I am headed to the Eastern Sociological Society conference in Boston, MA this week. My main focus is the Digital Sociology mini-conference that is held in conjunction with the event. The mini conference’s first year was 2015, when I co-organized it with Jessie Daniels and Karen Gregory. My name is still on the organizers’ list this year with Jessie and Leslie Jones. I should say upfront that Leslie and Jessie did all of the legwork this year. My year was spent in various stages of completing three book manuscripts and settling into the first year of my tenure track job at Virginia Commonwealth University. This will be my first year presenting, organizing and contributing to an academic conversation as a “legitimate” sociologist.
The idea of being a legitimate sociologist keeps coming up with me. By many accounts, mine has been a non-traditional path. While attending Emory University I somehow managed to, mostly in chronological order: launch a protest of the Chronicle of Higher Education, be interviewed by Dan Rather about my work on for-profit colleges, sign a book deal with a trade press, publish in the New York Times, and find an audience of about 20,000 or so people who follow my blog or my social media accounts. For me, being “public” isn’t something I am becoming now that I have a job but something that I became without a job.
When I talk to people about public sociology and public scholarship I draw on these experiences. I have been interviewed about the extremes of online abuse that follows you offline. That abuse is particular and exponentially worse when you are a woman. And, when you are a woman of color without institutional status it can be pervasive, brutal, and life altering. Being targeted by slut shaming websites, getting hate mail and physical threats has changed how I live my profession. For example, I am suspicious of all unsolicited emails, especially those asking to meet with me when I’m town. It’s a common occurrence in academia but one I cannot safely engage anymore.
These are things I have published on, both in academic journals and in public media. And, I travel the world talking about social media, digital sociology, education, work, and stratification. But, there is still some veneer of de-legitimacy that follows this work. Scholars often meet me and seem surprised that I do “actual” research. I should note that I am a political economist by training. I do multi-methods research of how the new economy changes how we learn and work. My current tools of the trade are interviews, ethnographies, text scraping and quantitative content analysis. This week I will be talking about some of that research. On the presidential panel I will discuss my research on the expansion of for-profit colleges. I borrow from David Brown and David Bills’ work to argue that changes in work drives changes in credentialing. We produced millions of new high cost, low status credentials at financialized for-profit colleges because increasingly work demands it. The shape of those changes are gendered and racialized, primarily because the changes in work have been most seismic and immediate in the economy’s “bad jobs” where minority women are heavily concentrated. I will also be on a panel discussing the public nature of new academic scholarship.
Even as I do this work, I am cognizant of its risks. I know, for example, that I will rarely be cited by fellow academics who publish on public sociology. I know that my status as a sociologist is often overlooked because of my public engagement. I know that public engagement at the behest of the corporate academy is driven by market logics and not entirely by concerns about the public good. I know that more is asked of black women in the academy than is asked of other groups and that is only more true in the case of public engagement. Despite all of these challenges, I’ll argue that there is a place for public scholarship in sociology. We should be there, even those of us for whom the risks are highest. But, I also argue that the work should be translated in our academic profiles, legitimized by our less stigmatized peers, and managed as a dual career. I suspect I’ll be reflecting more on those same themes during my tenure here at Feminist Reflections.