I Quit!

I am no longer a PhD student!

I have cleared out my office space, returned all my library books, gotten my $10 deposit back on the bathroom key (really). But no, I haven’t gotten my doctorate. I’ve dropped out. I’ve decided to cut my losses and move on to something that’s better for me.

It wasn’t easy to drop out. After all, I’ve never done it before in my life. But I’m not alone – roughly half of American PhD students in the social sciences will do just that. The reason it’s so hard for us to realize we need to stop is because it runs counter to everything we’ve ever done, and also to the identities we have constructed for ourselves. We’re smart people. Smart people become professors and get “Dr.” in front of their names. By definition, we are the kind of people who thrive in academic settings. We breezed through high school, loved doing our BAs, and remain insatiably curious about our topics of interest. Going on to get a doctorate seems like the logical thing to do when you’re that kind of person, right? And there’s really no reason we can’t succeed if we just work hard enough, right?

Well, no. I was dead wrong.

Of course, I did my research ahead of applying to a PhD program, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but because I had never had any trouble getting things done throughout my post-secondary education, I assumed I could surmount any problems with the same ease I had previously experienced. And of course, everybody likes to think she will be an exception. Everybody wants to believe, I have enough passion to get this done, I am conscientious enough to finish quickly, I am dedicated enough to deflect any adversity that may get thrown my way. Yes, I may not be earning much, but I’ll get some fellowships or bursaries. Yes, I won’t be getting much supervision, but I’m independent and I can motivate myself. After all, that’s what the story has been in our lives up until that point, so why should we expect the PhD should be any different? We have always been dedicated, we have always been academically exceptional. We’re doing what seems to fit us perfectly.

The problem is, it IS different. A PhD is another animal altogether. The old rules don’t apply. Sometimes really, really smart people have the most difficulty. It’s not a matter of intelligence or enthusiasm or how much you want to succeed. It’s how well you do this new and tricky dance. It’s academic office politics, it’s a matter of how other people feel about your passions and how your interests align with theirs, it’s a matter of how many stumbling blocks arbitrarily get thrown in your path. And unlike other countries, where you go in knowing your dissertation topic and finish in three or four years, at Berkeley the average time to degree for sociology PhDs is nine years. Nine. Years. I convinced myself I could be done in five – six at most – but I quickly found so many obstacles in my path that it became clear it wouldn’t happen. Having just completed my third year, I can walk away with an MA in sociology, but I do wish I had come to this realization a bit quicker. I guess I was just too optimistic, expecting things would get better. They didn’t.

Shortly after starting, I found that one rug after another began to get pulled out from beneath my feet. I had been told I would get some credit, and consequently some exemptions from coursework, for already having a master’s degree. Nope nope nope, didn’t happen. I thought I would have the opportunity to earn as much as the other students in my cohort because I wanted to work really hard. Nope nope nope, my salary was half of everybody else’s my first semester because a fourth-year student needed a job and was inexplicably given half of mine. I couldn’t come close to making the rent on my university-owned shared apartment! I was led to believe I would have a stipend every year. Nope nope nope, it was gone after the first. I expected this university would have the computer software I would need for doing my statistical analysis. I honestly thought I wouldn’t have to bang my head against the wall with so many administrative nightmares, and even if I did, I figured somebody would be able to point me in the right direction to get them fixed. I assumed I would be treated as capable, and I would have opportunities to interact with lots of people who shared my interests. Nope, nope, and nope.

I went from being a happy, financially independent young woman living in London to a demoralized barely-adult. I felt as if I was a teenager again, stripped of autonomy and independence, having to ask my parents for money, being trapped by Berkeley’s poor public transportation, and squeezed into a new city much smaller than I expected. My boyfriend in London and I tried to keep up our relationship, and he came to visit me, but 5000 miles was just too massive a gap. By the time I went back to England for New Year my first year I realized that what we had was gone. Whereas I had previously shared a sunny, spacious maisonette in a decent part of North London with a good friend, I was now stuck holed up in cramped university housing surrounded by fraternities with three other girls, two of whom hated each other’s guts. After my first year, I moved to San Francisco proper and rented my own studio apartment, but the only affordable neighborhood walking distance to the train to Berkeley was the very worst in the city, full of drug addicts who think nothing of using the sidewalk as a toilet and smoke crack in broad daylight. I left the pet bird I had raised from when he was a chick, who I had tamed and trained and taught to speak, with my friend in London, and he died much sooner than I expected. I gave up a lot to do this PhD, mentally telling myself it would pay off, and so long as I stayed patient and worked hard, I would find it was worth it. The problem is, that never happened. All I saw were the things I had given up, and no payoff. And not only was I not getting anything positive in return, I WAS getting a hell of a lot of alienation and frustration.

Furthermore, it’s no secret that California and I do not really get along. I came in with an open mind, but after living in London for so many years, and New York City before that, the Bay Area just can’t compare. I had reverse culture shock. It was the little things I missed, like being able to sit down and watch a Tottenham match, or wander through Finsbury Park, or sit outside the pub on a sunny afternoon, or get Polish food whenever I wanted it, along with the big things like my job and lifestyle and friends. But in addition to missing London, California in particular was also rubbing me the wrong way. San Francisco feels far dirtier than New York and London. Attitudes tend to be very knee-jerk good versus evil rather than realizing that the world is far more complicated than that. I’m liberal, but I quickly got tired of the constant conspicuous competition to see whose heart bleeds most. I got tired of people honestly thinking it is sexist to say “you guys.” I got very, very tired of everybody calling their crazy untrained mutt a “service dog” so that it can run around the supermarket or restaurant or clothing shop and nobody can say a word about it because OPPRESSION! Do you know that some people compost their own human waste out here in their gardens? Yeah. I got tired of the gourmet artisan kale chips in the food bank donation barrel when, for the same price, you can feed your family pasta for a week. In fact, I’m tired of kale altogether. Please stop talking about how wonderful your kale is. I honestly don’t care. Nobody outside the West Coast bubble cares about your kale.

I think most people apply to Berkeley because, in addition to its academic appeal, there’s something about the Bay Area lifestyle that really appeals to them. It wasn’t like that for me. I came to Berkeley because it is ranked one of the best sociology doctoral programs in the world, and that’s all. My interests didn’t overlap much with those of other students – hiking and skiing aren’t my thing, I didn’t want to Occupy Oakland or go on strike, Burning Man sounds like hell on Earth, and when I cook, I honestly don’t care about locally-grown and organic heirloom tomatoes that cost four times more than the regular ones. If that kind of stuff floats your boat, that’s fine, and you will love living in the Bay Area, but it’s really not for me. Not at all. It’s not my kind of place, and the way I see it, if I haven’t grown to like it by now, I never will. And that’s fine. The East Coast has room for millions of people like me, and there are plenty of people who love California and will be far happier here than I ever was.

Eventually, all the close friends I made were people from outside the university. We met through shared interests like music and dance. I didn’t know anybody here when I arrived. My nearest family member is in Ohio. My parents are on the East Coast, and even though we have a very close relationship, I don’t get to see them very often because it takes an entire day to get there and another day to return. In London, I had four bus lines stopping right across the street from my front door in addition to Underground and Overground lines only a short walk away. In Berkeley, I quickly realized that you are largely trapped without a car. Bus service is mediocre, and the BART trains even worse. I felt less safe walking around there at night than I ever had in proper big cities. In short, upon starting the PhD, my world suddenly became very, very small.

There are lots of things wrong with the social science PhD experience in America. You can poke around the internet and find plenty of articles about them, but for a quick run-down, I recommend the blog 100 Reasons Not to Go to Grad School. I didn’t find this blog until a few months ago, but upon reading it, I realized it was spot-on. I was relieved to find out I wasn’t alone in my feelings, and even more relieved to learn that it is possible to quit the PhD and have a bright future.

The penny dropped this past winter when I was supposed to be studying for my qualifying exams, the oral ones I would need to pass in order to officially advance to candidacy. After waiting months for professors to give me feedback on my reading lists, and finding the number of titles I would have to study increase exponentially, I tried to just sit down and read. And I couldn’t. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t make myself read a book. I have always been a voracious reader, and you would assume that because these books are within my areas of interest, I would devour them. But I simply couldn’t. My eyes scanned over the text over and over and I couldn’t finish the page because all the sudden I just didn’t care. For me, the joy had been sucked out of sociology. I didn’t want to spend any more hours poring over these texts. I simply couldn’t make myself do it. And that’s when I knew enough was enough.

Enough. That’s what I finally realized. I’d had enough of the whole damn thing. Had enough of feeling like I didn’t matter one bit, enough of having zero support. Enough of the frustration and alienation. Enough feeling like I was stagnating and getting absolutely nowhere. Enough of feeling like my priorities and attitudes were completely different from those of my colleagues. I always knew I wanted to be a policy researcher rather than a professor, and when I did more research and found out that having a PhD can actually work AGAINST you in non-academic job market, I realized I had little to gain and a lot to lose by staying in the program. I didn’t want to be miserable any longer and I needed to do something about it. So I decided it was time to quit.

Every day since I made that decision, I have asked myself, does it still feel like the right thing to do? And every day, I have answered in the affirmative.

I don’t see this as a failure. In fact, quitting was possibly the smartest thing to do. I only get one life, after all. I came into this at age 25. I’m 28 now. I’m not going to get those three years – those three years which could have been very economically productive – back. I want to eventually be somebody’s wife and somebody’s mother and it’s not going to happen in California. I don’t want to look back on my life in the future and find out I peaked at 22. It’s time to cut my losses.

Let’s get serious: a shocking number of PhD students contemplate suicide. In fact, a Berkeley study a few years ago placed the figure at roughly one in ten. I’m not surprised, because when the first time you find yourself failing is in your late 20s or early 30s, and you’ve invested several years of your life in something that you may never finish or which may not even amount to a job that pays a living wage, sacrificing all the trappings of normal adulthood, it is understandable that people become very depressed. It never got that bad for me, probably because the cultural mismatch between California and myself reminded me that things would get better as soon as I moved back to the East Coast, but it’s horrifying to know that so many of my colleagues may be despairing like that. If anybody in a similar situation is reading this: IT’S NOT WORTH BEING THAT MISERABLE. IT’S SIMPLY NOT WORTH IT. YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIVE LIKE THAT. It will be tough to leave, but you CAN do something else. You’re still an intelligent, capable person. It took a while, but I convinced myself that I could still accomplish meaningful things without being Dr. Kite. And above everything, I want to be really, really happy again. I want to go back to being the person I was back when I was feeding the birds in Finsbury Park and walking up the Tottenham High Road with a match ticket in my pocket.

Fortunately, the story has a happy ending for me. After several months of job-hunting and the associated existential crises (“What if I’m unemployable for life because I tried to do a doctorate?”), I scored a dream job. I am proud to say that next month I will be moving to Boston and starting a job as a Research Associate at Harvard. In my communications with the principal investigator and her grad student assistants, I have felt more valued in the past three weeks than I have in the past three years of study. They are warm, enthusiastic, encouraging people who believe in me, and I am going to succeed with them. I am grateful to them and I will not let them down. It’s so wonderful to feel appreciated again. Policy-relevant work at last! My enthusiasm has re-emerged and it can only get better. The nightmare is over. Boston is new to me, but my best friend from San Francisco used to live there and she is moving back this autumn. I can easily visit New York. I can’t wait to find my new apartment and start over as a career researcher. I will be fully financially independent. I will have a life that makes me happy.

I didn’t fail. I simply realized the PhD was not for me, not for my life. (Hey, the PhD works for a lot of people, and I wish them the best of luck and all success. I hope they are able to keep following their passions and hopefully get better support than I did.) I made the best decision for my circumstances, and now I’m going forward to greener pastures. If I had never tried, I would probably always be thinking, “Damn, I should have gone for a PhD. I wish I had done that when I had the chance.” Well, now I know it’s not for me, and I won’t have to wonder. And – Harvard! I still can’t believe I’m going to be doing research at Harvard. I am going to have a good salary! I am going to have savings! I am going to feel like a proper adult again! I’m not leaving Berkeley with my tail between my legs, but with my head held high.

I’m moving on up.


Dumbing Down

I just finished my first semester as a teaching assistant. It’s what I do in exchange for a fee remission and a small salary at the university. Now that final grades are turned in, there’s a little something I need to get off my chest.

Apologies to all those who have heard me rant about this already. Yep, it’s THAT topic.

During a discussion about War and Empire by Paul Atwood, I mentioned to students that I was surprised that the United States’ involvement in the Kosovo conflict was omitted from this book. This course was about research methods and I wanted them to think about how to evaluate books which make very strong arguments but leave out points that could introduce counterfactuals or undermine the author’s position. Atwood, starting with Columbus, goes through the history of what eventually became the United States, and argues that all wars in which it has been involved have been fought over expansion of empire – first territorial expansion, and then market power. He goes up to the invasion of Iraq, so I was surprised there was no mention of Kosovo whatsoever, even though the United States’ involvement was through NATO and not on its own.

Well, in both my classes, I had students who did not know what Kosovo was. Not just that there was a war, but that this was a place on the map.

This terrifies me.

Let me be clear, I am not blaming the students. If they could get into the top public university in their state and never encounter this, then there is something seriously wrong with the education system. These kids are smart, so something has gone wrong. The system has failed them, and inside every system are The Powers That Be, and The Powers That Be are people. A large group of educated, powerful adults has demanded so little out of public school students, that some of the best and brightest are unaware that Kosovo is a place. And obviously this is OK with them, or otherwise something would have been done about it.

We cannot blame all our shortcomings on budget cuts. It is a problem for all of us if American youth can reach 20 years of age and not find out, either through the classroom or newspapers or the simple independent thumbing-through of books that defined my childhood, where their country was involved in war during their lifetime. If this is happening, it is because of long-time, widespread failure of the people who are supposed to be upholding standards – who are supposed to be imparting knowledge to students.

What frightens me most of all are the excuses I hear people making for things like this. My colleagues in sociology say that it’s not a big deal. I think it is a VERY BIG FREAKIN’ DEAL INDEED if the people we are training to be tomorrow’s public leaders do not know these basic facts. “They were very young when it happened,” people tell me. I’m not buying it. Yes, they were young. But they’re not anymore. They should know the history of their own country. By way of comparison – I was in kindergarten when Desert Storm happened. I couldn’t have given you the history of Kuwait or the life story of Saddam Hussein, but I definitely knew at the time that Kuwait was a country, Hussein was a ruler, and a war was happening. And when I was school-age, I knew what it was. You don’t have to know every detail, but to not even know of the war’s existence? That’s inexcusable.

Another person admonished me with, “Julia, you can’t expect everyone to have had the same experiences as you.” Think about that for a second. I’m not supposed to expect students to know about a war their country participated in that happened during their lifetime. To me, this seems like a pretty basic thing. If I can’t expect this, then what CAN I expect them to know?

Then, even worse, I hear people say that we have to be aware that students from working-class backgrounds, of whom there are many in this university, do not read as much as their better-off counterparts and thus are less aware of current events. WHAT? Have a little respect for the fact that these students have brains – brains that got them into this prestigious institution in the first place. Respect their current abilities and their future abilities, and set standards high so that they can achieve. The school system has screwed them over their entire lives, so take a step toward fixing that and demand proficiencies. They can do it, and they’ll feel great about doing it, because they’ve been waiting their entire lives to be challenged. We can acknowledge that not all students are born with silver spoons, that many have had to struggle with difficult personal circumstances, unfair inequalities, and underfunded schools, without insulting them by lowering standards. When students are five or six years old, we believe all of them can achieve the highest success with the right support, encouragement, and challenges. We should not change our opinion when they become undergraduates assigned to our classes.

And don’t make blanket statements about what working-class students are like – they are a huge and diverse group. And there are things called public libraries. Lots of kids find their way into them at a young age, and yes, that includes kids from poorer families. I grew up solidly middle-class, but I was always at the public library devouring books because school didn’t challenge me. Your parent doesn’t have to have a lot of money to bring newspapers into the house or switch on the radio. To assume working-class students, at age 18+, don’t have the capabilities of wealthier students is downright insulting. If they’ve been swimming against the tide all their lives, then by college it’s time to give them some assistance, not accept this inequality as inevitable. Yes, there are structural inequalities that burden America’s poor and make it more difficult for kids to reach academic benchmarks, but that is entirely separate from the personal habits and cognitive skills students can cultivate WITH THE RIGHT TEACHING AND GUIDANCE. They won’t get anywhere if people say it’s OK for them to achieve lower standards. By the college level, the excuses need to end and the concentrated teaching needs to progress. Imagine how insulting it must feel for a college professor to assume you can’t do what the kid sitting next to you from Sherman Oaks or Redwood City can do, even though you both worked your way into one of the nation’s best universities. How insulting. How stigmatizing. How utterly ridiculous.

I read papers from students who are about to be handed their diplomas, and they don’t know the difference between “they’re,” “their,” and “there.” Are we really doing them a favor by letting them graduate without basic competencies? It’s NOT OK to shrug this off. We should feel ashamed of ourselves if a graduating student with English as a first language cannot coherently write an analytic paragraph. Making excuses – and I have heard plenty of them – will not land them the jobs they need to compete on a global scale. For every student with dyslexia, there are dozens who have simply been allowed to coast through their classes, believing that “good enough” writing is, indeed, good enough. No credible university’s teachers should accept “good enough” unless they are willing to state, hand on heart, that they are content with being part of a race to the bottom. If we are to be taken seriously as scientists, then sociologists must demand high standards from both themselves and the next generation of scholars. It may seem like just a small, nit-picky detail that I’m beating half to death, but it’s indicative of a culture that accepts mediocrity as just fine and dandy, and instead of making the effort to help students improve so that they can enter adulthood with the necessary skills, excuses them away and perpetuates the problem. These kids are obviously bright, so why don’t we demand more of them? If we say it’s OK that students don’t know about the war in Kosovo, then what next? It’s OK for them to not know the difference between Iraq and Iran? Or North and South Korea? See where this is going?

I feel like I’m from another planet sometimes. When I was a kid (which wasn’t terribly long ago), I learned lots of things outside the classroom. Truth be told, a lot of my teachers were incompetent dinosaurs who made no secret of the fact that they were unhappy with their careers. I had to do a lot of learning on my own. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten remotely near where I am today. Yes, I was lucky in that my parents had resources. They had money to buy books, but they also took me to the library when I was too young to go there alone. They subscribed to a newspaper. All these things seem pretty basic. Do young people no longer even look at the front page of a newspaper whenever they pass a street-corner box? That costs nothing. Do they not watch the news? That pops up in public everywhere you go. Do they never get curious about the rest of the world and pick up books to learn more? I admit it, I was a weird kid, but I lived on books. I wanted to know everything about everything, and books were the way I could do that. The world outside my immediate surroundings fascinated me and I couldn’t wait to grow up and be part of it. Don’t people just a decade younger than me feel the same way, or was I really that odd?

And regardless of class, every teenager is exposed to loads of media – do news headlines never flicker by? How is it that they can know what Kim Kardashian is wearing, but not know about current events? I don’t understand. I do not understand this at all.

I’m just perplexed. Utterly baffled that I seem to be the only one out of my colleagues who is shocked and disturbed by the dumbing-down of education. And that’s what it is, dumbing down. There’s no better way to describe it. Low standards, low expectations, low demands. It was happening when I was a student (we were reading books that were marked fourth grade level when we were in eighth grade – and this was in what was considered to be a good public school), it’s still happening now, and if nobody gets really, really pissed off about it, then it’s only going to continue. If other PhD students aren’t bothered and I am, then clearly we have different values – and I honestly thought that at this point, all my peers would be as shocked by dumbing-down as I am. I see this process perpetuating itself throughout the next generation. It’s absolutely terrifying. I can’t repeat this enough – what I’ve just described should horrify everybody with the slightest interest in the future of the country. I honestly thought things would be different at the doctoral level. It seems they’re not.

I’m also at the point where I think social scientists are the number one reason why people don’t take social sciences seriously – it’s because we don’t demand enough of ourselves and our students. We’re too busy worrying about hurting people’s feelings to suggest that something might need improvement. We are the problem and we’re largely in denial. Every time we as educators make excuses for mediocrity in the students we are grooming to be tomorrow’s civic leaders, visionary entrepreneurs, and groundbreaking intellectuals, we degrade ourselves. How can sociologists lecture about community if we shirk our responsibility to those we are welcoming to it as independent adults?

And why is it that my colleagues admonished me for stating that addressing a mixed-sex group of students as “you guys” is not a big deal, but none of them agreed with my statement that it’s inexcusable for students to not know what Kosovo is? I seriously can’t be the only person who thinks priorities are a bit skewed. Is this what academia is coming to? How on earth do we expect to be taken seriously? We are the gatekeepers now – don’t we remember what it’s like to be bored and unchallenged and aching to learn more?

Look, nobody rises to low expectations. We have to demand more out of students regardless of their background. If we excuse and shrug off basic deficits of knowledge, then WE IN ACADEMIA ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM. If we have double standards applying to poorer kids, then we are perpetuating the exact things we so self-righteously claim to be working toward eliminating.

Stop making excuses. Start teaching. Get angry. Stop telling people like me that we need to be “more understanding” of mediocrity, and start raising the bar.

The new UC logo is all kinds of horrible

The University of California’s funding woes are well-known. Not a month goes by when there’s not a rumor of yet another tuition increase for undergraduates, and if you want to see an example of austerity in action, I’ll show you the bathrooms in the huge social science building at Berkeley which are cleaned maybe once a week. They are foul. But once a week is still better than what I get in the office I share with five other PhD students (which doesn’t have enough desks for all of us) – that room has never been cleaned since I moved into it over the summer.

Yet despite all the real problems, the UC system decided to throw away a good chunk of money on designing a new logo, needlessly rebranding what is arguably the best group of state universities in the world in an embarrassing attempt to look hip and down-with-the-kids.

You may be wondering what was wrong with the original logo. The answer is, nothing. It looked like the standard, formal logo of any United States university established earlier than the 20th Century. A book, a star, the motto “Let There Be Light,” the year of its establishment…perfectly good logo that immediately communicates that the schools which make up the UC system are serious places for learning and research:

Here’s the slightly more elaborate version (which appears on my business cards!):

Because there are multiple UC campuses across the state, sometimes the logo is altered slightly to give the name of the individual institution:


(FYI: While there are many campuses of the University of California, only one of them is abbreviated “Cal,” and that’s UC Berkeley.)

So, what do you do when you have a perfectly good logo that communicates everything it needs to communicate? You ruin it in the name of trying to look contemporary and cool. The new logo is really, truly horrible. “Let there be light?” Nah, let there be the symbol you get when your YouTube video is buffering:

I…I can’t even. It’s like the design team deliberately did its worst. It looks like a flushing toilet viewed from above – and in light of the continuing state funding fiasco, plenty of people would say that is a propos. This logo plays right into the hands of everybody saying that the UC system isn’t what it used to be.

Dumbed down. Style over substance. Unsophisticated. Vague. Commercial. That’s what I think when I see this logo. NOTHING about it says “university” or “California.” It could be a logo for anything – but the last thing I would expect it to be associated with is a prestigious university. It’s not fresh, it’s not exciting, and the gradient looks like it was made in a primitive computer paint program. Not a good look.

I’m not convinced this isn’t an elaborate prank. I mean, a team of designers didn’t think, “Hmmm, this looks a little bit like a flushing toilet, and somebody might connect that to the current problems with UC system funding”? Nobody realized that it looks vague and basic and doesn’t have any kind of symbolism that would tell people what it’s for? It seems like most of us viewing the new logo thought something along those lines after about five seconds. Reactions from students and alumni have been universally negative, often including comments like, “I can’t believe we paid money for this,” and, “If only you’d consulted us first, this would have been immediately scrapped.”

But wait! It gets hilariously better/worse! The designers created a video to introduce the new logo, and it (probably unintentionally) reinforces those negative messages. The video has the unfortunate symbolism of a book being shoved aside THREE TIMES in the first 46 seconds in favor of items like a tote bag and a mug, which isn’t exactly the best move for a university that needs to communicate, in the face of a funding crisis, that high academic standards are being maintained. Watch it here: http://vimeo.com/53530934

They…actually…thought…it was a good idea to show people pushing away books…in a branding exercise for a university.

Admittedly, it’s a nice video. I like the hand-crank/light switch parts. Those are quite cool. Too bad it’s advertising a horrible image. If this new logo is all about branding, then the video makes it look like serious academics are being pushed aside for the sake of slick marketing and commercialization. Professional designers (who are supposed to look for this kind of thing for a living) didn’t notice that and think it might not be the best message? I noticed this after viewing it ONCE! Plus, if you have to explain what a shape is meant to be – e.g. the top of the new logo is meant to look like a book, as outlined in the video – then that means the symbol can’t stand on its own and it fails at doing its job. You shouldn’t have to explain something as simple as a logo – the logo itself is supposed to communicate that kind of thing automatically. I understand that designing an image that pleases everybody is really difficult, and I don’t want this to be taken as a personal attack on the creators, because they have a tough job. I’m certainly not perfect – for example, in calling out some Internet Racists (TM) today, I accidentally wrote “Asian-American” instead of “Asian” and made myself look pretty dumb. That was embarrassing. Mistakes happen. But this is some serious public money and it should have gone through several layers of testing before it got approved. How do you possibly make something that communicates the total opposite of what it is meant to represent?

This appeared on MemeGenerator. Perfect.

I’ve never taken one marketing class in my life. I’ve never worked in advertising or brand identity. Neither have most of the people commenting on the logo. Yet nearly ALL OF US agree this is amateurish and ineffective for communicating the mission or the features of the University of California. Didn’t they hold a focus group or at least ask for comments? Test the logo on students or alumni before making it public? This is honestly the best that paid professionals could do? The problems with it are so, so obvious (Kind of like in the UC system! ZING!) that it is kind of embarrassing that this got the green light. It means that UC decision makers thought this logo was a good idea, and that students and alumni would like it. If none of us looking at the image are professional designers and we immediately see what’s wrong with this, I find it really hard to believe that the people being paid to make the logo and who presumably have experience designing this kind of thing didn’t anticipate that this *might* not go over well…

When you’re making a logo, you do need to imagine what your lay audience will think of it. You may be the pro designer, but you are trying to convince other people of something with your marketing technique, and if the audience hates it, then it doesn’t work.

Argh. UC paid good money for this. And my shared office still never gets cleaned, and we have to bring our own sugar for coffee and tea…

Oh well, at least some creative people at the Boston Review have already altered it to add in a reference to last year’s UC Davis pepper spray incident:

In other news, today is my 28th birthday. I can’t believe it, either. My oldest friend is getting married – I got the save-the-date card a few days ago – and I am still a student. Yes.

UPDATE: Over 43,000 people have signed a petition to ask the University of California to please not use the new logo. For once, I think the term “epic fail” is truly appropriate. http://www.change.org/petitions/university-of-california-stop-the-new-uc-logo

ANOTHER UPDATE: It has been suspended! After reaching 50,000+ signatures, UC decided to axe the new logo. SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE WORK TOGETHER? *high-five*

Get A Life Girl

It’s time for a new superheroine.

When a generally pleasant postgraduate student gets an electric shock re-loading her Clipper card at a BART station, she becomes…GET A LIFE GIRL!

GET A LIFE GIRL is devoted to travelling through the Bay Area, delivering slaps to those who need it most. And trust me, a LOT of people around here need a good slap.

A few days ago I was standing in the McDonald’s outside Montgomery Street station, waiting for my order – Filet-o-Fish and medium fries, if you must know. YUM. I will blog about my disdain for foodies and the Californian obsession with proving your moral superiority through your shopping basket another day. Anyway, I was patiently waiting, and nerdily thinking about Katherine Newman’s book No Shame in My Game and how fast food word is a lot more complex than people think, when a man angrily approached one of the cashiers. He was upset. What had gone wrong? I’ll tell you what had gone wrong:


He had requested that his double cheeseburger not have pickles, and the minimum-wage workers just trying to earn a living and dealing with dozens of customers at once had forgotten to omit them.

Now, if you’re like most rational people in this world, this is not a big deal. It is not even the slightest blip on the Richter Scale of Things About Which to Be Upset. You’re an adult. You lift up the bun, remove the three shreds of pickle (or six, if this is a double cheeseburger), and throw them away. Then you go back to, you know, thinking of the actual problems this world has. But not this guy. This is San Francisco, remember? The vast majority of people have nothing to worry about, but they still want to feel like special snowflakes, so they make up problems.

“I’m really tired of you guys ruining my lunch,” this man told the young woman working behind the counter.

RUINING his lunch.

Ruining his lunch…because…there was some pickle on his burger.

Now, excuse me if this comes across a bit judgmental, but: GET A LIFE, YOU LOUSY WASTE OF AIR.

The next day, I was on my way to Berkeley, running slightly late for my office hours. I had to administer an exam to a student who had been absent, and I was worried about her not having enough time. Then I got caught up in what I was reading, missed my stop, and ended up on the other side of the Oakland Hills. The next train wasn’t coming for 8 minutes, so I jumped into a taxi. Said taxi, like lots of things in the Bay Area, was stuck in the past, so it didn’t accept credit cards. I didn’t have enough cash, so I asked the driver to stop at a Wells Fargo that I knew was along the way. He pulled up in front of the ATM, in the bus lane. I jumped out, and I noticed that there was already one man at the ATM. He was finishing up – I saw him take his money, take his card, take his receipt. But he didn’t move. He just kept standing there, shuffling through his wallet, deciding this was the right place to start organizing it. I figured he hadn’t seen me waiting, so I said in my nicest, sweetest voice:

“Excuse me, sir, I’ve got a taxi waiting, may I please use the machine?”

He looked at me as if I’d suggested his mother was a five-dollar Tenderloin whore.

After standing in place for spite for a while, he moved the necessary two steps to the side, then proceded to holler at me while I got my money. “YOU MUST THINK YOU’RE SO MUCH BETTER THAN EVERYBODY ELSE!” Because…I asked him politely if I could use a cash machine because my taxi driver was waiting right there. Wow. I shudder to think what’s going to happen when the next (overdue) big earthquake hits the Bay Area, because if these special snowflakes are so very, very offended and permanently scarred and wounded to the core of their being because somebody asked them to take two steps, then how the hell are they going to deal with ACTUAL disaster? I will admit I’ve had a very easy life, but these people would not last a day in my shoes. They would have massive breakdowns almost immediately. I never realized I was A Bit Of A Tough Bitch until I moved to California and found out just how soft people are. If I may be so bold, this is especially true for the men – I could go on a huge rant about why I’m single at the moment, and it probably wouldn’t be terribly convincing, but a bit part of it is that I can’t find men roughly my age who aren’t dull and soft. Of course I’m not going for thugs, but I’d like someone who has been around the block at least once, somebody who’s not going to have a conniption because there’s no organic vodka at the bar. I’ve seen men here pester the minimum-wage shelf stackers at the grocery store over the difference in taste between two types of cucumber! Actually pester, not just ask. Pester to the point where this one man asked if he could speak to a manager about sampling said cucumbers. IT’S A BLOODY CUCUMBER. IT DOESN’T TASTE OF ANYTHING. GET A LIFE!!!


I’m about to go to the post office, and I’m reminded up the time I was waiting there and some gross man was doing his yoga stretches in line, rubbing his dirty sneakers all over hand railings. I asked him to stop because, you know, there are needles and dog poo (and human poo) all over the streets here, and people have to TOUCH THAT because IT’S A PUBLIC HAND RAILING and NOT A YOGA MAT. He went absolutely ballistic and threw a strop in front of everybody. Another rant for another day is the total lack of basic hygiene people have here, but anyway, GET A LIFE!


This would not happen in New York or London. People think New Yorkers are rude, but that’s not true. We are blunt, we are efficient. Not rude. Big difference. We have things to do and places to go and you’re not special so quit whining and get on with life. In London, people don’t talk to strangers, but we don’t have to because people Get It and Move Along in the first place. We have common sense. We know you don’t bother minimum-wage workers about stupid shit because you’re making their lives harder. We know you respond to simple requests without personal attacks. We know to not literally rub shit where you eat. For some reason, this evades people in Northern California, because the attitude here is that you are perfect just the way you are and nobody has the right to criticise you, no matter what.


It’s the same attitude which states that you can bring your wild yapping rat-dog into a supermarket or restaurant, and as long as you say, “It’s a service dog,” nobody can ask you to take it out, even if it’s obvious you’re lying.

It’s the same attitude which makes my fellow grad students threaten to go “on strike” even though we’re getting paid by the broke-ass state of California to GET THE WORD “DOCTOR” IN FRONT OF OUR NAMES in exchange for a little bit of teaching. Not only do we not pay fees, WE GET PAID TO DO THIS, but apparently we are the oppressed workers of the world and we need to fight blah blah blah. For the record: I am a Democrat. I believe in the power of unions to advocate for exploited workers’ rights. Over-privileged grad students doing something 99.9% of the population can never dream of doing at a time when the state has no money for education are NOT exploited workers.


It’s the same attitude which leads to Ross Mirkarimi still being in his position as SF sheriff ten months after everybody found out he’s a wife-beating idiot because he refuses to take responsibility, do the right thing, and step down. The city council has so far been too spineless to remove him, but that may change today. I wouldn’t get your hopes up, though. Not hurting Ross Mirkarimi’s feelings is more important than the fact that he hurt his wife. Strange priorities around here.


It’s called an absolutely massive entitlement complex.

It’s embarrassing.

It’s narcissism, and California is ground zero of an epidemic of it.

So stop it, or GET A LIFE GIRL may appear in your life.

Serious Nerds Only: Qualifying Exam Reading Lists

In spring 2013 I’ll be taking my oral qualifying exams, which I need to pass in order to formally advance to PhD candidacy. The exams themselves are not a big deal, because your faculty advisors will not let you in to the conference room unless they know you’ll pass. The big deal is the sheer amount of preparation the exams require. Chalk these up as another reason why American PhDs take so long.

The rationale behind these exams is that you should be able to teach a complete undergraduate sociology class in each of three fields by the time you sit them. Everybody at Berkeley is required to take an exam in sociological theory, which is my NIGHTMARE. I am not a theory person. I am A Policy Person. The other two substantive areas are up to the student to decide. I chose stratification and political sociology, the latter with an emphasis on urban sociology. What follows is my reading list for political sociology. I have not yet drawn up the theory one because, like I said, NIGHTMARE. The stratification list needs a few additions. Anyway, here are approximately one-third of the books and journal articles I’ll be going through between now and April. I’ve already read some of them, but…well, I think I’m going to completely burn out what is left of my eyesight. And my bank balance. My poor, poor bank balance. If any of you reading this have been through the process before and you think there are any glaring omissions, please tell me. (Obviously, I can’t cover everything in depth because I would like to finish this PhD before I’m 50.) Otherwise, if you need me, I’ll be trawling the used offerings on Amazon and listening to John Head doing Shack’s “Cornish Town” solo over and over. The latter is waiting for you at the end of the list.


Essential Theory

Marx (1978) [1846]. “The German Ideology,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton.

Bourdieu. (1994) “Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of the Bureaucratic Field,” Sociological Theory  12:1-18.

Foucault. (1991) “Governmentality,” in The Foucault Effect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gramsci. (1971) “State and Civil Society,” in Selections from the Prison Notebooks.

Lukes. (2005) [1974] Power: A Radical View. New York: MacMillan.

Weber, Max. 1958 [1919]. “Politics as a Vocation” “Bureaucracy,” and “Class, Status, and Power,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.


State Formation

Bendix. (1969) Nation Building and Citizenship. New York: Anchor Books.

Poggi. (1978) The Development of the Modern State: A Sociological Introduction. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Skocpol. (1979) States and Revolutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tilly. (1992) Coercion, Capital, and European States. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.


Welfare States

Brady, Kiser and Beckfield. (2005) “Economic Globalization and the Welfare State in Affluent

Democracies, 1970-2000.” American Sociological Review 70: 921-948.

Esping-Andersen. (1990) The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Huber and Stephens. (2001) The Development and Crisis of the Welfare State: Parties and Policies in Global Markets. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Korpi and Palme. (1998) “The Paradox of Redistribution and Strategies of Equality: Welfare State Institutions, Inequality, and Poverty in the Western Countries,” American Sociological Review 63: 661-87.

Marshall. (1963) “Citizenship and Social Class,” in Class, Citizenship, and Social Development.  New York: Doubleday.

Pierson. (1995) Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher, and the Politics of Retrenchment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Piven and Cloward. (1972) Regulating the Poor. New York: Random House

Quadagno. (1987) “Theories of the Welfare State.” Annual Review of Sociology 13.

Steensland. (2006) “Cultural Categories and the American Welfare State: The Case of Guaranteed

Income Policy.” American Journal of Sociology 111: 1273-1326.

Weir, Orloff, and Skocpol. (1998) The Politics of Social Policy in the United States.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

Policy Development

Campbell. (2004) Institutional Change and Globalization. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dobbin. (1994) Forging Industrial Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Domhoff. (1996) State Autonomy or Class Dominance: Case Studies on Policy Making in America. Piscataway: Aldine Transaction.

Hall. (1993) “Policy Paradigms, Social Learning, and the State: The Case of Economic Policymaking in Britain,” Comparative Politics, 25(3):275-296.

Sewell, Jr. (1992). “A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation,” American Journal of Sociology, 98(1): 1-29.

Weir. (1992) “Ideas and the Politics of Bounded Innovation,” in Structuring Politics; Steinmo, Thelen, and Longstreth (eds). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press .

Weir and Skocpol. (1985) “State Structures and the Possibilities for ‘Keynesian’ Responses to the

Great Depression in Sweden, Britain, and the United States,” in Bringing the State Back In. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Governing Process

Bartels. (2008) Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dahl. (1961) Who Governs? New Haven: Yale University Press (selections)

de Tocqueville. (1969 ed.) Democracy in America. New York: Harper Perennial. (selections)

Mills. (1992 ed) “The Power Elite,” in Social Stratification : Class, Race, and Gender in Sociological Perspective, D. B. Grusky, ed., New York: Westville Press.

Schumpeter. (1962) Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, New York: Perennial. (selections)


Urban Sociology: Formation, Positioning, and Globalization

Hamnett. Unequal City: London in the Global Arena

Hannerz. Exploring the City: Inquiries Toward an Urban Anthropology

Logan and Molotch. (1987) Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sassen. Cities in a World Economy

Sassen. Global City: New York, London, Tokyo.

Wirth.  (1938) “Urbanism as a Way of Life.” American Journal of Sociology 44:1-24.

Park and Burgess. (1967)[1925] The City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Urban Sociology: Crisis and Social Problems

Gamm. (1991) Urban Exodus. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Harvey.  (1973) Social Justice and the City.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Harvey. (1978) “The Urban Process under Capitalism: A Framework For Analysis.”  International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.  2:101-131.

Massey and Denton. (1993) American Apartheid. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sampson. (2012) Great American City.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

South and  Crowder.  (1997) “Escaping Distressed Neighborhoods: Individual, Community, and

Metropolitan Influences.” American Journal of Sociology 102:1040-84.

Squires  and  Kubrin. (2005) “Privileged Places: Race, Uneven Development, and the Geography of Opportunity in Urban America.” Urban Studies 42:47-68.

Sugrue. (1998) The Origins of the Urban Crisis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tach. (2009) “More than Bricks and Mortar: Neighborhood Frames, Social Processes, and the Mixed-Income Redevelopment of a Public Housing Project.” City and Community 8(3):269-299.

Teaford. (1986) The Twentieth-Century American City. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wilson. (1990) The Truly Disadvantaged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson. (1997) When Work Disappears. New York: Vintage.


Urban Sociology: Community and Spatial Outcomes

Briggs. (2010) Moving to Opportunity: The Story of an American Experiment to Fight Ghetto Poverty. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brooks-Gunn et al. (1993) “Do Neighborhoods Influence Child and Adolescent Development?”

American Journal of Sociology 99: 353-95.

Gans. (1965) The Urban Villagers.  New York: The Free Press.

Morenoff and Sampson. (1997) “Violent Crime and the Spatial Dynamics of Neighborhood Transition: Chicago, 1970-1990.” Social Forces 76:31-64.

Sampson and Raudenbush. (1999 ) “Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at

Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods” American Journal of Sociology 105, 3:603-651.

Swaroop and Morenoff. (2006) “Building Community: The Neighborhood Context of Social Organization.”  Social Forces 84:1665-1695.

Power and Houghton. (2007) Jigsaw Cities. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Ravetz. (2001) Council Housing and Culture: The History of a Social Experiment. London: Routledge.

“Close your eyes and come and cross my street, and I will take you there if you will come with me.” That’s a great line, everyone. That. Is. A. Line.