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31 August 2017

Hypocrisy Tonight

Tonight, I prepare to be a hypocrite. My Indiana Hoosiers have their season opener on the gridiron, hosting the (2) Ohio State Buckeyes. Even though I have two majors objections to football, I will watch anyway--because I am weak. First, football, as it is currently played under the rules, inarguably causes long-term brain injury. Second, college football disproportionately attracts young men of color with the promise of fame and stardom--a group of people who are structurally thwarted from the conventional means to economic wellbeing--though only a tiny fraction of those who pursue this route will actually become professional. As a sociologist and thinking person, I know these two related facts to be true--and, yet, I will nonetheless watch. I will watch because football is more than just entertainment; it is a connection to something larger than myself, to a group of people scattered by geography and time. Sports generate solidarity for their fans. (Incidentally, sports also generate a great deal of solidarity for the athletes as well. Despite being only a mediocre player, I was on the football team in high school largely because I felt a deep connection to my teammates.) Logic is no match for social forces.

For those of us who know rationally that football needs to change or be abolished, it is not enough to make a call to reason. We also need to offer a cultural substitute, another activity around which fans could rally. Short of that, there will be no change.

In just over a week, I could expand on this post as the NFL season kicks off without Colin Kaepernick. 

19 August 2017

Owning My Summer

I did a bit of an experiment over the summer, and as I'm ready to get back into the fall routine next week, I thought I'd share. Like most faculty, I am on a 10-month appointment. That means that I am technically only employed by the college between August and May. I am on my own for June and July. Traditionally, academics have used the summer to do research. I find this arrangement highly problematic[1]. Regardless, there is an administrative creep, whereby students, colleagues, and administrators increasingly expect faculty to be responsive during the summer[2]. To hedge this a bit, I set up the following automatic reply from my work email account:
I am away from campus conducting research and will only be checking email sporadically until August.
Indeed, I did my best to only check my work email once a week. I'll admit that I didn't always hold to this goal, though. I was quite adamant, however, about not checking email during the two weeks during which I was on vacation with my family. Sadly, people continue to send email, whether I'm checking it or not, and I often had dozens of emails waiting for me on the days when I did check.

Overall, my approach, the auto-reply and checking email infrequently, was pretty successful. I will do it again next summer for sure. I made a lot of progress with my new research project, though not as much as I had hoped. More importantly, I spent a lot of time with my daughter and wife. Starting next week, I'll get back to the grind. I will not be checking my work email on the weekends, though.

[1] The roots of this, I believe, are more political than anything. John and Jane Q. Public think that professors are teachers and are not fully informed about the research and service requirements of the job. Since teaching generally happens between August and May, those are the months during which, from that uninformed perspective, professors are working, and paying them during the summer when most are not teaching is unjustifiable. While it's true that most of us are actually paid a salary over those ten months that amounts to a fair 12-month salary, the symbolism is important: what I do is neither understood nor valued. I have found that the psychological effects of this are that I am not as motivated during June and July as I might otherwise be if my employer signalled to me that my productivity during that 17% of the year is as valuable as my productivity during the other 83%. That may sound almost adolescent, but I would argue that it is only human.

[2] There is a quote that the interwebs attribute to Bob Carter that goes, "Poor planning on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine." I love this sentiment, but I think it might be a bit simplistic. Like us, administrators have their bosses, too, so the "poor planning" is possibly more institutional or organizational than it is a personal failing. The problem is created not by any given administrator but by the bureaucratic system of administration itself in which it is literally people's jobs to create work for others and to delegate tasks to subordinates. Because capitalism. Thanks, Obama.

09 August 2017

Take Me to Church: Re-purposing the Sociology Club

It's that time of year again, and we're gearing up for the start of a new semester. I enjoyed an afternoon "retreat" with my colleagues earlier this week, and it was very productive and helped me to do the mental transition from summer mode to school mode. One item on our agenda was how best to help our students with the mental and emotional fallout from studying a field as heavy as sociology. We are a notorious downer of a discipline, focusing on poverty, racism, sexism, etc., and all of that negativity can have troubling effects on those of us who do this daily.

I had a spark of inspiration as my colleagues were talking about the creeping depression (clinical or otherwise) that affects our undergrads. How can we teach our students about the social ills of the world without shoving them off the cliff of melancholy? As a sociologist of religion, I connected what I know of Evangelical Protestants/Sectarian Christians and sociology majors. Evangelicals are unique, according to Chris Smith, for a kind of paradoxical social orientation. On the one hand, they are instructed to be leery of "the world" (i.e. the mainstream culture). Secular influence is seen as, at best, a collection of temptations to be treated with extreme caution or, at worst, an irredeemable pit of evil and depravity. On the other hand, they are required to engage with the world, to evangelize and proselytize. In other words, the world is bad but unavoidable. The sociological twist is that this paradox allows them to generate incredible in-group solidarity. Their affiliation rescues them from inevitable acedia.

Perhaps, I thought, we could replicate this model in some secular manner for our students. Right now, our students get a lot of the "world is bad" stuff from us, and to some extent, they also get the "fix the world" engagement stuff as well, but what they so far haven't gotten is a place to generate the solidarity necessary to sustain those orientations. Enter the sociology club. Too often our students imagine the sociology club to be a kind of extracurricular classroom, where they continue the academics they started in the classroom, but one of my colleagues suggested that, given the right direction from us as faculty and the basis of some form of secular rituals (i.e. behaviors), the sociology club could serve as a place for our majors to be reminded not just of their shared ideas (i.e. beliefs) but also of their shared identity (i.e. belonging). Our hope is that the social-psychological effects of this will mirror those among Evangelicals. I'll keep you posted.

06 May 2017

The Little Red Hen as Antithesis to the Prodigal Son

I have a two-year-old, which means that I'm getting a crash course in childhood socialization. Case in point: The Little Red Hen. She already knows two versions of the story. Here is the plot summary according to Wikipedia:
In the tale, the little red hen finds a grain of wheat and asks for help from the other farmyard animals...to plant it, but none of them volunteer. At each later stage (harvest, threshing, milling the wheat into flour, and baking the flour into bread), the hen again asks for help from the other animals, but again she gets no assistance. Finally, the hen has completed her task and asks who will help her eat the bread. This time, all the previous non-participants eagerly volunteer. She declines their help stating that no one aided her in the preparation work. Thus, the hen eats it with her chicks leaving none for anyone else. The moral of this story is that those who say no to contribution to a product do not deserve to enjoy the product: "if any would not work, neither should he eat."
I find this story shockingly ugly. It occurs to me that it's the most conservative argument ever. (Ironically, one could also read it as the most Marxist argument ever, which is intriguing given its supposed Russian roots, but that's maybe for a future post.) It also strikes me as the mirror opposite of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32):
Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
Oh, how little we actually think about the lessons we teach our children.

Don't get me started on the bourgeois propaganda that is Thomas the Tank Engine!

'Are You in a Band?' Autoethnographic Interview Essays, Pt. 1/10

As I posted recently, I'm starting a new research project. It's an ethnography on how do musicians start and sustain a band. I'm also incorporating elements of autoethnography. Primarily, I see this part of the project as exploratory and supplementary. In that spirit, I'm going to write essay answers to the preliminary, sample interview questions. It should be in ten parts. Here we go.


Can you tell me about the first time you joined a band?

The first band I was in was a foursome called Hammertoe. We founded the group when I was in 7th or 8th grade. I played bass and my buddy Devin played drums. We were both fairly talented musicians already at that point, both having taken lessons for a few years and developed some chops. We recruited a mutual friend, Stu, to play guitar and another mutual friend, Sean, to sing. It turned out that Sean couldn't actually sing so he didn't last long. Stu and I started trading lead singing responsibilities. Stu really was only a guitar player at that point in the sense that he owned a guitar and an amp, but he was a pretty quick study. It would have been around 1993 or 1994 when we started so most of our early repertoire consisted of Nirvana and Green Day covers, but we almost immediately started writing original stuff. I was already reading enough trade publications to know that we weren't going to be taken seriously as a cover band. The first songs we wrote were really bad, but we were learning.

Our first gig was at party in the basement of our friend Jill's house when we were high school frosh. I think we played some Green Day, Offspring, and Nirvana. As amateur as it was, it was legitimizing, especially since Jill and her friends were all a year ahead of us in school, and though it's easy to forget, that's a big step up in the adolescent hierarchy. 

That same year, we changed our name from Hammertoe (a reference to my grandmother's jacked up feet that our family dog would lick) to Steamboat Willie. Stu, who was becoming our lead singer and frontman, thought the name was original, but when he realized that it was a Mickey Mouse cartoon, we quickly dropped the "Willie" and became Steamboat. We played our high school talent show that year as frosh, covering Hendrix's cover of "Hey Joe" with our new lead guitarist Jason. We had been introduced to him through some mutual friends. He was, in our eyes, a very cool, older, and popular kid, but he proved to be very affable. The variety show was not the typical amateur-hour; it was a big production with a longstanding reputation in the community.

Sometime after that, we started playing shows more regularly and eventually recorded and self-released an album of original material. We disbanded as we were graduating high school and heading in different directions to college and whatnot.

Overall, I feel very lucky for the time I had with that band. We had little squabbles here and there, but generally, we got along very well. I was contributing to songwriting with the group, but much of what I was writing wasn't appropriate for the group. I wish that I'd pursued other avenues for that stuff. I tended to write poppier material, and Steamboat was very much rooted in the Led Zeppelin school of '70s blues-based jam rock. I sang background vocals, but it was determined that my voice was too clean and pretty, which, in retrospect, was absolutely true for that genre.

I learned some important lessons about band dynamics. We started the band as very, very close friends, but as we went along, I became more distant and sought outside friendships. The guys in the band were experimenting with drugs and generally being more deviant, and while I wasn't a square, I was becoming more focused on academics and sports and knew that path was probably dangerous so I distanced myself. We continued to play well together, though.

For a few years in there, I was also playing a Christian rock band called Embrace. It was fronted by Chris, who was in his thirties and the youth pastor at the local Church of God. Stu recruited me into the band. He attended the church and was playing guitar for the group. I had many other friends and acquaintences in the youth group there so it was a fairly easy sell, especially since I was a fairly religious kid. In retrospect, it was a very odd time. I learned a lot in the group musically and learned hard lessons about what I didn't believe religiously, but I have fond memories of playing with the band. We did record a album of original material, mostly written by Chris. I am a very different person now than I was then. Adult Brad would judge teenage Brad.

I played an occassional gig here or there with other groups, but I was pretty loyal to Steamboat. I went on to play in a few other bands in college and grad school, but none was as formative as that first band.