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Edward L. Kain

Ph.D, 1980


The population of Chapel Hill was approaching 30,000 when I arrived in the summer of 1976.  Signs everywhere proclaimed “Save the Village”, perhaps in response to the growth from 12,573 to 26,199 when comparing the 1960 and 1970 census figures.  Chapel Hill still had a small town feel to me, despite the fact that it was the largest place I’d ever lived.

I grew up on a farm outside Filion, Michigan–a tiny rural town of fewer than 200 people, where my education started in a one-room school housing K-8.  Upon graduation from high school I went to a small liberal arts school, Alma College, a campus of 1,200 students in a town of under 10,000.

It was my positive experience at a small liberal arts college that convinced me I wanted to be a professor; my goal was to end up in a similar type of setting.  When I arrived at Chapel Hill, other graduate students quickly told me not to talk about my interest in teaching; research was the most important thing in a graduate program.

The reality was much more nuanced than that.  Many faculty in the department cared deeply about their teaching.  Gerhard Lenski had written an introductory sociology text using his neo-evolutionary theory and he regularly taught the undergraduate Sociology 101.  Dick Cramer did an excellent job advising undergraduate majors.  The sociology department at Chapel Hill was the first to require a course in pedagogy for all graduate students before they could teach their own courses.  What came to be known as the “Carolina course”, taught by Ev Wilson, shaped my approach to teaching for decades to come; the lessons were clear–organize each class session around a series of questions; use multiple methods and techniques to teach concepts and skills; focus upon student learning outcomes; measure what students know at the beginning of a course so that when you test them at the end you have some evidence of whether or not they actually learned something in the course; use the published research on teaching to develop the most effective ways to get students excited about developing their sociological imagination.

Ron Rindfuss, Peter Marsden, Jack Kasarda, and Craig Calhoun were all in their first year on the faculty in the department.  My entering cohort of graduate students was the first to have as many women as men.  We developed a very strong sense of graduate cohort during that time at Chapel Hill, since the many required theory and methods courses meant we were in most of our classes together for the first year or two.  I still remember the careful and detailed feedback on papers and statistical analyses from Peter Marsden in my first year.  Even though he was not on my committee, he remained supportive throughout my time at Chapel Hill, including helping me to prep for my job interview at Cornell.

Walter Allen was my thesis advisor, but when he moved to the University of Michigan, Gerhard Lenski was generous and stepped in.  Her was the perfect advisor for my dissertation. He constantly pushed me to be better—in my writing, thinking, and research.  After a draft of each chapter was finished, he had me to his house to carefully go over his suggestions for strengthening my work.  More than once, he and his wife Jean welcomed me for dinner as I reached milestones in the writing.

My dissertation and my research were both shaped by Lenski’s macro neo-evolutionary theory.  At the micro-level, my strongest influence was life course theory, as developed by Glen Elder.  When I’d applied to Chapel Hill, he and Lenski were the two people with whom I wanted to work.  By the time I arrived, however, Glen was on leave at Boys Town Research Center in Omaha, Nebraska.  I jumped at the chance when he offered me a job working with him there for the summer of 1979, the summer before my last year in graduate school.  As with Gerry and Jean Lenski, Glen and Karen Elder welcomed me into their home and made me feel a part of their family.

The theories developed by Elder and Lenski, combined with my methodological training by Peter Marsden and demographers in the department—particularly Ron Rindfuss, Krishnan Namboodiri, and Peter Uhlenberg—shaped the types of data I chose and how I analyzed them.  I was particularly interested in historical change in mortality and work in the “new family history”, which led me to do a readings course with Joan Scott in the history department.  All of these influences remain with me today.

In the spring of 1980 I was offered a tenure-track position at Cornell University.  Just as I was packing up to drive to Ithaca, NY, Sherryl Kleinman was arriving for her first university position after graduate school.  Because she didn’t drive, Lenski asked if I could help her out by volunteering to drive as she got things for her apartment.  This struck up a friendship which eventually led to me coming back to UNC years later on a sabbatical leave in 1994.

I was at Cornell for six years.  Glen Elder had subsequently moved there, and I was in the department of Human Development and Family Studies with him, as well as in the graduate field of sociology.   Glen and other colleagues were very supportive there, and I got to know a wide range of colleagues across campus, including William Foote Whyte in ILR, Sandy and Darryl Bem in Women’s Studies and Psychology, and Mary Beth Norton in history.  Nonetheless, I quickly realized this wasn’t where I wanted to spend my career; it was not a small liberal arts college, and undergraduate education was not high on the list of priorities.  While at Cornell I honed my teaching skills, and developed the first Cornell graduate course on pedagogy.  It attracted graduate students from six departments in its first year.

From Cornell I moved to Southwestern University, outside of Austin, Texas.  Founded in 1840, in the Republic of Texas, this small liberal arts college reminded me of where I’d gotten my undergraduate education.  It proved to be a great place to spend my career.  In my nearly three decades there I regularly published with my undergraduate students.  I had the opportunity to teach in the Southwestern London semester five times, ranging from 1989 through 2014.  This is how I developed my love for that city; in retirement, I now spend three to five months there a year.

During my first sabbatical leave from SU, Sherryl Kleinman helped arrange for me to come back to the department at Chapel Hill for a semester.  During that time I taught the large introductory course, got to know some faculty who’d arrived since my graduate student days, wrote a successful MOST (Minority Opportunities through School Transformation) grant funded by the Ford Foundation and the ASA, and finished work on an edited reader in family sociology with Mark Rank.  Arne Kalleberg, who was chair, along with those who’d been my faculty members years earlier, made certain that I was welcomed and included in the department.  Among the new (to me) faces on the faculty were Judith and Peter Blau, Rachel Rosenfeld, and Howard Aldrich, who now taught the graduate course on pedagogy.  Being a colleague with faculty members who had taught me was an interesting transition.  For example, despite his protestations, it remained difficult for me to call Dr. Lenski “Gerry”.

Chapel Hill gave me excellent preparation for my career.  The skills I learned there helped me have a productive career in teaching, research, and service.  The Carolina training also made it possible for me to serve on editorial boards as well as a variety of committees and Task Forces for the SSS and ASA, and to win several awards from both of those organizations.

After retiring in December of 2015 I moved permanently to Portland, Oregon.  I split my time between there and London, pursuing my hobbies of hiking, photography, and travel.  For over three decades I’ve done sociology program reviews through the ASA; in recent months I’ve done three.  I also keep active with writing projects. Last year I edited the most recent edition of the training manual for ASA Program Reviewers and Consultants, and in the past few months I wrote a short piece for Footnotes talking about the new name for the group of ASA reviewers as well as an article on “Chairing a Multidisciplinary Department” in The Department Chair.

I will always be grateful to the Department of Sociology at UNC Chapel Hill for equipping me for a rewarding life as a sociologist.  Thank you for allowing me to reflect on my time there, and congratulations on 100 years of excellence in sociology.

submitted May 2019