Tuesday, May 29, 2007

rarely do people who work with large social surveys ever get a chance to actually have conversations with their respondents

The longitudinal study that I've worked with closely the last few years is a sample of people who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. Since 1957+50=2007, this is the year these classes will have their 50th high school reunion, and the project offered to send a representative to speak at reunions that were willing to have one of us.

Saturday night I drove to a certain small town in southwest Wisconsin to speak at their reunion. I invite you to reflect upon how much fun you would expect to have at a class reunion of a school you didn't attend, where you didn't know anyone (spouse attendees at least have their spouses), and in a community you've never been to before. And yet, I honestly had a very good time. Mainly because the place reminded me a lot of my hometown--only with a lot more community spirit than I ever saw in my hometown. I probably felt more comfortable and at-home there than at the average dinner party of professors I've attended. Everyone was also in such good spirits that it was infectious.

The dinner started with a prayer; the reception started with the pledge of allegiance; and it ended with "God Bless America." I tried to remember when would have been the last time I said the pledge of allegiance. Sitting beside me at the reunion were these three wives of Class of '57 graduates. The conversation at dinner was sparse and awkward until I mentioned that I studied the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and then it became far more lively.

The reunion was an all-class reunion, meaning any graduate was welcome. Different people spoke as members of different honor classes. A man from the class of 1947 (having their 60th reunion) told various stories from the good old days of their class, but one stood out. I didn't catch what it was, but there was some activity that the principal told the students he would shoot them if they did. The speaker and three other members of his class apparently did the activity, were caught, and were brought into the school. The principal pointed to one of the students and said "You first" and brought him back into his office. The speaker and his two friends were sitting there for a few minutes, and then there was this gunshot from inside the principal's office. The principal then stepped out with this smoking gun in hand. Of course, he revealed soon enough that it had just been blanks, but, said the speaker, "He still sure got his point across."

The speaker said in concluding the anecdote, "Different times," as I was trying to imagine the CNN.com story that would be playing nationwide if a principal did this today.


sara said...

I love that you did this and I'm glad it was fun! I think there's probably good documentary film potential in a more concerted (dare I say, "systematic"?) effort to get people who work with large social surveys into settings where they'd interact with the people whose lives are their data. Though, I'm kind of a geek, so may well be overestimating the general appeal of such material. Well, at the very least, we could screen it at the ASA annual meeting movies and from there head to Cannes...

the crab said...

I think that if you were with an age comparable group from Manson you would find the same community spirit. I am not sure when that was lost, but since the malls and big box store stores decimated small town main streets, this has been a problem.

I'll be sure to invite you to our next class reunion. We'll make you feel special!