I am currently living in Charlotte, NC. My wife has a new job here, and I’m using a Spring 2013 release from teaching to work on research projects here before moving to Wisconsin in July to start my new position as a dean. I have been travelling to Minnesota at least once a month to meet with research collaborators and attend meetings for service obligations. On the April 10-12, 2013 trip a neighbor who knew about my Minneapolis-Charlotte dual household arrangement told me about a letter to the editor in the Minneapolis StarTribune, “Minnesota Not So Nice,” in which a recent transplant from Atlanta, GA (my home town!) concludes:

“Minnesota Polite?” Sure.
“Minnesota Reserved?” Definitely.
“Minnesota Standoffish?” Absolutely.
“Minnesota Nice?” Yeah, not so much.

Earlier in the piece the author notes, “I moved up here a year ago from Atlanta, where having a 20-minute conversation with strangers in line at the grocery store, waving at cars driving down your street and making newcomers feel welcome is an everyday occurrence.” He goes on to provide examples of “Minnesota Nice,” where Minnesotans are courteous but reserved, and slow to open up to newcomers.

My family moved to Atlanta from Raleigh, NC when I was two years old, and I lived there until I graduated from college (Georgia Tech) in 1990. From 1990 until 2012 I lived in the Midwest, in Indiana and Minnesota. Since my return to the South in December, 2012 I have discovered just how much of a Minnesotan I have become in 13 years (I moved there in August, 1999). I don’t like it when strangers come up to me in Charlotte stores to chat (for example, an older African American woman once stopped me in a Target: “Where are you from? You look like my godson! What’s your name?”), and when I go to the dry cleaners I pray that I get the surly but efficient cashier, and not the chatty guy who forgets to give me my receipt. The surly one must be from the Midwest.

Of course, “Minnesota Nice” can be used as a stereotype when it goes beyond existing evidence, but there are indeed regional cultural differences that one quickly discovers, as has the writer of the letter to the editor. Learning the nuances of these differences can ease a transition to a new environment. I’m looking forward to going back to the Midwest, and discovering unique aspects of life in Wisconsin. Maybe there is a “Wisconsin Nice”?

Today I am thinking about the TV show Breaking Bad. No, not because I am excited about the recently announced August 11, 2013 second half premiere of season 5; I have Ted Beneke on the brain. For readers who are not Breaking Bad watchers (or for those who are, but have forgotten some of the minor characters), Ted Beneke was the president of a family-owned fabricating company that employed Skylar White as the bookkeeper. Skylar White used $600,00 of the proceeds from husband Walter White’s meth manufacturing operation to close an IRS audit of Beneke Fabricators and pay back taxes Ted owed to the IRS. OK, got all of that? There will be a quiz on Tuesday :).

Ted is on my mind today as an example of “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by sociologist Thorstein Veblen in the 1899 book ­The Theory of the Leisure Class, and today defined by Wikipedia as “the spending of money on and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power – either the buyer’s income or the buyer’s accumulated wealth.” In an attempt to save his troubled business Ted sold many of his luxury goods, but after the cash infusion one of his initial purchases was a new Mercedes-Benz car. When confronted by Skylar about why he did not spend the money on seemingly more important items such as re-hiring furloughed employees, Ted responded that he has to look impressive when he meets with business clients.

I bought a “new” car last month, partly because my current car is not a pretty sight, with its peeling paint and cracked windshield. “New” is in quotes because the car is a 2007 model with 67,000 miles on it. That’s an improvement over the current 2000 ride, but it’s the first time since my initial car purchase in 1987 that I have not selected a new car. (The current 2000 Honda Accord was a gift from my mother-in-law to my wife when she went to graduate school in 2010.) The initial 1987 purchase at the beginning of my sophomore year of college was a 1979 Honda Accord with 120,000 miles; it had 190,000 miles when I bought my first new car (a 1992 Acura Integra) in 1991. I subsequently leased three new cars. When the last lease expired in 2010 my wife and I decided to not get another new car in order to save money for her graduate school expenses; I rode the bus to work and used the Zipcar car-sharing service while my wife used her mother’s car in North Carolina.

While I don’t need to be quite as concerned with appearances as businessman Ted Beneke, I don’t want to look shabby as a new Dean! My initial preference was to lease another new car, but I’ll be putting too many miles on a vehicle in the next couple of years to justify leasing, so I decided to investigate used cars. I ended up with a Nissan Murano SL. The “L” in SL is for “luxury,” so I’m happy. A Murano is not a Mercedes by any stretch of the imagination, but it has style, so I don’t have to worry about the negative perceptions of owning a “hooptie,” a car with problems. I suppose, though, that driving a hooptie would invite less scrutiny than if I were rolling around a college campus in a $100,000 car. I won’t have to worry about the latter possibility for many years to come…if ever.

Welcome to Dispatches from a New Dean! I’m Walt Jacobs, currently an Associate Professor in the Department of African American & African Studies at the University of Minnesota. Before joining African American & African Studies as chairperson in 2007 (serving through 2012), I held faculty positions in the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development, and the University of Minnesota General College, the former entry point for many students of color and first generation students. My Ph.D. degree is in sociology from Indiana University, and my undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. My research explores personal and social possibilities of undergraduate students’ generation of creative digital nonfiction; see “The Pedagogy of Digital Storytelling in the College Classroom” as an example.

On July 1 I will become Professor and Founding Dean of the College of Social Sciences and Professional Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Before the move I will write about preparation for assuming that position, and after July 1 I will chronicle my first year in the creation of a new unit. I view academic leadership as both a science and an art: important considerations for decision making cannot be completely captured in a spreadsheet when balancing compliance with changing financial/organizational realities, fidelity to tradition and established best practices, and a commitment to innovation.

In this blog I will also write about media culture (movies and TV shows), technology, and social identities. I look forward to reading your feedback!