A Year of Sociology, Higher Ed and Blood-letting

My dear friend and collaborator Audrey Watters writes a massive end of year review on education and technology at her place, Hack Education.

I do not share Audrey’s stamina but I have dabbled in end-of-year retrospectives.

At the start of 2014, I considered higher education research’s engagement with race theory and racial inequality. Almost ten months later, sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Johanna E. Massé published a review of sociology and higher education. They summarize the rapid growth of academic scholarship on higher education from sociologists.

I recently worked through a syllabus on the sociology of higher education with my friend and mentor, Richard Rubinson. Rick has said several times that we have reached a point where it was possible to teach an entire course on the sociology of higher education. I agreed.

Rick’s taught a chapter from my book on for-profit higher education in his sociology of education course for a couple of years now. The undergraduates have been gracious first readers of my argument about inequality, risk shift, and for-profit college expansion.

If I teach that class again soon, I would have Goldie Blumenstyk’s “American Higher Education in Crisis” on my desk. It is not the polemic that the title and marketing paints it as. Like my friend Matt Reed, I take issue with some of Blumenstyk’s interpretations of macro trends. But, the book is well-sourced, accessible, and puts statistics into some perspective.

The class would take up Jacobs’ argument about interdisciplinarity to consider knowledge capitalism and Durkheim’s view of the professions versus Weber’s. I would definitely include Somers and Block on the resurgence of Polayni. The U.S. professional variant of economics as a discipline, mode of work, and ideology becomes a nice case study to view how education is always about more than just education.

In contrast to my approach, Armstrong and Massé’s review covers higher education research that is squarely in the mainstream sociological tradition. At least six of the works reviewed are concerned with elite higher education or what we often call schools with “selective admissions”.

While the discipline as a whole has had its share of troubles “studying up” for a view of how the social, cultural and economic elite gain and retain their privilege, sociology of higher education has the opposite problem. The concentration of social theorists in elite institutions that can afford the luxury of supporting that craft collides with convenience sampling to produce a sub-field that knows more about how Harvard does, well, everything than it does how faculty teach at The University of Phoenix.

Notable exceptions include Armstrong and Hamilton’s “Paying for the Party” and Tuchman’s “Wannabe U“. Armstrong and Hamilton examine social reproduction at a good, but not elite, public university. Tuchman delivers a solid organizational analysis of aspirational colleges. She calls them Wannabe Us. I’ve called them Bubble Schools. Both concepts refer to institutional status competition in a prestige economy where elites hold all the cards.

By the middle of the year, Tuchman and I were putting the final touches on a co-authored chapter about how the organizational analysis of Wannabe Us also applies when we go up a level, to look at higher education as a system. Sociology of higher education’s hyperfocus on elite reproduction and rational choice models are poor tools for understanding the complexity of contemporary higher education.

The majority of college students have never gone to elite colleges but that is more true now than it has ever been. With more people attending college and k-12 schooling doubling-down on systematic inequalities it is inevitable that today’s college students are more diverse by any definition of the term. They are older, poorer, browner, and differently motivated than elite students.  The institutions that enroll them use the nomenclature of elite higher education (e.g. college, campus, majors) but can operate very differently. The difference obscures how higher education is reproducing massive social inequality.

I spent a lot of time last year reading and writing and thinking about the debates coming out of higher education conflicts over adjunct labor, student debt, and federal ratings. Each of these trends is attributed to the corporate take-over of higher education. That is true but not true enough for my liking.

This year I pushed the counternarrative that corporatization of higher education is not disemboweling idyllic higher education of yesteryear. For many people, corporatization is exposing and exacerbating centuries-old traditions of exclusion, oppression, and violence. Nostalgia is a privilege. Just one example of the difference: my thoughts on why adjuncting is not like slavery.

Every time I delved into how and why higher education expansion in the late 20th and early 21st century occurred in the private sector as opposed to in the public sector, I ran into technology. You want to talk about job inequality? You have to talk about how technology has changed how we work. Similarly, if you want to talk about how and why different systems of higher education do different things and serve very different ends, then you have to talk about technology. I talked about technology.

I talked about technology so much that I ended up earning a doctoral internship at Microsoft this year. It was an intellectually demanding experience. You sit in a room with the world’s most brilliant mathematicians, methodologists, data scientists, cultural theorists, and economists every day for months. And eventually you realize that you are holding your own, with sociology no less.

I spent that time executing an empirical study of the digital lounges students in for-profit colleges have fashioned in online platforms. When distance learning disrupts space and prestige disrupts the value of your degree, where do you go? The students I worked with went online with surprising lessons for how we understand prestige, credentials and “choice”.

I presented some of those preliminary findings at the Berkman Institute. That talk is presently becoming a paper that will be in a book on Intersectionality and the Internet.

That whole experience sent me back to the stacks to read more, think more, code more, and analyze more. Some of that thinking is happening with colleagues Karen Gregory and the estimable Jessie Daniels at the Eastern Sociological Society’s mini-conference on how sociology can theorize, measure, and understand the digital. The ways in which the students in my study are navigating the collapse of space and place against a backdrop of prestige and inequality? That’s something sociology can bring to and learn from the interdisciplinary work that has happened in Internet Studies.

Culturally, the world kept happening around higher education. I spent time talking about race and comedy; David Brooks, weed, and higher education; and Chait, cornbread and reparations. But, my biggest challenge was a piece I published in Dissent on work, credentials and what higher education simply cannot do.

The piece was hard to write. That almost never happens to me.

It was hard not only because I wanted to get it right.

It was also hard because I knew that others had gotten it right before.

This secret about the limits of education in a system of inequality defined by racism, sexism, and classism is as open as the truth about John Travolta’s hairline. But, I thought each of those previous waves of the open secret had missed a piece.

We get class but no race. We get race but no gender. We get structure but no agency. We get agency but a pithy epithet about structure. I wanted to bring various threads together to tell a bigger picture. It drew blood but it was done.

And for me, that was the theme of 2014. There was blood but it is done.

From scholarship to culture, it has been a year of retrenchment and resistance; of blood oaths and blood-letting. A sociology of higher education should be as much about the milieu of college as it is about the machinery of credentials.

The sociology of higher education can be synthesized as a story about elitism and method. Or, it can be a story about how for-profit college students organizing for federal student debt relief when federal oversight failed them at the outset. It could be a story about die-ins and walk-outs. It could be about sluggish wage growth and ed tech speculation. There is room for a critical sociology of higher education that does not just measure the machinations of privilege but follows the money that produces privilege.

I hope there will be more of that in 2015. I’ll be trying to do my part with a half dozen talks across the country, a new research partnership to study credentials in low-wage healthcare occupations, and publications in various stages of publication. There’s a new column on-deck and a little thing called The Big Book Report to finish.

There may be blood but may it be done.

6 thoughts on “A Year of Sociology, Higher Ed and Blood-letting

  1. Very few people write cogently and accessibly about class–you do. On a personal note, when my younger daughter was was being pressured to make a bad decision by a couple of young women from elite backgrounds and zero class awareness (subtext “We are doing this because we can, and you will put up with it because you don’t have a choice.”) I sent her one of your essays. It helped–a lot. Thank you.

  2. I laughed a lot over your sentence, “This secret about the limits of education in a system of inequality defined by racism, sexism, and classism is as open as the truth about John Travolta’s hairline.” Such a succinctly sad truth but you are so funny.

    Everyone who encounters your work is incredibly lucky. You are a stellar teacher. Your academic peers should be noticing you. Without a doubt, and if they are the “smart” ones… you’re the one to back.

  3. Thrilled to hear you will be turning your attention to low wage health care workers. I’m attempting to support myself in this arena and read everything I can on the subject. Please don’t forget about Home Health Aides who are so often left out of the discussion. Out of sight and out of mind but this is a grim world where vulnerable workers are terribly overworked, isolated, underpaid and under appreciated (accept by their clients). Agencies are rapidly ramping up their staff in response to huge demand for home care. After years of doing home care privately I recently completed the certification so I could join the union and get benefits. I was appauled at the poor quality of the training and the level of contempt we were subjected to. The training was free and it took me a few days to figure out what was sticking in my craw. I got it when a young trainee was being reprimanded by our instructor. On break when we were all complaining to each other she remarked “they treat us like we are court mandated to be here”. Hard to explain but she was absolutely right. Dreadful.

    1. Yes. I worked as a home health aide for several years. When I started the agency was a great place to work–good pay (for the area) and excellent benefits. We had the best aides in the area, and the agency built is clientele based, in part, on our work. Then, after a couple of years, there was a shift–new hires got paid less, benefits declined, etc. Clearly some bean counter had decided we were costing too much. No union, of course, and nobody was interested when I suggested one. I left for private duty, and the agency closed a few years later. Since then, wages overall have gone down significantly–aides getting paid nearly 20 % less than I did for the same work. Some places aides are being asked to do more skilled work–they call it “empowering aides”–they don’t call it “paying them adequately.” Bottom line–aides spend more time with the clients than anyone else, and do most of the actual work. But they neither respected by the hierarchy nor adequately paid. It’s gotta change.

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