Between 1994 and 2019 Public Sociology

For a plan-ahead fairly-linear-path person, my path surrounding public sociology has been a lovely winding way, evidenced by the dozens of steps outlined below. And it appears as if the steps have been more akin to the mathematical enigma Penrose Stairs. You know – the steps represented in the M.C. Escher lithograph “Ascending and Descending.” What is at the beginning gets reformulated to have been present all along. The first steps go up and then end up going downward back to the beginning again. And all the while the step-climber keeps circling around a middle that is always in sight.

I offer this set of steps at the risk of being taken as self-indulgent, glib, inaccurate in my ability to reflect how a Penrose Staircase actually operates, or gleefully ignorant of the challenges of finding, landing, and staying in a tenure track job (talk about a winding staircase…). These are things I do not take lightly. My path has been anything but precarious, for a whole host of reasons. But I still think sharing this is worthwhile. If anything, I hope to uncover just how complex a career path can be even in the midst of job security and predictability.

Here are my 58 steps toward, within, and surrounding public sociology.

  1. Apply to grad school in sociology with an application essay noting a strong desire to do applied community-based research, and not necessarily teaching.
  2. Turn down the offer from a graduate program with a teaching assistantship; accept one with a research assistantship instead because “I have no desire to teach.”
  3. Have a pretty decent time doing research, mostly because of generous and drama-free advisors.
  4. Give one guest lecture in one advisor’s class.
  5. Be asked to teach because, well, they needed someone.
  6. Realize within one week of teaching at age 23 that teaching is exactly what I’m supposed to do. Always has been.
  7. Teach and research. But mostly teach. Do research to build a CV good enough to land a good teaching job.
  8. Work towards changing the way teaching is viewed in graduate program. Develop a teaching resources file, take a pedagogy class, and become the graduate student representative in the university’s teaching center planning committee.
  9. Continue to be nervous about whether I’m a good researcher.
  10. Realize both teaching and research require translation, but teaching is especially helpful with this.
  11. Recognize and then highly value the legitimacy of using an academic voice to offer new ideas publicly, but start to become disillusioned with the hubris of academia to shape ideas using language that others cannot discern.
  12. Frame job applications honestly (there can be another 58 sub-steps to this one).
  13. Get a teaching-focused job. Recognize how fortunate I was to have gotten the job, especially one that supports research. Recognize also the good fortune of a spouse landing a job, albeit one for which he was overqualified and that took about 14 (yes, 14) years to be defined appropriately and for him to be paid adequately.
  14. Buy a house. Get a dog. Have a kid. Get to know neighbors. Go to the neighborhood block party and write down names of neighbors.
  15. Join community groups locally. Get to know people way beyond an academic work world across many generations. Have a life. Subscribe to and read the local paper.
  16. Assist local organizations using sociology skills. Learn how to be strategic about which local projects are most benefited by my assistance. Learn how to ask organizations the right questions so that they can help themselves. In other words, build my own obsolescence into projects with local groups.
  17. Land consulting gigs, mostly unpaid, to help organizations with strategic planning and useful data collection, analysis, and reporting.
  18. Be sure to prioritize publishing peer-reviewed stuff because local community-based research does not count towards professional activity in the important categories for tenure.
  19. Get tenure and have job security so risk-taking feels more doable (again, 58 more sub-steps here, all with stress, and sometimes while experiencing a lot of difficult life moments including a parent death and a miscarriage).
  20. Increase self-awareness that I will always want more and I will always wonder what’s next. Start to strategize how this could work in a long-term teaching career at a place that actually supports innovation but that otherwise can steer me towards stagnation.
  21. Join and become intrigued and involved with a professional research organization dedicated to getting good research to journalists.
  22. Demonstrate capacity to be productive in meetings and get administrative tasks done, and slowly become part of organization’s leadership.
  23. Receive many gifts of connections to journalists through organization’s social network. Be eternally grateful to this organization. For connections. For friendships.
  24. Increase involvement locally, using national-level involvement in larger data projects and board meeting logistics to enhance local tasks. Pay attention to how actual groups use academic information. Help them do this better. Continue to read the local paper.
  25. Do administrative work at the college and gain further skills in translation and prioritization and perspective. Decide administration is not the path I want. Learn a ton about how to navigate asking for things and knowing who to ask.
  26. Choose number of professional commitments wisely. Don’t get unnecessarily enamored with famous people in my field. Talk to people at conferences as if they’re real people. Or don’t go to those conferences. Keep trying to find “my people.”
  27. Pay attention to diminishing returns when asked to do more, in all parts of life.
  28. Learn where my voice is most and least useful.
  29. Figure out teaching and research as translating is not far from answering questions journalists have.
  30. Pay attention to tone and content of media and social media and yearn for a different kind of voice.
  31. Post way too much in social media outlets but keep doing it as a way to provide an alternative to the regular. Feed off of support from this process.
  32. Infuse humor, in all parts of life.
  33. Become increasingly disillusioned with social media and news media. Keep trying to change the tone.
  34. Research timely topics and don’t be afraid to frame them that way.
  35. Learn how to respond to emails without having to go into detail about why I can’t do things, unless they’re from my husband.
  36. Talk to one or two journalists who happen to pay attention to timely research.
  37. Become more relaxed with how nuanced and detailed answers need to be to get people to think about what they haven’t thought about before.
  38. Have success and trauma and pain. And then have it again, usually at the same time. Be hospitalized for some of this, and travel a lot.
  39. Write 75,000 words in blog posts over many months.
  40. Gain more confidence and voice.
  41. Make website way better. Spend money on it.
  42. Hire a life coach to help figure out how to reach a wider audience. Write 4 books and a bunch of articles in 3 years. Figure out that reframing others’ ideas is as legitimate a form of writing as new data analysis may be.
  43. Use a stipend gained from a work project to fund a publicist for one of the books. Realize it was a waste of money but enjoy the radio conversations with bizarre journalists and talk show hosts. Talk to a lot of journalists. Be quoted in more places. Get on TV. Get name spread into journalism programs.
  44. Become noticed and asked to take a very amazing job elsewhere, including tasks that require public dissemination of academics’ good work. Decide to stay and make that happen even more here (again, 58 sub-steps).
  45. Give dozens of talks. Turn some of them into written pieces.
  46. Gain more confidence.
  47. Appreciate all the gray hair. Appreciate how good my family life is. Take some credit for that. Use handy connections to parenting scholars to legitimate that credit.
  48. Become a little less afraid of critics. But never lose the fear just a little bit, because it makes for a more careful and compassionate approach to whatever is spoken or written or presented.
  49. Hear from more journalists.
  50. When asked if you can comment by journalists (and especially journalism students), ALWAYS SAY YES AND ALWAYS TAKE THE CALL. Except when it’s about professional golfers and corporate crime, which leads to: know the limitations of my expertise.
  51. Be okay with a healthy dose of flub or flop or failure or rejection, recognizing that my day job offers a privileged cushion as backdrop to experimentation.
  52. Design more community-based and applied classes and writing assignments for students. Be brave, be experimental, figure out quickly who needs to be a voice to support the projects and figure out diminishing returns for all constituencies quickly, too.
  53. Incorporate epistemological questions about sociology, applied sociology, and journalism into course curriculum. Incorporate communication plans into all research agendas. Cross-pollinate everything.
  54. Teach research ethics including how they apply to applied and journalistic work.
  55. Always wonder what’s next and how a new-to-that-audience way of looking at it can be helpful.
  56. Recognize this is all fairly fleeting but still worthwhile.
  57. Err towards compassion, in all parts of life.
  58. Realize that my grad school application essay from 1994 may have been spot on this whole time.

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