Monthly Archives: September 2014

College and the Theory of Moral Sentiments

Yesterday, Corey Robin posted on his blog a few lines from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The snippet of text pointed out the long-standing tendency of people to disproportionately attribute virtue to the rich and powerful while condemning the poor as a consequence of their poverty. It struck a cord with many readers who tweeted it and posted it to Facebook in large numbers. For me, it was timely because I have been working on an academic article about the pursuit of virtue through college aspirations and the links between education, the increase in productive capacity, and the social good. With the spread of the college-for-all ideology, the relationship between class position and virtue runs through college.

Adam Smith noted that the tendency to attribute moral status based on class position was not a new phenomenon. As Robin already shared, Smith writes that, Continue reading


Capitalism and Climate Justice: The People’s Climate March

Updated Below

It has been very hot and humid in the American Southwest and because of the exceptional heat I have to pick my kids up from school before mid-day when classrooms without air conditioning become dangerous. This heatwave and the disruption it means for my workday coincide with the final run up to the People’s Climate March in New York, with solidarity rallies around the country. The organizers have deemed the event a disruption and there is a film called Disruption that attempts to document the organization of the march and to provide a wide range of reasons that people should, absolutely must, join in. Hopefully, the increasing frequency and intensity of disruption to people’s lives will move them to disrupt the forces that prevent a serious reckoning with global warming.

I will need to watch it again to be sure, but I don’t think the word “capitalism” was uttered once throughout the entire film. Continue reading

Why Academic Freedom Shouldn’t End Anywhere: Steven Salaita, UIUC, and the Power of Bosses

Over the past few days, my fellow graduate students and I have been engaged in a discussion about Steven Salaita, the professor whose job offer at the University of Illinois was rescinded due to some tweets he composed in response to Israel’s recent war on Gaza. In one post, I made the comment that academic freedom doesn’t end anywhere. A friend of mine pushed back and asked me to explain this seemingly radical claim. Below is the email I sent in response.

Hi Everyone,

I’m happy to see this conversation continue. For one, I think this particular case is an important one and if this discussion moves people to get involved with it and push for the resolution they would like to see then it has been worthwhile. For another, the questions that have been resurfaced bear on the practice of teaching and the well-being of students, which we should be attentive to regardless of the specific case sparking debate. And finally, the questions of where our professional lives and personal lives intersect and where the boundaries exist between them are important for anyone contemplating not just an academic career but any kind of working life. If we are unclear about where these lines are stark and where they are blurred, we risk losing any access to speech that is not subject to the whims of elites. Continue reading

Rational Choice, Anti-Harvard Deviance, and the Imperative to Aspire

A few days ago the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) wrote a couple of tweets that resonated with my own work on community college students. She began by linking rational choice, college rankings, and white supremacy before following up with a comment about the relationship between aspirations and deviance.

I’m not entirely sure where her critiques are going to go from these statements alone. But an article I’m currently working takes up the matter of deviance from the other end, that of unmet ambitions. At least, it kind of does. Early research on community colleges by Burton Clark in the early 60s and later by Jerome Karabel and Stephen Brint in the 70s and 80s approached their subject from the general position laid out by Robert Merton in the 1950s: that ambitions much be managed if democratic societies want to avoid deviance and revolt. Continue reading

Interviewing and the Sociology of Past and Future

At the American Sociological Association meeting in San Francisco last month, I attended two panels that were oriented in very different directions conceptually and methodologically but that together generated some interesting questions. The first panel was a critique and defense of interviewing as a method. The impetus for the panel was Shamus Khan’s recent article, which argued that interviews, as opposed to ethnography, were unsuited to uncovering the causes or motives of action. As Howard Becker remarked in his introductory comments, the general thrust of the critique was not new. Both Alford Young and Alison Pugh were invited to respond to Khan and identified important ways that interviews could add to sociological understanding even if they could not replace other methods. Even if interviews cannot uncover causal forces, they at least access something telling about social life. Continue reading