Mary Scherer

Sociology professors often ask students to look at society with fresh eyes, to question some of the taken-for-grantedness that comes from being immersed in it. Students are often asked to imagine they are visiting this society for the first time, and to make analytic observations. For me, this was relatively easy: I was raised in intentional communities, designed as alternatives to mainstream society, and founded on ideals that were sometimes at odds with the outside world, such as social interdependence. When I was first exposed to sociology in college, my eyes were fresh by default, and my observation skills were already fully activated as I adapted to life outside community.  To this day, my unconventional background benefits me as a sociologist, continually stoking my curiosity about the social world and keeping my observation skills sharp.

Today, my research specialty is social inequality in higher education, with a particular interest in public higher education. As a first-generation college student, I was attuned to the subtle ways inequality can be maintained even after access to college (traditionally the most significant source of inequality) has been achieved. I began to take note of the ways cultural background shaped students’ approach to academics, with some approaches associated with greater rewards than others. Prior to graduate school, public education was unfamiliar territory, so I once again benefited from fresh eyes. I was especially curious about the experiences of students at ‘regular’ colleges and universities since little sociological research on them existed (most studies focus on elite institutions). In my current work, I analyze how the impact of class background varies by institutional context, such as between large research-focused universities and smaller student-focused universities.

My research and teaching are mutually reinforcing. My data help me to understand what I can do, as an educator, to minimize inequities among my students. In turn, my day-to-day experiences in the classroom keep me acutely aware of how students navigate college academics, keeping my research relevant and better-positioned to affect change on a larger scale.  

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