I remember it vividly. It was summer of 2015 and I was receiving emails from the University of Michigan about something called the “Undergraduate Research Opportunity.” I had no idea what this meant, nor did I take the time to care. I was excited to be attending the University in just a few months, but was not one to open seemingly-superfluous emails. It was probably spam or a solicitation for funding, but certainly not something that required attention from me — an incoming freshman with absolutely no idea what was going on.
Fast forward to the winter semester of my sophomore year, I took a class on sociological research methods and fell in love. I ultimately majored in Sociology and Political Science, and became involved with the Sociology Department’s research programs. By conducting research, mostly under the supervision of Sociology graduate students, I glanced a simple, yet significant, window into academia.
In my time reading academic articles for classes and conducting my own research, I have learned a lot. If you were to ask me about the difference between big “G” and little “g” globalization; or about why philosopher John Locke would support gun rights; or about what influences where college students want to live in the future; or about how gender and sexual orientation relate to one’s feelings on the environment, I could talk your ear off. Though this knowledge doesn’t serve any immediate practical function, it has piqued my interest for the past three years, and for that reason, I value it.
The University has been ranked the number one public research university in the country by the National Science Foundation. It spends nearly $1.5 billion annually on research. And its Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program alone allows more than 1,300 undergraduates to work with more than 800 faculty members on research projects each year.
But why, I wondered, does one come to dedicate their life to research? Where does this research go once it leaves the University? And how does it function in the everyday world?
To answer these questions, I spoke with four professors in the humanities and social sciences about their work and came to the realization that what professors lecture about in their courses is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of their knowledge and experience. Entering academia from a variety of backgrounds, they explore the nuances of their fields. They engage with colleagues across the world, and they face challenges, such as how their work fits into the public sphere.
For Fatma Müge Göçek, a professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies, a career in academia was not her original course in life. She was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey. Like her family, she planned to go into business. But, as she finished high school and started college, student movements broke out in Turkey, which brought with them a wave of violence and political repression.
“I couldn’t, I decided, in good conscience, make money when the whole society was crumbling around me,” she said. “As a consequence, I switched from being a business major to social sciences, and eventually to sociology.”
She was initially interested in why Turkey could not transition from an empire to a republic and sustainable democracy. While researching the topic, she wrote several books. She said she believed that for Turkey to have normalized violence, there must have been violence in its past that was never accounted for and that is what became normalized.
She looked at the Armenian genocide, which occurred between 1915 and 1917, and said she was able to understand why a heartless government was able to commit such a massacre, but she was unable to understand why the Turkish people put up with it. In Turkey, there is still denial of the genocide and, in fact, its recognition is legally punishable. After the assassination of one of her good friends — an Armenian journalist — in 2007, Göçek fully devoted herself to the topic.
“From that point onward, I’ve been very active,” she said. “But as a consequence — as I was working on this, giving talks — people wanted to, they think, slander me… (by) saying that I was Armenian. There were these awful things. I received death threats.”
Nevertheless, Göçek has continued her work, although she doesn’t travel to Turkey anymore. After completing her most recent book on the Armenian genocide, “Denial of Violence,” she moved on to exploring Turkish violence aimed at the Kurdish people.
Like Göçek, Mai Hassan didn’t initially intend to pursue a career in academia.
When she was a third-year undergraduate at the University of Virginia in the mid-2000s, she learned about the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute. RBSI is named for the first African American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for helping with mediation efforts between Israel and Palestine.
It is a pipeline program for minority students who are interested in pursuing careers in academia. As Hassan noted, minorities are not well-represented in the field.
“I didn’t realize academia was a career for me, I figured I would go to law school, lots of political science majors do that,” she said.
Hassan worked on a research project through RBSI and conducted research with an economics professor at the University of Virginia. Through both opportunities, she learned about academia. When she graduated college in 2008, she was accepted into grad school, and since 2016, she has been an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan, with a focus on African politics.
Having emigrated from Sudan to the United States in the 1990s, Hassan initially wanted to focus her research on Sudan, but found it was extremely challenging to get access and be taken seriously as a young woman in the field. She then turned to sub-Saharan Africa, and her initial research focused on decentralization processes in Kenya.
Hassan’s first book project looked at the Kenyan bureaucracy, and she is now looking at land allocation and registration in Kenya and Sudan.
For some of the other professors I spoke to, their paths into academia came as a result of their upbringings. In the Department of History, Jonathan Wells’s research interests were similarly influenced by his childhood in the South.
A professor of history in the Departments of Afroamerican and African Studies and History, as well as the director of the Residential College, Wells has always been interested in American politics. His father was a professor of American literature, so the life of an academic appealed to him.
“In some ways, I grew up with a very privileged understanding of what does it mean to get a Ph.D., what do you have to do to get a doctorate, what does the life of a professor look like,” he said. “In that sense, I had a really early understanding of what it meant to be a researcher, what it meant to be an academic, and what it meant to teach in colleges.”
Wells grew up in North Carolina, and later near the University of South Florida, as his father was a professor there. He decided to study the history of the American South, as he became interested in the cultural and political differences between the regions.
His first book, “The Origins of the Southern Middle Class,” focused on a segment of the white Southern population that came to have careers in professional fields, as well as in careers as merchants and business leaders.
Over time, Wells became more and more interested in African-American history. He was particularly interested in the Fugitive Slave Act, passed by Congress in 1850. Wells became interested in the implications of the law, and specifically the impact it had on the Northern thinking about slavery and the Civil War.
Other social scientists have ended up in their respective fields after radically pivoting from another area of study, which has helped them to engage broader audiences with their work. Erin Cech, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, was an electrical engineering major in her undergraduate program, where she was interested in developing assistive technologies for the disabled.
However, she picked up sociology as a second major and became interested in the broader social issues of STEM education and professions. In order to make a difference in the fields of STEM, she said, she decided to pursue an advanced degree in sociology.
“As I was taking my engineering courses, I enjoyed them, I thought it was interesting, but I found myself asking questions that my professors couldn’t really answer about issues of access and finances and things like that,” she said. “I sought out sociology as an intellectual space that had the tools for thinking around those things.”
From there, Cech continued to look at inequality in STEM, but also at issues of inequality across the country broadly. Currently, she is interested in the cultural mechanisms of inequality reproduction, and specifically the way that certain taken-for-granted cultural practices and beliefs can help to reinforce inequality.
Most of Cech’s networks are outside of the University, and she collaborates with people across the country. She spends as much time on Skype calls as she does in in-person meetings.
Her background as an engineer has allowed her to engage with audiences outside of sociology, setting Cech apart from other sociology professors who might be only able to connect with their fellow social scientists. She has presented to chemistry departments and at National Academy of Engineering events, among other places.
Cech believes bridging this gap will become even more crucial in the future. She explained that science and engineering fields have traditionally been resistant to the reconciliation of the disciplines, as they only look to address technical issues, but Cech believes there needs to be more engagement now.
“Especially as the technical world becomes so much more complicated and the technologies that we have in our day to day lives are interfacing with us at a very high level, at great frequency, it means that the people designing and managing those technologies are going to need more and more knowledge of how the social world works,” she said.
Cech’s multidisciplinary work points to a much broader question — that of connecting academia to the public more broadly, an issue that is very prevalent among scholars. In our interview, Cech expressed that academics should do a better job taking advantage of “translational spaces” to make their work more accessible to a broader audience.
For academic historians, Wells explained, this has always been a challenge.
“There’s a problem in that so many of us write academic history that only sells a few hundred copies to the main resource libraries at other universities, so that means we’re essentially only talking to each other,” he said.
Wells pointed to David McCullough, who wrote a famous biography on John Adams, and described him as an amateur historian, in order to distinguish him from academic historians. Wells noted that McCullough sells thousands of copies of his books and thus has a much more direct impact on the public perception of history than an academic historian.
“Many of us (academic historians) have argued that we need to be more concerned about publicizing our work in the broader public arenas,” he said. “And the reason is because history, since it’s the study of change over time, really helps us form a contextual understanding for current problems.”
Both Wells and Hassan suggested that the public does not necessarily have a good understanding of what academics do, as so much of their work occurs behind the scenes.
Hassan also agreed with Wells that perhaps academics have not done a good enough job conveying their work to the public. If an undergraduate at the University were to be a handed an article she has written, chances are they wouldn’t really understand it, but that isn’t necessarily their fault.
“It’s because we’re talking in really precise terms, there are these really highly-defined concepts and ideas that we’re all trying to build on top of each other,” she said. “There’s a requisite level of knowledge that is necessary to be able to make advances on some things. So I understand why it happens.”
She said that academia may not be addressing the most pressing public policy questions of the day; however, she suggested this isn’t necessarily problematic. Many pressing questions are not theoretically interesting, and if a question isn’t theoretically interesting, it’s not going to appeal to academics. She explained that it is the role of academics in the arts and sciences to create new theory and allow people to think about things that they’ve never thought about before.
Göçek, on the other hand, feels she has been able to engage the broader community. She explained that over the years she has become very interested not only in Turkey, but also in the United States. After 9/11, she began giving talks about Islam at churches, for instance, and became very interested in the perspectives of minorities.
“Being a sociologist enabled me to engage much more in the social problems here, that I wouldn’t otherwise,” she said.
She has also looked for ways to engage students by appealing to topics they are interested in, such as making her classes relevant to them. One extremely popular class she has taught is called Sociology of Culture: From the Kennedys to the Kardashians — the title alone is a draw.
With regard to Sociology, Göçek joked that many people may not know the difference between a socialist and a sociologist, while Cech explained that, by nature, people aren’t really interested in accepting academic notions of society.
“There’s something about the way that Americans tend to think about the world that actually, I think, limits the ability for social sciences, particularly sociology, which focuses on group processes, to resonate,” she said. “That’s because people tend to think about life and their own experiences and the experiences of others in a very individualistic way.”
Nevertheless, despite the constraints that exist in academia, all four professors pointed to alternative outlets, primarily in the media, as ways to communicate with the general public — something they believe is important.
For example, Cech would “translate” gender research into a less jargon-y form for the Stanford Clayman Institute for Gender Research during her postdoc years and Göçek blogs about Sociology in The New York Times in Education, which is targeted to K-12 students, as well as colleges and universities.
If I could go back in time, I absolutely would have opened those UROP emails my freshman year. I’m not sure if it would have made much of a difference in the end, but it would have given me two additional years of research exploration and experience.
Though I am still unsure if academia is the path for me, pursuing social research has been crucial to my time at the University. I have discovered that research is an excellent way to learn about the world, but also to learn about where all of the things taught in school originate. Professors don’t pull information out of thin air, despite often seeming that way.
“I think social science research is so important, I really feel everyone should give it a shot for a semester or a year — just to be a good citizen,” Hassan said, explaining that by conducting research, one can become confident about the information they acquire. Otherwise, how can people know that what they read in newspapers and other articles is true?
Cech echoed Hassan on the importance of the “production of knowledge,” but emphasized the importance of also making research accessible to the public. This type of work, she explained, could be extremely important for people who plan to pursue careers in activism or nonprofit work, among other opportunities.
Coming from such different backgrounds, it stuck out to me that the four individuals ended up in the same place, all extremely passionate about what they do.