Viewing liked public figures as flawed humans, Paul McCartney and Ben Franklin edition

As a kid, I had a difficult time seeing current or past public figures as heroes or people to emulate. Perhaps this contributed to why I study sociology and often think of people in a collective. As an adult, I wonder about the flaws of public figures and the cultural narrative we see/hear about them versus what is true. Two recent examples with figures I have heard/seen/read about my entire life came to mind.

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Paul McCartney. Reviewing a new publication about McCartney’s song lyrics, an author says:

Reading song lyrics on a page is a definitively incomplete endeavor and in Paul’s case more than most, given that he’s one of the most aurally gifted people to ever walk the face of the earth. McCartney’s best lyrics are marvels of musicality, so expertly fitted to their setting that you almost take them for granted. Consider the beginning of 1965’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” an intoxicating tornado of language and, finally, non-language: “I’ve just seen a face/ I can’t forget the time and place where we’ve just met/ she’s just girl for me and I want all the world to see/ we’ve met, mm mm mm mmm mm.” He wants all the world to see they’ve met; what a beautiful little sentiment. Take, also, “Close your eyes, and I’ll kiss you,” such a perfect opening line for a love song that we forget that someone actually thought it up. He can be a master of evocation—“changing my life with a wave of her hand”—and aphoristic bons mots that stick in your head: “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight.” Even better: “You may be a lover but you ain’t no dancer,” one of those perfectly McCartney-an phrases that feels like so much more than it actually says.

Paul McCartney has been one of the most famous people on earth for nearly 60 years, and in many ways, he has served as the best model of how to be a celebrity: He’s disarmingly amiable, boundlessly energetic, gracious and graceful in the face of unimaginable fame. And yet, beneath the charm and composure, there’s always been a guardedness to him; it’s notable, for instance, that McCartney’s never written a proper memoir, a fact he acknowledges in the foreword to The Lyrics. He’s carefully curated his public persona on his own terms, a move that’s occasionally mistaken for phoniness, or worse. His seemingly flippant reaction to John Lennon’s death mere hours after John’s murder, for instance, earned McCartney widespread scorn from rock press and fans, a vilification he wouldn’t live down for years. But watching the clip today is just heartbreaking: Here’s a man clearly in the throes of grief, struggling to hold it together in the face of the most ghoulish extremities of celebrity media. In his eyes is a raw and terrified vulnerability that’s impossible to shake.

Yet, Paul has his flaws. After reading a lot about the Beatles, his band mates knew these flaws. By the end of the career, they wondered if his endless interest in showmanship was an act or real. He could be perfectionistic and too flippant with his music. He showed less interest in deeper subject material. That these came out could be chalked up to different personalities and conflict among the band but they have also dogged him throughout his public life.

Ben Franklin is a second figure I have encountered in several ways recently. In reading Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with several groups of students, Franklin features prominently as an exemplar of the Puritan work ethic. Franklin is largely reduced to a set of aphorisms, admittedly famous ones. I also read through a children’s picture book biography of Franklin and they highlighted several major contributions he made. Yet, Franklin was also a flawed character. He had several long-lasting unrepaired relationships. He was a philander. He seriously pursued self-discipline but he could not achieve everything.

By nature of being revered public figures, there may not be much room for revealing or discussing flaws. Many historical treatments emphasize high points or the better sides of the heroes of the narrative. Yet, all humans are flawed. Many of the greatest figures had traits or behaviors they did not want to share or people did not want to focus on. Figuring out ways to acknowledge this with both living and past figures could be helpful in developing figures that are worth emulating.

Build a dorm where 94% of the bedrooms have no windows in order to encourage more activity in common areas

The construction of college dorms not not typically attract national attention but an unusual plan at the University of CaliforniaSanta Barbara and the architect who quit in protest did make the news:

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Billionaire Charlie Munger is bankrolling the design of a massive dormitory at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The $1.5 billion project comes with a major catch — 94% of the dorm’s single occupancy rooms are in the interior of the building, and have no windows.

A consulting architect on the university’s Design Review Committee quit in protest of the project, in a resignation letter obtained by CNN Business and reported by the Santa Barbara Independent…

Munger, the 97-year-old vice chairman of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, donated $200 million to UCSB to fund the dorms, with the caveat that his designs are followed. He wanted the dorm rooms to be tiny and windowless to encourage residents to spend more time outside in the common areas, meeting other students…

The rooms do have artificial windows, however, which Munger said resemble the Disney cruise ship’s artificial portholes where “starfish come in and wink at your children,” the Santa Barbara Independent reported.

The debate between Munger and the architect seems to come down to differing opinions on what the optimal residential experience is. Munger hopes that no windows would help students leave their rooms. The architect wants students to have access to natural light. Architecture often has ideas about how people in spaces should operate based on the physical surroundings. As my sociologist colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith, religious buildings are also built with specific experiences and behaviors in mind.

Three other factors connected to larger trends are interesting here:

  1. From what I have read, the demand for single-person rooms has increased at colleges. This provides students more private space. But, this may limit sociability and it could increase costs for everyone because more space is needed.
  2. I wonder what role smartphones play in all of this. Even with a window, smartphone use is pretty pervasive. Even with smartphone use, natural light and seeing the outside world has benefits.
  3. People with money and influence sometimes want to translate that status into physical buildings. If you have big money, you can help plan a significant building or attach your name to it. It would be interesting to see how long Munger’s name would continue to be attached to this particular building.

See an earlier post on spending a lot of time in windowless rooms.

The Chair is about a unique role and some bigger issues facing higher education

The Chair follows a new English Department chair as she navigates crises and pressure from administrators and faculty. On one hand, it is about a unique academic position where the department chair is caught between the interests of the institution and the interests of faculty. On the other hand, the six episode season considers some of the large issues facing higher education in 2021. These include:

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-Hiring, retaining, promoting, and celebrating female faculty and faculty of color.

-Responding to student interests amid faculty and institutional expertise and will that might or might not line up with those interests. This can come out in discussions about attracting students and majors or whether programs and faculty are contributing to or harming the school’s brand.

-The personal lives of faculty juggling family, teaching, research, and other commitments.

-Generational change within departments and institutions.

-Addressing social change, new ideas, and controversies when expertise takes time to develop and research cycles are long.

These may not be new questions in academia but relatively few television shows, movies, or other cultural products grapple with issues in what might seem to outsiders to be a strange world.

Town, gown, and attracting remote workers

Two universities, Purdue and West Virginia are hoping remote workers might like the community to be found in college towns:

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Universities have long hosted corporate incubators, but the new programs represent another way the pandemic has shifted the way colleges think about who works on campus, and why. Many universities are considering how employees’ desires for remote work will affect their own human-resources policies. These colleges, however, are making a play for other people’s employees, showing that campuses will both influence and be affected by this major shift in where Americans live and work.

Purdue is set to hold a visitors’ weekend for a small group of applicants for a so-called “remote-working community” in the campus’s business-and-research park, which is operated by the university’s research foundation and a development company. These people will uproot their lives — some with a deal-sweetening $5,000 — to move to West Lafayette, Ind. They can live at discounted rates in housing built in the Purdue park and access campus facilities, including the library and a co-working space…

West Virginia University and its state’s tourism agency are teaming up to try to recruit outdoor enthusiasts to Morgantown, Shepherdstown, and Lewisburg. The campus is offering free certifications — in remote work or remote management — through its business school. Other incentives, backed by donors and the state, include $12,000 in cash over two years, the subsidizing of activities like skiing and rafting, and co-working space and social programming…

Remote employees want to be in places with amenities — locations with “substantial infrastructure” and a “built-in community,” said Evan Hock, co-founder of MakeMyMove, which promotes incentive packages for relocations and has listed the offerings of both West Virginia and Purdue. The company and Purdue developed the incentive package together, he said. He expects college towns to hold these employees’ interest, he said. “Ultimately, the bet that the university is making is that more smart people in a region is better.”

This assumes, of course, that colleges will be back to their thriving residential centers this upcoming year and in the near future. During COVID-19, college towns may not have been much better than many other locations in the United States regarding finding community.

Another factor in favor of this idea: with the period of emerging adulthood where college graduates have years after graduation to settle in to college life, more might appreciate being around some of the things they liked about college. This could help the transition by providing access to college energy and activities without the same day-to-day schedule.

However, I do not think it is a surprise that these two schools are featured in this story. How many college graduates, even from these schools, want to stick around in these locations? In contrast, would schools like UCLA or NYU want to offer such programs? The incentives are being offered to attract workers to western Indiana and West Virginia because they are the kinds of places even remote workers might not consider. Remote workers can go a lot of places but they also probably follow popular patterns of where Americans would go if they could.

Reconsidering the need for faculty offices after COVID-19

With more faculty and college instructors working from off-campus during COVID-19, does this mean faculty offices can be done away with in the future?

Many campus planners have long advocated for fewer traditional, individual, closed-door offices, and more shared workspaces for faculty and staff members, like what many private companies have. The idea is that open, common work rooms will foster collaboration and make instructors more visible and less intimidating to students. A few phone rooms, meeting rooms, and lockers could serve for whenever somebody needed quiet, privacy, and somewhere to store belongings.

Having fewer private offices could also save on heating and electricity costs. On average, 19 percent of campuses’ indoor square footage is dedicated to offices, according to a 2007 survey (the latest available) of 276 institutions that are members of the Society for College and University Planning. (Only housing, at 20 percent, commands a larger area.) Using that much space more efficiently could make a big difference to a college’s bottom line.

Especially if faculty and staff members will continue to work from home more often, leaving their desks unoccupied some days of the week, colleges could save by having people who come in on different days share the same private office. As Paul Dale, president of Paradise Valley Community College, in Phoenix, Ariz. put it, it’s a way of fitting “30 pounds of potatoes in a 20-pound bag.”

Faculty members accustomed to their own offices can be loath to give them up, however. Private faculty-office space is a marker of accomplishment and prestige, said Luanne Greene, president of Ayers Saint Gross. Sometimes it’s even written into tenure contracts. But with the pandemic-driven increase in working from home, Greene and her team have seen a shift.

These arguments mirror those from corporate world where the open office emerged in recent decades: efficiencies in how space is used plus possibilities for collaboration and quick interactions. Yet, open offices are not embraced by all workers.

From my own studies of spaces plus my experiences as a faculty member, here are at least a few reasons why offices are valuable:

  1. A sense of space that is yours. College classrooms are often impersonal, spaces meant to be used by instructors from a variety of disciplines. They contain the tools necessary for teaching and learning – projectors, computers, whiteboards, desks or tables plus seating, etc. – but they often have little character. In contrast, offices are spaces where instructors can customize their surroundings to fit their personality and their needs for work (conversations, study, writing, etc.).
  2. A permanent place to store books and other materials. An open work space has little room for this and the assumption may be that we are living in a paperless world. This is not true for many scholars.
  3. A place of solitude that is conducive to the kind of creativity and study that scholars need to do. Putting on headphones in a busy area or working from home may not be able to approximate the way that an office can provide the solitary setting that is often needed.

Of course, not all college instructors might see this the same way. But, as the article notes, faculty would have concerns. And the solution presented at the end of this section – smaller individual offices with more space that could shared by all – is an intriguing compromise for settings and instructors where that collaborative space would be valued.

Reminder: only about one-third of American adults have a college degree

Coverage of a recent study about life expectancy and education provided this reminder about education levels in the United States:

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About one-third of Americans have a four-year college degree, and they are living longer and more prosperous lives while the rest face rising death rates and declining prospects, said researcher Angus Deaton, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Policy and Economics.

According to QuickFacts from the Census with July 1, 2019 estimates, 32.1% of American adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

For a good segment of Americans, college is the expected path that follows after high school and also leads to future opportunities, particularly regarding jobs. But, many American adults did not or do not follow that path and this has all kinds of consequences. At the least, it can provide a reminder to current college students and instructors that college is an opportunity and/or blessing, not just something to be endured for later outcomes. More broadly, that degree can separate workers in the job market, lead to subsequent educational opportunities, and, as this study suggests, interact with health.

When I see “study” in a news story, I (wrongly) assume it is a peer-reviewed analysis

In the last week, I have run into two potentially interesting news stories that cite studies. Yet, when I looked into what kind of studies these were, they were not what I expected.

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First, the Chicago Tribune online headline: “Why are Chicagoans moving away during the pandemic? As study suggests outbound migration is spiking, we asked them.” The opening to the story:

Chicago’s population has been on the decline for years, with the metropolitan area suffering some of the greatest losses of any major U.S. city. But new research suggests that the pandemic might be exacerbating the exodus.

For the first time in four years, moving concierge app Updater has helped more people move out of Chicago than to it, the company said. The catch-all moving service estimates that it takes part in one-third of all U.S. moves, providing unique, real-time insight into pandemic-driven trends, said Jenna Weinerman, Updater’s vice president of marketing.

“All these macro conditions — job insecurity, remote work, people wanting to gain more space — are coming together to create these patterns,” Weinerman said.

The Chicago figures are based on approximately 39,000 moves within city limits from March 1 to Sept. 30. Compared to 2019, this year saw more moving activity in general, with an 8% jump in moves into the city — but a 19% increase in the number of people leaving.

The second article involved a study at Cafe Storage and the headline “Average Home Size in the US: New Homes Bigger than 10 Years Ago but Apartments Trail Behind” (also cited in the Chicago Tribune) From the story:

According to the latest available US Census data, the average size of single family homes built in the US was trending upwards from 2010 until 2017, when sizes hit a peak of 2,643 square feet. Since then, single family homes began decreasing in size, with homes built in 2019 averaging 2,611 square feet…

Location matters when it comes to average home size. Some urban hotspots follow the national trend, while others move in the opposite direction. Here’s how single family home and apartment sizes look in the country’s top 20 largest cities, based on Yardi Matrix, Property Shark and Point2Homes data.

As an academic, here is what I expect when I hear the word study:

  1. Peer-reviewed work published in an academic outlet.
  2. Rigorous methodology and trusted data sources.

These steps do not guarantee research free from error but it does impose standards and steps intended to reduce errors.

In both cases, this analysis does not meet those standards. Instead, they utilize more proprietary data and serve the companies or websites publicizing the findings. This does not necessarily mean the findings are untrue. It does, however, make it much more difficult for journalists or the public to know how the study was conducted, what the findings are, and what it all means.

Use of the term study is related to a larger phenomena: many organizations, businesses, and individuals have potentially interesting data to contribute to public discussions and policy making. For example, without official data about the number of people moving out of cities, we are left searching for other data sources. How reliable are they? What data is anecdotal and what can be trusted? Why don’t academics and journalists find better data?

If we use the word “study” to refer to any data analysis, we risk making it even harder for people to discern what is a trustworthy study and what is not. Call it an analysis, call it a set of findings. Make clear who conducted the research, how the analysis was conducted, and with what data. (These three steps would be good for any coverage of an academic study.) Help readers and interested parties put the findings in the context of other findings and ongoing conversations. Just do not suggest that this is a study in the same way that other analyses are studies.

New publication: Christian Colleges in the Locational Wilderness

Christian Higher Education just published online an article from co-author Ben Norquist and I titled “Christian Colleges in the Locational Wilderness: The Locations of CCCU Institutions.” Here is the abstract:

This article examines the locations of the 111 governing members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) and consider how these locations hinder evangelical Protestants from reaching their goal of engaging American society. We found that CCCU institutions cluster in cities in mid-sized metropolitan regions in the South and Midwest, are more likely than the United States population as a whole to be in rural areas, and have a limited presence in the largest metropolitan regions in the United States, particularly their central cities. In comparison to the top 102 liberal arts institutions and top 101 national universities, CCCU governing members were on average founded later and they have locations more similar to liberal arts schools than research universities. We argue that these patterns are physical manifestations of the modernist-fundamentalist debate, suburbanization pressure and anti-urban sentiment, and concentrations of evangelical residents. We conclude that CCCU members’ locations limit their ability to help students and constituents engage society with locations away from the largest cities and their power, resources, and networks

This project began several years ago amidst a search for data on where evangelicals in the United States are located. Given that Ben and I are in a particular location and working for a CCCU member institution, we dug into this data (with the help of my TA Rebecca Carlson) to uncover the patterns of where CCCU schools are located, particularly in comparisons to other kinds of schools and where Americans live more broadly. The last two sentences of the abstract sum up our findings and the implications: with many locations away from the biggest cities and metropolitan regions in the United States, CCCU institutions may only be able to do so much in engaging a country (and globe) dominated by cities and their metropolitan areas. More broadly, if evangelicals are not present or active in these global cities and regions, their opportunities to engage American society are limited.

Why I am excited to teach in Fall 2020

Starting up college classes in Fall 2020 is a difficult and uncertain task. Many decisions and much planning has gone into schools starting up or getting close to starting again. Here is why I am excited to be back in the classroom to start classes this next week:

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  1. I am always excited for learning to begin. There is much for all of us to learn; the well-worn phrase “the more you learn, the less you know” (or some variation) is true. The start of a new class marks the beginning of a process by which an instructor and students learn together. There are a lot of other things that colleges and universities are now about but learning is at the heart of the mission. Teaching many classes at the undergraduate level means that the courses are just the start of what could become life-long conversations or projects yet there is potential to spark new interests or paths or epiphanies. Even though I have taught each of my two classes this fall semester more than ten times each, I am excited to share the material, ways of thinking, and skills with new sets of students. We have minds and bodies and we are called to put them to use in learning and then applying or living out that knowledge.
  2. Learning together. Learning is not only a solitary task; it comes to full fruition when done in community. Over sixteen weeks of classes, we will get to know each other a little better, hear alternative perspectives, and consider what it all means. Since my institution is smaller, I can know every student’s name, run into people on campus, and find opportunities to link broader or structural concepts to individual experiences. Even with masks this semester or going virtual for the second half of the Spring 2020 semester, we can build relationships during class discussions, through assignments, and outside of class. By the end of the semester, it is hard to let go of a class as an instructor prepares to start the process all over again the next term.
  3. This is a critical time to address issues in society and in our world. One of the reasons I enjoy sociology is that is always applies to current circumstances and now is no different with COVID-19, a presidential election cycle, conversation and action about race, changing economies and cultures, and more. Classrooms provide spaces to explore what is happening from a particular disciplinary lens and since sociology examines all aspects of human behavior, there is much to consider (much more than we can do in any 16 week semester!). There is much for us to apply the sociological imagination to. And with a shared faith commitment on our campus, we can connect sociology’s (or other disciplines) approach to the world to our religious beliefs, belonging, and behavior.
  4. Getting back to some sort of routine. COVID-19 has disrupted a lot of daily patterns. As my campus gets back to on-campus classes, we hopefully we be able to settle into a rhythm and structure that helps us nudge us in positive directions. Living in chaotic or uncertain times is difficult for humans; we need routines and patterns. The academic calendar is one such pattern that does much to structure my own life through my own educational experiences plus now teaching. By the time August starts, I am ready for the school year to start up even as I am grateful for the change that summer brings with a more flexible schedule and time for research.

The Twitter world versus the world of academic research

A recent conversation about Twitter and my own acknowledgement of my lack of Twitter participation pushed me to think about the differences between Twitter conversations and academic research. These rough thoughts may be obvious to many but I think they are helpful to enumerate as we think about good information and data.

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1. The speed of Twitter, and social media, is quite fast. An opinion expressed or a “story” (link/video/article/”text”) can generate a lot of feedback but the process usually happens over just a few days. In contrast, academic studies routinely take years as researchers develop good questions, collect and analysis data/evidence/”texts”, and respond to hypotheses, theories, and existing conversations while also thinking about the implications of their findings and then go through the publication process. Academic work can sometimes go quicker but that length also theoretically allows time for more reflection.

2. Posts on Twitter are limited to a certain number of characters through tweet threads or good conversation following a post can effectively convey a longer argument or set of information. Academic studies also have space restrictions – while there are indeed examples of very lengthy books or articles, journals tend to have proscribed word count or page limits depending on their audience and the format of papers – but there is more space to make and develop an argument.

3. Twitter offers more immediate feedback, possibly much more, compared to academic works. When students ask me how many people read academic studies, it is hard to know: we have citation counts (which suggest at least those citing the work read it or are familiar with it) and journal websites now often offer the ability to see how many times an article has been viewed. But, how to count students who read pieces for class or projects, researchers who access material through databases and repositories, and other means of accessing academic work? However, I would assume the viral posts of Twitter gain more readers in a shorter amount of time than almost all academic works.

4. Those with Twitter accounts can post or access tweets. Those who publish in the academic world are a small subset of the population generally with advanced degrees and specialized knowledge. Yet, the percent of the American population who engage regularly on Twitter is low.

5. Tweets are validated or not by likes, retweets, and comments made by other users. Academics have more formal processes to vet work including peer review and presentations at conferences, lectures, and colloquia plus responses from audience members. A published academic work likely has had multiple eyes on it; tweets do not require this.

On the whole, academic research involves a longer, more formal process to get to publication and information available to other academics and the public. In contrast, Twitter offers speed, quick feedback, and is easier for both readers and posters to access. Thus, when the two worlds collide – academic posting about research or Twitter users engaging with academic work – it can seem as if two worlds with different processes and rules are trying to engage. The overlap can go successfully but it does not always; the advantages each system has do not necessarily complement what the other side does well. And the two systems may influence each other: the world of Twitter may prompt academics to speed up research and/or communicate their work differently while academics participating in Twitter may engage in deeper and longer conversations since much study involves nuance and complexity.

I do not spend much time on Twitter. It can be used effectively to quickly gather or share information. And if you follow engaging Twitter users in a particular subject area or field, there is much to be learned. I am grateful there are academics who can effectively use Twitter to engage audiences regarding their research and knowledge. But, the speed of the conversation can gloss over the depth of the issues at the heart of conversations or leave little room for the important context and background knowledge of phenomena.

(An aside: attempts to find a middle ground between such universes are worth thinking about. TED Talks seem to offer some compromises: an expert on the subject gets roughly 10-20 minutes to share out of their vast expertise. The videos are easy to follow and digest and they tend to come from people with advanced experience or education. The visual format has some appeal as opposed to text-based communication on Twitter and in academic writing. Podcasts could offer some similar benefits: there is more space for the storyteller to share but the audio cannot go on too long.)