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Sociology alumni’s careers benefit from top-notch SU program and faculty

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    Southwestern University sociology professor Ed Kain is an expert on the teaching of sociology. Kain is shown here teaching one of his classes at Southwestern. (Photo by Lance Holt)

Sociology professor Ed Kain is one of the country’s leading experts on the teaching of sociology – and many SU graduates have leveraged his teaching to grow their own careers.

When a leading journal in the field of sociology published a paper in 2012 that showed Southwestern University was tied for second among all the institutions in the country when it comes to publishing papers about the teaching of sociology, it was no surprise to Ed Kain.

Kain, a professor of sociology and University Scholar, was the author of all the articles cited in the publication. He had earned similar recognition the last time such a paper was published 10 years ago.

Since joining the Southwestern faculty in 1986, Kain has focused his research on how sociology is taught across the country. This research has not only benefited students at Southwestern, but sociology students nationwide.

One particularly interesting aspect to Kain’s research is that he always involves Southwestern students in it. Since 1989, Southwestern students have been the co-authors on five sociology publications with Kain. Kain is currently working with 2011 graduate Toni Nietfeld on a paper about how well sociology majors thought their major trained them in certain student learning outcomes. The two did the research for the paper when Nietfeld was still at Southwestern.

Kain said involving students in research projects they are interested in is key to getting them excited about sociology. That’s exactly what happened to him as an undergraduate as well.

Kain attended Alma College, a small liberal arts college in Michigan. While he was there, he had the opportunity to participate in a summer research project on pine beetles that was funded by the National Science Foundation. While biology students from Alma studied the beetle itself and the damage it was doing, Kain worked with a professor from Alma to conduct research on the attitudes and practices of landowners along the Pine River in terms of the damage done by the beetles on their property. He spent the summer interviewing the farmers, analyzing the data and writing a paper that was presented at a professional meeting.

“The thing that transformed me was doing undergraduate research with a faculty member,” Kain said. “That’s what got me into one of the top graduate programs in the country.”

After he received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kain began his teaching career at Cornell University in New York. He left to join the Southwestern faculty after six years there.

“The focus on undergraduate education simply wasn’t there (at Cornell),” Kain said. “The focus was on getting money for their research and working with graduate students.”

Kain said that was what prompted him to begin studying how sociology was taught at different institutions across the country. His first paper in the area – which was co-authored with three Southwestern students – was a study of how sociology was taught at community colleges.

“More than half the undergraduate sociology classes in the country were being taught at community colleges, but no one was doing any research on what they were teaching,” Kain said.

In 2004, the American Sociological Association asked Kain to be part of a group that was updating recommendations for how sociology should be taught at the undergraduate level. Three years later, he published a paper that looked at how sociology programs across the country matched up to the 16 recommendations that were developed. Kain said this paper is frequently used by external reviewers who are asked to evaluate sociology programs.

“Students who graduate from departments that follow these guidelines are much more qualified when they get out,” Kain said.

Kain said the skills students learn from studying sociology at Southwestern can transfer easily to graduate school, private industry or nonprofit work.

In his Research Methods class, for example, Kain’s undergraduate students use the same textbook that is used at UT-Austin in the Graduate School of Social Work. As a result, many sociology majors who go to graduate school for social work are able to test out of the required Research Methods class.

Andy Miller, a 1993 graduate, did an internship with AIDS Services of Austin while he was a student at Southwestern. Miller was able to take the skills he learned in the Research Methods class and help the organization develop a data set to organize information on the caseload they had. Miller went on to earn a Master of Health Science Education from the University of Florida with a focus on community health education and promotion. He is now executive vice president of operations for the Livestrong Foundation and chairman of the Board of Directors for AIDS Services of Austin.

Rob Mack, a 1996 graduate who co-authored a paper with Kain and another student from his Research Methods class, was able to land a job with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as a research assistant for the Department’s Community Justice Assistance Division. He and a team of four other researchers compiled statistics on probation in Texas and provided that information to the legislature and the general public. They also did a study on a tool used in Canada to predict sex offender recidivism.

“All the other researchers had master’s degrees,” Mack said. “The experience I got in the Research Methods class, publishing the paper with Dr. Kain, and the community survey project Dr. Kain and I did for the Georgetown Police Department were all instrumental in getting that job. Southwestern is great at providing opportunities such as these to undergraduate students.”

Typically, Kain said, he will initiate a preliminary research project with his full Research Methods class. Students who are interested in pursuing the research topic will take an independent study class with him later.

Tricia (Mein) Bruce, a 2001 graduate, did an independent study with Kain on the sociology of religion. After graduating from Southwestern, she earned a Ph.D. at UC-Santa Barbara and is now an assistant professor of sociology at Maryville College in Tennessee. Bruce has been successful in receiving several early-career grants to fund her research and has recently published a book about how an organization called Voice of the Faithful is trying to reform the Catholic Church.

“Dr. Kain is a superb mentor whose impact on my professional development and success in academia has been immense,” Bruce said. “His willingness to offer a practicum in an area of sociology not offered at Southwestern afforded me the opportunity to first explore what would become my subdisciplinary ‘home.’”

Bruce is one of several former students of Kain’s who have gone on to become sociology professors themselves.

Amanda Bounds Baumle, a 1997 graduate, is now an associate professor of sociology at the University of Houston. Her research focuses on social inequality, demography and the law, and she has written a book about the sociodemographic characteristics of same-sex couples.

“My experiences constructing surveys, analyzing statistics and conducting research as part of my coursework and honors thesis with Dr. Kain allowed me to discover my interest in generating my own data and analyzing unique research questions,” Baumle said. “It was this interest that ultimately motivated me to pursue a career in academia.”

Stephen Perz, a 1992 graduate, is now an associate professor of sociology at the University of Florida and is a leading social science researchers on environmental change in the Amazon. Perz credits much of his career trajectory to his participation in an NSF summer research program while he was at Southwestern − much like the one Kain participated in as an undergraduate.

After taking Kain’s demography course, Perz became interested in demography, particularly migration. Kain recommended that he apply for a summer research program at Western Washington University that focused on the use of publicly available data for the analysis of migration. Perz was accepted into the program and that experience led to his honor’s thesis at Southwestern − which Kain supervised − on frontier migration into the Brazilian Amazon.

Perz’s honors thesis strengthened his graduate school applications, and landed him a graduate traineeship in the Population Research Center at UT-Austin, which happened to be organizing a Brazilian demography program at the time. His Ph.D. on migration in the Amazon led him to the University of Florida, which has the largest group of Amazonian scholars in the United States.

Since joining the faculty at the University of Florida, Perz has managed several large interdisciplinary environmental science projects and some even larger cooperative agreements for environmental planning and management work in Bolivia, Brazil and Peru. In all, he estimates he has led projects involving more than $10 million in funding.

“None of this would likely have happened without Dr. Kain’s example and guidance way back when,” Perz said. “His focus, his energy level, his professionalism, and his awareness of the larger landscape of opportunities will forever remain indelibly the standards to which I aspire as I train students, collaborate with foreign partner organizations, and pursue environmental science and management.”

Kain and his former students always meet up for dinner at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, and many graduates like Perz, Baumle and Bruce take this opportunity to get further advice from Kain on their academic careers.

“Dr. Kain’s mentorship has shaped my job search, teaching philosophy, collaborative undergraduate research, and passion for the liberal arts,” Bruce said. “His model is one I aspire to emulate in my teaching, mentoring, and meaningful relationships with alumni.”