Talking sociology with Executive Editor Elizabeth Branch Dyson

July 30, 2020
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The pandemic-driven shift of the American Sociological Association’s annual conference from in-person to online means we’re going to miss out on a lot of things we associate with conferences. Drinking weak coffee from paper cups, sitting on the floor at the back of a too-crowded panel, wandering the book exhibit (and awkwardly bumping into the same person at three or four booths in a row). Most of all, though, we’ll miss the chance to simply meet up and talk–to catch up on what everyone has been doing, been reading, been excited about.

To fill that gap, our marketing director, Levi Stahl, sat down for a virtual conversation with Elizabeth Branch Dyson, Executive Editor for sociology.

1. We both started at the University of Chicago Press in 1999-2000–I think I have maybe six months on you? And, like me, you’ve worked in a number of areas at the Press. Can you tell us quickly about your path to being Executive Editor acquiring in sociology?

That’s right! After a few years teaching middle school—a job with a guaranteed belly laugh a day—I started at the Press August 31, 2000, the day before my COBRA insurance was due to run out. My foot-in-the-door position was as the assistant in the Contracts & Subsidiary Rights Department, a fascinating mix of routine and high-risk/high-pressure work, and a terrific entrée to the Press as a whole. I then moved over to acquisitions as the excited but terrified assistant to our distinguished longtime anthropology and philosopher editor, T. David Brent, now retired, and to then brand-new acquiring editor, Robert Devens, the new director of the University of Texas Press. Soon after I took on responsibility for our highly regarded Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology series, complemented by books in blues and jazz. I was offered the opportunity a few years later to start acquiring full time, but not by taking over any existing lists. Instead, I aimed to revive our dormant education list and to publish different kinds of books in philosophy that would complement David’s list. I am so grateful to all those education scholars who took a chance on me in those early years and that Chicago now has an education list worth boasting about, including some great books by sociologists of education, such as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift, Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price, Laura Hamilton’s Parenting to a Degree, and Natasha Warikoo’s The Diversity Bargain. It has been a surprise and delight for this English and music major to discover how much I love the social sciences, so when the legendary Doug Mitchell announced his retirement a couple of years ago, I jumped at the opportunity to immerse myself more fully in sociology. It has been a joy.

2. Do you remember what the first book you acquired was?

I proudly keep a handwritten list of titles in my desk drawer, now inaccessible, but one of the earliest projects I remember working on from start to finish is David Shulman’s passionate and haunting Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine. (This book fits none of my lists then or now, but the Press is flexible when there is excellent work to be brought into the world.)

3. While you’ve only been the sociology editor at the University of Chicago Press for a few years now, you’ve long been involved with the discipline through your work in the sociology of education. What did you learn working in that area of the field that you can use in acquiring more broadly in the discipline?

Sociology of education led me to my deep appreciation of empirical research. I love work that is full of interesting, compelling evidence, and I am thrilled when authors use that evidence to change minds or to show us something new about the world. Qualitative studies, quantitative studies, ethnographies, mixed-methods—give me data!

4. We’ve always prided ourselves on publishing a lot of first-time authors–and, in cases like Eve Ewing‘s Ghosts in the Schoolyard or Alice Goffman‘s On the Run, having big success with them inside and outside the academy. Do you have any advice for first-time authors?

Think big, be bold, keep your main question or argument front and center always, and write so that Aunt Betty can understand it.

5. What will you miss most about not being able to attend ASA in person this year?

I’ll most miss the moments when an author and I realize we are connecting deeply about an idea and even moving it forward. I’m especially sorry to not be able to meet new authors-to-be and more of our longtime and repeat authors. And the booth is such a place of joy and pride as authors come by to “visit” their new books. We have a bumper crop of exciting new titles to show off this year: Fernando Domínguez Rubio’s Still Life, Andrew Deener’s The Problem with Feeding Cities, Shai Dromi’s Above the Fray, Anne Warfield Rawls and Waverly Duck’s Tacit Racism, Isaac Ariail Reed’s Power in Modernity, Blake Silver’s The Cost of Inclusion, Joe Davis’s Chemically Imbalanced, Max Besbris’s Upsold, Matt Rafalow’s Digital Divisions, Francesca Polletta’s Inventing the Ties That Bind, Lis Clemens’s Civic Gifts, and the new paperback of Eve Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard. Imagine also browsing the page proofs of Rick Settersten, Glen Elder, and Lisa Pearce’s Living on the Edge, David Trouille’s Fútbol in the Park, Doug Downey’s How Schools Really Matter, Hilary Angelo’s How Green Became Good, Gary Alan Fine’s The Hinge, and Laura Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen’sBroke. I was also looking forward to parading the awards our books have won recently: Marco Garrido’s The Patchwork City for the ASA Asia and Asian America Section’s Asia/Transnational Book Award, the ASA Political Sociology Section’s Outstanding Contribution to Political Sociology Award, and the Society for the Study of Social Problems’ Global Division Book Award; James M. Jasper’s The Emotions of Protest for the ASA Sociology of Emotions Section’s Outstanding Recent Contribution Award; Michal Pagis’s Inward: Vipassana Meditation and the Embodiment of the Self for an honorable mention for the ASA Theory Section’s Theory Prize; and Héctor Carrillo’s Pathways of Desire for the ASA’s Distinguished Scholarly Book Award.

6. Do you remember the first University of Chicago Press book you ever bought?

It was either Mitch Duneier’s Slim’s Table or William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged. I read them for the same class in consecutive weeks—what a pair of books for introducing a reader to what sociology can be! I had no context for them at the time; today I’m grateful for beginning with such a firm but different foundations.

7. What have you been doing to keep sane during the pandemic?

I have assiduously kept my family in their cakes and pies and homemade ice cream. And I have splurged on the puzzle section of the New York Times—I am obsessed with Spelling Bee.

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