After graduating from high school in 1967 in a small, rural town in southwest Minnesota, I decided to attend trade school. I wanted to build drag racers with my uncle and open a speed shop. We even had a sign made for the shop. My mother, however, was of a different opinion and she convinced me to go to college so I could make more money to buy speed parts for my racing cars. Money sounded good, so off to college I went as a Mechanical Engineering major. As do most students, I went to college to get a degree to make money. Little did I know what was to become of me.
I attend Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota, from 1967 to 1972, earning a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Sociology and Anthropology. Actually, I had declared a number of majors, but this was ultimately the one that stuck. I had never heard of sociology before I went to college, but the first course I took, Social Problems, hooked me for good. I decided not only to major in Sociology and Anthropology but to pursue graduate study, as well.
I went to Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, which I attended from 1972 to 1974, earning my Master’s Degree in Sociology. It was at CMU that my interests in sociological methodology, social inequality and social theory rally blossomed – they are still at the core of my interest in sociology. Since I had by then decided I wanted to teach at the university level, I needed to get a doctoral degree. Once again, I was off to graduate school.
I attended Purdue University from 1974 to 1977. I honed my writing and research skills and did an amazing amount of reading in social theory and social philosophy. Many people I talked to over the years look back on their time in graduate school as a bad experience. My story was just the opposite. I loved the intellectual challenge and stimulation I experienced in graduate school, even though it was a time of great economic difficulty for me and my family.
I was completely irresponsible as a high-school student, but I did well in both undergraduate and graduate school. I credit my mother, who taught me to read and do arithmetic when I was three, my teachers who tolerated and encouraged me every step of the way, and my wife and children (two sons) who not only put up with the craziness and privation of graduate school existence but helped me learn how to become a human being.
I became a member of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Sociology Department in January of 1979. Though I was hesitant to leave New England – I was teaching at Saint Anselm’s College in Manchester, New Hampshire – coming to Oshkosh was the best move ever made. It was here that I really learned the crafts of teaching and of being a professional sociologist – at least insofar as I have learned either.
I earned both tenure and promotion through the ranks to Full Professor – which essentially means I am eligible for every committee on campus. I served as Director of the University Learning Community for twelve years and Director of the University Honors Program for six years. My participation in these programs reflected my interest in teaching and my belief in the importance of a high-quality undergraduate education for UW Oshkosh students. However, as much as I enjoyed working with these programs, they required that I do a lot of administrative work rather than classroom teaching – which is what I love most.
Now I am very happy to say that for several years I have been teaching full-time in the Department of Sociology. I enjoy this much more than administrative work. I teach Introduction to Sociology (SOC 101) every semester, often in large lecture sections. I also teach Social Research (SOC 381) every semester and Classical Sociological Theory (SOC 303) each year in the Fall semester. Recently, I have been teaching Minority Groups (359) in the Spring semester.
These courses reflect my abiding interest in introducing students to the sociological perspective and teaching the intellectual skills essential to that perspective. The courses I teach also reflect my continuing interest in methodology, theory and inequality. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to walk into a classroom of students who are taking a sociology class. It is one of the most privileged and pleasant experiences of my life. I hope it shows.
Paul Van Auken
I came to sociology and Oshkosh in a roundabout way, and am glad I did.
I grew up in Forest City, IA, the son of a Norwegian mom and a Minnesotan dad, both teachers by trade. I went to my hometown Waldorf College for two years and then completed a BA in 1995 in business administration-marketing at Wartburg College, another Lutheran liberal arts college, located in Waverly, Iowa. I timed it such that I could go on European tours with both the Waldorf and Wartburg choirs. Yup, I am a choir geek and proud of it. I also played bass in bands named Homicidal Flowers, Sweatlodge, and Lizard Family Circus during this period.
After an outstanding year as a community relations specialist for Food Bank of Delaware while a full-time volunteer for Lutheran Volunteer Corps, I traveled from Delaware to Nova Scotia to the Boundary Waters to Glacier Park to Seattle to Crater Lake and back to Iowa and many points in between in a 1987 Volkswagen Jetta, then worked as assistant manager/bartender of a bad pseudo Tex-Mex joint in Iowa City for nine months. Featuring a $13,000 salary and depressing conversations with regulars, this was not a long-term gig. So, it was back to Delaware, an interesting little state I have to say, this time for graduate school in the University of Delaware’s School of Urban Affairs & Public Policy, with which I’d become familiar while with the Food Bank. There, I met and worked with a diverse group of great people, interned at the Delaware Association of Nonprofit Agencies, was a research assistant for rural sociologist Dr. Tom Ilvento, and picked up a MA in urban affairs & public policy in 1999. My master’s paper was entitled The Big Stink: Community Development in the Face of Industrialized Agriculture. During this era, I played in bands called Scattergood and honeyfarm.
Then it was back to the Midwest, to Wisconsin, where I took a job as the manager of the Madison office for Impact Seven, a statewide, nonprofit community development corporation for which I had interned in the summer of 1998. Aside from a number of excellent interns that worked with me at various times, I was the Madison office of this organization starting in June 1999. I primarily did the organization’s grant proposal writing, underwrote small business loans and helped entrepreneurs with business plans, and did other community development-related activities meant to create jobs, alleviate poverty, and the like. In my final year with the organization, I and a colleague successfully wrote an application for $21 million in funding for the organization from the brand-new federal New Markets Tax Credits program (I continue to do consulting related to this program to this day), and I also taught a 16-week entrepreneurial training course for University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. While I enjoyed this job, I realized that teaching was what I really wanted to do, and came to grips with the fact that deep inside I always knew I’d end up being a teacher, assuming I could learn enough about something to teach it and could find a place that would pay me to do it. So, I ended up going to grad school again, this time staying in Madison (where I loved to live anyway) and joining the Ph.D. program in sociology, while being housed in the department of rural sociology in wonderful Ag Hall. I started working as a research assistant for my advisor, rural sociologist Dr. Roger Hammer in June of 2003 and started the academic program that fall. I had some catching up to do with my peers in terms of knowledge about and grasp of sociological theory, but I got there eventually. I really enjoyed the field and people within it, was somehow able to pass two 6-hour written preliminary exams in the areas of demography and environmental sociology, and managed to get one first-authored demography paper published with Roger, Paul Voss, and Dan Veroff from our program. After Roger and I cooked up a collaboration with Johan Fredrik Rye of the Norwegian Center for Rural Research after he spent some time in our department, I was able to do interview-based research using photo elicitation (asking people to take photographs of particular things in certain categories and then asking them about their photos) in Norway on a number of occasions and compared that data to that which I gathered in Bayfield County, Wisconsin. It was a fascinating and fun project that served as the basis for my dissertation, entitled Nature, Community, and Commodity: Shifting Landscapes and Social Relations in Rural Amenity Areas of Wisconsin and Norway, which I successfully defended in August, 2007. During this period I also played with the band Spin Spin Coupling (and still do occasionally, as of this writing).
Having taught the Environment & Society and Social Ecology courses in sociology and environmental studies at UWO in the fall of 2006, I learned that this would be a great place to start my career as a sociologist, and wouldn’t you know it that is what happened started in the fall of 2007, when I had the great privilege of joining the sociology department, with a joint appointment in the environmental studies program. This is the ideal position for me, as I have my feet in two exciting programs and am able to teach courses that are in areas I know a bit about and enjoy teaching, including Rural Sociology, Sociology of the Modern City, the two aforementioned courses, Population Problems, and Introductory Sociology. I enjoy getting students out into the community, doing research projects and field trips, and look forward to involving them in research. My current research involves conducting an assessment of participatory planning methods and studying neighborhood development efforts in Oshkosh. I enjoy living with my wife and daughter near Menominee Park on Oskhosh’s east side, and recently co-founded a grassroots organization called Square One, which among other things hosts a quarterly community conversation called Views & Brews. So, that’s a bit of my story to this point, at any rate.