Marvin Overby has been described as the Political Science department’s "utility infielder" in American Politics, and over the years his expertise has only spread. His research interests range from legislative procedures in the U.S. House and Senate (and Canadian Parliament, too) to the politics of minority groups. And his interests continue to grow.
When S. David Mitchell leaves for work in the morning, he isn’t sure which hat to wear. Sometimes he is a law professor, and sometimes he is a sociologist. On most days he wears both hats at once—an interdisciplinary approach to research that seems to bode well. As an associate professor in MU’s School of Law, Mitchell’s teaching and research feed off each other, focusing on the intersection of society and the law. While his teaching covers topics ranging from torts and criminal justice administration—from “bail to jail”—the courses he gets most excited about involve his main area of research, including “Law and Society” and “Collateral Consequences of Sentencing.”
José Garcia puts on and takes off many hats during the average week, owing to the extension, teaching, and research dimensions of his work as Extension Assistant Professor in Rural Sociology. For instance, as Coordinator of the Community Food Systems and Sustainable Agriculture Program at MU (CFSSA), Garcia spends most of his time doing outreach with rural communities throughout the state. A common misunderstanding some people have about the term “sustainable agriculture” is that it rejects technology, harkening back to an earlier time when people worked mainly with their hands. Quite the contrary, Garcia clarifies: sustainable agriculture uses the most recent technology in its approach to farming (and to food itself), in which economic viability and environmental impact, along with social responsibility, are at the center of every decision. In relation to this last dimension, approaches to sustainable agriculture ask such questions as the following: “How socially responsible are farmers? What is the impact of their operations on communities, families, and workers? And how connected to the community are they? ” Garcia explains the complexity of the situation: “All of those kinds of things need to be taken into consideration when making decisions because food and agriculture are totally connected to people, to communities, and to laborers.” Thus Garcia provides information and training to people about various aspects of agriculture – whether that involves farms, factories, schools, or other community organizations. He hopes to see a ripple effect, with the information he gives to various community educators in Missouri being spread throughout the state.
For two decades Robert E. Weems, Jr. has been studying interrelated aspects of African-American business and economic history at levels both local and national. The MU professor of History observes that the history of black economic development in Columbia, Missouri, with its once-thriving black business district, stands as a microcosm of national trends. “For a variety of social and economic reasons,” he notes, “we literally see black businesses disappearing from the landscape of America.” Weems’ first book, Black Business in Black Metropolis: The Chicago Metropolitan Assurance Company, 1925-1985 (1996), based on his dissertation research, explored the factors underlying this change. The history of this now-defunct black insurance company in Chicago has implications for the economics of race in America in general.
Dr. Shonekan tells us about her collaborative work with African American Opera singer Camilla Williams. This collaboration served as the field work for Dr. Shonekan’s dissertation, and later culminated in her full-length biography The Life of Camilla Williams, African American Classical Singer and Opera Diva .
One of the debates occurring within the scholarly community concerns whether there is a disproportionate impact of felon disenfranchisement laws, that is, how such laws affect some demographic groups more than others, especially African-American communities. If we consider, for instance, the disproportionate number of African-American men who are currently incarcerated or under the control of the criminal justice system at some point in time (about one-third of the African-American male community), it becomes clear that such laws do have a disparate impact on certain groups.
When asked about why they were drawn to this area of research or creative activity, MU faculty provide interesting and compelling responses. In some cases, they continued in school because the drive to learn new things was so great, because family provided a sense of identity and career direction, or because of initial interest in a related field. In other cases, they stumbled upon the field quite by accident. Regardless of the reason, the passion they hold for their work is obvious.
Garcia describes a few projects within the realm of sustainable agriculture. For example, Garcia trains extension educators on various sustainability issues. The educators may then go back to their communities and work directly with farmers and workers, “so that those farmers are more exposed to sustainable agriculture issues, including, for example, sustainable agriculture practices, natural resources, conservation issues, and funding opportunities for sustainable agriculture projects for their farms.” Garcia works as well with MU’s community of students, staff, and faculty, offering a monthly seminar called, “What’s New in Sustainable Food and Farming.”
As her first foray into comparative ethics, Welch recounts the origins of her book A Feminist Ethic of Risk (2000, 2nd edition): “I wrote it because one of the things I noticed, as a graduate student and then teaching at Harvard University, was how easily white middle-class people give up. At first people wouldn’t want to take a stand on an issue, whether apartheid or nuclear weapons, because they thought they didn’t know enough about it. Once they learned more about the issue, they were still unable to act, but now for a different reason—they thought the problem was too big to do anything about. I saw this as a phenomenon of cultured despair, being aware of large issues and arguing against the futility of partial efforts.” By contrast Welch learned from the work of the ethicist Katie Cannon about a type of “moral wisdom in the black women’s literary tradition,” an ethic of resisting over the long-haul in spite of seemingly overwhelming oppression, and the “confluence of spirituality and aesthetics” that sustained their activism over time.
The fate of black economic development in Columbia, Missouri, represents a microcosm of national trends. “For a variety of social and economic reasons,” Weems observes, “we literally see black businesses disappearing from the landscape of America.” Looking at the economic dimension of desegregation reveals a bitter irony that has animated much of Weems’ work. As a result of so-called desegregation, “on one level, we see white companies making great inroads among the African-American consumers,” he explains. “But we don’t see black companies being able to make similar inroads in the mainstream community.” In economic terms, this one-way situation is not true desegregation.
“One of the scariest things I found in researching Desegregating the Dollar was that as early as the 1930s,” explains Weems, “corporate marketers figured out that black people had an especially acute case of status anxiety” because of their particular history of slavery. Weems’ current project reacts against the conspicuous consumption celebrated in the realm of hip-hop as “bling-bling.”
By examining the economic results of desegregation in the insurance industry, Weems began to notice how corporate America profited as well from the Civil Rights Movement. The result was his second book, Desegregating the Dollar: African American Consumerism in the Twentieth Century (1998)—a comprehensive look at the African-American community as a consumer base in the U.S.
Not only is this a useful reference book, containing a full bibliography and essays that examine a variety of historical topics in terms of how perspectives have changed over time, but it’s also significant personally for Weems because it was written with Arvarh E. Strickland—the first full-time African-American faculty member at MU—and because it draws on the expertise of a number of MU faculty.
Brunsma explores the construction of racial identity in Beyond Black: Biracial Identity in America (2001), with Kerry Ann Rockquemore, and Mixed Messages: Multiracial Identities in the “Color-Blind” Era (2006).