What If I Thought of My Book as a Work of Art Rather Than a Commodity?

I have been told by more publishers than I can (or care to) count that there is no market for my book on American gun culture, Gun Curious: Understanding America’s Evolving Culture of Firearms. For some, there is no market for books on guns generally; for others, no market for my particular low-heat, balanced take on guns.

This has been frustrating, of course, but it has also led me to reevaluate what exactly I am doing as an author. The famous music producer Rick Rubin’s new book The Creative Act, has been extremely helpful in this process.

I didn’t set out to study American gun culture to sell commodities. I set out to discover something new about a world I did not know or understand. To draw from the Baruch Spinoza quote that has been on my blog from the start, “I have sedulously endeavored . . . to understand” human action around guns.

So, what if I took Rick Rubin’s advice and thought of my book not as a commodity whose value is determined in the marketplace but as a work of art that is good in itself? What if I took the process of observing, reflecting, thinking, and writing to be a creative process? What if I thought of myself as an artist?

Maybe I would find liberation.

In a following post that I will update on a regular basis as I work through the book, I will be extracting some of the most thought-provoking passages from Rick Rubin’s The Creative Act. This will allow me to return to these thoughts periodically as I struggle to approach my book as the creative work of an artist.

Maybe they will help you, too.

Remembering My Father Reading My Work

I have been reflecting a lot on my dad’s life these past 10 days. He and my mom gave me many gifts in life. Perhaps the greatest of them is supporting my academic pursuits no matter what, including my decision as a college sophomore to major in sociology.

In dedicating my Senior Honors Thesis to them, I wrote:

This paper is dedicated to my parents, my most significant others, who have always supported me, even when I didn’t deserve it. Perhaps the best example of their unconditional support is their patient understanding of my decision to study sociology, a field which few non-sociologists I have met understand.

In my first year of graduate school, I slightly revised the thesis, had it bound, and gave a copy to my parents.

Shortly after giving it to them, I took a nap on my dad’s recliner. I woke up to find him on the couch reading my thesis. I was so excited.

My whole life, all I have ever wanted was for my dad to utter those elusive words, “I am proud of you, son.”

I asked him, “What do you think?”

“It’s long,” he responded.

The thesis is still on the bookshelf in my childhood home. I pulled it out recently and found my dad’s business card-qua-bookmark still in place.

He made it through 80 of 280 pages. I’m grateful that he made it that far through what was undoubtedly turgid academic writing.

When I published the thesis as my first book a decade later, I dedicated it again to my parents. That’s another story for another day.

Multiculturalism Book Cover

Remembering Robert N. Bellah

I rarely blog here but I want to call attention to the uncorrected page proofs of a forthcoming book review I wrote of Matteo Bortolini’s biography of Robert Bellah, A Joyfully Serious Man.

Anyone interested in Bellah’s work or life should read this book.

I conclude my review writing:

“The truth Robert N. Bellah embodied was intellectual curiosity. I experienced this myself in 1989 when, as an undergraduate in his famous Sociology of Religion course, I visited him during office hours almost weekly. I would pepper him with juvenile questions he no doubt had heard before. Still, he listened to me in perfect silence, chin in hand, as if he had never heard the questions before, patiently answering each. As Matteo Bortolini’s beautiful biography shows over and over, the importance of intellectual curiosity is the ultimate lesson of Bellah’s life and work.”

Remembering Raymond Sakae Yamane (June 12, 1930 – February 17, 2023)

My father died after a long and full life and a mercifully short stay in the hospital.

I am grateful that I made it from North Carolina to spend his last 21 hours with him.

I am also thankful beyond words for my mother (especially), sisters, brothers-in-law, and nephews who no doubt kept my dad alive with their love and care much longer than we could have expected. I left California in 1991 and was absent from my family more than I was present for a couple of decades. They never were.

That allowed me to go off and do my own thing. I like to tell myself that my leaving home was very much in my father’s spirit.

He grew up walking to school barefooted on Kauai, graduated from high school in 1948 and left for technical school in Wisconsin then Indiana, served in the US Army from 1953 to 1955 in Texas and Washington, settled in the Bay Area, and traveled for work and met my mother in upstate New York in 1960.

Ray and Jean Yamane traveled the United States and the world before moving into our family home in Half Moon Bay in 1971 where they celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary last month.

I was fortunate to be able to work for my dad many summers starting when I was a teenager. He entrusted me to do real work and asked only that I do my best. A lesson I have carried through my personal and professional life. He also paid me well enough that I could follow in his footsteps of buying hi-fi equipment and Ben Hogan golf clubs, something I enjoy to this day.

Over the course of his life, my father had a remarkable ability to roll with the hand he was dealt. When the time came, he quit smoking, quit drinking beer, quit golfing, and quit driving. But he remained pretty happy (all things health-wise considered) and stayed busy working on the yard and his computer until the very end.

Even though I have been preparing myself for this moment for some time now, it still hits hard. I have a huge hole in my heart.

10 Initial Reflections on President Donald J. Trump – Revisited 4 Years Later

On 9 November 2016, I wrote “10 Initial Reflections on President Donald J. Trump, for what they’re worth, by a half-awake regular citizen.” Four years later, with the election of Joseph Biden as the 46th POTUS, I thought I would revisit those initial reflections. My 2020 comments are in block quotes following the original points.

DonkeyHotey, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1. It was very interesting to see all of the Hilary bashing on my gun Twitter feed (@gunculture2pt0) and comparatively little pro Trump sentiments. Celebrating someone’s loss rather than someone’s win doesn’t make it feel like much of a win for the country.

Much more anti-Hilary sentiment in the country than many thought, but I grew tired of Trump’s (and others’) Hilary Derangement Syndrome over the ensuring 4 years.

2. Among those who were commenting on Trump’s win rather than Clinton’s loss, I found it funny (odd, not ha-ha) to see people thanking and praising Trump for doing things he hasn’t done yet. E.g., “Thank you for making America great again.” I can see expressions of hope, but Trump is all promises at this point.

Four years later, I don’t see America as any greater than it was in 2016. Of course, I also think that America has been struggling to form a more perfect union for a couple centuries now.

3. Olive branches and unifying language in Trump acceptance speech. He continues to surprise.

Alas, olive branches and unifying language went away quickly and permanently.

4. When he just reads the teleprompter he sounds presidential. Can he keep it up?

No, he cannot.

5. My hope is that “Trump,” the character he plays for the cameras, will become Donald J. Trump, President of the United States now. That is, that the office of the president will mold him into someone who can lead a diverse and complex society in an uncertain world.

It did not.

6. My guess is Trump is essentially a pragmatist not an ideologue, and that those who think this is some sort of ideological revolution will be disappointed.

I am a bad guesser.

7. Relating to #6, I just uncovered two books I read during my freshman year of college back in 1986-1987, both of which highlight the possibility and difficulty of leading political revolutions. (Books were: David Stockman’s “The Triumph of Politics” and Gorbachev’s “Perestroika.”)

One term president.

8. For all the “drain the swamp” and “reset” rhetoric, as is always the case, almost all incumbents in U.S. Senate and House races were re-elected. (Related: I was shocked by the number of local races on my ballot that were uncontested.)

Same as it ever was.

9. I find the gloating excessive this morning by supporters of someone who seems to have lost the popular vote. As Gil Scott Heron once said, mandate my ass.

Appears that 2020 deficit will be even greater than 2016. Looks like Trump is trying to re-boot “The Biggest Loser.”

10. I hope this means Trump will upgrade his wardrobe from those ugly, ill-fitting (Chinese-made Trump brand?) suits. If those suits are in fact custom tailored, I have just two words for his tailor: “You’re fired.”

His consistency is noteworthy, especially when he clings to that which is unflattering.

levels of racism: individual, organizational, institutional, and systemic

Really helpful disaggregation of the way that supra-individual racism works. Going to be using this in my Intro Soc classes this summer and fall.


Discussions of racism tend to get tangled up in issues of level of analysis.1 Sociologists (e.g. Bonilla-Silva) and critical race theorists (e.g. Haney-López), among others, have long argued that we need to understand racism as something that works “beyond” or “above” the individual, building on arguments that go back to Stokely Carmichael’s distinction between individual and institutional racism. In talking through these ideas with friends and students, I’ve found that the terminology can be confusing – in part because sociologists (and non-sociologists) have used terms like institution and structure to mean so many different, overlapping things. In this post, I outline my idiosyncratic terminology for characterizing different levels of racism when trying to explain these interwoven concepts. For me, it’s been useful to break down racism into four levels that are at least partially nested: individual, organizational, institutional, and systemic.2

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July Message to Intro Soc Students about Class in Fall 2020

This week Wake Forest University is unveiling its new fall course schedule and students will have the opportunity/be forced to re-register for courses depending on their personal preferences/circumstances and availability of courses in different modalities.

Faculty were given the opportunity to teach in one of four modalities: online, blended (traditional and with an online pathway), or face-to-face (descriptions follow). Like many faculty, I wanted to steer a middle course between fully face-to-face and fully online so opted for blended-traditional.

But just two days before students are to re-register, I do not know whether I can be assigned a classroom for my Introduction to Sociology courses that will fit half of my class (35 students total) safely. So, I recorded a video message to my students addressing the current situation as clearly as possible.

Wake Forest’s Our Way Forward site describes teaching modalities as follows:

  • Online: All content and learning activities take place online with no required on-campus activities. All content and learning activities may be delivered synchronously (during any of the pre-existing scheduled class times), asynchronously, or some combination of these.
  • Face-to-Face: All regularly scheduled class meetings occur in-person/on-campus for all students in the class.
  • Blended-Traditional: Core content is delivered online, asynchronously, and is complemented/augmented by in-person/on-campus sessions for faculty-student engagement. All enrolled students participate in all asynchronous online aspects of the course. In smaller cohorts, students also participate in in-person sessions, with these live sessions taking place during regularly scheduled class periods.
  • Blended-With Online Pathway: Core content is delivered online, asynchronously, and is complemented/augmented by a combination of in-person and synchronous virtual sessions for faculty-student engagement. All enrolled students participate in all asynchronous online aspects of the course. In smaller cohorts, students also participate in regular “live” sessions. Blended-online pathway courses must include both in-person/on-campus small cohort sessions and synchronous online small cohort sessions (with the latter constituting the “online pathway” for a cohort of students who cannot be on-campus).

Small Teaching Online Book Summary

Over the past three weeks I have participated in a Wake Forest Center for the Advancement of Teaching summer reading group led by Director of Educational Development Dr. Kristi Verbeke.

Over 30 faculty (IIRC) read and discussed Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby and James Lang.

What follows is my reading notes and reflections on the book as originally posted in a long thread on Twitter.

This book applies the original “small teaching” insight of James Lang to online teaching. Basic premise: make small, manageable changes based on learning science rather than major but unsustainable overhauls to our teaching.

Ch 1: Surfacing Backward Design

Begin at the end: Where are we going (learning outcomes)? Then ask: How do we know we have arrived (assessment)? And last: What do we need to get there (work)? Useful but common advice.

In online education especially it is important not just to build these connections but to make them very explicit, surfacing not just the what/how of each activity and assignment but the why in relation to learning outcomes. This gives online students understanding, motivation, and direction.

Example of result of backward design from my Introduction to Sociology class

Ch 2: Guiding Learning Through Engagement

Darby highlights how much PROCESS we focus on in face-to-face classes that is harder to convey in online classes. Online we need to be more intentional about how we guide learning.

Breaking down tasks into discrete parts & even (occasionally) conditioning later tasks on completion of earlier ones helps. But my main takeaway from this chapter is that teachers have to make a point of being there for their online students. This takes time/energy. Darby: online teachers need to be attentive to students in forums & discussions, looking for cues that we would normally pick up in class. And responding “early and often.” “Look for every opportunity to help students know how they are doing in the class.”

Ch 3: Using Media & Tech Tools

First tip here echoes 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos by Karen Costa. Create SHORT lecture videos: <6 mins long and informal (rather than professionally produced) are ideal for student learning.

Because online students are often busy outside of classes, it helps focus their attention & structure their priorities to give short graded assessments after each required video lecture. Don’t look at creating engagement this way as pandering to student “consumers.” Grades help guide priorities.

In addition to video lectures, spontaneous (or planned) video updates can be used to respond to issues emerging from the video lectures & related assignments. At Wake Forest we are transitioning to Canvas LMS which makes it easy to record videos inside the LMS or link to YouTube.

Also, do not feel you are shirking your responsibilities by drawing on other available media resources. Curating course materials is an important part of our job as teachers. E.g., Tanya Golash Boza of UC-Merced has put together some amazing videos on race/racism.

Last, remember the book’s premise: small decisions & actions are key. Don’t swing for the fences and strike out, especially making our students collateral damage by turning our tech struggles into their tech challenges. As Darby writes, “First, do no harm.”

Ch 4: Building Community

Online courses are sometimes treated like old-time “correspondence courses” that each student completes as a solitary individual. But the “Community of Inquiry” model highlights the importance of community for student learning (p. 79).

Of the three “presences” (cognitive, social, teaching) at the core of the Community of Inquiry, the social is the hardest for many to achieve online (p. 80). Darby and Lang argue that teachers can facilitate social presence by helping students see us and each other as human beings.

Strategies for doing this include creating structured opportunities for students to interact with us and others. I.e., “discussions.” I and other faculty dread trying to create discussions online, often only knowing the “post once, comment twice” structure that seems so rote. An alternative is proposed by John Orlando: Require “one or two original thoughts” rather than an original post + replies. After all, a reply could be more substantive, interesting, and productive than an original post. And it encourages group interaction as much as individual action.

A real challenge for faculty teaching online will be requirement that we “show up for class” if we want to build community, because class is no longer clearly delimited in time/space. We can’t treat our online classes like slow cookers (“set & forget”). Rather, we have to be present “on a very regular basis” (p. 87). In a F2F class, we facilitate good conversations. Online teaching arguably requires more facilitation. This may be all the more important for under-resourced and/or underserved students.

Monitoring and being involved in online discussions allows us as teachers to foster cultural inclusion and suppress exclusionary practices. Darby and Lang highlight the Critical Multicultural Pavilion EdChange project as a resource.

Last, it doesn’t hurt to “cultivate and demonstrate genuine caring for your students” (p. 104).

Ch. 5: Giving Feedback

Some good Pedagogy 101 items in this chapter. E.g.,

  • recall the difference between SUMMATIVE and FORMATIVE assessments
  • learning requires assessment with timely feedback
  • focusing on justifying our grades is a “common trap” (pp. 110-11).

We need to give students both summative AND formative assessments. We can use labels like “This Time” and “Next Time” and/or “Strengths” and “For Improvement” (p. 112). These labels don’t just help students, they help US remember what we are giving feedback for.

Giving feedback “face-to-face” can be more effective (& even efficient). Reach out to meet with students who are struggling early. Rebrand the potentially often off-putting and little used “office hours” as “happy hours” or “coffee breaks.” Be inviting!

Ch 6: Fostering Student Persistence & Success

Following the small teaching philosophy, this can be something as simply as a “nudge” – an email to a struggling student with advice/encouragement that can have a big impact.

I think there are some things I may do online that I wouldn’t F2F. Like giving “mastery quizzes” as a prerequisite for moving on in a module. In a F2F class students can better gauge whether they are “getting it”; online a simple, ungraded quiz can give needed feedback & direction.

Scaffolding may be more important online, so thinking about ways of giving students easy wins early on to build their confidence both with the material and the technology/LMS. As always, this will be all the more important for less advantaged students.

Ch 7: Creating Autonomy

This chapter argues that students are more motivated if they have some agency/autonomy in courses. Although “we can’t give people agency” we can “provide the conditions and support for it to flourish.” Online courses require students to take more responsibility. We can facilitate this by taking some responsibility ourselves as teachers for guiding students without becoming dictatorial.

This chapter includes a good discussion of Linda Nilson’s specifications grading as a way to reward students for taking responsibility for doing the work of learning. I do this some, though without appreciating all of the benefits. Will def incorporate more online.

Ch 8: Making Connections

This chapter stresses the importance of helping students connect ideas both within and between classes, as well as connecting class ideas to their own experiences. I do the latter pretty explicitly, but the former varies by the class I am teaching.

We can encourage connections with the abundance of material available in the world outside our classes by, e.g., assigning students to “curate” and evaluate a collection of digital materials that illustrate a particular concept. This type of assignment can be set up in ways that facilitate learner autonomy (recall Ch 7).

Ch 9: Developing as an Online Instructor

This chapter is a bit of preaching to the choir. Anyone who has made it this far in the book is already doing this, though of course more can always be done. The chapter provides some direction on the more that can be done: taking online courses, seeking out exemplars, accessing books/blogs/podcasts.

Suggestions provided in “Small Teaching Online” include (tho not limited to):

Which leads to a final important point: take advantage of your local teaching/learning pros. Teams at WFU CAT and Wake Forest’s Office of Online Education have been working incredibly hard to bring 1,000 teachers at Wake Forest up to speed given the reality of at least some online ed this fall.

Actual final point from “Small Teaching Online”:

“Embrace the challenge of becoming an excellent online instructor. Reflect on the moral obligation to help these learners succeed” (p. 218).

I didn’t sign up for online ed, but neither did my students. Bottom line: do right by them

Choosing Adventure: Safe Travel in Dangerous Places book by Greg Ellifritz

As one of Greg Ellifritz’s Patreon supporters, I received an electronic version of his new book Choose Adventure: Safe Travel in Dangerous Places as a benefit of patronage. But Greg was good enough also to send me a hard copy when it became available recently.

At first glance, I am not the natural audience for a book about traveling in dangerous places. Although I love to travel (I have been to every state in the US except North Dakota and Alaska), I have not traveled outside the United States very often. My few international trips have not been to the kinds of “dangerous” places Ellifritz writes about (i.e., the “third world” or “developing world”).

Having gotten into Choose Adventure over the past week, it is now clear that I am a natural audience for this book. So is anyone who wants to travel safely, whether your destination is Kansas, Korea, Kazakhstan, or Kenya.

I love seeing new places, but I also have a strong aversion to uncertainty. Although a fundamental principle of the book is choosing adventure not routine, going into global travel with my eyes wide open does reduce some of the stress of the unknown.

Choosing Adventure is an amazing guidebook to making good decisions while traveling — or in the case of some topics Greg covers like prostitution and drugs, making better bad decisions. Advice about dealing with scam artists and criminals, surviving natural and human disasters (e.g., riots), and using travel and improvised weapons are applicable in 200 countries on 7 continents from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

Even something as basic as food is treated very astutely here. If I had read this book prior to my trip to Mexico, I would have likely avoided getting food poisoning in a restaurant in Mexico City. And if I had read it before going to Ghana, I would have been able to enjoy some of the amazing street food that I assiduously avoided while there.

Photo of Greg Ellifritz courtesy of Greg Ellifritz

Greg Ellifritz is not only a very experienced traveler, he is a student of the magic that the world has to offer. This shines through brightly in Choosing Adventure.

If you want to get a free taste of Greg’s travel insights, he posts occasionally about his travels on his blog. Of the dozens of posts I have read over the years, one of my all-time favorite was the account of his trip to Jordan last year.

Greg Ellifritz at the Temple of Hercules in Jerash. From https://www.activeresponsetraining.net/back-from-jordan

Misrepresenting Science in the “Plandemic” Video

Greg G. Wolff, a little known epidemiologist at Wright Patterson AFB, is all of a sudden quite a sensation. His article on influenza vaccination and respiratory virus interference was cited in the “Plandemic” video going around. Wolff’s article in VACCINE (currently the most downloaded article from the journal) is open access so I had a look to see how the Plandemic video used the truth to distort the truth in a very subtle way.

Screen cap of https://doi.org/10.1016/j.vaccine.2019.10.005

Plandemic notes that Wolff’s study found that those who received an influenza vaccine in the 2017-2018 flu season were 36% more likely to test positive for coronavirus than those who were not. This is true. 7.8% of those vaccinated tested positive for coronavirus and 5.8% of those not vaccinated tested positive. As you can see in Table 5 produced here, the odds ratio (OR) is *1.36* (subtract 1 and you get the % increase in likelihood of the outcome) and statistically significant at the <0.01 level (P-value). (It also increases the odds of contracting metapneumovirus, OR = 1.51, p <0.01.)

Screen cap of https://doi.org/10.1016/j.vaccine.2019.10.005

However, consider the potential consequences of not being vaccinated for influenza also shown in Table 5. Any odds ratio (OR) below 1 means a vaccinated person has lower odds of having contracted the virus relative to a vaccinated person (P-values less than 0.05 indicate a statistically significant association in this sample). The rest of the story:

  1. Receiving the vaccine lowered the odds of all of the following respiratory viruses: Influenza A, H1N1, H3N2, Influenza B, Influenza B Yamagata, parainfluenza, RSV, and non-influenza virus coinfection.
  2. Receiving the vaccine does not increase the odds of contracting adenovirus, bocavirus, or rhinovirus/enterovirus.
  3. Receiving the vaccine increases the odds of there being no pathogen detected (by 59%, p. <0.01).

An additional “however” relative to the increased odds of contracting coronavirus in this particularly study, which Wolff also notes in the paper: Another published study found NO EFFECT of influenza vaccine on coronavirus: “Detection of a noninfluenza respiratory virus by multiplex RT-PCR was not associated with influenza vaccination status over a period of six influenza seasons. . . . There was no association between influenza vaccination and detection of RSV, adenovirus, human metapneumovirus, human rhinovirus, or coronavirus.”

So, always be careful when someone invokes a “study,” even a published study. Consider the source as well as the citation. And, as always, diversify your bonds.