The Miscellany News recently initiated a faculty spotlight section, showcasing the many fascinating perspectives Vassar professors have to offer. This week we interviewed Professor of Sociology Leonard Nevarez via email. As Nevarez has been involved in departments across various academic fields here on campus, his perspectives are multifaceted and well-informed.
The Miscellany News: What kind of classes do you teach at Vassar? What do they involve?
Leonard Nevarez: I’m an urban sociologist who’s drawn to multidisciplinary questions of economies, organizations, political economy and culture. Those inform my courses on Quality of Life, the New Economy, and Corporate Power (in the Sociology Department), as well as Urban Theory, Cities After Society, and Musical Urbanism (in the Urban Studies Program).
The Misc: How did you first become interested in sociology and urban studies?
Nevarez: I became interested in sociology and urban studies because I grew up in an army family that moved around a lot. Attending two middle schools and three high schools, I developed a very practical interest in how different communities had different values, rules, internal cliques and daily activities. To some degree that’s what sociologists study, I learned later. Living in different places, particularly a couple of years spent in Europe, also made me aware of the significance and variety of urban landscapes. This fascination into the forms and textures of human settlements was sharpened after a couple of jobs working for a bus company and a real estate journal.
The Misc: Did you always want to be a sociology professor?
Nevarez: Ha! First, I never even heard the word “sociology” until my freshman year in college. I majored in sociology not long after, and yes I had professors who made a great impression upon me. But if I’m being honest, I really didn’t consider graduate school or how that might lead to the kind of career they had until after college graduation. Truth be told, I was more intent on playing in a band. For a couple of years after graduation I did that and cycled through a number of boring day jobs. Soon I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a professional musician, and I figured there was one thing I was better at: going to college. That’s when I began thinking about the social world around me a little more intellectually—boring day jobs turn out to be excellent sites to observe society and its contradictions—and sociology beckoned once again.
The Misc: How long have you been teaching at Vassar? What drew you here?
Nevarez: I’ve been here since 1999. Would it be shocking if I confessed that what drew me here was the job offer? I applied for dozens of academic jobs, and Vassar was the only one to offer me a job. (To my senior colleagues, thanks again!) The experience reinforced a number of life lessons: you can’t control your future, so you have to work hard and be prepared, but you also have to be flexible and know when to let go. That said, what keeps me here is the resources that Vassar invests to continually develop the classroom experience. The department and programs that I work in are dynamic and exciting places, committed to changing with the times and with the interests of students. And I’m a far better teacher than I was when I came here, because I’m surrounded by people who take the craft of teaching very seriously.
The Misc: What has been the best part about being here?
Nevarez: Oh, no question, it’s the students. They’re exciting, they’re eager to learn, and they bring a sense of purpose about where they came from and where they’re going. I learn a tremendous amount from students. It’s ironic that they sometimes fret that Vassar doesn’t represent the real world, because you guys bring the real world to us faculty. A great discussion in an Introduction to Sociology class is often better than any news show or expert panel for grappling with the political and cultural directions that society is moving in.
The Misc: What about Vassar has changed the most since you’ve been a professor?
Nevarez: For sure, the student body has grown more diverse in terms of socioeconomic backgrounds, racial/ethnic composition and cultural diversity. I can’t imagine going back to what it used to be like, which was more homogeneous and maybe too comfortable. If Vassar feels unsettled these days, that’s a sign to me that the Vassar community is doing the hard work to evolve. Our times demand nothing less, right? There’s more to be done, and Vassar is by no means a perfect institution, but over nineteen years I feel it’s been moving in the right direction.
The Misc: Do you have any ongoing research projects happening at the moment? If so, please elaborate!
Nevarez: Yes! This month I’m launching a survey project to measure household food insecurity in the city of Poughkeepsie. This involves people fanning out across the city to randomly assigned addresses, knocking on their doors and administering a 40-question structured interview to residents about food access, shopping preferences, food choices and food security situations. If anyone is interested in helping us survey residents, or can think of student groups or classes that would want to take part, please contact me at lenevarez[at]vassar.edu. The survey will continue through the following academic year, but this month there are “survey day” events scheduled for Saturday the 7th, 14th, and 21st, when people can just show up at 10:00 am, get trained in survey methods, and then hit the streets with a list of addresses to visit. Go to the “Survey Days: Poughkeepsie Community Food Assessment” Facebook page to sign up.
The Misc: What is one text you wish all Vassar students would read?
Nevarez: David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism.
The Misc: Lastly, where do you see yourself 20 years from now?
Nevarez: Still taking students out into Poughkeepsie and the Hudson Valley, I hope.