Ph.D. 1972

Reflections on Time Well Spent

I began my graduate studies off-time in the spring semester 1968, an entering cohort of one. Well, not exactly one, but the rest of my cohort had begun in the fall semester, so I was settling in on my own. And it was cold. That was the first of many surprises. I was a big-city boy from Philadelphia – blue-collar, had never been out of state. Also, the first in my family to attend college (an older brother had joined the navy after high school), a commuter student at Temple University, which I realize in retrospect was a very special place – a real university, affordable and accessible for kids like me. I stumbled into sociology there and found myself a happy home. That most certainly proved to be the case when deciding about graduate school. I had a fairly strong academic record, decent test scores and terrific faculty mentorship, but knew nothing — zero – about graduate school. I did, though, have something that more than offset all the things I lacked – good advice.

I applied to a half dozen or so fine schools and much to my amazement was admitted to every one of them, and with offers of financial aid. Imagine that, being paid to go to school! But what to do? I hadn’t a clue, but the consensus opinion was that Chapel Hill was the obvious choice. So I packed up my ’65 Volkswagon Beetle (didn’t everyone have one?) and headed South.

I remember it vividly. It was a cold winter day when I set out, and then it proceeded to get colder! By the time I made it to Virginia, my Beetle had sprouted icicles! But I pressed on, and it was clear I was making progress when I saw a sign at the end of the Durham – Chapel Hill stretch of highway: “Entering Chapel Hill, Bird Sanctuary.” Hurray!

I had signed up for a dorm at Granville Towers and now all I had to do was find it. Seems straightforward enough, but the next sign that caught my eye induced a queasiness: “Entering Carborro.” I had driven right through the heart of Chapel Hill along Franklin Street and managed to miss it!

Cold and small, both unexpected. And, then, during my first week, Jesse Helms delivering a mid-day rant on his TV station. This, I quickly came to realize, was going to be a very different life from what I knew growing up.

It was that indeed, and almost all positive. My faculty mentors from Temple were spot on: the department then was a very special place and I flourished – Tad Blalock, Gerry Lenski, Amos Hawley and Dick Simpson were the big names and I was privileged to get to know them and to study with them. But the littler names were amazing too – Jim Wiggins, with his weird brand of social psychology, directed the training program that helped me pay the bills, I TA’d for Dick Cramer and we remain good friends to this day, I RA’d for Glen Elder, from whom I learned a ton and who likewise remains a best buddy, and I took a course in criminology with Bruce Eckland, which proved to be pivotal, a genuine turning point in the life course (look it up if that idea needs explanation).

Bruce had just returned from a sabbatical year at the ETS in Princeton and he returned with some data that he found there in a warehouse – a national survey of high school sophomores fielded in 1955 that included achievement testing data. He thought it would be interesting to resurvey some of the original group and in 1970 managed to secure funding from the NSF to do just that (a 10% subsample, executed remarkably well). After our class Bruce reached out to me to help him with data analysis and the rest, as they say, is history. This was the hey-day of status attainment modeling in the Wisconsin tradition — Wisconsin high school seniors, followed up 7 years later with a postcard survey. We had national coverage, a sophomore-year baseline, a 15 year interval and tons of data. I/we jumped on the status attainment bandwagon, and it proved an excellent horse to ride.

I think it fair to say that over the years I have managed to acquire something of a reputation in sociology of education and stratification, and this despite never having had a course in either (!). Well, that’s not quite true – I learned Power and Privilege directly from the source, but it was a very different kind of stratification. And the two wonderful courses I took with Amos Hawley were absolutely stratification-relevant. But I never had a course in Sociology of Education or in Stratification and Social Mobility, and I don’t think I suffered in the least. That’s because I was well trained in the other things that make for good research – in theory, and how to think sociologically; and in research methods, how to sensibly pose questions of data. Acquiring content knowledge on your own is easy; not so the fundamental tools.

And that stuff about beginning mid-year all alone as an entering cohort of one? Don’t feel sorry for me. It was indeed an anxious time, but the students already in residence embraced me and made me feel welcome, with friendships that, again, would prove life-long. I’m just back from ASA in Chicago where I had dinner with Ginnie Hiday and Kay Meyer. In September, I’m off to DC to catch a Nationals game with John Long and Ana Maria Viveros. And Jim Michaels and I began a correspondence recently when Jim checked in with me about his own Chapel Hill reminiscences.

Yes, Sociology in the Southern Part of Heaven indeed was special back in the day and I count myself fortunate to have found my way there. That’s not to gloss over the many things that were not quite so special, or if special, then not so pleasing – there was the Vietnam conflagration that I managed to get myself caught up in when student deferments were eliminated (for a bit of intrigue, I’ll mention that I am a bona fide disabled veteran and leave it at that), there were the tragic assassinations of people I greatly admired (I was in Chapel Hill from 1968 – 1972), and there were incidents on campus of racism and labor strife involving the blue collar support staff, important issues all that I found myself drawn into. But on the academic front, I cannot imagine a better launching pad for me.

And when it was time to move on, I again found myself the beneficiary of good mentorship, or, more properly, of good social networking. Dick Simpson was in charge of graduate student placement when I was on the job market and he recommended me for position at Hopkins. He and my other faculty sponsors must have had kind things to say about me because I was offered the position with nary a publication to my name – my writing samples were a couple draft dissertation chapters. Hard to imagine, yes? But that was then and I was well served by the strong support I received from the faculty.

Fast forward some 40+ years and I am recently retired from what has been a most gratifying career. One job the whole time. Not exactly unheard of, but uncommon. And one of the most gratifying experiences of a professional life filled with many was just last year, when I was invited back to the department to present a seminar on my most recent book. It seems a fairy-tale life, and one altogether unexpected of a blue collar kid from the big city. Wow!

Submitted August 2015
karl@jhu.edu