April 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 4

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Travels with Erik

Snippets from the Travels with Erik Blog

Below are brief pieces from the Travels with Erik blog, which follows Erik Olin Wright, 2012 ASA President, and Jean Shin, ASA Minority Affairs Program Director, on their visits to colleges and universities in the south and southwest in late March. Their  goal is to connect with students and faculty from underrepresented groups and highlight the importance of sociology and the opportunities available to those who study it. To read the blog in its entirety, see www.speak4sociology.org/TravelsWithErik.

Day 1 — En Route to San Antonio, March 19, 2012

Usually when I embark on an academic trip I have a very clear set of expectations: giving talks to students and academics in universities, or visiting real utopia sites, or meeting with community and activist groups to share my ideas. Often, of course, unexpected things happen, and these add much to the value for me of such trips, but mostly I have a pretty clear sense in advance of what to expect and what the “rules of the game” will be…. Still, on this trip I don’t know what is really going to happen. I will be visiting four academic institutions that serve Hispanics or Native Americans— three in Texas and one in Arizona. I will be meeting with faculty and students, and administrators. I will give talks and have informal discussions. Jean Shin, the ASA Director of Minority Affairs, will be traveling with me and will lead professional workshops about the ASA and its various programs for students and departments. What I don’t have a good sense of is how this will actually play out. I’m not anxious about it—I think it will be exciting. But I don’t know exactly what to expect.

Day 2 — Laredo, March 20

The highlight today, for me, was the talk at the suburban campus of University of Texas-San Antonio (UTSA). It was very far from the downtown…

[Following the speech] I met with faculty for a relaxed discussion of various matters connected to sociology, graduate schools, and real utopias. I was very impressed with the thoughtfulness and seriousness of the faculty. They seem very engaged with their students and eager to help those that are interested find a way into sociology as a career, but it can be very difficult.

Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly in northeastern Arizona on the drive to Dine College

Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly in
northeastern Arizona on the drive to Dine College

Day 3 – Driving South on Highway 83 between Laredo and McAllen, March 21

In the morning en route to Texas A&M International University (TAMIU) I had an interesting conversation with David Rangel about HSIs (Hispanic-Serving Institutions). Most HSIs, including the University of Texas San Antonio, were not built to serve Hispanics in the sense that HBCUs, tribal, and Gallaudet were built to serve a specific constituency. The HSI designation is a formal Federal designation for administrative and political purposes. University administrators use the designation for purposes of getting grants and other kinds of special services. UTSA is especially ambiguous in terms of the designation. It was originally built on the outskirts of the city, really in the countryside away from the concentrations of Hispanics and closest to relatively wealthy white areas. Today, many students would not even know that it was officially an HSI. At Texas A&M International University, over 90% of the students are Hispanic and it is clearly part of the de facto mission of the institution to serve their needs, even if formally the university was established simply as a regional campus of the Texas A&M system. Certainly the faculty we met saw this as central to their roles….

After talking a while about these substantive sociological issues [at TAMIU], the student who had done the research asked what she might do about her self-confidence. I love this work, she said, but I really don’t feel confident about it. I told her that there is a secret most people don’t know: very few people are really self-confident about their ideas and intellectual capacities. Grad students in seminars are constantly trying to avoid looking naïve or ignorant. People differ much more in their ability to seem self-confident than in the real, internal sense of confidence in their ability. I told her that on the basis of our conversation and her description of her work, she should definitely feel confident that she can do sociology in a serious way.

Day 4 – McAllen, Texas, March 22. University of Texas Pan American (UTPA)

… Next was my lecture on Real Utopias – the same basic structure and themes of the previous two. There were a couple of new little twists. I talked about the difference between a diagnosis and critique which identifies the precise mechanisms responsible for the “foundational empirical claim” (the claim that much human suffering and deficits in human flourishing are the result of existing institutions and social structures) and the problem of solutions to those harms. I explained that it does not logically follow that transforming those institutions is needed to remove the harms. Just as an aspirin can eliminate a headache without knowing what the cause is or even affecting the cause, it could be possible to remedy the harms of capitalism without really transforming capitalism, and certainly without eliminating it. Thus, the arguments about alternatives require independent development. I also spent a bit of time explaining the contrast between policy analysis and real utopia analysis even though both imply improvements in the conditions humans face. The difference is that real utopia analysis points towards a destination – that is the utopia part – and asks if an institutional design moves us in the right direction, whereas policy analysis just asks if we improve things.

Day 4 Afternoon (part 2)

Today we learned more about the economic situation here. The Rio Grande Valley is, apparently, one of the fastest growing areas in the whole U.S., and this rapid growth is concentrated especially in McAllen. As we looked around it wasn’t obvious what the basis of this apparent dynamism was. It turns out, we were told, that this growth is fueled by wealthy Mexicans. They come to McAllen to shop. They have opened businesses and even moved businesses from Mexico to McAllen. The city has underwritten the creation of an extensive Arts district and entertainment district to attract more commercial activity. Wealthy Mexican nationals buy houses here and send their kids to local public schools. There is a suburban development called Sharyville, which has a recently built international bridge to Mexico (apparently built through lobbying by the developer) in which more than half of the students in the high school, we were told, were Mexican nationals. This is not a matter of undocumented migrants, but of rich Mexicans having homes in the development and sending their kids to the school. Part of this flow of Mexican wealth and activity is connected to security and violence issues, but not all of it. We were also told that the money involved in this retail- and construction-driven boom contains both clean and drug money in some unknown mix. All of this is part of the peculiar economic reality of “borders” — dynamics that depend upon special kinds of complementarities generated by the ways international borders intersect demographic and economic processes.

Day 6 & 7 – New Mexico and Arizona, March 24-25

On the drive [to Tsaile, AZ, which serves the residents of the 26,000 square-mile Navajo].we had an interesting discussion about the use of the term “Native American” and “American Indian”. I wanted to be sure that there were no sensitive issues around usage that I needed to know about.  Kimberly [Huyser, University of New Mexico] said that both terms are used among Native Americans, but that there is some regional variation in which one of these is the main expressions for self-designation. In the Navajo she felt that “Native American” was preferred because it corresponded more closely to the self-designation in the Navajo language, which basically means the people of this place. Native is a rough approximation of that. In her own linguistic practice, she uses Native American whenever talking about official classifications, government programs, census data, and so on. She uses American Indian when the context is more political or cultural. Native American is a classification that amalgamates the category with other hyphenated Americans—Irish-American, Italian-American, Asian-American, African-American, etc. American Indian, on other hand, modifies the category “Indian” with the adjective American. It suggests the primary identity as an indigenous person of the continent, and then modifies it to indicate where. (I know that “Indian” has this peculiar historical derivation from Columbus’ mistaken belief that he had reached the Indies, but I think Kimberly’s point doesn’t hinge on that.) I thought this was pretty interesting–I hadn’t seen the contrast in those terms.

Day 8 – Diné College, Tsaile, Navajo Nation, March 26

Daryl Begay added some interesting observations about the role of the two-year program at Diné.  If Diné had a four-year BA program, most students who wanted a BA would stay, but there is an intrinsic value of going off the “rez” for the BA and getting a larger world experience. The pitfall is that the Navajo Nation loses students who go elsewhere and decide not to come back.

...At the end of the morning discussion a student at Diné spoke to us to give her perspective on being a student here and talk about the issue of Navajo identity. Here is the gist of what she said:

I took Navajo language immersion in elementary school. When I was growing up I competed in language competition and did really well. But In 2005 I was ready to leave the reservation. I didn’t really have any career objective, but it was time to leave. I wandered around aimlessly in Albuquerque for a while. In some ways it was a good experience, learned to socialize with non-Diné, with people who didn’t know my family and clan. Eventually I went to school at UNM for teacher education, but returned here for family reasons with the plan of eventually going back to UNM. When I returned to Navajo I saw that things had deteriorated terribly. I experienced more violence here in a month than in six years in Albuquerque. Infrastructure had disintegrated, there were more gangs, the high school was totally torn up and vandalized by students. Why had it gotten so bad? I went to the Navajo Fair and saw the Navajo president talking up the importance of coal and how we needed to develop it. I was completely shocked. So, I decided to stay and help the community. I learned about the Diné program for teacher-ed, so came here for that. I’m taking courses in Diné culture and refreshing my language with beginning course again.

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