Last week, I headed out to San Francisco for the yearly American Sociological Association Conference. Over the course of my visit, I had the chance to connect with professors and graduate students from across the country, and attend presentations on teaching, higher education, law, and social issues. My goals in attending were to attain a better grasp of topical issues and differing pedagogies within the discipline, and to hear from a broad spectrum of educators about how they were using videos (particularly news media) within their university courses.

[PHOTO: Alisa taking a break from the conference to visit the site of her favorite early 90’s sitcom]

On Monday, I attended the Section on Race, Gender, and Class in the morning, in which Angela Jones at SUNY-Farmingdale and Katherine Fallon of the University of Wisconsin, Madison separately spoke about the perpetuation of racial and gender stereotypes and prejudices within sex industry websites. Angela Jones observed that typical hierarchies of race are observable within the visual structure of the presentation of these websites. Katherine Fallon called attention to tagging features within pornographic websites, and how they provide support for pejorative racial epithets. Jones’ and Fallon’s presentations helped to illuminate how common societal biases are often sustained across mediums, and that internet features like scrolling, page flipping, and categorization can reinforce the problem.

In the Monday afternoon session on “Crime, Law, and Deviance: Rap on Trial,” the panelists commented on how prosecutors use rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials. Charis Kubrin of University of California, Irvine, spoke about how rap artists are conflated with the artistic personas that they cultivate in their lyrics; and how in murder trials, violent lyrics are often used to substantiate murderous intent or capacity. Andrea L. Dennis of the University of Georgia pointed out that rap lyrics commonly use “boasting” as an artistic device; and are often based on fantasy, rather than real events. Travis Gosa of Cornell noted that criminal prosecution of rappers using lyrics as evidence has become so common since the early 90s that some rappers have even made the practice the subject of ironic criticism, as did Da Kreek with his single “Play it for the Jury.” All participants called attention to the fact that juries often failed to distinguish metaphor from fact, and that other artistic mediums have not stood as evidence in criminal trials. They presented numerous cases in which there was very little physical evidence connecting the defendants with the crimes.

In the several sessions that I attended on Tuesday, the panelists called attention to a set of circumstances, practices, and research topics which have received inadequate coverage in education-related research and media. Having worked in low-income schools in both New York City and Bucks County, PA, and as a private college admissions advisor, I attended sessions covering inequality in higher education, and on administrative and institutional issues.

Sherry Deckman of Ithaca College, who delivered “On Institutional Experiences with Diversity on Elite College Campuses,” discussed how colleges distinguish their approaches to diversity within orientation activities and within student groups. Her paper compared two Ivy League institutions, one which addressed diversity through explaining power dynamics and offering support to minority students, and another which focused on integration and celebration of different cultures. She found that while African American students reported positive feelings towards both approaches, the students at the “minority support” schools were better equipped to express insights on diversity. Caren Arbeit of the University of Minnesota presented a paper she had co-written with Christopher Weiss of Langer Research Associates, entitled “Who Returns to School? Non-Traditional patterns of Mother’s School Attendance.” The paper reported surprising findings on the frequency at which young mothers return to school later on in life. Arbeit and Weiss found that up to a third of women attending college at present are mothers, and that many of them have returned to school not only a second, but third and fourth times as well. Finally, I heard from Chris Takacs of the University of Chicago, who in his paper on “The Arithmetic of Engagement-The Problem with Small Classes” exposed the flawed reasoning behind limiting class enrollment– fewer students get to experience working with truly exceptional instructors.

The conference, which had at least 6,000 attendees, drew my attention not only to the diversity of the discipline of sociology as a whole, but also to the range of specialization within subdisciplines. The professors I connected with were not only passionate about undergraduate education, but also keen to offer their insights and share experiences on how they’ve connected with students and research subjects. I’m looking forward to attending next year in Chicago!