Letter of Support to Parents and Loved Ones of Wake Forest Students

Although the university’s response to threatening emails sent to 7 individual faculty and staff associated with the sociology department and 5 other units on campus was slow, the response of our department was not. In addition to the email noted in my previous post, drafted by our department chair Joseph Soares, our newest faculty member, Brittany Battle, took it upon herself to write a letter of support to parents and loved ones of Wake Forest students.

I am grateful that she did. The letter appears below.

As a two-time parent of Wake Forest undergraduates (including one currently), I was happy to co-sign.

The early morning sun rakes across the side of Kirby Hall, on the campus of Wake Forest University, Friday, January 11, 2019. Photo by Ken Bennett

Dear Parents and Loved Ones of WFU Students,

Over the past week, the university has been experiencing the aftermath of hateful emails sent to members of the university community. We have spoken with many students and many have described their fear and anger. We can completely relate to those feelings, which are shared by many associated with the university, including parents. As faculty and staff members at Wake, we want to assure you that we are here on campus to support your children and to advocate for their safety and security. We are committed to making sure that the most marginalized students on our campus–students of color, LGBTQ+ students, first-generation students–have faculty in their corner who are speaking on their behalf. We are committed to doing our very best every day to make them feel welcomed and valued here. The most rewarding part of our job is teaching and supporting your children, a job that we all hold in the utmost regard. We know you trusted the university in sending your child to get their education at Wake, in many cases hours away from home. We hope that knowing your child has the support of faculty and staff, across departments and individual backgrounds, provides you with some comfort.

In Solidarity,

Brittany P. Battle, Assistant Professor of Sociology

Saylor Breckenridge, Associate Professor of Sociology

Hana Brown, Associate Professor of Sociology

Amanda Gengler, Assistant Professor of Sociology

Amanda L. Griffith, Associate Professor and Associate Chair of Economics

Kristina Gupta, Assistant Professor, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Marina Krcmar, Professor, Communication, WFU Parent (‘17)

Jayati Lal, Visiting Associate Professor, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Jieun Lee, Assistant Professor, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Tanisha Ramachandran, Associate Teaching Professor, Department for the Study of Religions

Don R. Shegog, II, Instructional Technologist for Economics, Politics and Sociology Departments

Robin Simon, Professor of Sociology

Joseph A. Soares, Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology

Alessandra Von Burg, Associate Professor, Communication, WFU Parent (‘14)

Ron Von Burg, Associate Professor, Communication, WFU Parent (‘14)

David Yamane, Professor of Sociology and Wake Forest Parent (‘17, ‘22)

Mir Yarfitz, Associate Professor, Department of History

Tanya Zanish-Belcher, Director—Special Collections & Archives, ZSR Library

Sociology Department Response to Hostile Emails Sent to Wake Forest Faculty and Staff

My academic home, Wake Forest University, is not innocent of the open and blatant racism of the past or the more hidden and subtle racism of the present. Many on campus, including members of my home department (sociology), have pressed for the university to address this.

Recently, Wake Forest became the target of open and blatant racism (and homophobia and anti-Semitism), particularly members of the sociology department. As has been reported in the media, sociology faculty and staff received 7 of 12 hateful emails that were recently sent by an (as yet) unknown sender.

Although the university was slow in its official response, the department responded more quickly in an email to our majors and minors. That email, written by our department chair and co-signed by the members of our department, is copied below.

An exterior view of Wait Chapel, on the campus of Wake Forest University, Thursday, August 29, 2019. Photo by Ken Bennett

Dear Sociology Students:

This letter comes to you from the entire department of sociology, faculty and staff, because we believe you have a right to know the truth about the hate emails that were sent to members of our community last week.

Wednesday, September 11, the University Police told you that there were “investigating reports of inflammatory emails [sent out Tuesday night] with racist, homophobic, and discriminatory content sent from an unknown source … to various faculty and staff members.” That’s true. But what wasn’t spelled out is that the only individuals who received these emails were faculty and staff in our department. Seven people who work in our department were singled out for a hate email that praised the white male founding fathers, dismissed our undergraduates with ugly vile language, and called for our land to be “purged” of people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community.  We take this hate email as being not just racist, homophobic, and misogynistic but also as a threat of violence. The call to “purge” categories of persons, is a white supremacist call for genocide.

The safety of everyone in our community is our top priority, but we also promise you transparency and the truth. We live in a society plagued by racism, sexism, and gun violence. We will do all we can to carry forward our scholarship, teaching, and our public engagement for social justice.  And we will do all we can to keep you and us safe from harm.

All classes will be canceled for the rest of this week to enable us to fully organize our security. Our building will have for the foreseeable future a police presence and all classrooms will be on auto lock. Only faculty will be able to unlock classroom doors.

If you have questions, reach out to your faculty.  If you have information, reach out to the Wake police.

Sincerely,

Joseph Soares

With Brittany Battle; Ken Bechtel; Saylor Breckenridge; Hana Brown; Rob Freeland; Amanda Gengler; Steven Gunkel; Catherine Harnois; Robin Simon, Erica Talley; Ian Taplin; Ana Wahl; and David Yamane.

Battling the Cell Phone Menace in Class for a Decade Now

Facebook’s wayback machine (“On this Day” app) reminded me this morning that I have been battling students using their cell phones in class for a long time now.

I know some professors don’t care if students use their phones in class. Fine by me; their class, their rules. And some are just unaware. Many Wake Forest students, including my now graduated son Paul, text me from their classes. But I find it distracting. So, I have tried to dissuade students from using their phones in class for some time.

I put a special note in my syllabus, highlighted in red(dish) so it cannot be missed (above). And I make clear in the grading rubric for class participation the penalty for using phones in class.

And still students use their phones in class, and then complain to me at the end of class when I penalize them for doing so. (Among other things they complain about with respect to their class participation grades.)

So this year I’ve decided to try to triple reinforce my expectations by having students sign and initial that they have read and understand the class expectations. We’ll see what difference it makes.

Reason Requires That You Accept You May Be Wrong

Wake Forest University’s Commencement ceremony was particularly special this year because my oldest son graduated (with a B.S. in Finance, Summa Cum Laude, if I may brag on him just a bit). It is always exciting to be present to the symbolic transition of students from their pasts into their futures. All the more so when that student is your kid and you have a front row seat and can snap a quick selfie.

This year’s commencement speaker was Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian (books on Jefferson, Jackson, FDR, and George H.W. Bush). In the era of celebrity commencement speakers — e.g., Stephen Colbert at Wake Forest in 2015, Will Ferrell at USC this year — choosing a scholar to give your commencement address can inspire reactions from yawns to disappointment (among students, especially).

Of course, choosing someone as your commencement speaker because they are smart instead of well-known or wealthy has the benefit of producing smarter commencement addresses. To wit: In my time as a faculty member, David Brooks gave one of the smarter commencement addresses I’ve seen.

Monday, May 21, 2007. Wake Forest professor David Yamane hoods David Brooks with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

I thought Jon Meacham’s commencement address this year was smart, too. In particular he talked about partisanship, reason, reflection, truth, and error in a way I found compelling. I’ve bolded the sections I found most significant in the extended excerpt below:

The great fact of America today is pervasive partisanship. Too many of us are given to reflexively reacting to whatever unfolds in the public square – not according to our reason but to our ideological and even tribal predispositions. Now I want to be very clear about this. Partisanship is not an intrinsically bad thing. The middle way is not always the right way. It’s in the nature of things and in the nature of human beings to hold fast to views and allegiances, to heroes and to creeds, to the exclusion of other views and other allegiances, other heroes and other creeds. Such is politics, which is both an emotional and a rational undertaking. What is worth avoiding, however – and too many of us are doing too little to avoid this – is reflexive, as opposed to reflective partisanship.

The point of America is not for all of us to agree. That is impossible and undesirable in any event. Autocracies are about total agreement. Or at least total submission. The American republic is founded on the notion that even the person with whom I most stridently disagree may have something to say worth hearing and heeding and that the only way I can figure out whether that’s the case is by listening to that person and by weighing the relative merits of what is said and then –only then – making up my mind.

The danger – and this is all too pervasive at the moment – lies in my reflexively dismissing a point made by a person simply because that person is the one making the point. That’s a foreclosure of reason. I’d argue that’s a sin because the human capacity for judgment – however flawed, however fallen – is the great gift that distinguishes us above the beasts of the field and the trees of the forest and the creatures of the sea. So I beg you, truly: Be reflective about our public life. Make up your mind based on facts, not alternative facts or alternative evidence.

Be open to the very real possibility that you might be wrong from time to time and people you thought were beyond redemption might be right.

I’ve learned alot about myself and others by hanging out with people whose social and political views are different from mine, so Meacham’s comments definitely resonated with me. Try it. You may not like it, but it is good for you.

My view of Jon Meacham’s commencement address at Wake Forest University, May 2017

Data on Gender Segregation in Occupations (2012)

Teaching Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart in my sociological theory class recently, I was looking for data on the percentage of flight attendants today who are male. I found a nice post on the issue by Mona Chalabi (“Dear Mona”) on the FiveThirtyEight blog. Answer: In 1980, 14.3 percent of flight attendants were male; in 2012, 24.2 percent.

Chalabi also provided this really helpful graphic showing the percentage of U.S. workers who are male in a huge number of job sectors, from least male (kindergarten and earlier school teachers – 2.3%) to most male (boilermakers – 99.8%).

chalabi-datalab-flightattendants-2

New Course for Fall 2015: The Sociology of Guns

I am excited to be teaching a new course in the fall semester, related to my new research project on American gun culture: Sociology 384: Special Topics Seminar – The Sociology of Guns. Course description follows the flier.

Sociology of Guns Course Annoucment 3-12-15COURSE DESCRIPTION

Guns often have a spectacular presence in the American imagination, from George Zimmerman to Sandy Hook Elementary to the American sniper Chris Kyle. But guns are also a part of everyday life in communities across the United States. They are used as tools of criminal violence and self-defense, and are one of the mostly commonly owned pieces of sporting equipment in the country.

Clearly, guns are an important part of American society and culture. With more than 300,000,000 guns held by private citizens and a Constitutional amendment associated with gun ownership, the possession, regulation, meaning, and use of firearms reaches into important realms of American society, including: civil rights and liberties, identity and culture, crime and violence, public health and personal safety, and even sport and leisure.

This course explores the multifaceted role guns play in the U.S. from a sociological perspective. From a firm foundation of understanding the history and technology of firearms, as well as the historical and constitutional origins of the 2nd Amendment, the course will focus on a range of topics, including: the prevalence and distribution of guns; attitudes and opinions about gun ownership; lawful possession and use of firearms; illegal and legal gun markets; gun crime and injuries; and the varieties of responses to gun injuries and crime.

I Am a Professor

There, I said it. I am a professor. The description does not exactly roll off my tongue. I am a professor. It somehow sounds pompous to me. So I generally avoid saying it.

T-shirt suggested for me on my Facebook feed

T-shirt suggested for me on my Facebook feed

When I am traveling and a cab driver asks me what I do for a living, or at holiday parties when I am making small talk with people I have just met, I usually say “I teach at Wake Forest.” Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far.

I spend 40% or less of my work time teaching (in and out of class), preparing to teach, or grading. In fact, the 300-375 minutes/week I spend in classrooms (30 weeks a year, not counting summer teaching) is one of the smallest parts of my job.

I spend another 10-20% of my time in department, college, university, and professional service activities (committee work, doing peer reviews).

So the majority of my time I spend reading, researching, and writing for publication. And this, I think, is what most distinguishes being a “professor” from being a “teacher.”

But I don’t think many people get the distinction. Even though a large and growing percentage of the American population today has graduated from college, the majority of college graduates have little contact with professors outside of class. So all they know about the job is that professors teach.

Posted in a dorm common area at Western Carolina University

Posted in a dorm common area at Western Carolina University

And at many colleges and universities, there is no expectation that faculty will do anything other than teaching (and doing institutional service work). In these cases, saying one is a “teacher” is perfectly descriptive of the job, even if the formal job title is “professor.” (This also applies to institutions where faculty are suppose to do more than teach, but do not.)

Still, I get frustrated sometimes when people say “must be nice to have summers off” or “must be nice to work only 3 days a week.” Depending on my mood, this is true even when I know they are joking, as with the guys I play tennis with. I came across the dedication below (for my sociology of religion textbook) recently because I have been working on the revisions for the new edition of the book over this winter “break.” It expresses my frustration.

My acknowledgements for the 5th edition of my religion textbook with Keith Roberts

My acknowledgements for the 5th edition of my religion textbook with Keith Roberts

In fact, I have been working on the textbook revisions for 10-12 hours a day 6 days a week from the moment I turned in my fall grades. And I will be working on it until the moment I step into class for the spring semester. So when people ask me how my winter break is going, I want to channel John McEnroe and scream, “You cannot be serious!” Or at least to say, “Must be nice to have some time off for the holidays. I wouldn’t know.”

But when I settle down and upon reflection I realize that I am part of the problem. I perpetuate it by continuing to say “I teach at Wake Forest” rather than saying “I am a professor” when people ask me what I do for a living.

It still doesn’t roll easily off my tongue, but at least it better reflects who I actually am and what I actually do. I am a professor, dammit.

Concluding note: My lovely wife, who is an occupational health nurse working in manufacturing facilities, will read this post and think, “Quit complaining. You don’t have a real job. The people I work with have real jobs.” To her I say: I would not trade my job for any other. I love my job. It is a great job. But it is a job. A more than full-time job, where you work six days a week, not three, and where you don’t have summers or winters off. That is all. Now I have to get back to my textbook revisions.

Putting Grading and Grades in Perspective

The quickening of life due to technology is a blessing I depend on daily. But it is also a curse at times, especially at the end of the semester when it comes to grades. I submitted my fall grades today at 11:45am (they were due at noon!). By 4pm the first grade complaint had arrived in my email. No more waiting a week for the printed report card to show up in the mail or having weeks before the start of the next semester for the student to cool off before being in touch!

Exceptional RatingI never worry about “getting in trouble” for the grades I give. My syllabus is usually a dozen pages long, reading like the legal document that it has become, spelling everything out in meticulous detail. I also use grading rubrics handed out in advance so students know the grading criteria for individual assignments.

I don’t even get frustrated by the grade complaints. What I mostly get is sad. I feel badly that they are under so much pressure to get certain grades, whether the pressure if from their parents or themselves.

I feel especially badly for students who invest so much of their sense of self in their grades that they see an “A-” and they do not experience happiness. They only see what is not there.

Or, worse, they have a sense that if they do their best, that it must be worth an “A.” They do not understand a world in which THEIR best does not equal THE best.

Case in point, a very good student I had in class this semester saw an “A-” only for what was not there, rather than what was there. S/he wrote to me:

I’ve never had a professor say that an A is a 95 or above which is why I’m concerned about this because I worked incredibly hard in this class and feel like I deserve an A and to any other professor I have ever had at wake a 94 would be an A.

So if you could provide me with clarity on why you choose to grade this way and why it isn’t standardized across classes that would be helpful because I am concerned about this.

My response:

I am happy to clarify, though I doubt given your state of mind about this that this is going to make you feel any better. But hopefully I can give you both some information and some perspective (my view at least) on the grading in general and your grade in particular.

The syllabus, which I reviewed at length at the beginning of class, specified the following grades according to points earned:

“The scale for grades based on the number of points earned over the course of the semester is as follows:
A         96‑100
A‑        92‑95
B+        89‑91
B          86‑88
B‑         82‑85
C+       79‑81
C         76‑78
C‑        72‑75
D+       69-71
D         66-68
F          Less than 65”

So, in fact, 96 and above is an A in this course (and all of my courses).

The bulletin of Wake Forest College (p. 33) specifies only that A represents exceptionally high achievement, A-, B+, and B represent superior achievement, B-, C+, and C represent satisfactory achievement, C-, D+, D, and D- represent passing but unsatisfactory performance, and F is failure. There are no instructions nor is there any standardization in grading within or between departments beyond these broad frameworks.

So, although you may have never had a professor say that a 95 (or a 96) represents an “A”, it is certainly the case that professors grade very differently. In some cases most students get A’s and in other cases few students do. In some classes (accounting, biology, math) many students fail, and in some (com, soc, religion) none do. So, grading varies enormously from class to class, such that what a 94 means in one class — and what it take to earn a 94 — is not the same in another class.

I am very sorry that you do not feel that being at the high end of “superior” is adequate. I wish that you would look at an A- and think, “Awesome, I performed at a superior level.”

I am also sorry that you feel if you work incredibly hard that you “deserve” an A. It is absolutely possible for people — myself included — to work incredibly hard an not attain “exceptionally high achievement,” a grade that is reserved — in my class, at least — for truly exceptional (rare, unprecedented, extraordinary, remarkable, phenomenal — some synonyms) work. Your work was at the high end of superior, and in the case of your class participation, it was exceptional — hence your getting 100% of that component.

You have probably already figured this out, but for the record let me put this in some perspective for you. If you take 120 credits to graduate from Wake Forest, you will have the opportunity to earn 480 grade points. For this 3 credit course, the difference between an A (4.00) and an A- (3.667) is 0.999 grade points (p. 33 of bulletin). Or, in the context of your college career, 0.2% of your total grade points.

As I said at the outset, I am sure that nothing short of “ooops, I made a mistake, you get an A” will put a smile on your face and give you a sense of satisfaction in a job well done. But that is my hope for you.

Read Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members: A Novel

Whether you write letters of recommendation or not – but especially if you write letters of recommendation – read Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members. It is a novel written in the form of letters of recommendation by Jason T. Fitger, Professor of Creative Writing and English at Payne University.

Although not a typical narrative, the novel nonetheless tells a funny and at times poignant story of an older professor dealing with changes in himself and in the university, through his many digressions in the letters of recommendation he writes.

I don’t want to give away too much, but some memorable passages from a couple of the letters include:

  • “This letter recommends Melanie deRueda for admission to the law school on the well-heeled side of this campus. I’ve known Ms. deRueda for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes.”
  • “Only by rewarding West [a junior colleague up for an award] and others of his happy ilk, and perhaps by killing off senior faculty, myself included, will it be possible for that elusive and almost mythical beast – collegiality – to prevail.”
  • “I have decided to accept a desperate departmental nomination for chair. Janet [his ex-wife who works on campus] will tell you that, throughout this institution, I am widely disliked. (I’m sure you’re shocked at the news.) She has attempted to bolster me, however, by claiming that, though understandably reviled, I am not universally distrusted, and on that basis I should serve out a three-year term.”

It’s a fast read at 180 small pages. I was sorry when it ended.

A Letter to My Future Students

I am participating in a faculty Writing Associates Seminar, in which we are learning to integrate writing more intelligently and productively into our courses. For an upcoming retreat, our seminar leader asked us to write a letter to our future students about what we hope they will get out of our class. I wrote the letter below for a course I am developing — related to my new research project on American gun culture — on “Guns in American Society.” Enjoy!

Photo credit: Lauren Carroll/Winston-Salem Journal

Photo credit: Lauren Carroll/Winston-Salem Journal

11 July 2014

Dear Students –

I am excited for this opportunity to spend some time together learning about the place of guns in American society. I have very high, perhaps even unrealistic, expectations for what I hope you will take away from this course.

First of all, I hope you will cultivate a scholarly approach to understanding guns. That means you will be able to take an issue that is contentious and complex, and approach it in as objective and nuanced a manner as possible.

This is easier said than done. As sociologists, we are a part of, not apart from, the social worlds we study. This is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because we bring a great deal of personal experience and understanding to our studies. It is a weakness because our personal experiences and understandings can be partial, biased, uninformed.

Therefore, we need to inform our personal experiences and understandings with broader sociological theories and more rigorous sociological studies of the phenomenon of interest. In other words, we need to develop our sociological imaginations. As C. Wright Mills put it decades ago, “it is by means of the sociological imagination that [people] now hope to grasp what is going on in the world, and to understand what is happening in themselves as minute points of the intersections of biography and history within society.”

This passage from Mills also points to a second objective of this course. I hope you will come away from the course with a better understanding of yourself with respect to guns. This includes your personal relationship to and personal beliefs about them.

Finally, although we will cover the good, the bad, and the ugly of guns in American society, there is much more to understand than we will be able to cover in the short time we have together this semester. Therefore, I hope to encourage you to develop an attitude and the tools necessary to continue to develop your sociological imagination with respect to guns for the rest of your life.

I am looking forward to getting started on this sociological enterprise with you.

Until then, best wishes,

David Yamane