Porn, for Sociologists

So here’s an unexpected draw of grad school in Ann Arbor: Detroit.

According to census figures released last week, motor city has lost 25% of its inhabitants in the last decade, dropping to its lowest population count since 1910.  The decline is really pretty startling: Detroit has fallen from the country’s 4th to 18th largest city.  Add to that its recent ranking as America’s “Most Dangerous City”, and it seems that the census is only confirming what everyone—including, it would seem, at least 25% of the city’s residents—already know: Detroit sucks.

It was because—not in spite of—Detroit’s reputation as a disaster zone that I was excited when my host in Michigan offered to take me biking through the city.  Fed by media reports, I had build up a mental image of Detroit as globalization and American capitalism at their logical, dystopian extension.  As we drove in from Ann Arbor, though, I asked my host if Detroit really was that bad.  I realized that, in a certain way, I was preparing myself for disappointment, fretting that all the media coverage was overblown and Detroit was really just like any other rust-belt post-metropolis.  I didn’t want to see ordinary industrial desolation; I wanted to see a real wasteland.

I needn’t have worried.  As we drove through the suburbs into the heart of the city, the traffic dried up, billboards disappeared, and progressively more store-fronts were boarded up.  We parked outside of Wayne State University and biked into downtown.  It was my first time riding a fixed-gear, but it didn’t much matter: even the main, four-lane conduits were deserted.  In fact, entire skyscrapers stood vacant, except for the bottom levels which were occupied by restaurants with names like the “Hard Luck Cafe”.  Surrounding neighborhoods were equally surreal; narrow, three-story houses—built to slide into tightly packed rows of homes—stood alone, the last vestiges of entire blocks that had been bulldozed.  The median price for a house in Detroit is $7,800.

I left Detroit without having talked to any of its residents, barring a drunk guy outside the hipster bike-shop we visited and the waitress at the Mexican restaurant where we ate dinner (Mexico Town, unlike the rest of Detroit, is booming).  But we weren’t there to see people; we were there to see research projects.  For a lot of sociologists, Detroit is a fascinating laboratory for the study of hyper-incarceration, ghettoization, and poverty in the globalized economy.  Personally, I’m more interested on the flip side of a city that bottoms out: when people are so clearly the losers of capitalism, what kind of alternatives start to sprout up?  Perhaps the only heartening thing I saw in Detroit was the proliferation of urban gardens; after all, at this point, why not garden? It almost never works out this way, but I’d at least like to believe that the people who have been most screwed by capitalism are also the most likely to turn on it and come up with an alternative.

I’d like to think that the critical perspective on poverty that we, as students, bring with us makes us different from the slum tourists who pay top-dollar to visit favelas in Rio de Janeiro or shantytowns outside Nairobi.  Much like watching NASCAR races only for the crashes, there is something foul about being a voyeur of human suffering.  And yet while I’d never visit slums in Mumbai as a tourist, I can certainly imagine going there as a researcher—and, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure there is that much of a distinction between the two.

My two years at Oxford has left me incredibly skeptical of the power of academic research to be a force for change.  That’s not to say that all academic research is politically disengaged, but most of it certainly is.  More than that, I’ve realized that studying human suffering is not the same as solving it, even though we often pretend that one bleeds naturally into the other.  Weirdly, though, I find myself at peace with this.  Detroit may not, in fact, be mine to fix, but I still find it fascinating, and would love to study it.  If they’ll have me, I suppose.


Okay, let’s get overly dramatic for a moment.  It occurs to me that a truly infintesimal proportion of interactions in admissions end positively.

First we, the potential students, send off applications.  Most of the schools I’ve talked to receive several hundred applications, and send off around a dozen acceptances.  Sometime in February, Professors sit down and write happy, personalized e-mails to a chosen few.  A little later, thousands and thousands of automated rejections—like the one I received from Michigan—go out, notifying us that we are good, but not quite good enough.  We wish you well.  

And yet, with so much demand for spots and so few opportunities open, the handful that do manage to get in usually get more than one offer.  My haul has been modest: I’ve met people who were admitted to—and are planning on visiting—as many as nine schools.  All the top institutions pull out all the stops to show us how genuinely interested they are in our work, and why they would be so thrilled to have us join them.  They introduce us to professors, students, and staff.  We form relationships and make promises of attending, foolishly believing that somehow, we will manage to do a PhD at all nine schools.

Reality will set in sometime around April 15th, when the tables turn and all the rejectors become rejectees.  No matter how I slice it, I know that next month I will have to send lots of e-mails to new friends I’ve met–be they current students or other admits–letting them know that I won’t be coming and that—realistically—our relationship is off.  I will tell professors who did what is so rare in this world—showing genuine interest in another human being’s development—that I didn’t quite mean it when I said that I would “love to work with them.”  And, one potential path of my, which I’ve spent at the very least a few days imagining as my future, will be closed off.

And all this for one happy e-mail sent to a single school, saying “Yes.”  Finally, a perfect match—and then we can start the process of sorting ourselves out again, as some of us get NSF grants and university fellowships and tenure track positions and high profile publications, and others get told that we are just not quite up to snuff.  All this in the name of a better, kinder society.                                              

It’s just rejections, all the way down.

There are times when deciding where to go to grad school feels very weighty.  A certain part of me is convinced that—despite being faced by a choice of four prestigious schools with great faculty and generous funding packages—I could really fuck this up.  After all, if I don’t go to the right school, I won’t get an NSF grant, and then I won’t get published, so I won’t get job offers, and I’ll teach at East Jesus Community College in central Nebraska for the rest of my life.* 

And then there are moments where choosing doesn’t seem like such a big deal at all.

At the very least, for the perspective that it gives me , I am glad that I have taken a mid-tour pause to visit family in Minnesota.  It’s astonishing, but I haven’t been here in two years.  The last time I saw my brother was graduation, and it’s been even longer since I spent any time with my cousins, aunts. and uncles.  I’ve been far from the family orbit for some time, and it means that I’ve missed a lot: Thanksgivings, Christmases, weddings, and—in the last year—the steady decline of my grandmother.  When last I was here, my grandmother was living at home, spending her days watching Fox News and vigorously nagging my grandfather.  When I saw her yesterday—three weeks after a massive stroke—she was gradually disappearing into a nursing home bed, mute, immobile, and in transition to hospice care.  This was the kind of jolt that, at the very least, puts things in a bit of perspective.   

It’s a function of privilege, youth, and sheer luck that I have confronted very little death in my life.  I remember the passing of my paternal grandparents—which happened during sixth grade—as a sad time, and the thought of them still strikes a melancholy chord inside me.  With a decade of maturity, though, death has become more complicated.  I know how I am supposed to feel about the coming death of my grandmother, but I can’t shake the question: is this actually sad?  My grandmother is ninety.  She has been unhappy for some time and done her best to project this on those around her.  She hated nursing homes, hated old people, and hated dependence; her refusal of food during the last week seems like one last feisty testament to what we all know, which is that she has no interest in going on living.

And yet we as a family still cling to every sign of improvement, any hint of alertness or twinge of an upward trajectory of recovery.  For whom, exactly, would another week of life be a victory: my family, or my grandmother?  And are our responses founded on genuine sentiments, or a strong awareness of social expectations?  As we are offered various options—rehabilitation, feeding tubes, respirators, medication—I can’t quite figure out who it is that is served by herculean efforts to save the life of someone who is, quite clearly, ready to go. 

In a sense, it is one more example of how technology has gotten far, far ahead of our capacity to think about and cope with death.  Yet if this sounds like an endorsement of “death panels”, it isn’t, at least not entirely.  I don’t know if the end of life is ever going to be something about which we as mortals can think calmly and rationally.  A life that one of us considers not worth living will always be worth something to someone; compassion can always be read as callousness from a certain vantage point.  Even as I read this, an avowed non-believer and rationalist, convinced that there is no hereafter, I feel a surge of panic just thinking about the topic.  And so I can understand why we, as a family, still talk as if my grandmother might pull through and make it a bit longer, and consense that this would, in fact, be a good thing. 

All I know is that this is not how I would want to go.  So, here it is in writing: harvest my organs and then push me off a cliff.  As for my grandmother, I wish her a peaceful and painless end to a long and full life.  It’s a curse, I guess, that I find myself trying to think when all I should be doing is feeling.

*To be fair, I’d probably like the students at East Jesus Community College more than your average Princetonian.

Part II: Michigan

Shortly before I left on my cross-country grad-school adventure, I presented a paper at my very first academic conference.  Sheffield, where the conference was located, is best known as the location of The Full Monty and as an all-around paragon of a bombed-out post-industrial city, but also has a well-respected university with a strong development studies program.  The conference was student run, so a pretty low-key event—which, given that I still know practically nothing about development, was a good thing.

Still, though, there was a pretty clear division between the four of us from Oxford and the rest of the presenters from other universities across the U.K.  We moved as a pack, dominating the panels on which one of us was speaking and then monopolizing the questioning by directing all our queries at one another.  I hate to say it, but watching the presentations, it was clear that the Oxford crowd was head-and-shoulders above the rest, at least in terms of coaching and preparation.  The division cut down to really basic things, too: who managed to connect their work to theory; who had a clear division between the literature review and data; who appeared to have proof-read their powerpoint slides.  The after-conference wine reception felt strained, as I found myself talking down Oxford as much as possible to a group of English students who clearly would kill to go there.

Reading the above paragraph, and reflecting on my experience at Sheffield, I realize something that has been dawning on me for some time: my university pedigree pretty much makes me feel like a complete twat.  When I am in the U.S., and someone outside my usual social circle asks me where I went to school, I typically mumble something about central New Jersey and change the subject as quickly as possible.  When I describe Princeton in negative terms—blasting the apathetic student body, for example—I am, more than anything, trying to hide my embarrassment at the massive leg-up Princeton has given me and avoid admitting that, deep down, I appreciate the help.  One moment, I wish I had gone somewhere that I didn’t feel so guilty about.  And yet, there is something intoxicating about the privilege of attending an elite university, and while Harvard has denied me any opportunity to complete my trifecta of douchebaggery—Princeton-Oxford-Harvard—the temptation to add another notch to my resume is undeniable.

I say all of this because I can think of no other reason than private-university snobbery why I had nearly written off the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor before I visited.  Michigan is a top-ranked department, no doubt, but non-sociologists don’t know this.  In the U.K., when I’ve expressed my enthusiasm at getting into Madison and Ann Arbor, even professors—who ought to know better—have asked “why would you go there?”  This is a stupid thing to be worrying about, except that I’m already acutely aware that getting a PhD in sociology already makes me a bit of a failure in the eyes of the people back home who thought I’d be running for Congress by now.  Even for my parents, my enthusiasm for Madison or Ann Arbor seems to a raise an eyebrow.  In a sense, I visited Michigan with the hope that I could cross it off the list and make my list a bit shorter.

This decision, it would seem, is not going to be simple.  Long preface aside, Michigan was fucking fantastic, and I loved every aspect of my three days there.  Every presentation, every faculty meeting, every conversation I had made me feel like Michigan is a department on the way up.  No one in Michigan is apologizing—a la Berkeley—about their inability to provide stipends comparable to the Ivy League; if you don’t want to come here, it’s your loss.  By the end of my first day of visiting, my head was practically exploding with ideas for research projects and papers, taking me past my dissertation and long into my career as an academic.  All the faculty with whom I spoke—ranging from the old-school Marxist stuck in the 1960s to the heady young junior professors—came off as genuinely interested in my work and ready to explain how they could contribute.  One of them even offered to read over my thesis; I guess that’s Midwestern kindness for you.

More than anything—and this is something strange, given that I’m talking about Michigan of all places—is that Ann Arbor felt like a place I would like to live the next six years of my life.  Among other things, Michigan has nailed the practice of recruiting, assigning me a “grad student buddy” with a strong interest in food politics and a talent for vegan cooking.  He, like me, seems to be working to strike a balance between academic and non-academic pursuits, rounding out serious sociology with union organizing and bike building.  The other students I met seemed genuinely happy, something I had resigned myself to not encounter very often during these tours.  I really do love the Midwest, and definitely not for the weather: there is something different about the people here, something unforced and genuine.  This, I think, is a place to which I could come and not be a douchebag.  

Michigan: the dark horse candidate.

Part I: Berkeley

There are few places where I will walk around without listening to my iPod.  As an undergraduate, even a trip down the hall to the bathroom seemed like a waste of time without earbuds.  Even at Oxford, surrounded by spectacular gothic architecture and ever-entertaining undergraduates in fancy dress, my head is still usually engrossed in whatever I am listening to.

Now that I’ve reached San Francisco Bay—the birthplace of much of my favorite music—I’ve gone iPod free.  Berkeley feels like non-stop sensory overload, in the best possible way, and I don’t want to miss a second.  I come out of the sociology building and, in one direction, hear a drum circle, and in the other, see a group of people practicing martial arts.  The town of Berkeley is itself overwhelming: it seems absurd that one place can have so many sex shops, street vendors with Bob Marley t-shirts and bongs, and vegan restaurants in such a small area.  Ganja, egg-free cinnamon rolls, and anti-nuclear petitions: they are all within reach at all times.  Even the lamppost flyers—for everything ranging from conferences for Gay Pacific Islanders to protests against budget cuts—speak to the vibrancy of the place.

Good sociology, I think, should never be too far divorced from the community in which it is practiced, and, fittingly, Berkeley-the-department reflects Berkeley-the-place.  The sociology program lacks a clear center-of-gravity, but in a good way: there seems to be someone here studying everything that sociologists study, and studying it with every different method we have available to us.  After spending two years in a place where faculty often won’t deign to meet with students who don’t share their interest in one obscure post-structural framework or passion for one particular corner of India, it’s nice to meet with professors who know nothing about what I want to study, and yet are thrilled at the prospect of helping me study it.

When I arrived, I met up with the other prospective students and current grads at a bar, where we sat outside—it’s March, but it’s beer-garden weather—and drank endless pitchers of locally-brewed ale, purchased for us by the department.  The next day, we drove into Oakland for a delicious brunch of fresh California fruit and blueberry pancakes, cooked for us by an eminent, tenured faculty member.  I had an exhilarating meeting with a potential advisor—who was conviced every idea I had was publisheable—and then left for a long run along the bay (all in the sunshine, of course).  By the end of Saturday, I was ready to sign the dotted line and commit to spending the next six years here—on the first full day of a grad school trip that was supposed to last three weeks and take me to four different schools.

What a difference a day makes.  Maybe it was simply that it was raining—a reminder that California isn’t, quite, paradise—but on Sunday, the shine had literally and figuratively already worn off.  As much as it thrills me to be in a place where people have political interests that go beyond guns and Jesus, a walk around Telegraph Avenue is an object lesson in the failures of the progressive political project in the United States.  Here we are in the most liberal Congressional distinct of the country, with more vegan bakeries, burning-man attendees, and Priuses per capita than anyone in the world—and yet with all our wealth and good intentions, we can’t figure out how to house the city’s homeless.  I ate lunch at a donation-only Indian restaurant—where patrons shelled out generously to show their commitment to a post-capitalist “gift economy”—yet as we walked out, we strode past a panhandler, averting our eyes and pretending not to hear his request for spare change.

As goes Berkeley the town, so goes Berkeley the university—in the bad as well as the good ways.  When I asked faculty members if Berkeley had any downsides, they didn’t mention any gaps in their theoretical coverage or weaknesses in their teaching methods.  Instead, they all said, “the money.”  Faculty members opined that funding isn’t what it used to be, that the budget cuts have set the university on a downward trajectory, and that they can’t compete with Stanford and Princeton for the top students anymore.  The graduate students, too, sounded a little defeated, convinced that the grass is greener and the funding is better across the bay in Palo Alto.

I have to admit, I found this element of Berkeley frustrating, and if I can’t stand it after a day, I wonder if I could take six years of it.  Where was the full-throated defense of public education, the pride at being an undeniable world-class yet taxpayer-funded institution?  Since when can Berkeley—still ranked 1st in Sociology—“not compete”?  When you produce the top candidates in the job markets and win more American Sociological Association prizes then the next four universities combined, can you legitimately claim to be the underdog?  If private universities are unbeatable, what is Yale doing in spot 20, behind Penn State?

It’s a cruel irony that here, in a place that, more than anywhere else in the U.S. is seen as the antithesis of American capitalism, we seem to only be able to talk about money.  No one can avoid talking about how much better are funding packages from the Ivies are.  Yet, rather than lamenting that Harvard has more money to throw at students, why not argue that, as scholars, getting two or three grand more a year should be low on our list of priorities?  And why are we, as students who are demographically privileged yet ideologically committed to a non-market future, so obsessed with maximizing our earning power?

Berkeley is alive and well.  But it is convinced it is in decline, and resigned to its imagined fate.