some of us are brave
I suppose it is always a difficult time to teach sociology. The past few months have certainly been such a time. There seems to be a new video of police brutality and extrajudicial murder of mostly black men and women every week. People are actually debating if there is some essential genetic race feeling (which, strangely enough, shares the same assumptions of eugenics; but I do not argue). Declining support for education and public spaces makes it difficult to imagine how we will ever successfully balance the excesses of privatization and financialization. Amidst it all, students are trying to accurately assess the future so they can do “all the right things” to weather increasingly unpredictable social and labor conditions.
It’s tough out here.
But, sociology is at its best when it is theoretically-grounded, empirically sound, and outward-facing.
The challenge this summer session for my undergraduate students in Class, Status and Power has been to bridge classic/contemporary social theory with all of the sociology happening around us.
The course was accelerated. And, the class was small. Both presented challenges. Normally, I have six to eight weeks to model how to do an assignment I call “case studies”. The assignment asks students to read a contemporary public press article for its implied and explicit social theory, data, and arguments. Students have to 1) explain the case 2) translate it into sociological terms and 3) visualize a data component that either supports or challenges the case’s premise.
The possible cases this session were:
f. Players as Employees? High Costs of College Football
The students did a bang-up job. After asking their permission to photograph and share their images and work, I’m very proud to show you how this group of students did some sociology this hot, dark summer.
The Case for Reparations made a big public splash. Students have grappled with ideas of structure and agency; read some C. Wright Mills; and delved into racial formation and hypersegregation. After summarizing the case and analyzing how well Coates uses evidence to support his claim for reparations, Kristin reminded us of the current case of police violence in McKinney, Texas. Access to the pool (the reason that the police were called) hinges on the contemporary pattern of housing subdivisions. Housing subdivisions reflect larger patterns of racial (and class) segregation in housing. One way of viewing those consequences is through the availability of private amenities (subdivision swimming pools) and public amenities (public swimming pools). Kristin told us that legal claims to ownership of communal space invited the conditions for police brutality.
The New York Times expose of the working conditions of nail salons rippled through my social media this summer. It is no wonder that the story resonated with students. The case gave us an opportunity to move beyond black-white racial binaries (no matter how important they are to understanding U.S. and global racism) to think about race versus ethnicity, as well as variations of racial-ethnic hierarchies.
One group focused very particularly on how the racial-ethnic hierarchy in New York nail salons reproduced global labor inequalities, with workers from less wealthy countries occupying the lowest rung of the social hierarchy in the salon. I loved the map students made to visualize this:
Another group took the same case study but focused on the role of job polarization in a) creating the market for cheap nail services and b) the conditions for workers in the service economy. These students looked at the decline of “middle skills” jobs in New York:
The discussion of job polarization and class continued with a case study of How Technology is Killing Jobs. We gave some nuance to job polarization and technocratic utopias. Students were not particularly happy to learn that despite the hype, professional occupations (e.g. law and medicine) are far from immune to technological disruption. I don’t think that’s the message they’re getting in career services. My bad.
The Internship Economy is always an interesting case for college students. They are in these processes as we try to unpack them. As most people can tell you, doing that sharpens a special set of skills (i.e. reflexivity). Cathy did a marvelous job linking internship economies to trends in corporate higher education. She argued that student labor makes students a sort of “pre-worker” group, complicating students’ ownership of their intellectual and emotional labor. She also linked the disparities between paid and unpaid internships to gendered and racialized differences in college major.
The group that tackled “What’s Killing Poor White Women” had a very rich case study. We discuss intersectionality in class. This case allows us to explore how whiteness is a race just as maleness is a gender. Getting there through class is especially good given the course title. The group expounded on differences in social networks, labor market participation and resilience between poor white and poor black women. They also paid extensive attention to how gender (and marriage) were socially constructed for poor women. And, from Sandberg’s Lean In to Slaughter’s Have It All theses, there is a lot to be said about the juxtaposition of (stalled?) gender mobility and social class. Students took Fraser’s argument that feminism (especially corporate feminism) has become capitalism’s handmaiden. The students’ provocation asked if or how multiple genders could challenge this paradigm.
These student sociologists lifted some serious theoretical and empirical muscle. They grappled with questions that all sociologists are grappling with and they learned that even it doesn’t say it is, almost every public polemic is having a sociological conversation.