Thomas Feucht (Ph.D. 1986)
I entered the graduate program in Sociology in the fall of 1977, one of fifteen (I think) incoming students. I applied, was accepted, and arrived without ever before setting foot in Chapel Hill – or North Carolina, for that matter. I have a lot of memories of how this Midwestern kid slowly discovered the distinctive features of the South, of North Carolina, of Chapel Hill and its environs; but many of those memories are best left for another time (perhaps over beers). There was plenty of culture shock – and I’m afraid it was too often the sensibilities of the University, my professors, my colleagues, and my newly claimed neighbors and friends that were shocked by this naïve and rough-cut fellow from a small city and a small college in Wisconsin.
My undergrad professor and mentor at Wisconsin-Parkside, Jim Gruber (’76), was my link to UNC. “Have you ever thought about grad school next year?” he asked me one day early in my senior year. Gosh, no. I rarely thought beyond the end of the week. He suggested I apply to UNC. What’s so great about it, I must have asked. “Oh, it’s beautiful,” Jim had said with that far-away happy gaze that marks all who have been to Chapel Hill when they think back to the place. And he probably said something about the quality of the graduate program, too. But the idea of an exotic destination like North Carolina, hundreds of miles away, in “the South,” no less (a place I had never visited unless you count Florida), seemed irresistible.
Yet I did resist it. Following the allure of the West Coast (Southern California!), I left Wisconsin in December 1976, weeks after my graduation, to establish residency in Los Angeles, in anticipation of attending UCLA the following fall. Like a lot of Midwestern boys, I had a dreamy, hazy notion of life in Southern California, and it seemed like the perfect place to explore graduate studies in sociology.
About two months into my time in LA, I was mugged, injured seriously enough to be put in the hospital for a couple days. Two LAPD detectives came to see me and told me there was little hope of apprehending the perpetrators in this kind of crime. I healed on the outside; but the luster of a life in LA had dimmed considerably.
The day I was discharged from the hospital I received a letter of acceptance to UNC-CH from Krishnan Namboodiri. I was thrilled and honored to have been accepted: Krishnan’s letter made it clear: I was to be one of a small select group of scholars (!) to comprise the first-year cohort in the fall of 1977. And yet, I wasn’t sure I could let go of the dream of life in Southern California.
As days went by, I grew increasingly uncertain: where was I supposed to be? What would be the right path for me? One day, I was walking with a friend through the Westwood neighborhood that surrounds UCLA. There was a sidewalk art show, and I stopped to gaze at a small collection of particularly lovely seascape watercolors. I must have stood there several minutes as others paused or passed by. Softly, just behind me, someone commented on the seascape painting by simply saying, “Well, look, it has to be North Carolina!” I whirled around, but whoever had spoken seemed to have disappeared. I looked back at the painting: sea, sand dunes, tall wispy grasses bent with the wind. Though my first visit to the Outer Banks would not occur until a year later, I immediately recognized the seascape for what it must be: not California, not the Pacific coast, but the Atlantic coast, specifically North Carolina!
Magically, the allure of UCLA and Southern California faded like a Pacific fog, and I embraced what clearly seemed to be my destiny: graduate studies in sociology at UNC-CH.
I’m sure my change of heart was not as sudden or dramatic as that, but heck – this was LA, home of the Dream Factory. So I packed up my bags and moved back home to…
Wisconsin, where I packed up my bags and took a train to…
Fayetteville, where I caught a bus to…
Chapel Hill, NC!
I arrived in August well ahead of the start of the academic term. I had been admitted to Craige Hall, the grad dorm on South Campus. For the next two years, Craige would be my home-away-from-home: a dreary existence for some of my grad dorm mates, but a great adventure for a guy who went to a commuter school and had never lived in a dorm. I would meet students in every grad program of the university, including the medical and dental schools, sport medicine, economics, business, and others. As I made new friends at Craige, I began exploring the local environs on a ten-speed Raleigh I purchased from the bike shop in Carrboro. August in Chapel Hill was beautiful.
Somewhere in the admission process, I received notification of my first-year assistantship assignment: I would be a TA to Richard Cramer’s undergraduate class. (I think it was the “086” methods class that first year.) I’m sure I was a sight to see on the lovely, leafy, UNC campus as students streamed in for the fall term: an unvarnished Midwestern kid who on most days wore cut-off jeans and t-shirts. Lord but it was hot and humid, not at all like Wisconsin. And the pollen, which would be much worse by springtime, made me sneeze constantly even in the late summertime.
But I was quickly falling in love with North Carolina, with Chapel Hill, the graduate school experience, and sociology. I was going to be a scholar, and I would throw myself into my studies.
There was a meeting of the new cohort of grad students as the fall term began. There were several faculty at the meeting as well as some second- and third-year grad students. At the session, the new students were asked to introduce themselves and say a few words about what each planned to study. “…planned to study??” I panicked. Well, sociology, I said to myself. Obviously. But each classmate around the table who spoke before me seemed to have a clear well-thought-out notion of his or her area of specialization: social organizations, demography, comparative studies, social psychology… My turn was coming. What was I to say??
I decided – suddenly, in the moment – that I would focus on research methods. Quantitative methods in particular. The words seemed to stumble from my mouth. Equipped with good research skills, I tried to say, I would be equipped to explore all the areas of interest in sociology, not just one. Though I had excelled in my undergrad stats and methods courses (and this may have led to my first-year assistantship), I cannot say that the choice was anything more than a sudden impetuous grasp at the nearest straw. What did I just do, I thought as soon as my turn was over. I sunk lower in my seat as one of the professors noted dourly that “we expect all our grad students to excel in research methods.” (Face-plant onto table.) But in the end, a focus on research methods would work out just fine for me.
In fulfillment of my “declared” area of concentration, I took a lot of methods courses, including a set of grad courses in the Economics department (math econ and econometrics) in addition to the core sociology stats and methods courses, and just about every other quantitative methods course on the books.
There were other classes that would be memorable. I remember being mesmerized by EK Wilson in our Social Theory class. I had never heard anyone think so deeply or reveal so clearly the complexity of social structure and social interaction. And there would be equally memorable courses with Bob Wilson, David Heise, Jim Wiggins, Henry Landsberger, and Gerry Lenksi. I had no idea sociology was so vast, so deep, so rich. I was learning so much I thought my head would explode.
My assistantship with Dick Cramer was as much a learning experience as my own studies. Dick was the epitome of the well-prepared professor: lesson plans, tests, and assignments all carefully thought out, developed, and deployed. I had always believed teaching was an essential part of our society; my time working with Dick only deepened my beliefs. I will be forever grateful for Dick’s lessons on the importance of teaching well. (I remember once telling Peter Marsden – in what I’m sure was my best know-it-all attitude – that I was quite sure teachers would always surpass researchers in terms of their influence on others and their overall value to society, so sorry for your wasted effort, something like that. Argh.)
I wrote a Master’s thesis under Bob Wilson’s guidance. It was a categorical analysis of data from Dorothea Dix patients examining variations in patients’ social support and its influence on length of stay (a poor proxy for wellness). The data were provided on a reel of ¾-inch magnetic tape, which I had mounted in one of the refrigerator-sized tape players in the basement of Phillips (?) Hall. Bob was a great mentor who helped me see the real knowledge objectives that were out beyond my puny project and limited data.
For my dissertation, David Heise suggested a project examining multiplicative regression terms and the effect of measurement error on efficiency and bias. This became an epic journey that would outlast (wear out?) two committee chairs, several mainframe computers, a TRS 80 computer, an IBM Selectric computer (complete with character ball for Greek letters and equations), and about a half-ton of tractor-fed computer paper. The dissertation was finally completed under Peter Marsden’s guidance: with incredible grace and inspiring fortitude, Peter got me across the finish line. (The grad school secretary, however, almost did me in with objections about the manuscript’s left-hand margins that apparently were a fraction too wide for her: ah, the stuff of life-long nightmares…)
I began my professional career at Cleveland State University with a joint appointment in Sociology and the College of Urban Affairs. My strong methods background served me well as research associate (and later, principal investigator) on several NIDA-funded projects. I was promoted to associate professor and awarded tenure but left CSU shortly thereafter to join the National Institute of Justice in the US Department of Justice, where I have been since 1994.
Most of my work at NIJ is focused on program evaluation, where my research methods courses have served me well. And there are many opportunities in this world of justice and policy to think long and deeply (though quickly) about social forces, social structures, and social interaction. Amid the great bureaucracy, I am a theory-driven, evidence-wielding researcher, bringing science – especially sociology – to bear upon every issue to which it is relevant. Which is pretty much everything, right? On weekends, I convert my quant skills into playing guitar and singing at wineries and brewpubs in Northern Virginia, which keeps me balanced and healthy. Three daughters (age 29, 27, and 23) remind me every day of what really matters in this life.
Many thanks to my professors, mentors, and friends among the faculty ranks for all you have taught me and given me. I will be forever grateful for all I have gained from UNC and from you.
Submitted May 2018