The Yellow Brick Road to Success in Sociology

In the past two months, I have had a few posts from grad students around the country who have expressed dismay at the response of faculty to their scholarly work and teaching efforts. In this mini-lecture, I would like to offer some practical suggestions for survival in academia.

Nothing, of course, takes precedence over the four basic rules of graduate work, below, but there is much more than academic excellence and scholarship at work in the corridors and councils of higher educa- tion. I will discuss how to negotiate those pathways and perils later.

  1. In all this, I usually use the Wizard of Oz as metaphor for the advice for several reasons...first, I have written a delightful parody on American Sociology using it. In it, the characters are brought up to date and inserted into the politics of American Sociology:

    1. Dorothy is every young graduate student: young, innocent, sensible and in search of the community s/he left to attend grad school.

    2. Aunt Em is any bright, strong, wise and patient sociologist who mentors grad students.

    3. Uncle Henry is all those aging faculty who is as gray as the dry and dusty fields of Kansas...he never laughs at sociology or himself.

    4. Kansas itself is orthodox American sociology: gray, flat, and dull without a tree or a flower to break the monotony.

    5. The tornado which upsets Kansas and all its dull and gray denizens is, of course, postmodern critique, feminist theory/methodology, and now, Chaos theory and nonlinear social dynamics to upset all that has been settled since Bacon wrote de Novum Organum in 1610. [Bacon and Newton were key to modern science; Shakespeare wrote 'The Tempest' in 1614 to talk about how modern science upset theo- logy as a pathway to knowledge but that is a different story].

    6. The Munchins are all those graduate students made small by the banal oppressions of daily life: indifferent faculty, inaccess- ible Committee members, cancelled courses, archaic requirements, and, too often, personal animus and/or arrogance of still smaller people.

    7. There are four witchs in the Land of Oz: I use them to parody the politics of American sociology: the two bad witches are:

      1. the Wicked Witch from the West [positivism]. It takes the incredibly complex and every changing dynamics of social life and, by some evil magic, transforms them into simple, strict, and rigid rules [called theses] about crime, religion, economics, politics, love and marriage as well as symbolic interaction.

      2. The Wicked Witch from the East parallels L. Frank Baum's treatment of finance capital [the original story was a populist fairy tale but that is a different story...I gave that to you last year. She is Consensus approach to research in which sponsors dictate what and who is to be studied; what and how research is published; which esoteric and unaccessible language is to be used to encode all the rich and varied events that fall across the research design.

      3. The good witch from the South is Glinda: she embodies emancipatory science...and the kind of progressive scholarship I described yes- terday in response to a post from Mr. Grice.

      4. the Good Witch from the North is, in this version of the metaphor, Postmodern sensibility embodied by Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty and even better by a lot of postmodern sociologists in the USA: Peter Manning, Laurie Walum, Dragon Milanovic, Bruce Arrigo, and the wonderful Norm Denzin in Illinois. Then there is Pauline Vaillancourt Rosenau at Houston who has given us a very accessible overview of both nihilistic and affirmative pomo scholarship.

    8. The Wizard of Oz is, of course, Marx. As Marx said and the Wizard proved, people themselves have brains, courage, heart, and sense of community in the first place...then they surrender their own powers for good and evil to church, state, science and/or economy.

    9. In the version I do, the Straw Man embodies Rural Sociology. In the Baum version, the Straw man stood in a field watching the crows eat the corn he was supposed to rural sociology, other scarecrows lack the brains cum theory to understand why the Amer- ican family farm is displace by agro-business. It did not please a lot of rural sociologists that I said that in 1975...and I would not say such a thing today...there are a lot of good solid people working in rural soc these days...not the least of which is Bill Friedman in Calif. and the wonderful Cornelia Flora in Iowa.

    10. I converted, of course, the Tin Man into the Industrial Sociologist who helped take the heart and soul out of American Labor with their research on how to control and exploit workers. In the Baum version, the Tin Man worked for the WWitch from the West...who did the same thing...hence his quest for the capacity to love again. In competitive capitalism, each worker is class enemy to every other the great advantage of owners. Again, this has changed. There are a lot of good people in labor theory today...Those of you at Penn State will benefit from the work of Mark Wardell; those of you at Louisville will have access to the wide sweeping genius of Mort Wenger; Edna Bonacich in Calif; Garth Massey in many I can't count.

    11. The Cowardly Lion was Wm. Jennings Bryan in the Baum version. In this update, the Cowardly Lion is any Chairman who caves in to the Administration to get more productivity with cheaper labor from the underclass in academia: over-worked grad students, adjunct faculty teaching two, three, five or more classes in two, three or more colleges around Dallas, Detroit, Denver and Los Angeles. Or any Committee Chair who steals the work of the grad student and passes it off as his/her own in the dirty in-fighting for salary tenure, promotion or grant money.

    12. There is a lot more in the book I have used but for now I will end this part by saying that one could use the Yellow Brick Road as Metaphor for the Journey one takes through academia from grad school, one's first job as associate prof, the lively middle years down to the final farewell party in which aging sociologists are sent off to their own private purgatory in Florida or Arizona were they abandon the wonderful quest for insight, understanding and useful labor in the social sciences.

  2. In the book as in this reading of it, the Yellow Brick Road is smooth and comfortable...for those who have funding...[Baum used the YBR as metaphor for the Gold Standard...the Silver Slippers [[not ruby!]] were grants and fellowships which permitted those of us without money to travel the road].

    As the grad student cum Dorothy follows the YBR, she finds it gets rougher and rougher...along the way are branches and bushes which grab at her and try to slow/stop her. In this part of the mini-lecture, I would like to give you some ways to survive the bumpier parts of the road.

    1. Back to the four basic rules of survival:

    1. Read every thing assigned closely and take good notes. [at UMich and UColo, we organized note sharing duties].

    2. Attend every class; always 'be there' physiologically, psychologically and sociologically. Never never cut for fun.

    3. Prepare assiduously for every exam...anticipate the q's; Make sure you speak at least twice in every seminar. To do this, make a 3x5 with a short answer and every point in each reading. [my good wife asked me q's from the cards at breakfast, after supper and sometimes for a bed-time gambol...she could have passed the tests and comps].

    4. Get your paper in on time...too many otherwise good students and good people wind up with so many incompletes that they give up and end up teaching in the underclass for minimal wages.

  3. These are the givens...these deal with the academic survival. Now for the more political obstacles you will certainly meet.

    1. The profession. The profession is fraught with several competing and over-lapping paradigms/approaches. They filter the articles, papers, books and panels in academic life. It is easy to get on a session of a scholarly meeting if you act early and send in a sensible abstract...The MidWest Soc Assoc is particularly good as are the Amer Humanist Meetings and the SSSP. The ASA is bit more competitive and much more at least two region al meetings per academic year.

      There are lots of journals/editors open to new and original art- icles...Qual Soc, Crit Sociology, several feminist journals, a lot of state societies support journals, each regional associa- tion has journals and editors much more accomodating to progres- sive scholarship than 20 years ago...again, watch for calls for papers in newsletters and on the internet; and response the same has to 'be there.'

      Many associations have money set aside for grad student travel as departments and grad schools per se...and some conferences offer support for grad students...apply early and often.

    2. The Administration. The admin of every college and university is charged with generating credit production hours, for polishing the image of the department/university and for dealing with those who 'make waves.' Those who make waves are usually those who have good reason to make be prepared; attend all meetings. pre- pare for all classes. Work on pubs...most universities set three not be vulnerable on any of them: teaching, research and something called community can be creative in the third with local groups..more about that later.

    3. The Faculty. In every department there are those who are jealous, petty, careerist, competitors and/or hostile to any thing new. One must be a 'good colleague' to defuse any such animus. This means simple courtesies; small acts of kindness; extra effort to help cover classes or find references now and again. In every faculty, there will be some who are fair, supportive and will intervene if things get UColo, Howard Higman and Blain Mercer were especially helpful to new grad students and young faculty...[Howard died this past Thanksgiving...a great loss to UColo...and to his many friends and students].

    4. The Community...there are many groups in the local community who are active in the 'identity wars' of which I spoke earlier this Boulder, they burn books and chase after the good witches on the faculty...with the help of the wicked witches.

      My best advice is to make alliance with the many progressive groups you will find in every college town...'tis easy to do... just show up and talk to people. I found the local clergy of great aid...priests, ministers, nuns and lay persons in various congregations are active in civil rights, minority rights, peace and justice questions as well as issues of poverty, homeless- ness. Women's groups, especially, are most helpful to the new faculty member who may have trouble with administration and/or department...they embody the notion of 'community service' so do allot part of your time and genius to them.

    5. The Classroom. The students are the raison d'etre for your very being...they come first. In every class for those who teach some- thing new and/or different, there will be 5, 10 or 20% of the class who are made most uncomfortable...yet they have to know about racism, sexism, class, power and status inequalities. They may not like what they hear about their city, state, nation, church or university yet these things must be said.

      The question is how best to say them. Every lecture must be well grounded and well presented. Use a lot of graphics and videos...I usually edit videos to keep them short enough to talk about before and after...I usually prepare a 'worksheet' to go along and offer points for filling it out...lots of ways to get controversial ideas Virginia Tech, with the help of some great grad students and a lot of undergrads, we put toget- her five 'soaps' in which students themselves wrote and enacted vignettes: they included 'Captain Science,' [how a sociologist called Captain Science solved problems and rescued people from their own foilables. Then too, there was 'Fun with Dick and Jane,' little ten minute soaps presented in class dealing with social- ization and 'rites of passage. Feminist issues were covered by another soap while juvenile issues were dealt with in 'Boys in the Back.' Students liked these and fun...I can send stuff out for any of you who want to use 'em...just give me an address.

      We used a 'menu' from which students could 'buy' items and get grades...soaps, special projects, songs/poetry, and of course, tests were on the menu...with a menu you can offer a thousand different routes through the content of the course...with tests, you offer only one...think about how to be creative and engaging.

    6. Life Style. I've left this for last since it is difficult for me to say some of the things one must do to forestall trouble and to lose support in the faculty and community.

      Ralph Nader used to tell students at his lectures that he wore conservative clothing since he was talking to conservative people about progressive ideas...he did not want something as trivial as clothing or language to interfere with the talking and listening...

      I have to say that, among those who earned the obloquy and animus of the many faculties on which I worked as well as the less than benign attention of the 'higher' administration were those who dressed oddly, smoked funny stuff and said the 'f' word a lot.

      Pay your bills, mow your lawn, cut your hair now and again, say darn, poop and blast the flatterap instead of damn, shit and fuck-off [I was arrested in Heathrow airport for saying that once but that is another story...] If you can't do that, at least be discrete in your minor vices.

      Keep a sense of humor...drollery, comedy, antic joy and rare good humor will do much to defuse resentment and to keep up one's own spirits...around a basic serious, persistent and well built teach- ing and scholarly life, keep the joy, wit and good grace infused.

      And, lastly, be prepared to be fired...I've been 'fired' six times. The first five times, I just smiled and said, 'Good-bye.' The sixth time, I refused to be fired...I organized the faculty, groups from the community, the ACLU, and made use of the Grievance Procedures of the University...students on the school paper gave me support. Students on the Student Senate gave me support. The American Federation of Teachers offered legal help [at the time I was the only member of the AFT at my university...they were good to offer help].

      In brief, if necessary fight the good not go silent into the good night but organize and resist.

      And, 30 years from now, let me know how it went.

All good luck, TR