Sunday, September 30, 2007

coitical mass

E-mail from a special JFW correspondent:
Just had tea with friends who were at this week's Moynihan Conference at Harvard. Among the speakers at the conference was Karl Zinsmeister, Bush's assistant for domestic policy. Apparently, his talk focused on the institution of marriage as the "cure to all of society's ills" - drug use, incarceration, teenage pregnancy, etc. In fact, says Zinsmeister, strengthening the institution of marriage is the single most important thing we can do for our country. Having some appreciation of the fact that he was talking to a room full of social scientists, Zinsmeister was careful to specify the causal mechanism which makes this so, stating that the reason that marriage is so important is that it "harnesses the nuclear reactor of male sexual energy."
I suppose we should all be thankful that boys make it through adolescence without vaporizing everyone for hundreds of miles and poisoning the groundwater for generations.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

making money making money

NYT has a story about a couple that was arrested following their attempted use of "Liberty Dollars" at a restaurant. The couple has a blog about their arrest. I've just now spent several minutes reading the website for Liberty Dollars, "America's second most popular currency." This guy is making his own money and selling it. The pitch is that the money is backed by actual silver, although the silver it is backed by is only about half what silver trades for on the open market. Since buying these dollars is a purchase that fundamentally makes no sense--other than the mirth of having a coin with Ron Paul's face on it--the guy has to come up with reasons why one should do it anyway, and he does it with gusto. Wrap your head around these consecutive sentences:
Just imagine, while your US Dollars are losing purchasing power, the Liberty Dollars are appreciating in value and rewarding everyone holding the new gold and silver currency that keeps pace with inflation.

Plus the Liberty Dollar is easy for merchants and customers use because it functions dollar-for-dollar with the US dollar as its "unit of account" is exactly the same.
Anyway, I don't think much was gained by arresting the couple in the NYT story, but I might support keeping them in jail anyway just to keep them from breeding.

Friday, September 28, 2007

carpe podium

WSJ article on "Last Lecture Series," in which professors are asked to deliver a lecture as if hypothetically it was the last one they would ever give, with a story about a public lecture by a professor for whom the Last Lecture was not hypothetical [HT:RPS].

Thursday, September 27, 2007


Northwestern's policy makes it technically breach of contract if faculty members discover an incident of academic misconduct and try to handle it themselves rather than refer it immediately to the Dean's office. I like this idea so much more than Wisconsin's policy, which required you first to meet one-on-one with the student and only pass it forward if you intended to implement any punishment. An interesting twist is that if a lecturer or junior faculty member at Northwestern and tried to handle it The Wisconsin Way, the student could turn around and try to blackmail the teacher for their misconduct-misconduct.

First incident of undergraduate plagiarism that I had at Wisconsin involved a class where the TA caught the student. I don't remember if this was the case where the undergrad's reference to their "35 years of experience in the field" was the giveaway that perhaps the student had not written the text in question, or the one whose paper included "(see map on page 537)." Anyway, the TA was convinced this was an anomalous experience. "Good student; sociology major" he said, more than once.* I had to meet with her and she had a story for how some emergency had happened and she was scared about turning in the assignment late and so took something quick off the Internet. I believed her. After all, she looked really remoseful and scared. But there was another assignment out and ten seconds of Googling revealed that one to be plagiarized as well. Turns out, she had even been lying about being a sociology major.**

* No, I didn't really understand why the idea of her being a sociology major was supposed to make her less like to commit misconduct, either.

** All that evidence that people in positions of authority aren't any better at detecting when people are lying, but they do believe that they are: you don't believe it applies to you until confronted with the fact that it does.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

they bother you up, your mum and dad. and if they don't get you...

...writing a book regarded as wildly brilliant in one's late twenties or early thirties surely will. Case in point: Douglas Hofstadter, whose I Am A Strange Loop I started reading last night. I remember reading Hofstadter's 1979 Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid when I was a senior in college and thinking this was the most miraculously clever book I had ever read in my life. Hofstadter says readers mostly missed the real point of GEB--regarding consciousness--and that he is going to take a second try at the heart of the matter at IAASL. He also says "I would characterize I Am A Strange Loop as being my own best shot at describing what 'the human condition' is." A hundred pages in, the human condition is apparently wildly disorganized and as much about indulging the self-admiration of Douglas Hofstadter as anything else. I remember there being a current of that in GEB, but now it has gone from current to a scorching thermonucleoelectro wave.

At least I think this is what's happened. I was a lot younger when I read GEB, and so I'm wondering if I would be less enamored of it if I read it now. This is when you know an Established Brilliant Person has really bothered up a book, when you not only want to discard the book at hand, but it makes you question the work that led you to conclude they were brilliant in the first place.

Update: OK, now I just went back and started looking at my copy of GEB and, particularly, my mark-ups in the margins. The new hypothesis is that I am misremembering GEB--specifically, I recalled the good parts of the book and forgot how many problems I had with the character of many of his arguments, even back them. Plus, the cleverness of Godel, Cantor, Turing, etc., rubbed off onto my assessment of him much more then than now, perhaps. It bothers you up, aging does.

his dark materials

My next-door colleague Gary Alan Fine has a restaurant blog, running for more than a couple years now. How did I not know this?

Also, in the annals of "Oops, I Did It Again," I hypothesized that I would have better motivation to perseverate while exercising if I listened to an audiobook rather than music. So I bought The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, Book 1) on iTunes. I did listen to it while I exercised, then I also spent 9 more hours over the last two days not exercising but listening to it all the way to the end. (Very highly recommended, btw, at least in audiobook form.) Says a friend, "You should just decide you are only going to listen to it while you are exercising." Yeah, right. Those stories about women suddenly having the strength to lift cars off of their children are more plausible than the idea of me suddenly having a burst of will-muscle that would allow me to do that once I am into a story.

Still not as bad as when I sat around listening straight through to the final 12 hours of the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix audiobook, my least favorite of the HP series anyway.

Monday, September 24, 2007

there is nothing in sports journalism more delicious than reading cricket news when you know hardly anything about cricket

Actual paragraph, encountered just now:
The architects of the Indian triumph were the two left-armers, Rudra Pratap Singh and Irfan Pathan, both of whom scalped three wickets to scupper the chase. Singh struck in both his opening overs, having Mohammad Hafeez caught at slip and knocking Kamran Akmal's off stump out of the ground, but Imran Nazir played a blinder at the other end to keep his side ahead of the asking rate.
Left-armer! Wicket-scalper! Chase-scupperer! Slip-catcher! Stump-knocker! Blinder-player! Ahead-of-the-asking-rate-keeper!

overheard plus

This one was actually submitted by JFW premium subscriber from Dwarfamor, ME:
"I really think I want to do something to make a difference this year."
"Me, too. The difference I am committed to making is that I'm going to go to my classes."
Another friend e-mailed me to say that her department has decided that this fall they will have a retreat. The idea being to talk about some larger and weightier issues about structure and collegiality. Northwestern sociology had a retreat this summer, although it was held in a conference room and was not that different from how you'd imagine a seven-hour faculty meeting. In the case of my friend's retreat, they are having a professional moderator--intriguing occupation, that--and they are talking about going to a lodge. As my friend was telling me about all this, I just kept thinking one thing: this is the best premise for an academic murder mystery novel that I have ever heard in my life. Sort of like Straight Man meets And Then There Were None.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

the honeymooners

"Mom, have you ever been to Chicago?"
"We went there for our honeymoon. It was awful."
"What happened?"
"Before we went, my father said to me 'You go there, you look straight ahead. You don't look at anyone, or they'll stab you'."
"And then we were staying on the nineteenth floor of this hotel and it had a fire."
"That wasn't really so bad. What was bad was the entire time I was there I just kept thinking somebody is going to kill me."
"Well, that was 54 years ago."
"Yes, that was back when there wasn't as much crime."
"If you come visit, I promise you won't get stabbed."

Saturday, September 22, 2007

norms of engagement, 2

So, the discussion of the norms about blogging conferences, colloquia, seminars, etc., has extended into one of the longer threads Orgtheory has had, and I appear there to be staking out a lonely position. Most of the other participants seem much into the idea that "manners" provide the overriding principle for academic discourse. I see manners more as superstructure and other principles as constituting the base. Asking for permission is an action done with different kinds of ideas about the obligations of the other person to respond favorably. Sometimes, one asks permission with the understanding that it really is entirely the right of the other person to decline. Other times, one "asks permission" with the idea that the other person ought to have a good reason if they are going to decline, or else they are practicing bad manners themselves.

When I talk about a specific situation being "fair game" for blogging, perhaps one can say that courtesy implies a ritual exchange of asking permission and having it granted--in other words, "asking permission" in the second sense above. Whatever. I would prefer a world in which faculty feel comfortable engaging in discourse about ideas rather than feeling they have to go through some mutual grooming exercise beforehand, but others clearly disagree.

Still, in terms of the idea of what is genuinely within a speaker's discretion to squelch public commentary about, I am surprised at how some of the commentators regard things as private that seem to me obviously not private. While I still believe in the basic heuristics that anything that can be put on a CV is fair game for blogging, I think three other heuristics are even harder to argue with, although maybe one can say a person should "ask permission" with the presumption it will be granted:
1. If a talk is fully open to the public, it is fair game for blogging.

2. If a talk is open to individuals with media credentials, it is fair game for blogging.

3. If a talk is recorded and made available publicly on the Internet, it is fair game for blogging.
I mean, come on. Again, none of this means people should not be "polite" in offering criticism of others' work, etc..

More generally, I think another way I diverge from the other commentators is that I'm not just concerned about what's right for the speaker. The academic blogger wants to write about something because they have a reaction, and their prerogative to be able to share that reaction with others should not be regarded lightly.

Friday, September 21, 2007

norms of engagement

A post on orgtheory about a seminar talk has led to a discussion thread about the appropriateness of blogging seminar talks. I offer my reaction there. I think a pithier statement of part of my stance is "If it's vitable, it's bloggable," meaning that any scholarly product that can be reported on somebody's CV is something that can be blogged about. "Invited presentation at xxx university" regularly goes on the CV, and thus is fair game, at least by default. The allowance I would give for a "research seminar" versus a "department colloquium" is that with the former one should--at least under most circumstances--respect some kind of statement like "Please do not engage in public commentary on this paper without the author’s permission." The default, though, is that it's bloggable.* A colloquium, on the other hand, is in my mind just like a conference presentation, where asking the audience to refrain from public commentary is an out-of-bounds request.

Northwestern sociology has a colloquium in which the department takes much pride. I assure you that if I feel like blogging about something that's presented there, I will.

Also, I just feel like I have to restate here: Public discussion about sociology ideas and about projects on the leading edge of the discipline is a good thing that should be encouraged as much as possible.

* At least if the presenter is a faculty member.

8 random things about me, continued!

To this day, sometimes I will be walking down the street, and I will suddenly stop and say out loud, incredulously, "Dan Myers has 279 Kiss songs on his iPod." Then I will smile, shake my head, and continue walking.

Six more!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

don't forget, mateys!

Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. So get out your eyepatch and your fake hand hook and threaten to swash the buckle of those you love today. Remember if you are low on inspiration and need to see some buccaneers, all you need to do is look on the sides of your buccanhead.*

Why am I not talking like a pirate in this post? Because I'm not talking in this post, and it's not International Type Like A Pirate Day. And I'd sooner slice off me dubloon with a cutlass than make ye a podcast.

(Speaking of which, now has this feature where you can leave audio comments on posts and listen to other people's audio comments. I'm not sure if I fully get podcasting, but I certainly do not get what would be fun about listening to random stranger's audio comments. I think I must place a higher premium on the efficiency gains from the 'skim' affordances of reading than many other people do.)

* Joke stolen from CC. Today is all about piracy, after all.

8 random things about me!

Normally I don't do memes, but Jim tagged me for this one asking me to provide eight random things about myself and I thought why not. So I've spent the entire day today working on the list of everything about me from which I would sample. Sometime during my second hour of just typing "I am typing right now (still)" over and over again, I looked at the lists that Jim and other people who have done this meme have made, and I realized they weren't serious about the "random" part. They were choosing "arbitrary" things that were disproportionately "quirky" and/or "interesting."*

So, now I don't know if I'll do my eight arbitrary, potentially quirky/interesting things or not. One pseudorandom thing about me, though, is that if you want to see my face scrunch uncomfortably, all you need to do is make me listen to a pop song that conspicuously uses an unnatural, Chaucerly sentence construction in order to make a line rhyme. Examples:

From "Hey There Delilah", by the Plain White T's:
Hey there Delilah
I've got so much left to say
If every simple song I wrote to you
Would take your breath away
I'd write it all
Even more in love with me you'd fall
We'd have it all
From "Dream Vacation" by the Gear Daddies:
And late at night when the kids is all asleep
Then off to the lounge for a nightcap we can sneak
I know our lives they ain't the stuff of dreams
But for one full week we can live like kings and queens
Seven more!

* I reserve the right to write an entire future post about Wicked Anomie's #3 random thing.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

keeping the room like this would have taken my aspiration for an uncluttered lifestyle too far

(eszter's photo of me working away in my living room before my furniture arrives)

Monday, September 17, 2007

dispatch from the syracuse airport

My talk went okay, as these things go. My tendency not to sleep well when I travel continued, and so I was tired. I'll be happy to be back in Chicago, where I won't be doing any plane travel for a month and have a good chance to settle in and find a productive equilibrium.

Before the talk, I got an e-mail saying that it was a good thing I wasn't giving the talk two days later, as Wednesday is International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Although having a parrot on my shoulder might have added some color to otherwise bland slides.

After the talk, someone came up and asked me if I knew that four out of the five people who voted to delete my Wikipedia entry are, according to their profiles, members of the Singaporean Defense Forces. (?!)

In perhaps a related phenomenon to how you only get free wireless anymore in cheap hotels, free wireless here in the Syracuse airport.

for whom the belle trolls

First, my Wikipedia entry gets deleted for lack of notability. Then, I discover that the mysterious troll prone to leaving especially abusive comments on this blog isn't even my troll at all, but someone else's troll who just comments here because the other person doesn't allow anonymous comments and summarily deletes all of hers. (I did some investigating after the troll's penchant from using details I've revealed about my family to criticize me escalated to invoking my deceased sister. Batbother crazy, I know.*) So, anonymous comments are off, permanently, and any comments from Mary or a Mary-like substance will be immediately and forever deleted, as however bad it is to have an abusive troll, it's way worse to feel like some abusive troll's sloppy seconds.

Hmph. I now feel even more stupid for whatever mental energy was used up contemplating this person's past remarks (or, even, writing this post). It's one thing to wonder why somebody could go from reading various innocuous things you post to drawing all kinds of negative conclusions about you as a human being; it's another just to realize that all along the person only baits you because of your perceived connection to someone else. Oh, well, I suppose I can keep pining for a mentally imbalanced person to walk into my blog life who will hate me for me and be trolly-true to me alone. A boy can dream.

To certain people that I value as commenters but who stop commenting when I turn off anonymous comments because they are too lazy to set up a Blogger account: come on, I can help you set one up if you want.

Another thing I really liked about having anonymous commenters was that, when I would talk about academia, graduate students would comment anonymously because they didn't feel comfortable posting under blogger-identities. I regret this, as many of those comments were insightful and instructive. But, even setting one psycho troll aside, it's probably time to stop anonymous comments. I'm starting a new chapter of my life, and have uncertainty where this blog fits in it anyway, but I might as well scale back on providing opportunities for defamation by complete strangers.

I'm otherwise happily visiting Cornell, btw, where I am giving a talk later today on health disparities. I'm staying in the hotel that is run by the hotel management program, which means especially energetic service from fresh-faced college kids. Three people immediately greeted me as I got out of the car that brought me from the airport, and the person who came around for turndown service was oddly persistent when I said I did not need turndown service (which I've never understood anyway) or any extra water. Even so, it hasn't been as striking here as at the equivalent institution at Penn State, where the servers for breakfast looked so nervous about making a mistake that I would not have been surprised to learn they were wearing shock collars under their uniform.

* "Batbother crazy" is one of my two favorite expressions for insanity that we used back on the farm; the other is "Kookier than a cack-handed cricket bat."

Saturday, September 15, 2007

my diploma is all boxed up and ready to drop in the mail

My Hawkeyes are losing to Iowa State 12-0 at halftime. The same Iowa State that was schooled last week by the University of Northern Iowa, and the week before that by Kent State.

Plus we blew an opportunity just before the half due to poor clock management. As much as I believe in Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz, I am amazed that someone who makes $2.7 million as a football coach chronically handles end-of-game situation. The Hawkeyes greatest and most exciting victory in recent years, in fact, resulted from the team managing the clock in so badly at the end of the game that it confused the opposing defense.

I'm glad we don't have to play Michigan this year, as I don't think we would beat them.

BTW, I used to not have anything against Iowa State, and would root for them against anyone other than my Hawkeyes. After all, the state between two rivers is sufficiently small and belittled by outsiders that we have to stick together. Then I realized that the was no way the state of Iowa could support two quality BCS football programs when states like Ohio only have one. Thus my magnamity was gutted by demography. The Hawkeyes and Cyclones are like Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, while they are intertwined by a common blood of funding, one must die for the other to live. I would be all for a merger, giving Iowa State basketball while Iowa gets football. So long as the resulting program plays in the Big 10 and doesn't use that godawful cardinal color.

you asked for it: why is sociology commonly an "easy" major?

A couple of commenters asked for my "take" on why sociology is reputed to be a relatively easy major at many colleges and universities. Okay, why not? I'm just to going to write it as a series of observations and conjectures, though:

1. The intrinsic substantive difficulty of a field, whatever that means, is not a good place to look for the explanation of why some majors are easier than others, as instructors have the capacity to vary greatly the difficulty of courses on the same topic. There was a minor scandal many years ago at the University of Iowa over all the athletes who were talking "Watercolor" because it was an easy course to get a good grade in. The craft of watercolor itself is (I hear) very difficult and a course on it presumably could be made extremely hard.

2. That said, so many people are so resolutely incorrigible and freaked out about math, it's probably safe to assert a tendency in which the more a substantive enterprise involves math, the more difficult a major in that enterprise will be perceived as being. Most sociology dissertations are not quantitative, so it's not surprising there tends to be minimal math in sociology classes.

3. With varying directness at different universities, majors are a source of revenue for departments, so one might expect the "equilibrium difficulty" of a major to be whatever maximizes the number of students. All else being equal, it might be simpler to explain why an easy major would attract more students than a hard one, so perhaps difficult majors are bigger explanatory puzzles than easy ones.

4. One reason a student might choose a hard major over an easy one is that the hard major is perceived as offering greater career rewards. Any major that has to put up bulletin boards for undergraduates about "What can you do with an X major?" is more likely to be an easy major.

5. I'll conjecture that departments less dependent on students for revenue because of grants and other revenue streams tend to offer harder majors. Sociology has only modest funding from grants. BTW, if true, an implication might be variation in difficulty of majors is higher at research universities with considerable grant revenue (spread wildly disproportionately around departments), than at liberal arts colleges.

6. "Sociology" is sufficiently mysterious to high school students that very few enter college with the idea of majoring in sociology. Sociology commonly picks up many majors who only decide to major in sociology relatively late, and after taking some course after intro. For this reason, sociology has a greater cost to trying to impose any kind of prerequisites on students. Multicourse sequences are more difficult than courses with no prerequisites, especially as the latter often have to offer redundant conceptual content with one another.

7. Professors differ in the psychic rewards they derive from being seen as tough, presiding over a tough course, telling classes on the first day that a third of them will either drop or fail, etc.. Sociologists tend to be less stoked to give large numbers of students bad grades than practitioners of some other disciplines I could name.

8. Sociologists are, professionally, better at generating non-individualistic explanations for individual failures. So they tend to be constitutionally more squeamish about making distinctions among students, which inflates grades and makes the major easier.

Consistent with a broader aversion to hierarchy, sociology draws disproportionately from the pool of those who would be fine abolishing grades altogether. I'll conjecture the prevalence of this attitude in a discipline is correlated with how easy it tends to be. Any discipline in which a leading textbook is titled "Down-To-Earth X," or something equally hippie-friendly, is more likely to be an easy major.

10. Even after all the foregoing, I would want more evidence before I conceded that sociology is typically an easier major than most majors in the humanities or fine arts. Sociology is identified as a "social science," though, so when people call it an easy major, the humanities are not the comparison group in mind.

Friday, September 14, 2007


"She's kind of nosy."
"That doesn't surprise me."
"It would surprise her. She's the kind of nosy where she would be appalled to hear that someone else was saying she was nosy."
"That's exactly the kind of nosy I am."

"[Prominent sociologist] says that if you see a coincidence and you don't know how to explain it, there's a social network operating."
"I know a woman who has dated two dwarves. Is that a social network?"
"Did the dwarves know each other?"
"No, different cities, completely unrelated. If they knew each other, it wouldn't be much of a coincidence, would it?"

"I heard you can play shoots and ladders online. But it's not S-H-O-O-T-S, is it?"
"It's C-H-U-T-E-S."
"What's a chute?"
"What do you mean, what's a chute?"
"I don't know what a chute is."
"It's like, um. It's like a slide. My apartment has a garbage chute down the hall."
"Yeah, but you don't call it that."
"Of course that's what I call it. It's not a garbage slide. It's not a trash tunnel."
"You haven't called it a chute before."
"That's true, but that's just because this is the first conversation I've had about it, ever."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

yo, berkeley folks: don't go lecturing gwen

Or else she'll open up a jar of whoop-bother from her well-stocked cupboard of family stories, like she did yesterday.

am i the only one who cannot see a headline about hurricane humberto without thinking about lolita?

At least it's not Hurricane Humberto Humberto.

BTW: The Wikipedia entry for Lolita includes the following statement by Nabokov: "I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don't seem to name their daughters Lolita any more." Nor, to my knowledge, are hurricanes named Lolita, although who wouldn't rather have their home wrecked by Hurricane Lolita rather than Hurricane Humberto? Anyway, if Nabakov's statement is true, I'm trying to think if there are other candidates for novels that killed off a first name?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

there for everyone to see

New faculty orientation at Northwestern yesterday. Most interesting part was the description of how NU has a system of online course evaluations in which anybody with domain access can read all your evaluations from students. In fact, when students are registering for courses, there is a link to a course's previous evaluations right next to the link where they would sign up for it.

So: at UW-Madison, your salary is public but your course evaluations are private, and at Northwestern, your salary is private but your course evaluations are public. Which would you prefer?*

Anyway, upon completing this post, I am going to block out everything else today, including you, dear readers, and get some writing done. My authorial back is against the wall with a couple of paper deadlines I have coming up, and that doesn't even include the talk I am giving at Cornell on Monday. (The world is laughing at Britney Spears for a disaster borne of underpreparation. I am not. At least I won't be wearing a sequined bikini-thing in Ithaca.)

I am set up here at the dining room table of my apartment. I spent a good deal of time yesterday unpacking my boxes, but it was like trying to ladle out a lake, especially as presently there is not nearly enough shelf space for all the books I brought with me. Plus, it's unclear whether the computer whose specs I worked out with an IT person in July has yet been ordered.

* "Public" to any user within the university's respective domain, and public in the sense that anyone with copy-and-paste capability can circulate more broadly. Prior to last fall, Wisconsin's salary information was on the web, and memorably one commenter posted a link to my own salary. Wisconsin changed to making salaries public only within the UW domain--in a strange moment of official candor, the spokesperson's stated that the reason for the change was that having the salaries accessible to all on the web made it too easy for other universities to poach UW faculty members because of how low the university's salaries are (at least, how low they are prior to receiving a retention offer).

Monday, September 10, 2007

i think i may have blogged this before, but some things are so true that they bear repeating

ABBA's "Take a Chance on Me" is the saddest song in the history of the world. It came up on iTunes again, and I couldn't listen to it all the way through. Aboriginal dirges about the loss of their land and society and how they are not building McMansions on top of Uluru are not so sad. "They'll Need a Crane" by They Might Be Giants, while also sob-in-your-Snapple sad, requires a more refined sensibility to appreciate and even then still isn't as sad.

The first verse, in case you don't remember and for some reason want to be thrown into melancholia:
If you change your mind, I’m the first in line
Honey I’m still free
Take a chance on me
If you need me, let me know, gonna be around
If you’ve got no place to go, if you’re feeling down
If you’re all alone when the pretty birds have flown
Honey I’m still free
Take a chance on me
Gonna do my very best and it ain’t no lie
If you put me to the test, if you let me try
It's made much sadder by it being very cheerfully. Is this song part of Mamma Mia!? Is Mamma Mia! being done as a high school musical? I've always said I'm lucky I'm not one of those people who has to wear a cyanide pill in a locket around his neck, as there are faculty meetings I would not have survived. I think a gawky high school girl singing this song with sincere enthusiasm could likewise send me over.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

really just a variant on the half-empty versus half-full thing

My unhappiest semester at Madison included having a graduate student in my methods course allegedly express a desire to kill me that was sufficiently convincing that one of the student's peers reported it to the department. I don't think I would have been bothered about it if I had not already, for still the only time in my career, started a file about this student because their classroom and other behavior was so aggressively peculiar. Even then, it's not like I moved that file to the front of the drawer and wrote "READ IN THE EVENT OF MY DEATH" on it. But I do remember feeling enormously disenchanted that I was teaching graduate students and had to deal with something like this, the same disenchantment I felt with the two plagiarism cases I had to handle over my four times teaching that course.* Oh, and also that time a graduate student raised their hand as I was in the middle of explaining something about sampling theory to ask, "Will this be on the test?"

Chris posted some advice to graduate students in response to Drek's advice, which was itself inspired by Fabio's excellent series of posts of advice. Chris's #3, though, is part of a lesson I've found especially valuable as a faculty member. Faculty often make broad assertions about "the graduate students" in their department--or about "the undergraduates" or "my colleagues"--but those assertions commonly reflect less the overall distribution of students than what part of the distribution the person chooses to focus on. In other words, assessments about "the graduate students" in a department reflect whether one chooses to focus on those students who are most rewarding or least rewarding to interact with. In retrospect, and as per Chris's advice, I should have focused more on the fun of teaching the most rewarding students and done better about not being made surly by the least rewarding students.**

In general, I let the disappointing part of the distribution of things influence my attitude more than it should, including of sociology itself. I am getting better about this, although, as with so many things with me, progress is uneven and slow.

* The first of these was the paper at the top of the stack of the first assignment of the first time I taught the course. In other words, when I sat down for the very first time as a professor to grade graduate student work, the first paper I read had several paragraphs cut-and-pasted from a book review online.

** I taught over 100 sociology students in those four years--not to mention students from other departments--so of course there was going to be variation. Madison's cohort sizes have shrunk the last three years, but there was an incoming cohort of 39 one year when I was there. Northwestern's typical graduate cohort size is 8. For someone teaching a required course only offered once per year, I'm much more happy with the idea of a cohort size of 8 than 39.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

i feel like the opening credits of the jeffersons, only with george being single, white, and taller

View from my apartment, just now:

view from my window, 1view from my window, 2

I originally wanted one of the lower floor units in this building, because I figured having a view would be lost on me. So far, though, I love it. I've got my bed positioned so I am going to be able to wake up each morning and see the lake.

The other time when I could look out of my bedroom window and see for miles was, well, growing up on the farm. Pretty in its own way, but a very different view.

hmm, now where did i pack my green and gold body paint?

Lying is a young person's game, as of course one of the great virtues of honesty is that then you don't have to remember. Yesterday, while standing down by the loading dock with the movers, I was distracted when a maintenance guy for my apartment building said hello to me.

"Where are you coming from?"
"Madison." (Not a lie, strictly speaking, since I was just there. But, really: I haven't lived in Madison in two years and it feels more like four.)
"Packer fan?"
"Yeah." (Lie! I am completely indifferent to the fate of the Green Bay Packers. I don't really follow the NFL. To whatever extent I do, there are some teams I sort-of root for and some I sort-of root against, and the Packers aren't either. Worse still, I don't know if it was trying to seem manly in the presence of movers or what, but I said 'Yeah' with enthusiasm.)
"Great! I've been hoping for more Packers fans. We lost three in the building last year..."

I was afraid he was going to ask questions that would reveal my ignorance of any fact about the Packers other than their quarterback's name, but men are usually good about not penetrating the affable bubble in casual conversation that presumes any non-effete male maintains a working knowledge of the NFL). Still, the guy tracks Packers fans. I worry that now I'm on a track where this lie will be compounded with other lies, and I am eventually going to be sitting in a bar with a giant foam wedge of cheese on my head.)

Friday, September 07, 2007

i wonder if this person is in the right line of work

"If they told me at the outset the iPhone would be $200 cheaper the next day, I would have thought about it for a second -- and still bought it," said Andrew Brin, a 47-year-old addiction therapist in Los Angeles. "It was $600 and that was the price I was willing to pay for it."

the ethnographer next door

So, they are renovating the sociology houses at Northwestern. The office next door to mine has an especially fetching new paint job:

office next door

I want to paint my own window frames now. My walls are Seven-Year Itch. I was thinking of doing light blue, although a friend on the phone just now made the intriguing suggestion of black. Stay tuned.

when i say 'p.s. you rock my world', the 'p.s.' stands for public sociology

Fabio presses the question of the possibly declining public presence of sociology (links to previous posts by him and by me). I'm not sure if we are actually in disagreement about sociology's past. As for understanding what happened between then and now, one of his bullet points especially caught my attention:
Major sociological studies used to have a major impact on the way we thought about the world. For example, the Coleman report really rocked people. The Moynihan report was another shocker. When was the last time sociologists rocked anyone’s world? Sure, we may publish the occasional contrarian article, but it’s been decades since the work of sociologists has changed how the educated public views social life.
I agree these were important documents that captured considerable public attention that does not have any clear analogue to anything in my own time as a sociologist. But, question to ponder: how did the discipline of sociology respond when these people went out and rocked the world? In the case of the Coleman Report, sociologists were pleased with Coleman until his mid-70s research finding evidence of "white flight," and then there was a campaign by the then-ASA president to formally censure him. In the case of the Moynihan Report, sociologists have been at the front of denouncing what was taken to be its thesis (the "tangle of pathology" argument regarding black families and especially young black males), and, as far as I can tell, that there was something very ugly and possibly evil about the Moynihan Report remains a conviction of many of those in the pertinent areas of sociology.*

Why aren't sociologists today out there world-rocking? I don't know. It does seem fairly obvious to me like large swaths of sociology today are tied as a matter of identity and norms to seeing the world in terms of a fairly restricted and predictable set of ideological positions, and "predictable" and "world-rocking" do not go together well. Indeed, I think the ideological uniformity of sociology not only hinders our ability to be taken seriously as the kind of honest interpreter of human affairs that is part of Fabio's vision, but also makes us bad at making arguments to the public, as we spend a lot of time in seminars not really arguing with one another but arguing against (caricatures of) people not actually in the room (Republicans! economists! evolutionary psychologists!).

In any case, history suggests that when a true world-rocking work of sociology appears in the world, you may know it by this sign: that the other sociologists are in confederacy against it.

P.S. Now I'm playing "P.S. You Rock My World" by Eels. I love that song. Pay the 99 cents from iTunes if you've never heard it.

* Criticism of the Moynihan report is the origin of the phrase "blaming the victim," which has indisputable cautionary utility for moral and social thought but has come to be understood by many sociologists as a logical fallacy, like "affirming the consequent." The enduring rhetorical power of the charge of "blaming the victim" in sociological debate can be seen in last year's debate between Eric Klinenberg and Mitch Duneier in ASR (in noting this I do not intend any broader assertion about that debate).

Thursday, September 06, 2007

while i love my iowa hawkeyes, i cannot defend their capacity to distinguish correlation from causality

hawkeye tailgating
(me, at a tailgate party from the Hawkeye game last weekend. the guys behind me are playing a rousing hawkeye-themed version of that favorite game of midwestern tailgating, cornhole)*

From the Des Moines Register:
Not all students - or faculty - are happy about the University of Iowa's plan to schedule more Friday classes.

But the U.S. Surgeon General recommends an emphasis on Friday classes, and a University of Missouri study shows that students with Friday classes drank just half as much as classmates who were starting the weekend a day early.

"The evidence there is pretty strong that having students in class on Fridays helps reduce binge drinking," said University of Iowa Associate Provost Tom Rocklin.

The Missouri study surveyed 3,341 students at the Columbia campus on their drinking habits over four years and compared the data with class schedules and transcripts.

Students whose first Friday classes started at 8 a.m. or earlier drank an average of 1.24 drinks, compared with students whose Friday classes were noon or later who drank an average of 2.52 drinks
, according to the study, which was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
* The Charlie Brown shirt has been in the rotation of attire I wear to Hawkeye games since I was an undergrad. Back then, Charlie Brown was part of what "everyone knows that everyone knows" about culture. Now, it's something where people feel like they "get the reference," like the drunk guy who looked at me for a few moments and then started shouting, "Hey... I get you! I get you, Charlie Brown! I get you!"

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


  • I am writing this from the Whole Foods that is immediately next to my apartment in Evanston. I am going to average one meal a day here for the foreseeable future.
  • My apartment is absolutely lovely. Too bad it is too large for my needs and way too expensive for what I can spend on rent without getting nauseous.
  • The renovations on my office were going to be done by the time I arrive--the thinking was they might be done before my arrival back when I was thinking I would come at the beginning of August rather than September. When I walked into my office, one of the windows was hanging diagonally outside its frame. I'm not sure when it will be fully operational.
  • Because I went through Northwestern's preferred mover for the stuff in Madison rather than just trying to find two people and a van, my 37 boxes are going to get loaded three times (office -> small local truck -> big truck -> small local truck -> office), will take a week or more to arrive, and will cost several times as much. I'm still amazed at how long it took me to pack my Madison office, but it was a useful exercise both for the purging and for the intellectual taking-stock that was involved.
  • I'm feeling both happy and enthusiastic.

still in madison

Like everything else, this has taken longer than expected.

Monday, September 03, 2007

dispatch from madison

I've come up to Madison, where today I will complete packing up my office. I started putting my back issues of the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review in boxes to move them, and then I stopped. I should not move them. Yet I am having trouble not moving them. Argh. I just took them out of the box and put them back on a shelf. What to do?

For now, I'm going to worry about other things I'm packing. But, what to do with paper copies of major journals? Tossing them feels like a big decision because of its permanence--as in establishing henceforth I will not accumulate print journals. This is, after all, the 21st century. Put them on the free table, where eventually they will get recycled, right?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

deleted from wikipedia!

I have been judged to have failed the notability criterion, and so my entry is gone from Wikipedia. Read the neurosisogenic non-debate (because of its unaninmity) about my non-notability here.

Update: So we're clear, I'm not upset or anything about this. I can think of a few dozen people in sociology, at least, who deserve Wikipedia entries more than me and don't have them. This does not mean that it isn't neurosis-and-various-other-emotions provoking to watch anonymous people with no clear connection to your discipline debate your notability.

(And, now, due to troll-baiting, I also can't resist pointing out that: given the affinity for textbooks in their stated "notability" criteria, and that the CDA-Stata book and software gets used a lot as a graduate-level textbook and has been very successful by any standard for such books, I am over the bar on Criterion #3. I hate that I just wrote and am going to post that sentence.)

who's jeremy freese?

I was linked by the front page of DailyKos yesterday for my post on the Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich. One thread in the comments was "Who's Jeremy Freese?", which included the following in a response from somebody apparently connected to UW:
He's an odd guy, but very insightful.
I can't really complain about that. Maybe I'll use it as my third blurb, after Ann Althouse's "The best sociologist in the world" and Kieran Healy's "The Italy of academia."

One of the college friends I am hanging out with here in Chicago is a firefighter and member of the firefighter's union who follows politics at least as closely as the median American. I asked him over dinner, "What's the thing with firefighters and Chris Dodd?" His response: "Who's Chris Dodd?"