Chair’s Message (Spring 2019)

Rachel Dwyer
Ohio State State University
2019 Spring, Vol. 32, No 2

This spring has brought me occasions to reflect on mentoring and public engagement as a bedrock of our activities as scholars and, when done well, a source of great meaning, connection, and fulfillment. One of those occasions has been the energy around mentoring in the Section. I’m proud to be part of the Community and Urban Sociology tradition of strong mentoring. We have several initiatives this spring that reflect and build on this tradition. Recently, a call went out to continue our highly successful mentoring meetings, initiated two years ago. We encourage senior volunteers to mentor junior scholars at the upcoming ASA meeting in New York, and we encourage all junior scholars interested in making mentoring connections to sign up to be matched with a more senior scholar. We are planning mentoring activities at the preconference, with more information to come this summer.

We are also proposing an amendment to our bylaws to create a formal “Mentoring Committee,” in order to further support and develop the work of the section. This proposal was developed under Chair Miriam Greenberg’s term, and as a result of research done by the Membership committee and an ad hoc Mentorship committee. The proposal to put the bylaws on the ballot was approved by the 2017-2018 Section Council and at the 2018 section business meeting at the ASA. I encourage all members to vote yes to the bylaw amendment to create a Mentoring Committee to continue to build on the energy and commitment to mentoring in our section. This initiative supports our current members, draws in new members as a major recognized benefit of this section, and builds community by connecting members to each other.

I received excellent mentorship from members of CUSS as a graduate student and junior faculty member. Some were eminences in the field who gave me feedback on my research and encouraged me to continue my work on the role of the segregation of the affluent in perpetuating inequality at a time when most research in urban sociology focused on poor and disadvantaged populations. A number of senior scholars gave me opportunities to participate in organizing sessions and making other types of connections. Other supportive mentors were peers at roughly similar stages or just a few years ahead of me. These friends and colleagues were invaluable in providing support, connection, feedback on research, and humor in the face of the challenges of setting off on a career in Sociology. One of the great strengths of our mentoring program is that we encourage meetings between a couple students or junior scholars and a couple mentors. Those connections between junior scholars likely turn out in many cases to be just as valuable as the connections with more senior scholars.

I’ve had the privilege to see my own students and other junior colleagues welcomed into CUSS and encouraged to develop their own research and connections. Indeed, Dr. Victoria Reyes, whose tireless efforts on behalf of membership and mentorship for our section as Chair of the Membership Committee have enriched our community in so many ways, was the first honor’s thesis student that I worked with in my early years as an Assistant Professor at Ohio State University. I take credit only for recognizing early on that she would be a star! The energy and commitment of our volunteers, Council Members, and committee members are quite often focused on how we can encourage new members and develop mentoring supports, and these continuing efforts are reflected in the proposed new mentoring committee.

I have also struggled with a much sadder occasion for reflecting the power of mentoring with the passing of my own graduate mentor, Erik Olin Wright, on January 23rd of this year, ten months after his diagnosis with a particularly aggressive strain of acute myeloid leukemia. Even as he was a generational scholar of international renown, one of Erik’s greatest life commitments was to teaching and, especially, mentoring. He chaired more than 60 dissertation committees, served as member on many additional committees, and provided countless scholars at various stages of their career with feedback on their research, at Wisconsin and during his numerous trips to talk about his research.

As he traveled to share his research and ideas, Erik tried to spend time on each trip talking with students about their research. In recent years, he would ask organizers to schedule a substantial chunk of time for him to meet with a group of students. He would run that meeting as a research workshop. Each student would present Erik with an active research problem drawn from their own work. Erik would then provide feedback, often starting with probing questions and moving towards an incisive assessment of the core conceptual or empirical issues in posing the research problem. He would conduct these conversations publicly in a group, so that each student learned from his engagement with other people’s research questions as well as from his individualized feedback on their own work. This structure developed out of what had long been his practice in more informal ways and many a scholar across the world has had the (highly stimulating!) experience of a conversation with Erik about their work, featuring a rather relentless series of questions pushing to the most challenging issues at the heart of their work. What’s more, he often remembered the most energetic of these conversations and had an uncanny ability to pick up the conversation at any next encounters with fresh energy and insight.

These student feedback sessions illustrate the excitement of ideas that was a core feature of Erik’s approach to mentoring, and explains how it was that so many different students and scholars studying so many different questions were pulled in his gravitational field. Erik was simultaneously totally committed to emancipatory social science in his own work, and totally ecumenical in his mentoring and engagement with others. He advised students across a huge range of substantive fields and areas, contributing to conversations across sociology and into political science, history, philosophy, policy, and other fields. His approach was fundamentally specialty busting; no one ASA section could contain his influence, and many sections, including CUSS of course, contain scholars deeply influenced by him in one way or another.

At the same time, Erik was a thorough community builder and supported the goals of engagement, mentoring and workshopping research that make up the core activities of CUSS as well as other sections and ASA more broadly. When Erik was President of ASA, he took the opportunity of visiting a large diversity of institutions, including traditionally minority serving institutions, and found the experience deeply enriching in his own research on social inequality and egalitarian social

structures. Over his whole career, he and his wife Marcia often hosted visiting scholars in their home, and invited further community with dinners and other gatherings. He was famous for cajoling large groups of more or less reluctant people into dancing the Virginia Reel, an American folk dance, while he fiddled on his violin, becoming a rite of passage for many of his students. No matter how reluctant at the beginning of the dance, by the end all would be laughing and celebrating their connections to each other through the solidarity of a folk dance. A Durkheimian collective effervescence choreographed by a stalwart neo-Marxian.

Erik’s deep commitment to egalitarian social movements also drew him out into the broader world of activism and politics, where members of social movements and political innovators took direct inspiration from his work. He founded a conference which brought activists and scholars together even on Memorial Day in Wisconsin to strategize about creating what over time he came to call real utopias. Of course, his ASA Presidential Address was on this theme:

Many CUSS members also foster deep connections to communities outside sociology and engaging in public Sociology, ranging from teaching diverse student populations to influencing policy to advocating on behalf of the most disadvantaged members of our communities. These motivations underlie our second proposed revision to our bylaws to establish two new awards, to be offered on a rotating basis in alternating years: one for Publicly Engaged Research Award, and the second for an Excellence in Teaching Award. I encourage section members to vote yes to this amendment so that the section may offer broader recognition to the many contributions made by Community and Urban Sociologists to broader public conversations and debates. The scholars profiled in the pages of this newsletter reflect the very best of this tradition in our section.

With the examples provided by our mentors, students, and fellow members to inspire us, mentoring and public engagement are among our most serious responsibilities and privileges as scholars. We all learn and grow and think and teach and write and research better when we’re embedded in strong and healthy communities that build connections to each other and to broader publics. Let us take up the challenge of our member committee to continue to build real utopias of mentorship and engagement in our community as we move towards our time together in New York this August.

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