In advance of the 2023 ASA Annual Meeting we at First Publics were thrilled to chat with ASA President Prudence Carter about the “educative power of sociology”, doing public sociology, and teaching during these politically charged times. Here we share the conversation, edited for clarity.

Sarah Shannon: You have experience teaching in various institutions and departments, including sociology and schools of education. How has that aspect of your scholarly trajectory shaped your emphasis on the relevance and potential of sociology to address public issues?

Prudence Carter: Yes, straddling both the educational research and sociology fields has had a tremendous impact on not only my understanding of sociology as a discipline but also on what I perceive as its current status and not fully realizing the educative power of the discipline. I have loved carrying sociology into the educational research field. There are many sociologists who work in schools of education and other policy schools, and applied fields. What I realized very early on in my career is that if I were writing about schools as organizations, and the work was going to have either impact or some implications for the lives of students and educators, then I needed to be speaking to those people as well. And my switch to a faculty of education was unplanned. I was trained as a sociologist and anticipated that I would be in a sociology department the entire time, and when I went into the school of education at Stanford, I think that was a pivotal moment when my career took off. I was both reaching, speaking, and writing to a wider audience, and I was being invited to speak to superintendents, principals and teachers, policymakers, as well as social scientists and graduate students. The work was not just limited to writing books and journal articles. My first book, my little train that could, as I say, captured a wider audience. And that’s primarily because I think the way I wrote it spoke to more than sociology, to its paradigms, to frameworks, and it really resonated with educators. So, to sum it up, I would say that I know that the trajectory of my career would not have been what it was, or what it currently is, if it had not been for my straddling and bringing the practice and the academic research of the two different fields together.

Sarah Shannon: You’ve written about your experience, not only straddling these different disciplines, but also within sociology, straddling professional, critical sociology and this more public, policy focused sociology. We’re wondering how that experience has filtered into your teaching, or even vice versa. Have there been times where your teaching has prompted some of your moves to a more public, problem solving, or policy sociology.

Prudence Carter: The journey has been really organic. It’s not been planned or intentional. I will say that everything that I write and research shapes how I teach. And, in fact, what I’m teaching in the classroom ends up shaping how I actually craft or even analyze and write.  

I’ve always enjoyed teaching. You should know that I am the offspring of educators. I grew up in Mississippi. My grandmother went back and got her teacher’s credential at age 40, after having about a dozen kids. My aunts and both of my parents were K-12 educators; one aunt taught at a rural community college. I really thought I was going to get away from education itself and do something that I thought was more glamorous when I was an undergraduate, but I believe and I see that being an educator is just in my bloodline, you know. I don’t mean that literally. I mean that figuratively. I was just looking at a picture of myself speaking about three years ago, giving a keynote to an audience of policy makers, nonprofit leaders, researchers, and so forth. And I saw what I wrote underneath it when I posted to Instagram–and I wrote: “I know what my passion is, and that is teaching to the public,” but having it be evidence-based and supported by others’ and my research. I have gotten away, in my years of being in academia now, from just writing for journals and books. I aim for my research, writing, and public speaking to lend themselves to seeding ideas and influencing some change in policy and practice that will ameliorate the social and educational problems of our society. Part of that means actually articulating, elaborating, laying it out for audiences. So, I find that I enjoy speaking way more because I reach people with the arguments. I have given many talks, and it’s not just performance when I’m doing it, I’m teaching. And the classroom is the same way for me. One of the things that I learned early on when I was at the Stanford School of education, a number of our undergraduates and our master students were going into the nonprofit realm, government, and other fields, and they were taking ideas with them. And I view that as critical to our roles as academics:  that the generation of change agents, whom we’re teaching, while they may not become sociologists, they are taking away the knowledge that we provide in the classroom. Therefore, I take teaching very seriously because I have students who’ve ended up in the governor’s and mayor’s offices, or have ended up on Capitol Hill, who ended up in internships, or they’re in state departments of education or their local boards of education.  Those are the folks who either become policymakers or who the ones who policymakers and other public officials look to for help to write briefs and laws. For me, the teaching is really critical to how we help students and emerging leaders understand the world, understand how sociological knowledge actually translates into practice and policies, which may emerge and affect all of our lives. Although that is not a strong consideration for how we are evaluated in terms of our status as sociologists, being a good teacher is critical for our discipline and society. For me it is one of the most fundamental parts of my career. I cannot care less if I am not publishing regularly in ASR or other journals, and I mean no disrespect here. But if I can reach hundreds or thousands through teaching, which I’ve done in two decades at this point, and through speaking and sharing those ideas, then I’d rather get them out quicker that way than to have to go through a five-year process trying to get an article done.  This is a crucial area for the educative power of sociology. 

Steph Hanus: As I was reading your work, I thought about how, as individual instructors of higher education, are we able to be a part of this larger solution that you discuss, that recognizes the layered systems that our students are situated in. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how your research regarding cultural capital and the achievement and opportunity gaps in secondary schools has informed your own teaching practices at the university level.

Prudence Carter: Well, so you know, it’s really ironic that the co-edited volume, Closing the Opportunity Gap, in which Kevin Welner and I invited a number of social scientists across disciplines to participate, has done better than my other books, I think. In fact, I know for Oxford University Press, it came out as one of the top sociology books. We spotlighted how opportunity gaps in housing, schooling, and teaching, economic policies, and inequitable funding, all ensconced within a history of cumulative disadvantages for racially minoritized groups, drive enduring achievement gaps. Some sociologists may not even consider that book a sociology text.  It is one of research-based essays that has been read by policymakers and practitioners. I went to Capitol Hill some years ago and was in a senator’s office, and his chief of staff actually had that book on her bookshelf. I was astonished. So, to me that’s the reach of teaching and the educative power that I really love, and because it was a team effort, and also, it was not just limited to sociology. My argument, and what I say to my students, is that multivariate social problems in our society require multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary engagement, dialogue, and production of knowledge and methods. Schools of education and policy schools have faculties with sociologists, economists, anthropologists, political scientists, historians, educational researchers. In my case, I learned so much from them. I had no idea how little I knew, and my reading across disciplinary boundaries really expanded.  Those experiences really shaped me as a scholar, researcher, and teacher.  Hence, the opening plenary for this year’s ASA conference features leaders from multiple disciplines, speaking (hopefully) about how we do that more intentionally, proactively, how we do it better. How do we model interdisciplinary research collaborations? We can’t solve most social problems within our respective epistemic boundaries and disciplinary boundaries only. One of the things that I do consciously when I teach is to make sure that my syllabus is very multidisciplinary.  I tell my students that mine is a sociology class.  I speak like a sociologist, but I’m going to also talk like a sociologist who loves history and will draw on history. I’m going to talk like a sociologist who has been trained in economics as an undergraduate, who has some problems with some of the econometric methods and some of the things that economists write, but they also provide substantive insights into some of the contours of the material conditions in our society. I find that useful. I find that we have to also think about agency, politics, and social movements, so political science is needed. I try to integrate some knowledge from various disciplines in the classroom, particularly at the graduate level. It’s a bit more complicated, but the undergraduates get it too. I taught a first-year seminar this year, and my students were like “Whoa! That’s a lot. No, I didn’t know that.” They don’t know some of our history or key social facts half the time. When we start talking about how we got to where we are in terms of cumulative inequalities at the macro-level and in terms of group disparities, I find that various disciplines help me with explaining that. Also, I found that in a school of education, and this has been another benefit of my straddling the two disciplinary fields, there are scholars whose research expertise is on teaching and pedagogy. I had to focus on how well I was teaching because I was also instructing former teachers, which compelled me to be more thoughtful about how I conveyed the scholarship and research on my syllabus.

Steph Hanus: In your 2022 reflection in Critical Sociology, you talk about the parochial nature of U.S. sociology and end with a call for a new generation of engaged sociologists who value the nexus of research, practice, and policy while considering global and interdisciplinary possibilities. Graduate students sit in a middle rung of the academic hierarchy both being academically trained, but also approaching a time where we become instructors ourselves and we’re having to choose between various opportunities and ways of framing our teaching and research. I’m curious how you see your call for more global and interdisciplinary approaches, translating into graduate classrooms and training and what you might recommend for graduate students regarding their position, their training, and their choices.

Prudence Carter: Yes. I view those of us inside of universities as first and foremost educators. If we’re in the classroom, that’s our first job. That’s why universities and colleges hire us, I assume. I see the construction of the syllabus and also the lecture, and notes for teaching, as all a part of the practice of sociology. We are also conceptualizing as we prepare our syllabi, lectures, and commentary while teaching. For example, if I’m going to teach about social and economic inequalities beyond and inside of schools and take an ecological perspective, then I have to conceptualize and develop a framework, which reveals itself in the layout and flow of the material for the semester or quarter. What are the different dimensions and domains of social inequalities? And how do I get that reflected in my syllabus and in my teaching? What’s the particularistic in communities? What’s more universal, according to research? Can we see how context matters? Can we see the same patterns across regions in the nation? Why or why not? Do these inequalities span national borders? What are some of the solutions that we know? Can we learn from other countries? Can we learn from other states? Do we need to think about how things work intersectionally? How do these forms of inequality manifest from the macro- to meso- to the micro-levels? That’s a lot, and I have about 14 weeks to do it. I am really trying to braid those different dimensions in my teaching. Now, I’m not saying I did that immediately after graduate school as an assistant professor.  Some development came with maturity as an educator and scholar. I think what those of us who are in the classroom training graduate and undergraduate students can do now, because we know more today, is to at least model some of this. That is what I wish for my graduate students who take classes with me. That’s why I start talking about macro/meso/micro levels a great deal in my writing.  I find that when we teach, commonly we tend to teach at the level of analysis where we situate our own research. I had to stretch myself to try to figure out how to incorporate other levels of analysis. I turn to social psychology. I’m not a social psychologist, but I know that micro- and individual-level processes actually matter and feed into the meso- levels and macro- levels of inequalities too. And so, for me, this is a framework of teaching that has become a part of my orientation as a professor, and my teaching and research shape each other as they evolved. It’s an iterative process. Also, even within our field, epistemically, there are different branches of sociology. We have to contend with that also and make it interesting. I mean, these are complex problems. It can be overwhelming for our students at times, and as educators, it’s important to know how to distill the information in a way that is digestible and understandable. That’s where the teaching practice comes in. I don’t think that I was as successful when I was younger professor. This information really came to me observing how educational scholars, especially teacher educators, design classes. I don’t think we put enough emphasis on actual teaching within the disciplines and so that was another benefit of moving to a school of education. I learned so much.

Diana Graizbord: In a recent 2018 piece in Contexts, you write about some of the political challenges facing students and faculty on university campuses where, “people of color, LGBT, Jewish, Muslim, and immigrant people bear the disproportionate psychological burden as hate and terror brandish in the name of protecting [ so-called] free speech.” This really resonated with the experience of our students and colleagues here in Georgia, Florida, Texas and beyond. We think of our classrooms as spaces where we ostensibly want to encourage free speech, work towards anti-racist goals, encourage multicultural democratic values and yet we’re working in a reactionary and dangerous context, that you so well describe. In your view, how might we harness this educative power of sociology to speak to all of our students, while mitigating hate and promoting democratic values and anti-racist goals?

Prudence Carter: It’s a big question. It’s a hard question, and I can’t guarantee you that I am going give you a right or a satisfying answer. But the first thing that comes to mind, and this is actually leading now into my presidential address and what motivated the topic.  This is fascinating sociological terrain. When you think about societies, and it’s not just ours, which is why I’m very internationally focused…when you think about modern societies and their origins, which for many are predicated on oppression, violence, marginalization, and the denial of humanity, and then how those societies evolved to become more open, and to then to offer human and civil rights. And then think about the expansion, contraction, expansion, contraction of these societies across time in terms of freedoms and justice. All of these are sociological forces at work with political and economic forces, the confluence of it all. For me, it’s fascinating to teach about these and ask philosophical questions about the moral injury engendered in the everyday social practices in which we engage? What’s the common good? What are the values that actually undergird a multicultural democracy, and do we practice them? We debate about it, whether we see ourselves at the center or left, or the right ideologically. I think all of that can be talked about in the classroom. This is the essence of academic free speech, so that when I assign things that make my students uncomfortable, and I did this some this year, I say to them that it is important for us to know what people are thinking and why they are thinking that, even if we don’t agree with and believe that we need to change their attitudes and behaviors. By that, I do not mean to include works that actually harm people symbolically.  In the classroom, we have choice over how we speak and how we talk. I love C. J. Pascoe’s work, and my students and I discussed gender inequality and sexuality this past semester. I teach her article, “‘Dude, You’re a Fag:’ Adolescent Masculinity and the Fag Discourse.”  My students did not want me to use the f-word.  I wasn’t aware that it was a problem, since I had been teaching this article for years, and prior to that, none of my students had ever declared a problem with the title of the article. So, for the first time this past year a new cohort of student comes in, and they were very polite, very diplomatic, and suggested to me “You might want to be cognizant of how you speak about, how you use the title.” So, we talked about it. Do we say the article’s title name, or do we not? They voted not to say the title. So, we didn’t use the title name in speaking. I can accommodate the democratic process. I viewed this as a pedagogic moment. Why was it so problematic? What was it that was making them uncomfortable or decentering their understanding of themselves or others? We have to put all of that out there, and then my job as an educator is to figure it out.  I think that the only way that we’re going to really in practice reduce the polarization, and the palpable social divisions among us is to go into places of discomfort and at least try to figure out what people are saying and if we disagree, offer alternative perspectives respectfully.  As you know, at ASA we released some statements this year. When you see professors who can’t show images of the prophet Muhammad, speaking to the angel Gabriel, and students protesting, I understand that may be in the orthodoxy of one’s religion, but there were trigger warnings from the instructor. That’s what we should do today: to warn that there may be some uncomfortable things shown or discussed, and then offer students an out, if it really disturbs them. That’s what we can do as educators.  But it is incumbent upon us not to suppress the learning of other groups or individuals who really want to learn that knowledge. I fear that we can swing too far in the opposite directions with our needs, our self-interests, our orthodoxy, and idea systems.  I’m not on both sides now, because I do think that there are objective truths, rights, and wrongs about things. Still, I believe that inclusiveness is not just about those who have been historically disadvantaged. Inclusiveness is also about trying to actually know more about those with whom we don’t agree. And that’s why I’m talking about unrealized integration in my presidential address.  I don’t think that we can really realize integration, and I’m not just talking about education and schools in a society when we have not figured out the models of engagement discourse and peaceful coexistence along boundaries of difference.

I don’t think we can underestimate the power of the strong movement that’s been going on for 50 years to turn the country back towards the right. It has been very concerted. It was very well planned, and it has been very well executed. So you are in a context, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, I mean, 36 states actually developed some legislation, against minoritized racial and gender groups. They weren’t all successful. I have realized that there are politics, the hard edge rightwing, and then there are the young people whom we are teaching, many who grew up in communities, and conservative churches, I don’t think we that we center religion enough in sociology, to be honest; it’s an integral social institution. When you’ve been socialized and brought up in that bubble, how do you penetrate it and how do you do it in a way that those individuals also feel respected and seen, but not to the extent that they actually reproduce oppression and marginalization?  I spend some time talking about norms in the classroom and about discomfort. If you can’t do it, then maybe this is not the class for you, unless it’s required. But you know, that’s why we spend time in the beginning around their discomfort. Yeah, it’s very hard. And you have laws now, too, outlawing student discomfort.  I read of a situation in Florida where a professor had to cancel a class because a student was uncomfortable with the material. I mean, we know that our colleagues can’t teach certain things. But I’m very sad about what’s happening in certain states right now.  Now you have to move to more abstract language, perhaps not specific language, to discuss sociological phenomena about race, gender, and sexuality.

Diana Graizbord: It seems you’re always thinking about your publics!  This year’s ASA theme that the “the educative power of sociology” has been great to think with as we’ve been developing First Publics and reflecting on our own teaching as public sociology. We’re really looking forward to your ASA presidential address next month, and to the roundtable we’ll publish in response. To conclude the interview, we’re wondering if you could give the readers of First Publics a preview of your talk? Could you give us a hint of what your address will offer those of us who are interested in teaching, public sociology, and teaching as public sociology?

Prudence Carter: So, my talk really comes out of my thinking about what I have been doing throughout my career as a researcher. What I’ve done as an instructor. It also comes from my experience as a higher ed administrator. It comes from my experiences of traversing the two social fields of educational research and sociology, and it comes from my experience of having actively worked in national organizations. The address will encompass ideas that have been generated by my research and also the limitations of what others and I have been able to glean from research The address takes off from my book, Stubborn Roots, my last major research monograph, although I’ve since done a ton of research in school districts that hasn’t been published. I’m in and out of schools and districts and communities around the country in a consulting role. And I’m living just like you in this current, political, historical, cultural moment where there is so much polarization. I’m trying to understand, what haven’t we predicted with our theories and frameworks?  Where are we myopic as a discipline? Then I realized, Prudence, this is actually what you were trying to think about when you went between the US and South Africa, and you were inside of schools, and you observed one country do something distributionally very different than another. South Africa rapidly opened up their schools. They didn’t have the push back that we had with Brown v. Board of Education. But there were all these other kind of micro-level, microsocial processes that were less tangible and impactful there. And so, what I’m going to argue in this talk is that we have spent a lot of time in the social sciences, thinking about the material conditions, the historical, political conditions, the distributional, what causes or drives inequality. And there is a subset of sociologists who have focused on more microsocial processes, relational ones, even calling it “relational inequality.”  But I don’t think that they have engaged with each other sufficiently enough in discussions of how we develop organizations and various institutions of society better to represent an inclusive, multicultural, and multiracial democracy. I will argue that an imbalance of distributional and relational inequality is what has led to our society’s inability to fully realize integration throughout the various facets of our society. And because we’ve had that vulnerability, it lends itself to this destabilization in the democracy. I’m going to suggest that until we contend with both relational and the distributional issues in our society, because we haven’t attended to the intergroup relationships, particularly along the lines of race, in deep ways, we will have very modest social progress. The things that stick in our society and facilitate change in our society, arguably, pertains to how people feel about each other.

So, Stubborn Roots was about the tangible/intangible and the material and the sociocultural. This is like trying to flesh out my framework fully about why integration was unrealized. And here’s where I can give you an example if you want it. This is what I’m working on right now. It’s likely a provocative take, but I said this publicly in a talk earlier this year about where the Supreme Court left us on June 29th with the ruling on affirmative action. I was just down in Brazil where they actually have formalized affirmative action and tied to their constitution. Brazil is very different in that it frames affirmative action as a compelling state interest to redress and repair past historical injustices, economic injustices. For the United States Supreme Court, historical reparation is not a state interest. Rather, diversity is. Thus far, it has not either mattered to many lawmakers or been compelling in this country to redress state-sanctioned accumulation of disadvantages. But here is where it worked, and we are not talking about it. It worked for gender. In the 1960s under President Johnson, an executive order came out to include the inclusion of women in affirmative action practices. Prior to that, the academy and selective colleges and universities had excluded women across the board. We were not admitted to programs in the various disciplines, nor did we hold leadership roles in universities and professional and managerial spaces. Fast forward 50 years, and women constitute the majority in our discipline, in many colleges and universities, and some organizations. And I would suggest to you that one of the reasons is because men in the patriarchal order had more depth of ties and relationships to their spouses, sisters, cousins, girlfriends, friends, neighbors.  They had social attachment.  Relational inequality was reduced in a way that they could actually entail a different mindset around the inclusion of women and girls in the various parts of society. I was an admission officer prior to going to graduate school, and I recall that we were practicing pro-active affirmative action around gender in the STEM fields, in admission to college. Overall, these practices, emboldened by the feminist revolution, and stronger personal ties, led to a transformation of higher education; but we couldn’t do it similarly for race because of a lack in the depth of care and social attachment to Black, Latinx, and Indigenous peoples, in addition to racist discourse about lack of merit. Race-based affirmative action did not turn out like gender.  Instead, there was a lot of resistance. And here we are. What I’m suggesting to you is that until we can deal with the microsocial and relational, from status relations to group threat and fear to social closure or social intimacy, all of those different things, it’ll be harder to fully actualize the impact of distributional policies and practices. Inattention to the imbalance between distributional and relational inequality engenders unrealized integration.

Diana Graizbord: Thank you, Prudence. 

PRUDENCE L. CARTER is the Sarah and Joseph Jr. Dowling Professor of Sociology at Brown University. Prior to joining Brown, she served as the E.H. and Mary E. Pardee Professor and Dean of the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley from 2016-2021. Carter has also been on the faculties of Harvard University and Stanford University. Her research focuses on understanding and addressing persistent racial, class, and gender inequalities in education and society. Carter is the author of, Keepin’ It Real: School Success beyond Black and White, published by Oxford University Press, which won the Oliver Cromwell Cox Book Award from the American Sociological Association for its contribution to the eradication of racism and was a finalist for the C. Wright Mills Book Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems. She has also written Stubborn Roots: Race, Culture, and Inequality in U.S. & South African Schools and co-edited Closing the Opportunity Gap: What American Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance with Dr. Kevin Welner, both published by Oxford University Press.  She is the current President of the American Sociological Association.