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Out of My Habitus – “I’m Just Saying”: Students who “debate you” and undermine you through racial and gendered performances of “smartness”

By Juan Portillo

If you’re a TA or professor, this has probably happened to you: a student in class challenges something you are teaching and ends their spiel by saying: “I’m just saying…,” leaving the ball in your court. For many, this may be an uneventful conversation between a professor in a position of authority and a student. But what if what they’re “just saying” is not harmless? What if it is part of an epistemically violent strategy to “perform smartness” and undermine the TA or professor along the lines of gender and race? As Deborah Tannen writes in Gender and Discourse: “social relations as dominance and subordination are constructed in interaction” (Tannen, 1996, p. 10), and often when students feel challenged by feminist and anti-racist discourses they can resort to a claim of power by delegitimizing the TA or professor. They do this by invoking white-centric, andro-centric, and heteronormative knowledge and claim that they are “just saying” it, normalizing it and making you appear as different and not normal. In this post, I locate these issues with respect to: (a) what the students think they know as the “official” knowledge; and (b) how they perform their “smartness” to try to place female and non-white TAs and professors as illegitimate holders of knowledge. I am writing this post in the spirit of self-preservation as someone who has had to deal with this, and as a way to spark strategic alliances within our department to disrupt what the students are “just saying.” In particular, it was a recent experience with a white, heterosexual, male, middle-class student who wanted to debate me on the existence of reverse racism that sparked the idea to write this post.

The student mentioned above (not a direct student of mine) was not the first one to question what I thought or knew with regards to a topic that was uncomfortable for him (“does reverse racism exist?”). However, what impacted me the most was the way the student was shut off from learning anything. He was already set in what he “knew” about the word “racism” and what the official dictionary and other texts said, how he believed in equality as sameness, and how my knowledge was less legitimate than his. While he identified my ways of knowing as coming from feminist and non-white authors/texts (which he hinted at as being biased), he never situated his own knowledge as stemming from authors with white and male bodies who had already filtered and shaped that knowledge through their experience of the world. Moreover, he accused me of getting too agitated, of not being civil in the discussion, and pointed to his own behavior as calm and civil, which he highlighted as something that I should appreciate because as a white man he was taking interest “my” topic. While I can admit I was upset because he was: (a) positioning me as an illegitimate holder of knowledge, and (b) making me seem uncivilized and fiery, he was reacting to the way I challenged him and his beliefs. In particular, I started pointing out his own way of speaking to me and how that was a strategy to position me as less legitimate than he. I also sarcastically thanked him for taking interest in issues of race, which disrupted his “white savior” mentality. In addition, he was also reacting to how I tried to explain that we live in a white supremacist system that is, as bell hooks writes, an ideology that overlays how white people interact with people of color, characterized by moving away from overtly racist acts yet still maintaining an attitude of superiority and control (hooks, 2003). I disrupted his performance of “smartness” (which I elaborate below) and his “official knowledge” by pointing out how they are rooted in a heterosexist, white supremacist system, and apparently that made me uncivilized. Why did this interaction unfold this way?

Paula Moya writes in Learning From Experience: Minority Identities, Multicultural Struggles (2002) that when interviewing for her position at Stanford University in the English department, the Dean questioned her legitimacy and her belonging by asking her why she felt she would fit in an English department and not a Chicano Studies or Women’s Studies one. She uses this example to point out how a seemingly “neutral” field such as English is really characterized by bodies that are white, often male, and class-privileged. Therefore, according to Moya, these situations reveal how female and non-white faculty are seen as embodying subjective and non-relevant knowledge at odds with “whitestream” (Urrieta Jr., 2009) schooling. Nirmal Puwar writes that the presence of bodies who are not the “somatic norm” usually “disturbs and interrupts a certain white, usually male, sense of public institutional place” (Puwar, 2004, p. 42). This leaves faculty and TAs who are not “the somatic norm” of the academy (Puwar, 2004) (i.e. white, male, middle-class) vulnerable to questioning by students, faculty and staff who embody maleness and whiteness. This extends even to female and non-white students who adopt masculine and white mannerisms (Bourdieu, 2010) in order to distinguish themselves and delegitimize female and non-white professors or TAs. These mannerisms convey a particular way of performing how “smart” you are in opposition to those who think are you not, as explained next.

In Smartness As A Cultural Practice In Schools (Hatt, 2011), Beth Hatt explains that what we think of as “smart” is not just an ideology or discourse, but also a practice or performance. Moreover, she writes that smartness “is something done to other as social positioning” (Hatt, 2011, p. 2). In other words, education institutions are cultural spaces where being smart is tied to the recognition of certain cultural behavior, where students with particular social capital are identified as smarter than those who lack it. By observing a kindergarten class, Hatt reveals that the teacher organized and hierarchized students by measuring how well they “behaved” according to a white, middle-class expectation. The students themselves identified this hierarchy in terms of “smartness,” where quiet and assertive white students were rewarded while loud and hyperactive black students were punished. In the end, Hatt suggests that in a hierarchical educational system, students are judged by how well they perform whiteness, including their verbal and non-verbal communication patterns. This is in line with other research that shows that judging students of color as “loud” and “out of control” is a way to differentiate students of color as “bad students” when compared to white students (Garcia, 2010; Hatt, 2011; Hyams, 2000; Lewis, 2004; Urrieta Jr., 2009).

To Hatt’s analysis I would add that there is a gender component to this performance of smartness as well, which does not exist in isolation but rather in relation to race, social class, and other identities. Deborah Tannen writes in Gender and Discourse that “misunderstandings can arise in conversation, both cross-cultural and cross-gender, because of systematic differences in communicative style” (Tannen, 1996, p. 5). She believes that men and white people will claim superiority by judging how women and non-whites fail to communicate in the way that they do (e.g. listening as opposed to debate). Women of color, often stereotyped as the “fiery Latina,” “dragon lady,” and “angry Black woman,” learn early on in school that they must perform their raced femininity in very narrow and specific ways to avoid being punished out of school (Hyams, 2000; Lei, 2003; Portillo, 2012). This stems from anxieties over stereotypes of women of color, particularly Latina and Black young women, as being “out of control” (Garcia, 2010). The moment they step out of a submissive performance, they are positioned as uncivilized and anything they have to say is delegitimized and discounted.

One clear example was documented by Kevin Leander (2002) in his article Locating Latanya: The Situated Production of Identity Artifacts in Classroom Interaction. Leander aimed to understand how cultural artifacts and discourses circulating in the classroom semiotically mediated students’ identities “as a means of marking power relationships” (Leander, 2002, p. 203). During a “Derogatory Terms Activity,” students were asked to discuss language and power issues by writing insults on a banner that everyone could see. Latanya, one of the only Black, female students in class, added the word “honkey” to the banner. Immediately, white, male students began pointing to how the word “honkey” was not reprimanded the way “nigger” was, hinting that there was reverse racism and that Black people like to pretend they are only victims. As Latanya became uneasy because of the way she was being positioned as a “reverse racist” and because white students were saying the word “nigger” and portraying themselves as victims, other Black students jumped in and demanded that she stopped “acting ghetto.” Latanya became more upset as she began to be disciplined by other Black students who understood the consequences of being loud and disagreeable in a classroom setting characterized by white sociocultural values. Moreover, the white students said that they were speaking in “generalities,” with a body language that clearly stood in juxtaposition to Latanya’s. In the end, the white, male students succeeded in portraying Latanya as an out of control, Black woman, while portraying themselves as calm, rational, and “[constructing] an embodied artifact of [themselves] as ‘good student,’ facing forward and addressing the teacher” (Leander, 2002, p. 219). The author writes about the response of one of the white, male students: “From a relational perspective on social space, Ian was not simply projecting a separate space from Latanya but suggesting the relative power of his (institutional classroom) space with respect to Latanya’s (taboo, banner) space” (Leander, 2002, p. 219).

Racialized and gendered assumptions of self-display and self-control shape how “the consequences of style differences work to the disadvantage of members of groups that are stigmatized in our society, and to the advantage of those who have the power to enforce their interpretations” (Tannen, 1996, p. 8). Thus, the educational identity of students is shaped by particular raced and gendered performances that limit the subjectivities of students who deviate from an idealized male, white, and middle-class norm, and empower those who embody and perform whiteness and maleness. In my own example, the student resorted to labeling me (explicitly) as angry, while labeling himself as calm and seeking a civilized conversation. This was a performance of “smartness” through behavior that depends on both his embodiment of whiteness and maleness and his relation to my brown body and my feminism. It was a way to claim power created dialogically in our interaction but drawing from the way his embodied knowledge is privileged over mine. Moreover, it had a gendered component, as he relied on a performance of hegemonic masculinity that aimed to be a “savior” if only my feminist ideas would cut him some slack.

How to disrupt this? I personally have two approaches, and I welcome more ideas in the comments section. The first is to recognize the value of knowledge created from experiencing the racial, gender, sexuality, class, and ability bias of the world. Moya asserts that certain bodies have “epistemic privilege” which “refers to a special advantage with respect to possessing or acquiring knowledge about how fundamental aspects of our society (such as race, class, gender, and sexuality) operate to sustain matrices of power” (Moya, 2002, p. 90). In other words, people who are marginalized by heteropatriarchy and white supremacy have access to knowledge about how these systems of oppression work that people who derive privilege from them will not know. Secondly, I tend to draw attention to how the students try to “debate” from a position of privilege. Paying attention to and calling out their discursive practices throws students out of the loop and with any luck in a more receptive state.

I write this blog in an interest of self-preservation. Having anyone question your legitimacy in the academy because your knowledge is not “official” or too biased can be very dehumanizing and painful. The intersection of race and gender (as well as other identities that I have not included here and thus limit my own analysis) can result in specific experiences of inadequacy in an environment where even undergraduate students can hold on to racial and gender privilege to position you as subordinate to them. This is even more aggravating when students, colleagues, and professors make you feel like you are uncivilized, fiery, angry, agitated, and otherwise not as calm as they are. These people hide behind a “I’m just saying…” strategy where they invoke “official” knowledge (whether it’s a dictionary definition or canonized theories) to mark the Other as subordinate in the classroom. Recognizing how ALL of our experiences and embodiments affect and filter what we know and how we know it would be a great step towards making our department, our field, and our university more inclusive. This should be paired with a recognition of power dynamics to avoid a democratization of oppression where white men can claim oppression based on their race and gender, but also where people of color and women can realize how they/we have a stake in and support white supremacist and heteropatriarchal epistemologies.


Bourdieu, P. (2010). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. (R. Nice, Trans.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Garcia, L. (2010). Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself: Latina Girls and Sexual Identity (Kindle.). New York, NY: NYU Press.

Hatt, B. (2011). Smartness as a Cultural Practice in Schools. American Educational Research Journal, 1–23. doi:10.3102/0002831211415661

hooks,  bell. (2003). Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (1st ed.). Routledge.

Hyams, M. S. (2000). “Pay attention in class…[and] don’t get pregnant”: a discourse of academic success among adolescent Latinas. Environment and Planning A, 32, 635–654.

Leander, K. M. (2002). Locating Latanya: The Situated Production of Identity Artifacts in Classroom Interaction. Research in the Teaching of English, 37, 198–250.

Lei, J. (2003). (Un)Necessary Toughness?: Those “Loud Black Girls” and Those “Quiet Asian Boys.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 32(2), 158–181.

Lewis, A. E. (2004). Race in the Schoolyard: Negotiating the color line in classrooms and communities (3rd Paperback.). Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Moya, P. M. L. (2002). Learning from Experience: Minority Identities, Multicultural Struggles. University of California Press.

Portillo, J. (2012, August). “Hips Don’t Lie:” Mexican American Female Students’ Identity Construction at The University of Texas at Austin. The University of Texas at Austin, Austin.

Puwar, N. (2004). Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place (1st ed.). New York, NY: Berg Publishers.

Tannen, D. (1996). Gender and Discourse. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA.

Urrieta Jr., L. (2009). Working from Within: Chicana and Chicano Activist Educators in Whitestream Schools. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Dr. Sheldon Ekland-Olson Is 2013 Outstanding Graduate Adviser

Dr. Sheldon Ekland-Olson received the 2013 Outstanding Graduate Adviser Award.

The Graduate School Outstanding Graduate Adviser Award annually recognizes the exemplary service of one graduate adviser. Graduate advisers provide an invaluable service to the University and its community of students, faculty and staff, and this award is an opportunity to recognize these individuals.

The award includes a $3000 prize, which is presented at the Graduate School/University Co-op Awards Banquet in the spring.

Way to go, Sheldon!

Signature Course Class Gives Away $100,000

What would you do if you were handed $100,000 to give to charity? Where would you start? How would you research which organizations were most deserving or would use the money in the best way?

Last semester, students in a signature course called Philanthropy: The Power of Giving had that opportunity thanks to $100,000 from an anonymous foundation that wants to do good simultaneously in two ways: give to charity and help students learn the ways of generosity.

The course, led by Pamela Paxton of the Department of Sociology and the Population Research Center in the College of Liberal Arts, explores the history and current state of American giving and volunteering, American giving in comparative perspective, the causes and consequences of philanthropy and how to evaluate charitable programs. At the end of the course the students decide, on their own, how best to use the money. Paxton explains that she “focused on how to evaluate charities, and how to evaluate when charities are effective in their programming, because some charities are effective and some are not.”

“I think going forward, they will probably not view charitable giving in the same way,” Paxton says. “I think they may view themselves now as a resource to their friends and their families, that they’re someone who knows about what questions to ask or how to even think about where money should go.”

Paul Woodruff, inaugural dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies, taught a similar class in the spring of 2012. The Art of Giving also centered around giving away $100,000 to the charity or charities that students determined were most deserving.

Go to the UT Know feature here.

Courtesy of Mystie Pineda and Susie Cansler, Texas Student Television.

Clips from Opening the Blinds: Talking Race, Sex and Class at UT-Austin

by Kevin Hsu and Evelyn Porter

Marianna Anaya, Mexican American Studies and Radio, Television and Film junior, member of La Colectiva Femenil
Marleen Villanueva, Spanish senior, member of La Colectiva Femenil
Juan Portillo, PhD student in Sociology
Rocio Villalobos, UT-Austin alum and Program Coordinator for the Multicultural Engagement Center
Ganiva Reyes, PhD student in Cultural Studies and Education

Opening the Blinds: Talking Race, Sex and Class at UT-Austin – Introduction by Juan Portillo

While college is often sold as the ticket to a better life, being a student at The University of Texas can also be a rough and violent experience. Recent bleach bombings against students of color, offensive sorority and fraternity race-themed parties, and the current attack on affirmative action can affect students’ sense of security, their sense of belonging in our imagined community, and their emotional well-being. At the same time, UT’s and Austin’s claim to a liberal mentality can serve to obscure or diminish the impact of these events, as well as the sense of alienation that students can and often feel.

Marianna Anaya Talks about La Colectiva Femenil

As a response to the current campus climate, on October 30, 2012, the Sociology Department organized a panel presentation and discussion, free and open to the public, to frame these and other issues in a way that allows us to unravel the many social forces that affect students, including race, gender, sexuality, and social class.

Marleen Villanueva on the Importance of Speaking Out

In this panel, the presenters opened up a conversation to explore how race, gender, sexuality, and social class are experienced by students.  First, Marianna Anaya and Marleen Villanueva provided narratives of their educational trajectories at UT, shedding light on their experiences as first generation college students, women of color, and student leaders.

Juan Portillo on ‘Micro-Aggressions’
Rocio Villalobos Talks about UT’s Legacy and the History of Student Activism

Next, using an intersectional, feminist, sociological lens, Juan Portillo explained how UT can learn from students’ experiences in order to understand how racism, sexism and classism are at work in institutions in the form of ‘micro-aggressions.’

Ganiva Reyes on the Myth of Individualism and the Importance of Working Together


Rocio Villalobos then provided her perspective as a UT alum and as someone who now works for UT in a center that seeks to address issues such as racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia.




Finally, Ganiva Reyes talked about her experiences teaching the only required course in the College of Education that addresses race, gender, sexuality, and other factors in teacher training.



Dr Christine Williams on Diversity as Ideology, Listening, and Lessons for Allies

The panel was moderated by Dr Christine Williams, Chair of the Sociology Department. We hope that after the presentation, the panelists and the audience can continue to have conversations that further enrich our understanding of racism, sexism and classism, and what steps can be taken to address these problems.

PHS Middle East Working Group Hosts First Meeting

The Power, History, and Society network (PHS) of the Department of Sociology has initiated a “Middle East Working Group (ME Working Group).” Graduate coordinators, Amina Zarrugh and Hyun Jeong Ha, organized the first working group meeting on Friday, November 15th with the support of PHS faculty advisor Dr. Mounira M. Charrad. The ME Working Group promotes networking among faculty members and graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin whose research concerns the Middle East and North Africa. The ME Working Group aims to create an intellectually supportive forum among UT scholars and a space for constructive discussions of student work-in-progress, research by faculty guest speakers, and critical conversations about contemporary events in the region.

The first ME Working Group meeting was attended by ten graduate students across disciplines including the departments of sociology, anthropology, government, history, Middle Eastern Studies, and Radio-Television-Film. The graduate students’ areas of specialization lie in politics, social movements, gender, and race/ethnicity issues in the region. At the meeting, graduate students discussed upcoming plans for spring semester. The ME Working Group plans to have two graduate student presentations and one workshop with a professor visiting from the University of Oklahoma in the spring. Faculty members and graduate students who are interested in the ME Working Group are welcome to join the group and mailing list by contacting graduate coordinators: Amina Zarrugh at and Hyun Jeong Ha at

A Crooked Piece of Time: As Navigated by Dr Sheldon Ekland-Olson

By Kevin Hsu and Evelyn Porter, with special thanks to Julie Kniseley

A Crooked Piece of Time: Beginnings of an Academic Career

Professor Dr Sheldon Ekland-Olson shared his stories and lessons with students and colleagues today on the journey to becoming a sociologist, a scholar, a teacher, and a truly resilient human being.

Dr Ekland-Olson is the Audre and Bernard Rapoport Centennial Professor and Graduate Advisor of Sociology, and Director of the School of Human Ecology at UT-Austin. Former Executive Vice President and Provost of the University and former Dean at the College of Liberal Arts, Dr Ekland-Olson is the recipient of numerous honors such as the Texas Blazers Faculty Excellence Award and, most recently, the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award. He joined the faculty of the University in 1971 after earning his PhD in Sociology and Law from the University of Washington and Yale Law School.

Dr Ekland-Olson’s latest book Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides? (Routledge, 2011), based on his award-winning and hugely popular undergraduate course at UT, explores controversial issues such as abortion, neonatal care, assisted dying, and capital punishment, and the fundamentally sociological processes that underlie the quest for morality and justice in human societies.

The Importance of Core Values

In this talk Dr Ekland-Olson (or Sheldon, as his colleagues and students affectionately and most often call him) emphasized the importance of discovering and being self-aware about one’s core values and goals, of ‘knowing thyself,’ and staying true to oneself under various circumstances. Sheldon’s own personal and professional course has taken a number of unexpected turns, but at each juncture he asked himself whether his choices and actions truly reflected what he wanted to do and felt was right, and this has been his guiding principle to this day.

Against the backdrop of the American civil rights movement, Sheldon attended college in Seattle, originally intent on obtaining a bachelor of science in chemistry. In the summer before his senior year, however, he was hired by an anthropology professor to transcribe interviews with an 85-year-old member of the Kwakiutl tribe in Canada about the effects of modernization on his community. Sheldon admitted to catching the ‘ethnography bug’ while transcribing Jimmy Seaweed’s interviews, and in his senior year changed his major and eventually graduated with a bachelor of arts degree.

In part because of his science background, Sheldon went to graduate school at the University of Washington to study social statistics, and five years later he graduated with a PhD in sociology. It was during this time he began to see the importance of law and the legal system in effecting social change, and he applied for and received a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale Law School.

Sheldon remembered loving the study of law, which for him was a fascinating subject in and of itself. Despite strong pressures from mentors and colleagues to go into a law career, he was more interested in the interplay and dynamics between law and culture – in particular the lives of prisoners, who are systematically stripped of civil rights, existing in a sort of gray legal  ‘no-man’s land’. He undertook an ethnography of jail, spending nights studying and talking to prisoners awaiting trial about their unique perspectives and experiences, which led to the establishment of a pro bono legal counseling service provided by law students to prisoners in need.

In 1971 Sheldon joined the UT Sociology Department. Just before his tenure review, the publisher of his ethnography study went bankrupt, and mentors and colleagues tried to persuade him to pursue other courses of research and to publish in different venues. Nonetheless Sheldon stayed true to what he was interested in, thought was relevant and wanted to do, and was eventually able to publish his book and earn tenure at the University.

On Building Programs and Administration

In the 1980s the Chancellor of The UT System was seeking to implement higher education development initiatives in the Rio Grande Valley, and wanted a ‘non-bureaucrat’ to oversee the process. Sheldon was appointed as special assistant on this task force. It was then Sheldon discovered his love of, and knack for, building programs from the ground up. Later, as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, he would apply his vision and experience to the creation of programs such as Plan I Honors, the Undergraduate Writing Center, a Religious Studies program, Freshman Seminars, the interdisciplinary Tracking Cultures program, and numerous other initiatives at the University. Sheldon emphasized his journey is a continuous learning process and he ended up doing what he loves in completely un-anticipated and un-preconceived ways. It’s been important for him to remain true to his goals, and yet recognize there may be many paths to reaching them.

On Writing

In the late 1980s Sheldon’s mother was dying from diabetes. The exorbitant cost of experimental drugs that could prolong her life for possibly six months forced Sheldon’s father, a janitor, to make the difficult choice to let her die. End-of-life and quality-of-life issues have since intimately engaged Sheldon as a teacher and a scholar, leading him to develop his undergraduate course ‘Life and Death Decisions’ and, eventually, write his book Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides?.

Sheldon’s current teaching and research involve the study of the evolution of moral systems, from the way people justify torture and capital punishment, to how science and technology influence our morality and ethics, and vice versa.

In sum, Sheldon offers the following life lessons for resilience:

  • Be grateful for rejection and adversity, and learn to cope with them. It is through them we come to realize our source of strength and learn where our anchors are. (Hrabal: ‘For we are like olives: only when we are crushed do we yield what is best in us.’)
  • Be grateful for successes, no matter how small they may seem.
  • Recognize small steps matter. Don’t plan too far ahead. Be open to unexpected developments and bends in the road, in study and in life.
  • Have humor.
  • Be responsible and live for yourself.
On Resilience

We are grateful Professor Sheldon Ekland-Olson has shared his stories with us, a testament to the adage that example isn’t another way to teach – it is the only way to teach. We are truly fortunate to have him here as a colleague, a mentor, and a friend.

Thanks, Sheldon!

“Comps and Defending Your Proposal: Secrets and Unexpected Benefits of the Initiated” with Jane Ebot and Christine Wheatley

Fifth-year student Jane Ebot and fourth-year student Christine Wheatley in the Sociology PhD program shared experiences and some cogent advice for fellow comprehensive exam takers and dissertation proposal defenders in our Thursday Brown Bag Session.

Jane took her exams in demography and is conducting research on maternal and infant mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa. A PowerPoint version of her presentation can be found here. Below is a summary of her invaluable advice to students preparing for comps:

  1. In the semester before the one in which you plan to take your exams, check with your advisor and program coordinator on your degree progress and coursework checklist. With your advisor, decide if you are ready and when you should actually take your exams, in what area/s and sub-area/s you should take them, and who your exam chair and committee should be. Faculty often have colleagues in mind with whom they feel comfortable in working, and having committee members who can offer different perspectives but also get along personally can help you immensely, for comps and dissertation.
  2. After your meeting, create a reading list. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Build on past lists. Talk with other students in your area/s and sub-area/s, and remember, since your committee will invariably add a substantial chunk of materials to your list after review, that ‘less is more’. The list you propose to your committee need not be exhaustive. EndNote is also a great organizing tool.
  3. Organize. Put together a calendar (comps take place in mid-October and mid-April), and make a binder for your articles if your list is article-heavy. Make an outline/lit review template, and apply that template to each of your readings.
  4. Spend at least the two to three months preceding the exam reading. Divide and conquer. It is a good idea to save the hardest materials for last so you can remember them better before the exam.
  5. Be prepared for life still happening during all this. Prioritize and figure out what can wait, and discuss this with your mentors and colleagues particularly if you are collaborating on projects. Don’t neglect your health.
  6. Two weeks prior to the exam, review. This is the time to really synthesize your readings and suss out the relations among the items on your list. Try to find an overarching idea, and diagram it down to more specifics, to see if you truly understand your topic/s.
  7. Practice with past exams and/or imagined, anticipated questions. Many exams are written by the same faculty members. If you can, do so in the room where you will actually be taking the exam, even in the spot in the room – simulate the experience to prepare yourself and help yourself remember better. Do it first with notes, then without notes. Review afterward to see where you can improve. Talk to a friend, even a non-sociologist, and ask them to pose any questions to you about your area/s and topic/s.
  8. The day before the exam, relax. Sleep well.
  9. Show up early to your exam. Bring some quiet snacks and water (but not too much) if you’d like. You get one official short break on each of the two days of the exam; any other breaks you take will be on your own exam time. If your exam is in demography, you can also bring a calculator or use Excel on the computer.
  10. Outline and write your answers in essay form – major thesis-minor theses-evidence-restatement of thesis-significance.

After comps, it is a good idea to take a well-deserved break before you begin preparing for your dissertation proposal and proposal defense. To prepare:

  1. Discuss with your advisor about ideas, potential topics, directions, and methods for your dissertation.
  2. Write a five-page pre-proposal, and get feedback from your advisor.
  3. For the proposal itself, write a bit at a time. Make a calendar, and set deadlines for yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for periodic feedback. Your advisor and you need to be on the same page regarding your readiness. Depending on your topic, your proposal may be 20 – 60+ pages. Again, work with your advisor closely through the process and clarify expectations.
  4. With your advisor, determine who should be (or should not be) on your dissertation committee. Remember you need one out-of-department faculty member.
  5. Email these potential members to request a meeting individually.
  6. Once they agree to be on your committee and you have your committee set, figure out a date, time and place for your proposal defense. Book a room right away, and confirm with your committee.
  7. It is a good idea to both email and give a paper copy of your proposal to all your committee members.
  8. Practice your presentation.
  9. Arrive early to set up the room and any equipment you need. Dress professionally. During the defense you will most likely present your proposal only for five minutes, followed by Q&A, discussion among the faculty, their decision, and further discussion with you.

Remember your proposal is just that – a proposal. Your dissertation may end up being more or less different.

While Jane focused mostly on the logistics of comps and and proposal defense, Christine Wheatley shared some excellent tips on managing yourself mentally and emotionally through these times, and through graduate school in general. Christine’s own research explores migrant experiences of deportation from the U.S. and return to Mexico. She suggests:

  • Don’t see comps as simply another ‘hoop’ to jump through. Take it as an opportunity to familiarize yourself thoroughly with the fundamentals of your field and sub-field/s, in your own development as an expert and a scholar.
  • Don’t rush through grad school. Competitiveness and perfectionism from fear and insecurity hinder more than they propel. Each person and each field are different; do what is right for you.
  • Be self-aware about your own habits and disposition, and make them work for you rather than against you.
  • Be prepared for your own emotional reactions. Almost everyone has thought about quitting or dropping out at one time or another. Reflect on whether these reactions are simply situational, and temporary.
  • All your faculty mentors are here to help you. Your success is their success. Work with them and don’t be afraid to seek their advice and guidance.
  • Overcome the Fear of the Unknown: practice, practice, practice.
  • Read for the ‘big ideas.’ If some finer points do jump out at you, remember them and critique them. Understanding is the ability to differentiate between and to synthesize the big and the small. Session participant and graduate student Nicholas Reith also pointed out the importance of recognizing different perspectives, and it is a good idea to read more than one book review to get a balanced summary of a work.
  • Remember to actually answer the questions on the comp exams. Restate the question if necessary in your answer. Don’t worry too much about ‘polish’ (but spelling and general intelligibility are still good ideas).
  • Celebrate your successes! Make this into a cycle of positive, not negative, reinforcement.

A big Thank You to Jane, Christine, and all the participants at this brown bag for making it such a lively, informative and useful session!

From Mercenaries to Contractors

by Ori Swed

Upcoming presentation at Go-Betweens: Crossing Borders – An Interdisciplinary Conference at The University of Texas at Austin. Session B3: ‘Human Rights? Social Justice?October 12, 2012. 3:40 – 5:20 pm. SAC 3.112

Contemporary conflict areas and warzones across the globe witness the emergence of an old actor in a new face-the hired guns. As the quintessence of the spirit of capitalism in the battlefield, the new contractors’ companies take an increasing part in modern battlefields. From a pariah and symbol of cupidity the soldiers of fortune turned into businessmen in suits and million dollar companies, transformed from mercenaries into contractors. These contractors and companies proliferate in conflict areas, conducting various tasks as partners of governments and armies, from logistics and maintenance to intelligence and even actual fighting. In many battlefields they outnumbered the standing armies’ regular soldiers. This is the result of an historical process and an old arm wrestle between the market forces and political forces that tilt to one side or the other. Nevertheless, current trends evince these new characteristics. This differentiates them from former times and raises interesting questions on accountability, while challenging the Weberian notion on States and the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence.

Not so long ago, in the mid-90’s, mercenaries such as ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare, Bob Denard, ‘Black Jack’ Jean Schramme, Yair Klein, and many others prowled all across Africa and Latin America; following the committing “tradition” of Ernst von Mansfeld, Roger de Flor, Francesco Sforza and many other respectable names. These individuals, though many times operating under the advice and request of governments, were considered pariahs in international politics. Even the surprisingly successful intervention of the South African mercenary company Executive Outcomes (EO), which forced the notorious Revolutionary United Front that menaced Sierra Leone to ask for peace, was concluded with rapid banishment by the international community the moment EO harbored stabilization and democratic elections. In spite of the mitigating effect of EO presence on the Sierra Leone civil-war, (which was an arena the international community failed to deal with) no one in the international community could envision that hired-guns run the security and indirectly, the politics of a UN member.

The world, post 9/11, presented more than a few challenges for the international community and especially for the only world power, which was occupied with two distinct and distanced arenas about half the size of Texas. After a quick triumph in Iraq and Afghanistan came the phase of control and reconstruction for two turn countries with bad infrastructure and unstable politics, a phase which demanded further ‘boots on the ground’ than the over stretched and exhausted coalition could supply. The solution came in the form of outsourcing; outsourcing of control, construction, and if necessary, of fighting (Chatterjee 2009).

Table 1. Comparison of Contractor Personnel to Troop Levels

(As of March 11)

                                           Contractors                         Troops Ratio
Afghanistan Only               90,339                         99,800 .91:1
Iraq Only                              64,253                        45,660 1.41:1
CENTCOM AOR                 173,644                       214,000 .81:1

Source: CENTCOM 2nd Quarter FY 2011 Contractor Census Report; Troop data from Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Boots on the Ground” January report to Congress.

Notes: CENTCOM AOR includes figures for Afghanistan and Iraq. CENTCOM troop level adjusted by CRS to exclude troops deployed to non-Central Command locations (e.g., Djibouti, Philippines, Egypt). Troop levels for non-CENTCOM locations are from DMDC, DRS 11280, “Location Report” for June 2010.

 Figure 1. Number of Contractor Personnel in Afghanistan vs. Troop Levels

Source: CENTCOM Quarterly Census Reports; Troop Levels in the Afghan and Iraq Wars, FY2001-FY2012: Cost and Other Potential Issues, by Amy Belasco; Joint Staff, Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Boots on the Ground” monthly reports to Congress.

This rapid ‘makeover’, from pariah into mainstream political consensus, took less than a decade. At present, contractors or private military companies (PMC), are the providers of a variety of services starting in logistics and catering and ending with intelligence gathering, security and sometime even offense. Western companies are not the only players in the market and many other companies are taking their share in the “scramble for Iraq and Afghanistan”. Many of them are local, especially in Afghanistan.

Comparing major American conflicts from the last 250 years yields interesting results. The ratio of mercenaries/contractors and troops in the battlefield increased dramatically and shows record highs of 1:1. Historically this trend is new in the U.S context, though it has historical precedent for other nations.


A ratio of 1:1 proposes that a significant military effort is conducted by contractors and not by military personnel. This trend raises points at issue over accountability and responsibility and questions the state’s ‘monopoly on the legitimate use of violence’.  Take for example Blackwater, which retains a private navy, air force (it purchased recently a fleet of ‘Super Tucano’ turboprop fighting planes), and produces and sells its own armed personnel carrier- the Grizzly.  Its capabilities surpass those of more than half of the UN members. Furthermore, in order to avoid the bad reputation associated with its activity in Iraq, the company rebranded its image and changed its name to Xe and later to Academi. Thus, we can see the dilemma of power and accountability (or problematic accountability) in the contractors’ contexts.

Currently, the interface between state/military and PMC’s is vast and not fully regulated. Problems occur frequently on the basis of determining jurisdiction and responsibility on the ground. Meanwhile contemporary warfare is changing as two distinct populations with different norms, characteristics, and organizational culture are working together, adding to an already complicated scenario.

“Changing the Reputation of Rundberg”: APD Hires Sociology Professor in Community Reclamation Project

The Austin Police Department received a federal grant of $1 million to study and improve Rundberg Lane, an area that makes up 11 percent of all violent crimes in Austin. The money will be used to increase police presence and to hire The University of Texas at Austin Sociology Professor David Kirk for one year to research and plan a long-term solution. APD is one of seven police departments across the country to receive the grant as part of The Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program.

KXAN: “Changing the Reputation of Rundberg”

Professor Ekland-Olson Honored with Prestigious Teaching Award

Dr. Sheldon Ekland-Olson

Dr. Sheldon Ekland-Olson, Rapoport Centennial Professor in the Department of Sociology, is a recipient of the 2012 Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award.

Offered annually in recognition of faculty members at the nine academic and six health University of Texas System institutions who have demonstrated extraordinary classroom performance and innovation in undergraduate instruction, the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awards are the Board of Regents’ highest honor. With a monetary award of $25,000, the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awards are among the largest in the nation for rewarding outstanding faculty performance. Given the depth and breadth of talent across the UT System, the awards program is likewise one of the nation’s most competitive.

Faculty members undergo a series of rigorous evaluations by students, peer faculty and external reviewers. The review panels consider a range of activities and criteria in their evaluations of a candidate’s teaching performance, including classroom expertise, curricula quality, innovative course development and student learning outcomes.

Established by the Board of Regents in 2008, the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awards complement a wide range of Systemwide efforts that underscore the Board of Regents’ commitment to ensuring the UT System is a place of intellectual exploration and discovery, educational excellence and unparalleled opportunity.

Dr. Ekland-Olson will be recognized at an award ceremony on Wednesday, August 22, at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center on the UT-Austin campus.

Way to go, Sheldon!!