Chris Uggen's Blog: January 2006

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

video killed the lecturing star

i'm an arrogant teacher. more specifically, i'm arrogant about my lectures. i'll ask: what could possibly be a more efficient and effective way to spread the knowledge and the love than for me to just get my lecture on? well, incorporating well-placed bits of multimedia into said lectures for a start. several department grad students digitized short film clips, sorted them thematically, and made them available in our teaching resources center.

while i still maintain it is cheating to show two-hour films (what am i, an overpaid projectionist?), the five minute clips fit my attention span and that of my students. i've learned that breaking up a lecture with a taste of fight club or gattaca often brings home a point about consumerism or labeling even more effectively (gasp!) than my lectures alone.

on this point, i got the coolest email today from jon smajda, a star minnversity grad student and zappa-esque technophile. in his capacity as our department's infotech fellow, jon compiled the following list of sites offering lecture-friendly film and video.

1. - a growing collection of videos online, downloadable to your hard drive.

2. - another collection similar to google video.

3. - jon says movie trailers can be fascinating under a sociological microscope (e.g., representations of race, gender or class). hmmm. maybe so.

4. - a massive collection of free online video, audio and text, including video subcollections such as:

5. old tv commercials - from the 1980s, especially advertising directed at children.

6. richard beach's teaching media site - minnversity professor beach's site for his text on media literacy, with links to video materials and ideas for integrating them into your classes.

7. comedy central - for social commentary, try the daily show and the colbert report.

8. media education foundation - short preview videos to most of their stuff.

9. pbs frontline - dozens of documentary episodes available for free viewing online.

thanks, jon, for the authentic list and for granting permission to make a cheap copy (is that a real poncho or is that a sears poncho?). and thanks also to katherine fines, keith cunnien, and carla mantel for setting up our department's teaching resource center's clip library.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

wally, ben, and the implicit contract

my t-wolves t-waded wally szczerbiak this week, sparking heated debate among hoopologists and immediate layoffs in the greater minneapolis eyebrow waxing industry. mr. szczerbiak is a marginal defender and often too slow to get his picture-perfect jumpers off against non-marginal defenders. nevertheless, i'm always impressed with his effort -- even when he's shut out of the offense by certain talent-rich but eyebrow-poor point guards.

i'm only a casual basketball fan and a laughable player, but i'll miss wally world for three reasons. first, he's got skills: year in and year out, he hits exactly half his field goals, 40 percent of his three-pointers, and 90 percent of his free throws. this makes him a very efficient and reliable offensive performer, who scores well without wasting shots.

second, my daughter will miss him. we shared a thanksgiving flight to nyc with wally, who was gracious and patient with the legions of teen and tween girls seeking his autograph. wolves uberstar KG is the team's best scorer and only passer and rebounder. now the big ticket must carry the wolves' sole heartthrob responsibilities atop his broad shoulders (i'm thinking maybe rashad mccants can work into wally's derek zoolander role, but he's gotta get some minutes first).

third, and most important to me, szczerbiak seems to abide by the implicit contract between audience and performer: like kevin garnett, he tries hard (or at least feigns interest) in every game. the wolves are likely a better team after the trade, but my personal interest generally rests more on the implicit contract than it does on the performer's esoteric skills.

i haven't bought an nba ticket since i took the family to a lakers-wolves game to share with them the spectacle of amazing athletes with prodigous skills (KG! SHAQ! KOBE!). unfortunately, the lakers were clearly uninterested in this midseason tilt. kobe half-heartedly jacked up shots in the general direction of the backboard, nobody got back on defense, and only wally and mr. garnett had even low-grade nba fever. my daughter had just started playing basketball at the time and i wanted to somehow shield her eyes. i was also hoping to spark some hoops interest in my barkleyesque (in oh so many ways) son. but if the players didn't seem to care, how could they?

that's why i'm a little nervous about the trade. the wolves get ricky davis, who is better than wally at everything but shooting. unfortunately, this will be mr. davis' fifth team since 1999. the team-oriented davis once tried to pad his rebound stats by clanging a shot off his own team's backboard. like mark blount, also acquired in the deal, his "passion for the game has sometimes been questioned" as has his "a questionable effort and attitude." in addition to davis and the center who doesn't like to rebound, we get another undersized point guard who doesn't like to distribute the ball. uh-oh. i'll be happy if they win, but i don't think i can bear to watch it.

it isn't just sports, of course. i abide by the implicit contract in any performing art. i'll walk out of concerts when i think a band is phoning it in. i've seen teachers break the contract too, though i've never walked out on them. what is nice about sports and music, however, is that amateurs play with wonderful zeal. my daughter's basketball team has a painfully low shooting percentage, for example, but those girls play hard. i saw an epic football battle this fall, in a championship game between a couple evenly matched ninth-grade teams. the level of play in high schools, colleges, and even "town ball" is often absurdly good, at least relative to the weekend athlete.

of course, i'd like the hometown pro teams to prosper too. but if we had to trade wally, why couldn't we get back a gutty ben wallace-type? he can't shoot free throws, but he is the living embodiment of the implicit contract.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

honoraria and felon fund

sometimes when I give a talk these days, people offer me an honorarium. i guess this marks movement beyond the who is chris uggen? career stage, into the short-lived but delightful overrated stage. In academic life, an honorarium is simply payment to visit, lecture, review books for publishers, and do those other scholarly things we do. more formally, an honorarium is payment to any professional for services that do not legally or traditionally require a fee.

aside from travel reimbursements, i never request money to visit or talk. such visits are too much fun -- people treat you very well, the audiences are friendly and laugh at your jokes, and the intellectual exchange is great. the only downside is reentry shock when returning home to piles of laundry and dishes, students who are somewhat less excited about your lectures, and buying your own drinks. i try to give colloquia or talks whenever the schedule permits, though i try to limit guest-lecturing in actual classes to the minnversity unless i'm also doing a department talk.

no matter the amount, my benefactors always characterize it as a “small honorarium” or a “token.” sometimes said amount approximates my weekly take-home pay; other times it is smaller but never trivial. that is, if they are only going to give you ten dollars, they don’t call it an “honorarium.” instead, they call it “lunch.” one kind and generous host, who clearly had never seen my car, said that he hoped that their small honorarium ($500!) would not insult me. we use such language, i suppose, because actual famous people who get honoraria are either too rich or too pure to be be tainted by $500. so, we talk as though such amounts are trivial because donald trump (or bill cosby or bill clinton or nelson mandela) might really be insulted by a speaker's fee of $500. when inviting speakers to my department, i learned that a few famous sociologists -- often those the grad students would most like to see -- charge five-figure speaking fees. i guess they might be insulted by $500 too.

i’m never insulted, but I often feel guilty taking money to talk (i feel much less guilty taking money to review books because, well, i'm not the most voracious reader in the discipline). when a department chair hands me a check after a visit, however, it feels a little like bringing dirty cash into the pure house of love (just leave the money on the nightstand, honey). of course, i report my outside earnings to the government and the minnversity on a report of professional activities form. i also try to think of productive ways to spend it to assuage the guilt:

1. direct honoraria to charities. i sometimes try to redirect the honoraria to some group or charity i find worthy or interesting. last year i tried to divert an honorarium to a musician's hurricane relief fund. unfortunately, that created a hassle for the accountants. so, they still ended up cutting me a personal check.

2. formally redistribute honoraria to research assistants. sometimes i've involved grad students in public criminology work that does not pay or pays very little. so, i've cashed my check and then written them a personal check. because i'm still liable for the taxes on the income -- and i'm taxed at a much higher rate than the students -- my accountant thought this was about the funniest thing he'd ever heard. "ha ha! that's a good one - you're a real smart professor, all right. how long did you go to school? and you're teaching my kids?"

3. informally redistribute honoraria. this is a little sketchier. instead of cutting an actual check, i just try to buy meals and libations at conferences and such for grad students and friends. these are expenses i feel a little guilty about when the mastercard bill comes, but i assuage the "taking money off the family table to live it up in san francisco" guilt if i've got a little "honoraria" money offsetting it.

4. shovel it into the family furnace. sometimes i just put it into the checking account, where it burns away immediately, leaving not a trace of evidence that it ever actually existed.

none of these seem satisfactory. i'd really like to find some way to use the honoraria more meaningfully and productively. so, i've got a new idea, inspired by joseph 'jazz' hayden, a formerly incarcerated person. a few years ago, mr. hayden quieted a large group of lefty academics, activists, and policy types by raising a simple question. i don't remember his exact words, but it was something like, "i'm so happy and proud to see all you fine professors and experts here this morning to talk about prisoners. all your writing and talks and concern and activity is so very important. but can you just just give me one example and tell me one little thing that any of you have done to help the brothers in the penitentiary?"

ouch. his question really got to me. i've been making good money for the past decade talking and writing about crime and reintegration, but what have i really done to help somebody who is trying to rebuild their life after prison? not much. i've given tiny amounts to research organizations such as the sentencing project and the council on crime and justice, but nothing to former prisoners themselves. i hope my research and teaching counts for something, of course, but it seems stupid to worry about how to get rid of money when there are so many in need. so, i'm going to try another approach.

5. start a felon fund. henceforth, i'm going to redirect the honoraria into a little felon fund. my goal is to build a scholarship or fellowship for somebody returning from the system and giving it their best shot.

i'm not sure whether to direct the felon fund toward expungement or education or some other aspect of reentry, but the important thing is to get started. i figure that if i blog about it, i'll have to get off my butt and do it. what kind of sleazeball would write about setting up such a fund and then not actually follow through? given my, ahem, slowness in accomplishing any non-academic task, i'll try to enlist some help in setting this up (sorry, kim. we'll get the cards out too, i promise). i'll hereby guarantee to kick in at least half of any 2006 honoraria, with a greater percentage coming once i figure out the tax thing. for me, finding a personal answer to jazz hayden's question will be a marathon and not a sprint. the felon fund won't amount to much for some time, but it feels like a small step in the right direction.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

conferring with interested publics

i did a conference call yesterday, tied to the release of on your own without a net: the transition to adulthood for vulnerable populations. the book has chapters on homelessness, mental health, juvenile justice, foster care, disabilities, mental disorders, and other issues. my piece with sara wakefield discussed difficulties facing young adults coming home from the criminal justice system. i think that conducting and disseminating research in interaction with affected communities is an important public sociology and policy sociology task. so, i'm usually happy to participate in such calls when i feel qualified.

here's how it worked. connect for kids publicized the date, time, and call-in number to its mailing list. some of these folks called in at the time to listen, email questions, or ask questions directly of the panelists. we had 5 presenters, each with about 10 minutes to talk before taking questions. we were asked to start with a brief review of the data in the chapter (e.g., trends), but then focus our remarks on policy solutions (e.g., what do we do about it?). approximately 130 people were listening, with a mix of policy folks, advocates, and on-the-ground practitioners and program coordinators.

the other presenters were real experts on their topics (e.g., john hagan on homeless adolescents, mark courtney on foster care) who did a terrific job speaking to the policy and practitioner audience. i too tried my best to give a responsible overview of the field without getting bogged down in statistics or jargon. everybody seemed to make 3 or 4 take-home points that were reasonable and constructive. relative to the call-in talk radio i've done, this audience seemed well-informed and quite expert in their fields.

that said, i was struck by the real-world concreteness of the questions relative to our 20,000-foot aerial view answers. for example, one woman with a teenage son in the mental health system asked for some guidance or suggestions on transitioning out of care, but we pretty much replied in abstractions and generalities. i would have been similarly stumped if a caller had asked whether her felony conviction prevented her from getting, say, a fireworks license in albuquerque, new mexico. even though i'd call myself an expert on felon exclusions, i'd likely do what any non-expert would: start googling. lacking much on-the-ground experience ourselves(or a staff to chase things down), individual academics have trouble bridging this gap. i learn a great deal from the journalists, practitioners, and felons who ask me questions (e.g., ohio? no I didn't know that. who is pushing the legislation? does it look like it will pass?), so i now make it a point to interrogate my interrogators whenever possible.

during yesterday's call-in questioning i had the distinct sense that the audience probably had more useful answers than the panelists -- and that they could help frame more interesting questions for the next round of research. for me, such conference calls illustrate burawoy's distinction between simply disseminating our work to affected publics versus doing work in dialogue with those publics. dissemination is a good and worthy endeavor, of course, and more of us should probably do more of it. engaging in dialogue with affected publics throughout the research process, however, might help produce rich scholarship of even greater utility.

have you been unfairly accepted?

i was talking with colleagues last night about academic egos. you know the conversation -- stuff like, "department X had to widen the doors to make room for all the big heads." i tend to see symmetry in the world, so i formulated two aggregate-level hypotheses about our profession:

  1. for every underrated scholar, there must be a countervailing scholar who is overrated to the same degree.

  2. for every manuscript that is unfairly rejected, there must be a countervailing manuscript that is unfairly accepted.
now, admitting that one is "overrated" or that one's published work somehow snuck into a journal is probably a lousy career move. my experience is that such admissions are taken as evidence of insecurity, false humility, or, worse, that one is fishing for compliments. i'd guess that more academics would point to systematic biases that keep them underrated and unfairly rejected, while elevating others without justification. these would include their social position, ascribed characteristics, epistemology, cultural capital, area of study and many other factors.

i wouldn't deny the influence of any of these factors. at the same time, however, we often fail to see how our privilege gives us unfair advantages. so, i might grouse about criminologists not getting enough play in the top sociology journals (not fair!), but i'd likely fail to mention that my graduating from an elite department gives me certain compensating advantages (not fair?). of course, one could also argue that all sociologists or criminologists are underrated (or overrated) based on our invaluable (or worthless) contributions to society, but that's a different point.

within our disciplines, there is a clear career and life course arc to over- and underratedness. many academics, i'd guess, are underrated in their early careers. i remember reading an interview with a wise guitarist who did a lot of session work. his four-stage career sketch would seem to fit any reputation-based profession:

  • STAGE I. Who is Chris Uggen?
  • STAGE II. Get me Chris Uggen!
  • STAGE III. Get me a young Chris Uggen!
  • STAGE IV. Who is Chris Uggen?
with blind reviews and systematic evaluations, our reputations and publications are based in part on academic merit, as are the tangible rewards that flow from them. that said, an appreciation for the vagaries of rankings and reputations probably helps one navigate through the "who is chris uggen and why is he sending me all these crappy papers?" stages without bitterness.

in my experience, the healthiest academics recognize the structural inequalities in the system but don't get eaten up by them. that is, they seem comfortable with themselves and their work regardless of external validation. moreover, they tend not to make invidious comparisons with other scholars (e.g., i can't believe she got the job or how could they publish that?). of course, they take their work seriously and know that external validation will offer opportunities to do more of it, often for a wider audience. they often employ their professional resources to challenge structural inequities or help other scholars who have been unfairly rejected or underrated. still, they seem to greet the ups and downs of professional life with a bemused smile. maybe this is why, regardless of their over- or underratedness, their heads still fit through standard 30" x 80" interior doors.

Monday, January 23, 2006

janklow's occupational restrictions

former south dakota governor bill janklow was convicted of felony second-degree manslaughter and misdemeanors for reckless driving, speeding, and running a stop sign in january 2004. "wild bill" had long boasted about his speeding and had amassed numerous citations, but this time he sped through a stop sign and his cadillac struck and killed motorcyclist randy scott.

in addition to paying a fine, janklow served 100 days in jail and resigned his seat in the u.s. house. i'm writing about him now because the south dakota supreme court decided this month to reinstate his law license. judge glen severson, writing for the high court:

"While there are public concerns regarding Janklow's driving, there was no evidence presented to suggest that the public needs protection from Janklow's conduct as an attorney."

that's the funny thing about occupational sanctions that apply broadly to all felons -- they often have very little to do with public safety. in california, felons are barred from some 261 job titles. in new york, ineligible occupations include barber shop owner, boxer/wrestler, commercial feed distributor, and emergency medical technician. in florida, the list includes acupuncturist, speech-language pathologist, and cosmetologist. most convicted cosmetologists, of course, lack the means to mount an appeal to the state supreme court. one st. paul pioneer press reader reacted to janklow's story this way:

Different standard for Janklow?
I read with interest the Jan. 6 story about former South Dakota lawmaker Bill Janklow's triumph over adversity ("Janklow can resume his law practice"). We should all remember that this comes after being convicted for offenses resulting in a motorcyclist's death.
By contrast, an acquaintance was fired from his job as a car mechanic and was told that he couldn't pick up a wrench for five years, provided his record remained clean. His sin? Driving while drunk. There is no defense for this behavior from anyone. I will point out, however, that Janklow has been allowed to restart his practice although he hasn't completed his probation — all before my friend can change your oil. How many standards do we have?

the felons that i interviewed argued for more narrowly-tailored collateral sanctions -- in housing, receipt of public assistance, student aid, voting rights, parental rights, and firearms rights in addition to occupational restrictions. for example, some would ask "what did my assault conviction have to do with voting? i could see losing my vote if i tried to rig an election or something." janklow's lawyers made the same argument -- what did his manslaughter conviction have to do with lawyering? the standard answer, made by supporters such as george will, is that felons have shown themselves to be "untrustworthy" citizens and therefore blanket restrictions are merited. yet this logic is pushed to absurdity by the dizzying array of lifetime bans imposed on felons.

if i could reinvent the parole and prisoner reentry process, i'd like to see all collateral sanctions imposed on a case-by-case basis in a reentry court. if someone has been convicted of molesting children, then it makes good sense to restrict them from occupations (such as school bus driver) in which they have access to children. i would similarly restrict mr. janklow from driving a school bus, but would likely be sympathetic to his desire to practice law or to pick up a wrench as a mechanic once he has served his sentence. under the current system, only those felons with the information, time, and resources to mount a clemency drive will ever see their rights restored.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

sims therapy

my daughter started playing a new version of the sims recently. i'm definitely late to the party on this one -- the game has been around since 2000 -- but i'm really intrigued. it has been called a "god game" because players create and control the lives of virtual people. the characters eat, drink, play, sleep, buy stuff, get depressed and sometimes die.

i'm most interested because my daughter replicated our family. more precisely, she created us as characters but then made strategic changes to remake the family as she would prefer it. for example, her sim-self is actually taller than her sim-brother, the whole family seems quite affectionate with one another, and there is much more time for play in her simlife than real life.

do other kids use the sims to recreate themselves and their families? it was really instructive for me to see how my daughter tweaked our sim-family. i could imagine some variant of this as a powerful tool for family therapists. instead of just asking your daughter how she'd like her parents and siblings to act, you could have her recreate them and see how it worked for herself. her mother is much less impressed by the game, though she may be biased -- her sim-version keeps perishing in mysterious fires ...

Friday, January 20, 2006

mandatory sentencing

i posted recently about my preference for indeterminate sentences (warts n' all) over mandatory minimums. frankly, one can find egregious miscarriages of justice under every sentencing scheme. nevertheless, the federal drug laws take the cake. here's the latest from

david powell, a 32-year-old with an IQ of 72, was sentenced to life-without-parole for distributing crack. he had two "nickel and dime" drug possession convictions at 16 and 17, which required judge david hurd of new york to lock him up forever on his third drug conviction. as appears to be the case for mr. powell, the full weight of such mandatories often falls upon the "mules" rather than the "kingpins." the only way powell could have avoided a life sentence would have been to provide "substantial assistance" to the prosecution. as a small-timer, however, he couldn't offer anything (or, more precisely, anybody) of prosecutorial value. here's how judge hurd sees it:

"The increment of harm in this case bears no rational relationship to the increment of punishment that I must impose," Hurd said at a sentencing proceeding last week in Utica, N.Y. "This is what occurs when Congress sets [a] mandatory minimum sentence which distorts the entire judicial process... . As a result, I am obligated to and will now impose this unfair and, more important, unjust sentence."

aside from injustice, such policies are expensive. although old dudes are generally much less dangerous than young dudes, it costs a lot more to lock them up. in particular, generations of californians will pay sizable medical costs for the aging prison population delivered by that state's two- and three-strike sentencing policies. here are some conservative* back-of-the-envelope calculations from the sentencing project:

Assuming that a typical lifer is sentenced at the age of 30 and will live until 70, we can estimate conservatively that incarceration costs of $20,000 a year from age 30 to age 60 will total $600,000. From age 60 to 70, costs are conservatively at least $40,000 a year, yielding a total lifetime cost of $1 million.

whatever you think of mr. powell's crimes, do we really need to spend a million dollars on him? and these costs don't even consider his lost productivity over the next forty years -- when he could be paying social security and income taxes. there's a nice RAND cost effectiveness analysis by jonathon caulkins and colleagues that attempts to account for some of these complexities. here is the authors' bottom line:

a million dollars spent extending sentences to mandatory minimum lengths would reduce cocaine consumption less than would a million dollars spent on the pre-mandatory-minimum mix of arrests, prosecution, and sentencing. Neither would reduce cocaine consumption or cocaine-related crime as much as spending a million dollars treating heavy users.

*i characterize these estimates as conservative because $20k and $40k are lower than anything else i've seen. it varies by jurisdiction, but i'd guess that $25k and $65k would be closer to the mark in the federal system.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


when i'm not in the office i'm wintering at the gym, watching boys' wrestling and girls' hoops. i've always enjoyed kids' basketball and baseball, but hadn't thought much about wrestling for twenty years. i remember good things about the sport, so i encouraged the lad when his football coach (strongly) suggested it. besides, some of my favorite professors were outstanding wrestlers, including paul wellstone and mike massoglia.

i wrestled at 140, so i was unprepared for the heavyweight matches i'm watching now. wrestling is like boxing, where you see action and scoring in the lighter classes but monster knockout moves in the heavier divisions. fortunately for tor, minnesota high schools now limit the heavyweights to 275 pounds, which means he can't face anybody more than a biscuit bigger than he is. that said, he's taking on some burly upperclassmen as a freshman, some of whom look way too old for high school (or college or prison or...). when i first "scouted" his opponents online, i'd panic after seeing their records or pictures. at this point in the season, i know he can beat good JV wrestlers and that even the good varsity heavyweights won't do him any permanent damage.

one cool and terrifying thing about being a heavyweight is that you typically wrestle last, so that the team's match hinges on your match. in baseball, this would be like coming to bat with two outs in the bottom of the ninth every game. the gopher wrestling team is fortunate to have cole konrad (above) as their heavyweight. at the national duals on sunday, the minnversity held a slim one-point lead over top-ranked oklahoma state when konrad faced two-time ncaa champion steve mocco. something called college sports television (cstv) will air the whole meet thursday night at 7, but you can watch a podcast of the classic heavyweight clash here (scroll all the way to the right and click). the moves look sort of like the high school heavyweight matches i've seen, but the athletes are far stronger and much more explosive.

you know, outside of football bowls and men's basketball, the minnversity's athletic department is doing pretty well this winter -- no major scandals, hockey is ranked #2, women's hoops is at #16, and wrestling...?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

the putatively innocent question

the last few posts have been a little long, dry, and windy. here's some lighter fare. eating lunch today, i was reminded of a couple of putatively innocent questions that nevertheless delivered a wicked, wicked critique. this seems to be a wonderfully effective and generally good-humored way to deliver a slam. these actually cracked me up, even though i was the butt or target [they were laughing with me, right?]. the names have been stricken to protect me from further ridicule.

chris: [mumbles incoherently about faxing something while eating lunch]
unnamed research assistant: seriously, is that really how you hold your fork?
chris: [looking suspiciously at hand holding said utensil] umm, yeah, i guess, why?
unnamed research assistant: no reason.

no reason! who would observe you holding a fork and then ask if that's "really" how you hold it unless you were holding it in a really weird way? i'd like to say that the critique undercut my confidence and that i didn't eat in public for a week, but that would be embellishing. i learned long ago that, if i'm not being careful, i really do hold my fork like a barbarian (sort of the way you would hold it if you were wearing mittens). so i could laugh right away at that one.

but i wasn't always so confident. i remember a similarly innocent question that turned my knees to jelly back in high school. i was the least accomplished member of a not-very-accomplished cover band called the habbit [yup, that's how we spelled it. to this day, i don't know whether we were referencing tolkien, substance dependency, or nun gear]. about two minutes before we were introduced at our first (only) big show at the old prom ballroom in st. paul, something like this exchange took place.
chris: [looks around nervously, wiggling foot while awaiting the big moment.]
unnamed drummer: seriously, are you really going to wear that shirt?
chris: umm, yeah, i guess, why?
unnamed drummer: no reason.

i struck back quickly, as young lads are wont to do, and tried to laugh it off to break the tension ["dude! you don't go ripping on a guy's wardrobe just before they are about to, like, carry the whole band in front of, like, a hundred people! were you, like, unable to find the right time to tell me during the, like, five hours we were unloading and setting up? dude!!!]

still, i spent the show deeply concerned over the scorn and derision that my poor choice of shirts would surely rain down upon the band. what if the habbit never got a record deal because i was wearing a green wrestling singlet over a girls' softball t-shirt (and yes, i did cop the girls' softball idea from a suicide commandos cover. it wasn't even original)? if i remember correctly, the drummer wore a plaid shirt with snaps instead of buttons. very rock and roll.

i confess that i too have lobbed putatively innocent questions upon the unsuspecting. sometimes i've even thought of such questions but pulled back when it seemed sadistic (e.g., "seriously, was that your real job talk?" or, "is that the actual story you're going to go with?"). so here are my [genuinely?] innocent questions: is this a widespread phenomenon? are there influential precedents or examples in art or literature? is it a cohort thing? i can't imagine my grandparents asking each other if that was "really" how they held their silverware, but my kids talk like that all the time.

dehumanizing sex offenders

one could devote several blogs to the moral panic surrounding people convicted of sex crimes. the stories are depressing, frustrating, and creepy on many levels, so i don't often follow up on them. but this story, sent by the blog muse last week, and this one from the weekend really caught my eye. i've italicized for emphasis in both excerpts.


ALBANY - The state will build a "pervert prison" , a special maximum-security facility for the most dangerous sex offenders, it was announced yesterday. Gov. Pataki yesterday said the facility is needed to confine 500 convicted sex predators considered too likely to strike again to let back on the streets after their prison terms are over...

Frustrated that the Democrat-controlled Assembly repeatedly blocked civil-confinement legislation, Pataki late last year ordered his administration to "push the envelope" in keeping sex offenders deemed dangerous locked up by using existing law pertaining to the involuntary commitment the mentally ill.

Creating a new facility, which would open in 2009, would allow the mental-health system to keep dangerous sex offenders whose prison terms expire away from nonviolent mentally ill patients, Pataki said.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the governor is "putting the cart before the horse" since the state does not yet have a civil-confinement law on the books. "It's interesting he's prepared to spend money to build yet another prison, but not engage in the kind of evaluation, monitoring, supervision and treatment of high-risk offenders that all the experts agree can significantly reduce the risk or incidents of reoffense," Lieberman said.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the sex offenders now in mental facilities were grilled yesterday by the panel of Manhattan appellate-division judges who are deciding on the constitutionality of the civil commitments. The inmates' lawyers argue that Pataki is doing an end run around the corrections commitment procedures by having the inmates' dangerousness evaluated by state doctors - essentially the governor's own shills. [emphasis added].

okay, i know the story comes from the post, but here's what catches my eye as a sociologist and criminologist:

1. dehumanizing language - isn't the term "sex offender" stigmatizing enough? does the post really need to refer to individuals convicted of sexual crimes as "pervs" or perverts? the term is gratuitous and really imprecise to boot.

2. "after their prison terms are over" - the proposed prison is not for people serving prison sentences, but for those who have already done their time. this sort of do-over for the state has generally withstood constitutional scrutiny for sex offenders, but i'm skeptical that it would for anyone else. as the nyclu points out, states could provide evaluation, treatment, and supervision of sex offenders while they are under criminal sentences.

3. "allow the mental health system" - mental health treatment does not appear to be the primary (or secondary or tertiary) motivation here. sex offenders are deemed mentally ill because they are perceived as dangerous and the mental health system offers another avenue for incapacitating them. i would prefer to see long prison sentences of indeterminate duration, rather than a transfer of authority to the mental health system at the conclusion of a shorter sentence.

4. "push the envelope" - governor pataki must be hearkening back to his days as a top gun fighter pilot here. in this case, it sounds as though the "envelope" is the constitutional protections typically afforded criminal defendants. [what else could he mean here?]

5. "evaluated by state doctors" - however well-intentioned, one could easily imagine abuse potential in a system with no independent evaluation of dangerousness.

perhaps this is me just being paranoid -- too much huxley and orwell in middle school or something. are my fears of abuse exaggerated? if so, it is tough to explain a case reported by the minneapolis strib yesterday. in recent years, minnesota has dramatically expanded its use of civil commitment proceedings for "sexually dangerous persons." today the net has widened to the point that it captures people who were never even charged with sex crimes.

Dwayne Peterson, 25, of Mankato, Minn., has never been convicted of a sex offense or even charged with one. But after completing a prison term for kidnapping a 78-year-old man at gunpoint in 2001, he now sits in the Security Hospital in St. Peter pending civil court proceedings to commit him indefinitely to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program as a sexually dangerous person. Peterson wouldn't be the first of the nearly 300 men confined under the program -- from which no one has ever been permanently released -- to be committed without a prior sex-crime conviction. [emphasis added]

at age 25, mr. peterson has completed his court-imposed sentence. it is no exaggeration to say that he may now spend the rest of his life behind bars for a crime that was never even brought to trial. if the allegations (of sexual activity with boys) had been brought to trial, he would almost certainly be acquitted. according to his attorney, there are "no corroborating victim-witnesses for Peterson's accounts."

in minnesota, as in new york, i remain convinced that the goals of such commitment proceedings are incapacitation and retribution rather than rehabilitation or treatment. the fact that none of the 300 men confined under the program has ever been released suggests as much, though i should point out that i am no expert on the inner workings of this system and have never even visited these facilities. nevertheless, i have to ask whether it is good public policy to transfer authority from the criminal justice system to the mental health system in such cases.

just to be clear, i am not suggesting lighter sentences for sex offenders. i'm just as creeped out by the lurid description of sex crimes reported in these stories as everyone else. but i'm also creeped out by the hopeless constitutional no-man's land in which we place individuals convicted of these acts -- or simply suspected of these acts, in the case of mr. peterson. personally, i'm a believer in old-school discretionary parole and indeterminate sentences within the criminal justice system. some will turn out much longer and some will turn out much shorter than the current mandatories. this system was also subject to abuse, of course, but it seems subject to greater reform and oversight than the far slipperier civil commitment procedures we employ today.

Monday, January 16, 2006

admitted suburbanite

i was born in st. paul, minnesota but grew up in the inner-ring suburb of west st. paul -- onetime home of hamburger philanthropist joan kroc, oddly coiffed politician harold stassen, and polka king "whoopee john" wilfahrt, though none of them lived in my neighborhood. pictured is one of the finer (and actual award-winning!) homes on my boyhood street.*

as a self-confessed and admitted suburbanite, i'm amazed how academics think and talk about suburbs. most of us lament problems of "sprawl," assume a high degree of racial and socioeconomic homogeneity outside the urban core, and generally diss the burbs and our burb-bred students. most strikingly, however, we tend to forget one important fact: more americans now live in suburbs than in cities or rural areas. census 2000 showed that 50 percent of the u.s. population now lives in suburban areas, 30 percent in central cities, and 20 percent in rural areas. suburbs, rather than central cities, accounted for almost all twentieth century metropolitan growth. i thought of this while reading a minneapolis strib opinion piece last week: growth strengthens case for investment. here's the lead:

Minneapolis is growing quite a lot faster than the Metropolitan Council had expected, according to estimates released last week by the city's Community Planning and Economic Development agency. That's good economic news for Minnesota, and it strengthens the case for greater investments in transit and other urban services.

i concur! i'm a big downtown booster and would love to see minneapolis-st. paul grow some sort of transit system, redress inequities in central city housing and schools, and invest further in the arts and city infrastructure. in my opinion, this plays to the region's strengths, its values, and its competitive advantages over other metro areas. i've also noticed condos, albeit expensive condos, shooting up along the river, suggesting a growing housing market. so, i was a little surprised to see the numbers in the next paragraph:

Minneapolis' growth in households is running 20 years ahead of schedule. The city expects to surpass the Met Council's projections for 2030 within the next five years. Depending on the size of those new households, the city expects a population of somewhere between 417,000 and 435,000 by 2010, and expects to surpass 465,000 by 2030.

what? even under the best scenarios, it would take 25 years before the city even got close to the population levels it had when i was a kid in the sixties. meanwhile, the twin cities metro area is booming, approaching three million in population.

the chart plots the populations of minneapolis (in blue), st. paul (in red), and the suburbs surrounding these cities (in black). where's the growth? paralleling national trends, these suburbs now constitute 47 percent of the state population and 75 percent of the metro population, which should increase to 80 percent by 2030. and this only includes the seven-county metro area -- the picture is even more pronounced under census definitions of the metro (thirteen counties) rather than the seven used by the local metropolitan council.

the strib editorial rightly cites the new minneapolis growth numbers to push for redevelopment funding (and hot cutting-edge transit ideas such as streetcars). it seems kind of silly, however, to argue that the new numbers mandate shifting transportation and development monies away from the suburbs, which is the strib's next move:

Many policies, especially on transportation and development, are biased toward the suburban form. New efforts to subvert the eminent domain laws and the Livable Communities Act could, if passed, impede progress in both cities and exacerbate suburban sprawl.

i'd read these numbers as justifying both central city development -- a solid "core" is absolutely critical socially, culturally, and (for me, at least) morally -- and a transportation plan for the (literal) masses who live outside the central cities. such coordination is really the whole point of collaborative organizations such as the met council.

some sociologists and criminologists seem to be thinking about suburbs in a more sophisticated way today, or at least they are somewhat less dismissive than they'd been in the recent past. still, i'd guess that we're about two generations behind novelists such as john updike or filmmakers such as john hughes (or spielberg, for that matter) in making any sense of them culturally. perhaps busing professors in an "academic desegregation" program would spark some research. i'm hoping that someone's writing a sociological dissertation that will nail some aspect of suburban life half as well as fast times at ridgement high or american beauty. the numbers suggest to me that we're missing something big until we do.

*note - my chances of winning an "outstanding property award" for maintenance are just a hair lower than my chances of hitting the powerball. and i've never actually played the powerball.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

oddly, they prefer the party that isn't trying to disenfranchise them

rick ruddell sends word of voting in canadian prisons on friday. incarcerated citizens have been eligible to vote in that nation since 2002, when the supreme court of canada ruled that barring prisoners from voting was contrary to the canadian charter of rights and freedoms. according to ctv, about 25 percent of 35,000 eligible prisoners were expected to cast ballots.

the story quotes conservative leader steven harper as saying, "no, I don't agree with prisoner voting." manitoba inmate jeff power (shown in the ctv photo at left) shaved a maple leaf and liberal 'L' into the side of his head. "We're all voting for the Liberals, just because we want to keep our vote."

here in the states, i'd imagine the republicans would adopt the canadian conservative position and the democrats would be ... skittish. only maine and vermont permit prisoners to vote today and the u.s. supreme court has generally permitted states to disenfranchise prison inmates, probationers, parolees, and even former felons who have completed their sentences.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

soctalk january 17 and lawtalks january 28

here's an update on a minntalk this week and a small minnconference (minnminiconference?) next week:

1. i'm speaking with shelly schaefer on voting and the civic reintegration of former prisoners this tuesday as part of the sociology department workshop series. this one was bumped last semester for a really impressive roster of job candidates. the workshops are held in 1109 social sciences from 4-5:15 and all are welcome.

2. those interested in racial disparities in punishment and felon voting research might be more interested in silenced voices: the constitutionality and legality of felon disenfranchisement provisions on saturday, january 28 at the university of minnesota law school. law school professor carl warren is organizing the conference as part of the national civil rights moot court competition, which this year will examine johnson v. bush. all are welcome and attendance is free. attorneys can even get continuing legal education credit* if they contact the organizers in advance.

this should be really good -- i know i'll learn a lot. marc mauer of the sentencing project and race to incarcerate will be speaking on racial disparities. i'm especially eager to meet rep. keith ellison, who has introduced legislation to reenfranchise probationers and parolees. other speakers include catherine weiss of the brennan center, art eisenberg of the nyclu, and gary dickey, counsel and advisor to iowa governor tom vilsack. i'll be doing an overview in the morning session, which will overlap with my department talk. events will be held at the minnesota law school from 9-3, but i don't have the specific rooms yet. here's the tentative schedule:

9:00 a.m. to 9:10 a.m.
Welcome and brief description of the facts and procedural posture of Johnson v. Governor of State of Florida, 405 F. 3d 1214 (11th Cir. 2005).

9:10 a.m. to 9:50 a.m.
Overview: Felon Disenfranchisement and Democracy.
Prof. Christopher Uggen, Associate Chair, University of Minnesota, Department of Sociology.

9:50 a.m. to Noon.
Silenced Voices
Panelists will examine the legal, constitutional, societal and policy-making implications of felon disenfranchisement provisions; measures that have been taken to address them, e.g. executive orders, legislation; and litigation that has challenged them, e.g. Johnson v. Governor of State of Florida; ­Muntaqim v. Coombe­­, 366 F. 3d 102 (2nd Cir. 2004) and Farrakhan v. Washington, 338 F. 3d 1009 (9th Cir. 2003). The panel will consist of:

  • Catherine Weiss, Associate Counsel, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The Brennan Center represents the plaintiff’s class in the Johnson v. Governor of State of Florida;
  • Art Eisenberg Litigation Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. The NYCLU submitted an Amicus brief in support of the Plaintiff’s position in ­Muntaqim v. Coombe­­;
  • Rep. Keith Ellison of the Minnesota House of Representatives. The author of legislation to restore the voting rights of people who have been convicted of felonies and who are on probation or parole;
  • Gary Dickey, Jr., General Counsel and Policy Advisor to Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa who by executive order restored the voting rights of ex-felons in Iowa;
  • Marc Mauer, Executive Director, Sentencing Project, Washington DC; and
  • Clinical Prof. Carl M. Warren, faculty advisor to the University of Minnesota Law School’s Wm. E. McGee National Civil Rights Moot Court Competition, will moderate the panel.

Noon to 1:00 p.m.

1:00 p.m. to 1:45 p.m.
Catherine Weiss , Esq. will discuss the standards and appropriate legal analysis of the 14th Amendment and Voting Rights Act issues in Johnson v. Governor of State of Florida.

1:45 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.
Marc Mauer author of ­Race To Incarcerate and Invisible Punishment will examine the staggering racial disparity in incarceration.

*5.6 hours of continuing legal education and judicial education credits (4.6 hours regular credit and 1.0 hours of Elimination of Bias credit) are available.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

i'm not a real badass but i play one in my memoirs

james frey is under siege for fabricating big chunks of his monster-selling memoir, a million little pieces. the minneapolis strib had questioned his accounts of surgery without anesthesia and a northwest airlines flight in which he was bleeding, with a hole in his cheek, and covered with "a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood." as the smoking gun reports, frey represented the memoir as non-fiction but, to put it charitably, seems to have seriously exaggerated his experiences. here's the short version:

"When recalling criminal activities, looming prison sentences, and jailhouse rituals, Frey writes with a swaggering machismo and bravado that absolutely crackles. Which is truly impressive considering that, as TSG discovered, he made much of it up. The closest Frey has ever come to a jail cell was the few unshackled hours he once spent in a small Ohio police headquarters waiting for a buddy to post $733 cash bond."

i think we should give folks a little wiggle-room on their memoirs, so i feel bad for mr. frey. of course, misrepresenting one's criminal history probably seems like a pathetic way to do masculinity, at least for those over 25. still, i won't deny the seductions of embellishing such experiences. my juvenile delinquency students know that i'll sometimes refer to my experiences in the system. i've never hidden the fact that i was arrested several times at 16 and 17 (mostly for fighting and disorderly conduct) or that i had sleepovers in jails and other secure facilities. it can be useful in showing the discrepancy between the clean flow-chart picture of the system in textbooks and the messy experience of things like juvenile intake from a kid's perspective. but whenever i feel any semblance of "swaggering machismo" in telling such stories, i know i'm starting to embellish -- because it was never like that.

the first and most important reality checks are that i never did time (and certainly not hard time in a state penitentiary), that i've only seen prisons as a visitor or professor, and that i felt and was perceived as a nerd at the time or, more charitably, a hipster doofus or confused kid rather than a badass or tough guy. my guess is that frey has a similar history. this is important because the real badasses sniff out a phony in a second. when i interview men and women in prison, i represent myself as a dork professor rather than someone who has "been there." even if i wanted to sell myself as an ex-con, i couldn't pull it off. similarly, none of my publications on crime make any mention of my own history -- i'm not embarrassed, it is just way too "thin" to be of any use. it certainly affects the kinds of questions i ask and the perspectives i adopt, but it would be the height of phoniness to trade on it.

also, the memory plays tricks. for example, i think i was arrested at 17 for stupidly attacking a bouncer at the cabooze, right down cedar avenue from my current office in minneapolis. if i were writing an account of the evening for my memoirs (or blog, i suppose), it would be tempting to embellish this "fight" (which was probably over in 2.4 seconds) as some sort of gladiator-style struggle and half-remember all sorts of details from all sorts of sources. just like mr. frey, i could see myself writing about being covered with "a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood." after 24 years, though, all i can really remember is that the band was wilma and the wilburs. i think i was handcuffed for a long time that night/morning and that it hurt, but that could have been a different night altogether. if the smoking gun investigated my blogoirs, they might discover that it was bullwinkles rather than the cabooze or, worse, that i was not arrested in hennepin county that night (hmm. was it ryan's in ramsey county?).

i'm thinking about embellishment because my son is now a wrestler and musician -- two activities that i explored at 14 too. i thought i was a pretty scrappy wrestler, but had to ask my dad whether i was really any good at it (verdict: fought like hell, but lost as much as i won). i know that i was never a good guitar player ("scrappy" probably applies here as well), though i'm sometimes tempted to embellish my experiences or abilities here too. my delinquent history hasn't really been questioned, though those who knew me at 16 love my little joke about preparing a lifetime to "teach a course in juvenile delinquency."

so, even if mr. frey was never the badass of a million little pieces, he probably had some experiences that were something like the events described in the book. or maybe they were stories he heard in treatment. why do we embellish our deviance? hmmm. edwin lemert noted long ago (1951) that rewards as well as penalties derive from deviant roles. rw connell explains the general swagger and jack katz explicated the specific ways of the badass. now that he's apparently been busted, the arc of frey's story fits goffman's (1961) sad tale, and shadd maruna's redemption scripts might help us figure out his next move.

prediction: his next book is gonna be huge.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

far-flung applications of sociological research

i recently received an email from the homeland security institute, a federally funded interdisciplinary think tank for the department of homeland security. they did not ask me to keep the request confidential, so i'll reproduce the main text here:

We are currently working on a project for the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security, in which we are cataloging consequence assessment tools/methodologies/suites in an attempt to assess those that have homeland security applications. Political Consequences Methodology has been selected for inclusion into our report. Since this report impinges on matters of national security, we are attempting to make all information as accurate as possible. Would you be so kind as to fill in the table provided and return it to me at the email address below?

the questions in the table seemed designed for researchers who had developed software or other tools far beyond anything i've done (i.e., geographical information systems stuff). i had never thought of my felon voting project with jeff as having homeland security applications, so i don't know why this project was selected. i just did my best with the table and returned it to the institute. the national science foundation funded the research and i'm glad to provide any information i can about it.

i've always sought to do "engaged" scholarship that would somehow be useful. once the work is public, however, i'm always surprised at how it is used. for example, the republican party in washington cited my work in challenging a closely-contested democratic victory. i've heard anecdotally that my study showing job training success among older ex-prisoners was used to cut funding for job training among younger ex-prisoners, which wasn't quite what i'd intended. still, i'm happy as long as the work provides decent social facts that allow for better informed decisions, even if the outcome isn't consistent with my preferences as a citizen. in this case, i'd like to think that the institute's interests have something to do with protecting the integrity of national elections, though i can, of course, think of less virtuous reasons.

when i was just out of college, some of my other work was put to far-flung purposes. i was 22 and working in a madison social service agency when i helped develop software to track the employment and training experiences of people on public assistance. when wisconsin-style "welfare reform" went national, ibm and some locals tried to market the software to all sorts of organizations (including, as i recall, fire departments). i felt a little cheated that i didn't get paid on that venture, since i was making about seven dollars per hour when i did the screen shots with the coders. to be fair, the ibm folks did buy me a nice lunch at pedro's (mmm...chimi) and say nice things about me to my boss.

of course, i'm relieved i didn't have to kill myself rewriting code to somehow satisfy the poor fire department that actually bought the software. i guess the lesson here is mostly caveat emptor for those using our research. still, public sociologists and criminologists would do well to heed warnings of caveat venditor as well.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

mr. rawls

lou rawls died yesterday. best tribute? frank sinatra opining that mr. rawls had the "silkiest chops in the singing game." sweet.

there's a fine obituary in the chicago tribune this morning detailing his south side origins, a childhood singing gospel with the likes of sam cooke, a musical career that spanned generations, his profound commitment to making a difference beyond said musical career, and his spectacular success raising funds for the united negro college fund. According to the tribute on his website, "nothing lit Lou's eyes more than meeting the doctors, lawyers, architects, etc., who had benefited from scholarships as a result of his telethons and other fundraising activities for the UNCF."

for some reason lou rawls had been on my mind for the past week or so. a few scattered memories:

(1) i never use a microphone when i'm lecturing, but love to fool with a hot mic whenever one is set up in a large lecture hall. undergrads in such courses are generally subjected to a few sonorous but less-than-silky bars of rawls' you'll never find ... another love like mine. rawls comes to mind rather than, say, jim morrison or kurt cobain, because i tend to wear a suit in lecture -- and mr. rawls always looked sharp onstage.

(2) i only saw him perform once, at the former carlton celebrity room in the early 1980s. [you might know the celebrity room from the coen brothers' fargo, as the putatively "classy" place steve buscemi takes his "date."] i wasn't expecting much, but had gone because a friend was an old-school soul player. i walked in all sarcastic, but walked out a believer.

(3) aside from sinatra and the united negro college fund, the best lou rawls tribute i know is that he made detergent commericals sound cool. check out these sixties-era cold power spots from april winchell's site: "dirt don't seem to jive with cold power," or with mr. rawls.