Rod Fisher started his undergraduate education in a community college. Twenty–five years later we find Rod still in a community college, though with a far different perspective on sociology. As an undergraduate Rod admits that he "didn't pay much attention to sociology at first." However, he eventually found the "issues" addressed in sociology classes most interesting, and decided to pursue a major in the field. This interest persisted and developed as Rod eventually earned his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. While he had developed advanced technical skills in methods and statistics Rod characterized his education as primarily formal. "There was no real emphasis in any of my degree programs on applied sociology."
For a person with advanced degrees but no real applied focus the options are not very broad. In Rod's case he found himself back in school, only this time as a professor in a community college. From Rod's point of view the community college presented a number of challenges. One challenge was competition for students. Four–year schools were perceived as having more quality and more opportunity. In this environment community colleges were not seen as places where the best students attended. Nor were they seen as a place of much scholarship. But to Rod these perceptions were challenges, not barriers. And, as challenges he sought ways around, over, or through them. To Rod the faculty and students of the college were a valuable resource. "These people were qualified and capable in a lot of different ways. What we needed to do was exercise and develop those capabilities."
The late 1970's brought together a number of circumstances which Rod saw as opportunities to make use of those capabilities he believed existed within those around him. Society was in the midst of many significant changes, racial and ethnic, urban and suburban, gender and age, economic, etc. People were experiencing changes in these and other areas of their lives, but not really understanding how to respond or relate. Unfortunately, experience itself is not necessarily sufficient for developing a meaningful response. Among other things, rapid change brings with it gaps in our information bases. According to Rod, "Information is what was needed, and the information had to be relevant. It had to pertain to local issues." In this context Rod and three colleagues, one from sociology, one from history, and another from speech and communications, pooled their resources and formed the Local Issues Research Institute (LIRI).
Formed in conjunction with the community college, LIRI engaged in a process of systematically studying community issues such as patterns of tourism in the area, women's concerns, quality of life for the elderly, and the local hospital's public image. In these initial studies Rod was able to establish a track record of quality research. In addition, LIRI was able to demonstrate how that well–produced information could have an impact. In the case of tourism it is important to know exactly where tourists go and why, how much money they spend, and what they think about their experiences. Based on such data a formal approach to tourism promotion could be produced. Or, steps could be taken to improve public perceptions of a local hospital and thereby influence the level of local health care delivery. According to Rod, the lesson here was and still is, "that good information is in demand and can be used to make a difference."
Early successes in local research led to other opportunities. One was research into the perceived quality of government services. Another focused on the future of local economic development. In one study nearly 200 CEO's were surveyed in face–to face interviews. Such data can help create a community atmosphere whereby economic development is enhanced. For example, this can occur by way of the Chamber of Commerce's communication of that CEO data to businesses and people considering moving to the area. The absence of such data would not necessarily prevent these moves, but these moves are not as likely without such data. In another instance LIRI was able to help police uncover local crime patterns. According to Rod, "In response to a series of local gas station murders, LIRI was able to do data analyses which accurately profiled where this crime was likely to occur. Contrary to most assumptions, these crimes were not occurring in the most isolated stations, but were occurring in convenience stores at or near closing time." Research like this helped local authorities better allocate scarce resources for both protection and apprehensions.
From the point of view of Rod's students the work of LIRI was an especially valuable opportunity. In LIRI projects Rod's students participated in all aspects of the research. They helped define problems, create models for data collection, administer the models, process data, and generate analyses, conclusions, and recommendations. For all this students received at least two valuable benefits. One, they graduated with concrete, applicable skills, and the experience necessary to make the essential connections between the discipline and the world outside of class. Two, the students were paid for their work! The result of this is that Rod's students have done more than learn sociology. They have become proactive within the discipline. They have been empowered through their discipline, to effectively "read" their environment, and themselves, and then choose a meaningful course of action.
Now that LIRI has been firmly established within his college, Rod has gone into private consulting. His focus is still local, but his array of services has expanded. He now competes for evaluation contracts, and consults in strategic planning and organizational development. According to Rod what is most important is his ability to "see the world" in unique ways. One problem with the common sense of clients is that it is based on assumptions which necessarily limit the client's perspective. This perspective is typically narrower and more individualistic than that offered by sociologists. In any consultation which involves change a broad perspective is essential if it is to be successful.
Rod's success in consultative work translates well in financial terms. For training workshops, such as he has done for the Federal Aviation Administration, he can earn up to$3,000 for two days of instruction. In other work Rod earns $65–$70 per hour. This includes work such as interviews, research design, data collection and analyses, and recommendation reports. Rod is clear in stating that the opportunities in this type of work are "diverse and expanding; good money can be made for good work."
Even though Rod's private work is expanding he has chosen to stay in education where he earns between $30,000 and $40,000 annually. His passion is still for students and he offers this advice. "Sociology is a core–skills discipline. Therefore, it is applicable in a variety of work settings." These skills also prepare you for advanced degrees in a variety of other disciplines. What is required is an aggressive posture on the part of the discipline. "We must not, as a discipline, wait for the world to come to us, we must be aggressive in telling our story." And that story, in Rod's experience is that, if well done, sociology has a real contribution to make.
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