(matt and i are serious patrons of modern art!)
Just going, forever…
I recently spent two and a half weeks on the west coast. It started with a week-long stint in San Francisco and the dizzying business of our annual conference. A “show,” as one of the temps referred to it. It’s doubly dizzying to think that 5,500 people descended upon the downtown area for the week, most of them clogging the Hilton that, even though it spanned a block, was congested; the people pouring out onto the escalators and staircases like lemmings. Imagine someone viewing a chart of all things tourist-related and finding this sudden spike, followed by an unimaginable and ghastly return to normal in the following week.
It takes all year to plan these conferences, and just about two months getting everything packed up into a microcosm to be shipped to another city. Our miraculous meeting services team is inconceivably manned by three people who are already in motion, arranging next year’s meeting. One of the temps at the registration booth one day asked me whether we hosted several of these throughout the year, like they might a trade show. I shook my head with amusement, saying, we’re just a staff of about 40 some people and it takes all year just to plan one meeting. I don’t think we could manage anymore. It’s one of the best perks – this week-long opportunity to travel to a big city (and so far, cities that are entirely new to me). Next year, it’s Atlanta.
San Francisco is a geographic oddity, one reduced by historic earthquakes and fires. Rebuilt on the hills along the bay, the walks are strenuous, the drives are scary, it’s clogged with international travelers and plagued by erratic weather, especially the creeping fog that seemed likely to have inspired John Carpenter, some days burying the Golden Gate Bridge. (And that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the visit).
Downtown San Francisco, to which I was pretty much confined during the meeting, retains a lot of its old-era look. Not like the way big cities like New York and Chicago and Boston have transformed into the New and Pristine and incredibly more Expensive (although San Francisco, along with the rest of California definitely shares that last quality) that come from the wave of the glinty-eyed prospectors. You could look at photographs and films from the 50s, 60s, and 70s and not find much difference in the cityscape (the fire escapes certainly add to the antiquity), though inside the shopfronts and theaters, house the wares of commercial homogeneity.
Beyond the architectural nostalgia, there’s tremendous poverty downtown that seriously baffled me, even as a resident of the District. I’ve never seen so many people sprawled in the middle of the sidewalk, filthy and reeking and soundly asleep. I suppose it was a convenient study (or more realistically, observations made at safe distances) for the numerous academic arriving in town for the meeting. The bulk of the poverty seemed concentrated in the ironically coined Tenderloin and Mission neighborhoods, spilling out into the shopping districts near the higher-end hotels until it disappeared completely from the elevated streets (and memory) of San Francisco’s Wealth further out. The sheer numbers of addicts and alcoholics and the severely mentally ill was enough to make me wonder whether shelters and public services had been eliminated en masse. Given California’s financial plight, it wouldn’t be surprising.
(view of the golden gate bridge from a bayside boat tour)
A Sociologist’s View of Sociology Meetings
“You’re the person who checked me in. Are you a sociologist?” Someone asked me this as we stood in the hotel lobby waiting for the others who paid to attend the walking tour. People frequently mistook me for the organizer of these things that I was assigned to collect tickets for.
The staff wears name tags that are distinguished from those given to registered attendees, their guests, and exhibitors by a colored ribbon. They aren’t telling of our department affiliation. When you work at the registration desk, handing out programs and name tags and schwag (a biodegradable shoulder bag), you are assumed by most to be an administrative underling. Or, if you wear a black shirt and white pants as I did one day, a temp. Most of the junior staff’s time is scheduled for assisting at the registration booths where the 5,500 attendees and their guests will eventually pass through, and often more than once. They eagerly lined up at the double doors at 8 in the morning as though it was the entrance to Oz. At the opening hour, they’ll storm us, picking up registration materials, resolving membership issues, browsing the exhibitor booths, or just causally discussing department politics with old colleagues.
I worked with two temps, both older black women, who were delighted with the turnout of the meeting, one remarking that her favorite aspect was the variety of the people at the meeting, both in appearance and character. The majority of our conference participants, and indeed our membership, are faculty members and students at schools in the United States and abroad.
I love working in the registration area. Sure, it’s no-brainer work asking people to spell their last names, answering their questions, and handing them programs and other materials. But, it’s the point of entry for just about everyone who came to town for this meeting, and you certainly meet a lot of different people, even if only for a minute or two. And, as jet lagged or rushed as some may be, they are rarely ever assholes to any of us. It’s typically a busy, but very laid-back environment. I wonder if that is just the nature of sociologists.
On Opening Day, the longest and most exhausting, a graduate student seemed distracted by the fee he paid for registering late for the meeting. Hoping for a laugh by invoking variations of the “Optimus Prime Says Stay in School” slogan on his t-shirt he said he wore on the first day of classes he taught. “Optimus Prime says register for the meeting early!” I said as he was collecting his things to go, but he didn’t seem amused. I guess he probably heard them all before.
Once in a while, we will recognize our former professors. Although I was neither a sociology major nor grad student, I did recognize a few people. Peter Levine from Tufts, director of a research center specializing in youth civic engagement that was previously housed in the University of Maryland was one of our opening night speakers. Before he could say anything when he approached the registration booth, I asked if he spelled his last name “L-e-v-i-n-e” and he said “Yes, how did I know?” Familiar with his work as it was relevant to my thesis, I remember passing him once while waiting on line at the Drafthouse to see The Wedding Crashers. Instead, I referenced our connection to my grad school adviser, the Bionic Dr. O.
Later that day, an older woman approached with her husband and her last name was familiar. When I noticed that her name tag listed Georgetown University as her professional affiliation, I realized I had met her before. “Do you work at the Center for Social Justice?” I asked, and she smiled and said yes. “I’ve met you before. I used to work with Deanna when I was a graduate student.” It seemed so long ago, that I was surprised I even remembered the name of the place. She asked me my last name, and squinted to see it’s spelling on my name tag, as though she would try to commit it to memory. I didn’t expect her to; our connection was so remote. When I passed her in the hall a few days later, she didn’t recognize me.
This year, the junior staff did a better job of mingling at the evening receptions. Or, at least at the first one while the second was spent at a back corner table trying to figure out how to uncork a wine bottle with any silverware on hand. I arrived fashionably aloof to the first reception with my brother in tow, since we had just been getting back from dinner in North Beach with our uncle before shuffling over to the Hilton at his urging. And, despite budget constraints this year, it was remarkably catered (and some of the sociology faculty even performed jazz), probably to compensate for the fact that last year, if you showed up late, you were nearly out of luck to find something to eat. This year, I didn’t even want to think of how much food was just going to get thrown away. My brother and I just ordered beers at the open bar and, going to join the rest of the junior staff, got to meet some of the PhD students. There were three friends from schools in New York, and one, who was one of our fellowship recipients this year, was trying to get his other, goofier friend to go out with them after the reception and find a club. My coworker and I talked with the goofier guy who got melted chocolate on his shirt and said he didn’t want to wind up teaching in some small podunk town. He remembered my name and the next day, said hello in passing when he saw me standing around collecting tickets for a walking tour.
The meeting sets up and shuts down so quickly, like a distant memory. Before registration opens, we spend a few hours unloading boxes off of pallets contain programs and shoulder bags and thousands of envelopes containing the names of registered attendees. With our staff of forty or so stretched out, checking-in guests, resolving unlimited issues, coordinating logistics, manning our bookstore, or attending meetings, we wind up hiring six or seven temps to help out at the registration desk throughout the meeting, though the numbers wane as the meeting begins to come to a close. Last year, at the conference in Boston, my temporary friend was an entertaining older man, a psychologist who wanted to be a science fiction writer.
There were only female temps this year. I first started at a booth with a timid girl who a little younger than I, but my co-worker eventually was the one working along side her, later saying that the girl was remarkably bad at small talk, making conversation out of one unnecessary, broad question after another like whether the east coast had any good football teams or what the best employer was in DC. One lady had a booth of envelopes all to herself and seemed to cherish her independence. She had straight, shoulder length hair, a silk scarf tied under her white collar, and when she looked over her black-rimmed reading glasses than sat halfway on the bridge of her nose, she reminded me of Renee Russo. A chatty lady named Debbie who mistook me for a fellow temp from her agency , arrived on the second day and drew an invisible boundary around the contents of her half of the booth where she sat and I didn’t dare invade them if I could. A soft-spoken Hispanic woman would smile and say hello to me every time I passed in and out of the curtained section where we all sat, which was often. With not many people coming to check-in one evening, I leaned against the tables along the wall behind us reading a book analyzing the state of middle class suburban youth when Debbie asked what I was reading. I held up The Road to Whatever. She and the Hispanic woman seemed to gush over it as if I were a brainiac, though the title hardly gave anything away about the book. We also had an exceedingly polite woman who’s accent seemed rooted in Caribbean heritage, though I couldn’t be sure. She had dimpled cheeks, a small nose, and head of straight, mushroomed hair. She was our pedestrian version of Eartha Kitt.
My favorite temp was an older black woman I sat with at registration towards the end of the meeting. She was so impressed with the conference and we started talking about work. She worked for the company that ranks employers as Best Places to Work, a designation that, to my surprise, employers could nominate themselves. It was a lengthy process of interviews and surveys of both employers and their employees. She worked with data collection and raised her eyebrows and laughed when she talked about how employees held nothing back when they were invited to anonymously discuss the pros and cons of their employers. She said the founder had written something of a handbook for building a successful company, and of course, they would try to sell it to their clients, particularly the ones who failed to make positive rankings.
She had also worked for Microsoft as an assistant to the brainchild of XboX who she described as a six foot three tattooed man who’s formidable appearance contradicted his friendly personality. She talked about the generous perks for Microsoft employees like lavish holiday parties, tickets to Giants games for them and their families, and in-office massages. We discussed the feasibility of Bill Gates having card-entry access to every room in his house. Their offices were eventually shut down and employees were given the option of continuing employment with the company in Redmond, Washington. A strong deciding factor not to go was the habitual rainfall and muggy climate.
And, she was also once a social worker. Although she spoke of the job fondly, she seemed disillusioned with the institution itself that claimed to help people in need. I wondered if the employees were too career-minded, thinking back about a terrific book I picked up at the conference last year, Courtroom 302, about the criminal justice system of Chicago. That the public defenders and prosecutors alike treated their time in the criminal courts as temporary, their career-mindedness echoing the ineffectiveness and inefficiencies of the criminal justice system. But the temp’s disillusionment stemmed from the fact that those in the system were too judgmental, blaming the people asking for help, failing to realize that most people didn’t ask to be in those situations, and that for many asking for help was one of the hardest things in the world to do. I didn’t know what to say when she talked about how many people jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge every year, except to say that it wasn’t unusual to hear similar things in DC, where people jump in front of the trains.
Occasionally, I see my boss at these meetings. Less so this year than last. The senior staff typically spend a tremendous amount of time running around to a dizzying number of sessions and meetings in between trying to catch up with members and colleagues and program officers. We first reunited a roundtable discussion where my boss and our faculty member/co-author were presenting findings to a handful of tired, yet engaged-looking department chairs the findings from a study we had done this year on the academic job market. This was the first time I was meeting our co-author in person, having only spoken to him on the phone whenever we encountered headache-causing data complexities, which happened a lot when we started designing our survey. He was much different than I imagined him to be, more Dom Deluise-esque, heavy set with salt and pepper hair and beard, and a navy sport coat with gold buttons along the sleeves. (I was also amused by the department chair who actually wore the trademark corduroy jacket with elbow patches). Strictly a behind-the-scenes person on this project, I was given validation when he kindly made room for me at the table.
What we were presenting here was one of the two biggest projects we had worked on this year, despite most of our efforts being synthesized into a couple of 2-sided pages, as most research projects do. Because we’re such a small department working on a limited budget, we had done everything in-house, which meant trying to figure out how to take a database of some 6,000 cases and extract what we needed to test a hypothesis, programming several different versions of a survey (the drawing board was revisited so frequently some days I wanted to cry), following-up with non-responders, downloading several different data sets and creating one uniform version, analyzing the data, writing the brief, and last but not least, wrestling with Microsoft’s stubborn programs during the publication layout. The research department is really tiny, so when you own a project, you really own a project, no matter how much you wish it would just go away and give you some breathing room. Most of the aforementioned were my responsibility, with the exception of actually writing the brief, which I didn’t do at all. In the end, I was glossing over the gray-area discussion about PhDs having hard luck (much like anyone else looking for work in the last year or two) finding new, tenure-track positions in academic sociology this year, wonder if the issue, part of the larger problem with sociology departments trying to defend their existence, and colleges and universities facing huge budget cuts, was just too complex to even have an idea of where to start looking and act, even on a local scale. At the end of the meeting, our co-author leaned to me and said, I should consider going to graduate school. I laughed at this, and said I already did, having gotten my Masters a couple of years back. When he asked me what I wanted to do in the future, lest I wanted my bosses job were it ever available. I fessed up my desire to work down the block at Pew Research, and he said that a PhD could be my ticket to a lot of things. My old supervisor once said the same thing about law degrees when she handed me my letter of recommendation for law school even longer ago.
My coworker clocked a lot of time for our other big project this year that looks at Masters programs in sociology. Because of the expense of tuition these days, the demand for a graduate degree, and the short amount of time to obtain the degree, the Masters has basically become the preferred gateway to practical (read: vocational) education, and it seems a critical selling point to an otherwise obsolete discipline, considering the indepence and rising enrollment in social work and crimonology programs. Unfortunately, turnout to the session where my boss and her task force colleagues presented findings was ridiculously weak. Of seven or eight attendees, one was our press guy, one belonged to some kind of committee for implementing Master’s programs, two women thankfully discussed the existing or proposed programs at their institutions, the rest were reluctant to even utter a word, and two left early. It seems like we could use a much better way in publicizing our own sessions.
The other thing we do is jockey a display table in a corridor that, at it’s busiest, looks like a makeshift tradeshow. Various research organizations display information about data resources. Colleges and universities quietly advertise their graduate programs. All hope to lure curiosity with trails of fun size candy, pens, canvas totes, flashlights, novelty toys, and other tangible advertising. Our research department also counts a booth among these, and in the months before the meeting, I spend about a month running off, inventorying, and packing hundreds of counts our research briefs, and designing some kind of (hopefully) alluring brochure that will spark some interest in what we’re doing. Given the surprisingly strategic location in an otherwise confusing hotel layout, people were good about helping themselves to items, and it was amazing how quickly our supply began to dwindle.In about two days, the table was almost empty, which in a way was unfortunate, because people from other organizations decided an empty space could be filled with their own brochures about upcoming lectures or author meetings and things like that. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me, but the mysterious presence of the anarchists at last year’s meeting made me apprehensive that once again, somehow it was going to look like the association, and particularly our department, were in direct support. Last year, the anarchists had stationed themselves around the hotel with their literature carried around in the bags that we had given to registrants.
But, it’s good that the attendees had helped themselves to a lot of the research materials, because that’s precisely what we made all the copies for in the first place. But, it’s funny how that goes, people are more shy about approaching the table when someone is nearby, even to just drop by and pick something up in mere passing. Much like a merchandise booth, where you don’t want to make a person feel bad if you’re browsing, but don’t intend to buy anything. I figured, if I had made myself at least minutely invisible, they’d browse with less self-restraint.
In all of four hours, only four people approached me. One was an elderly couple. The angered wif e wanted me to do something about the fact that her husband, a member of the association since 1970 something (she was more exact) would be charged a small fee to reprint his attendance badge (basically a paper nametag in a plastic hanging holder) when all he wanted to do was get in to the exhibitors section so he could quickly meet with his editor even though he left his badge back in the hotel. He sheepishly told her not to worry about it, but she was insistent. I had no power one way or the other, and really wished they put some sort of departmental distinction on our badges for situations like these. I pointed them in the direction of our offices. My second question came from two would-be PhDs, one of them wanting to know how to get a fellowship for minorities. I leveled with them that this was the specialty of my officemate who wasn’t currently at their department’s table, which was next to ours, though I suggested emailing the address on the business card stapled to the applications. I had been told to brush up on the kind of funding our association offers — scholarships, grants, fellowships, etc. — because until my coworker and boss finished their other meeting, I’d pretty much be representing Team Research alone, save the few minutes our statistics consultant was there at the beginning. He was a winning conversationalist, and I took advantage of that when I left him there to make quickly copies in the downstairs Kinkos, knowing that all would be running smoothly after I returned from the an ungodly wait behind a girl making dozens of color copies of photos from interior design magazines at 4 bucks a pop. The third person to arrive was a young woman who I think was a PhD and taught in her department. She asked something about past research we’ve done looking at PhDs in the academic and non-academic job markets and I started to answer, but her conversation became more suggestive and my consultation seemed by then unnecessary. I went back to reading. The last person to approach us was a soft-spoken young American man who was studying in Canada and asked my boss, who was at the table by this point and in an unusually good mood despite their awards selection meeting not going over well, what types of funding were available to him.
…I think that’s enough for the first post.
TO BE CONTINUED…