Ph.D. 1967

I seem to be the sole survivor of my graduating cohort (1967): Charlie Gordon, Alden Miller and Don Ploch. This reminiscence will focus on memories of student life during my four years there, not my subsequent research and my academic work during my time at Princeton and Indiana University.

Coming from the austere marble walkways and their chain-link fences of nearby Duke, where I had started graduate school, to the wide-open, brick lined walkways and the open and inviting spaces of the UNC campus was liberating, even if Duke had the best library of any of my future academic haunts. The faculty were welcoming, from Chairman Bowerman who was sold on my admission when I mentioned my three years of college math (he must have been a veteran of calculus as well) to Gerry Lenski, Dick Simpson (and his wife, Ida – a Duke professor – who sympathetically pointed me in the direction of the in-coming Lenski) and others. Tad Blalock showed up that spring and my assistantship shifted from Gerry to Tad. I was enthralled with Tad’s ‘causal model’ approach, catching a ride on the front of that intellectual wave, along with Lenski’s ‘status-attainment’ movement, for not a few years thereafter.

Alumni Hall housed the department. It had this wide-open room on the top floor, formerly a library for City Planning. We graduate students all had desks there. We worked and hung out there at all hours. I have fond memories of life in this “bull-pen,” of talking into the evening with fellow students and a few of the junior faculty with upstairs offices, of taking frisbee breaks out front, of hikes to the dining hall and library, of taking my stats courses in the Epidemiology program while auditing Tad’s stat classes, of wiring boards for various counter-sorter assignments. After rooming the first year off campus — sharing a bedroom with an Iraqi student who woke me each morning with his Arabic ‘Praise be to God’ – just- arrived Paul Weiner and I moved into a new off-campus apartment, and later to a house in Carrboro which we held for the duration of my time there – for a stunning $90/month. Paul was a great house-mate too.

At some point I made it into the ranks of graduate student leadership, and arranged for corrugated barriers that soon surrounded the student desks in the library, which while tacky-looking gave us a bit more studious privacy. We enjoyed access to the nearby lounge and to a collection of journals, until somebody left a mess in the lounge and we were summarily denied further access. Our response was to let ourselves into the lounge, clean it up thoroughly, lock it up again and notify the chair, who then relented. At some point too, I think we acquired direct access to a mimeograph machine on the upper floor.

Babe Andrew was a warm and sympathetic den mother to us all. I think she facilitated our initial access to a mimeograph machine which we graduate students needed for handouts, especially to ‘publish’ papers and later handouts for the one class I taught at UNC–in Marriage and the Family–during a remarkable final year there.

Another difference with faculty that I surmounted was the choice of my minor. Six courses were required! Early on, I decided to split that minor between outside math/stat courses and philosophy. I enjoyed both, taking Professor Quade’s well-taught biostatistics course, counting two semesters of undergrad stats at Duke, and three courses in philosophy: the philosophy of physical science, social science and symbolic logic, while auditing a terrific year-long class on value-theory. I suspect I had a lot more fun with my minor than most. The coup was announcing this plan, already started by the end of my first year, to Chairman Bowerman, having taken at least one philosophy course already. He gave way to this fait accompli!

The final year there (1966-7) was an amazing whirlwind of work and travel. I took a month to draft a long dissertation proposal, defending that in late May, then conducted 150 interviews in nearby Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill through the summer and fall and collected another 100+ questionnaires, was interviewed by five universities (four Big Ten and Princeton), accepted the last among the five offers because of a 1/3 time off from teaching for a research project I would be the methodologist for, consulted on the contents of the NORC survey for that project in New York City, had a Babe Andrews figure at Princeton run my statistical analysis following a one-shot listing of requested runs, analyzed that, wrote chapters subjected to a weekly sit-down with Lenski in his living room, so I could finish, defend, and graduate that spring , and still I managed to teach my first college course that spring semester. (This was followed by the move to Princeton in mid-May and later that summer, an eight week tour of Europe with my sister!). That dissertation research experience (particularly the detailed proposal) and the philosophy courses, shaped my whole approach to my many offerings of Graduate Methodology at Princeton and later Indiana University.

The dissertation subject itself was inspired by the thesis of an “instrumental paradox” in popular civil religion (brought to my attention by my Carleton mentor William Kolb, the idea itself from Louis Schneider). Gerry Lenski supported the project even before we both adjourned to Chapel Hill. Ida Simpson had pointed out his ‘Religious Factor’ book and wanting to be sure that a decision to resign an NDEA fellowship at Duke was sane, I traveled to see Gerry in Ann Arbor. To my amazement, he invited me to an afternoon-long chat in his office, where I laid out my dissertation plans, and then home to dinner. They had to show the house afterwards but I was elated as he drove me back to the Union. In the final push to complete the dissertation, I would again sit down in his living room, now in Chapel Hill, to receive his comments on a succession of chapters. After my defense, during a partial solar eclipse no less, as I was driving him back to the office, he offered suggestions on what it would take to publish my dissertation in article form. Years later, this was submitted to and accepted in Social Forces. The outcome of the dissertation could be seen to undermine the alleged functional basis of prayer in public schools. It was great fun to tie a few quotes from a Supreme Court decisions consistent with my findings at the end of the Forces article. Most of all, it was empowering to have defined the project at the end of my first year at Duke and to have been supported by many in completing it four years later.

My classmates and I did fairly well on the job market then, thanks in part (and in hindsight) to exceptionally favorable demographics – growing college enrollments, and faculty shortages reflecting the relatively small size of my cohort of pre-baby boomer young adults. Don went to Yale, Alden to Indiana, and Charlie to Carleton University in Canada, I believe. The chair of Princeton even came to town to interview a few of us. The prestige of the department opened doors to the top places, and I was grateful for that assist.

But part of that job market bonanza was a by-product of the fact that different entry cohorts found themselves in seminars together. Seminars in social stratification and religion that Lenski led, for example, acquainted older students with those of us a few years back. We typically produced and presented a big paper for our course project, so my student colleagues and I got acquainted with each other’s work. For me at least, that opened doors for interviews at Wisconsin (Bert Adams, plus Hal Winsborough (now at Wisconsin but also my Duke MA advisor), Purdue (Dean Knudsen), Michigan State (Peter Manning – a Duke student colleague) and Ohio State. I would hope subsequent generations experienced benefits from such seminars. (And I prepared for my fifth PhD exam in Marriage and the Family solely on the basis of a huge pile of notes from a student colleague, Dean Knudsen, in one of those seminars.)

I was very lucky in another respect: financial support. Having resigned a 3 year NDEA Fellowship at Duke, an assistantships carried me through my first year at UNC, and I received a NIH Fellowship for the remainder of my years in Chapel Hill. Many of my fellow graduate students progressed more slowly, family and work impeding their rate of progress. It’s hard to comprehend this in light of the much longer time to degree completion these days. I took five years because of the transfer from Duke and the norm then was four.

A word about Gerry Lenski, though I’ve written part of this in his tributes page. He was supportive, respectful, approachable, unassuming, and ever-gracious. I found his friendship, constructive criticism and freedom empowering, the latter foreshadowed by his agreement to supervise a dissertation topic brought to him even before we arrived in Chapel Hill. I was amazed when asked to comment on drafts of Power and Privilege, which I did with many notes and suggestions. He didn’t go easy on me at times: he required me to do some remedial reading in comparative religion when I failed to answer rudimentary questions in that area during my oral exam. But I could use his office and typewriter to complete my comprehensive exams. I warmed to that deliberate informality. I never found the mix of friendship and upholding academic standards in conflict; indeed, Lenski and other mentoring faculty at UNC showed me how they support can each other. I think the few graduate students whose dissertations I subsequently supervised would confirm this description of our relationship.

Speaking of written comprehensives, at the time, we faced five of these, four hours each, on five successive days of the same week. It was brutal. Afterwards, we petitioned the faculty to consider spacing these two days apart at least. I felt our position was met with some respect and I believed they took our suggestion. Planning how to prepare for this density of exams was certainly interesting.

I could wish the same rich experience, support and good fortune for the many graduate students who followed my cohort, though I know that relatively few who followed us had the chance to enjoy the atmosphere in that upstairs Alumni Hall library we took over as graduate students. I found the layout of Hamilton Hall disappointing by comparison. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or been part of any other sociology department so generous with working space for graduate students. It was just wonderful!

Submitted May 2016
althause@indiana.edu