Should Sociologists Make a Leap From the Ivory Tower?

By Debra Viadero — August 11, 2009 1 min read
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There’s apparently a revolution brewing at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association meeting in San Francisco this week. Some unofficial blog posts from members of the 14,000-member group are highlighting a schism among education sociologists over how much academics ought to be doing “in the real world"—especially if they haven’t earned tenure yet.

Should they be doing more studies intended to solve the practical problems of everyday educators? And, if so, should that kind of applied research count towards tenure? What about op-eds or—perish the thought—blogging?

Over at “Thoughts on Education Policy,” blogger Corey Bunje Bower, a graduate student, made this impassioned pitch upon hearing a senior scholar say, “you’re not going to get tenure by blogging:"

What purpose, exactly, do faculty serve? I always thought they were there to do two main things: 1.) learn about the world, and 2.) teach others about the world. Why the heck would we interpret "others" to mean only the couple dozen people who read your article in a highly specialized academic journal? When a professor helps educate a wider audience they often provide a greater service to society at large than they do when they publish an academic article. And that should be taken into account. Professors should be encouraged to write op-eds, talk to reporters, write policy memos, and even blog. If all knowledge is concentrated in the hands of but a few professors, what's the point?

Sara Goldrick-Rab, an assistant professor, offers a more neutral response to the debate at “The Education Optimists,” a blog she shares with her husband, Liam Goldrick.

She notes that the tenure question will indeed dictate the path that sociologists choose. Most sociologists now make “their academic work the center of their agenda, and do the more applied stuff on the side—like a hobby:"

But is it time for this to change? Can, and should, more applied sociological research on education be rewarded in the tenure and promotion processes? I can report there’s very little consensus among my colleagues in this regard, and that differences of opinion are not entirely explained by professional or generational status. However, what’s most remarkable is how impassioned grad students, assistant profs, and tenured professors all are about this issue.

I can’t wait to see how all this turns out.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.