Sunday, December 9, 2012

Catfish: The Imaginary Other

Allow me to share a passage from Kenneth Gergen's The Saturated Self:

"The technology of the age both expands the variety of human relationships and modifies the form of older ones. When relationships move from the face-to-face to the electronic mode, they are often altered. Relationships that were confined to specific situations--to offices, living rooms, bedrooms--become "unglued." They are no longer geographically confined, but can take place anywhere. Unlike face-to-face relationships, electronic relationships also conceal visual information (eye movement, expressive movements of the mouth), so a telephone speaker cannot read the facial cues of the listener for signs of approval or disapproval. As a result, there is a greater tendency to create an imaginary other with whom to relate. One can fantasize that the other is feeling warm and enthusiastic or cold and angry, and act accordingly. An acquaintance told me that he believed his first marriage to be a product of the heavy phoning necessary for a long-distance courtship. By phone she seemed the most desirable woman in the world; it was only months after the wedding that he realized he had married a mirage" (p. 64 in my hardcover edition, emphasis mine).

When I showed this passage to my Social Psychology class this semester, I enthusiastically pointed out these words were written in 1991. Whenever I read this bit from Gergen's book, I'm impressed about his thoughts on the "imaginary other." 1991, obviously, was long before texting, Facebook, and Twitter came along. Don't we all create imaginary others in the course of our interactions? For example, I mentioned to students that I use Twitter primarily to develop connections with other sociologists. I've never met most of them in-person, so I'm forming an imaginary other of many of the people I follow on Twitter.

As my class looked at the passage, a student recommended I check out a show on MTV that reflects Gergen's viewpoint. She explained the premise of the show and a few students nodded with recognition. This semester, a handful of students in my other classes also mentioned the show--Catfish, a show based on the movie of the same name. Indeed, the show has a lot to do with creating an imaginary other. I've only seen a few episodes, but the ones I've watched were all about falling in love with a mirage. The episodes I watched involved men who lied about their appearances. Both men were physically different than what they claimed. The women who came to love them had fallen in love with pictures of someone else. They didn't only fall in love with the physical; they had fallen in love with their personalities, but the physical component was crucial. Each man portrayed himself to be "in shape," when in reality they were "out of shape." When the women met the men, they were disappointed and let down. They were hurt because they had been betrayed, and were hurt because they fell in love with something that wasn't real.

We must consider the point that people lie and are deceptive in person too. Without phones and Internet, people would still be deceptive and misrepresent themselves. We lie in person, and before electronic mail we could use "snail mail" to send misleading pictures to each other (we still can, by the way). But a show like Catfish dramatically expresses the point that people are not always what they seem. To me, the show tells us something about how desperate people can be to form connections and fall in love. A person who badly wants to find The Right One is susceptible and vulnerable to being misled. That was true before the electronic age, and remains true (and finds new expression) in the electronic/digital age.

I guess we could ask the question: in the current era, is it easier than ever (and are people more likely) to keep it unreal?

Note: See this post on The Society Pages for a sociological discussion of the movie Catfish.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Sociology in Stories: A Creative Introduction to a Fascinating Perspective

Here is some background about my book Sociology in Stories: A Creative Introduction to a Fascinating Perspective.

I set out, quite simply, to write a book that my students would read. For more than ten years, I assigned Introduction to Sociology textbooks in my courses. Through the years I'd notice students flipping through their books during class to catch up with something I'd referenced. So many times I'd see no markings at all: no highlights, no underlining, nothing in the margins. Their books had barely been touched. What a shame that the books weren't being read. Truth be told, I didn't love the textbooks either. So often I'd venture away from the textbook and do my own thing. I'd cover parts of each chapter, but more and more I'd steer in my own direction, rely on my own thoughts and observations, and discuss sociology in ways that weren't happening in the text. Finally, I broke away from the feeling that I had to require students to buy a traditional textbook. I felt free and ready to do something different.

The first phase of writing my book involved me typing many of the things I'd been saying in class. So I began putting my sociology lessons to paper. The book began to take shape, and I worked into creative methods of introducing students to thinking sociologically. My book does not consist of 1,000 definitions. It is not a complete history of the discipline. What, then, is my book? It is about the sociological perspective, brought to readers through a collection of stories and discussions. There are a lot of fictional stories with post-story discussions about the sociological components in the stories. There are also nonfiction stories about everyday life. The stories and discussions are informed by sociological ideas, theories, and research. The writing style is (I hope) fun, accessible, interesting, informative--and I hope it leaves readers wanting for more sociology.

Here are some of the contents in my book, along with a brief description of the contents. Please note this is not the entire table of contents.

"Society Gets on My Nerves Sometimes" (A story about McDonaldized society.)

"My Favorite Tattoo Ever and the Problem with Positive Thinking (Includes a discussion of Barbara Ehrenreich's book Bright-Sided.)

"That's Ghetto" (References the work of Nikki Jones' book Between Good and Ghetto.)

"Circumstances" (A sociological analysis of Jay-Z's song "December 4th.")

"Life Is an Information Game" (Goffman, Goffman, Goffman!)

"My Old Schools" (About educational inequality. Do we live in a meritocracy?)

"Homework" (A discussion of work life and home life, based on Arlie Hochschild's research.)

"(Not a Rich) White Guy" (A reflection on white privilege and middle-class life.)

"Let's Talk about Sex" (A story about hooking up. The story draws on research by Lisa Wade and Caroline Heldman.)

"Drinking Beer and Stealing Money" (A story inspired by differential association theory.)

"A Race I Can Win" (A story inspired by strain theory.)

"Iron Cage Tattoo" -- click here for story (Weber, what else?!)

"Permanent Punishment" (a story based on Peter Moskos'  book In Defense of Flogging.)

"Punishment in Society" (a discussion of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow.)

"Dying Wishes" (Intro-level books usually avoid the subject of death. Here I dive right in.)

"America the Beautiful" (A fictional story about the future of society--immigration, social class, physical appearance, media, inequality.) Click here to read story.

"Families" (a nonfiction story about a married couple based on my interview with two men who adopted two sons).

There's much more. The book is not a loose assortment of stories. The stories are tied together by theme and narrative. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me ( You can purchase or request a copy at the publisher's website:

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Poverty Amid Plenty

What happens when a sociologist crosses a historian in a parking lot? This morning, as my colleague Michael Durfee and I walked into our office building, he told me he wanted to share something that Martin Luther King said about poverty. Michael, a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at SUNY Buffalo, pointed out these words from Dr. King:

"Poverty is a glaring, notorious reality for some forty million Americans. I guess it wouldn't be so bad for them if it were shared misery, but it is poverty amid plenty. It is poverty in the midst of an affluent society, and I think this is what makes for great frustration and great despair in the black community and the poor community of our nation generally."

Michael provided me with background information about this quote. Dr. King appeared at the sixty-eighth annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly on March 25, 1968. At the convention King responded to questions submitted in advance to Rabbi Everett Gendler, who facilitated the event. The answer that you see above was in response to a question about the Kerner Report and how to work towards social justice and equality.  

Michael and I have a shared interest in inequality. Earlier this semester, we both attended a panel discussion about inequality. At the event, a viewpoint was expressed that poverty in America isn't so bad. The basic point was that poverty is much worse in lesser developed countries. After all, poor people in America have TVs, so how bad can poverty be? I strongly disagree with that line of thinking. I don't think that any poverty is good poverty. When Michael showed me these words from Dr. King, he referenced the panel that we had attended. The passage reminds us of how difficult it is to endure poverty in a rich nation. Poverty is difficult to endure anywhere. But there is an extra layer of frustration and strain that impoverished people experience in a land of plenty. If everyone is poor, it's hard to be poor and it doesn't feel good. It sure doesn't feel better (maybe it even feels worse) when you're surrounded by excess.

Source of quote: Clayborne Carson et al. (editors). 1991. The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader. New York: Penguin Books. The quote appears on page 402.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Race: A Poem

I hear people say we are a race-obsessed society.
I beg to differ.
We are a race-dysfunctional society.
We don’t know how to talk about race.
We don’t understand race.
We confuse race and ethnicity.
We talk past each other, not to each other.
We wait until a fool says something foolish 
     (“Nappy-headed hos”) 
and then we talk about race, mediated by media.
We ask the wrong questions 
     (“Why can’t I say the N word if they get to say the N word?”) 
and jump to the wrong conclusions 
     (“We have a black president so how can we be racist?”)
We have race fatigue.
We are tired of talking about race.
We don’t understand why people don’t get along.
We just wish people would relax and get over "it."
But we can’t wish race and ethnicity away.
Race and ethnicity are us.

Why are we afraid of honest history?
Do we have to hear about the Pilgrims and Indians again this year?
How about history reduced to glossy magazines?
So much amazing African-American history 
     (amazing American history
that is disrespected by a shabby supermarket display.

If race doesn't matter then why does it matter?
Is your school diverse?
Is your neighborhood diverse?
How dare we say race doesn't matter?
Why do we ignore the power of symbols?
How does the Cleveland Indians logo still exist?
Why is it cute for kids to dress "like Indians" on Halloween?
Why do high school kids want to perform a blackface skit?
How dare we say race is no big deal or it's just a joke?
If race is a joke, I'll never get the punchline.
And I'll never find inequality funny.

None of us are perfect when it comes to race.
No one can know everything and know exactly what to say.
Let's start by dropping the claim of being color-blind.
And keep our eyes out for stronger lenses to see arrogance and privilege.

The End.

Author’s note: I took a picture of this display at a supermarket in Buffalo, NY in February 2011.

Author's note #2: I highly recommend Peter Kaufman's recent blog post about racism, which includes his analysis of a blackface skit that took place at a high school.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Breaking Up By Text Message

Here's a sociological question: is it socially acceptable to break up by a text message? Occasionally I hear students comment on a relationship ending with a text message. I'm far removed from breaking up in the first place. If I break up at this point in my life, it's called a divorce. But let's talk about how people end relationships. Is it something that is supposed to happen face-to-face? People break up by phone calls, right? Is there a difference between breaking up with a phone call and breaking up with a text message? A text message sure seems cold and impersonal, but it makes sense if we keep in mind that breaking up is hard to do. Well, with due respect to Neil Sedaka, breaking up is much easier if we do it by text message, isn't it?

What are the rules about using a text message to break up? Is there any follow up required? Does the break up "stick"? Or, like the old Stylistics song says, it is just another case of "break up to make up" (gotta love any song that has a Wikipedia page).

Breaking up can get ugly fast. Many a Lifetime movie has been made about a break up gone bad. Is there such a thing as a good break up? Let's cut to the chase, people. How do we break up these days, and what do the techniques for breaking up tell us about relationship norms? How do people react to a break up by text message? Finally, generally speaking, what insights about our culture can we make if it is acceptable practice to break up with a text message?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Life Lesson from a Dentist

At our new student convocation a few days ago, one of the speakers was an alumnus. He was introduced as a dentist. The man proudly spoke of his experiences at Niagara University, and happily mentioned that his daughter is joining Niagara as a first-year student. He said all of his friends who went to Niagara University are successful. But more important, he said, is that all of his friends who graduated from Niagara are good people. I love that he used his time to convey the importance of being a good person.

We live in a society that is obsessed with rags-to-riches stories. We put way too much emphasis on individual success stories. It seems like we're in a contest about who came from the most humble circumstances. There's so much talk about success, but I don't hear much about being a good person. Why focus on "riches" without paying attention to the character of the person?

So here is a dentist--who by most indicators would be a considered successful (no one likes to go to the dentist, but a dentist represents a successful occupation). He references "success" but does so in the context of being a good person. In doing so, he highlights the value of being a good person. The overall message is that being a good person is more important than obtaining financial success. I was struck by these wise words and report them here so I don't lose sight of his message.

No one goes to college to become unsuccessful. Who wants to accumulate student loan debt while doing all-nighters in order to be unsuccessful? Pursuing success, defined in traditional terms, is obvious. I am inspired by the dentist to move the conversation to goodness. How meaningful is success if you aren't a good person? I don't wish away all rags-to-riches stories. I do wish we would reign ourselves in and stop trying to outdo each other in terms of our humble origins. And with regard to higher education, can we agree that part of the mission should be to develop good persons? (Defining "good" is another topic for another day. Suffice to say here that we speak often at Niagara University of serving others, especially people who are poor. Our emphasis on service to others, I believe, helps develop good citizens.)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Classic Sociological License Plate

Life is busy, hectic, and stressful. Sometimes we need a humorous moment to keep us going. This week I got one as I drove behind a van with a sociological license plate that says LOVESHAK. I drove as close to the van as I could without ramming into it, and took a picture (you can clearly see my dashboard). If somehow I get the chance to interview the owner of this van, I would ask her/him about the motivation for selecting LOVESHAK as a customized plate. Was it to make people laugh? Does it speak to activity that has taken place in the van?

Notice the person uses decals to announce herself/himself as a sports fan (you can easily see a Buffalo Bills magnet) and to affiliate herself/himself with a university (I think the sticker says University of North Carolina). In all, the person is using the back of a van to say a bunch of things about herself/himself. As I've said before, some people use their license plates like tattoos: as a way of communicating something about themselves to the world.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

HOTT News Declares Obama Winner

HOTT News, the newest player in cable news, wasted no time in stirring controversy. In its first day on air, the station declared Barack Obama the winner of the presidential contest, even though the actual election is 98 days away. Shauna Falco, the White House Correspondent for HOTT News, said she had enough information to report the winner: "The New York Times has Nate Silver. We have someone like Nate Silver. A few battleground states are too close to call, but we feel confident enough to say Obama has won."

Stunned that a news channel would choose to debut by reporting Obama's re-election as hard news, media watchdogs are hammering HOTT News and encouraging people to boycott the channel's sponsors. But executives at the station are immune to criticism, including station founder Steve Rose. In a press release, Rose defiantly stated: "We're playing to be first, not second, and definitely not last. We care about being out in front...way out in front. It doesn't matter if we get it wrong. Other stations are wrong all the time. They're wrong and boring. Call us what you will, but we'll never be boring."

But isn't HOTT News concerned that nobody will take them seriously? Won't making outlandish predictions hurt their brand? "Making outlandish predictions is our brand," said Che Clinton, the head pundit at HOTT News. "People will have to take us seriously because we're in the news business for the long haul," he said.

So what happens in November, after the real election takes place? What will HOTT News do if Mitt Romney gets more electoral votes? "Simple," said Ms. Falco. "We'll issue a mea culpa, or at least a just kidding, and report that Romney won. It's no big deal. But we think we got this one right, so we're not freaked out about it." For the record, when we asked Ms. Falco about her credentials, she would only say she is a news hound and that she excelled as an intern in her college years.

Criticism aside, the antics at HOTT News instantly paid off, considering it had more prime-time viewers last  night than MSNBC and CNN combined. "We're here to win the ratings game--in all demographics," said Ms. Falco, "So get your popcorn ready." Get your popcorn ready? That sounded familiar, so I asked Ms. Falco what inspired the comment. She replied: "Terrell Owens. When he was in the NFL, he was my fav." I assume she was abbreviating the word favorite, but I was too exasperated to ask. It's not going to be easy covering HOTT News.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Crafting a Cell Phone Policy with Students

I haven't been in a classroom since December 2011. Following the Fall 2011 semester, I enjoyed sabbatical leave. I return to the classroom in September. I'm looking forward to teaching again. I'm not looking forward to cell phones. For an excellent discussion about cell phones and texting in class, I recommend this piece by Nathan Palmer. I agree with Nathan's comment that "you can stop cell phone use, but the costs aren't justified by the rewards." I totally agree with Nathan that I don't want to use up my goodwill by policing students' cell phone use. I ultimately view the War on Cell Phones as a war that can't be won.

For many years I've included a perfunctory statement in my syllabi asking students to not use cell phones during class time. Students respond to the policy by "politely" using their phones underneath their desks, as if I can't see them. Sometimes I ask students to put their phones away, other times I don't have the energy to do it. There's so much cell phone use, I can't stamp it all out. My colleagues generally admit they are also at a loss for what to do, although a few will boast that no student would dare use a cell phone in their class. Maybe it's true; maybe a few people have squashed all cell phone use, but I have a hard time believing that it came with no cost to their relationships with students.

So what am I going to do in the Fall semester? Instead of writing a lame statement prohibiting cell phones, on the first day of class I'm going to ask students to develop a policy about the use of cell phones. I'm going to ask them what they think a reasonable and fair policy should be. I plan to do this in each of my classes. Keep in mind that professors aren't the only ones who dislike Texting While Learning. Students do not uniformly support the use of cell phones in class. Some of my students have complained to me about the use of cell phones in class. Some students find the use of cell phones as distracting as I do. Considering that students bring a range of viewpoints to this subject (as with any subject), it will be interesting to see how it plays out. What do you think of the idea of including students in the development of a policy on cell phone use?

How will this work? I'm not a power-hungry authoritarian type, but I'll have veto power when students design the policy. So if all they come up with is "Cell phones can be used at all times, for any purpose whatsoever," I'll be forced to block it. But I can safely predict that students will design a nuanced proposal. As I work with students to make policy, I'll have them consider several key questions: (1) For what purposes are cell phones appropriate? (2) Should cell phones be used for Twitter, assuming that tweets involve class-related content? (3) What limits should exist on cell phone use? (4) What is a proper way to ask a student to stop using their cell phone? (5) Is it only the professor who should ask a student to stop using their cell phone? (6) What, if any, consequence should there be for a student who ruthlessly and rudely uses a cell phone throughout class? 

Assuming that students work together with me to form a sensible plan, it will become the official policy for the semester. It might take a long time to work out the details (possibly even the entire first session), but I think it's a valuable use of time.

In all, I want this to be an exercise in thinking about the use of cell phones during class time. I hope students will care more about cell phone use after having a hand in shaping the policy. However it works out, students will discover on day one that I value their input and encourage their participation in class.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lost in the Supermarket

I spend lots of time in the supermarket. They are everywhere in my suburban community. My two children behave pretty well in the supermarket. I put my one-year-old in the cart and hand my four-year-old groceries to put in the cart. Once in a while, there's some soothing music from the 1980s to enjoy. In all, it's not a miserable experience, so I always volunteer to do the shopping for our family.

I would shop more happily if people didn't stop dead in their tracks to text or use their mobile device in some other way. It's not uncommon that I'm cut off by a person who stops suddenly to check their phone and start tapping. Today, a woman walked slowly in front of me, barking at someone through her phone: "YOU CALLED BOTH MY PHONES!!!" I don't know why she brought two phones to the supermarket, but I'm sure she had a good reason. And then the idea came to me: maybe one day they'll make the aisles bigger and make special lanes for people to use their mobile devices. Right now, the supermarket feels like a crowded highway. One day, maybe the supermarket rulers will figure out a way to ease the traffic. One tip for those folks: lay off the giant-size carts, but keep those little carts coming. Small carts and lanes for texting and making calls, there's your recipe for success. Thanks. Gotta go now and listen to The Clash.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

HOTT News Adds Pundit to the Mix

HOTT News--set to debut next month--has hired a full-time pundit to cover the 2012 presidential election. Che Clinton, who will only say his educational background is having a Ph.D. in punditry, is excited to join the HOTT News team. "I join the cable news industry at a critical time. CNN is on life support, FOX News is completely discredited, and MSNBC has hit a ratings ceiling. No one can find Current TV in their cable package. So here we come."

Curious about his first name, I asked if it was a tribute to Che Guevara. "I'm sorry, but I don't know who that is. Che is short for cliche. I specialize in cliches. You know, you can't spell my name without cliche!" I asked Mr. Clinton what kind of political expertise he will bring to the HOTT News round table. "Not much. Basically, I just repeat what I hear other people saying, but I say it in more interesting ways. Analysis is paralysis, as I like to say. Analysis is for goons is another. Primarily, I'm here to fun chat." Fun chat? Did I hear that right? Mr. Clinton continued: "Cable news excels at manufacturing controversy. And the talking heads are admirable in their blowhardness. But there's no fun. Except for Bill O'Reilly's quizzes about pop culture from the 1960s. That's super fun. Aside from that, it's miserable. Talking, talking, talking. It's bad enough to be stuck in an airport. Can you imagine being stuck in an airport and having to watch CNN? OMG, I'm having a nervous breakdown just thinking about it."

I asked Mr. Clinton if he wanted to share any observations about the 2012 presidential contest. "This election is going to be about paper or plastic. 2008 was all about the kitchen table. You know, the kitchen table as a metaphor for families hunkering down to figure out their budget and pay bills. Well, any pundit who says "kitchen table" or "pocketbook" is working with yesterday's cliches. This year the big cliche is "paper or plastic," meaning when you go to the grocery store you're given the choice of paper or plastic. Personally, I ask for both, because the paper sack is a perfect container for my empty cans and bottles, and I use plastic bags to seal up my one-year-old's poopy diapers. Sorry, TMI! But really, "paper or plastic" as a metaphor for grocery bills is going to be my bread and butter cliche. Bet on it."

Wow, he sure is good. I have to admit, I'm likely to tune in when Mr. Clinton mans the cliche machine next month on HOTT News.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Fight the Power Tools

Father's Day is around the corner. You know what that means: plenty of advertisements for power tools, golf balls, and neckties. Please, no drills or circular saws for me. I don't know how to use them. For me, a power tool is a laptop. Skip the golf balls too. It's not good family policy to spend five hours on a golf course hitting balls into sand and water. No one is comfortable wearing neckties (except for Mitt Romney), so don't buy those either. Can we order up some new cultural images of men? Are there fathers that we know that might like other kinds of gifts? How about a book? Maybe even a cookbook. No, not the ones about grilling meat. How about a simple cookbook for practical family meals with vegetables too!

Check out this Sears ad for Father's Day: "This is Destination Dad." No thanks. Instead, how about a gift certificate to a local restaurant that the family enjoys?

I give JCPenney credit for noticing that not all dads are exactly the same. They departed script with an advertisement of a gay couple and their children. Offering a diverse image of dads earned JCPenney a boycott from a group called One Million Moms (a group that doesn't actually consist of one million moms).

Recognizing the work of parents is a worthy endeavor (of course, the validation needn't come by way of consumerism). By all means, find some way to acknowledge the work of dads on this Father's Day. Buy something if you have to. Maybe even try to find a family-friendly gift for a dad that doesn't involve power tools, golf balls, or ties. (How about one of those awesome #1 Dad t-shirts?)

Friday, May 25, 2012

E-Mail and Conversations

Sherry Turkle's opinion piece, "The Flight From Conversation," was published more than a month ago in The New York Times. Her main point is that nothing substitutes for face-to-face conversation. Alongside Twitter and Facebook, she mentions e-mail as a form of communication that pales in comparison to face-to-face conversation. She says that when we communicate using technology, we do so in a faster, less nuanced manner than when we converse in person. In face-to-face conversations, she says, we are more attentive to other people's viewpoints.

I've thought about her piece a lot since reading it last month. Today, it occurred to me that my best friendship has been sustained by e-mail. My best friend and I graduated from college in 1994. Since then, we have almost always lived 500 miles apart. We get together in person a few times a year. Between visits, we rely on e-mail to stay in touch. Neither of us like to use the phone. Never have. But we both like e-mail and have consistently used it in the course of our friendship. Sometimes the messages consist of frivolous one-liners and not-so-important updates. Other times they have included serious exchanges filled with deep meaning. There are things that are hard for me to say to anyone's face, for fear of being judged for what I have to say or how I say it. E-mail has allowed me to say what I want to say in a careful and measured way. Turkle sees this as a problem. Human relationships are messy and we use technology to clean them up, she says. To that I would say without e-mail, there are things I never would have said to anyone in any way. In college and graduate school I hid a lot of my thoughts in diaries. I've opened up since then, but not totally. There are lots of thoughts I choose not to share. E-mail allows me to carefully share some of those sensitive thoughts. I don't see this as being shortchanged. Nor do I want to pick up the phone every time I want to share a book recommendation with my friend or ask him for a movie recommendation. Occasionally he sends me a hilarious account of something that happened to him. Then I can read it 2-3 times because it's such a great story and I get to enjoy it more than once.

Aside from describing the centrality of e-mail in an important friendship, I want to briefly say something about conversational skills. Being a college professor, most of my daily conversations are with students. Unlike me, they grew up with cell phones. For many of them, Facebook is a vital part of their lives. And yes, they are experts at texting. I also find they possess good conversational skills. I regularly speak with students face-to-face. I am generally impressed by how they carry on conversations. They send me e-mails too, but it's not a flight from conversation. Turkle is right in saying that human relationships are rich. I think that all of the ways we communicate make our relationships rich. We talk, we text. We text while we talk. There are so many ways to enjoy each other. I like a good conversation as much as anyone. But in my life I've found that good conversations are hard to find. So I'm happy to connect with people in any way that I can.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

HOTT News Developing Show to Compete with 60 Minutes

Lee Roger Hodgson, Developer of Programming for HOTT News, plans to take on 60 Minutes. Hodgson grew up watching 60 Minutes and has profound respect for the show. "Ed Bradley was my hero growing up," said Hodgson, "He was an outstanding journalist." But Hodgson believes the show needs a serious tweak, and that's where HOTT News enters the fray. Hodgson envisons a thirty minute show with shorter segments. Tentatively, the program is called 30 Minutes. Hodgson explained what he has in mind: "The premise is that sixty minutes is just too long. So why not cut it in half? We're thinking four segments, each of them slightly over seven minutes in length. Fast and fun, baby! And no commercial breaks. Instead, the occasional advertisement will scroll at the bottom of the screen. We're also toying with the idea of our correspondents occasionally wearing corporate logos for a revenue stream."

I asked Hodgson if investigative journalism would be the key feature of 30 Minutes. "Absolutely not," he said without blinking. "No no no no no. No. We plan to take the investigative journalism out of investigative journalism. I mean, maybe a correspondent will be able to slip a piece of investigative journalism by us once in a while. But ultimately, we regard investigative journalism as a thing of the past."

So what does Hodgson have in mind? And if it's not investigative journalism, how does he expect 30 Minutes to compete with 60 Minutes? "Did you see Anderson Cooper's interview of Michael Phelps?" Hodgson asked. "That was brilliant! Cooper palling around with Phelps, the two of them playing a video game. That was inspiring television. You won't find a television executive who wasn't impressed by that. I won't kid you, that's exactly the kind of thing we want to do. Infotainment. What the world needs now is more infotainment. We believe that's the direction 60 Minutes is heading. Believe me, we won't be out-infoentertained by 60 Minutes!

So there you have it: 30 Minutes will offer short segments of infotainment without commercial breaks. Sounds to me like 60 Minutes will soon have a serious competitor to confront.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

"Living by the Book" - A Video about Facebook

This is a student-made video about Facebook. One of my students reached out to me for a sociological perspective of Facebook. I briefly appear in the video after being described as a "social media expert." That's a generous introduction, but not quite true. Anyway, it was a nice compliment, and I was glad to add my sociological two cents to this terrific video. I think the students did an outstanding job.

Living By The Book from Amanda Galster on Vimeo.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Asking is Teaching

Lately I've been thinking about questions. Upon the death of Mike Wallace, much was made of his ability to ask good questions. Commentators spoke with admiration for his ability to ask tough questions and elicit information from interview subjects. I noticed some debate about the actual value of the responses he received, and naturally Wallace had critics who accused him as barely more than a showman.

But this isn't about television. This is about asking good questions in our classrooms.

Asking good questions in the classroom is an art form. I consider it an essential tool for the craft of teaching. I'm always trying to ask good questions. These are some of my favorite questions to ask in the classroom:

1. So, what do you make of this? This question basically asks a student to give her/his opinion. It's a simple open-ended question that begins discussion. No doubt it calls for a follow-up question.

2. Do you want to say more? Some students are comfortable talking a lot, others prefer to say something brief. Quite often a student only gives me a little answer, but I love the content in the initial offering. And so I give the student an opportunity to expand her/his thoughts.

3. Can you think of a counterexample? It's common practice to ask for examples, but I also like to ask for counterexamples. It's a wonderful way for students to engage with the subject matter.

I said earlier this isn't about television, but TV interviewers do provide an interesting frame of reference. An interviewer like Bill O'Reilly often behaves like an interrogator. Supposedly on the hunt for "the truth," he promises to find information in a fair and balanced manner (laugh track). As you can see from my three questions above, I pose questions in a gentle manner. I'm not out to prosecute them. I'm not out to embarrass them or put them on the spot. I want them to have their say and to think critically about the material--key parts of the learning process.

Here are a few more examples of questions I ask on a regular basis:

4. Do we agree with what the student just said? One way I get students to think critically is to have them discuss the ideas of their peers. Suppose a student says something controversial or something that is easily fact-checked. In such cases, I let the students do the work by asking students to respond to what a student has said. Sometimes students voluntarily do this work by raising their hands, but I often have to prod them to challenge their peers. I work hard to ensure that the conversation between students proceeds in a respectful way.

5. What's a counterpoint? Gotta say, I love this question. It opens the door to an additional point of view. Sometimes I ask this to a student who has just said something, thereby making the student immediately come up with an alternative viewpoint. I frequently ask it as another way for students to engage with the ideas of their peers. It's also gives students a way to discuss the information I'm presenting at the moment. This lets them know that they can question whatever it is that I'm teaching. Just because I'm teaching something doesn't mean that I'm trying to convince them of something. In fact, this leads to one more example:

6. Do you buy this? Admittedly, this is the kind of question you might hear on television. It's not the smartest question in the world. But suppose you've just spent twenty or thirty minutes introducing a set of ideas. You notice students aren't nodding. They seem to understand what they're hearing, but they're skeptical. Perhaps they're not comfortable voicing an opinion that runs counter to what you've presented; that is, until you ask "Do you buy this?" The question assures them that they are welcome to disagree with the premise of the material you've just taught.

All of these questions come around to the same goal: getting students to think, getting students to articulate their viewpoints, encouraging students to consider various perspectives, and teaching students to discuss ideas in a respectful and serious manner.

No doubt about it, folks: asking is teaching.

Author's note: I recognize some of these questions aren't a good fit in a Research Methods or Statistics course. The six questions I've included here are ones I frequently use in my Introduction to Sociology course and topical courses.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

the bluest collar

lethargic jazz
plays my bones
leads me away from the zone
sleep please come to me
send what i've been waiting for
happier dreams to explore
no more exhausted bodies on the factory floor
some day less will topple more
then i'll stride to the front of the assembly line
force my body to morning sunshine
hey mister trade you two nickles for that dime
ain't it funny how you can't beat time?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

How Do You Get Better?

This week I saw an interview of Anne Hathaway, conducted by Charlie Rose. Rose asked a simple yet elegant question: "How do you get better?" Quick on her feet, she immediately replied: "I go to the theater. I watch Meryl Streep movies. I watch other people's work." I was really impressed with her answer. To lean on a cliche, we are all a work in progress. None of us are perfect. We can always get better at what we do. But how?

I related to Hathaway's answer in that I occasionally observe my colleagues teach. So, to get better, I go to the classroom. Fortunately, my position as chairperson for a period of five years afforded me opportunities to see other people teach. I always picked up a trick or two: a new way of asking a question, a different way of using space in the classroom, a technique for engaging students, etc. We all know it's easy to get stuck in a rut. Watching other people do their thing helps us to get better at doing our thing. I'm not chairperson any longer (and I notice a corresponding decrease in headaches) but I still peep into classrooms occasionally and linger outside classroom doors. That's not as weird as it sounds. Hathaway goes to the theater, I go to the classroom. But I can't buy a ticket to the classroom, so I hang outside so as not to intrude. But I still get to see other people in action. In what ways do they present information? How do they talk with students? What do they do well? What could they do better? What were missed opportunities? There's so much to see and observe.

I taught my first class in the fall of 1998. All these years later, I know one thing: I don't have it all figured out when it comes to teaching. None of us do. We work at our craft, work at being our best, and strive for those beautiful moments when learning is in the air. It's hard to describe when the learning happens (and we know that it often "happens" outside the classroom) yet we've all had that "aha" moment when something good happened. Teaching, like acting, is an art. To get better requires constant work and practice.

So, how do you get better?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Possible Campaign Slogans for 2012

Just having a little fun on a Friday. I'm thinking about possible slogans as the presidential campaign continues.

1. Obama: Change You Can Almost Believe In

2. Obama: Of Course I Was Born In America: How Else Could I Be So Good At Talking About Sports?

3. Santorum: What Was So Bad About 1950?

4. Santorum: The Separation Between Church And State Is Totally Overrated

5. Romney: I Can Make Change -- For A Lot Of Hundred Dollar Bills

6. Romney: Don't Tell Anyone I'm Actually Only A Little To The Right Of Obama

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Good Day in the Life

5:50 a.m. Time to wake up, little Mack is ready to start the day. Ten minutes later, Troy comes down the stairs. I convince him to go back to bed for a few more minutes. By 6:30, Tina's up to get ready for work. She makes pancakes for Troy and is out the door by 8:00. Mack is already tired because getting up at 5:50 doesn't agree with him, but he does it every morning anyway. I put him down for a nap by 8:30. Troy and I make scrambled eggs, eat, then read a few books and do a few puzzles together. A little after 9:00, some guy shows up about a few home improvement projects we need completed. I thought he was coming tomorrow. No problem, Troy likes when anyone comes over, so he starts chatting up the contractor about camping and umbrellas. I'm still in my pajamas. The guy probably thinks I'm a real jerk. After he leaves, Troy watches a little TV and plays Angry Birds on the Kindle.

Mack's up around 10:30. Hmmm, what to do with a 1-year-old and 4-year-old on a 30 degree day? Yesterday we went to the library, the day before to the supermarket, what's left? The play area at the mall? Well, we did that Sunday, but I'm out of ideas. I put together a diaper bag (meaning I toss a diaper, wipes, and bottle of milk into a plastic grocery store bag) and we take off for the mall. They play for a bit and enjoy themselves. I take a picture on my cell phone. Troy looks like he's slapping Mack, but he's actually being gentle with his little brother. When they finish up, we eat lunch at the food court--Subway, lunch of champions. After our quick eats, we stroll through the mall, then head home.

I play peek-a-boo with Mack while Troy watches TV. I wash dishes, play with Mack, turn off the TV, then make sure the boys play nice together. "Be careful" I say, first to Mack, then to Troy, and realize I constantly warn them to be careful. I wonder if this will influence them to avoid risks in their adult lives, or throw caution to the wind instead. By 2:00 it's time for Mack's afternoon nap, so I put him down, then finish washing dishes, and take a Tylenol to stop the headache that's approaching. Troy and I color some pictures together. I color inside the lines, so does he. Is conformity genetic?

Mack wakes up after an hour. I microwave some peas and carrots and put him in his high chair. He throws the peas off his tray, which Troy runs over with his Batmobile. Good job, everyone. We have to leave soon because Troy has a medical appointment (another story for another time). I get ready, meaning I throw on a baseball cap. In getting the boys ready, a comedy of errors ensues. If this were a reality TV show, you'd only see the next ten minutes, with me starring in the role of the stumbling bumbling father. I get us back on track and we head out the door to meet Tina, who's meeting us directly from work.

The appointment goes well. Tina is with Troy during the appointment, while I hang out with Mack in the waiting room. Sociable Mack charms everyone for the next twenty minutes. When the appointment's done, it's dinner time. We're a parking lot away from the Anchor Bar, where chicken wings were born. Tina and I haven't been there in at least five years, so we figure what the hell, why not? Dinner is unhealthy and uneventful. Check please! Mack is ready to roll, so I take off with him while Tina settles the bill. We all meet home and get the boys ready for bed. Around 7:00, Tina puts Mack to bed while I wash bottles (a 1-year-old goes through quite a few bottles of milk in a day). Next is snack time for Troy, and the three of us relax until his 8:00 bedtime.

While Tina takes Troy upstairs and covers the bedtime routine, I work on this blog. The day is coming to a close. It's been a good day, as measured by the lack of bumps and bruises. No tantrums, no drama--I could use more days like this one! When Tina comes back downstairs, we watch a little TV and I finish up this blog. The clock strikes 9:00, and we're exhausted. Time for bed.


Author's note: this is a work of non-fiction.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

In Times Square, HOTT News Establishes A Presence

Walking through Times Square recently, I noticed a muscular man wearing only a purple Speedo. Times Square is pretty much a circus, so a man in a purple Speedo isn't far outside the frame. But he wasn't just another guy walking through the streets. He is going to be on-air talent for the soon to be HOTT News. The man plans to deliver a daily weather forecast in his purple Speedo. His on screen name? Purple Rain. Must be a homage to Prince, I assume.

Keep in mind that HOTT News has not actually gone to air yet. Tourists didn't seem to care that HOTT News isn't yet on television or that Purple Rain has never been on TV. Fans lined up for his autograph and excitedly took pictures with him as he delivered a three-day forecast through a megaphone. "Tomorrow we'll have plenty of sunshine, but on Tuesday you should expect strong winds, and by Wednesday, the sky will open up and guessed it...purple rain!" The crowd roared.

Purple Rain basked in the attention. He seemed comfortable in his Speedo and looked ready for prime time. "How do you stay in such great shape?" asked a middle-aged woman in the crowd. Without hesitation, he replied: "I have my own workout program. You'll see it someday on my DVD." It was like he had waited his entire life for the question.

It's True, I'm Not That Important

I like giving advice, and I like getting advice. Leading up to my sabbatical, I asked my colleagues for their advice with respect to being on campus. Should I disappear? Come around occasionally? It's not as if I'd be travelling to another country. Realistically, I knew I'd be local, so I'd be inclined to come to campus once in a while. The general advice I received was to stay away. The advice didn't have to do with negative attitudes about our institution. Rather, it was practical advice to maximize time away from campus. It was basic advice to actually take a rest from all campus activity. Walking with a colleague about a month before my sabbatical, he said: "Don't worry about not being here. You're not that important." And he was right. We're so used to being on committees, going to meetings, advising students, and most importantly, teaching, that we come to see ourselves at vital to the lifeline of the institution. In fact, we're not that important. Campus life goes on without us. I'm two months into my sabbatical, and only one student has e-mailed me to end my sabbatical. But even my one fan will survive without me!

I haven't entirely followed the advice to stay away. I actually like dropping in once a week or so to change up my work space. I can only write at my kitchen table for so long. It's nice to stop in, grab mail, chat with colleagues, say hi to students, do some work, and scamper back home. Last week I took my four-year-old for a campus stroll, something I normally don't have time to do. And it's nice talking with people without being in a hurry. Stop and smell the academy, I guess!

As my sabbatical continues, I plan to go to campus sporadically to grab lunch with friends, talk with students and colleagues, and do work in my office or at the library. In my experience so far, I haven't felt like staying away entirely. But my colleague was exactly right: I'm not that important. So I will continue to do what's worked for me: mostly stay at home, write and read at my kitchen table, and enjoy a mix of productivity and relaxation.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Love on the Side of the Road

Driving to my parents' house in Niagara Falls, New York, once the honeymoon capital of the world, I saw a filthy truck with an even filthier stuffed animal affixed to it. A man sat in the driver's seat with the window rolled down, on the side of the road. He was selling flowers. Is this what love has come to? Love on the side of the road? Man, I wish I made country music for a living, because that's a basis for a hit song if I ever knew one. I almost stopped to ask his permission to take a picture of him and his temporary small business that sells love in a truck, but I decided not to bother him. The guy was just trying to make a buck. I bet he'll have some customers. Yesterday, the guy behind me at the grocery store slammed a cheap vase with a few flowers in it onto the conveyor belt, along with a card. He seemed pretty pissed about the whole thing. Maybe he was just trying to play it cool.

Meanwhile, my four-year-old is getting socialized to buy into Valentine's Day. He had to make cards for all his classmates at preschool, all the boys and girls. Times have changed. Back in my day it was feast or famine, either you were the type of kid to get a lot of valentines or none, so you could find a bunch of cards waiting for you or end up like Charlie Brown. My little guy had fun making valentines for everyone in his class. With help from socialization agents--school, family, friends, and media--I'm sure he'll be a Valentine's Day pro someday. I just hope he doesn't buy love on the side of the road.

The End

Friday, February 10, 2012

Black History Month

There is so much amazing African-American history. African-American history is American history. I was inspired and influenced by my history courses as an undergraduate and graduate student. Walking through my local grocery store this morning, I was stopped dead in my tracks by this display.

This is a peculiar effort to acknowledge Black History Month. How about some BOOKS? How about some HISTORY? What's worse, this attempt at recognizing Black History Month or ignoring it altogether? A shabby display of magazines is not history. African-American history should be celebrated, not degraded.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

In Cable News Wars, HOTT News Sees An Opening

HOTT News is the brainchild of Steve Rose, a young man who describes himself as a "rich kid from Malibu." He is busy courting investors as he develops a twenty-four hour news channel. He does not consider himself an expert in cable news. At 24-years-old, he depends on a wise source to understand the history of cable news: his father. "My dad tells me that CNN used to be relevant, which is hard for me to believe," says Rose, finishing a game on Xbox. Rose doesn't care much for news, except to the extent that it can make him money. Rose is rich by virtue of inheritance. Other than the Jaguar he drives, he does not possess a lot of material goods. He is determined not to squander his riches. Even with slight understanding of the cable news industry, he sees opportunity: "Look at Current TV. Actually, don't. It'll hurt your eyes. What's going on over there doesn't make sense. 'Let's go left of MSNBC.' How is that a successful strategy?"

Rose flips through the channels as we talk, staying on MTV for a while, then ESPN, and lands on Fox News. "Everything about Fox News has already been said, so I won't repeat it. I'll only say that the clock is running out. Sooner or later, their viewers will get it. And then they'll change the channel." So where will the viewers turn? Rose hopes it will be HOTT News.

Rose has a vision of a channel in which news is delivered in unconventional ways. "The anchors and reporters will be, shall we say, hot. Very hot." But won't that compromise the integrity of the content, I ask him. "Integrity? You live in America, right? Where do you see integrity? Integrity has left the building. Enter hotness." Confused, I probe for a clearer description of what viewers can expect if HOTT News comes to fruition. "Look, it's not going to be a case of opinion masquerading as news, or news hiding behind a thin veil of supposed objectivity. This is not your parents' cable news station. This is MTV meets ESPN meets the old CNN." That doesn't make any sense to me, so I ask again what he means. Frustrated, he offers a blunt answer: "Hot people delivering news and opinion. But finally, you'll know which is which. That's it." Is he concerned about what demographic he will attract, or what segments of the population he will leave out? "Absolutely not," he says with confidence. "Everybody likes hottness shaken and stirred." Still confused, I thank him for his time, and leave the interview very concerned about the future of cable news.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Extra Credit

I have mixed feelings about extra credit. I've noticed that conversations about grade inflation usually don't include mentions of extra credit. I'm concerned that extra credit helps inflate grades. There's also the matter of paying students to do things. Not with money, of course, but with points added to exams or assignments. It's hard for me to prioritize extra credit opportunities. I want students to attend the events that my colleagues organize: film screenings, lectures, panel discussions, plays, etc. I want to help the undergraduate or graduate student who needs to administer surveys. But where does the line get drawn? How do we decide when to say "yes" or "no"? Like a lot of things in life, I decide on a case-by-case basis. But there seem to be unlimited extra credit opportunities for our students. What are your thoughts about extra credit? I would love to hear perspectives and stories from teachers and students. Is extra credit simply a norm? What message is sent to students when they are rewarded extra points for attending events? Do you make a distinction between extra credit for going to events and extra credit for doing additional work, like a paper that isn't required in a course? This post is a short and simple effort to solicit feedback. Thank you.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Between Good and Ghetto

Do you like Elijah Anderson's work? Were you influenced by Patricia Hill Collins? Are you interested in the concept of "doing gender"? Want to read an excellent ethnography? Are you concerned about violence in America's inner-cities? Do you want to learn about the complicated conditions in which African-American girls come of age in poor neighborhoods? If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then I recommend Between Good and Ghetto by Nikki Jones.

Many of us try to write with race, class, gender, and sexuality in mind. It is easier attempted than achieved. Jones accomplishes the task as she shows how girls and young women navigate violent neighborhoods (and in some cases, violent relationships). In an effort to be "good," girls carefully avoid dangerous places. They stay home to avoid trouble and sometimes limit their close friendships, because being a good friend means fighting occasionally on behalf of a friend. A "ghetto girl" develops an identity as a fighter and gains respect and status for her ability to fight, and consequently can survive in "male spaces" and dangerous places. The lives of girls are characterized by fluidity between and within the expectations of good and ghetto (p. 155).

Jones spent three years doing fieldwork in Philadelphia. She interviewed males and females and made observations in several places: homes, neighborhoods, high school, the trolley, court, and more. The book offers astute sociological analysis. It's a story located within urban sociology. Jones was encouraged by journal reviewers to locate her work in the criminological literature on gender and crime--in effect, that would have meant treating her subjects as deviants and victims. But she told the stories of African-American girls in the way that she wanted: within the perspective of urban sociology and Black feminist thought. She describes the circumstances of poor, urban, Black girls. She shows how power dynamics permeate girls' relationships with men. Jones writes: "With every new story, my own frustration over what is allowed to happen to Black girls in general, and to poor, Black girls in particular, soars. These girls are made more vulnerable because of their race, age, and economic status" (p. 161). "The battle for respect, dignity, and positive life chances," she writes, "is not one these girls should have to fight on their own" (p. 162).

The book has me thinking about violence in new ways, and has challenged my thinking about normative gender expectations. It gives nuanced meaning to terms like "ghetto," "inner-city," and "baby daddy," words that are often carelessly used and misunderstood in everyday life and in popular culture. This book will help me be a better teacher in the three courses I teach most: Introduction to Sociology, Social Psychology, and Race & Ethnicity. Having said that, it would seem to benefit anyone teaching any course in Sociology.

Ideas for Breaching Experiments

I can't stop thinking about breaching experiments. I don't know why. Well, maybe I just want to have fun. I won't go into a long description of breaching experiments--that's already been handled in a classic post on Everyday Sociology Blog. Basically, it boils down to intentionally breaking norms to see what kind of reaction you get.

I started obsessing about breaching experiments earlier this week at the grocery store. I felt like people were giving me weird looks. I'm not a paranoid type, but it really did seem that people were looking at me. Maybe it's my beard (Yesterday I ran into a colleague who said I look like Franco Harris. Highlight of my year). Anyway, feeling like people were looking at me for no good reason, a thought popped into my head: it would be fun to say "Got a problem, boss?" to the next person who looked at me. Keep in mind I am small, far away from physically imposing. The reactions would be so interesting. Of course I didn't do it, but it's an idea for a breaching experiment.

Since then, I came up with two more ideas for breaching experiments. The first is to sing a song at a public library and see what happens. A long and dramatic song might work well, like Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," or a song with adult content would garner interesting reactions, like Adina Howard's "Freak Like Me." I heard that one on satellite radio yesterday, brought me back to the mid-1990s!

My other idea is to reply to all texts with a rude text, like STOP TEXTING ME. Friends and family surely would be confused. You might burn a few bridges and have a lonely weekend, but sometimes you have to suffer for sociology!

Update 2/17/2013:

I just got home after a pleasant dinner with my family at a decent restaurant. Nicer than an Applebee's chain type restaurant, but not a fine dining establishment. A place where folks were quietly enjoying a pretty good meal in a pretty nice place. I felt the urge to yell "Welcomes to Moe's!" Sadly, I didn't follow through. But there you have it; another simple idea for a breaching experiment. Next time you're in a coffee shop, or a bar, or a house party, or really anywhere except Moe's, shout "Welcome to Moe's" whenever somebody enters.

As for the next time you visit Moe's, be sure to greet customers by hollering "Touch your toes!" or "Hug your foes!"

Update 7/8/2013:

Took my kids to the town pool today. While my 5-year-old was getting a swim lesson in the "big pool," I watched my 2-year-old play in the baby pool. There was a bunch of parents hanging around the pool, supervising their kids. I had the urge to knock out some push-ups on the concrete surrounding the pool. I'm not in great shape, but not in terrible shape either. I'm sure I could have impressed with a quick set of twenty. Can you imagine the reaction to a middle-aged guy doing push-ups for no apparent reason? But, as always, I resisted doing something out of the norm. Had I done those push-ups to intentionally generate a reaction from onlookers, it would have been a fine breaching experiment.

Note 3/4/2014:

If you are going to do any kind of breaching experiment, please give serious consideration to the effect it might have on people. In this post I am only imagining experiments; I have never done any of these and I have never assigned breaching experiments in my Sociology courses. But I realize that students in other courses find their way to my blog when they search for breaching experiment ideas. This post actually gets a lot of page views. Common search terms include "ideas for breaching experiments" and "fun breaching experiments." The spirit of this post is to have fun thinking about breaching experiments that could be done. It's important for me to recognize that students actually carry out breaching experiments. We need to consider the possible effects on innocent bystanders who have not asked to be involved in an experiment. Those who enact a breaching experiment should proceed with caution. There are ethical issues to consider. Do the ends of breaching experiments justify the means? Is it ethical to treat strangers in a discourteous way? Is it ethical to inconvenience them or make them uncomfortable? Upon reflection, I don't think my example of singing a song in a public library is a good idea. I admit that thinking about it remains humorous to me. But to actually do it would be discourteous to library patrons. I'm reflecting on breaching experiments after reading a well-written article in Teaching Sociology by Matthew Braswell. As he writes, “The subjects of a breaching experiment, it must be remembered, have places to go, schedules to meet, and no knowledge of the fact that they have just walked into a sociological exercise. They deserve a modicum of care and consideration.” He poses an important question: “does the breaching experiment truly hold the potential to reveal otherwise unattainable insights?” If I think about my idea to sing a song in a public library, I think the answer is no. Honestly, I don't think that is an experiment worth doing. Fun to think about, yes, but sociologically valuable, probably not. He thinks that breaching experiments should be designed in a thoughtful and ethical manner. I agree with him. I think the only breaching experiment I might ever do is my idea about doing push-ups at the public pool where I live. It wouldn't put myself or others in harm's way. It wouldn't inconvenience anyone, I don't think. It seems harmless, silly, and has a bit of sociological value. 

Update 11/24/19:
Yet another example of a breaching experiment....

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Getting Into The Groove (With A Little Help From Howard Becker)

I fortunately am on sabbatical this semester. Simply put, it feels great. It's amazing to have so much time to think and write. I haven't had this much time and space since graduate school. So far, the best part of sabbatical is having less clutter in my life. Less e-mail, no preparation time for courses, no meetings, no grading. I'll miss my students and colleagues this semester, but I'll love the break from the usual busyness. I'm ready for a different kind of busyness.

So far, the writing has come easy. Whenever I'm on the verge of writer's block, I heed the advice of Howard Becker: "Write whatever comes into your head, as fast as you can type, without reference to outlines, notes, data, books or any other aids." Becker's point is to find out what you want to say because you already know what you want to say. By the time we actually write something, we've done a lot of thinking (pp. 54-55 in Becker's Writing for Social Scientists, University of Chicago Press, 1986). This doesn't mean ignoring the literature, it means not being "terrorized by the literature" (Becker's beautiful phrase featured in chapter 8). Like Becker says, "Use the literature, don't let it use you" (p. 149). These days I'm writing more than I'm reading, in order to say what I want to say. There's plenty of time to acknowledge the relevant literature and to use it effectively.

I try to write everyday, but I don't freak out if a day goes by without any writing. Some days the words flow, some days they don't. So far I'm not handcuffed to my computer. It's good to get away from the computer and enjoy the extra time afforded by sabbatical. So I'm doing things I don't normally get to do, like going to the gym and meeting up with old friends for lunch. I'm careful not to squander away the days. But I'm not forcing myself to adhere to a strict writing schedule. There's enough pressure in everyday life. I want to enjoy this sabbatical. So that means combining rest, relaxation, research, reading, thinking, writing, exercising, and recreation. It also means eating better and cooking more often. In short, a healthy balanced life.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Semantics of Black and White

Let me get out of the way so you can read the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Even semantics have conspired to make that which is black seem ugly and degrading. In Roget's Thesaurus there are 120 synonyms for blackness and at least sixty of them are offensive, as for example, blot, soot, grim, devil and foul. And there are some 134 synonyms for whiteness and all are favorable, expressed in such words as purity, cleanliness, chastity and innocence. A white lie is better than a black lie. The most degenerate member of a family is a "black sheep." Ossie Davis has suggested that maybe the English language should be reconstructed so that teachers will not be forced to teach the Negro child sixty ways to despise himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of inferiority, and the white child 134 ways to adore himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of superiority."

Source: I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World. Edited by James Melvin Washington. Pages 170-171. From a speech delivered on August 16, 1967 at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

So Far, The Tell Me What To Do App Gets Mixed Reviews

When Karen Jackson heard about the Tell Me What To Do App, she wanted it right away. "I've just never been good at making decisions," she admitted. "I figured it might help me with decisions both small and large." Karen reports that the app had an unexpected use: it picked the name of her first child. "I never would have thought an app would choose the name of my first born, but I just couldn't decide on a name for my daughter." The app picked Fortune. Does Karen like the name? "It took some getting used to," she acknowledged, "but I've come to love it and I think the app did a super job."

Joe Sinclair has found a practical use for the app. He uses it mainly to decide which television shows he should watch. "Used to be I couldn't decide between sports or politics. The app kept selecting MMA, something I'd never seen before. Now I love it!" MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) is something that he and his wife now watch together. "Joe and I could never reconcile our different tastes," his wife Shirley says, "but something about MMA just suits both of our tastes. Now I like to say that nachos and MMA are the secret to happiness." Well said!

But not everybody likes the Tell Me What To Do App. Megan Watson, a high school history teacher, occasionally strays from the state-mandated curriculum to teach history subjects of her own choosing. But considering the immense history ignored by her curriculum, she has trouble deciding how to strike out on her own. Unfortunately, though, the app hasn't picked any winners for her. "No matter what topic the app selects, my students are desperately bored and apathetic. I just wish the app could do a better job of choosing an exciting topic." Touche!

Franklin Powers, a gray-haired gentlemen who runs a convenience store, describes the app as "just okay." "It's like anything in life," Franklin says in a philosophical tone, "not all good, not all bad. Honestly, I find it's decision-making ability is similar to my own. You win some, you lose some." When I asked if he'll stick with the app, he paused, then said: "I think so. You've got to give this thing a chance. I figure with the law of averages and all, there's plenty of good decisions to come. I say, take me out of the equation." Good point, sir!

I talked to lots more folks about the app, so keep an eye on my reports. I haven't decided exactly how to discuss what I've found in my research, but I have a suspicion I just might use a certain app to help me out!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Extreme Couponing, Extremely Processed Food

When I watch Extreme Couponing on TLC, I think mostly about food. When I first watched the show, I was a little bit impressed by the themes of saving and thriftiness. It struck me as a countercultural message, considering how many families live in debt and how people are so good at throwing money away. It was kind of nice to see people rack up big savings. As I watched more episodes, that message got lost. I paid more attention to what ended up in all those grocery carts. What I noticed was a lot of junk food and the absence of actual food. I saw a lot of sugary cereals land in the cart, along with boxes of pasta, sugar-filled beverages, and unhealthy products posing as healthy products (bottled water with vitamins isn't healthy when it contains a lot of sugar. Nor is bottled water flavored with artificial sweeteners). I also saw lots of frozen dinners getting thrown into the cart. Here's what I haven't seen: apples, bananas, broccoli, or carrots. Or other fruits and vegetables. Or meat and fish that's not in a frozen package. Who knows, maybe these folks buy produce in other places. Maybe they head to farmers markets on occasion. Maybe they buy lots of organic goodies with the money they've saved at the grocery store. I haven't watched every single episode, so maybe some decent food gets mixed in once in a while. All I can say, based on the episodes that I've seen, is that the show features processed foods that are unhealthy. It seems to suggest that savings only come when you buy junky foods at grocery stores. This brings to mind Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, page 157, in which he points out that "bogus health claims and food science have made supermarkets particularly treacherous places to shop for real food." Pollan advises consumers to stay out of the middle of grocery stores, because processed food products dominate the center of the store: "If you keep to the edges of the store you'll be that much more likely to wind up with real food in your shopping cart." Furthermore, he advises getting out of the supermarket when possible: "You won't find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmers' market. You also won't find any elaborately processed food products, any packages with long lists of unpronounceable ingredients or dubious health claims, nothing microwaveable, and, perhaps best of all, no old food from far away."

I want to point out that some episodes featured people who bought items for charitable purposes. I've seen two episodes in which people used their couponing powers for good, donating their bounty. And I also want to say that I know food costs a lot of money. I do most of the grocery shopping in my family. Many times I've come home from the grocery store having spent $150 and had little to show for it. I do a lot of shopping at grocery stores--I live in Buffalo, NY, so farmers markets don't happen year round in my neighborhood. And I definitely buy some processed foods. So I'm not here to say that people should buy exclusively fresh and healthy foods. Not everybody has access to affordable healthy foods. And lots of people who do have access to healthy food without financial constraints make questionable food choices. My purpose here is not to harshly judge the shoppers themselves. I actually think they have some form of talent for being able to save a ton of money at the grocery store. My main criticism is that the show celebrates big savings on food that is hazardous to our health. The contemporary grocery store enables bad eating habits across the socioeconomic spectrum. And that's not entertainment.