! Guard this story with your life, because there is much timeless wisdom and truth woven into “The Dual Nature of Ebenezer Scrooge”.

CC 2

The Tale Within the Tale—David van Huff’s Durkheim Essay.
By Tony Waters

This is reference letter season—I’m cranking out letter after letter in the hopes that my students will make it into grad school somewhere and somehow.  On many of the forms is the nonsensical question that goes something like this: “Given all the students that you have taught, where does this student rank in overall quality?”  Such a question leads to data which is neither reliable nor valid, but for some reason big universities like to ask it, and I continue to check the best boxes I think I can get away with.

This brings up the essay above which is by David van Huff.  This is the first student paper I’ve ever posted to Ethngoraphy.com.  So does it mean it is the best ever?  I don’t know, but maybe so.  In any event, I learned something from his paper about the classical sociologist Emile Durkheim, and the novelist Charles Dickens.

Having said that, David really did not follow the letter of the prompt I provided the students—but whatever.  I think he also flunked one of my exams.  And that is also a “whatever.”  The bottom line is that I learned something from him about a subject I’ve been teaching for ten years!!  And isn’t that the best measure of a promising student?  UC Berkeley and Harvard do you hear me?  David van Huff is your guy, even if he didn’t apply!

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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.

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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).

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