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Sociology students will have stage to themselves at regional meeting

By Dan Heuchert

Peggy Harrison
Sociology professor Rae Blumberg's graduate seminar in Social Change and Development includes (from left): Kathleen Dutt, Chris Stevens, Blumberg, Laura Bethke, Evan Hunt, Patricia Goerman and Ken Oman.

Rae Blumberg stresses to her graduate sociology students the importance of presenting papers at professional meetings. But even she couldn't have anticipated what will happen in New Orleans later this month.

At 5 p.m. on April 20, in the Cabildo Room of the Hotel Monteleone, all six of her Sociology 781 students will present papers at the Southern Sociological Society's annual conference.

Blumberg, who's taught previously at California-San Diego and Wisconsin, said a session devoted to presenting the work of a single graduate-level class is a first in her experience.

There will be only two other sessions presenting one class' work among the 150 scheduled, said North Carolina State University associate professor Cathy Zimmer, the conference program chair. The conference's theme this year stresses blending research, teaching and learning.

Blumberg's graduate seminar in "Social Change and Development" was actually held in the fall semester, but once the papers were accepted, the group continued to meet regularly through the spring semester to continue the research and writing process and prepare their presentations. Their trip is being supported by grants from U.Va.'s sociology department and the College of Arts & Sciences.

Several of the students have never presented before, but said the all-for-one approach has been helpful. "It takes away the stress, knowing it's going to be just the six of us presenting to the room," said Laura Bethke, one of the five doctoral students in the class. Although this is her first conference, she will actually be presenting two papers -- she had another accepted independently.

The variety amongst the paper topics may have been a selling point in earning the group its own session, "Development and Social Change in the New Millennium,' Blumberg said. The students and their projects:

Evan Hunt, the lone master's student in the group, calls himself "the young pup with the off-beat paper." He is applying Blumberg's gender stratification theory to the increasing number of women purchasing Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Inspired by the spectacle of "Bike Week" in Myrtle Beach, S.C. last spring, Hunt decided to look into why more women are buying Harleys, formerly an ultra-macho vehicular statement. Blumberg's theory, greatly simplified, holds that as women gain economically, they also increase their ability to make decisions. Hunt's application of that theory suggests that as women gain economically, "more will get off the back of the bike and buy their own."

He is considering making the presentation in full motorcycle leathers, he said.

Kathleen Dutt, a product liability lawyer in Washington who is returning to school to pursue her doctorate, is applying gender theory to legal education.

She is building on a 1994 study that found that women and men experience law school differently, and that women with equal or better credentials than men seem to do less well. Dutt argues that the Socratic teaching method, which tends to put individual students on the hot seat for extended periods of time, appears disproportionately injurious to female students -- she calls it "abuse of students by professors." They have a harder time with professors' tendency to ask for only one correct answer, because women tend to see more facets to a question than men.

Lower law school grades, in turn, can be a significant career handicap, she said. "Law is very hierarchical. Grades get you into power positions. ... Women have less ability to achieve if their grades aren't way up there."

Bethke is writing about gender differences in communication on Internet chat rooms.

Women perceive the chat-room environment as being more hostile than men do, she said, although her interviews find that the anonymous format of chat rooms allows men and women to adopt more gender-neutral communication styles, and both men and women report having uncomfortable experiences. Men tend to shrug off such experiences, she said, while women are more likely to move on to all-female chat rooms.

Patricia Goerman is applying Blumberg's theories to Hispanic immigrant families. Interviewing eight first-generation Hispanic women about their migration experiences and changes in their family lives since they have arrived -- not a representative sample, she acknowledges -- it appears that as women's economic power builds, so does their say in household decisions.

Incidentally, Goerman and Blumberg received a grant from the Census Bureau to spend the summer studying whether current census forms adequately address the complexity of Hispanic households.

Chris Stevens' paper applies a theory of moralism originated by Donald Black, University Professor of Social Sciences, to war.

Black's ideas are more often applied to conflict within states -- among individuals and groups -- than that which arises between states. "But it's a very general theory, and, in principal, should apply to the largest and most extreme forms of moralistic behavior, such as war," Stevens said. Essentially, Stevens argues that, all other things being equal, the greater the social distance and inequality between two groups, the more severe the violence will be if they clash.

Finally, Ken Oman's paper is "Employment Inequality in the Technology Economy: Understanding the Role of Education." Oman qualifies as a life expert, having retired after spending more than 20 years in the software business. Already holding a master's of divinity earned before his career, he is now pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology, and then has plans to get a law degree.

He is also a "veteran" presenter, having attended and presented at several conferences, he said.

He likes the collective approach. "It has been unusual in that way," he said. "There is a common sense of pride in presenting together in a meeting."


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