Alumni Spotlight: David Cotter (written by Lucia Lykke)

Often, sociologists’ research is inspired by our life experiences: the Texan wants to study Southern identity, the middle class woman in her 20’s wants to study post-feminist culture (oh hey, that’s me…). Rarely do we see a well-researched, Millsian-inspired presentation on a sociologist’s own social location and exactly what it means to occupy that spot. That’s what we got with this year’s Form lecture speaker, Dr. David Cotter, who entertained and informed us with his presentation “SLACer Life: Composing a Career at a Selective Liberal Arts College.”

Dr. Cotter is one of our own. He completed his Ph.D. at Maryland in 1994 as part of the first cohort in the “new” Ph.D. program, and worked with Bill Falk and Reeve Vanneman while he was a graduate student. Upon completing his degree, Dr. Cotter accepted a two-year visiting professor position at Union College in New York, which evolved to his current position as the chair of the sociology department. Union College is a private, nondenominational institution with about 200 faculty and 2,000 undergraduate students. Union College, like other SLACs, focuses on a “classic” education rather than socializing students into professions, and follows a tutorial model, not a “scholar” model. Criteria for tenure are: 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service.

Think you want to be a SLACer? I offer you some highlights of Dr. Cotter’s presentation on following in his career footsteps. First, there is stiff competition for SLAC positions: This year, the ASA job bank advertised about 25 small liberal arts jobs. Second, in case you, like Dr. Cotter once did, pictured small liberal arts college professors as having plenty of time to kick back in cozy coffee shops, stroll through beautifully landscaped campuses, and shop for tweed blazers with leather elbow patches, think again. Dr. Cotter shared his realization that his professors walking their dogs and cheering at sporting events were not, in fact, living slow-paced, leisure-filled lives, but rather squeezing these activities in between writing book chapters, teaching heavy course loads, and grading mountains of student papers (no TA’s to help!).

Can you be a productive, active scholar and a SLAC professor? Dr. Cotter offered his thoughts and words of advice on this topic. His answer was yes, but remember: At a SLAC, you are a teacher first and a scholar second.  If you want to be star sociologist, the SLACer life may not be the path for you. But if you love teaching, the SLAC career path means opportunities to develop courses, instruct small classes, and teach a wide range of courses, from research methods to inequality to the sociology of religion.

I caught up with Dr. Cotter via email after his talk to ask a few follow-up questions and to see if he had any entertaining stories to offer from his time as a Maryland graduate student. Here’s what he had to say.

On his current research and where it’s headed in the near future:

“Most of my research in the past ten years has been on what Joan Hermsen (a fellow Maryland alumnus), Reeve Vanneman and I have called the “end of the gender revolution.”  This began with a report for the Russell Sage Foundation/Population Reference Bureau in 2004, and then a number of papers looking at the phenomenon over a variety of dimensions.  One of these – looking at trends in gender-related attitudes — was published last summer in AJS.  Another, this time looking at the stalling of occupational desegregation, will be presented at ASA this summer in Denver.  But given the scope of the issue, and the number of dimensions it crosses we think that it’s headed for a book-length treatment.  So that is our next step.  I’ve typically also got a couple other things simmering along such as the two papers I put together looking at rural-urban differences in time use, some ideas about papers on work-family balance, and a couple more on rural poverty.”

On student body diversity at Union College (for example, racial composition of students is 3% African American, 7% Asian, and 5% Hispanic) and how that might affect his job:

“Diversity is one of the typical challenges for small, private colleges like Union.  Although 60% of our students receive financial aid – and of those the average award is $35,000 – it’s still prohibitively expensive for many families to send students to a college with a comprehensive fee in excess of $50,000 a year. So in some ways this means we’ve got an overrepresentation of the children of the top 1%.  That in and of itself is interesting.  Those may well be the people who need sociology the most.  The College has been trying to diversify both the student body and the faculty.  One of the more successful programs we’ve become part of is the Posse Foundation (http://www.possefoundation.org/).  One of the interesting things that I’ve become concerned about is the fact that we may be losing the “middle” of the income distribution — we wind up with more students on a full ride, and more who are full pay, but less who have two parents who are teachers, etc.

Paradoxically, at the same time the small size of a school like Union is that students often have more exposure to diversity – either racial/ethnic or ideological — than they do at a larger university.  A report from the National Survey of Student Engagement (http://nsse.iub.edu/_2010/img/NewNI/Wabash_Expectations_Engagement.pdf) shows that, compared to their peers at other institutions, students at liberal arts colleges were  more likely to report often or very having serious conversations with students of a different race/ethnicity (51% v. 47%) or very different religious, political or personal values (69% vs. 60%).  I think part of the reason for this is that the small size of the school, and the active social, athletic and academic engagements of the students means that it is more difficult to remain isolated.”

Dr. Cotter’s #1 piece of advice for Maryland graduate students, regardless of future career path:

“Mix it up – make sure that you get some experience doing research, some experience teaching, and some experience in administration.  Not only will this look good on a CV, it can also help you find your passion.  When I started as a graduate student I did not think I was at all interested in being a researcher.  But as it turned out, first working with Bill Falk and then with Reeve Vanneman and some other graduate students,  I not only liked it but was fairly successful at it.  I had friends who found pretty quickly that although they might be good teachers it was just too draining.”

A funny/embarrassing anecdote about his time at Maryland (here are two):

“My first semester at Maryland it felt like every time they were in a room together Bill Falk and George Ritzer were competing to see who was funnier.  They’d each feel like they had to say something that would top the other’s joke or quip.  Some of it was quite humorous.  What they didn’t know is that we were keeping track.  But I’m not telling who won.”

“So we were sociology graduate students – keen observers of human behavior (i.e. geeks).  Come summer, we quickly noted the differences in faculty footwear.  There were the ‘full professor sandals’ (George Ritzer’s Birkenstocks), ‘associate professor sandals’ (Reeve Vanneman’s Indian leather ones), and ‘assistant professor sandals’ (Alan Neustadtl’s Tevas).”

Dr. Cotter’s back-up career plan in case this sociology thing doesn’t work out:

“I think I’d be a carpenter.  I get to do some of that in restoring the 1840s farmhouse we live in and really like it.  But, after a weekend of it I’m ready to go back to my desk job.”

 Where the future of sociology is headed, according to Dr. Cotter:

“I think there’s a pretty good future for sociology.  Our questions, theories, and methods seem to me to be very well suited to the emerging world.  I think increasingly we’ll see that the kinds of skills that sociologists have – integrating ideas and evidence, mixing quantitative, comparative and qualitative analyses – can help answer questions both big and small.”

Lucia is a first year PhD student.

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