Debating mass transit: a format for discussing whether it is dead or can be revived

Even though I did not attend a recent debate in Washington D.C. between two mass transit commentators, I wish we could have more conversations like this one:

O’Toole opened with a whirlwind of statistical bullet points documenting the transit death spiral. He seized on the latest national transit ridership data, but his message was vintage O’Toole: Government funding of public buses, trains, light rail, and streetcars has failed and should stop. “I’m fundamentally pessimistic about the future of the transit industry,” O’Toole said. “Transit ridership has been declining steadily and it’s declining in all major urban areas, whether it’s rail or bus. I don’t see hope of recovery because the forces that are causing it to decline are not going away.”

Subsidies can’t overcome what shapes people’s preferences, O’Toole argued, and what people want is to live out in the suburbs and drive their cars. In recent years, transit ridership has really only grown in places where there’s been a dramatic boom in downtown jobs, such as Seattle…

For Walker, a consultant who works on improving transit systems in cities around the world, the narrative that O’Toole spins about declining transit ridership doesn’t frame the story quite right—it’s zoomed out too far. “A lot of what seems like an urban-rural culture war is actually just people at different densities understandably trying to solve the immediate problems of where they live. The national statistics are useless. [The decline of urban trips since 1976] is also a history of urban density, of course, because transit is a response to density.”..

Rather than directly rebutting each bullet point on O’Toole’s laundry list, Walker made a more values-based case, stressing that the big problems public transportation systems now face come down to just a few things: emissions, labor, and space. And those can be addressed with fleets of electric vehicles that are either large—think electric buses—or small e-boosted bikes and scooters. He’s optimistic about self-driving technology, but believes that their truly transformative deployment will be in city bus fleets, where they could dramatically trim labor costs.

It sounds like the debate accomplished two major tasks:

  1. Each side was able to put forth their arguments. One goes more with data. The other talks more about values. Both can explain what they think the problems are.
  2. The two sides had good conversation before, during, and after the debate. They found some common ground as well as points at which they still disagree.

Contrast this to two other public conversation options often employed by colleges as well as think tanks and other organizations interested in public conversations. It is common to have a single speaker present their book, article, or idea. There might be some back and forth with the audience afterward but the format generally assumes the one expert has the knowledge to share with the audience. In thirty to sixth minutes, the speaker can really get into their topic with some detail. A second option is the panel discussion where multiple people with insight to the issue talk in front of an audience. Each person might have a few minutes to share (this can’t go on too long or it becomes multiple mini-single person presentations) and there might be some robust discussion (though this can be difficult depending on the size of the panel and the temperament of the moderator and participants).

The debate seems like a better format to discuss difficult questions like the one these two debaters addressed. It works better if the two are skilled at presenting their sides and responding to others. The audience gets to hear two sides (better than the single talk but in less detail) and the conversation is only between two sides/perspectives (perhaps worse than the panel because some views will not be expressed but it is much easier to provide time for all participants).

And as for the result of such a debate? Perhaps the goal is less about winning and more about engaged listening, conversation, and trying to find a way forward between two people who might still disagree about important points.

For what ends do sociologists labor?

I recently gave a short presentation in a training seminar regarding introducing first year students to different disciplinary perspectives. For each of the natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities, I described methods and goals. For the goals of the social sciences, I put down “just society” and “social wrongs righted.” One of my colleagues asked me a question about this: “Do the people at the top R1 schools adhere to these goals?” Just having returned from the ASA meetings in Philadelphia and thinking about some of the things I saw there, I said yes.

This is a good question to consider on Labor Day. What are sociologists after when they work? Here are some options:

-just society/social wrong righted: a mindset devoted to improving society, sometimes attributed to an activist approach though American sociology has a deep tradition of this (even if it was shunted into social work and not promoted as much at leading schools)

-knowing more about the social world: this quest for knowledge and a better understanding of whatever phenomena is under study could be at the root of every academic enterprise

-a way to achieve status and power: the field may be limited be compared to others but academic titles and academic merits (published articles, name recognition, grants, school, etc.) still provide a certain status

-the joy of teaching and mentoring students: these expectations likely differ dramatically across institutions (let alone personalities) but there can be both immediate and long-term gratification in making a difference in the life of students

-a satisfying way to occupy one’s mind and fulfill intellectual curiosity

I suppose individual sociologists might be able to pursue unique combinations of these five options within their own experiences and institutional contexts. Yet, on the whole, I’m pretty comfortable asserting sociology and other social sciences want to make the world a better place.

Speculating on why sociology is less relevant to the media and public than economics

In calling for more sociological insight into economics, a journalist who attended the recent ASA meetings in Philadelphia provides two reasons why sociology lags behind economics in public attention:

Economists, you see, put draft versions of their papers online seemingly as soon as they’ve finished typing. Attend their big annual meeting, as I have several times, and virtually every paper discussed is available beforehand for download and perusal. In fact, they’re available even if you don’t go to the meeting. I wrote a column two years ago arguing that this openness had given economists a big leg up over the other social sciences in media attention and political influence, and noting that a few sociologists agreed and were trying to nudge their discipline — which disseminates its research mainly through paywalled academic journals and university-press books — in that direction with a new open repository for papers called SocArxiv. Now that I’ve experienced the ASA annual meeting for the first time, I can report that (1) things haven’t progressed much since 2016, and (2) I have a bit more sympathy for sociologists’ reticence to act like economists, although I continue to think it’s holding them back.

SocArxiv’s collection of open-access papers is growing steadily if not spectacularly, and Sociological Science, an open-access journal founded in 2014, is carving out a respected role as, among other things, a place to quickly publish articles of public interest. “Unions and Nonunion Pay in the United States, 1977-2015” by Patrick Denice of the University of Western Ontario and Jake Rosenfeld of Washington University in St. Louis, for example, was submitted June 12, accepted July 10 and published on Wednesday, the day after it was presented at the ASA meeting. These dissemination tools are used by only a small minority of sociologists, though, and the most sparsely attended session I attended in three-plus days at their annual meeting was the one on “Open Scholarship in Sociology” organized by the University of Maryland’s Philip Cohen, the founder of SocArxiv and one of the discipline’s most prominent social-media voices. This despite the fact that it was great, featuring compelling presentations by Cohen, Sociological Review deputy editor Kim Weeden of Cornell University and higher-education expert Elizabeth Popp Berman of the State University of New York at Albany, and free SocArxiv pens for all.

As I made the rounds of other sessions, I did come to a better understanding of why sociologists might be more reticent than economists to put their drafts online. The ASA welcomes journalists to its annual meeting and says they can attend all sessions where research is presented, but few reporters show up and it’s clear that most of those presenting research don’t consider themselves to be speaking in public. The most dramatic example of this in Philadelphia came about halfway through a presentation involving a particular corporation. The speaker paused, then asked the 50-plus people in the room not to mention the name of said corporation to anybody because she was about to return to an undercover job there. That was a bit ridiculous, given that there were sociologists live-tweeting some of the sessions. But there was something charming and probably healthy about the willingness of the sociologists at the ASA meeting to discuss still-far-from-complete work with their peers. When a paper is presented at an economics conference, many of the discussant’s comments and audience questions are attempts to poke holes in the reasoning or methodology. At the ASA meeting, it was usually, “This is great. Have you thought about adding …?” Also charming and probably healthy was the high number of graduate students presenting research alongside the professors, which you don’t see so much at the economists’ equivalent gathering.

All in all — and I’m sure there are sociological terms to describe this, but I’m not familiar with them — sociology seems more focused on internal cohesion than economics is. This may be partly because it’s what Popp Berman calls a “low-consensus discipline,” with lots of different methodological approaches and greatly varying standards of quality and rigor. Economists can be mean to each other in public yet still present a semi-united face to the world because they use a widely shared set of tools to arrive at answers. Sociologists may feel that they don’t have that luxury.

Disciplinary differences can be mystifying at times.

I wonder about a third possible difference in addition to the two provided: different conceptions in sociology and economics about what constitutes good arguments and data (hinted at above with the idea of “lots of different methodological approaches and greatly varying standards of quality and rigor.”) Both disciplines do aspire to the idea of social science where empirical data is used to test hypotheses about human behavior, usually in collectives, works. But, this is tricky to do as there are numerous pitfalls along the way. For example, accurate measurement is difficult even when a researcher has clearly identified a concept. Additionally, it is my sense that sociologists as a whole may be more open to qualitative and quantitative data (even with occasional flare-ups between researchers studying the same topic yet falling in different methodological camps). With these methodological questions, sociologists may feel they need more time to connect their methods to a convincing causal and scientific argument

A fourth possible reason behind the differences (also hinted at above with the idea of economists having a “semi-united face” to present): sociology has a reputation as a more left-leaning discipline. Some researchers may prefer to have all their ducks in a row before they expose their work to full public scrutiny. The work of economists is more generally accepted by the public and some leaders while sociology regularly has to work against some backlash. (As an example, see conservative leaders complain about sociology excusing poor behavior when the job of the discipline is to explain human behavior.) Why expose your work to a less welcoming public earlier when you could take a little more time to polish the argument?

Trying out 8 jobs before the academic CV began

Inspired by a recent conversation with a class of first-year students about finding one’s vocation as well as a colleague’s post, I’ll list the eight jobs I held before starting graduate school in sociology. Even though I might not be able to pinpoint the exact details here, I learned something from each job alongside also ruling out jobs that I could not see myself doing for a long period. I did need to earn some money but this was also an interesting path toward ruling out vocational options – not all job trials or internships need to be “successful” in the sense of confirming something positive. Here is the list of paid positions:

  1. Server in the dining room of a retirement community for roughly 2.5 years. I also did some more independent work where I took food over and served it in the dining rooms of the attached assisted living facility (this position had less pleasant hours with weekend 8 hour shifts starting at 7 AM). I enjoyed a lot of the interactions with residents.
  2. At the end of high school, I wanted more than the part-time hours I had as a server so I started working at Target. I lasted one month but it is an interesting introduction to retail and customer service.
  3. Working in the college cafeteria scanning IDs of the students coming in and doing some cleaning after the meals were over. I did this for about two years.
  4. Working for the college radio station. It usually did not amount to many hours each week but over four years I worked in pretty much every job available at the station – disc jockey, sports play-by-play, sports studio, news writer and reader, talk show host, production manager, promotions at concerts – and enjoyed it enough to later work at the station again.
  5. One year as the layout editor for the college yearbook.
  6. One semester as the editor of the Arts and Entertainment section of the college yearbook.
  7. Two-plus summers in a warehouse for a book publisher. The first summer involved picking items off a line and passing them the conveyor belt. The second summer plus a few months in the fall involved moving up to packing boxes and then driving a forklift after some of the other kids went back to college.
  8. Two summers working at in an in-patient mental health unit, the first summer as an intern and the second as a psych counselor. An eye-opening position all-around with people doing valuable and difficult work.

This is probably not a well-worn path to becoming a professor but it did help me see a number of other fields.

Median college debt under $17k

While college debt as a whole hits record levels – over $1.3 trillion – the median debt is much more reasonable:

The median amount was nearly $17,000, but nearly 20 percent of those households owed more than $50,000.

I would suggest a disproportionate amount of media attention goes to college students at highly ranked or high status institutions that amass a lot of debt while most college students have more manageable amounts of debt. Of course, any debt may be difficult to pay back but there is a big difference between the median – $15k – versus the 80th percentile – $50k.

If debt was such an issue, why do Americans keep going to the more expensive institutions? Are too many students and families unnecessarily striving for “the best” when a cheaper yet good education would likely do?

59% of bachelor’s degree students finish

A four year college degree should not be taken for granted as even many who begin at a four year college do not finish:

The reality is that America has a college-completion crisis. Among traditionally aged bachelor’s degree students, the U.S. Department of Education reports that only 59 percent graduate within six years, nevermind four. For students in two-year institutions, completion rates are even lower. Put those numbers together and a majority of American students who enter college do not complete their degrees in the time allotted, or indeed ever.

The rest of the article raises some worthwhile questions about who is responsible for this percentage and what could be done to improve it. At the least, it should serve as a reminder to two groups:

  1. Those who expect that because everyone knows the value of a college degree in today’s world, potential college students should move heaven and earth to obtain a degree. It is not necessarily an easy process to complete.
  2. Better off students should remember that the path to a four year college degree is not a given. Making it to graduation day often reflects years of expectations, preparation, and resources that not everyone can access.

Cities, universities, and their interactions

A new book looks at the interaction of universities and major cities:

The question of the university’s responsibility to its city goes back to the early 20th century and was the subject of much discussion at the annual meetings of the Association of Urban Universities, founded in 1914. The association’s early members included not only municipal universities like City College, Hunter, Akron, Cincinnati, Louisville and Toledo, but private universities including Johns Hopkins, the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern, Brown, Chicago, Harvard and Vanderbilt, among others. In the years after World War II, however, the term “urban university” increasingly came to be understood as an institution serving working-class, immigrant, minority and commuter students.

I believe that all higher education institutions located in cities should take full advantage of their urban location, which means using the vast resources of the city to support teaching, research and community service. Faculty at research universities should study the city, the metropolitan area, local government, business and economic development, public health, K-12 education, and so much more. Some of this research might be commissioned by government agencies, local business associations or other entities involved in advancing the needs of the city. But much of this research should be conducted independently. All urban institutions have a great opportunity to engage undergraduate, graduate and professional students in city internships and experiential learning, which has become quite popular in recent years. In addition to such instruction-based activities, more and more institutions have embraced a commitment to fostering civic responsibility in students through volunteer service. In short, I would argue that all colleges and universities in cities should engage with their municipality, and that such engagement greatly enhances their mission, whether they are exclusively undergraduate institutions or national research universities….

This tension between neighborhood improvement and gentrification has a long history. Both perspectives are appropriate. In 1958, an official of the Ford Foundation described “the plight of the urban university,” which he said has been “left behind to inherit a neighborhood growing steadily less desirable.” Under these circumstances, he argued, these institutions “will be sorely tempted to join the flight from the city,” but he insisted that to do so would “deny the purpose and potential of the urban university.” Retaining middle-class people in cities was widely viewed as an important national goal reflected in federal funding for urban renewal, begun in 1949.

The U.S. Housing Act of 1959 greatly expanded support for university-based urban renewal, providing that for every dollar an educational institution spent for land acquisition, demolition, building rehabilitation or relocation of occupants of demolished buildings adjacent to or in the vicinity of an urban renewal project, the city could receive two to three dollars of federal urban renewal money. By 1964, 120 colleges and university renewal projects had received federal funding. Keeping middle-class people in cities remained a major feature of liberal urban policy through the end of the century. But displacement of low-income residents has also been inconsistent with liberal policy goals. In recent years, many universities have found ways to work closely with neighborhood organizations in improving neighborhood conditions and meeting university expansion needs. I would argue that today, neighborhood-community collaboration is crucial.

There is much to explore here, particularly with the rise in recent decades of cities looking to use colleges and universities as tools for economic development.

Just thinking off the top of my head, it is interesting to connect the top schools in the United States and their location. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the case that highly regarded schools are in major cities or just outside them yet there does seem to be numerous connections. Additionally, campuses and cities can have a feedback loop where they influence each other’s status and presentation to the rest of the world.