Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Martin Luther King, Jr. - Thoughts On Capitalism (1952)

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott met in January of 1952. In a letter to Coretta in July, 1952, MLK shared a few thoughts about capitalism:

"I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits. It started out with a noble and high motive, viz., to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human systems it fell victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has out-lived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes."

Source: page 36 in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson (1998). Grand Central Publishing.

Monday, December 30, 2013

A Night Out In Buffalo

My friend of 20+ years came into town. He told me to meet him at the Regal Cinema in some suburb or another. True to form, I showed up right on time, 6:30, when the movie he was seeing with his wife and in-laws would be over. Waiting for Ron, my dear friend who I met in college, I ran into a different friend from college. And not just any friend. He was the very first friend I made at college orientation in the summer of 1990. Always a nice guy with great music taste, I will always remember him as the person who introduced me to Jane's Addiction and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I don't think I'd seen him since his wedding, about twelve years ago. So it was quite a surprise to see him and his family walk toward me. We hugged and chatted for a few minutes. He couldn't believe I was waiting for Ron; they were good buddies in college too. In hindsight, I should have twisted his arm to join us for a night out. When will I get to see him again?

At 7:00, I got a phone call from Ron. He never made it to the movie. He told me he would get dropped off in 45 minutes at a bar on Main and Transit. I knew which one so there I went. I stood in the crowded bar, sipped a pint, and watched the Sabres game. It's another wasted season, so who cares, but you go through the motions pretending that you do. I finished the pint and waited outside in the cold until Ron got dropped off.

We met one of our friends at a cool new bar in downtown Buffalo, a bar with just the right colors and the perfect price for a bottle of wine. We drank a lot of wine and mostly kept to ourselves. It was my kind of night. Other than small talking with bartenders, we minded our own business and talked to each other about all the stuff we usually do. After a few hours the place began to empty out, so we figured we'd head elsewhere to finish the night. We ended up in the loudest bar of my life on Elmwood Avenue, where the DJ set a new and absurd standard for volume. This was no place for 40-year-olds. But it's good to find yourself in a place you don't belong once in a while. We had one drink and left to get some late night eats. Pano's had just closed, why, I'll never know. I thought that place never closed. So we ended up at ETS where Ron devoured a steak and cheese sub and a bunch of extra saucy and rather hot chicken wings. Sauce all over his face, he paused for a moment to quietly say "This is exactly what I needed." It cracked me up. Meanwhile, I ate a terrible chicken burrito. As for our friend, he fell asleep with his head suspended in air. That's his customary behavior late at night. I half expected to run into a student and was ready to explain why I was hanging out at 2:00 in the morning. Students don't expect to see their professors at certain times or places. After eating we crashed on couches at our friend's apartment. I tossed and turned until 7:00, probably getting about an hour of actual sleep. I don't like being away from my family. I left at 7:00 to get croissants and muffins for my wife and kids, and headed home to resume my life. I'm a creature of routine and habit.

It was a fun and simple night, just the way I like it. No missteps, no shenanigans. I'm getting too old for shenanigans, I think. The trick for me is to try to enjoy life rather than study it. I've always liked observing more than participating. I'm thankful to the people in my life who help me actually live it rather than just watch it.

The End.

Author's note: most of this story is true. A few details have been altered.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Martin Luther King, Jr. - Early Years

"My mother confronted the age-old problem of the Negro parent in America: how to explain discrimination and segregation to a small child. She taught me that I should feel a sense of "somebodiness" but that on the other hand I had to go out and face a system that stared me in the face every day saying you are "less than," you are "not equal to." She told me about slavery and how it ended with the Civil War. She tried to explain the divided system of the South--the segregated schools, restaurants, theaters, housing; the white and colored signs on drinking fountains, waiting rooms, lavatories--as a social condition rather than a natural order. She made it clear that she opposed this system and that I must never allow it to make me feel inferior. Then she said the words that almost every Negro hears before he can yet understand the injustice that makes them necessary: "You are as good as anyone." At the time Mother had no idea that the little boy in her arms would years later be involved in a struggle against the system she was speaking of."

Source: pages 3-4 in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson (1998). Grand Central Publishing.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Instagram Envy?

Does Instagram make you envious? This New York Times article suggests that it does. And I quote:
"For many urban creative professionals these days, it’s not unusual to scroll through one’s Instagram feed and feel suffocated by fabulousness"
Well, perhaps "fabulousness" gets to part of it. What do we mean by fabulous? What passes for fabulous in 2014? Whatever it is, I am surely unfabulous. But I won't throw out the fabulous with the bathwater. I quote more:
"Envy, of course, doesn’t operate in a social vacuum. It needs an object of desire. And everyone, it seems, has that friend on Instagram: the one with the perfect clothes and the perfect hair and seemingly perfect life — which seem all the more perfect when rendered in the rich teals and vivid ambers of Instagram’s filters."
I do think the article presents a few interesting observations. I do believe, to a degree, that social media envy exists. We're always making comparisons, always measuring our lives with others in mind. These comparisons work in many different ways. Sure, envy enters the fray occasionally, but so do a host of other feelings and emotions. With regard to envy, I suppose the obvious question is: what makes you feel envy in the first place? Sometimes a picture is just a picture, and doesn't make us feel anything. Or makes us barely feel anything. In some cases, the comparisons will make us feel better about our lives.

I must say, I like the Goffmanesque phrase "stage-managing impulse" that is used in the article. No doubt there are lots of times we want just the right picture. We carefully arrange the details to get the right effect. We try to capture happy in a picture frame, to paraphrase the Steely Dan song "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)." I tried to convey this point in a previous blog post "Making Family Memories." Yes indeed, it feels good to gain approval from our network. But life goes on when we don't receive approval. And I bet most folks manage to be happy enough even if they're not "fabulous." Lots of folks run in social circles without much fabulousness or awesomesaucesness. I'm one of them. I live my life without much awesome to present to the world. Like others, I feel a bit of envy here and there. But no cause for Instagram Panic.

You can probably tell I wrote this a bit envy in cheek. I am somewhat relaxed and relieved now that the Fall 2013 semester is coming to a close. There are final exams to give and grade, but I'm almost done. So I'm having a little fun here. 

The Baconization of Society

Society has determined that bacon is the answer.....

.....but will we ever know the question?????

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Texting While Learning

I didn't text when I was in college. I didn't text because I was an undergraduate from 1990-1994, during the pretexting era. But I probably doodled once or a million times.

I drew this stick figure recently when I showed a documentary during class. I usually take notes when I show a film during class. This time, I just felt like making a self-portrait. It also serves as commentary about different things that people might be doing during class. Simply put, our attention is divided. It always has been and always will be. Students can text, doodle, and daydream. I can ask students to put away their texting machines, but I can't ask them to stop daydreaming. I would like their attention, and I try to maintain it, but I can't command it.

I have tried different approaches during the texting era. One semester I asked students to help me craft a mobile device policy. The semester didn't turn out much differently than when I had a customary policy on my syllabus asking students not to use their devices during class. In other words, the semester was kind of like any other: some students didn't use their phones during class, others did.

I think Nathan Palmer makes a good point about this subject when he writes: "I’m not sold on the idea that the time and energy it takes to get students to put away their phones is really worth it." I agree with Nathan that I don't want to use up my goodwill by policing students' cell phone use. My views on this issue might change in the future. For now, I'm lenient about cell phones in the classroom and my approach is to let students figure out for themselves if its in their best interest to text during class. My judgment, at this time, is that the occasional use of devices during class for non-class purposes does not interfere in a significant way with the process of learning. And I like having the ability to prompt students to use their devices to investigate something we're talking about during a class session.

Research confirms what we already know if we spend any time at all in a classroom: students often use their devices during class for non-class purposes. We can try to prohibit the use of devices. We can be lenient about devices. We can encourage students to make use of their devices for class purposes. There are lots of things we can do. If we're lenient, it doesn't automatically mean that all device use is acceptable. There are cases when we might judge a student's use of a device to be too distracting to other people in the room.

I don't think there is a single answer or "best practice" for what to do about devices in the classroom. Instructors have to determine what they think is the best approach for the learning environment they want to create in their classroom.
I think it's good when students are exposed to a variety of policies. And I think it makes sense for instructors to experiment with different ways of handling the situation. It helps me to share information and compare notes on how we respond to students using devices during class time. I'm always interested in hearing what other instructors and students think about this matter. I hope instructors and students will add their comments to this post. I'm interested in what kind of policy you prefer: "strict," "flexible," or whatever else you have tried or experienced. I like to think we're doing the best we can to figure this out together.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Making Family Memories

It’s pumpkin day, so I am happy. The farm opens to the public at 10:00. Like most days, we’re on a schedule. Two-year-old Mack will need a nap around 1:00. It’s drizzling and not very warm, but if the weather stays this way and Mack and his five-year-old brother Troy go with the flow, then we can cram a few hours of family fun time into the morning. Tina, my wife, grabs juice boxes and fruit snacks for the boys. I have my 86 cent cup of coffee from McDonalds. We are ready to go.
It’s a thirty minute drive from our subdivision to the farm. It isn’t a picturesque drive through the countryside. It’s a boring landscape except for the last five minutes. But the least of our worries is the view from our Kia Sorrento. Mack is off to a rocky start. This little person has peculiar habits. He likes to carry a spoon and rubber ball wherever we go. And he frequently drops one or the other. He drops the spoon just as we exit the subdivision, and proceeds to shout at us to make it right. Troy reads aloud from one of the half dozen or so books in his lap. He loves to read. He hasn’t yet figured out how to read to himself. So he reads out loud. Loudly. Mack continues to yell at Tina and me, prompting us to holler back at him. This isn’t the happy family experience we had in mind. Suddenly the noise subsides and we are treated to a mostly quiet ride. And then it starts pouring. Tina has a sour look on her face. I know what she’s thinking—maybe we should turn around—but a U-turn isn’t part of the script. We keep going. As we pull into the pumpkin farm, a good tune comes on the radio: “Love Will Find A Way” by Pablo Cruise. The song is unbelievably pleasant. I don’t want to get out of the car until it ends. So I turn up the volume and wait. And then we are ready for fun.
It’s still raining, so there aren’t a lot of people at the farm. Troy and Mack each get to enjoy a pony ride. First Mack, then Troy. I jog alongside the pony in a circle two times trying to get a picture of at least one of our sons having fun, but I fail. So there is not yet photographic evidence that family fun occurred. After the pony rides we catch a hayride to the pumpkin patch. The rain stops and the sun begins to shine. We jump off the wagon to search for pumpkins. There is mud, so the kids are happy. Pumpkins and mud are a guaranteed recipe for fun. I am not a skilled photographer, but I have my eye on a bench that I think will make for a nice picture. After we find our pumpkins, we put the boys and their pumpkins on a bench and capture the happiness. Snap! This is what it’s all about. We have a picture of our boys together, smiling. This becomes a family memory, not only of the rainy-turned-sunny day, but also of our boys being happy and silly. It will also remind us of how Mack likes to keep a sock on one of his hands. He really is a quirky bird. He is an endearing character, which makes it easier to endure the terrible twos. Tina posts the picture to Facebook. The picture is met with approval from the network. Smiles all around. On the return hayride, Tina and I make small talk with a few strangers. A woman grumbles about getting mud on her clothes, but catches herself and changes her tune. She says, tone adjusted, something like: “It’s all about the experience, right?” She’s exactly right. We’re here to have an experience. We want to feel something different. We want some enjoyment in this too often stressful life. A hayride with pumpkins, mud, rain and then sun does the trick just fine. This is a lovely experience. A lovely experience with family. Family fun time makes us happy.
The ride home is uneventful. We stop at a pizzeria to get some slices to go. Once home, we quickly eat lunch so Mack can nap. He shifts into nap mode like a pro. It’s a relief when things go according to plan.

And many days later, as I reflect on our mini-adventure, the Pablo Cruise song remains stuck in my head. That’s okay with me. I don’t mind hearing a song about love again and again and again. The end.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Thought for the Day from Howard Becker

"Elites, ruling classes, bosses, adults, men, Caucasians--superordinate groups generally--maintain their power as much by controlling how people define the world, its components, and its possibilities, as by the use of more primitive forms of control. They may use primitive means to establish hegemony. But control based on the manipulation of definitions and labels works more smoothly and costs less; superordinates prefer it. The attack on hierarchy begins with an attack on definitions, labels, and conventional conceptions of who's who and what's what."

Howard Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. Excerpt from the chapter "Labelling Theory Reconsidered," pp. 204-205 in the edition I have (New York: The Free Press, 1997). The chapter is based on a paper presented at the British Sociological Association in April, 1971.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Covered: A Sociological Film About Tattoos

I show the film Covered in my Introduction to Sociology course. The filmmaker is Beverly Yuen Thompson, a sociologist at Siena College. The film is 58 minutes. I show approximately 35 minutes of the film and use the remainder of class time for discussion. I've shown it to three different classes and what stands out is the variety of reactions I get from students. I had the mistaken assumption that the current generation of college students would be "all in" about tattoos. I figured they would think tattoos are cool, period. In reality, students have mixed reactions in talking about tattoos. Keep in mind the film focuses on women who have a lot of tattoos (you perhaps gathered that from the movie title. It's called Covered, not Little Tattoos You Won't Even Notice).

I highly recommend showing this film to students. The first part of the film focuses on reactions that women get in public and from family members. One woman in the film talks about the frustration of being stopped by strangers who ask about her tattoos: "I'm not a mannequin that you can just come up and look at the merchandise," she says. Another participant in the film used the phrase "tattoo etiquette" in saying that the public hasn't yet figured out how to respond to people with a lot of tattoos.

A really interesting part of the film shows disapproval from family members. There's a great scene featuring the filmmaker with her mother. One of the tattoos Thompson has is of her father, who doesn't know she has tattoos. "If he found out," her mother says, "he'd probably have a heart attack." In an interview of another mother and daughter, the daughter says she wants to get a tattoo of her mother. The mother replies: "No...It's no good for me.....Do it when I die."

Another excellent section of the film focuses on the experiences of women as tattoo artists. They talk about breaking into what has traditionally been a male industry. One tattooist talks about not always being taken seriously when customers walk through the door. She says: "Even today, after almost thirty years, sometimes I'll be tattooing a man, and people will walk in, and they'll ask the man the question." Another tattooist mentions that she is asked "Do you tattoo guys?" She laughs and wonders if people ever ask male artists if they tattoo women. On the other hand, artists talk about the positive response they get as tattooists. One says that women are more comfortable getting tattooed by women (especially in a "risque" area of their body). Another artist notes there are "possessive husbands or boyfriends that won't let a man touch their girlfriends or wives." An artist suggests that the stigma around women tattooists has lessened since she began her career. So the industry landscape has changed and continues to change.

When I ask students to respond to the film, I hear several different comments, but have observed a few themes. Some students will say they like tattoos if they have meaning.These students dislike "random" tattoos. This usually leads to other students jumping in and saying that all tattoos have meaning, even when the meaning is not obvious and apparent. Other students wonder if it's possible to get a job if they are heavily tattooed. That sentiment leads to good discussion and elicits different perspectives. Students have also talked about disapproval from family members after getting tattoos. Others beam with pride when they talk about their tattoos and the tattoos they would like to get in the future. In all, the film opens the door for students to think about the sociology of tattoos. I love the film and am inspired by the creative approach Thompson takes to doing sociology.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

America is in a Slump

I am grumpy. I think it has to do with America's celebrities, politicians, and op-ed columnists. I think we need new ones. Give us new celebrities, better politicians, and fresh op-ed columnists. Bring us a new fast-food industry. Gift us with an improved cultural infrastructure. I would probably still be grumpy. But there's caffeine for that. I did shake off my grumpiness for a few minutes today while driving around town in my Hyundai. I spent those few minutes rocking out to Bad Company. This probably does not help my credibility. The end.

P.S. On a more serious note, America is a low-wage society.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Fantasy Football -- The Case of C.J. Spiller

I have never played fantasy football. Everything I know about it is based on what I hear from friends who participate and from listening to sports talk radio. I do watch the NFL--something I feel conflicted about, one reason being the violence and damage that players experience. I am a Buffalo Bills fan. Simply put, I root for the home team. I live ten minutes from Ralph Wilson stadium. I'm in a better mood on Monday when the Bills win on Sunday. That's how it goes for a lot of us in Western New York.

After the Bills earned a surprising victory against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday (September 29), I listened to some of the post-game chatter on local radio station WGR 550. I heard host Sal Capaccio (@SalSports) draw attention to the insults that fantasy football fans were hurling at Bills running back C.J. Spiller on Twitter. What he said on the radio is similar to what he wrote on Twitter:

On the radio, Capaccio sounded genuinely outraged at what people were tweeting about Spiller. He didn't want to repeat what people were saying on Twitter. He pretty much suggested that listeners see for themselves. In all, Capaccio came off as sincere in condemning people who said hostile things about Spiller. And why were fantasy football fans upset at Spiller? He rushed for 77 yards against the Ravens without scoring a touchdown--not a good day in fantasy football land. From my perspective, Spiller played fine. Aside from regularly playing with injuries, Spiller recently has had to cope with a tragedy involving a family member. With this in mind, I don't think most fans of the Buffalo Bills would be angry with Spiller for "only" rushing for 77 yards. But Fantasy Football fans play by different rules. They apparently get very serious and angry if players on their fantasy teams don't perform in a way that satisfies them.

Out of curiosity, I searched "CJ Spiller fantasy football" and other similar phrases on Twitter and saw a range of reactions to Spiller's performance against the Ravens. I won't embed the negative tweets in this post. You can do the same search if you want to see what people have said (and are still saying) about Spiller. Instead of the actual tweets, here are some examples of what came up in my search:

-"I hate you CJ Spiller."
-"Thanks for nothing CJ Spiller."
-"Do you enjoy being a shitty fantasy football player and tanking your career?"
-"Thank you for getting hurt and being a horseshit fantasy player."
-"Get your shit together, you're killing my fantasy team."
-"You need to get it together and get me more fantasy points bro."
-"CJ Spiller is the absolute worst first round fantasy pick in history. I hope he tears his ACL so I can force myself to bench him."

There are actually ones more hostile than what I've included. I wasn't shocked to find that people write things like this on Twitter. What did surprise me was that many of them were tweeted at C.J. Spiller. Until I searched, I didn't know that people actually say these things directly to the players. I suppose this means that some people feel entitled to say hostile things to players via Twitter.

Also interesting, though, was to see a lot of people tweeting supportive things about Spiller. By comparison, it looks as though there might actually be more people writing positive things about Spiller and directly to Spiller. Here are a few examples of people keeping it positive (and notice that Spiller seems to be taking this in stride and able to put it in perspective):

Football players probably don't get enough credit for how they handle personal attacks. Even accounting for the point that professional football players are public figures, and taking into consideration that being on Twitter makes it possible for fans to communicate with players in a nasty manner, this does not mean that players deserve to be spoken to in such terrible ways. But I am probably just a naive person who thinks that people should be treated with respect and dignity. I suppose that's a fantasy too.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

First TVs, Then Fox News on TV

Increasingly, Fox News seems to be the default station in restaurants and other establishments that I visit. I live in Western New York (also known as the Buffalo-Niagara region), a place that a friend once described as "a red part of a blue state." There obviously was a time when flat screen televisions weren't playing in grocery stores and diners; now it's common for me to see Fox News airing in these and other places.

The experience of being in airports with CNN on every screen is familiar to many. When CNN is on the screen, it's easier for me to grasp. After all, CNN was the first cable news operation, and is still considered by some to be a neutral news source (or at least to provide the appearance thereof). If Fox and MSNBC occupy polar opposites of the cable news spectrum in their overall presentation of politics, CNN exists somewhere in-between, at times closer to MSNBC, other times nearer to Fox.

It's rare for me to see MSNBC airing in local establishments. MSNBC projects something resembling the liberal viewpoint, however 'liberal' is to be understood when presented by a corporate-cable news entertainment operation. MSNBC hosts and pundits don't always flatter President Obama and other Democrats. But the channel tends to give Democrats the benefit of the doubt in its construction of 'progressive' politics and viewpoints. MSNBC, in a 'lean forward' corporate way, sends signals about politics and culture that are qualitatively different than those that come from Fox News.

The most recent instance of seeing Fox News on a screen in public was when I went to a diner with my family. I'd never been to the diner before. We were seated at a booth. Two big TV screens were easy for me to see: a local news station on one and Fox News on the other. A music station was playing, so the TVs were muted. So one screen was Fox News (known for sensational headlines and coverage obviously unflattering to President Obama and anything approximating the liberal cause). The juxtaposition was interesting: local news doing what local news does (crime stories, pet stories, profiles of local businesses, weather forecasts) alongside Fox News (consistent undermining of President Obama and other Democrat politicians).

I'm not sure what place Fox News has in a diner. Or a supermarket. If you're wondering, it's not MSNBC that I want to see on these screens. The torso and head of Chris Hayes or Ed Schultz doesn't naturally fit into a diner or supermarket scheme either. I don't walk into a coffee shop hoping to see Morning Joe on the screen ("brewed by Starbucks"). I don't know any self-described liberal who eagerly anticipates the next opinion from Ed Rendell or Eugene Robinson. Corporate cable news-entertainment from any station at the pub and elsewhere in public feels to me like an intrusion; an unwanted and unnecessary infusion of politics into my everyday life.

All of this to say: It used to be that television screens were reserved for sports bars and airports, now they appear in more and more places where I live, and usually set to Fox News. Why? To what effect?

I hope a few readers will share observations. What is it like in your daily life--TVs set to The Weather Channel, ESPN, local news, or something else? How do you feel about what's on? In terms of the stations that are on, what messages do you think are being sent to patrons?


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Miley Cyrus Performance At The MTV Video Music Awards

Surely you've seen the Miley Cyrus performance at the Video Music Awards by now. My initial reaction was to file it under the pursuit of attention. By that phrase I'm referring to a book by Charles Derber. Derber examines the ways people seek attention in everyday life. Attention is something that can be shared and allocated. While some people are inclined to share or even avoid attention, others compete for attention. It's not only celebrities that crave attention. Derber points to ways 'ordinary' people strive for attention too. But in order to stay relevant, celebrities have to become experts in gaining and maintaining attention.

To an extent, then, this is what celebrities do: they pursue attention. So I mostly looked at Cyrus' performance in the context of celebrity behavior. In the first 'highlights' I saw, parts of Cyrus' performance were shown after clips of Lady Gaga in various costumes. Cyrus and Gaga are both very good at staying relevant and being in the news. Notice they are often trending topics on Twitter. So my first reaction was to view their performances as part of a competition to gather the spotlight.

I still think Cyrus' performance can be partly understood as a major attention grab, but there's much more to it. I think the racial dimension has to be accounted for, something I had not initially considered. It was when I read this piece that I began to grasp how the performance must also be understood in racial terms. And then I read this analysis by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Toward the end of her piece, she writes: "I am not surprised that so many overlooked this particular performance of brown bodies as white amusement parks in Cyrus' performance." It's a really deep analysis that helps me think more critically about the performance. Another important read about Cyrus, written a few months ago by Dodai Stewart, provides context about twerking and discusses how Cyrus, in a video, uses black women "as props, a background for her to shine in front of."

So there's a lot to consider and think through. There are many ways to analyze Cyrus' performance. This article by Emily Heist Moss focuses on gender and power. As I've tried to show by compiling these analyses, the Cyrus performance is not simply a case of 'Hannah Montana' crafting her image and getting attention. This is a complicated story with profound race, gender, and power dimensions.

Elite media figures who have focused their energy on sounding an alarm along the lines of  "Think of the children" (Mika Brzezinski comes to mind) miss bigger picture points identified in the articles to which I've linked.

As a final point, Robin Thicke shouldn't escape criticism. He walked slowly on stage to join Cyrus in the performance. There he was, Mr. Cool in a pinstriped suit, singing and 'dancing' with Cyrus during his sexist song "Blurred Lines." Let's not forget this popular song contains the lyrics "I know you want it." Cyrus stole the show at the Video Music Awards. I think that's why so much criticism (warranted) has been directed at her. Thicke deserves criticism too, for being part of the performance and for bringing even more attention to a degrading song.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Nobody Has Sex (Thinking About Facebook Norms)

I don't have my own Facebook but I am aware of what happens in the network of Tina, my wife. She keeps me in the loop of things that friends and family post on her Facebook. So I see lots of pictures from people we know. Given our stage of life, it's mostly pictures of everyday family life. We see pictures of kids and pets and have a window into where people go out to eat and what they cook at home. There's also some political chatter and quite a bit of social commentary.

What is missing from these Facebook posts? Any talk about sex. It seems, unfortunately, that no one in my wife's social network is having sex. To be more precise, no one ever says anything about sex. One night my wife joked "I'm going to put on Facebook, 'Going to bed, but not going to sleep'" and we cracked up because even the slightest subtle reference to the possibility of engaging in sexual activity would breach Facebook norms (at least in her network).

I will go ahead and guess that talking about sex is not taboo in everybody's social network. Surely there are folks who air out their sexual laundry on Facebook. But for those who belong to a network where the norm is to avoid any reference to sexual activity, it would make for a good breaching experiment to post "I have the best sex life ever" or "Haven't had sex in forever" or really anything that has to do with having sex.

This post is not an awkward invitation to tell your Facebook friends about your sex life. Rather, this topic is a reminder that life is an information game, to paraphrase Erving Goffman from the introduction of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. We share information about ourselves but not all our information. This is part of the process of face-to-face interaction. It's also the case on Facebook--where we tell people our story but not our full story--a point effectively conveyed here by Nathan Jurgenson.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Song For Thinking About Robert Merton's "Strain Theory"

I spend some part of every day thinking about Robert Merton's "strain theory." I think a lot about the cultural goals--those "things worth striving for," as Merton described them. What do we aspire to? What do we seek to attain? Those questions never go out of style. They will always be relevant.

One of my favorite songs from the past few years is "Beach Comber" by Real Estate. It's an all around nice tune with lyrics that bring Merton to mind. The first line is a beauty: "What you want is just outside your reach, you keep on searching." There's always a risk to interpreting song lyrics. This song could be about anything--a lost love, for instance--but I'm brought back to the cultural goals with the lines "until you find your Rolex in the sand, you won't be stopping. Until that solid gold is in your hand, you won't be happy." There's a chance I've got the lyrics wrong, too. No matter how many times I listen to the song, I don't always hear each word exactly the same way. But even leaving room for error, the song gives us a chance to think about how we pursue the things we think will make us happy. But as the song suggests, what we think will make us happy isn't necessarily what will make us happy.

As I've written before, when we teach strain theory I think the main objective is to get students to think critically about the disjunction between cultural goals and the approved means for obtaining those goals. I love thinking about the cultural goals and talking with students about what those goals supposedly are. My students give a variety of answers when I ask questions like "How important is making money in this culture?" and "How important is it to you to make money in your life?" Questions like these get us engaged in the topic and lead us to the various deviant responses that Merton delineated: innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Simple Teaching Tip: Always Carry Index Cards

Not breaking new ground here, just a simple suggestion for increasing student participation. I always have a pack of index cards in my bag that I carry to class. If class participation stalls, I can break out the index cards. Whatever the topic happens to be, I pose a few questions and ask students to write their honest answers on an index card. I tell them not to put their name on their card unless they want to. When students have finished writing their responses, I collect the cards and read some of the responses. I don't identify anyone by name. Usually it only takes 4-5 cards to get to something that sparks discussion. It's common for a student to raise their hand to respond to something I've read on an index card. I love it when students respond to something a peer has said. I'll continue to read responses from the pile, occasionally asking the class "Does anyone want to take credit for this?" Sometimes no hand goes in the air, so we don't know who authored the response, but in many cases a student will take credit and elaborate. This leads to more debate and discussion.

So that's it. Trust me, everyday is not an index card day. Like any other technique, it can go stale if it's overused. It's just another tool in the box that helps keep class discussions going. And keep in mind this is a great way to involve shy students in the discussion. If I read 15-20 cards from the pile, I've most likely included cards written by students who tend to be quiet in class. So this is a way to increase contributions across the board.

If you've never done this, give it a try and let me know how it went. And please share your ideas for stimulating participation.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Thought for the Day from Cornel West

Just opened up a book from my shelf--Race Matters by Cornel West--and caught a brief passage that holds up quite well twenty years later:
"Whoever our leaders will be as we approach the twenty-first century, their challenge will be to help Americans determine whether a genuine multiracial democracy can be created and sustained in an era of global economy and a moment of xenophobic frenzy.
Let us hope and pray that the vast intelligence, imagination, humor, and courage of Americans will not fail us. Either we learn a new language of empathy and compassion, or the fire this time will consume us all."  (Vintage Books edition, 1994, p. 13).
So that's the thought for the day, along with a question: who are our leaders?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Fast Food, Wendy's Style

So...been driving past this sign at a nearby Wendy's.

According to Wendy's website, the Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger is 680 calories. The sodium content is 1110 mg, almost as much as recommended daily levels.

I politely decline the invitation to try this cheeseburger.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Green’s Predicament

By day he was director of the Buffalo Institute of History, composed, cool, and capable in his position. By night he fell to pieces, sleepless, ashamed, and angry. 
Considered by some to be a hero for implementing his plan to turn the former Central Terminal into an education site--in just four years the Terminal transformed from a cold and dusty architectural wonder into a place where both local residents and tourists learned about Buffalo's place in history--Green was coming apart quickly, seemingly unable to hide his skeletons much longer. Always engaging in the daytime hours, always able to impress a group of visitors with his knowledge of grain elevators and steel production, Green would rush home at 5:01 each afternoon, lock the doors, screen his calls, and cower in his one-bedroom apartment. Desperate to participate in the nightlife that was going on around him, Green instead hid from people once his work day was done and nervously counted the hours and minutes until he had to return to his place of work the next day. All that kept him going was thoughts of the weekend, which meant two full days to work on his escape plan. He needed as much time as possible to discover a way out of this mess. Confined by convention from Monday to Friday, the weeks and months went on without him as he continued to pray for a better day. He wished for a day without worry, a day without anxiety. He tried to conceal his state of mind by working pleasant phrases into his daily interactions--“no worries” he would tell the co-worker who made a mistake on the job, “never better” he would tell his neighbor when asked how he was doing. 
At 9:30 a.m. on a Thursday a group of college students visited the Institute for a one-day crash course about Buffalo architecture. Green offered glowing remarks about Wright, Olmstead, Richardson, and Sullivan. He beamed when he spoke about the Richardson Towers and the Guaranty Building. He stole phrases from The Fountainhead as he talked about the nobility of architects. He charmed the group with his well-rehearsed spiel: “The Buffalo Central Terminal opened on June 22, 1929. That means we have a little more than twenty years to plan the 100th anniversary party of its opening!’’  The crowd laughed.  “Oh you laugh now,” he teased, “but 2029 will be here before you know it!  In 2029 we’re going to have an amazing party. We’ll celebrate with a “Roaring 20s” theme. It’s going to be a party unlike Buffalo has ever seen!” The group was fooled by Green’s schtick. They were unable to see through him. 
Relieved when his work day was done, Green quickly headed home and followed his usual routine: lock the doors, dim the lights, and spend the evening in the room with no windows. Hours of dark thoughts passed. He tried to turn in early--at 10:00 p.m.--but at 11:45 he was still awake and afraid. Couch to bed, bed to couch, and couch to bed once more. It didn’t matter. It seemed like yet another sleepless night. Somehow Green managed to drift off to sleep by 2:00 a.m., and he was surprised to awake to the sight of his alarm clock, which read 4:12. Two hours felt like a lifetime of sleep, and with pleasure in his mind and body he fell back to sleep. His good feeling was short-lived. He encountered a nightmare sometime during the five o’clock hour. The nightmare ended with a television news clip: The circumstances surrounding Thomas Browning’s death remain mysterious. The philanthropist, well known as a central figure in the genesis of the Buffalo Institute of History, was last seen on a train leaving Buffalo that was destined for New York City. There is no official cause of death, but we are led to believe that Browning committed suicide. Images of Browning falling from the train startled Green out of his slumber. He went to the entrance of his apartment and peered outside his door.  He was relieved to see that no one was there. He was sure that someone was coming to get him. 
On Friday, back to work, Green did his best to conceal his misery. He continued to receive accolades and positive press. Friday’s edition of The Buffalo Times heralded him as a savior of the old Central Terminal. He was characterized as someone who had fought the good fight, a man who refused to believe that the Terminal was a dinosaur and one who was determined to breathe life into a building that he loved. In some ways Green’s life had become a test, an experiment: how long could he function without coming unglued? Was it a matter of months, weeks, or days before his secret caught up with him? 
After work on Friday Green packed his bags. He figured he’d get lost in Toronto for the weekend. He’d wait in Toronto until he made the exchange with Gottlieb. He wished he could trust Gottlieb, wished he could confide in him. But Gottlieb wasn’t a friend. They were forced into an association because each had something the other needed. Gottlieb didn’t know Green’s secret, he just knew Green had something to hide. Gottlieb took pleasure in seeing Green squirm. That was his way.
            When Green arrived in Toronto he checked into a hotel. He sat by himself at the hotel bar drinking the day away, wishing he could turn back the calendar four years. This mess was four years in the making. One bad decision had led to another. Lies turned into bigger lies. Deceit became his everyday. He continued drinking, wondering if his secret would die with him. 

His secret? He knew well the person who pushed Browning off the train.


Author’s note: I wrote this story in 2005. I submitted it that year to Artvoice for a short story contest. The story was selected for second or third place (I can’t remember which one).

Man of Distinction (A Sociological Poem)

Can you tell us your secret?
How did you get such great taste?
So cool how you wear something new
You always find the perfect restaurant
You even know who to read
You stay one step ahead of us
And when we catch up you’ve already moved…..on

It’s all so perfect because you present the everyday man fa├žade
Everybody (and I mean everybody) can relate to you.
You’re an amazing balancing act
You distinguish yourself from the rest of us
But never act like you’re better than us
And that’s why it works so well.

Year in, year out, you find it before we do
You know exactly how to work the display
It’s an intangible thing
A skill we can’t compute
If asked about it, you wouldn’t even field the question
Or you’d say something clever (“I like what I like”)
But can it be so simple?

You’re a class act
You make it look so easy
Today it’s vodka
Tomorrow a cigar
Then an obscure ingredient (“Ooh, I never heard of that one before!” we say with delight)
Top it all off with a philosophy you found around the corner.

It’s incredible, all these tricks up your sleeve
We’re dazzled by the impressions you leave
You don’t have more than us
But you’re a man of distinction
And that’s enough.

Author's note: I wrote this poem to convey sociological ideas that captured my attention at a time I was reading a lot about social class--notably, the book Facing Social Class (edited by Susan T. Fiske and Hazel Rose Markus) and the blog post "High Heels And Distinction Among Women" by Lisa Wade. My poem appears in the blog post "Poetic Sociology," written by Peter Kaufman. Check out his post for great ideas about using poetry to teach sociology.

On a related note, I'm in the middle of reading a work with great insights about social class--Shamus Rahman Khan's Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School. I recommend this book and think it's a good fit for an undergraduate course on social class/social stratification. I'm thinking of teaching Social Stratification next year (would be first time teaching course) and will likely assign Khan's book along with Fiske and Markus' book, plus a few short readings (including the one mentioned above by Wade). 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Sociology in Stories - Sample Contents

Here are two stories from my intro-level book Sociology in Stories: A Creative Introduction to a Fascinating Perspective.

"America the Beautiful" is a fictional story about the future of society. The topics are immigration, social class, physical appearance, media, education, and inequality. Click here for a less than perfect PDF file that I made.

And this is "Iron Cage Tattoo," a story designed to creatively introduce students to Max Weber's ideas about bureaucracy. Click here for another imperfect PDF.

I encourage your comments about these stories, so don't hesitate to e-mail (tas@niagara.edu) or tweet me (@CreateSociology).

Finally, click here for my description of the book and what motivated me to write it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Paula Deen

Click here if you don't know why Paula Deen is taking heat on Twitter. Here are some tweets that caught my eye as I followed the commentary on Twitter:

This Los Angeles Times article wondered if the Food Network will cut ties with Deen. The article references a statement from the Food Network which reads: "Food Network does not tolerate any form of discrimination and is a strong proponent of diversity and inclusion. We will continue to monitor the situation."

As it quickly turned out, the Food Network moved fast and fired Deen.

This led sociologist Crystal Fleming to make the following observation:
And for those who are wondering why all of this matters, this article is a good place to start.

As Rashawn Ray tweets, this story is not just about the use of a vicious racial slur. It is also about workplace discrimination.
To read about how Deen's employees have accused her of discrimination, and to think about the importance of fair labor practices, see this article at Crunk Feminist Collective.

Friday, May 24, 2013

My Report Card as a Father and Man

Am I a good father? What kind of man am I? I imagined how someone might grade me on a variety of categories as a way of reflecting about the meanings of "man" and "father."

Schoepflin is pretty much a circus when it comes to doing work outside. He's not totally terrible at mowing the lawn, but it's evident that he dislikes almost every minute of it. He's clumsy and ineffective at weed-wacking. The guy doesn't even own a snowblower. He lives in Buffalo, for Christ's sake. How does this guy not have a snowblower? He half-heartedly brushes snow off his car in the winter months, and clears about 70% of the snow from his wife's car. What a prince. In the spring he doesn't plant flowers. He once considered planting vegetables, but never followed through. Overall, he demonstrates an appalling lack of interest in the outdoor area of his home. Grade: D

Schoepflin appears terrified of his grill. He can't turn on a gas grill on a consistent basis. He doesn't ruin hot dogs, but overcooks hamburgers, wrecks steaks, and produces uninspiring chicken. At least he's smart enough to avoid trying to grill kabobs. He complains about how hot it is to stand over a grill. When asked if he wanted a new grill for Father's Day, he was so dumbfounded by the question that he couldn't muster a response. Let me be blunt: when it comes to grilling, he's an embarrassment. Grade: F

This guy is right at home at grocery stores. He likes grocery stores. He glides through the aisles with a smile, hums to whatever song is playing on the store soundtrack (he has a noticeable pep in his step when Stevie Wonder is playing), chats with workers, small talks with fellow customers, and patiently waits in line. He wisely races through the middle aisles of the store in order to limit his purchase of processed foods. He knows how to pick produce, knows a good meat bargain when he sees it, and is excellent at reading labels. I swear I've seen him counting the number of ingredients when he grabs canned goods or an item from the frozen foods section. This guy is a triple threat: he can meal plan, stay within the budget, and is a health-conscious shopper. Grade: A

OMG, have you seen Schoepflin change a diaper? It's a thing of beauty. This guy should enter a diaper-changing contest. Methodical yet efficient. Smooth understates the matter. Graceful gets close to it. This fella knows what's he doing with diapers. My only criticism is that he needs 6-8 wipes for a poopy diaper. This guy is killing the environment and that fact must be taken into account in terms of a grade. Ok, so he's great at changing diapers on his 2-year-old, but what about the rest of it? Well, he sings to him, tickles him, totes him around when needed, and loves him up. This guy is pretty steady with the kids. I like what he has to offer his 5-year-old: he makes his lunches for school, teaches him to play baseball, encourages reading, and is very affectionate with him. He does get frustrated easily and has trouble living in the moment, but overall I like what I see. It does seem like he'd often rather be blogging or tweeting, but nobody's perfect. He puts his kids in front of the TV too much. To be fair, he sometimes uses TV to buy time to empty the dishwasher, do laundry, or cook dinner. Also, in an interview with his wife, she noted that he did his fair share of overnight feedings when the kids were babies. He also created original songs to sing to the boys at bedtime. Grade: B+

He can change a light bulb. What can I say, I'm trying to be nice. I don't want to sound like a hater, but this guy is useless around the house. If something needs fixing, you better look elsewhere. He's is powerless with power tools. To him, everything looks like a screw, only he can't use a screw gun. I'd say he has two left hands, but that's an insult to people with two left hands. I'd say he tries, but that's only slightly true. I guess I'd say fixing things doesn't come naturally to him, and he clearly shows a lack of interest in improving his skills. It's like, dare I say, fixing things isn't important to him. This isn't to say he doesn't appreciate people who are good at fixing things. In fact, he's impressed by people who are handy. He admires people who can get jobs done. It's just not a personal ambition or something he values for himself. It appears as though he'd prefer to spend time doing things that are important to him, like reading and writing. Because he can do a little bit of painting without falling off a ladder, he avoids an F. Grade: D

In the big picture of parenting, I judge him as above average. He gives his kids room to grow but is happy to nurture and comfort them. He works hard to be very involved in all phases of his kids' lives. He volunteers as an assistant coach for his 5-year-old's t-ball team. He puts a lot of emphasis on making his kids laugh, having fun with them, playing with them, meeting their immediate needs, and coordinates everything with his wife. This is a report card of him, but for context it must be said that all major decisions are shared with his wife. They are a team. They are good at many of the same things, and bad at many of the same things. As I write this summary, it occurs to me that "above average" is a strange way to rate a person as a father or man. Who gets to decide what constitutes a good parent or good person? Who sets the baseline? What is below average and what would it look like? What's with all the rhetorical questions? Maybe it's time to pull back on our assumptions about concepts like "father" and "man." Truth be told, I don't think there is one set of things a man should do and a different set of things that a woman should do. Honestly, I don't see it that way. I guess I want to say that people do the best they can in this life. We should pay more attention to the things people do well. The best gift we can give people is to cast aside our stereotypical expectations.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Tweets About Various Topics (Mother's Day Shooting in New Orleans; Jason Richwine; Abercrombie & Fitch)

The information train speeds by us. It's challenging to keep track of what others are saying, tweeting, and blogging. It's easy to miss an interesting tweet or forget about a good one that you stored in your favorites list. Occasionally I'll pull together a variety of tweets that stand out to me and post them on my blog. Here are some tweets from the week...
Rashawn nailed it with that tweet. Why didn't the national media converge on New Orleans to heavily cover this violent tragedy? David Leonard blogs about this very topic (link included in his tweet):
Do you know who Jason Richwine is? If not, read Diego von Vacano's op-ed. For more on Richwine, go to Hector Cordero-Guzman's Twitter (@HCorderoGuzman) and scroll through his tweets from the past eight days or so.
Onto a different topic. There's plenty of reasons to dislike Abercrombie and Fitch. The list is growing. Click on link in the following tweet to see what I mean.
Moving on...if you like social theory, check out the Stick Figures in Social Theory Tumblr. Something to keep an eye on...
There's also a new sociological blog by Tanya Golash-Boza to follow...
Great photographs in the next one...
Let's finish with a few observations. I strongly agree with this one...
Overall, I had a positive experience in graduate school. I had an excellent academic experience. My professors treated me well. I made some good friends. But when I hear "graduate school" I think of insomnia and a pullout couch. I spent much of graduate school sleep-deprived and money-deprived. I lived in a tiny studio apartment and had a tiny checking account. I accumulated super-sized student loan debt. I grew tired of writing papers. All things considered, I really do recall graduate school in mostly positive ways. But I agree with Crystal: you couldn't pay me to do it over again. And we finish with a statement about memes:
Indeed! Thanks for reading.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Recent Favorite Tweets

It's hard to keep up with the constant flow of information these days. There's so much to read to keep informed, so much material that can be used for teaching. There's an endless supply of information available to sharpen our sociological perspectives. These are just a handful of recent tweets by people I follow that provide a glimpse into what I've been reading and watching lately. 

And we finish with an excellent sociological observation...

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Once Homeless, Now a College Graduate

A few years ago I wrote about Ayla, a student I met in Introduction to Sociology. I was happy to see Ayla graduate from Niagara University yesterday. It was great to watch her walk across the stage and become a college graduate. Bravo!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Do What You Can, Do What You Must

In the fall semester I thrive.  In the spring semester I survive.  By the middle of the spring semester, fatigue has set in and doesn't go away until final grades are submitted.  I live in New York State. So in fall there are piles of leaves, in winter piles of snow, in spring piles of papers.  By the end of the fall semester, my plate is full.  By the middle of the spring semester, all my plates are full.  In the fall semester I can quickly respond to e-mails, in the spring semester days go by before I respond to some.  

In the fall semester I separate tasks into two categories: front burner and back burner.  This is a way of prioritizing my to-do list.  In spring I don’t know the difference between front burner and back burner.  I’m behind on grading, tired of class preparation, and busy providing academic advisement to students for next semester. By April, scholarship is an afterthought.   

At this time of the year, there are too many tasks and insufficient energy to complete them.  So what can we do?  Let’s see what Bob Dylan has to say in “Buckets of Rain”:
Life is sad
Life is a bust
All you can do is do what you must
You do what you must do and you do it well…

Even late in the academic year I don’t view life as sad or a bust, but I really connect with the last two lines quoted above.  For the purpose of this post, I will make a slight adjustment to his lyrics. Late in the academic year, when I’m exhausted and the finish line still seems far away, I operate with the following mantra: Do what you can, do what you must.  I do what I can. I try to find a few things that can be let go until the semester ends. We can’t do everything. Sometimes we have to say “Not now, I can't, I’m sorry.”   

And I do what I must.  Some things can’t be put on hold.  Obviously we have to grade papers, write final exams, and compute final grades.  There are certain tasks that have to be accomplished. So I put my focus where it has to be.  This time of year it’s hard to be all things to all people.  So I do what I can, and do what I must.  And I try to do it well.

There’s a saying out there somewhere “Do what you love, love what you do.” That’s nice, and so are Hallmark cards and cute notes I leave in my wife’s lunch bag once in a while.  But at the end of the academic year, I need practical, realistic advice to get me through.  And that’s why “do what you can, do what you must” works for me.  Summer is on the horizon.  Summer brings rest and revitalization.  Yes, there’s work to be done during the summer, but the pace is much friendlier and far less taxing.  In summer I can once again distinguish between front and back burner, and I’m back to one plate that isn’t full.

At the beginning of the academic year, patience comes easy. Come winter, patience is a virtue.  By April, patience is a miracle.  Patience, energy and motivation are hard to find at the end of the academic year.  So I do what I can and do what I must in the best way possible to make it to the finish line.