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Broadly Concentrated

by Sandy Smith No Comment

Sociology department builds on existing strengths in key areas.

Katharine Donato, sociology chair

Katharine Donato, sociology chair

Sometimes new leaders make their mark on an organization by changing everything. Fortunately for the Department of Sociology, new chair Katharine Donato doesn’t hold that philosophy. Instead Donato is building on the strengths of the programs in place to generate growth.

“This is not a department that needs an overhaul,” says Donato, professor of sociology, who joined Vanderbilt in 2006. “It runs very smoothly. My colleagues are very productive, grounded people. That makes them a pleasure to work with personally and professionally.”

The productivity of the sociology faculty is made all the more remarkable by the relatively small size of the department. Sociology, Donato explains, is a very broad field. The American Sociological Association lists 41 different sections of study. The College of Arts and Science’s sociology department concentrates on eight sections, in addition to teaching an overview of sociology in general. “Some sociology departments will list 15. We’re a fairly small faculty to cover eight areas,” she says. “What is remarkable is we really do cover those areas.”

The sociology faculty, which currently numbers 16, concentrates on teaching and research in the areas of health and medicine; cities, states, and political economy; race, ethnicity, and immigration; deviant behavior; arts and culture; gender and sexuality; work, labor, and occupations; and social movements. Their work is published in scholarly journals, two of which—Work and Occupations and Homicide Studies—are housed in the department. Starting in January 2010, the prestigious American Sociological Review—considered as the flagship journal in the field—will also come to Vanderbilt. Donato, Associate Professor Tony Brown, Professor Holly McCammon and Distinguished Professor of Sociology Larry Isaac were recently chosen as editors. 

Relational Focus

Donato intends for the department to grow in the 2009-2010 academic year by adding new faculty positions and projects. It will grow smartly, she says, with continued focused attention on research and mentoring students. “I want to keep pushing so that we hire the best faculty and bring in the highest quality graduate students, and that both grow,” she says.

“I had an idea of what I wanted to study, but I wasn’t positive. With the breadth of the faculty members’ research interests, I knew I wouldn’t be locked in if I changed my mind.”

– Emily Tanner-Smith

Emily Tanner-Smith, who graduates with her Ph.D. in sociology in May, was drawn to the program because of its small size. Having attended a small liberal arts college for her undergraduate degree, she wanted something larger, but not by too much. “I felt like I could get the one-on-one relationship with the faculty and that mentoring relationships could be built,” Tanner-Smith says. “I had an idea of what I wanted to study, but I wasn’t positive. With the breadth of the faculty members’ research interests, I knew I wouldn’t be locked in if I changed my mind.”

With the broad reach of the field of sociology, the faculty finds plenty of opportunity to research jointly with others on campus. The Center for Medicine, Health and Society, Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy, and Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and the Environment all have ties to the sociology department through cross-discipline research or shared professors.

“Most of us work at the interstices of these areas, as well as within them,” says Jennifer Lena, assistant professor of sociology. “This affords us particular advantages—we’re all interesting people and interested in one another. We are all broadly read across the discipline and we work with ease on interdisciplinary projects like the medicine, health and society program, or Jewish studies.”

Assistant Professor Shaul Kelner’s Tourism, Culture and Place class.

Assistant Professor Shaul Kelner’s Tourism, Culture and Place class.

Healthy Growth

One interdisciplinary project includes interviewing Nashville residents on a wide variety of health indicators. Students use data from the Nashville Health Survey to discuss the survey methods and analyze results. When complete, Donato hopes that findings from the survey will lead to “interesting and important policy recommendations for the city.” 

In a new initiative, the department is teaming with Meharry Medical College on a health policy funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. As part of that initiative, graduate students will become foundation fellows, participate in Meharry’s new Center for Health Policy and pursue doctorates in sociology in the College of Arts and Science.

Health-related work is both a strength and an area in which the department can continue to grow, Donato believes. As part of her research, she studies the relationship between migration and health. “We, as a social science discipline, have a long-standing history of writing on health issues,” she says. “Any courses that we offer in health, broadly speaking, fill up immediately.” 

Jennifer Lena, assistant professor, discusses campus creativity.

Jennifer Lena, assistant professor, discusses campus creativity.

Emphasis on Research

Research plays a major role in the activity of the department. “Research is what we do and what we are expected to do,” Isaac says. “It is at the heart of the scholarly mission. When we refer to research we generally mean the ongoing process of maintaining command of a particular field of inquiry—necessary for high-quality undergraduate and graduate teaching—and our individual and collective contributions to advance the field—necessary for graduate teaching.” 

The emphasis on research strengthens the department’s 25–30 graduate students, who often work with professors on research topics, earning not only valuable experience, but also publication credit. The department’s prolific research has had an unexpected effect—professors sometimes have difficulty finding enough graduate students who are available to participate in new research projects. To that end, Donato anticipates small growth in the graduate program along with the addition of new faculty.

Research alone isn’t enough to prepare students for future careers in academia. At the graduate level, students are required to take a teaching seminar. “We do mostly research with the graduate students, but then we add that applied piece which rounds them out as new Ph.D.s,” Donato says. “It’s not only about your ideas; it’s about how you get those ideas across.”

Koji Ueno, PhD’04, and currently assistant professor at Florida State University, says the teaching seminar plus the dual emphasis on teaching and research made him a better sociologist. “The extensive and individualized feedback and mentoring from faculty tremendously helped me develop my research agendas and methodological skills to become an independent researcher,” he says. “I also took advantage of the excellent course for sociology instruction as well as the opportunities to guest lecture and teach my own summer course. I felt confident about my teaching when I received my doctoral degree.”

photo credit: Daniel Dubois

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