Ph.D. 1992

I arrived in Chapel Hill in August 1984 and left in August 1987 to take a Visiting Instructor position at University of South Carolina. I arrived having no prior experience of the South, and no experience of a top-drawer university such as UNC. I earned my BA at Saginaw Valley State, a small college in Michigan, and came from a family with little history of higher education.

I make that introduction in order to say that when I arrived in the Department of Sociology I was more than a little starstruck. The names on the office doors in Hamilton were the same as those on many of the books and articles I had read as an undergrad – Lenski, Landsberger, Aldrich, Oberschall, Everett Wilson, Amos Hawley! If I hadn’t read their works – I had seen them quoted in my textbooks. Even though I was a bit older than the typical grad student – I was amazed that I would be taking courses from such major figures in Sociology. It began to sink in that I had somehow landed in a great sociology program.

The 1984 cohort came to be known as the “baby boomers” because there were more than 20 of us, somewhat larger than the typical cohort at that time. The rigors of the first year took their toll though – as we moved into our second year a number of our colleagues had dropped out of the program. This pattern of attrition continued through the succeeding years. I’m not sure how many of the baby boomers eventually earned their PhDs – but I’m thinking fewer than 10.

My first memory of the department was the staff – Babe, the office manager; Carol, who worked with graduate students; and Janet. There were also two staff in the Social Forces office – Priscilla, and another whose name slips my mind. All were Southern ladies in the best sense of that term – very polite, well spoken, and helpful – always ready with a smile and a little advice. Many of us would never have survived the first year without their help. Babe could be a little brusque sometimes – and the grad students always seemed to be underfoot – but she had a big heart.

Jack Kasarda was the chair when I arrived. Some of the grad students felt that he only had time for students in his area of interest – but I didn’t find that to be the case. I’m proud to say he served on my dissertation committee – although my topic wasn’t really in his area of interest. Shortly after the semester began, Jack had a meeting with the new grad cohort. I remember him saying “this isn’t the 1500 meters, it’s the 50 yard dash.” He was always encouraging us to press on with our studies and get done – and not to see Carolina as our permanent home. The key word there is “encouraging.” Everytime I passed Jack in the halls he would ask how things were going – and would always end by exhorting me to keep moving ahead. As a reader on my dissertation committee I could always count on positive comments on the drafts that I sent – with the usual advice to press on. Ever since that experience, whenever I’ve been asked by anyone how to go about forming a dissertation committee – I have always advised them to find at least one person who will serve as a cheerleader. Jack was that for me – and I’ve always appreciated it. I still keep in touch with him from time to time.

In my first semester I took a seminar from Gerry Lenski. I had read “The Religious Factor” and some other things that he wrote – and I was excited to be actually taking a course from him. We hit it off pretty well – and towards the end of the semester I approached him to ask two things. First, could I be his TA for Human Societies the following semester, and second, would he consider being my advisor. He graciously assented to both. As the TA for his course I learned a great deal about teaching that I still incorporate into my courses. As my advisor – well, I’m not sure I would ever have finished without his patience, wisdom, and assistance. I can’t say this for certain – but I may have been Dr. Lenski’s last TA for Human Societies – he retired shortly after that. I think I may also have been the last dissertation committee that he chaired, but I may be mistaken. At any rate he was a great advisor – and I’m sure I wasted far too much of his time in idle chatter.

The entire first year we had the “Part I Comps” hanging over our heads. It was indeed a marathon of an exam – 8 hours of handwritten hell. Then we waited. In the end all but one of us passed – and that one, as I recall, was planning to leave anyway. So we were over the first hurdle.

My experience in Chapel Hill was likely somewhat different from that of many of my colleagues. I was a single dad. Among other things, that meant that I pretty much had to find independent lodgings, while many of the other students could go in together on an apartment. Rent was high in Chapel Hill – fortunately going into my second year I got in to Odum Village. It truly was the only way I could afford to live in Chapel Hill. I was very disappointed to see Odum Village destroyed in the interest of University expansion. The apartments were well built and maintained – and provided a real break for people like me, with limited resources. I’m quite sure that whatever has replaced Odum Village is nowhere near as affordable to the students.

Chapel Hill has grown quite a lot since the 80s. Back then it still had a small town feel, even when school was in session. My “posse” – Jimmy Ellis, Dick Garnett, Lionel Deang, and sometimes Pat Tormey – generally retired to the Henderson Street Bar around lunchtime on Fridays. The owner, Tim, had a son the same age as mine. When my son got home from school he would change clothes and walk up to Henderson Street to get his allowance and go to the comic book store. Chapel Hill was a safe place – I never worried about him wandering around Franklin Street while we talked social theory over a few beers. Colin (my son) always had fond memories of our time in Chapel Hill.

The culminating event of the school year was Jack Kasarda’s Faculty/Grad Student party. Jack has an incredible collection of original 45s, with the original dustcovers – all in tip-top condition. Only Babe was allowed to spin records. This was a top drawer event and was attended even by some of the top UNC administrators – few of whom left sober. I hope subsequent chairs kept this tradition alive – but I haven’t heard.

Jack also always arranged for a Carolina party at the annual SSS meetings – and always arranged for important people in the discipline to be there. It was a tremendous opportunity to make the acquaintance of people who could be helpful in your career. I met Tad Blalock there. In my earlier graduate endeavors at Eastern Michigan, we had used his statistics text – and I had always been a bit annoyed at his editorial habit of using phrases like “at this point it should be clear,” and so on. After we were introduced (both of us had had a few) – I put my arm around his shoulder and said “Tad – it was never f@#$%$#g clear to me!” We had a good laugh over that, and after chatting with him for a bit – I was sorry he had left Chapel Hill.

During the Summers of 86 and 87, I painted dorms, along with my friend Jimmy Ellis. We probably could have gotten hired on someone’s grant, or maybe taught a summer course – but frankly, painting paid better. Jack Kasarda knew we were doing this – and in the summer of 87 he asked if we would spend a weekend painting the offices in Hamilton. Jack’s wife Mary Ann picked out the paint – and must have gone back to the paint store half a dozen times before she was happy with the color. There was so much pigment in the paint that it nearly dried before we could get it on the walls. We ended up painting the offices, the break room – and the large room that was used for seminars and such. When we were finished, fairly late on Sunday night – I was aware that Jack kept a few bottles of brandy around for visiting dignitaries. So Jimmy and I sat in Jack’s office and polished off a bottle. Some years later I ran into Jack at a meeting and told him about it. In typical Jack fashion he replied “Brad, I would have expected no less!”

Throughout those years – 84-87 – there was a great deal of collegiality in the department. I felt that the faculty were committed to graduate education, and were, for the most part very helpful in guiding students and advising them. They did not engage in a lot of handholding as a rule, and one had to be self-motivated and self-confident to succeed there. The curriculum was challenging, especially the quantitative component – which I think is less demanding now than it was in the 80s. I came with relatively little background in mathematics – and I confess I struggled with the stats courses. Still – in my career, I have taught undergrad stats for over 20 years – with pretty good success.

In addition to being a TA for Dr. Lenski, I also TA’d for John Shelton Reed and Ken Bollen – in Research Methods and Statistics, respectively. I doubt John and I would ever agree much on political matters – but he was a wealth of information about the South. I recall towards the end of Fall semester – our classroom was across campus from Hamilton – so we would meet and walk over together. John and the other TA, Charles Warren, were Southern boys and would be clad in winter jackets, scarves, gloves, and stocking caps. Meanwhile – I, the damn Yankee from Michigan, would be wearing a light sweater. John, as book review editor for Social Forces, was very good about giving grad students and former grad students opportunities to review books.

Ken Bollen arrived my last year in Chapel Hill. He is an extraordinary teacher – and I always regretted that by the time he arrived – I had already finished the stats courses. I think I would have fared better in his classes. I still use the stats text he recommended to me as I was leaving for South Carolina.

I can’t leave my reminiscences without mentioning a few other faculty. First years back then took their first course from François Nielsen – who immediately became very popular with all of us. François was very approachable and didn’t mind spending some time chatting. In the Spring we all had Math for Social Science with Rachel Rosenfeld. I tried to convince her that I didn’t really need the proofs for all of the stats we used – I was quite willing to trust the mathematicians – but no. Rachel was Assistant Chair at the time – and always had some time to listen to everyone’s troubles. She also had a great Social Strat seminar – one of my favorite courses there.

Amos Hawley was long retired by the mid 80s – but he still came around now and then – mostly when the weather was not amenable to golf. Amos had an old library card catalog in his office. If you stopped in to say hi – he’d always ask what you were working on. I swear, no matter what the topic – he would go to the catalog and fish out an index card or two and say – “here’s some ideas I had on that a while ago.” What a staggering intellect! Everett Wilson was also retired, but came around from time to time – he was fascinating to talk too – and very generous with his time and advice. I once wrote to him and asked if I might take a crack at revising “Rules, Roles, and Relationships” – which I still think is among the best introductory texts I ever came across. Somewhere in my papers I have his reply. He had no problem with my giving it a shot – but he spent several pages alerting me to the pitfalls and commitments involved with doing textbooks, including an explanation of why he had given it up after two editions. Ultimately I never followed through on the idea – though I still think it would be a good project.

In sum, I’d have to say I left Chapel Hill having studied with some of the best in the business. I was never sure how I got accepted into the program – many of my colleagues had far more illustrious credentials than I did. I’m certain though, that many of them did not share the same reverence for the program that I had, and continue to have. My degrees are proudly displayed on my office wall – and I never tire of sharing anecdotes of my time in Hamilton Hall.

After leaving Chapel Hill, I sort of bounced around for awhile. My Master’s thesis, in a much abbreviated form, got published in ASR as a Research Note in 1988. Beyond that, I’ve never really flourished in the publication arena. My thesis had to do with the dissemination of communications technologies under different types of regimes. Once it got published I figured I could easily do periodic follow ups to see how things changed. Unfortunately the Internet and Cell phones pretty much put an end to that idea.

I taught at South Carolina for two years, then moved on to King’s College – a small Catholic school in Northeast Pennsylvania. I taught there for five years and then landed a temporary appointment at Kutztown University – which is part of the PA State System of Higher Education. From there I went to another PASSHE school – Bloomsburg University – and finally ended up at Cheyney University, also a state system school – where I am currently employed.

Cheyney is the nation’s oldest HBCU and I have been here nearly 20 years. For the past 10 years I have been the chair of the Social & Behavioral Sciences department, which is the largest and most successful in the University. This has, in an odd way, been a good fit for me. For one thing – many of our students come from a background similar to mine – in the sense that there is little to no experience of higher education. One of my favorite things to do in this regard, is to share experiences and information with students who are heading to graduate school and don’t really know what to expect.

I hope I haven’t rambled on too long. I have many great memories of Chapel Hill and the Sociology Department. As I’m writing this I realize that I have been too long away, and I need to put a visit to the Hill into my summer plans.

BBunchner@cheyney.edu
Submitted October 2015