When I arrived at Chapel Hill in 1990 at the impressionable age of 22, it was a different era then. It was the time when the “dancing baby” meme was omnipresent on computer screens everywhere, and at the time it seemed remarkable. The internet was brand new, and I remember that if I wanted to upload a file there was a special room for that with a specially-equipped computer. To go into the room required an escort by someone from IT. It was a small thrill for me to go in and use all that fancy and expensive equipment and do something so cutting edge. Also, at that time, if I wanted to print out results from my computer, the results were sent to a room in Manning Hall, where a person was stationed 24 hours a day to take the dot-matrix printouts from the printers and put them in bins for users to collect. Times have changed!
Funny what I remember from my coursework. One day in my structural equations class Professor Kenneth Bollen said that he had graded all our tests and that we should rest assured because all of us did very well, and then he added parenthetically “ …except for one person.” The next time we met he said that in the intervening period half the class had come up to him individually and confessed that they knew they were the one person who had flopped! On a different note, I remember giving a presentation in Barbara Entwisle’s research methods class and receiving an evaluation from her in which she described my talk as “an unqualified success.” To this day I am not sure if ‘unqualified’ was a compliment or something less than that (which would well have been warranted because I could be somewhat cocky back then).
Having now taught many classes myself, including structural equation modelling and research design, I can appreciate that the classes I took were good ones. I came away with a solid base in statistics that I continue to use to this day, as well as an appreciation for a good social theory and the importance of a theory-driven research question that builds cumulatively on existing work. When taught well these lessons seem almost obvious. As a teacher I learned that effectively conveying these lessons is in fact quite a challenge.
In my second year I met Professor Glen Elder, a meeting which was to change my life course. He invited me to start working with his group, which included a bevy of pre-doctoral and post-doctoral students all working on life course projects. When I was there, these included Ray Swisher, Cindy Gimbel, Willy Wu, Rachel Ivie, Monika Ardelt, Cheryl Roberts, Liza Pavalko, Steven Russell, Debra Mekos, Aimee Dechter, Valarie King, and Michael Shanahan. It was quite an intellectually vibrant and stimulating group.
I ended up sharing an office with Michael Shanahan, and a life-long friendship resulted that was to change life course studies forever for me. At first, it did not appear that Mike and I would hit it off, because with his arrival he stole the wind from my sails and became the golden child of the life course—a real phenomenon. Fortunately, both Mike and I handled the situation well. We have co-authored multiple papers, and our families now occasionally go on vacation together in the summer.
Glen has been a fantastic mentor in many ways. If ever I got stuck in my thinking about an idea or concept, I would talk to Glen and come out of his office with at least a dozen ideas. I have yet to meet anyone else so adept at thinking about the abstract “big picture.” Glen emphasized the importance of writing well and pointed out that the same findings can end up as an article in a top-tier journal or, alternatively, Cat Lover’s Digest, depending how they are written up. And I much appreciate that Glen followed up with me after I left Chapel Hill. When I was a post-doctoral student in Madison, Wisconsin, he was in town for a talk and took the trouble to look me up and introduce me to his colleagues who worked at the University of Wisconsin. This proved very helpful to me and resulted in some productive collaborations, which, in turn, strengthened my vita so I stood out enough from the crowd to get my first job at Johns Hopkins.
I have ended up as a Professor in the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. I am Principal Investigator of a large project entitled “Monitoring the Future” that surveys nationally-representative samples of ~45,000 adolescents every year with a focus on substance use. The project has been on-going since 1975, and each year a nationally-representative subsample of 2,500 12th grade students is enrolled in a panel study that is then continually followed. The project currently has 43 active, on-going, nationally-representative panels… dream data for life course scholars!
In my personal life course by far the most impactful and best thing to happen has been interconnecting my life with fellow sociologist Paula Fomby. This year we celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. We have been fortunate to find jobs at the same university throughout our professional careers, which have brought us to Baltimore (at Johns Hopkins), Denver (at the University of Colorado Denver), and now Ann Arbor, Michigan. We have an amazing daughter Claire in 10th grade who this year will be rowing with her crew team at nationals, helped in part by inheriting some of my height (I am 6’6’’) and her mother’s athleticism.
In retrospect, I can see how many of the skills and approaches to research that I have today were formed during my time at Chapel Hill. While the faculty, students, and era have, of course, changed since I left, I have confidence that the Department continues to maintain its high standard in training future cohorts of sociologists in the foundations of statistics, as well as how to conduct meaningful theory-driven research. As a sociologist, I find it intriguing to contemplate exactly how the high-quality training is passed on within the Department as the faculty and students come and go. As an alumnus, I am reassured.
Thank you for this opportunity to reminisce.
submitted May 2019