“Learn to Write Badly: How to Write in the Social Sciences”

A new book titled Learn to Write Badly highlights the poor writing in the social sciences. Here is an example of such writing as sociologist C. Wright Mills tries to simplify the work of Talcott Parsons:

No reader of The Sociological Imagination (1959) will soon forget C. Wright Mills’s “translations” of a few passages from The Social System by Talcott Parsons, one of the most eminent American social scientists of the day. Here’s a representative selection from The Social System, in the original Parsonian idiom:

“Attachment to common values means, motivationally considered, that the actors have common ‘sentiments’ in support of the value patterns, which may be defined as meaning that conformity with the relevant expectations is treated as a ‘good thing’ relatively independently of any specific instrumental ‘advantage’ to be gained from such conformity, e.g. in the avoidance of negative sanctions. Furthermore, this attachment to common values, while it may fit the immediate gratificational needs of the actor, always has a ‘moral’ aspect in that to some degree this conformity defines the ‘responsibility’ of the actor in the wider, that is, social action systems in which he participates.”

And here is how Mills put the same thoughts into demotic English:

“When people share the same values, they tend to behave in accordance with the way they expect one another to behave. Moreover, they often treat such conformity as a very good thing – even when it seems to go against their immediate interests.”

To get the full effect, you have to see Mills perform the operation upon much larger chunks of ore – a solid page of Parsons, massy and leaden, followed by its rendering into three or four spry statements of the relatively obvious. “I do not pretend that my translation is excellent,” Mills writes, “but only that in the translation no meaning is lost.” He later quotes a suggestion by Edmund Wilson that social scientists get help from their colleagues in the English department.

The short book review suggests the author argues disciplinary jargon is the result of new adherents wanting to fit in. One way to fit in is to talk and write like a social scientist, which includes certain conventions.

Still, I’ve heard this argument for years from within sociology and from the outside (including lots of students): sociologists should be able to explain their ideas in simpler terms. Particularly when the complaint arises that sociology gets less of a public hearing than other disciplines, this topic comes up. But, I haven’t heard too many responses to this complaint that include citing sociologists or journals or book series that do a good job of writing sociologically. Are there widely accepted examples of sociologists consistently writing well?

An anthropology PhD student who got a sociology job argues for interdisciplinary research

An anthropology PhD student at UCLA argues that he was able to expand his job choices by presenting himself as an interdisciplinary scholar:

Some of my mentors, none of whom are in anthropology departments, prefer to say “trained as an anthropologist, so-and-so investigates…” when describing people in the field, as opposed to saying “so-and-so is an anthropologist.” If you are on the job market this may be hard to do as you are likely to have just become a Ph.D.-wielding anthropologist, and to be quite proud of the moniker and achievement. But the shift in self-definition is important for you and your future academic home, I would argue.

I just went through the whole job-hunting process before signing a contract to become a lecturer in media and cultural studies in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, in Britain. I was able to apply for a silly number of jobs, get a bunch of interviews and campus visit requests, and have some choices and grounds on which to do some humble negotiating. I think my trick was post-disciplinary research and (a considerable amount of) cross-disciplinary publishing. I could apply to communications; media studies; anthropology; information studies; science, technology and society; sociology; television studies; American studies and Internet studies. If I were desperate I could apply for archaeology and film production positions. Postdoctoral positions, particularly those financed by the Mellon Foundation, are all about interdisciplinarity, as are jobs looking for digital humanities scholars.

So I’d encourage my fellow freshly minted A.B.D.s and Ph.D.s to begin seeing their research and their teaching across at least four or five large disciplines. Be able to realistically apply to four or five departments. One can put this together variously by publishing in different journals, collaborating with colleagues from different fields, or simply working the boundaries of one’s discipline in necessarily interdisciplinary ways. (All I can say is that I hope this is not my internalization of the precarity of neoliberal governmentality in the education sector.)

Academia talks a lot about interdisciplinary work so it is interesting to hear stories about people who make careers in this emergent sector. Several things strike me about this story:
1. Can one only do this as a student in certain disciplines? In this example, making the switch from anthropology to sociology is not a huge jump as the disciplines share some theorists and ways of collecting data while also looking at the “big picture” of groups and societies. Could you make the same jump between literature and political science? Economics to psychology?
2. For grad students to become interdisciplinary scholars, there have to be interdisciplinary jobs. How many schools and departments would really be willing to hire an interdisciplinary person compared to a qualified/good person within their discipline?
2a. If more grad students go the interdisciplinary route, are there enough jobs for them? In other words, could people then lost out on jobs because they aren’t disciplinary enough?
3. This student seems to have picked a current and relevant topic that I imagine many schools would be interested in:
And there is something said for responding (in non-trendy and timeless ways!) to emergent patterns in industry, politics, and social movements. The departments recognize that what is in the news is what the students want to study. In my case this amounted to a recursive loop from the hype surrounding new media – Arab Spring, Anonymous, Wikileaks, SOPA, PIPA, and Occupy –  to departments requesting applicants with expertise in social media and political movements.
So is the key to interdisciplinary jobs to be at the cutting edge of sexy topics?
3a. I imagine that much interdisciplinary work could be done through center or institutes that focus on particular issues or topics rather than through departments which tend to be looking for a broader set of interests.
This is an intriguing story but there are a lot of institutional and cultural issues within academia that have to be worked out so that a large amount of these stories could be possible.

A bigger push for men’s studies?

I’ve noted this before but here is another article suggesting that there is a bigger push for men’s studies in academia:

The male stereotype of the all-powerful protector and provider is doing a disservice to men – pressuring them to conform and ultimately, leaving many powerless to face the challenges of modern society.

That’s the thesis that binds many academics in the new area of masculinity studies, who say their examination of how the culture of maleness effects men, rather than those around them, has been a long time coming.

“Clearly it’s at a very nascent stage in its development, in the humanities and social sciences,” says Concordia University sociologist Marc Lafrance, who teaches about men and masculinity…

Synnott, who has been teaching a course on the sociology of men for 10 years, believes that the rallying cry of “male chauvinist pig” has ignored important realities that men face. “Men dominate at the top and also the bottom,” he points out.

Alas, there are no numbers or larger stories in this article to inform us of whether this is a larger push in academia or not. It would be interesting to hear people comment on whether these calls for more studies of masculinity are related to larger economic pressures where men are having more difficulty finding jobs and educational shifts where women are now getting more degrees. Because men are feeling more vulnerable today, this leads to a new interest in men’s studies?

I also wonder if there is a large number of undergraduates who would be ready to follow this course of study. Would such programs take students away from women’s or gender studies programs? Would students who don’t see the point of women’s studies programs suddenly see the value of men’s studies?

How to improve the graduate student-faculty adviser relationship

An English professor has discovered that there are a lot of graduate students (and former graduate students) who are upset with what they perceive to be lack of information given to them by their graduate advisers. The professor suggests how this relationship between graduate student and adviser could be improved:

That failure rests absolutely on us. We’re the teachers, and the initiative is ours. The communication gap between graduate teachers and graduate students is an intramural version of the crisis facing academe writ large: Professors are only lately waking up to the need to take their assigned part in the continuing and necessary discussion of the role of the university in society today.

We need likewise to rethink our role in the education of our graduate students. Professional-development seminars, which I discussed last month, help stake out common understanding between professors and graduate students, but communication only starts there. Advisers need to advance it. We shouldn’t wait for students to ask what’s out there careerwise. It’s part of our job to tell them. To mend the gap, we must mind the gap—or else corrosive anger will widen it…

I’m not sure I’d let the teachers off the hook so easily, but we should pay attention to the reader’s larger point, namely: Graduate students, as well as their professors, have responsibility for the choices they make.

School is a place where teachers tell students what to do. At the same time, school is supposed to prepare students to make choices for themselves. In between those two realities lie a lot of teaching and learning—and professional development. Both professors and students have to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions before us: We both must learn how to work together so that our students can leave us with every possible advantage. We all need to keep our eyes open.

On the whole, it sounds like there simply needs to be more conversation within graduate schools about the possibilities and pitfalls that graduate students and practitioners of particular disciplines will face in a changing world. The experience a faculty member might have had 20 years ago may not repeat itself but at the same time, the graduate student shouldn’t take that past experience as a factual story about how things always work.

A missing part of this conversation seems to be the interests of the graduate department and the school/university at large. Graduate departments generally want to produce students who go on to good jobs at Research 1 institutions. These departments are rated on this productivity, particularly by their peers at other Research 1 institutions. Would a department who puts a majority of PhDs in private industry when the norm for the field is Research 1 jobs be punished or be looked down upon? What incentives could be put into place so that departments would promote a broader range of options for students with advanced degrees?

Something might be said here as well for students building close relationships with several faculty. Advisers are important, particularly for the thesis and dissertation stages. But it is helpful to have other perspectives as well, something that is not possible if a student is tied to only one faculty member.

The counterpart to women’s studies: men’s or male studies?

Women’s studies programs are common at American colleges and universities. And in recent years, courses about men and masculinity have increased in numbers. An article in the New York Times explores this phenomenon and the split between proponents of men’s and male studies:

Male studies, largely the brainchild of Dr. Edward M. Stephens, a New York City psychiatrist, doesn’t actually exist anywhere yet. Last spring, there was a scholarly symposium at Wagner College on Staten Island, intended to raise the movement’s profile and attract funds for a department with a tenured chair on some campus. A number of prominent scholars attended, including Lionel Tiger, an emeritus anthropology professor at Rutgers, who invented the term “male bonding,” and Paul Nathanson, a religious studies scholar at McGill University, who specializes in the study of misandry, the flip side of misogyny. Both are on the advisory board of the Foundation for Male Studies, which Dr. Stephens founded last year…

The people in men’s studies, like those in women’s studies, take a mostly sociological perspective and believe that masculinity is essentially a cultural construct and that gender differences in general are fluid and variable. To Professor Kimmel, we live in a world that is increasingly gender-neutral and gender integrated and that this is a good thing for men and women both. “That ship has sailed — it’s a done deal,” he said recently, dismissing the idea that men and women are as different as Martians and Venutians.

The male studies people, on the other had, are what their critics call “essentialists” and believe that male behavior is in large part biologically determined. Men think and act differently from how women think and act because that’s how evolution shaped them. In the most extreme formulations of essentialism, men are basically still Neanderthals: violent, clannish, sexually voracious and in need of female domestication.

The article points this out but this sounds like another episode in the nature vs. nurture debate.

But the study of masculinity does seem to be a growing field of study. I don’t know much about this particular field  but it seems to me that there has been a growing recognition that there is a wide range of male experiences. And more men seem to be interested in at least thinking about this and how their lives have been shaped by cultural expectations.

What is the “typical” role for males today? Take a sector of the media like video games. These are popular among males, particularly the younger generations, and many of these games present particular views of masculinity and the world. Should one be an soldier shooting others in Black Ops? Should one be a 13th century assassin? Should one be a puzzle solver or an athlete? There are a number of roles, realistic and otherwise, that are presented. And all of this has real consequences: with terms like “man-cession” or “he-pression” being in the news recently due to the loss of certain jobs, what happens to males matters for society.