Faculty Spotlight: Kris Marsh (written by Beverly Pratt)

During my two years as a graduate student at UMD, I have been lucky enough to TA for Dr. Kris Marsh.  Kris and I both were new to UMD in 2008 and I clearly remember the first time she took me for coffee to get to know each other.  As a graduate student in a brand new environment, I quickly clung to Kris for support, wisdom, and encouragement as graduate school and its quirks were fresh on her mind.

To avoid sappiness, I will just say that it has been a pleasure to TA for Dr. Kris Marsh these past two years.  I have learned A LOT, have been treated with sincere respect and care, and have consistently been rejuvenated and inspired by her research and teaching efforts and energy.

Kris and I sat down last week so I could pick her brain on her educational background, her thoughts on the sociological imagination and intellectual maturity, and she even shared some of her hobbies and interests.  Enjoy!
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Kris Marsh grew up in the San Fernando Valley – the suburbs of Los Angeles – and, yes, would be considered a “valley girl.”  Her and her family lived in a predominately White area, as they were the only Black family in their community.  Her experiences – both as a resident and as an observer – within Los Angeles’ suburbs ignited her strong interests in racial residential segregation.

Kris attended San Diego State University – two hours away from her home – for her Bachelor’s degree.  After graduating, she returned to Los Angeles, worked in her family’s business during the day, and attended night classes at Cal State University in order to complete her Master’s degree in Sociology, focusing in demography.  She then attended the University of Southern California (USC) for her PhD.  She attended USC to continue her pursuit of demography and to work with a specific demographer focusing on racial residential segregation.

Upon completion of her PhD, Kris attended the University of North Carolina for her postdoc.  Her transition to UNC and to a postdoc was by far the most significant one.  Outside of the fact that she was on the opposite coast of her hometown and family, the postdoc experience was significantly different from her graduate career.  For example, Kris was in complete control of her schedule, as her time was composed of just her and her research with no obligations, time frames, and deadlines.  Kris had to be extremely disciplined, since professors and mentors weren’t around with checklists, timeframes, and deadlines.  Her postdoc was a specific amount of time – two years – so she had to make every moment count.

This intense experience gave Kris the opportunity to contemplate her desired niche – how she wanted to exclaim her voice – within Sociology; time she didn’t necessarily have while in graduate school.  It also gave her time without having any teaching and committee responsibilities.  That said, Kris highly recommends a two-year postdoctoral research experience (a one-year experience is also substantial, but there is less time to both produce and to plan intellectual pursuits).

Kris advice to graduate students is as follows: don’t get too caught up with deadlines and time frames.  Think about what you want to say and what mark you want to leave within the discipline.  Sometimes it’s easy for us to pick-up projects that aren’t sentimental to us.  This isn’t bad, but at some point we as Sociologists need to decide what gives us life and what we want to be known for within the field.  What gives us life, however, is a constantly evolving mark.

As far as the evolution of Kris’ research, she remains interested in racial residential segregation.  In particular she intends to sociologically understand the consequences of being both Black and middle class – both the social and the social psychological consequences.  That said, Kris’ research is increasingly influenced by social psychology and is focusing on Black middle class adults.  She is also interested understanding the experiences of Black middle class adolescents who grow up in predominately White areas.  Particularly, she wants to understand the long-term consequences of their environment including educational aspirations, career goals, and intergenerational transference of wealth.

Kris also remains interested in mental health, specifically depression – i.e., well being as opposed to clinical depression – as a result of racism, discrimination, classism, sexism, etcetera.

The sociological imagination is something that Sociologists can never turn off as it is ever present in what we say, do, and where we go.  Kris can’t watch films without stimulating her sociological imagination.  And she can’t visit church, work out at the gym, or have conversations with friends without her sociological imagination framing her perspectives.  This isn’t a negative thing, according to Kris, as we constantly try to understand the social institutions within which we live, especially the dynamics between race, class, gender, age, sexuality, etcetera.  She does joke, however, that sometimes it would be nice to go somewhere without her sociological imagination – like watch a football game or attend a yoga class.  But she has learned to embrace the constant companionship of her sociological imagination.

Kris has clear and specific thoughts and guidance regarding intellectual maturation.  At some point along a students intellectual maturation process there will be a “changing of the guards”; the one-time student will become the professor.  This full-circle role-switch is a good thing, as it allows the one-time student to “pay it forward” by assisting and guiding other students.

Graduate students may at first lean heavily on faculty; however, at some point it becomes about the student, the student’s research, and what the student wants to contribute.  Though graduate students will always be at the mentored throughout their schooling, this intellectual maturation process allows them to grow confidence in their sociological abilities.  Once confidence begins to strengthen via coursework and deadlines, the student will eventually attain, develop, and then project their voice.  At the beginning of graduate school, students are unaware of their voice.  At the end of graduate school, students have a command of their voice.  It’s a process that takes time – a lot of time.  And the student will become more resolved and resilient throughout the process.

As far as life outside of campus, Kris is an avid swimmer.  She jokes that people often comment on how well she swims, but she is unsure whether their comments are motivated because she is a Black female who swims or that she is actually a decent simmer.  For example, she recently joined a gym in Bowie, MD.  One morning she prepared for a swim, with her goggles and cap, and was about to dive into the deep eind with the lifeguard approached her and asked if she could actually swim.  Immediately her sociological imagination kicked in and questioned the motives of the lifeguard.

In addition to swimming, Kris does yoga and intends to run the Chicago marathon in October 2010.  In her spare time she reads a lot of non-fiction.  Most recently she read Jeffery Toobin’s The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court and Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle: A Memoir.  Lately she has also enjoyed science fiction novels by Octavia E. Butler, one of the only Black female science fiction writers.

A couple of other random facts about Kris are:  she loves Indian food and she intends to purchase a pug and name him/her “Seven” in order to immortalize 2007, as it was a good, good year for her (the year she received her acceptance at the University of Maryland).

Much thanks to Kris sharing so much with us!  You can find Kris in her office – Art-Socy 3123 – and you can contact her at kmarsh@socy.umd.edu.

Beverly Pratt is a second year PhD student.

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