Faculty Spotlight: Liana Sayer (by Mandi Martinez)

Our newest faculty member, Dr. Liana Sayer, received her PhD in Sociology here at the University of Maryland, and will be returning to the department in the Spring of 2013.  Though Dr. Liana Sayer is currently finishing up her position at The Ohio State University, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know her over the past few months.  I recently had the opportunity to interview her about her research interests, career, and time here at Maryland.  Liana lives with her long time partner, Bryan, her mother, Mary Ann, and their 3 cats: Simone (after Simone de Beauvoir), Dexter, and Isabella. 

people-faculty-sayerAs an undergrad you majored in Government and got your MA in political science.  How did you end up pursuing a PhD in Sociology?
My first experience with graduate school — pursuing a PhD in political science — was a disaster because I hadn’t yet realized I was really a sociologist. I wasn’t connecting intellectually with the material in the program and — in part because I was 22 and clueless — interpreted this as an individual failing instead of lack of disciplinary fit. So I left the program, moved to the DC area, and started working at the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation as a researcher on “women’s issues.” I’d long had an interest in “gender” — perhaps from experiences like seeing my full-time employed mom’s credit card application to a local department store be rejected, unless my Dad’s name was on the card — and preparing briefs on issues like reproductive rights and the wage gap exposed me to a lot of sociological research. So I took a Gender, Work, and Family class with Bobbi Spalter-Roth at American University, to see if I could really make it in graduate school, and then decided to apply to PhD programs in sociology. What were your research interests when you started grad school?  What did you write your dissertation on? (If your interests changed, how did they evolve into your dissertation topic?)
I started out interested in gender, specifically employment discrimination. I became more interested in gender, work, and family because of courses like family demography and Sonalde Desai’s Population and Society. I wrote my dissertation on changes over time in women’s and men’s time use — paid work time, housework, child care, and leisure.  I didn’t start graduate school with a sociological understanding of “time.” Courses and working as an RA for Suzanne Bianchi piqued my interest in time as a social phenomena.

What does your research focus on now, and what drew you to that topic?
I have two strands of research: 1) cross-national and historical determinants, patterns, and consequences of gendered time use; and 2) gendered associations between economic resources and relationship processes and outcomes. The first strand developed out of my dissertation and recognition that comparative work could provide some insight into time use as a circuit between micro interactions and macro institutions. I have a few ongoing projects examining housework, childcare, and leisure variation in Western industrialized countries and several projects focusing on gendered time use and health behaviors and outcomes. And, I’ve just started a new comparative project with an Ohio State graduate examining how gendered divisions of work and family are associated with marital quality in Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan. The second strand developed out of skepticism I had about Gary Becker’s theoretical perspective. I used that to motivate a family demography seminar paper that eventually got published. I have fewer projects that are ongoing in the area of gendered relationships, more from lack of time to start those. One pull of Maryland’s program is my hope that I can start some new projects in this area — through collaborations with graduate students and faculty.

You will be starting a Time Use Lab here at Maryland.  What are the goals of this lab?
The goals include:
A) Conducting innovative research on time use on under researched sub-populations and using new methods (analytic tools and data collection). For example, an early project is designing and fielding a small pilot study that will explore the feasibility of using data from “smart clothing” and smart phones.
B) Training the next generation of time use scholars
C) Positioning Maryland’s Time Use Lab as a resource for academics, policy makers, journalists, and the general public, on time use statistics, studies, and events.
D) Providing networking and perhaps seed grant funding opportunities for time use researchers (established researchers, post-docs, and graduate students).

Are you teaching any courses in the spring?  Do you have a favorite course to teach?
I’m teaching an undergraduate course, “Sex and Love in Modern Society.” This is a fun course to teach; it’s probably my favorite undergraduate course. First, students like to talk about sex — unlike say statistics — and often feel they have more expertise in the area than their professor. Second, the course is a good vehicle to cover material on social, demographic, and economic change and how these shifts relate to evolving ideas about gender and sexuality.

Do you have a favorite memory from your time here at Maryland?
Getting together with other graduate students.

Are you looking forward to anything in particular about being back in the area?
I’m excited to be back in Maryland for a lot of reasons — the good friends there, the political and cultural awareness, being in a blue state, the Takoma Park farmer’s market

Do you have any advice to share with current graduate students?
Find good mentors in your first or second year (advanced graduate students and faculty). My success in graduate school is due in no small part to the good fortune of being Joan Kahn’s undergraduate statistics TA my first year and working for Bill Falk and Suzanne Bianchi as an RA. Also, if 10 hours of Angry Birds is more appealing than working on your research, something’s wrong.

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