The Study of Studying

Sociology professor Andrew Abbott sits down with Grey City.

By Grey City

In Andrew Abbott’s Sosc classes, the student is the subject. A sociology professor, Abbott quizzes his students on their personal lives, how they read for class, and how they write papers. He also experiments with new teaching styles, like the day when he tried to capture the feel of an online message board by giving each student a blue book to record his or her latest ideas about the class reading. After drafting initial “posts,” students traded blue books every five minutes and responded in writing to each other’s thoughts, resulting in student-generated discussion threads.

These experiments are more than a whim for Abbott (Ph.D. ’82). He’s something of a jack-of-all-trades, and his varied research interests have led him to pioneer computational methods, theorize on the development of professions, and examine the organization of knowledge. So when he wanted to know more about the way students think, he turned to the sociological methods that have served him as a researcher for more than 30 years.

But Abbott is more than just a researcher. He’s also part of the most powerful faculty body on campus, the Committee of the Council of the Senate. The Committee’s seven elected members meet twice a month with administrators, acting as the voice of the faculty on matters of University governance.

Grey City: You’re deeply involved in the faculty Senate, and you've said that one of the great things about the University is that it’s faculty-run. Over the past two years, some have raised concerned over the creation of the Milton Friedman Institute and other issues have led some to question the faculty’s role in directing areas of research. Do you think the University will continue to be faculty-run?

Andrew Abbott: Yeah, the University will continue to be faculty-run. It is faculty-run. The provost is an active faculty member who goes to his lab every Friday afternoon. The president is the former chair of the math department. These are active scholars. Obviously, [President Robert Zimmer] is not doing math anymore, but these are people who are faculty. But much more importantly, the deans, the masters, the people who rotate steadily through these positions…they’re chairing provost committees. They’re doing this kind of stuff.

One of the reasons the University will continue to do this is that it’s cheap. Unlike Harvard, we don’t have a lot of minor deans and administrators who do this and that and the other thing. The faculty is doing it. The faculty is actually running their own centers. There are, for example, about 100, 150 centers and institutes here. Every single one of those has to be run by a faculty member.

It’s also true that, let’s face it, academics are pretty profoundly committed to what they do. I’m sure that for any given faculty member there are at least 100 people somewhere else on the faculty who think that faculty member’s work is either useless, stupid, evil, unnecessary, or whatever. And this is true of anybody. Anybody you can think of will have attitudes like that. It’s also true that probably every faculty member here secretly thinks that there are other whole units of the University that, really, we don’t need…. But it’s also a community where people are concerned and are having debates and fighting about this stuff, and that’s a whole lot better than having the place be asleep.

GC: If you were to do a sociological study of any aspect of the University, what would you like to do?

AA: The central problem for the University of Chicago is really very simple. Between 1930 and 1990, the University of Chicago pursued what the non-profit world would call a “spend-down” strategy. They allowed the College to get very small by indulging in all kinds of wild experiments. Basically, the University spent a substantial chunk of its endowment being an extremely unusual place. An unusual college, a very small college, a university that was heavily graduate-focused, that had more graduate students than it had undergraduates. There’s never been a university like that anywhere else. Wildly exciting. Wildly alive. Filled with faculty, most of whom were not teaching any undergraduates. It was completely­­­­­­­­­—it was the most exciting place in the world. It was also going broke because there’s not a business plan that could sustain that over the long haul.

The decision was made to stop the spend-down strategy. We were probably the most unusual university in the world for 40 or 50 years. We did that by spend-down. We would like to continue being one of the most unusual universities in the world, but not continue spending down. That means the central question for the University going forward, the big challenge, is to figure out how to do that. I think that means we have to do it basically off of pure intellectualism. We have to envision a kind of university, a way of approaching knowledge, and a way of thinking about things that makes us unique and that people are going to come and be excited about.

GC: In your Sosc classes, you’ve experimented with your teaching methods, with the goal of using a different teaching method in every class. What have you learned from this experimentation?

AA: Mainly what I’ve learned from experimenting is that I didn’t know much before, and that students are far more unique than one thinks. Some of the general beliefs we have about undergraduates are correct, but some of them are not. I taught at Rutgers for 13 years before coming to the University of Chicago. That’s a very different kind of teaching. There you tend to give lectures to large rooms, and I got very, very good at that. I’m kind of an exhibitionist and an egomaniac, and it works very well to do that. It’s very physical kinds of stuff. I’ve taught intro to sociology to 600 people without a microphone. It’s just a grand public performance. But it’s also true that if, as I occasionally did, you read the exams and see what people are actually learning, [laughs] it’s pretty frightening. It’s pretty easy for you to persuade yourself that your students are learning a lot when maybe they aren’t.

So what happened to me in teaching the Core—you talked about these experiments—was that in the mid-’90s I created the course Democracy and Social Science, and that went very well for some years. I chaired the course for five years, I think. But eventually it began to get really stale, I didn’t feel the classes were very good, and the whole thing was just bad. I decided to reform things. So I spent a lot of time in my classes, in the first place, trying to figure out who the students are.

I do a lot of ethnographic writing where students write stuff for me without any name on it, and say who taught them how to write and how they learned to write. That’s how I discovered last year that a fair number of students entering the University of Chicago think that all essays must have five paragraphs. The reason they write long, amorphous paragraphs is that, as people ask them to write longer and longer papers, they still keep to five paragraphs. So the paragraphs get longer and longer, and it’s really strange. That turned out to be extremely useful. It turned out to be great news to everybody when I talked about it in the Core staff meeting. Nobody had actually ever thought of, “Well, let’s just ask them how they’ve been taught to write so far.”

GC: You studied history and literature as an undergraduate at Harvard. What brought you to study sociology as a graduate student at the University of Chicago?

AA: I went to Andover in the days when it was transitioning between being an old, upper-class bastion and the kind of school that it is today. This was in the mid-’60s, and it was just making the transition. There were lots and lots of very, very smart kids there who were basically upper-middle-class kids trying to get a pipeline into the Ivies. And so the curriculum was very conservative, but took advantage of these new students to push you as far and as fast as you could go. I did real analysis in high school. I did number theory in high school. And on the English literature side, my senior-year English teacher also taught courses at Harvard.

I had a bunch of APs, enough to skip a year at Harvard. So I went to Harvard, and because I was skipping a year I had to major immediately. I wanted to major in social studies, which was an elite major that Harvard had in those days. I basically had a minor in every single social science, and I was really interested in that stuff. So when it came time to go to graduate school…I was looking for a social science in which I could do a lot of different things. Sociology was the obvious choice, so I kept doing it. I applied in sociology. I applied to various places, including Harvard, which turned me down, something I reminded them of when they offered me a job some years later.

But at the University of Chicago I made a different application. I applied to the University graduate school when I was at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. So I got the U of C material and I decided [the Committee on] Social Thought was where I should go. That just sounded absolutely great to me: really abstract, very philosophical. Just suited my ambitions, interests, egomania, whatever you want to call it. But I had gone to Harvard and at Harvard, committees are committees and can’t grant degrees. So I interpreted the Chicago announcements as saying that you were in Social Thought to have your head in the clouds and then you were also in a real department, like sociology, with your feet on the ground. So I filled all the forms and stuff for admission to the department of sociology at Chicago, even though I thought I was actually applying to the department of social thought. So I applied to the department of sociology at the University of Chicago by mistake, got into it, and eventually became the chair. That’s a kind of a funny story.

The broader story is I went into sociology because I really couldn’t make up my mind what kind of work I wanted to do as an academic. I wanted to be able to do work that took advantage of all the different stuff I learned. And, certainly, my basic project at Harvard was to learn lots of different things, to learn some psychology and some sociology and some political science, and I just took courses in everything when I was there. I didn’t learn much in terms of skills, so sociology gave me the opportunity to do whatever I wanted. Some of my work has been very mathematical. Some of it’s been talk. Some of it’s been theory. Some of it’s been history. Some of it’s been ethnography. I’ve just done whatever I’ve damn well pleased for the last 40 years.

GC: In an Aims of Education speech you argued that students shouldn’t view their education as just another tool to get ahead, but should take advantage of opportunities for their own sake. How does the University help students do that?

AA: Most of what happens to you in college is a function of what you do. It’s a function of the student, not of the University. This is a place that certainly affords the possibility to get an extraordinary education, to just study all different kinds of things, to open your mind up in new ways at the same time, maybe, as you’re specializing in something…. The central issue is whether students take advantage of that.

What it looks like from the faculty’s side, and I think especially from the advisor’s side, is there’s this huge, wonderful table spread out and most people just eat a Big Mac with fries, or whatever. They just eat food that they like. I think there are many of us, the older folks, the advisors and faculty, who feel that students are very unnecessarily tracked. We think that students have this relatively narrow vision of what they can take.

On the other hand, when you’re that age, things seem really consequential! Just like when you’re a first-year, your grade on your first paper seems like the whole world because, as of that moment, it is the whole world. It’s your entire grade point average. And so, of course, you take it very seriously, whereas by the time you’re a fourth-year student you realize that one more paper is not going to move your grade point average very much at all.

On the other hand, I look at my own college career and realize that I just took all the courses I damn well pleased and it kind of worked out in the end. I could have gone into law or any other field without much difficulty. And that would be true actually for the majority of people here.

So what’s to say? It’s hard to know what the College should do to try to get undergraduate students to educate themselves, to set that as their challenge for themselves, rather than acquiring credentials. I mean you really have already bought the credential when you get it in. It’s that simple. You’ve got it. You do that and you pay the money. You’re going to get the credential. And, furthermore, you’re going to get a pretty good credential because your grade point is going to be pretty good. It’s just going to work out that way…. It’s very easy for [professors] to say because we’re looking back at this and our lives turned out fine even because of all this accidental stuff…

That’s why I do think you have to surprise students into learning. Just do the unexpected, because that’s one of the things all of us do to make daily life manageable, you try to make it expectable—set it up so you know what’s coming, what’s going on, you’re going to do this. So this might be a much better interview, for example, if I suddenly took my pants off and started dancing on the table, right? This would be an unforgettable interview. But, you know, we’re just having an interview.