Some thoughts on Goffman’s On the Run

After initially receiving mostly adulatory press (which it continues to receive, including a Malcolm Gladwell essay in the current New Yorker), the sociologist Alice Goffman’s urban ethnography On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City has started also to receive more negative attention. At the New York Times, Alex Kotlowitz raised some tentative ethical concerns in an otherwise positive notice; at Slate, Dwayne Betts sharply critiqued the book’s simplifications, in his view, of urban communities, while also wondering about the evidentiary support for some of its empirical claims; and most recently, at The New Inquiry, Christina Sharpe has called into question the morality of the entire project, positioning it within the history of “a sociological tradition that subjects black life to scholarly scrutiny” and, more specifically, within West Philadelphia’s “long and contentious history” with the University of Pennsylvania. (Goffman began researching the project as a Penn undergrad.)

I read the book earlier this summer and thought it might be useful to round up some of the marginal notes I made into a blog post (some of which I think I also discussed or referenced on Twitter while I was reading, although certainly not comprehensively). I should say that I found the early press around the book off-putting, insofar as the media lavishly praised Goffman for having the audacity to spend a few years in a neighborhood that plenty of people just, well, live in, and insofar as this coverage trafficked in the shock appeal of a young white woman living among black men, which is to say, trafficked in any number of longstanding white supremacist tropes, whether intentionally or otherwise. Still, those were issues with the coverage, not the book itself, and given the attention it’s received, and given that my academic focus encompasses criminal justice and policing, I figured it was something I should read, whatever I ended up making of it.  Continue reading Some thoughts on Goffman’s On the Run

Some links & quick thoughts on today’s California death penalty ruling

Federal district judge Cormac Carney ruled today that California’s death penalty, as carried out (or more accurately, as not carried out), violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. You can read Judge Carney’s ruling here. (Update: Here’s a thorough overview from the SF Chronicle‘s excellent legal reporter, Bob Egelko.)

Some links, context, and quick thoughts:

Continue reading Some links & quick thoughts on today’s California death penalty ruling

Our Invisible, Very Important State Constitutions

[insert here the usual, “this was written quickly” disclaimer]

Today, a California trial court judge issued a tentative opinion declaring that California’s particular K-12 teacher tenure statutes violate particular provisions of the California state constitution. The opinion won’t be final for 30 days and thereafter will be appealed to both an intermediate appellate court and presumably the state supreme court. Also, even were some version of the ruling to stand, the California legislature can always try to amend the tenure statutes to comport with its requirements (as education historian Ethan Hutt noted on Twitter). So, an end to tenure in California? Not necessarily, and certainly not yet! But certainly an interesting case to continue watching.

Meanwhile, here is how CNN reported the opinion. First there’s this just entirely inaccurate teaser on its homepage:

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Then there’s the actual article, which begins: “A California judge ruled as unconstitutional Tuesday the state’s teacher tenure, dismissal and layoff laws.” Maybe I missed it, but I do not see one place in the entire CNN article where it so much as indicates to the reader, much less clarifies, that the ruling (as almost always with cases involving a right to K-12 education) is rooted in the California state constitution, not the federal Constitution, much less what specific provisions of the California state constitution. Continue reading Our Invisible, Very Important State Constitutions

Some Quick Thoughts on History, Media, and the War on Poverty

Note: I wrote this quickly so please think of it more as an extended tweet than a polished foray 

Whether and how academics should engage with that vague entity known as “the public” has been a topic of much conversation this winter/spring, from Nick Kristof’s ham-handed call for a renewal of the “public intellectual” to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s plea for historians to be more involved in debates about poverty and race. Coates stirred up a lot of back-and-forth in that reality-TV-for-office-workers entertainment known as “the blogosphere” by basically synthesizing some fairly mainstream consensus views of academic historians about white supremacy’s imbrication in American history and political structures, views which apparently (we have now learned) sound scary, radical, and “fatalistic” when translated into the pundit realm but which I can assure you I have encountered from many very far-from-radical, in fact fairly conventional bourgeois university-employed academics, because such views represent the most fitting interpretation of the historical evidence that we currently have uncovered and as we currently understand it (sorry to be a conventional bourgeois empiricist or whatever).

When I read Coates’s plea for historians to be involved in these debates, I had the following reaction: I certainly agree that historians have useful insight to offer (having found historians so insightful that I decided to try and become one), but I also think, as I noted somewhere on Twitter that I can’t find now, that the problem is not that historians are not participating in debates. Historians’ work is out there as much as any academic work is out there (open-access type questions being a separate issue but not one along which I think history meaningfully differs from other disciplines; and if anything, since historians have professional incentives to publish books rather than articles, their work is usually available for purchase or at the library, not locked in secret Elsevier gardens), and moreover, academic history, certainly the literature on twentieth-century American history, tends to be much less jargon- and model-laden than the social sciences, thus should be more accessible. So, I think the problem is not so much access or a lack of participation on historians’  part but more that journalists sometimes have a real resistance to seeing history as a separate domain of expertise, akin to economics or poli sci, rather than just a more esoteric and backwards-looking version of what they do.

Anyway, so I was thinking about all this as I was doing some reading on the War on Poverty the other day, and I want to quickly note how I saw this this journalist-historian divide playing out in that context. Continue reading Some Quick Thoughts on History, Media, and the War on Poverty

An Observation

In the past two years, Chief Justice Roberts has authored two opinions for the Supreme Court in important cases concerning congressional regulation of voting and elections. The first, Shelby County v. Holder, struck down as unconstitutional a key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the statute empowering the federal government to monitor states with a history of racially discriminatory voting procedures. The second, today’s McCutcheon v. FEC, struck down as unconstitutional certain congressional limits on how much money an individual political donor can contribute in any one campaign cycle.

Here are the first two lines that Chief Justice Roberts wrote in these two opinions; see if you can guess which came from which:

The [congressional statute at issue] employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem.

There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.

Which line would you guess had to do with the problem of wealthy campaign donors enjoying privileged access to elected representatives, and which line would you guess had to do with the problem of America’s long and violent history of limiting the franchise by race? Here’s the answer: the first sentence is from Shelby County, and the second is from McCutcheon.

Both cases turned on complex statutory schemes and constitutional doctrines, and I’m not here making any argument about the specific legal issues, holdings, or outcomes. One could agree with the holdings of neither, one, or both cases and still, I think, share my observation that, as a rhetorical matter, the difference in emphasis is striking. “Call me Ishmael,” “Lolita, light of my life,” “Happy families are all alike,” “I am an invisible man”: first sentences matter. The “right [most] basic in our democracy,” the individual “right to participate” — the heart of the Voting Rights Act, the right for which John Lewis had his skull cracked on Alabama’s Pettus Bridge — was not given pride of place in the opening line of Roberts’s Shelby County opinion. It was given pride of place in McCutcheon, a lawsuit brought by an Alabama businessman “who contributed a total of some $33,000 to 16 candidates for federal office in the 2012 election cycle,” and “wanted to give $1,776 each to 12 more” but was legally barred from doing so.

It’s Compassionate

It’s not often that a book is best described as compassionate, but that seems to me the most apt word for It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, recently out from the technology researcher (and lover of lowercase) danah boyd. (The hard copy’s $25, but you can also download a free PDF of the full book at this link, for reasons that boyd explains here.) Adults are often writing about teenagers — how they think teenagers should behave, how they vaguely imagine that teenagers do behave (whether based on a few articles they read or the anecdotal sample of their own children or foggy memories of their own learner’s permit days). It is rarer that adults take the time to talk to teenagers, not merely as fodder for quotes, but as genuine sources of insight into their own lives. What I most admired about It’s Complicated is that it is based on nearly a decade of close observation and interviews with teenagers from a wide array of backgrounds, all around the country — Los Angeles to Nashville, Kansas City to Massachusetts. Not a finding is advanced without a basis in teenagers’ own experiences, and even better, not a finding is advanced without some consideration of the role of race, class, region, and other social variables.  Continue reading It’s Compassionate

“They’re out there–but hard to find.”

So, Yale proclaimed something rather unfortunate on a recent cover of its alumni magazine: “Yale College seeks smart students from poor families. They’re out there–but hard to find.”  (h/t: Rachel Anne Levy on Twitter, who linked to this blog post by Jon Pelto.)

Protip: If you’re describing “smart students from poor families” using a line that any number of B-movie heroes might have said about UFOs, maybe rethink that.

But it’s worth noting that this isn’t solely a case of an unfortunate headline; there are a few problems with the article too as well as the Yale admissions philosophy expressed therein. To that end, I wanted to expand a bit on a few observations I made on Twitter.

Let’s start with the Yale Alumni Magazine‘s choice of author for this piece. Now, I imagine the Yale Alumni Magazine freelance budget isn’t huge, but it’s probably existent, and it’s telling that the magazine handed this story assignment to an ’06 grad who describes himself as a “prep school kid” who drove to Yale in a “Mercedes station wagon” — not, say, the poor roommate he writes about, or (assuming said roommate may not be interested in magazine writing) another alum from a poor background who is pursuing a journalism career. So, even in the very process of publishing an article about outreach to poor kids, Yale is perpetuating privilege through the process of which alum it chose to gift with that article’s byline, resume line, and whatever the freelance paycheck is, however nominal.

But less concretely, the choice of author also suggests (even if inadvertently) whose voice Yale thinks is most important when it comes to addressing issues of poor kids fitting in, or not, at elite institutions. The implicit message is that a poor kid himself — even a poor kid with a Yale degree! — is unlikely to have something insightful to say about this issue, except as mediated through the voice of his rich roommate. Now, that didn’t have to be the implicit message and I certainly don’t mean to imply that a Yale alum from a privileged background couldn’t have written a solid article about class issues at Yale, or even that this article might not appear different had I approached it without the priming effect of that cover, but when you combine the embarrassing cover line, the unfortunate opening anecdote, and the choice of author, it doesn’t add up to a good look.

About that opening anecdote: It sets a really weird tone for the article, implying that a primary virtue of admitting a few poor kids here and there is that they can teach their rich roommates about rural life. The author admits that he’d only ever “glimpsed America’s rural poor … from the windows of swiftly moving vehicles.” But then he had “a swine showman” for a roommate and he learned that they actually had things in common, like “a shared affinity” for the Sony PlayStation. Well, I’ve yet to meet a teenager born in the 1980s who didn’t have at least some affinity for the Sony PlayStation (I myself played a lot of Crash Bandicoot in my day) but call me unimpressed by this touching moment of roommate bonding.

Then, moving on to the meat of the article, there’s this, from Yale’s dean of admissions, Jeremiah Quinlan:

Asked whether yale [sic!] has a duty to craft a student population representative of America, or whether Yale should strive for a concrete quota of low-income students, Quinlan says no on both counts. “Yale is one of the top research institutions and universities in the world,” he says, “with preeminent faculty, incredible graduate and professional schools, astounding libraries, laboratories, and collections. We’re looking for talented students with high aspirations from every background, with every kind of talent, from every kind of high school, every religion, every ethnicity, every family income, and every possible outlook and perspective.” But when the applications come in, Yale’s foremost concern is to put together the best possible class. “You’re constantly asking yourself, is this the student who will contribute the most, who will make the most out of Yale’s resources? I think setting a quota or target is antithetical to the idea of a complete evaluation of the individual.”

Now, this quote is tossed off as though it’s just a noble profession of neutrality. Yale isn’t tipping the scale for poor kids, its admissions director insists, because Yale shouldn’t be tipping the scales for anyone other than kids “who will make the most” of Yale. Well, that’s a coherent admissions philosophy to have, but it’s certainly not a neutral one. It’s an admissions philosophy that, on the margins, will favor rich kids and, overall, will heavily disadvantage poor kids. Because how do you show that you are going to “contribute the most” and “make the most out of Yale’s resources”? Well, maybe you don’t have to come from Exeter but you have to come from a school functional and organized enough to have some kind of activities and clubs and advanced coursework — some kind of setting in which you can demonstrate your aptitude for taking advantage of what you’re given. In other words, you need to have at least some resources to begin with, that you can use to show your ability to make the most of resources.*

To be sure, Yale is hardly an outlier on these issues and many if not all of its peer institutions have equally problematic practices, philosophies, and approaches to questions of class equality. In a way, the very existence of this article evidences a sort of identity crisis among America’s elite institutions, which were historically schools for the rich but also historically untroubled about that. I suppose it’s some kind of progress that Yale is supposed to even pretend to be concerned about its low percentage of Pell Grant recipients but it’s more than a little telling that this article, aimed at their alumni (i.e. their donor base and, not least, progenitors of many future applicants) is how they express their concern.

* There’s also, of course, a whole set of questions about how Yale is defining “who will contribute the most” here (and contribute to what), which I don’t have the time or inclination to get into here, but are worth thinking about.

Home of the Braves

Two memories from second or third grade: the fall of ’91, when the Braves swelled our little hearts with their miraculous “worst-to-first” season, and the morning the year before that we’d gathered in the school auditorium before a television rolled in on a cart, to watch the International Olympic Committee make its fateful announcement of the site of the ’96 games: “It’s Atlanta!” Thereafter the Braves and the Olympics hovered over my Atlanta childhood like helicopters, these buzzing presences that were always up there, flying awkwardly but flying nonetheless. They gave me the illusion that I lived in a big-deal city, which is precisely the illusion that Atlanta’s city fathers have been striving to generate in residents and observers alike for over a century, whether through Henry Grady’s paeans to the New South or Mayor Hartsfield’s encomiums to “The City Too Busy to Hate.”

Well, it’s no longer Atlanta for the Atlanta Braves, or so it seems.  Continue reading Home of the Braves

Maybe the Real Crisis in the Humanities Is All These Articles about a Crisis in the Humanities

Last week the New York Times published an article headlined, “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry.” The headline is odd not only because colleges aren’t collective brains and thus can’t “worry” (individuals within them can) but also because the article’s details don’t add up to a picture of “fad[ing] interest” in the humanities at all, but, rather, of lavish investments in the humanities by those institutions that have enormous endowments, whether Princeton’s summer program for high school students or Stanford’s “manicured quads,” contrasted with collapsing public subsidy for state schools like Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, where several humanities departments are slated for closure. So, mostly what we learn from this article is that higher education in America is deeply stratified and increasingly a highly inequitable lottery system, which is certainly troubling but which we also already knew and which is not a phenomenon limited to the humanities.  Continue reading Maybe the Real Crisis in the Humanities Is All These Articles about a Crisis in the Humanities

The Paragraph Project (5)

The latest paragraph to catch my eye is from Peter Schjeldahl’s article on art fairs:

“It’s like going to a dog pound,” Robert Lehrman, a collector I know, said, raising his voice against the hullabaloo. A sixty-year-old investor, Lehrman lives in Washington, D.C., where he helps to oversee his family’s philanthropic foundation and serves on the board of the Hirshhorn Museum. His own collection includes an extraordinary trove of Joseph Cornells, but it is modest relative to those of the omnivorous acquirers who plan for private museums, like Bernard Arnault, in France, and Eli Broad, in Los Angeles. But Lehrman’s sheer joy in the pursuit of art makes him, for me, a beacon of the new collector class. Our conversation formed a traffic-impeding knot outside a display of new photographs by Andres Serrano. Such knots occurred often in the crowded aisles, as folks who recognized one another, likely from other fairs, exchanged giddy chat. “So many crying puppies!” Lehrman said of the multitudinous works for sale. “You don’t know which one will cuddle up to you.”

I like how this paragraph starts down a path, meanders off it, then finds its way back to finish the quote. Both the paragraph and Schjeldahl within it are taking a walk. Along the way we get a lot of information both about Lehrman and about what it’s like to be at the Armory Show. Having relocated to the West Coast a few years ago, I haven’t been to the Armory Show since 2007, but this sounds about right. Of course there would be “new photographs by Andres Serrano.” Puppies are an odd metaphor for art, but that’s precisely why the metaphor works so well to convey Schjeldahl’s overall point about art fairs: that they’re odd. As he says elsewhere in the piece, “they are about what money likes,” and only incidentally about what art likes; the works sold there tend to be “cute, colorful, bright, and shiny, with attitude.” By the end of the piece Schjeldahl is describing Lehrman himself in almost puppy-like terms: “I always enjoy seeing Lehrman, though I often feel like an inept third baseman, fielding the line drives of his zeal.”