Campus Conversations – a collection of essays inspired by Rick Bragg’s bestselling book All Over But the Shoutin’ and written by faculty and staff from across all disciplines – is expanding the depth of this year’s discussion book as faculty begin using it as a resource for learning in their classes.


The seven essays in Campus Conversations provide an individual take and discipline-
specific perspective on the ethical issues of class and social mobility raised in the book. Among those contributing essays are Virginia Richmond (left), Sarah Culver (center) and William Cockerham.

The discussion book initiative involves a broad range of campus members and achieves a campuswide dialogue through the shared experience of reading a book. Campus Conversations facilitates this goal, says Philip K. Way, Ph.D., associate provost for Undergraduate Programs.

“The essays in Campus Conversations reflect both deeply personal and disciplinary points of view on the issue of class and social mobility,” Way says. “Without exception, they provide rich food for thought and discussion.”

Linda Frost, Ph.D., says Bragg’s book is “meshing beautifully” with the topic of the Interdisciplinary Fall Course in the University Honors Program, which is “Bottom-up, top down.” She says the essays in Campus Conversations will provide fodder for students thinking about poverty and the impact of economics on public health.

“Those ideas work very nicely with the larger theme of our class, and our students will engage with them particularly in online discussions connected to our course Web site,” Frost says.

The seven original essays in Campus Conversations provide an individual take and discipline-specific perspective on the ethical issues of class and social mobility raised in the book. Five of the essays are authored by faculty, including William Cockerham, Ph.D., distinguished professor of sociology; Sarah Culver, Ph.D., associate professor of business; James McClintock, Ph.D., endowed university professor of biology; Charles Calhoun, Ph.D., assistant dean of the School of Education; and Virginia Richmond, Ph.D., chair of Communication Studies.

One essay is co-authored by Max Michael, M.D., dean of the School of Public Health and Huw Thomas, Ph.D., dean of the School of Dentistry, both of whom met with students Oct. 15 for “A Conversation About the Inequality of Health Care Based on Race and Income.” The final essay is authored by DeeDee Bruns, associate vice president for Enrollment Management.

The following are excerpts from the essays:

Even though Bragg is not in the limelight to the extent he once was, his ability to move out of the lowest social class to reach the top of his profession is rare...Whereas wealth is an objective dimension of a person’s social standing based upon how much money and property he or she possesses, status is a subjective dimension in that it consists largely of how much esteem the person is accorded by other people. Status indicates a person’s level of social prestige, which may or may not match their wealth. For example, a drug dealer may have wealth but low social status in the wider community, while a clergyperson may have little wealth but high status. The mayor of the community may invite the clergyperson over for dinner, but the drug dealer will never get an invitation – nor would Bragg’s mother, as she had neither wealth nor status.
—William Cockerham

Thousands of messages reinforce the belief that our personal choices largely determine how well and how long we will live. Did Rick Bragg’s family living in rural Alabama not hear these messages? Few of us can imagine a family as unhealthy as his. His father was a debilitated alcoholic whose alcoholism put him at risk of tuberculosis, pneumonia, cirrhosis, and other potentially fatal diseases. When he contracted TB, he apparently flouted any care that was available to him until he died. Due to poverty, lack of time, and fatigue from working too hard, his mother must not have brushed her teeth regularly and did not go to the dentist for checkups or regular care. When she finally went to a dentist, he had to pull every tooth in her head. Unfortunately, the personal tragedy in this family, father and mother engaging in behaviors that lead to death and disability, is repeated today in rural and urban areas throughout America.”
– Max Michael and Huw Thomas

My earliest memories of formal education started in Norfolk. My first teacher was my stepfather. He bought me a small desk with a chalkboard surface to write on. My first lessons involved learning to say and recognize the alphabet and numbers. The one lesson that stands out in my memory is the night he introduced me to the number 30. At the end of our lesson he wrote the numbers he had taught me and I said them. I knew the twenties, so 28 and 29 were easy. He wrote 30 and I drew a blank. Because of his Navy background, my stepfather was a strict taskmaster. I knew he was going to wait until I could recognize and say that number. I remember that the television show “Broken Arrow” came on. I reminded him it was my bedtime, but he sat and waited. He would not let me give up. At age 5, I was experiencing my first case of “math anxiety.” Then it came to me. I shouted, “Thirty!” It was my earliest memory of how educational achievement comes with persistence.
– Charles Calhoun

One of the most common descriptions of the United States of America is “The Land of Opportunity.” Throughout the history of the United States, literally millions of people have begun their lives in poverty in a low social class and have risen to some of the highest levels of American society.  Born into poverty and denigrated as poor white trash as a child, Rick Bragg became a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Times... This opportunity to “make something of oneself” and the expectation that one’s children will rise to higher status and wealth than that of their parents are part of America’s ethos. For more than two centuries these expectations of positive social mobility were fulfilled by a high percentage of the population. Unfortunately, in the last five decades this social mobility has declined in the United States. While the United States is still “the Land of Opportunity,” some of these opportunities are moving in the wrong direction. Today, some of our parents are just hoping that their children can make it to the social level that they enjoy. It can be argued that this may simply be a manifestation of the reality that there is just not enough room at the top for everyone to be there. After all, while Bragg successfully emerged from poverty to rise to the top of his profession, his older and younger brothers live respectively modest and barely subsistence-level lives. It can also be argued that this is just a “blip” caused by the baby boom and that as we get a more level population growth it will disappear. While these theories may or may not be true, it is clear that the U.S. culture is changing.
– Virginia Peck Richmond