In this Q&A, meet Kerwin Kaye, assistant professor of sociology.
Q: Welcome to Wesleyan, Professor Kaye! Please catch us up on your life up to the present.
A: I grew up in Denver, Colo., and yes, I did learn to ski. My academic interests have transformed significantly, given that I began my university education with the idea of double-majoring in physics and philosophy. I wound up at CU-Boulder working on a crisis hotline and obtaining a BA in psychology. After that I moved to San Francisco, pursuing an MA in anthropology at San Francisco State University, where I conducted ethnographic research on male street prostitution. In 2001, I moved to the East Coast, obtaining a Ph.D. in Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. My master’s work concerning street prostitution pressed me toward the issue of drug use (nearly everyone on the street was using drugs of some sort), and also towards the question of institutional responses to street poverty. For my doctoral dissertation, I did a participant-observational study of drug courts and drug treatment within the criminal justice system (topics that brought me closer to some of the core issues and methodologies of sociology as a discipline). I still retain interests in physics and philosophy, and am grateful to have been exposed to a variety of intellectual traditions.
Q: How did you come to teach at Wesleyan? Is it true that you were previously a visiting professor here?
A: I was indeed a visiting professor here four years ago, and enjoyed the experience enormously. At the risk of pandering, I’d have to say that the enthusiasm and intelligence of the students here were huge factors that made me want to return.
Q: Please describe your research interests.
A: At present I am engaged in three projects. My primary project involves reworking my dissertation on drug courts and turning it into a book (tentatively titled “Using Drugs” and to be published in the Public Criminology series with Columbia University Press). I am also collaborating with about a dozen other scholars on a group research project in which we are attempting to reflect upon our individual projects in developing a larger framework concerning the direction of gender and sexuality within the contemporary economic environment. I also just finished writing a paper about the exclusion of men and boys from the sex trafficking discourse, using the exclusion of men as a way to talk about the narrowly gendered vision of “sex trafficking” as a frame, and arguing that a less melodramatic vision of the challenges faced by sex workers is needed. There are simply very few people who need to be rescued from sex traffickers, and prioritizing “sex trafficking” makes the important issues we should actually be confronting practically invisible.
Q: I see you’ve published a number of papers on male prostitution. How did you become interested in this subject, and what specifically did you study?
A: I had been interested in the politics of sex work for some time, and saw that most of the debates centered around street prostitution (just as today they focus on “sex trafficking”). I wanted to develop a better understanding as to what was happening on the street, so I began what turned into a year’s worth of ethnographic study, living for a short time in one of the local hotels used by the street workers, but mostly working through a small harm reduction agency in the area that handed out food, clothes, condoms, and needles for injecting drugs. My research focused specifically on the non-sexual aspects of street prostitution – I was curious about the everyday lives that people were living more than the sex as such. Basically, it was something of a crash course in issues of urban poverty among street populations. To me, the issue of street prostitution must be understood within that broader context rather than having the issue of sex narrowly define the questions.
Q: You’ve also written about addiction and criminal justice. Please describe your research in this area.
A: I conducted more than a year’s worth of ethnographic study looking at the way “drug courts” work (people avoid jail time by undergoing drug treatment that is supervised by these courts). I especially focused on the treatment centers that the courts send people to, a topic where there’s been very little research. I began by looking at the way that “addiction” gets defined by the various people and organizations involved: How do you know if someone is getting “better” if they’re living in a treatment center and are not presently using drugs? Do the different agencies agree upon a common vision of addiction and of treatment, and how do the people going through the programs understand these issues? Over time, I saw many practices at the treatment centers that I thought were very abusive. Apparently getting better from addiction requires being yelled at and shamed a great deal — to me it seemed that “tough love” is more tough than loving. More than that, I saw that “addiction” was being defined in terms of classed and gendered behaviors. Basically, the move from “addiction” to “sobriety” was defined as a shift from the street-oriented hustling that I had seen in the male prostitution study into normative forms of work, sex, and family life. In terms of employment, people were made to subordinate themselves within the lowest strata of the formal economy as a sign of sobriety; this included explicit instruction in how to accept abusive behavior from one’s boss, and how to emotionally cope with the tedium of much low-wage labor. Behaviors associated with the improvisational and often dangerous nature of street life were shamed as unworthy parts of a “drugs lifestyle” while acceptance of labor market injustices was defined as “emotional maturity.” Some of the people going through the program were glad to have a chance to get included in mainstream life, even at the bottom, but others thought the treatment center was simply another type of prison. And no one liked being yelled at and shamed by the staff.
Q: Please tell us about the courses you’re teaching this semester. What do you plan to teach in the future?
A: This semester I am teaching Introduction to Sociology and Sociology of Crime and Punishment. Next semester I’ll be teaching Sociological Theory and Sociology of Sexualities. I’m still thinking about what I might teach next year, but perhaps a course specifically on Critical Social Theories. At some point I will no doubt offer a course on drugs and addiction as well….
Q: How would you describe your teaching style?
A: I approach my classes with limited amounts of lecture and a greater focus on discussion. I usually have an agenda regarding a few points that I want to make sure get made during the class, but beyond that I much prefer open-ended conversations that take us to unexpected places in addressing student concerns. There are usually a few movies or videos thrown in for good measure as well…
Q: What are you most looking forward to about working at Wesleyan?
A: I am very happy to be here. My colleagues are great, and the students are even better! I especially appreciate the classroom dynamics that can get established when students are already interested in a topic and are essentially demanding that I teach them everything I know – it’s hardly an environment in which I confront a classroom of passive and bored students!
Q: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
A: Walks and hikes in nature are perennial favorite activities for me. And, though geeky, I admit to also being an aficionado of science fiction.