Contact Us

Use the form on the right to contact us.

You can edit the text in this area, and change where the contact form on the right submits to, by entering edit mode using the modes on the bottom right. 


123 Street Avenue, City Town, 99999

(123) 555-6789


You can set your address, phone number, email and site description in the settings tab.
Link to read me page with more information.

Classroom desks.png


Tom Hanks Loves #FreeCommunityCollege and So Do I

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

Is it possible for Tom Hanks to be any more lovable? Apparently, yes. Last week, the actor who made such endearing classics as Big, The ‘Burbs, and Turner & Hooch published an editorial about his time at Chabot Community College. After discussing his experiences, he concluded, “That place made me what I am today.”

Hanks wrote the op-ed in response to President Obama’s plan to provide free community college. Of course, the policy warrants a critical discussion. The research is mixed about the effectiveness of two-year colleges. Scholars have long discussed the possibility of a “cooling out” that may occur; others focus on the lack of degree completion among students and poor alignment between two- and four-year colleges. For instance, less than two-thirds of students who enter community college will graduate with a degree after three years.

Others argue that Obama is wasting billions of dollars. After all, pathways to college and career begin years before community college. Why not spend the money on early education or remediation? Consider that, in a city like New York, less than half of the students from the lowest performing schools graduate. Of those who do, less than a quarter are college-ready.

Bill wrote last week about the possible externalities of the ambitious plan. Yes, it may increase college access for low-income students; privileged students may also partake. With a limited amount of resources and no such thing as pure public goods, perhaps the government ought to target the provision of services. Established policy scholars presented similarly incisive arguments when mayoral candidates during New York City’s last election waved big, bright flags for universal pre-kindergarten. Few discussed the downsides of such a simple and alluring idea. Namely, scholarship indicates that low-income children benefit the most from pre-k. In such a cash-strapped state and city, why would politicians subsidize a service for middle- and high-income children when the gains will likely be minimal?

I agree with all of the above concerns. The plan may be a colossal waste of money. It may not improve college access or address the core problems of the pre-k to college pipeline. It may never even survive the whims of the political process. And yet, I’m thrilled.

Prior examples show that sometimes politicians—rather than using the results of a cost-benefit analysis—ought to make decisions based on ideals. That’s part of being an ethical policymaker.

Postsecondary education made me a more thoughtful and compassionate person. It also prepared me for a career that I love. I was a first-generation college student. My family couldn’t afford a four-year university. I attended community college. I eventually earned a Ph.D. One wouldn’t have been possible without the other. Everyone should have the same opportunity.

My wife and I are also one of the first cohorts who have incurred so much student loan debt that—despite everyone trumpeting the value of postsecondary education—the financial burden may outweigh the benefit. The cost is even higher for first-generation students today. That’s wrong and something needs to change.

Maybe the free community college plan fails. Or, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe, it foreshadows a free four-year college plan. I’ll take the risk because the reward could be so much better.

Ferguson, ethics, and the public intellectual

Randall F. Clemens

Originally published at

During the 1890s, newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst competed against each other to sell more papers. They printed sensationalist stories accompanied with fear-inducing headlines and vivid, provocative pictures. Journalists eschewed facts for melodrama. At the height of yellow journalism, the two newspaper tycoons published stories that contributed to the United States’ involvement in the Spanish-American War. 

Fast-forward 120 years. In Ferguson, Missouri, a 28-year-old white police officer shoots an 18-year-old black man. Residents protest. Droves of reporters travel to Ferguson. Over three months later, following months of unrest and anticipating even more, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declares a state of emergency. One week afterwards, a grand jury decides not to indict the police officer with criminal charges. Violent and nonviolent protests escalate. Journalists chase and film rioters. They flood newspapers, television channels, and social media with panic-inducing stories and images. Cable channels cut from out-of-breath reporters in the field to argumentative talking heads in the studio.

The media has largely influenced the ways in which the public talks and thinks about Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent protests. Rather than facilitating civil, fact-based exchanges, they encourage vehement, opinion-based disagreement. Their actions starkly differ from the ethics of journalism, which include pursuing truth, reporting accurately, and limiting harm. If there is such a thing as a 21st century public sphere—a place where we can intellectually discuss important social issues—the media is corrupting it.

What, then, is the role of academics? Consider some of the ethical concerns of researchers: beneficence, respect, and justice. While we typically discuss those ideals in terms of the conduct of research, we may also consider them in relation to when and how scholars participate in public forums. 

Stated more simply, while talking heads whip up racist antagonism and blame individuals, research is resolute. Young men of color disproportionately experience gun violence. A discriminatory police state surveils low-income neighborhoods. We have established clearer pathways from school to prison than school to college. And, due to a lack of opportunities, concentrated and generational poverty has spread among individuals of color.

While sitting in Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote, “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” We have few forums to thoughtfully and critically discuss the pursuit of social justice and the existence of injustice in the United States. Scholars have an ethical responsibility to assume an increased role in public discourse, to illuminate the pressing causes and consequences of injustice, and to help imagine opportunities for social justice in the 21st century.

The shape of neighborhood ethnography to come: Blurred spaces, elastic time, and shareable culture

Randall F. Clemens

I. Facebook is a street corner

Before entering the field, I proposed an outline of my dissertation, a neighborhood study in South Central Los Angeles. “You’re not going to write Street Corner Society,” one of my committee members predicts, “The world’s changed.” I nodded, recognizing some of the immense variations—shifting demographics, rising inequality, and globalizing economies—that had occurred after nearly seven decades. I didn’t fully appreciate my mentor’s council.

Fast-forward two years. I completed my dissertation (which was not like Street Corner Society or Tally’s Corner or In Search of Respect) and accepted a job as assistant professor at St. John’s University. 

I now stand at a street corner near a cluster of housing projects in Brooklyn, New York. I observe five young black men. Wearing basketball shorts and tank tops, they endure humid summer temperatures while discussing a potential pick-up basketball game. One teenager jokes about me on the team and asks about my game. As a white, middle-aged researcher, I am neither part of their group nor at risk of “going native.” However, I feel a sense of camaraderie with DeJuan, the jokester. The scene reminds me of classic neighborhood ethnographies in which the authors examine the extraordinary meanings hidden in quotidian moments. Was this how Liebow felt with Tally? 

During a lull, DeJuan looks at his phone. He makes a comment about Facebook. Two others check their phones. They discuss a mutual friend’s post. At once, I feel the teenagers are both here and somewhere else. I am all of the sudden a part of and apart from an important conversation. Later, I recall my committee member’s statement—“The world’s changed.” 

Common among all neighborhood ethnographies is a commitment to place, time, and culture. What happens when social media create new digital spaces and blur spatial, temporal, and cultural boundaries? After over a century of placid existence, social media have irrevocably changed neighborhood ethnography. Facebook is the new street corner, and it exists simultaneous to the old street corner.

II. Neighborhood ethnography 1.0

Neighborhood ethnography occupies a unique (and, to me, hallowed) space among social science research in the United States. Interest in neighborhood scholarship has blossomed and decayed over the last century. The blooms often correlate to significant political and social events—like the Great Migration and the War on Poverty—and increased attention to race, class, and inequality. The methodology focuses in-depth on the complex, context-bound textures of social life among disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups. It includes a tradition of researchers toiling in low-income neighborhoods, befriending residents, documenting local life, and connecting micro and macro forces. 

The best works illuminate inequalities and contest stereotypes. W.E.B. Dubois, for instance, used an innovative mix of door-to-door interviews and census data to create an exhaustive analysis of neighborhood life for black residents in The Philadelphia Negro. Carol Stack, refuting prevalent stereotypes about the “culture of poverty,” examined sharing and reciprocity among low-income mothers in All Our Kin. And, Mitch Duneier, remixing the methodology to focus on Slim’s table, documented the stories of working-class men and presented a nuanced portrait of their lives within a larger context.

Neighborhood ethnography relies on three critical ingredients: place, time, and culture. Place is the simplest concept. For traditional place-based ethnographies, researchers go somewhere (i.e. churches, parks, schools, street corners) and spend time with someone (i.e. parishioners, parents, teachers, teenagers). 

Time is a little more complex (but not too much). Researchers sample across time to get a varied data sample and ensure validity and reliability. Identifying significant times and gaining access during them is the challenge. 

Culture is the most intricate, and engenders the greatest disagreement among scholars. There are two broad (and, for our purposes, crude) cultural perspectives. The first divides culture into two categories, mainstream and sub-mainstream. A dominant culture exists and then non-dominant, local groups introduce their own variations. Think of Gerald Suttles’s The Social Order of the Slum, a study of ethnic enclaves in Chicago. The second perspective interprets culture as heterogeneous, consisting of dominant and non-dominant cultural fragments. Sure, a mainstream culture exists, but so do sub-cultures, and the boundaries are malleable and intertwined. Consider Ulf Hannerz’s Soulside, a study of low-income residents in Washington, D.C. 

III. Neighborhood ethnography 2.0

How do social media redefine place, time, and culture? First, they obfuscate classic definitions of place. Recall the teenagers in the above example. They interact on a street corner and across multiple social media platforms. A single place is no longer the defining characteristic. Methodologists must attend to multiple, blurred locations.

Next, social media magnify the elasticity of time. The teenagers’ interactions—using synchronous and asynchronous communication—disrupt conventional notions of time. They talk to each other in real time and also respond to posts that could be seconds, minutes, or hours old. Researchers must capture and account for varied forms of time.

Last, social media increase the availability and portability of culture. DeJuan and his friends scavenge the internet for resources. They take, edit, view, and upload cultural bits like text, pictures, gifs, and video. They share them with friends and general audiences. Other users then view, comment, and share. Social media allows individuals to access and share different cultures in ways that have not previously existed. Neighborhood scholars must incorporate social media into their research designs and cultural analyses.

IV. What’s next?

Technologies have always influenced the research process. Pencils allowed researchers to sketch settings and jot quotes. Tape recorders enabled new levels of accuracy and verisimilitude. Word processors transformed the editing process. Each of the above examples produced incremental revisions. Social media substantially alters the research landscape. Digital technologies reform place, time, and culture and empower individuals, creating new conditions among researchers and researched. They produce previously hidden opportunities (and challenges) and provoke neighborhood ethnographers to deepen their commitment to rigorous, creative methods.

To some, neighborhood ethnography and social media may be at odds. After all, the methodology emphasizes context and prolonged engagement whereas social media can be fragmentary and ephemeral. However, neighborhood ethnography is uniquely positioned to capitalize on technological trends. To make sense of social media requires time, context, and thoughtfulness. Key to examining the connections among local life, social media, and global social forces is the use of hybrid methods, including a mixture of robust, rigorous traditional tools with innovative new tools. While some may argue that social media diminish the importance of place and, as a result, neighborhood ethnography, I can think of no better methodology to untangle the wonderful, complex, and evolving social media knot.