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Faculty Profile
Taking Sociology to Work

Taking Sociology to Work
Peggy Walsh prepares students for the tough questions

What are you protesting? Silence...a long silence." The question for the Keene State students was a reality jolt. They were sitting in a bare classroom on the University of Central America campus in Managua, Nicaragua, listening to a local student leader describe activism. Students, he said, were protesting their government's refusal to live up to its constitutional promise that six percent of the nation's budget go to the university. Young people had taken to the streets, demonstrating and daubing walls with "6%."

Professor Peggy Walsh with students photo by Peter Finger

The Keene State students had been in Nicaragua just a few days. For many, it was their first time overseas. There was some trepidation from students and their parents, said trip leader Peggy Walsh, KSC associate professor of sociology, about the safety of the Central American country. To be asked about their own activism, said Walsh, took them completely by surprise.

Professor Peggy Walsh photo by F.J. Gaylor "A student finally offered that protesting happened in the sixties and that's all over now," Walsh recalled. "Another explained that back home students spend a lot of time working to earn the money they need to live, and that there wasn't time to protest.

"It was an interesting moment and got our students thinking – not necessarily that they needed to be on the streets protesting, but that there was room for a greater awareness. Both groups of students began to talk about their families and discovered commonalities – their families had made similar sacrifices to afford to send their kids to college."

If higher education is, at least in part, about broadening the horizons of young people, then one of the best things educators can do is take them out of their comfort zones.

I think travel abroad should be a compulsory part of college ... Students are interested. It's a question of opening up opportunities and helping students afford it. Overseas is always a good choice.

"I think travel abroad should be a compulsory part of college," said Walsh. "Students are interested. It's a question of opening up opportunities and helping students afford it." Walsh grew up in Dorchester, Mass. While studying for her undergraduate degree at Wheaton College, she lived in Ireland for a semester. After graduating, she spent four months in Israel, where she traveled and volunteered as an English tutor.

Last spring's sociology trip to Nicaragua was organized by Walsh and professor emerita Eleanor Vander Haegen. Besides visiting the university, the group spent five days living on a cooperative farm, without power or indoor plumbing. The students arrived with sentences in Spanish prepared on their notepads, and there was near panic the first night when they ran out of things to say.

They coped just fine, said Walsh, recalling that the students spent a lot of time playing with local children.

The question she asks students, she said, is For one student, James Mangan, the trip was so profound that he returned to Central America – Costa Rica – a few months later, straight after graduation, to study for a certificate to teach English as a second language.

Mangan's commitment to following a new path based on a personal experience highlights one of Walsh's aims of teaching sociology: for students to get more than a book understanding of the world.

We all are sociologists to an extent, explained Walsh. "As individuals we are part of a larger society, and we all develop our own perspectives made up of opinions and preconceptions."

The question she asks students, she said, is "Why is it that you feel this?"

Through answering this question, students look more closely at their biases and the roots of these feelings; they also find connections to people, values, ideas, and realities beyond their experience.

"My job as a teacher is to help students become critical thinkers for life," explained Walsh. "They need to learn that if they can understand an idea, they can then apply it. Many of the questions we ask as sociologists come from our own experience. Our research often confronts our own biases."

One of the roles of the sociologist, she believes, is to ask the difficult questions. By exploring thorny issues – such as equality and diversity – sociologists can influence policy, providing the statistical evidence needed by policymakers to create social programs. In doing this work, she says, sociologists can also counter prejudices toward particular populations.

Professor Peggy Walsh photo by F.J. Gaylor Working on her Ph.D. with Cynthia Duncan, a rural sociologist at the University of New Hampshire, Walsh began exploring the dynamics of poverty in rural communities. "There are many things we don't know about poverty," she explained. "Is it more difficult to be poor in a city or a rural area? Why is it that single-parent families seem to be blamed for many social problems?"

In her dissertation, Walsh investigated changing family structures in rural areas. Single-parent families were on the increase in these areas, mirroring what was happening in cities. But, she said, what was interesting was that this change was less visible – and therefore less understood – than similar situations in cities.

"I wanted to find out how these families survived," she said.

Walsh interviewed about 50 women in single-parent situations in northern New England. The common stereotypes, she says, are that these mothers – and their many children – rely on government welfare or community support. Instead, she found that these single parents relied on their own families for assistance before all other forms of support. Young mothers made great sacrifices for their children. They absolutely wanted to work and earn their own way and be self-sufficient. As for family size, Walsh said that there is a perception that poor families have lots of kids. In fact, she says, poor families aren't larger.

Ten years later and now a mother herself, of Maeve, five, and Cormac, three, Walsh is curious to find out what has changed for these families. As they age, grandparents are probably less able to help, she says. And, even though agency and community support for single parents with young children is not as thorough as it should be, support is even less for those with adolescents – and their needs may be greater.

Who are these families turning to for help, Walsh wondered. How are our communities responding to changes in family structure?

Many researchers are committed to applied research. It's satisfying to see your work published, but it's more satisfying to see your ideas being used. Asking these questions and conducting research is undoubtedly an important aspect of being a sociologist, explained Walsh. But there is the danger, she says, that in doing this work sociologists are preaching to the converted – students in our classes and fellow researchers. At last year's American Sociological Association conference, delegates wrestled with the ideal of "public sociology": how to stimulate debate about important current issues and to help sociologists work with other disciplines to reach wider, public audiences.

The issue facing sociologists, said Walsh, is how to get this research and knowledge to the people who need to hear it. "We have a larger obligation to use these ideas," she explained. "Once policymakers can get this information into their hands, translated into 'real' words, then you can make a difference.

"What I'm seeing is that this is happening. Many researchers are committed to applied research. It's satisfying to see your work published, but it's more satisfying to see your ideas being used."

Much of Walsh's concern as a professor is that her students get as much exposure as possible to the work of the sociologist. Besides teaching the sociology of families, research methods, pro-seminar, practicum, and social stratification classes, serving as acting chair of the department, and helping students find service-learning placements in local community agencies, she recently completed the manuscript of her new book, Taking Sociology to Work.

In the book, Walsh provides students with an insight into what kinds of jobs their degree prepares them for and what to expect in the workplace. What better way to do this, she said, than by asking these questions of the College's sociology alumni? True to form, she enlisted the help of her students to survey the alums, whose responses became the career profiles in the second section of the book.

The students found that KSC graduates are all over the country, many in prestigious positions. "They also discovered that while some alumni are in jobs directly related to their degree, others are doing completely different things, which also intrigued our students," she said.

"We ended up with a really good collection of advice from our alums. They used the opportunity to say, 'Here are some things I remember, here are some things I would have done differently.' So it was personal, it was sociological, and it was informative."

Unless they stay in academia, people rarely work in jobs called "sociologist," said Walsh. They become teachers, town and community planners, retailers, census takers, bankers, mental health specialists, doctors, journalists, FBI agents, and social workers.

The range of jobs really shows the value of studying sociology, said Walsh. The skills learned and situations encountered doing research are ideal preparation for almost any job, she said. Especially those that require thoughtful, well-rounded people.

Dave Orsman is KSC's media coordinator and the senior writer of Keene State Today.