2016 Senior Dinner

The Department of Sociology hosts and annual dinner for graduating seniors at the end of the year. Below are Professor Timothy Wickham-Crowley's remarks from the Senior Dinner for the Class of 2016:

Comments by Sociology Chair, Professor Timothy Wickham-Crowley

I give you words of welcome, yet also of farewell (almost).  In the opening pages of Lord of the Rings, Bilbo leaves the Shire, but not before saying that “eleventy-one years is too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable hobbits.”  In like manner, I say now that 15 weeks – or even 4 years – has been far too short a time to spend with such excellent and admirable, thesis-polishing students as yourselves.

I will try to be brief.  (Which reminds me of a tale Boswell told of Samuel Johnson, who was an unexpected congregant at an English church one Sunday.  The excited vicar afterwards asked Johnson what he thought of the sermon.  “It was brief,” he replied.  The vicar added “I tried not to be tedious.”  To which the famously acerbic Johnson then added, “but it was tedious, too.”)  So, listen and learn as I give you my own brand of brief tedium.

As in recent years, I have been especially impressed, by the range of methods you employ in order to secure the findings which you report to us.  This year I have seen the full range:  surveys, at times even random-sample ones; interviews with few or many subjects; a few theses incorporating very clever experimental designs, and at least one focus-group-based study which approximated experimental forms; and the use of existing documents, including historical ones. Some of your theses also fully embraced the use of formal statistical inference and hypothesis testing, one very clear index of the quality of education we have provided you, given the sheer quantophobia so prevalent among so many of your fellow students about to graduate from other fields.

Important societal fears get divergent methodological approaches in two very different theses: one looks at the meanings of “terrorism” to the American public over many decades, as traceable in The New York Times, and sees many changes therein; a second looks at four decades of survey research on homophobia among Americans, and finds no “neat” relationship between such attitudes and age, and also an intriguing switcheroo: an uptick of such views after three straight decades of decline among all age groups.

The disprivileged status-groups of women and of African Americans get attention in several theses focused on higher education.  In a gender-centered study of Bhutan’s educational system, we find women falling far behind men at the highest levels of education in Bhutan, which reverses their near-complete equality of access during the primary-school years.  Such inequality has its racial counterpart in two theses looking at the access to and achievements by (often lower-income) African Americans in American higher education overall, or at the special case of Georgetown’s often African-American Community Scholars.

The lives of African Americans – their own views, or views by others of them – are central to several other theses this year. Three very cleverly designed theses created special “what if” vignettes or scenarios – involving black vs. white names, black vs. white student-behavior, and police treatment of black vs. white civilians.  In each of these experimental scenarios, only the (presumed) race varied across instances, helping the researcher to answer that all important question that still bedevils America: does race matter?  It does seem to matter when African Americans and other minorities become central television characters over the decades:  a focus-group-based thesis created a fine method for objectively assessing the variety of responses when current viewers sat down and watched a near-half-century of sampled programs. One thesis-writer brought a true scholar’s eye to the changing use of the most explosive of all verbal epithets – the n-bomb -- within American society and its cultural productions therein, showing that African-American moves to re-appropriate that term for their own uses have had mixed success at most.  Indeed, anti-blackness, another thesis-writer argues, seems to have been a key to “becoming American” for immigrant communities from East Asia.

Some theses, by intent or by the nature of respondent samples, end up dwelling on the hard and hard-luck experiences of lower-income urban residents, many or most of whom are black or Latina/o, especially with respect to their schooling experiences.  A hometown-focused study of Minneapolis deeply undermines any portrait of its being a kind of mid-country paradise, but also looks to craft a better future for its poor.  Another thesis intriguingly looks at the levels of, and parental attitudes toward, students’ truancy levels, and concludes that you cannot succeed if you do not show up.  Two theses look differently at the forms of shelter most occupied by the poor in American cities, public housing: one of them traces the effects of different public-housing forms on the children who are raised in them, while the other thesis looks at various D. C. public-housing “re-designs” or revitalization, in search of the best new practices.  Our prize-winning thesis by Mike Crozier tries carefully to disentangle the effects of class and neighborhood in the two poorest wards of D.C. and argues that Charter Schools are outperforming other public schools in doing their teaching jobs well.  Latina/o veterans of the D.C. public schools, when given a chance to recount their experiences therein to one thesis-researcher, do not give the schools and teachers high marks, especially in not dealing effectively with their distinct ethnicity and culture.  One thesis looks at the deepest wells of D.C. poverty, among homeless children, and seeks to know whether art-focused playtimes can provide a kind of educational balm for such societal injuries.  And one thesis-writer wonders, as per Exodus, whether the sins of the parents shall be visited upon their children: do incarcerated parents transmit stigma and social damage to their kids?  She finds via interviews with such children that, yes, some damage is incurred, even if not universally so.

Shamelessly violating Robert Merton’s rule about the necessary life-patterning of “status-sequences,” a female character in Woody Allen’s old film, “Love and Death,” said “I never want to get married; I just want to get divorced.”  Really?  Three theses looked closely into the matter, not from the (ex-?)wife’s point of view, but that of the children, and none of them came up with easy answers or sharply etched patterns.  One used both surveys and interviews of sons and daughters from intact vs. broken marriages to explore their attitudes toward their own marital futures.  Another looked at how just daughters from such breakups viewed dating and commitments, as compared to those with still-married parents.  And a third looked at the four types of dyadic relationships -- when sons and daughters intersect with fathers and mothers -- and found different emphases in which issues or patterns in their homes most affected the children’s attitudes toward the institution of marriage. 

Cultural differences and troubling, difficult experiences of acculturation and assimilation are classic problem areas of sociology, and thus they are in several theses this year.  Of course language is basic to that process, and for immigrants from Latin America, both recent and not, one thesis explores both statistically and from blog comments the social forces which promote (or not) earlier mastery of English. Another researcher asks the simple question: are Koreans here in the U.S. future immigrants or only sojourners? He sought and found various answers in interviews with GU’s own Korean-descent community.  While Jews are widely perceived now to be (mostly) accepted, and comfortable within, an American society which once reviled them, one can still ask them directly, as one historically-sensitive thesis does:  what does it mean for one’s Jewish identity and practices to attend Georgetown?  Another thesis-writer zeroes in on the Durkheimian dangers of anomie for Native Americans, who are submerged in and confronted by the American culture complex.  That thesis began with their very high suicide rates and then took the story much further.  Yet Durkheim of course also dwelt on the positive elements of interaction, those of social solidarity, as did another thesis, which through a dozen richly intensive interviews argued for the very special role of music in enhancing social interaction and even social solidarities, even across otherwise evident social barriers.

Three very different theses confront the challenged lives of different subgroups of students at Georgetown:  victims of sexual assault and their underreporting of such events; students’ expanding use of performance-enhancing Adderall (sometimes paired with alcohol), even if un-prescribed for them; and the “constraint” side of the lives of student-athletes, in a thesis which both acknowledges their special perks and benefits, but also looks closely at the many opportunities and choices denied to them because of their involvements in sport.  In a very different sense, however, sport and fitness are central to a different thesis about fitness itself, which seeks from its respondents information about their health knowledge, diets, and exercise practices.

Wow!  Quite a lineup there, wasn’t it?

I will miss you all once this next month and its many farewells are over.  So do not be strangers to Georgetown.  As they typically say in my home state, New Jersey, “Y’all come back now, heah?”  Finally, I look forward to Commencement, and to congratulating you in your full regalia, and your family in their finery. 

Thank you.

Comments by Isaiah Jones, Class of 2016

I want to first start off with saying thank you to Prof. McDonald for giving me the opportunity to deliver the senior address. I’ve been saying for some time now that I’m good at public speaking, so we’ll see if you all agree with that after this is done. If you so choose, you can even endorse me with the skill on LinkedIn. I’m still looking for a job, so any support is appreciated.

For most of us, today was officially our last day of undergraduate classes. For those of you who have classes tomorrow and on Monday, today was still probably your last day of undergraduate classes. And even as these senior theses still loom over many of our shoulders, leaving us with sleepless nights, unspeakable amounts of caffeine, and the words “I just wanna graduate,” I think we find time to still be present.

As I reflect on my Georgetown experience, as we all can’t help but to do these days, I keep asking myself “Am I ready?” Now, don’t get me wrong. I think we can all say we’re done with schoolwork and senioritis has hit its peak, especially on the eve of our last Georgetown Day. But at some point we come back to reality and consider our life after the ol’ blue and gray and ask this question.

Am I ready to graduate and move to the next chapter of my life? Am I ready to face the day to day challenges and life obstacles that characterize the real world? Am I ready to stand on my own two feet and continue to write my story? Am I ready to be afraid? Am I ready to handle everything that comes with success? Am I ready to say goodbye to the comfortability and shelter that this institution has given me? Am I ready to take that diploma on Saturday, May 21, at 9am, on Healy Lawn, walk across that stage and be the trailblazer that everybody expects me to be?

Most of you probably don’t know this, but I used to be a physics major. That was another life. All I can say now is thank God for sociology! And a big thank you to Prof. Stiles for helping convert me and to Prof. Wickham-Crowley for giving me the brochure on possible careers in sociology. Because at that point, I was so focused on my major having to do with my career after college. But when I got that A in Intro to Sociology, I threw that idea out the window. Grades have a tendency to change how you see life sometimes. I wanted to do something I knew I would be good at and I could study something that piqued my intellectual curiosity and I could be passionate about. That’s why I love the sociology.

There is so much academic variety in this department that allows us to engage with aspects of ourselves, our future careers, our communities, and our world. I cannot tell you how much I learned in Dr. Hinkson’s Race and Ethnic relations course that really changed my perspective. As a black male at a PWI, I found myself faced with challenges that were new and sometimes unexpected. But sociology gave me the opportunity to question, observe, learn, think and write about some of the topics that I still struggle with today. And even explore subjects that I never thought would interest me. Sociology of Gender with Prof. Guidroz was amazing. And I got an A. So, you see a pattern. But a big thing for me is passion.

 

This major is full of students and professors who are so passionate about what they do. Whether it’s social justice, higher education, public policy, and music, of course. And it’s been a true pleasure getting to know many of you over the four years, professors and students. I think about the conversations I’ve had with some of you and the things you all have accomplished in your time here at Georgetown are truly remarkable. I think sociology has made us well-rounded individuals. I think sociology has given us the ability to pursue our passion projects with much more foresight and understanding, so we can be as impactful as we know we can be.

I think sociology answers this question of “Am I ready?” Yes, you are. Yes, we are. Yes, I am. Sociology has given us the tools to succeed in anything we do, because we are now so much more thoughtful, so much more critical, and prepared for the curveballs that life throws at us. We have done amazing work on this campus and it’s time to dedicate our energy and our gifts to the world outside these gates. So, the question now becomes “Are they ready?” Because they don’t want us to succeed. They don’t want us to graduate from a top-tier institution like Georgetown University. They don’t want us to do TFA and help mold the minds of children so that they can be great. They don’t want us to start our own nonprofits and be a major influence in our communities. Shoutout to GOODpartners. They don’t want us to be music moguls and take our passion to new heights. They don’t want us do what we were put on this earth to do. But, we will. And I thank the sociology department for being a huge part of our current and future success.    

In closing, I just want to say that the way things were going my first semester at Georgetown makes this moment, right now, so special and humbling. I would have never thought I’d be good enough to deliver a speech that some of you may or may not remember and give it at such a pivotal point in our lives. I want to extend a huge congratulations to the sociology class of 2016, whether you are finished with your thesis or not, for being a support system, motivation, and a family. I am very blessed and honored to be crossing that stage with you all. And whether they are ready or not, I can’t wait to see all the good that is to come from this class. So, thank you. Hoya Saxa. Hoya Blaxa. And have a great rest of your evening.