Chris Uggen's Blog: carrie's question

Friday, May 05, 2006

carrie's question

flying back from dee cee tonight, i had a great conversation with my new friend carrie. she graduated recently with a degree in environmental studies and a sociology minor. i was blabbering on about my book and my discipline, when she raised an important question:

"sociology professors seem to lead such interesting lives and they have wonderfully quirky personalities. but they write the most booooring stuff. how can such interesting people write such boring stuff?"

here are my top 5 responses:

1. ahh, you have read my work.
2. you're obviously mistaken. we lead booooring lives and the only quirks in our personalities are boring old narcissism and neuroses.
3. ummm, it just seems boring. we are really writing as clearly as possible, but our thinking is so advanced that words cannot possibly express our brilliant ideas. [this, of course, would be tough to say with a straight face].
4. hmmm. maybe good writing is beaten out of us in grad school until our prose becomes impenetrable.
5. hmmm. maybe the questions are boring and the bad writing is just a smokescreen.

i still dunno how to answer her, but i guarantee that the question will haunt me. what would you have said?

*unrelated note: wow, public sentiment is currently running pretty strongly against the president and his party. senator norm coleman was up in first class on my plane, but nobody paid any attention to him. i've flown northwest to/from dee cee with walter mondale, martin sabo, paul molitor, and other politicians and luminaries. they've always drawn a small crowd of smiling but taciturn minnesotans. norm was sporting his 100-watt smile tonight, but nobody wanted to shake hands or bask in his celebrity. it got so awkward that carrie thought somebody should give him a hug. i wasn't gonna volunteer.


At 1:30 AM, Blogger michelle inderbitzin said...

hey chris,

i've thought about this quite a bit and would respond as follows:

for those of who thought we were pretty good writers when entering graduate school, i think our writing skills and nearly all clarity was beaten out of us by the time we completed our graduate program.

from my own experience, my MA thesis was an enormous challenge. by the time it was formally approved, i felt that there was very little of my own preferences or writing style left in it.

fortunately, i had a dissertation chair who valued clarity in sociological writing and who thought i wrote well. i still remember an early comment he made to me about wanting to protect and "baby" my writing skills, which speaks to the power of the discipline to try to break them down.

maybe it's a little like the professional socialization that kills--or at least deeply wounds--the impetus toward public sociology that brought many of us to grad school in the first place. by the time you wear the title "sociology professor" your socialization is nearly complete and you begin the long process of trying to impress other sociologists so that you can successfully publish your work and hold on to a job.

at any rate, my first response is that grad school beat my better writing out of me. and second, i'm sorry to say, i do lead a very booooring life, which is an entirely different problem....

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Mike W. said...

I agree almost entirely with Michelle's comments, but have one alternative explanation (without any identifiable agency either!).

In short, living sociology is exciting; reading sociology is boring. In addition, a lot of sociology doesn't bring surprising revelations to the table. While Anderson's work in the Village/Northton area was brilliant and enlightening, in some ways it represents why reading sociology is boring. It has a "no shit" quality to a nonsociological mind. Blacks live in neighborhoods with other blacks? And they're typically poor? And here is how people interact on a daily basis, based on nauseum. A sociologist can appreciate what a sociologist brings to the table, while the narrative quality of qualitative work just may not convey to non-sociologists just *what* is exciting and not redundant about the topic being discussed. "Why write about things we already know and take for granted," I think, is the ultimate criticism of sociology. At least, the one that's answerable.

Don't let me fool you into thinking that it's only qualitative work that's boring. I just merely think quantitative analyses speak for themselves in terms of sheer lack of excitement.

At 10:04 AM, Anonymous ryan said...

I can relate to that conversation, and I struggle with the related issue of choosing the ‘best’ readings each semester. In line with Carrie’s point, the most highly rated reading in my law and society classes is inevitably Donald Black. Short, clear, clean, and largely low-jargon prose (yet not short on big ideas). I am curious if we (sociologists) are alone on this. Do political scientists write more interesting stuff (absolutely and relative to their “interesting lives”)? What about anthro? Paul Farmer’s life is so interesting that I thought my own life was pretty worthless after reading ‘Mountains beyond Mountains’, yet his academic work still requires some coffee and concentration. Without trying to sound defensive, I wonder how we compare with other disciplines on the ‘interest-barometer’. As for your question, Chris, I would have responded differently. Perhaps something like, “have you NOT read Uggen’s work”?, “would it help if we omit all words ending in “-ization”? “would graphs be nicer than those messy tables?” “can you give me a good example of interesting work to learn from?” and “should each published article have a simplified “dumbed-down” (or “interest-up”) version posted on the web for a popular audience to read?”

At 10:16 AM, Blogger Brayden said...

Hi chris,

I posted a thought on this issue on my blog,

At 10:33 AM, Anonymous Jon said...

The best advice on academic writing that I've heard comes from an unusually good writer for an academic, Steven Pinker: write as if your audience is an old friend from college, an intelligent friend but not a specialist in your discipline. In my short writing career so far, I've found this strategy has several advantages. 1) Your friend is no dummy, so you've still got to cover the details, but 2) You can't lean on jargon and assumed knowledge of your audience to cheat: you've got to really explain every move concisely and clearly, and 3) it's comforting, reducing writer's block and anxiety, and 4) Writing for other sociologists (especially early in your career, when they're all your superiors) is not only nerve-recking, but it also pushes you to over-write, to show off and prove you know your stuff. This usually has ugly results, however.

Anyway, Chris, while killing time in a bookstore last week, I got to read over the first few chapters of Locked Out and must say that it's a perfect example of writing for an intelligent non-specialist.

At 11:22 AM, Anonymous chris said...

wow, lots of good advice here.

michelle: i'll steal howie's idea of "babying" the writing skills of especially expressive advisee (and, for the record, you're anything but boring).

mike: maybe we should baby our data and concepts a bit more. people are often genuinely excited by the social facts we uncover -- via qualitative or quantitative methods. they just object to our drowning them in a glutinous mass of insider abstraction and cover-your-ass technical minutia.

ryan: for me, writing relates to bigger questions about meaning and doing work that matters. maybe we do set the bar a little higher for sociologists. as always, we should consider the reference group in getting a valid comparison. i'd say that sociology stacks up ok against poli sci, econ, and law.

brayden: welcome back, bro. i'm all atwitter just to see you blogging again.

jon: i've personified pinker's suggestion in the form of my ol' buddy gray willie. gray read my diss back in madison and i still consider his reactions when i'm writing or preparing a talk. gray is a running guru, an attorney, an accomplished advocate for refugees, and a good-hearted social services generalist. he's smart and funny, so his emails often double me over in laughter. most importantly, he ain't gonna wade through any glutinous mass of jargon or technique without a demonstrable payoff in knowledge.

At 2:15 PM, Anonymous ryan said...

Your points are well taken, Chris. I was thinking of *communication* of ideas more than their substance. To that end, I think Jon's comments on Locked Out are right on.

At 3:43 PM, Blogger Brayden said...

Thanks Chris. I'm glad to pick it up again.

At 4:59 PM, Anonymous chris said...

thanks much for the kind words about locked out, though i'll admit that we could have made the book more accessible if we fussed over it for a few more years.

i hope that an intelligent non-specialist or two will read locked out (in addition, of course, to the intelligent specialists, non-intelligent specialists, and non-intelligent non-specialists.

At 3:22 PM, Blogger Radio Free Newport said...

Lots of good points in this discussion. There are two things I'd like to add:

1) Too many sociologists do not seem to understand what makes for an interesting book. The typical model seems to be a "longer version of the ASR article I published last year." Just expand each section of the article to book length, tack on an introduction, and's a book! Yawn. The sociological books I generally recommend -- usually Kozol and Shipler (neither of whom are sociologists, alas) -- avoid this model.

2) "by the time you wear the title "sociology professor" your socialization is nearly complete and you begin the long process of trying to impress other sociologists so that you can successfully publish your work and hold on to a job."

This is spot-on, especially since we're told to wait until after we have tenure to publish books for a non-academic audience.* By then, geez -- people have settled into routines, started families, and/or are completely exhausted and demoralized by the march to tenure. I wonder how many people emerge with the creativity, idealism, and energy necessary to produce an interesting book?

* (One of my favorite moments of one of Burawoy's big Public Sociology talks at the 2004 ASA was when a graduate student asked about being rewarded for PS work. Burawoy sort of stammered and admitted that it's beat to wait until after tenure. Neat.)

At 3:46 PM, Anonymous chris said...

good points, newport. my approach is to proceed on all sociological fronts -- public, professional, policy and (sometimes) critical. it can be exhausting, but it beats the hell out of "waiting."

i'd read michael's advice as, "take care of your professional side." of course, that leaves less time for public/policy work, but academic life isn't so impossibly demanding that we can't tap into a little energy for pubsoc in grad school and on the tenure track.

i realize that my job is cushier than some (and less cushy than others). i've been fortunate in that my public, policy, professional, and (sometimes) critical work has been mutually reinforcing or (jargonistically speaking) synergistic.


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