Archive: Feb 2016

In my introduction to Sociology class, I use trends in baby names to introduce students to sociological research and inquiry. It’s a fun way to show students just how much we can learn from what might feel like idiosyncratic details of our lives. I start by showing students the top 10 boy and girl names from the most recent year of data available (along with their relative frequencies). After this, I show them the most popular names and their relative frequencies from 100 years earlier. There are some names on both lists; but for the most part, the names on the latter list sound “old” to students. Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 12.37.09 PM

When I ask students to characterize the types of names they see on the older list of names, someone usually says the names sound more “traditional.” I tell them that in 100 years, someone will probably say that about the most recent list of names they’re looking at: these future students will have a different idea of what makes a name “traditional.”

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If you’re interested, someone produced these two GIF files that depict the most popular names by state between 1960 and 2012. I like to show one of these while I’m talking with students about what what names can help us learn. I ask students to raise their hand when they see their own name or the name of their best friend. As we get into the 80’s and 90’s, lots of hands start going up. But the GIFs are also interesting because they are a powerful visualization of the spread of cultural norms. Popular names move through a population in a way that appears to be similar to infectious diseases.

This is a fun way to show students that deciding what to name a child might feel like a personal decision, it’s actually a decision that is shaped by social forces. Names and name trends are great examples of what sociology can reveal because, as Stanley Lieberson points out so simply, while taste in most elements of culture is not a requirement, everyone has tastes in names. And, as it turns out, we can learn a lot about a society just by looking at patterns in which names we select for our children (and equally important are the types of names different groups tend to avoid).

SIDENOTE: I like to highlight a great finding by Stanley Lieberson, Susan Dumais, and Shyon Baumann from their article on trends in androgynous names (here). Androgynous names are names that are given to both boys and girls–think Taylor, Cameron, or Casey for current examples. Lieberson, Dumais, and Baumann found that androgynous names follow an incredibly common pattern once they achieve a critical level of popularity: they become girl names and become dramatically less common names for boys–a powerful example of the stigma associated with femininity for boys.

When I first started using the exercise, I was fascinated with the relative frequencies much more than the names on each list. But it’s an amazing shift. More than 1 in 20 girls born in 1914 was named Mary (the most popular name that year – and many other years too if you’re interested). By 2014, just over 1 in 100 girls born were given the most popular name that year, “Emma.” This is part of a larger trend in naming practices–popular names just aren’t as popular as they used to be. Stanley Lieberson refers to this as the “modernization theory” of name trends. The theory suggests that as institutional pressures associated with names decline (e.g., extended family rituals, religious rules), we see the proliferation of more diverse names. But there’s a twist. The phenomenon is also gendered: popular boy names have always been more popular (in aggregate) that popular girl names. Below, I’ve charted the proportion of boys and girls born in the U.S. with top 10 names from 1880-2014. Boys given top ten names in 1880, for instance, accounted for more than 40% of all boys born. And the most popular boy names have always accounted for a larger share of all boys born than the most popular girl names for girls born. It’s not a new fact and I’m not the first to notice it. (Though, as you can see below, the lines have just recently met, and they could conceivably cross paths any year now. And that will be something that has never happened.)

Baby Name Frequencies

In 1965, Alice Rossi suggested that part of what accounts for the discrepancy is related to gender inequality. As she put it, “Men are the symbolic carriers of the temporal continuity of the family” (here). Lieberson and Eleanor Bell later discovered that girls are more likely to have unique names as well (here). It’s an interesting example of something that many people teach in courses on men and masculinities. While men are, as a group, systematically advantaged, they may be held accountable to a more narrow range of gender performances than are women. And while men’s rights groups might frame this as an illustration of women being the group to benefit from gender inequality, it’s much better understood as what Michael Messner refers to as a “cost of privilege.”

Yet, this appears to be one costs of privilege that has decreased. In 1880, the top 10 boy names accounted for 41.26% of all boys born that year; the top 10 girl names accounted for 22.98%. There was more than an 18% gap. While boys’ popular names are still more popular than girls’ popular names, the gap shrunk to 0.27% by 2014. That’s a monumental shift. And I’m sure the modernization theory of name trends accounts for the lion’s share of the more general shift toward more secular names and a general decrease in name continuity between fathers and sons. But there is more than one way to read this shift. We might also say that this is a really simple illustration of one way that patriarchal family traditions have been chipped away over the past 100 years. Lots of data would support this conclusion.  We might account for it alongside, for instance, data showing the prevalence of women taking men’s surnames after marriage as a percentage of all marriages in a given year or opinions about surname change.  But it’s also an illustration of the ways that this process has meant changes for boys and men as well.

Masculinity has, quite literally, opened up. It’s something that has happened more for some racial and class groups than others. And whether this transformation–this “opening up”–is a sign of gender inequality being successfully challenged or reproduced in new and less easily recognizable ways is the subject of my favorite corner of the field.

Did the title of this post make you uneasy? My guess is that you seldom received that advice from mentors, family members, or friends; and if you teach, you would most likely never give that advice to your own students. From a very young age I learned to be giving of my time and money. Sharing and helping others were desirable qualities—selfishness was not. As I re-read this last sentence, I can’t help but still agree with that statement. I try to instill these same values in my own ten-year-old daughter. However, I constantly find myself encouraging students to be selfish! As a Latina professor at a large research university, I constantly battle with this moral paradox when it comes to advising my Latina/o students.

I have the honor of mentoring students of color, predominately Latino students. These students seek me out because I am often the only Latina professor in the department and some of them are able to identify with me because I teach courses on Latinos and immigration. I am bilingual, the first in my family to graduate from college, and I come from a working class family. I also enjoy getting to know my students. I ask them about their families and they feel comfortable talking with me about their personal and educational backgrounds, as well as their academic aspirations.Advise2

I have discovered that when I ask my undergraduate Latino students about their future academic aspirations, they usually reply in the same way: “I don’t know,” they say, “I just want to be able to help people.” Then they list professions such as social work, teaching, law, and even sociology. As I hear their responses, I think of my own college years, when I felt the same way. This type of response used to give me a warm sensation and hope in humanity. After all, it is great when students want to pursue a career that helps others. Today, I don’t feel as optimistic by this altruistic response. It now worries me that Latino students are being limited to “helping” professions that are not always as financially rewarding and socially transformative as they imagine.

Superhero

Underprivileged students who face social inequalities in their communities and schools often turn to careers that allow them to support both their families and other racial and ethnic minorities. According to sociologist Jody Agius Vallejo, middle class Latinos from working class backgrounds are more likely to “give back” to kin and co-ethnics (see her book, Barrios to Burbs). In her work on racialized tokens, for example, sociologist Glenda Flores found that Latina primary school teachers are tracked into teaching and, once there, develop a missionary zeal and actively advocated for their Latino students. Similarly, Maya A. Baesley and Mary J. Fischer’s research shows that talented black college students “opt out” of high-paying and high-status careers for fear of discrimination in particular fields such as science, engineering, information technology, and finance (see here). After graduation, some of these students then choose jobs that, although low-paying, enable them to help the black community. In these studies, discrimination experienced by communities of color shapes the educational trajectory of young men and women.

In my own research with Mexican child street vendors in Los Angeles (see here and here), I found that these youth had two main career aspirations that would empower them to help their communities and their own street vending parents—law and law enforcement. Their decisions to choose these careers were rooted in their everyday street vending struggles. For example, one parent told me: “I have always said to my son, like I have seen many injustices with the police here in my community, and in reality we do need legal representation. … At first he told me that he wanted to be a lawyer and then he said ‘No, I don’t just want to be a lawyer, I want to be a judge.’” Similarly, thirteen-year-old Arturo said his parents wanted him to be “something in life. Like a Lawyer or a hero.” When I asked him to clarify, he said “Like a lawyer, a police officer because they save people… Someone that is considered a hero.” Many of my respondents wanted to become heroes to the struggling people in their lives.

The students that come to my office express a similar sentiment. They have experienced and witnessed many injustices in their communities and wish to major in fields that will allow them to enact change. I too come from a generation of Latino students who saw education as a way out of poverty and a promise to create positive social change. But this is a heavy burden to carry. I opt to encourage students to pursue careers they love and to focus on themselves—to be selfish! Students are usually surprised that I give this advice. Their reactions, however, are not as cutting as those I get from other Latino professionals, some who are close friends. Among other things, I have been told that I am too “Americanized.” Some express surprise and then gesture in disagreement while trying to change the conversation.

I hope to see a day when my own daughter and Latino students who come to my office me me medon’t feel constrained by their mission to help, but rather are moved to choose jobs based on their individual intellectual curiosities. I am confident that if giving back is in their heart, then they will find a way to help people by becoming social workers, teachers, attorneys, doctors, engineers, chemists, or graphic designers. So, my dear students, be selfish. And while you are at it, do your best in whatever field you choose. I’m sure you will positively impact a life or two or more along the way.

Emir Estrada is Assistant Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.

This is my sixth post for Feminist Reflections, and I am starting to settle into my new role as a (more) public sociologist. Since I started blogging, my work has been reposted on other academic blogs, popped-up on Tumblr, and made it to Sociological Images’ top posts of 2015. It is exciting to see my ideas weave their way through the online world. It makes me feel less armchair-y, and it allows me to write in ways that break the academic mold.

But I wasn’t prepared for the backlash of putting sociological analyses of different phenomenon out into the public world. In the classroom, I occupy a status of authority, and I suppose that I figured as an expert in sociology and gender studies, people who read my posts would consider what I had to say. This is, after all, the courtesy I am afforded in the classroom. What I have found, though, is that blogging means making myself vulnerable in new ways; it means deciding to engage or avoid people who vehemently (to put it mildly) reject my online work; and it means thinking more about what exactly can be accomplished by blogging.

By definition, sociologists study and engage public issues. They are trained to analyze the mechanisms by which social ideologies, interactions, and structures shape everything from fashion choices to the global political economy; and so this work is often political in nature and strikes many as judgmental of their own behavior. To some, sociologists seem to make Halloween costumes and the comeback of plaid and beards for men unnecessarily political. From a sociological perspective, though, this work reveals the already existing but often taken-for-granted inequalities of everyday life.

It’s interesting to see what work gets the most public backlash. Of my own blogs, Man Buns as Cultural Appropriation was widely “liked” and much despised. Perhaps I could have been clearer that I was not saying white men who gather their hair behind their ears should feel racial guilt; but I stand by my argument that the bun does not transform all men into hipsters. Some men are negatively targeted because of the racial, ethnic, or religious associations of their buns. And when style sites encourage men attempting the bun to “Think more Indian Sikh than Kardashian at the gym” or to mimic the Samurai top knot, they help us understand that the man bun is about more than just style.

Other scholars who ask us to consider white, male, and/or heterosexual privilege also see a lot of backlash; and some have received hate mail calling them whores and death threats on social media. And some academics are getting into trouble with their universities for making public not only their personal opinions, but their interpretations of phenomenon in ways that are actually congruent with their training; be it political science, sociology, queer studies, or any number of fields.

Book-The Public Professor

M. V. Lee Badgett’s new book, The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World, unpacks strategies for going public with academic research and encourages scholars to consider the practical effects of these different strategies. Citing academic bloggers John Sides and Lisa Wade, for example, she lays out valuable outcomes of blogging, including: providing content for courses, becoming a public expert and generalist in a field, and helping to encourage “appreciative thinking” outside the classroom. They also note that blogging can be fun! The title of the book is thus a bit of a misnomer, as Badgett encourages scholars to go public but keep their expectations in check. You might not change the world with one post or even one hundred posts. Nonetheless, you just might find yourself feeling empowered to engage new audiences outside of your classroom, discovering new communities of colleagues, and learning how to respond to challenges to your work you never received from academic colleagues. I’m still navigating what “going public” means for me, but I’m interested to see where this digital road leads.

theatre1I am not an actor or a playwright, although, full disclosure, I have been surrounded by artists throughout my life. My father was a playwright and an actor; my mother was a painter; and my partner is also a playwright. My sister and I were both plunked into dance classes and piano lessons at an early age. Dance was what “stuck” for me, a necessary outlet in a household too full of struggle.  By the time I was 13, I was in a college performing troupe, and in my 20s, I was performing regularly, teaching dance classes and working as a dance therapist. I was taught by my father to find a “real job” where I could make a living, that the arts were something to do “on the side”. And anyway, he told me, artists needed “material” to inspire our creativity. I could write this entire blog just on that topic and how artists in this country are NOT supported, but that’s not where I’m headed. Instead, I write about the value in bringing the arts – specifically theatre – into the sociology classroom.

Getting started in connecting teaching with the arts

When I began working as an applied sociologist about twenty years ago, my focus was on work and family research. As I explored new areas of research, I yearned to figure out a way to incorporate the arts into my work once again. One day, while riding a subway car, I happened to overhear a conversation between a seasoned professional and a younger woman. The professional was an incredible guide, listening well to the younger woman talk about some work they were doing together, and then re-framing it in a helpful and respectful way. vsaI leaned over to her and commented that she was a great mentor. This brief encounter turned into a four-year working relationship, starting with acting as a coach and support to my new friend who worked for the national organization, VSA arts, an international organization* that focuses on arts and disability. My initial role as coach broadened into helping the organization with strategic planning and eventually studying the impact of a VSA arts’ artist-in-residence program which was taking place in “inclusive” classrooms, classrooms including children of all abilities. Later, I became a trainer for VSA arts, travelling to a number of their state affiliate organizations around the country and teaching evaluation research, as well as how to build strategic partnerships. The training we did always incorporated arts activities, and I could see that teaching “in and through” the arts was a powerful medium.

atingWhen I started teaching sociology courses, I wanted to build on what I had learned doing training for VSA arts. I started experimenting with using theatre as a tool to teach gender theory in a feminist theory class. While there are, no doubt, many activities one can do with theatre, including taking students on field trips to a local playhouse or supporting their research on plays that deal with gender issues, I have chosen a more hands-on method. When I have used theatre in the classroom, students take on acting out several scenes of a play and use their understanding of the characters as a means to apply gender theory.

In this post, I describe a few of the plays and methods I have used.  While my teaching goal is to help students develop a deeper understanding of gender theories, I have also used this technique in a Sociology of Aging class, which was very effective, and I believe that many areas of analyses can be explored through the use of theatre.

Teaching gender theory through the arts

glassI first considered the idea of using theatre as a means to teach gender theory when I was teaching Sociology of Sex and Gender.  Having taught feminist theory in a fairly traditional way, I wanted to experiment with finding a way to make gender theory come alive. I called my dad and asked him what plays he thought would work, and he immediately suggested “The Glass Menagerie,” by Tennessee Williams.  As you may know, this play focuses on the frail character of Laura who collects glass objects (her “menagerie”). Her mother, driven by fears that her Laura will become a spinster, pressures her son to bring home a coworker as a possible suitor. With an exaggerated Southern etiquette, the mother welcomes this “gentleman caller,” hoping that he will woo Laura and save her from a life of loneliness. The visitor is very kind and somewhat pitying, but finds Laura’s quirky obsession with glass objects intriguing. There is plenty of gender food for thought in this play, and it is truly a classic.

The second play that I have used is “Gut Girls,” a contemporary play written by British author, Sarah Daniels. I used this play for a course called “Gender, Work and Public Policy.” In this case, I wanted a play that centered on the experience of work, and which also had a lot to say about gender and class. The gut girls in Daniels’ play are slaughterhouse workers in late 19th century England. They are feisty, funny and irreverent working-class women who, in their own ways, understand their oppression and exploitation. We meet these women in their messy workplace, and find out how “gutsy” they are, as they exchange banter while doing their jobs. The “plot thickens” when an upper-class woman visits the gut girls at their workplace, deigning to enter their world of blood and entrails. She is appalled at their working conditions, and also takes pity on them, and decides to sets up a social club to teach them manners.

gutUltimately, we discover that the upper-class woman’s motives are twisted, as she gets them to work as domestics, considered more “refined” work, or more appropriate for women. Among the gut girls is a woman trying to unionize the group, another who lives in a home for wayward girls, and so on. Students take on the various roles of these gut girls with great gusto! They love to struggle with the working class British accents, and swear and cajole one another about offal (or guts). It is, at the very least, a heck of an icebreaker for any class.

Some suggestions for how to use theatre in the classroom

Here are some more specifics regarding how I approached getting started and implementing this methodology of using theatre with students.

1. Finding a play

First of all, I select a play that deals with gender issues. (One could argue that all plays could be construed as dealing with gender issues.) Short of having a family member who can act as a resource, there are many ways to research options. For example, a store called Baker’s Plays has a website (www.bakersplays.com), which allows you to search for plays by type or title, and then you can purchase the plays from them at a very reasonable price. Or you could contact a local theatre or even a theatre department in your university/college, for advice. Also, the Drama Book Shop in New York has a website (www.dramabookshop.com), with up-to-date information about plays and more. To find “Gut Girls,” I emailed chairs of theatre departments around the country, explaining the kind of play I needed and why, and was pleasantly surprised that they took my request seriously. Interestingly, a number of them suggested this play. I had no problem finding the play on the web, but finding a physical copy was not easy. This is how I discovered Baker’s Plays, and they had the play. (Some plays, including “Gut Girls,” cannot be found in your average bookstore. More popular plays are easier to track down at a chain or independent bookstore.)

2. Finding a scene from the play

So far, I have not used the entire play; rather, I select several scenes that capture the essence of the play and also include the number of characters needed to include students in the “production.” I try to keep the reading to about 30-45 minutes, so doing a rehearsal reading on your own may be useful.

3. Introducing the idea to your class

On the first day of class, part of my introduction to the course involves handing out the script and asking students to volunteer to “play” whatever character they choose. This achieves two purposes:  I find it facilitates student bonding early on in the semester, and it also solicits commitment to the course.

4.  Students prepare for their mini-production

When I use this method in a small class, everyone can have a part in the play. When the class is larger, I get volunteers, who will then “perform” it for their peers. In my experience, being in the play is very exciting (and perhaps preferable), but observing a play reading is still a great experience for students.  In one larger class where I used this method, it turned out that the volunteers were extremely talented drama students and the rest of the class was treated to a professional performance! After students have been introduced to the play and have selected their character (that is, if they have a character), I encourage them to go through their script and highlight their lines before the next class when they do the play reading. The class is also assigned readings on gender theory, which they must also complete by the next class.

5. The production

I find that students take the production very seriously. They come prepared, even if they stumble over some of their lines. When it really clicks, they work at relating to each other as characters, rather than just reading their lines. At the same time, because this isn’t a professional production, I find that students will laugh at a funny part or groan or comment at something particularly sad or difficult. At the end, we applaud! Often students want to continue reading beyond the selected scene, which I figure is a good sign, but I do stop them so we can get on to the analysis.  It’s mainly a time issue.

6. Small group discussion

First, I ask students how they felt to be the characters they played. I also ask them their general observations about the other characters. Then, students break into small groups for 15-20 minutes, and work on applying a theoretical perspective (e.g., biological determinism, gender as social construction) to the characters and their actions. I ask them to focus on one theory, because the task of thinking about the play in the context of doing a theoretical analysis can be fairly complex. While presumably they have done assigned readings on gender theories, I hand out a one-page description of several theories, which they use as a guide.

7. Large group discussion

When small groups have finished talking, they come back to the larger group and a representative from the group presents their group’s analysis. We then open it up for discussion, comparing and contrasting the gender theories, in the context of the play.

Using theatre in this way is fun and productive. I believe that it enhances students’ understanding of the theories they are discussing. In many of the classes I teach, students ultimately learn to apply their analyses of gender issues to their own lives, taking the understanding of the personal to a broader level that often involves an understanding of the intersection of sociology, psychology, economics and political science. Using theatre early on in the semester is one way to provide an opportunity to take students into the realm of human experience – through their characters – as a bridge to better understanding their own lives.

If using theatre in the classroom moves you, but you have some questions about how to make it happen, feel free to ask them in the comments section, and I promise that I’ll respond!

National Theatre, Washington, DC
National Theatre, Washington, DC

*VSA arts is now merged within the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts