Chris Uggen's Blog: June 2012

Monday, June 18, 2012

beautiful finish / good to be chair

I issued my parting email as department chair this weekend, thanking my colleagues for their tremendous support and goodwill during my six years in office. I'm looking forward to much rejoicing and transitioning in the next days and weeks, as well as a ceremonial passing of the boomerang to my terrific new boss.

A chair's day is always full of surprises, but today's was especially welcome: when I opened my office door this morning, there was an actual finish line blocking my path. I've run more than 25 marathons, but (unlike certain Minnesota graduate students) I've never actually broken the tape. The tape is rumored to exist, but it must get trampled long before I enter the chute with the other slow-moving cattle. While I wouldn't disturb this finish line until I'd gotten a picture, I immediately draped the accompanying race medal (below) around my neck.

I've avoided airing department laundry in this space, but I'm sharing the message and pictures in hopes that the finish line image might hearten a current chair or two. I've loved my time as department chair, but there's nothing more beautiful than the sight of a finish line.

Friends and colleagues,

The College recently moved the official chair transition date from July 1 to June 18, so my two terms as chair are wrapping up this weekend. We are incredibly fortunate to have a colleague as accomplished, principled, and purposeful as Liz Boyle taking the reins Monday morning. Liz is a remarkable leader and she has assembled an outstanding team. She follows in the tradition of Ron Aminzade, Candace Kruttschnitt, and Dave Knoke -- all brilliant scholars who took time from their research and teaching to serve the department as chair. Before leaving office, I wanted to send a quick public thanks to the scholarly community that has been so supportive and accomplished over the past six years. In keeping with my research interests, I’ve also been tempted to grant a few pardons (e.g., for befouling the microwave or hoarding Teaching Resources Center materials), but I’m still a bit cautious about overstepping my authority.

Chairs accomplish nothing on their own (though we can *certainly* screw things up – a cruel asymmetry), but we have accomplished much together. Like what? Well, we are a significantly more diverse department today than we were in 2006; we have raised literally millions of dollars to support our faculty and students; our grant activity and research assistantships are at all-time highs; we are publishing field-shaping research in the best venues (with graduate students often leading the way); we maintain strong undergraduate programs with indefatigable student leadership; and, our tremendous staff makes all this possible with their grace, dedication, and good humor. There is much, much room for improvement, of course, but on this there can be no argument: we have truly exceptional people here doing truly exceptional work – and the whole of our community is more powerful than the sum of our individually-impressive parts.

Visitors often help chairs see their departments in new ways. This spring, a publisher told me he saw Minnesota as “the model post-culture wars, post-methods wars sociology department for the next century.” I cannot imagine a better, or more fitting, compliment and aspiration. A couple years back, another Big-10 chair wrote, “The dean told me that as our department thinks about rebuilding, we should envision our dream department, and for me, that dream department is Minnesota…I’d love to pick your brain.” And, in our external review a few years before that, we were called a “top-tier department with a fine record of research productivity, a vibrant intellectual community, and an impressive record of service … well-positioned to become one of the leading departments in the nation.” We fared less well in the 2005 NRC sociology rankings, due in part to the NRC’s curious minimization of publications in book form, but we’ve consistently been strong in other evaluations, ranking among the nation’s top 20 graduate sociology departments. More importantly, whenever Minnesota graduate students hit the road to give talks, we almost always hear that their creativity, vision, knowledge, and passion “blew away” the audience in the host department.

While the great recession and associated budget dramas certainly presented their challenges, they also revealed the strength of our scholarly community. We successfully resisted staff cutbacks, we supported our graduate students as they entered an uncertain job market, and we retained our truly distinctive and mutually supportive department culture. My favorite indicator of the latter comes from watching how we celebrate the success of our colleagues or fellow students. Even under conditions of scarcity, Minnesota has had far fewer of the petty jealousies and resentments that have hamstrung other programs.

I only have faint memories of faculty life Before Chair, but the happiest involve geeking out with our brilliant students. I’m now comfortably ensconced in my old 11th-floor faculty office -- within easy geeking distance of several advisees. I owe a special debt to these students for their patience as I’ve bumped their appointments for closed-door department matters the past six years. I also owe a big honking debt for the heroic efforts of those on the department’s administrative and leadership teams. I won’t name names, but their behind-the-scenes counsel provided a much-needed corrective to my own energies and impulses – with the best possible impact for the department. But every graduate student and member of our staff and faculty has made some extraordinary contribution to our collective well-being over the past six years. I have been honored to share so closely in your efforts and I offer my sincere thanks for your support during my time as chair.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

feeling it

photo by
Whenever this site goes quiet for a time, perceptive friends like Brother Shadd reach out to say, "We worry when you go on walkabout, you know." Since they often reflect the author's particular sensibility, personal blogs and columns tend to be emotion-sensitive, if not emotion-driven. When something heavy comes along in their lives, authors either fake it (All is well!), embrace it (posting Reflections from That Sad Guy), ignore it (Damn the Torpedoes!), or bag it (take a hiatus).

I generally favor the latter approach when I'm not feeling it for a spell or there's just too much other work to do. Though I appreciate a good wallow as much as the next person, I do my wallowin' on the running trails or in the basement, amidst dusty books and tube amplifiers.*

Things are actually going quite well for me, but someone close to me has really been struggling. This means, of course, that things aren't going well for me at all. When the pain of another becomes your pain, I suppose, love's terrible gob-smacking power is revealed and made manifest. For an emotionally constipated Scandinavian-American like me, it is actually bracing to feel love and empathy so strongly -- in the same way, I suppose, that being dangled by the ankles from a 50-story building might sharpen one's appreciation for life.

All of this is to say that I'm fine (at least in the Minnesota sense of that word), that I'm still writing at TSP and pubcrim, and that my personal posts here may continue to be bit spotty this summer. That said, along with my usual half-baked thoughts on running, music, and social science, I'm planning a few quarter-baked transition pieces -- about the empty-nester experience as Esperanza leaves for college, about reentry to civilian life after two terms as department chair, about shifting from Contexts editor to TSP publisher, and, perhaps, about some new research directions forthcoming in American Journal of Sociology and American Sociological Review this summer. So, thanks for reaching out. As long as folks keep visiting, I'll keep writing.

*Dusty tube amplifiers make for warm companions. When you switch on a long-neglected amp, the hot tubes cook the dust and glow purple, filling the room with the scent of hot glass and Bakelite and a low hum that crackles like popcorn.