2020 Lynd Award: Lessons Learned: A Perspective from Golden Pond

Barrett Lee
Pennsylvania State University
2021 Winter, Vol. 34, No.1 

Being named the 2020 recipient of the Robert and Helen Lynd Award for Lifetime Achievement has been both gratifying and humbling, given the distinguished honorees who preceded me. I was taken by surprise when Kevin Gotham (the Lynd committee chair) first passed along the news last spring. That initial reaction quickly gave way to an appreciation of the award as a collective rather than solo accomplishment. From my undergraduate days to the present, I’ve had the good fortune to learn from and work with many talented and inspiring students, mentors, colleagues, and collaborators.

The award was bestowed during a stage in life—my first year of retirement—when it’s common to look back, attempting to make sense of the path followed thus far. Perhaps the down time and massive disruption associated with the coronavirus pandemic have heightened this tendency toward reflection. On several occasions recently, I’ve wondered how the arc of my career might differ if I were just starting out. I suspect that CUSS would again serve as a stabilizing force, a place to learn the ropes. For a somewhat shy graduate student 45 years ago, the section provided intellectual and social connection to others who shared his fascination with urban change and inequality.

My purpose here is to come full circle, offering a few observations about professional life as seen through the rearview mirror that might be helpful to younger CUSS members, particularly those still in graduate school or less than a decade beyond the dissertation defense. These ‘lessons’, illustrated with personal experiences, are ones that I took a while to learn. Thankfully, junior scholars today appear to be quicker studies. They need to be, in light of the many career challenges that have emerged in both academic and non-academic employment arenas. My cohort of urban and community sociologists had less uncertain professional routes to navigate.

Much of what I have to say is in response to the ‘strategic planning’ model of career building. Many of us resort to this approach at some point. With respect to research, for example, we select topics calculated to have the greatest payoff, prioritize them in timetable fashion, and establish productivity goals (how many papers to write, by when, submitted to which outlets). The concept of strategic planning is often introduced in the graduate curriculum via a professional socialization and development seminar. Having a plan helps keep students on track to the degree, hopefully amassing a record that will make them viable job candidates. Assistant professors may formulate such plans in pursuit of tenure. Because strategic planning is intended to link means and ends in a thoughtful manner, it’s not only appealing but necessary in some form.

Yet faithful adherence to a plan can be rather difficult. One reason is that the strategic planning model underestimates the role played by luck, good as well as bad. Late during my second year in graduate school at the University of Washington—where I’d gone to study social psychology and the sociology of work and occupations—disillusionment with these substantive areas and a lack of hands-on participation in research had pushed me to the brink of dropping out. Indeed, I’d already submitted an application for a grocery store stock clerk job. At the last minute, the chair of the department told me about a position announcement that had just reached his desk. A team of Seattle epidemiologists was looking for a research assistant to take the lead on the survey component of their NIH-funded investigation of diphtheria and meningitis outbreaks in the local skid row population. I eagerly accepted the position, then spent six intensive months doing preliminary fieldwork, concocting a sampling procedure, and (with the help of a social service outreach worker) interviewing roughly 200 homeless people.

Immersion in the nuts and bolts of the survey, from design through data collection and analysis, marked a critical turning point. Although coming out of the blue, the opportunity convinced me to commit fully to becoming a sociologist. The depth of engagement required by the Seattle skid row study was incredibly fulfilling, as was the contribution that the survey results made to understanding and addressing the local diphtheria epidemic. The study eventually yielded my first publication, a 1978 article in Demography. At the time, however, my RA role was also stressful, slowing progress toward the master’s degree and piling atop an already substantial course load.

The insight to be drawn from this anecdote is that all manner of unforeseen events and circumstances, including those operating at a contextual level (think COVID-19 and the Great Recession), can alter or disrupt our best-laid professional plans. Having goals and a schedule for achieving them is fine, but flexibility and the willingness to adapt are essential. I’ve come to view careers as continually being in revise-and-resubmit mode because of what we can’t anticipate.

Another aspect of the ideal-typical strategic plan—rationally choosing important, timely, or cutting-edge research topics—seems to me easier said than done. An obvious complication is a lack of clarity over which topics meet these criteria. More intriguing, however, is the influence of our own biographies. Sometimes the biographical pull toward specific areas of inquiry may be subtle, discerned only in retrospect. As a case in point, I believe that my interest in homelessness predated the Seattle survey, rooted in parental conversations I overheard as a child about my grandmother’s brief period on the streets of Oakland as a ‘bag lady’ struggling with dementia. Similarly, a recent investigation of patterns and sources of racial-ethnic diversity in American communities was fueled in part by enduring fascination with intergroup relations in my hometown of Salinas, CA, an agricultural center (‘Salad Bowl of the World’) where people of Mexican, Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese ancestry have long histories. Collaborating with Penn State alumni Chad Farrell, Matt Hall, Laura Tach, and Greg Sharp on this study was a real treat.

Other biographical prompts are more direct and contemporaneous. When my partner Carol Zeiss and I were preparing to buy our first home in Nashville during the early 1980s (while I was at Vanderbilt), I took a quick look at census data on housing and demographic trends in the surrounding neighborhood, which we liked in part because of its mixed racial composition. What surprised me was how similar the shares of African American and white residents had remained over multiple decades, contrary to conventional wisdom about racial succession and white flight. During the next couple of years, this chance observation evolved into a funded project that explored varied trajectories of neighborhood change and stability.

The inclination to tackle research questions with biographical relevance can have energizing effects. After all, curiosity about one’s own life experiences and a desire to understand them are strong sources of motivation. They may better sustain a line of research than would a less personal topic selected primarily because of its scientific promise or cachet. Even when we make careful, calculated decisions regarding what to study—and what our distinctive contribution will be—things don’t always go according to plan. In the 2000s, a group of Penn State colleagues and I developed a new method for examining racial residential segregation across local environments of varying spatial scales. Despite our intention to provide an alternative conceptual and measurement approach to traditional census tract analyses reliant on the index of dissimilarity, work from the project has regularly been employed to justify the tract-based status quo, given the broadly similar conclusions produced by the two approaches.

Results can also be distorted, especially during the process of media dissemination. I vividly recall the shock of reading a USA Today article that used findings from Karen Campbell’s and my research on neighborhood social networks to offer advice (ostensibly from us) about how to be a good neighbor. Some studies will fail to produce any results of note despite one’s best efforts. Like most senior investigators, I’ve hit my share of dead ends. A reasonable take-away from this experience and other unexpected or unintended research outcomes is that they are par for the course, no matter how disappointed or frustrated you might feel. Accept that fact and move on!

Recognizing the wild-card character of luck, biography, and unexpected outcomes encourages a more realistic view of strategic planning but hardly precludes it. Younger scholars should be actively constructing their research careers in a variety of ways. Agency can be exercised by making contacts (both individually and through involvement in organizations like CUSS), proposing collaborations, applying for grants and fellowships, and reaching across disciplinary boundaries. Apropos the last option, I’ve gained much throughout my career from partnerships with geographers, demographers, psychologists, and policy experts. A forthcoming volume of The Annals about the dynamics of homelessness, coedited with community psychologist Beth Shinn and housing policy scholar Dennis Culhane, reveals the novel perspectives that emerge from this sort of cross-fertilization.

My emphasis thus far on the research dimension of professional life reflects what sociologists spend their time doing in many types of work environments. Research is certainly the privileged activity at universities, where it carries disproportionate weight in salary and promotion decisions. Because of this reward structure, junior faculty members are incentivized to keep committee assignments and other service duties to a minimum. I managed to limit such ‘dirty work’ prior to earning tenure. As my service load increased afterwards, however, three things became increasingly apparent. First, like a non-trivial number of academics, I discovered that I was fairly competent at administrative tasks, serving for 17 years as either department head or director of the sociology graduate or undergraduate programs at Penn State. Second, service activities provide needed balance to an egocentric career focus: doing your fair share for the collective good can be quite satisfying.

A final revelation concerns the expansive scope of service. Conventional forms include not only intramural roles—in academic settings these range from college committees to deanships and beyond—but also assistance to professional associations, government agencies, and community stakeholders. A case can be made that public sociology qualifies as service since practitioners are benefiting the discipline and wider audiences by showing the relevance of sociological knowledge to pressing problems. Direct involvement in organizations devoted to the solution of such problems should count as well. While most of my service of this kind addresses housing insecurity (e.g. as a member of a local homeless advocacy group, the board of an affordable housing foundation, and the research council of the National Alliance to End Homelessness), many urban and community sociologists have more diversified ‘action’ portfolios. Generally speaking, the breadth of the service concept means that it’s easy to find ways to contribute that align with one’s interests, values, and abilities.

For those in academic settings, the temptation to place research, teaching, and service in separate silos is strong, but there are good reasons to resist it. Exploiting potential intersections among the three domains can increase intellectual engagement, efficiency, and productivity. A straightforward strategy involves teaching what we study (which is presumably what we’re passionate about). Although departmental curricula and class enrollments may constrain what’s doable, offers to develop new courses are often welcomed. Almost every time I taught ‘Homelessness in America’ at the undergraduate level or my graduate seminar on ‘Race, Immigration, and Residential Inequality’, dialog with students yielded questions or ideas that improved my research, which in turn would lead to revisions of course content.

Mutually reinforcing links between research and service are also possible. To give but one illustration, as a member of the Nashville Coalition for the Homeless during the 1980s, I designed and directed an enumeration of the local homeless population that produced over-time data in support of the coalition’s initiatives. The enumeration methods and results also attracted attention from scholars and the applied research community through conference presentations and a couple of publications.

Considering how different domains of professional activity might connect with each other, while useful, obscures the bigger picture: the relationship between those domains as a whole (i.e., work) and the rest of one’s life. Obviously, this relationship varies greatly from one individual to the next, within individuals over time, and across a number of contexts. For a few scholars, their work is their life, or appears to be so. Most of us have other people, pursuits, and responsibilities that we value, a fact which can make managing work and everything else challenging.

I was never able to develop a consistent approach to this balancing act. During occasional stretches, especially early in my career and later when overloaded by administrative duties, work consumed me. In response, I would try to adhere to self-imposed rules, such as taking certain days off or working only between specific hours. Such efforts at compartmentalization became more effective once my partner Carol and I had children; priorities shifted dramatically. The lesson from my experience seems less about identifying a single best solution for reconciling work and non-work roles than about remaining open to change. Because the circumstances of one’s life and career are fluid, a person must be nimble enough to adjust as necessary. (Remember that this lesson, like all others in the essay, is based on the retrospective observations of a senior citizen who’s no longer employed and thus should be evaluated with a critical eye.)

Something I’m still trying to figure out about careers is how they end. On this snowy morning, Carol and I are warmly ensconced in our house in the woods, with the outdoor activities and wildlife that we cherish close at hand. Opportunities for cultural consumption are easily accessible, and we hope to resume post-retirement travel (curtailed in March of 2020 by the pandemic) in the foreseeable future. From these few details, you might reasonably conclude that we’ve moved to ‘golden pond’ and that I’ve gone cold turkey, abruptly leaving behind all professional endeavors.

Think again. We recently celebrated 30 years of residence in the same home. To my surprise, I’m still research active, mentoring students, and engaged in service outside the university. The difference, however, is that these forms of professional involvement now occur on a more relaxed schedule, interwoven with leisure reading, hiking, pickleball, volunteering, and all of the other fun stuff. But an element of continuity is evident as well. Scholarship, whether attached to a paycheck or not, remains intrinsically rewarding, driven by curiosity and blurring the boundary between vocation and avocation. I suspect this observation holds true for many CUSS members, who reflexively view the urban world through a sociological lens. Such a habit doesn’t automatically die upon retirement.   

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