Chris Uggen's Blog: November 2010

Saturday, November 27, 2010

did you think I was going to hang myself for littering?

Arlo Guthrie, whose Alice's Restaurant is dished up like cranberry sauce each Thanksgiving, finally made the Macy's parade this year. The protracted protest anthem tells the story of Mr. Guthrie's 1965 littering arrest, as detailed in this uncredited and unsourced account:

The lyrics tell the tale of how this trivial criminal event emerges as a major issue at the draft induction center, with Mr. Guthrie ultimately asking, "you want to know if I'm moral enough to join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein' a litterbug?" So, while there was plenty of humor and good fun in the song, it packed a real punch.

The story is well-told and still engages audiences, but the status politics of garbage dumping have changed a lot in forty-five years. When it comes to dumping busloads of garbage down hillsides, contemporary hippie kids might sympathize more with Officer Obie's strict environmental protection than with their smiling sixties-era counterparts.

As I recall from my own freshman year, the film version was considerably sadder, slower, and uglier than the song. But I still like the following clip and could imagine using it for a class exercise on changing environmental norms:

Friday, November 26, 2010

gettin' ready

Most academics dismiss self-help books, even when they're built on a decent research foundation. I think that's part of the reason we tend to fold so quickly when we try to make changes in our lives. Despite our erudition, we just don't do our homework. I guess I'd probably be dismissive too, if I didn't spend so much of my research time studying how prisoners and heavy drug users go about making changes.

With resolution season approaching, I thought I'd share a bit from Mark Groberski's summary in a Minnversity wellness magazine.  The point of this post is that most of us need a ramp-up to make changes that last, so get ready now if you're thinking about trying to change any behavior in January. Mr. Groberski's article is based on Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente's model of the stages of change, taken from their Changing for Good (1994):

1. Pre-contemplation - Not seriously considering change, but gaining awareness or concern.
2. Contemplation - Self-examination, thinking about rewards and costs of change.
3. Preparation - Getting ready to commit to change, making concrete and realistic plans.
4. Action - Making the change and working the plan.
5. Maintenance - Sustaining change, consolidating gains, and integrating into lifestyle.

It might seem silly to make a big deal about a move from "pre-contemplation" to "contemplation" but this is the difference between thinking "I should probably lose a little weight" and asking "what would I have to give up to keep the weight off?" Most of us just dive right in -- going directly from "pre-contemplation" to "action." Here's what happened in summer 2009, when I tried to lose a few pounds:

I lost five or six pounds in the first couple months but found them again in winter, ending up right back where I started. And that's pretty much what always happened for me. Last fall, however, I took the ideas of "contemplation" and "preparation" more seriously, working through some of the potential costs and benefits and actually writing out a plan.

Feeling sluggish intellectually and physically, I was motivated to do something about it. I decided to quit drinking (for lots of reasons, but the winter ales were certainly not conducive to weight loss), carve out a regular weeknight exercise time, change some of my worst habits, and start putting basic diet and exercise data into a daily spreadsheet.

The preparation stage involved finding substitute foods (e.g., fruit and nuts rather than chips) and drinks (e.g., pomegranate juice and diet root beer rather than beer and wine) and considering how much exercise I could realistically expect when the temperature dropped below zero. It also meant considering new ways of dealing with stress and social events -- how do I handle big deadlines, professional disappointments, or bad days at the office? who should I hang out with at university events and professional meetings?

By January 1, I felt like I had a reasonable handle on what to expect, so I took it up a notch, from preparation to "action." The results for 2010 have been better, so far:
The combination of changes in eating, drinking, and exercising made it easier to get off to a fast start in January and February and the plan has worked pretty well throughout the year. I've been in maintenance mode since the first week of October, when I had my last race of the season, but know that maintenance will be tough through the winter.

Of course, I'm just one foot injury from extreme exercise deprivation and I realize that most weight loss is eventually regained. If and when I find myself back at 200 pounds with a Winter Ale in my hand, I'll likely proceed as I did this time -- thinking seriously about what I might gain and lose and making a plan before making change. Even if you don't buy the self-help approach to making changes that last, it shouldn't be so hard to believe that good preparation is linked to success, here as elsewhere.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

elizabeth cook, details, and degrumpification

When I drydocked the ol' Lincoln for repairs a few weeks ago, I scarcely missed the car but I sorely missed the stereo. That's because the radio station rotation on my morning commute just wasn't the same without at least a brief stop by Elizabeth Cook's Apron Strings on Sirius 63.

Ms. Cook is a sharp-witted observer who tends to keep on the sunny side, which makes her an excellent dj for grumpy commuters. She's also got an eye for the telling details that bring a song or story to life. I was no star in my Wizversity writing courses, but I learned that it was just as easy -- and much more evocative -- to put a character at, say, "the Crystal Corner Bar" than "the bar."

I'm always haranguing my students for more details in their writing, often in increasingly insistent margin notes on their papers. As one now-quite-successful professor reminded me last week, I once offered him comments like this, hand-drawn in a tortured scrawl:

p. 2 "This is vague."
p. 4 "How does it 'matter'?"
p. 7 "Be specific here."
p. 11 "What the h* are you talking about?"
p. 13 "is different than? Different?!" 
p. 15 "WTF?"
p. 15b "Come ON, man!"
p. 16 "This is still F*ing VAGUE!" 

But I digress. Unlike most songwriters and social scientists, Elizabeth Cook will never be void for vagueness and she finds images far more evocative than the Crystal Corner. Here's a serious one and a goofy one, with spare performances to draw out the words a little.

Heroin Addict Sister

El Camino

Monday, November 22, 2010

press reports and flyin' shoes

I've been getting some (mostly) positive press attention lately, so I'm sort of waiting for the other Red Wing 3508 Steel Toe Work Boot to drop. At the risk of navel-gazing, here's a quick rundown:

College Report. There's been thoughtful coverage of our CLA 2015 report to reshape the College of Liberal Arts, with strong features in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Minnesota Daily, Minnesota Public Radio, and notes in the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed. Jenna Ross' terrific Strib article generated especially provocative reader comments.
Other shoe. We're glad the report isn't gathering dust and it is nice to hear good things about our writing and analysis. That said, implementation decisions will ultimately determine whether we've been a beacon, a burden, or a complete nonentity -- and that's a job that's largely out of our hands.

Personal Profile. Adam Overland turned our fun and wide-ranging conversation into a really smart and friendly profile, touching on felon voting research, Contexts, administrative work, and even this blog.
Other shoe. My only regret is that I borrowed a friend's fine phrase without attribution. Jeremy Freese was first to describe his blogging source material as "cognitive runoff," so I can't take credit for that apt and creative descriptor. Sorry, Jeremy.

Felon Voting. My disenfranchisement research with Jeff Manza and friends is in the news again.
Other shoe. Michael Thielen, director of the Republican National Lawyers Association, referred to me as "Liberal, pro-felon vote advocate University of Minnesota criminologist Christopher Uggen." Hmmm. Adam Overland's profile tells the story of how we came to make policy recommendations on this issue. We initially planned to close the book with a just-the-facts public opinion poll, but were convinced by the weight of the evidence to advocate extending voting rights (writing op-eds in the LA Times and Newsday, academic policy pieces and legislative testimony). So, I take issue with attaching that "liberal" modifier. Unless, of course, Mr. Thielen uses the word in the sense of our CLA 2015 report: Justice and equality; belief and truth; the beauty or expressive power of the written word, a work of art, or a musical passage—these are how we find a life worth living and search for its meaning. These are the liberal arts in the 21st century. I guess I'd cop to liberal in that sense of the word.

Watch out for those flyin' shoes...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

running from waymore to wallace stevens

There's nothing like a hard winter run when a body wakes up feeling lonesome, on'ry and mean. Tramping through a foot of wet snow just has a way of drawing out the toxins.

I slogged through a few sour and defiant miles today, before eventually finding a pace and seeing things a little more clearly. The exercise put me in the (winter) mind of Wallace Stevens' observant Snow Man -- a single supercooled sentence in five perfect tercets:

The Snow Man (1921)

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

on a scale from one to five-O

Yahoo News reported on a study by media-research company Experian Simmons today. I couldn't find any methodological details about the study and cannot vouch for its accuracy, but it presented the listing below, purporting to show how political partisanship is linked to preferences for various television programs.

Not surprisingly, Glenn Beck ranks high among Republican viewers and low among Democrats, with Keith Olbermann's Countdown showing the opposite pattern. Yet some of the other patterns are more intriguing, with critically acclaimed cable-only shows like Mad Men garnering far higher ratings among Democrats, and highly-rated network programs generally doing better among Republicans. [I can only guess about the precise metric here, but it looks as though scores are standardized such that an average rating would be scored at 100.]

To get a better sense for the story the data might tell, I arrayed the shows and ratings from left to right by the ratio of Democratic to Republican scores. In this figure, it is easy to spot the "purple middle" represented by programs such as Desperate Housewives, Dancing with the Stars, and The Mentalist.

I wouldn't draw any inferences from the bivariate association shown in the chart. It would be fun (or at least "fun" in the classroom exercise sense of the word) to ask a social statistics or methodology class to identify potential confounders and sources of spuriousness here -- at minimum, I suspect that age, gender, race, and urban residence would be associated with both viewing habits and partisanship. That is, it might be the case that the Mad Men or 30 Rock crowd is not so much Democrat as young, urban, and female.

As a criminologist, I'm fascinated by portrayals of the criminal justice system -- specifically, the extent to which they adopt a "crime control" or "due process" model of law enforcement. I'd guess that Democrats would be more likely to favor crime dramas that nod to "due process" concerns (e.g., Law & Order), but I've never seen a study documenting such preferences. Most shows, in fact, lean heavily toward crime control portrayals, with rogue officers routinely taking all manner of head-busting liberties with suspects.

For example, I recently caught an episode of the new Hawaii Five-O and was surprised to see the heroic detectives toss a witness (a witness!) into a shark tank, just to loosen his tongue a bit. Despite Five-O's silly portrayal of police work, stilted dialogue, and cheesy acting, I'd still rate it highly -- that theme song remains irresistable.

Monday, November 08, 2010

the big hairy college committee

I've spent about a year co-chairing a big hairy audacious college committee to make recommendations about current budget cuts and future priorities. This morning we're sharing our final report with all the students, faculty, and staff in the college, and anybody else who might take an interest. I'm not sure how our numerous goals and recommendations will be received, but the effort has been personally rewarding and, at times, even inspiring.

Our college of about 16,700 students and 550 faculty is diverse and consultative, with an emphasis on transparency. These are wonderful attributes in a college, of course, but they do keep committees busy.* When the dean asked me to serve, he read a list of the 30 names and affiliations of the committee members, spanning the full range of humanities, arts, and social sciences. My first reaction, which seemed to delight him, was that, "These people don't agree with each other at all." Plus, they were multitudes, with enormous differences in status and power -- so much so that we'd sometimes use classroom clickers to make sure that everybody could be heard.

As it turns out, I shouldn't have worried so much about whether everyone on the big hairy committee agreed with one another. Instead of advocating narrowly on behalf of their departments or units, the members seemed to check their affiliations at the door -- even in high-stakes conversations and debates. People generally just rolled up their sleeves and got to work, with everyone orienting toward some vision of  the common good of the college. While these visions were not always in perfect alignment, we avoided the sort of internecine conflict that one might expect among folks acting on behalf of their home departments or units. For me, at least, it was inspiring to witness so many smart people doing such difficult work so civic-mindedly.

*For example, being consultative and transparent meant sharing our draft reports as we were writing them and quite a few meetings with stakeholders. In just the past two weeks, we've met with the associate deans, chief financial officer, chief of staff, chief information officer, and director of alumni relations; the department chairs and center directors; the budget advisory committee and the curriculum, instruction, and advising committee; the professional and administrative board; the administrators forum; the undergraduate student board; and, graduate student representatives on college and university committees.

Friday, November 05, 2010

between the bars

Josh Beckman sends word that Charlie DeTar and friends have developed a prison blogging platform, with support from MIT's Center for Future Civic Media. The description:

Between the Bars is a weblog platform for prisoners, through which the 1% of America which is behind bars can tell their stories. Since prisoners are routinely denied access to the Internet, we enable them to blog by scanning letters. We aim to provide a positive outlet for creativity, a tool to assist in the maintenance of social safety nets, an opportunity to forge connections between prisoners and non-prisoners, and a means to promote non-criminal identities and personal expression. We hope to improve prisoner's lives, and help to reduce recidivism.

It felt good to see how they used one of our civic reintegration articles, since this sort of public criminology and civic reintegration project goes way beyond anything we might have envisioned. Amazing stuff. I even like the project title, which brings to mind still another interpretation of an especially evocative Elliott Smith lyric.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

an easy listening version of Jeffrey Alexander's new article?

I'd been wondering why web editor Jon Smajda was making like Easy Reader lately, ambling around the office with his nose in a book. Turns out, the Office Hours podcast lab is experimenting with an audiobook format, in which listeners can hear Jon read Jeffrey Alexander's new Contexts article "Heroes, Presidents, and Politics" in its entirety. If you like, let us know. And if you aren't a regular listener, you might stop by to hear the wicked-good new interviews with U.S. Census Director Robert Groves, Juliet Schor, Jeremy Freese, and a cavalcade of star social scientists.