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Michael Kennedy

Ph.D. ‘85


The leitmotif of my UNC memories revolves around a remarkable community of mutual and broad support in a time between technological and political epochs.


During my time at Davidson College, I developed an interest in studying Hinduism and religion. I was admitted into the department in 1979 with that declared intent. John Shelton Reed was assigned to be my advisor.  But in the three weeks preceding the term, while sitting in Wilson Library, I found a special issue of Social Forces dedicated to inequality in socialist societies riveting.  Gerhard Lenski and T. Anthony Jones were prominent in that issue, and they were in the department. It was fate.  I switched course. I decided to study Russian with Victor Friedman in the Slavic Department so that I might begin to prepare for research in the Soviet Union. I worked closely with Professors Lenski and Jones as a consequence.


We had three courses to start – Craig Calhoun’s theory course, Peter Marsden’s statistics course, and then a third course which would have been an option. Many in my cohort took Bob Wilson’s course on structural functionalism. I wound up taking many courses with Craig – I recall at least Marxism and Political Sociology.  I was also his teaching assistant in one spring term. I served as a TA for Dick Udry and his course on marriage and the family in my first term.  I had no expertise and little interest in the subject, relatively speaking, but it was a great learning experience. It was a busy start.


I developed many friends among our cohort and those neighboring. My first conversations were with Mohamed Mohieddin in the graduate student space in Hamilton Hall, that windowless room at the center of one wing. I can still hear his described interest, “oil labor migration”, in my head. Shelley Pendleton and I seemed to talk a lot, and I think I learned how nice it was to be nice from her.  Allen Parnell was in our cohort, and like many of the others, he focused on demography; he was the one, however, who introduced me to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. I have not stopped that listening addiction, but it was UNC’s student radio that shaped my abiding New Wave musical tastes – X-Teens, XTC, 4 out of 5 Doctors, and Human Sexual Response led the list. Of course there were others in our cohort, some who finished their PhDs — Tom Hastings, Jeffrey Staples Robertson – and others who moved on to different lives before that UNC degree. We all became friends in that first year.


Dave Smith, David Maume, and Roger Nemeth were in the older cohort, and seemed to be a regular trio with whom I often spoke about Marxism. Rick and Kandi Stinson, Fred Hall, Steve Lerner, Trudy Mills, Bob Agnew, Ed Kain, and Susan Newcomer reached out in different ways to me and our cohort. I met Donna Parmelee years later at the University of Michigan, where we extended our common interest in communist-led societies. From a later cohort, Val Haines and I talked about theory much, but she stood out for her interest in Herbert Spencer.  Amy Craddock, Kofi Batse, Bill Nolting, Anne Hastings, Karen Campbell, Jeannie Hurlbert, Cathy Zimmer, Jeff Kallen, Steve Wilcox, Michael Irwin, and Jo Jones were in later cohorts, but we all connected.


I decided in that first year to take the general prelim in the spring, rather than wait until the summer was over as the department expected of us. We had a universe of 31 questions from which we would be given eight, of which we had to answer four. I prepared answers for about half of those questions, but was relatively confident that the last question would be asked.  I think it always was.  It was some variant on “which is your favorite theory and why?”.  I answered with ecological evolutionary theory, the perspective associated with Gerhard Lenski.


In order to prepare for that we could take “mini-theory” courses. In addition to Calhoun’s Marxism, I took ecological evolutionary theory with Gerhard Lenski, and Human Ecology with John Kasarda. Amos Hawley was still around so that we could learn HE from one of its founders.  Many of us were interested in Marxism and associated approaches – Wallerstein’s world systems theory was becoming new and powerful, and we used that to challenge most of our teachers.  Jack would say, I recall, that “Marxism was human ecology with an ideological axe to grind”, but Amos was more engaged. He published an essay in 1982 in the American Journal of Sociology comparing Marxism and Human Ecology.  We were proud that he took our interests so seriously.


I found the faculty to be generally quite supportive. In fact, though I had little competence to offer, John Reed and Peter Marsden got a grant to analyze leisure patterns in the South, and asked me and Kandi Stinson to be the research assistants for it in the summer of 1980.  That was, again, critical learning and I got my first journal publication in Social Forces with that project.


With the department’s strong urban sociological presence, I wrote my MA thesis on urban fiscal strain, using a political economic approach to history and space. Jack was my chair and encouraged me to go into urban sociology.  I decided I would rather follow my prior interest in communist-ruled societies, and wound up working closely with Gerry Lenski, Tony Jones, and Craig Calhoun, given my interest in how Marxist theory was informed by changes in socialist societies, and how, in turn, it could inform their own transformation.  Once I decided to work on professions, Dick Simpson graciously agreed to join my dissertation committee. A political science specialist on Poland from UNC Greensboro named Maurice Simon was the final member.


I switched my study to Poland rather than the USSR in the spring of 1980 thanks to Lenski. He told me that Poland had a superior sociological tradition from which I could learn, and its research environment was much more open than the Soviet Union’s. When the Solidarity movement formed later that year, it was fate: now I could not only study inequality under communist rule, but also the struggle against it. I then studied Polish with Piotr Drozdowski, a Slavic department graduate student who himself was a student of that department’s professor, Madeline Levine.


Until Craig convinced me that I would need to do fieldwork in at least one communist-led society to win academic legitimacy, I nearly did a Skocpol-type library dissertation on revolutions in Soviet-type society. In fact, I gave a paper on that subject at the Toronto meetings of the American Sociological Association in 1981.  Dave Smith, Shelley Pendleton and I drove up there, stopping en route at my family home in Bethlehem, visiting as well Dave’s family near Buffalo and Shelley’s near Cleveland.  We students were like family back then, even bringing one another into our first families too.


Each year, two graduate students were fortunate to work on Social Forces, one term helping the editor with MS review, and in the second, helping the book review editor.  I loved the latter (my library got a big jump as I wrote so many “take note” paragraphs on books that were not reviewed), and learned much from the former.  EK Wilson had just handed off the reins to Dick Simpson when I came on board.  If I recall correctly, my partner Karen Campbell worked with EK Wilson in the last term of his editorship.


Before students could teach their own course, they were required to take a course on how to teach sociology.  Dick Cramer was most generous in this teaching, and we also got to use the book, Passing on Sociology, of which EK Wilson was a coauthor. I found that course one of the most valuable for my subsequent career. I regret I never moved such a course in any of the departments in which I subsequently taught.


I hadn’t appreciated, until reading some of the other UNC faculty and graduate student recollections, how much our cohort was in between eras.


Some of the faculty from an earlier epoch were still prominent in the department during our time. In his courses, Henry Landsberger offered his own version, as he would call it, of “disciplined electicism”.  Although I took the first year seminar in demography from Ron Rindfuss, I didn’t get to know many demographers. Peter Uehlenberg was a gentle and kind personality in the department, but in the land of demography, distant from my own graduate focus. Dick Cramer was working on the sociology of the Bicentennial. I might have learned more from Jim Wiggins, Duncan MacRae, Darnell Hawkins, and Bob Wilson too had I known then some of the things I seek to learn now.  Krishnan Namboodiri taught our cohort categorical data analysis, and David Heise taught us Causal Analysis. Many of the new faculty defining the next era were still not there. I met Tony Oberschall, Francois Nielsen, Rachel Rosenfeld and Howard Aldrich only after I returned from my 1983-84 fieldwork in Poland.   But even they were gracious and supportive to a student who was getting ready to go on the job market.


While the department was gracious, it was not diverse. Sheryl Kleinman and Barbara Stenross had just joined the faculty at about the same time we arrived, increasing by 100% the number of women among our potential teachers. Apart from Krishnan Namboodiri and Darnell Hawkins (Walter Allen left for Michigan in the year I arrived in Chapel Hill), all the faculty were white. We were all white in my graduate student cohort, apart from Mohammed from Egypt. Most of us, however, were women.


We were an in-between cohort technologically.  When I arrived in 1979, I did all my writing on a typewriter with cartridges I could pop in and out to print and then, after my frequent typos, to white-out.  The graduate students were often gathered in the Institute where we all sat around punching out IBM cards for our data analysis.  By the time of my return to Chapel Hill in 1984 from that Polish fieldwork I had purchased my own computer on which I could write my dissertation. Those yellow letters on a dark screen captivated.


We were an in-between department, too, when it came to staff. Babe was in charge for only one year of my time, I believe, and Carol took over from her. When the grad students came downstairs to the coffee pot to buy our 10 cent cup we would often connect with these women who were so concerned to take care of us.  Judy Marks also took care of us in the library.  That was a time when we really needed, and benefitted from, having a sociology library so dedicated so that we could quickly and readily access the discipline’s journals.  Articles did not yet electronically fly to us.


We were also an in-between cohort when it came to politics on campus and beyond. Some of us were involved in local politics – supporters of people like Lightning Brown and Joe Herzenberg, whom Jesse Helms identified as “dangerous.”  We could hear Jesse oppose a zoo for North Carolina, recommending instead that the state put a fence around Chapel Hill. But there were also no risks of campus disruptions.  It was, in comparison to the preceding decade, a politically quiet time.


Some of us were also involved in Central American solidarity work. I was alone among students with my interest in east Europe, but Poland’s Włodzimierz Wesołowski came to visit us during the spring of 1981 and Slovenia’s Zdravko Mlynar in the summer of 1984.  We were, sort of, international in the department, but we had not thought to mark our department that way.


I feel fortunate to have been in Chapel Hill during those years, to have come to know the people I did.  As Dave Smith in the year preceding, and others following, I went to University of South Carolina as a visiting assistant professor before I joined the University of Michigan on a tenure stream position. I was the only UNC PhD in that Ann Arbor department over all those 23 years that I was there.


In addition to my departmental affiliations, I came to be quite involved in a number of other interdisciplinary ventures, and directed a number of them — in the comparative study of social transformations, of European, European Union, and Russian and East European studies, of emerging democracies, and the International Institute itself. I also served as vice provost for international affairs at Michigan before moving to Brown University in 2009 to direct their Watson Institute for International Studies, a task I concluded in 2011.


My three monographs – Professionals, Power and Solidarity in Poland (1991) Formations of Postcommunism (2002), and Globalizing Knowledge (2015), each reflect one of the last three decades of my learning.  I assemble the discussions about the last volume on my page I also identify the students I have had the pleasure to mentor for their PhDs, MAs, and undergraduate honor’s theses


My association with Brown’s sociology department, the oldest in the nation, abides. For the last three years, I have been director of undergraduate studies, a real delight.  Brown is a Tarheel friendly place, with two others – Leah Van Wey and Susan Short – also wearing Carolina Blue at graduation ceremonies.


It’s good to remember UNC, and how it used to be. And with this reflection, I am reminded by how much of my life was shaped by that accidental discovery in Wilson Library of a special issue of Social Forces defined by some of the best of UNC Sociology.

Submitted August 2015