Michaela Soyer is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and a first-generation scholar. Her current work focuses on delinquency, incarceration, recidivism and social theory. She has also conducted research about resistance in oppressive regimes. Her books include A Dream Denied: Incarceration, Recidivism, and Young Minority Men in America, and Lost Childhoods: Poverty, Trauma, and Violent Crime in the Post-Welfare Era. She is currently working on her third book with UC Press, which compares the U.S. and the German justice systems and is supported by our FirstGen Program.
Tell us about your journey to your current position as an Associate Professor of Sociology at Hunter College. What motivated you to become an academic, and to focus on the areas of incarceration and recidivism?
Before I went to graduate school in Chicago, I worked as a journalist. I really enjoyed writing but as a journalist you constantly have to think about how to sell a story. In contrast, academia seemed to be the kind of place that allowed for a deep engagement with theoretical ideas, without having to think about advertisers, readership, and revenue. I think I was very naïve back then. I just enjoyed the process of understanding that unfolds when we can deeply immerse ourselves into a course of study.
I figured that the best way to sustain this kind of intense learning was to pursue a PhD. When I began my studies at the University of Chicago, I took a lot of theory classes. I was always interested in the connection between agency and structure and in how people act under extreme circumstances. I stumbled into criminology coincidentally. I was looking for a field site that would allow me to observe how people cope with extreme deprivation and that is when I began to focus on incarceration and poverty as a prime example.
What was the process like to publish your first book, A Dream Denied: Incarceration, Recidivism, and Young Minority Men in America? What helped you the most along the way?
I was very lucky that my friend and mentor Andrea Leverentz introduced me to my editor Maura Roessner. Andrea shared her book proposal with me and encouraged me as I was struggling to manage writing, teaching, children and so forth. That personal connection really meant a lot to me, especially because writing can be a very isolating experience.
Like many people in the academia, imposter syndrome was a real issue for me. I think especially as a first-gen scholar I felt like I did not belong. My “habitus” was and probably still is off. I felt that I was not “polished” enough to smoothly navigate meeting editors and presenting my work at conferences. I had to “sell” my stories again and that made me very uncomfortable. Meeting Maura was fantastic because she allowed me to be open about my fears of failure, the anxiety about not being “good” enough. I did not have to project a false competence. Instead, I could be honest about my shortcomings as a writer and scholar. With Maura I have always had a sense that the book is a work in progress that will be improved through the review and editing process.
Your forthcoming book, tentatively titled The Price of Freedom, is being published through our Luminos Open Access program. What made you decide to pursue open access?
I think open access is extremely important, especially if we want to reach students who are first-generation college students. Many students at Hunter college where I teach struggle to pay for their education. Books are expensive and giving students access to high quality material for free is important.
I also want to be realistic. I am not producing bestsellers, and publishing open access allows me to reach an audience that might not buy a niche academic book. Someone who is not working in my field may start reading my work if they can download it at no cost. If the goal is to contribute to an open discourse of ideas, open-access publishing is the way to go, in my opinion.
As an accomplished author of two well-reviewed books and another forthcoming, what advice do you have for other first-generation scholars who may still be starting out?
The main thing is to get over the imposter syndrome that we are all struggling with. It is important to just write, to put something on paper that can be later revised. First, second and even third drafts do not have to be perfect. Writing is more a struggle against self-doubt and anxiety than anything else.
What does supporting first-gen scholars mean to you?
For me, supporting first-gen scholars means creating an awareness that first-gen scholars continue to pay price for their academic career even if they have “won the lottery” and snatched a tenure track position. For example, I had to go into debt to pay for childcare when I started my job at Hunter College. First-generation scholars do not have the kind of financial cushion that an upper-middle class upbringing provides. That means first gen scholars may not be able to ever own a home. They may feel like they cannot afford to have children, etc. In the meantime, their peers from upper-middle class background never have to confront the choice between having a fulfilling academic career and financial security.