ASA Meetings 2009, San Fransisco

The annual meeting of sociologists offers both intellectual inspiration and anxiety as both new and established scholars try to connect with others in a sea of over 6,000 colleagues. I felt in the thick of it this year as a presenter, job seeker and attendee. My concerns about the grim job market were calmed by old friends, chance encounters with interesting people, and great papers. I came away with a better sense of what I want to do, seeing the scarcity of jobs as a creative opportunity rather than reason for despair.

I had the chance to reconnect with my undergraduate mentor from Bates, Emily Kane. Her paper on public sociology for the teaching and learning section raised questions about how liberal arts students approach sociology as a discipline and as a tool for social change. She found that students had little sense of professionalized sociology and were disheartened to learn that its reward systems direct young scholars away from social justice and the empowerment of others. Their disappointment and frustration was familiar, but I’ve moved on to an enduring alienation suppressed by my desire to achieve within the given parameters for success.

Before this, I met Norma and Ed, a dynamic older couple native to San Fransisco. At Tartine, a bakery in the Mission, Norma, dressed in hiking gear and round wire framed glasses, asked me and Wendy – “do they have sticky buns today?” From there we struck up a conversation, later joined by Ed, about what we do and what there is to do in San Fransisco. Exchanging contact information we later learned that this couple knew nearly everyone, young, old and in between who was involved in creative and socially minded work. Ed, once working for the city on arts development, is currently consulting for an Anime project in J-town. Norma is a consultant on cultural diversity in education. While I didn’t have as much chance as I would have liked to spend time with them, they were an inspiration, and a model for meaningful living and working. They were entrepreneurs with social and creative goals and they reached out to others with a sense of trust and purpose.

A conversation with a fellow graduate student jarred me back to the parameters of the tough job market in academic sociology. “I’m willing to go anywhere. Do you think it would be to my advantage to tell hiring committees that I am unattached? Its just me, no partner, no kids and no plans for any of it. I am after the job, period.” I wondered, is this what we must do to ourselves? Craft our lives, goals and desires around the career, rather than craft a career that enables us to do the kinds of teaching, scholarship and community engagement that we seek? I can’t help but think such a reorientation would be better for professional sociology as well as for the individuals working within it.

Despite the unnerving fervor of professionalization that permeates the ASA, I attended paper presentations that inspired me to push forward as a scholar and seek ways to balance contributions to sociological knowledge with contributions to social good. I’ll review just one here – the thematic session on Music Communities and Youth Culture. I got there late due to employment service obligations, and entered a room charged with ideas. Since one presenter had canceled, the presider, Tammy L. Anderson, author of Rave Culture, turned it into an interactive panel discussion. David Grazian, author of Chicago Blues and On the Make, offered questions to the panelists such as “what is the changing nature of youth” as economic forces stall adulthood and older adults continue to participate in subcultures? “What is the role of new media technologies” in the distribution and experience of musical community and subcultural identity? These questions were deftly answered by the panelists Paul Hodkinson and Ross Haenfler. The audience responded in kind, offering questions, field experiences, and personal accounts of music cultures in which they lived and studied.

I came away from trip with a better sense of what I want to do. My scholarship on music cultures can be an avenue for teaching students literacy in new media; my research on the use of arts in urban development can be a resource for local galleries working to empower communities through the arts. If not via professional sociology, then I’ll seek it out by whatever means are available.