Valerie Jenness, Ph.D. ‘91 continues her work for the University of California as a senior leader at UC Irvine. Valerie, who received her Ph.D. from UCSB in Sociology, is now the Acting Vice Provost for Academic Planning and Institutional Research at the University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Professor of Criminology, Law and Society as well as Sociology (by courtesy) in the School of Social Science and Nursing Science (by courtesy) in the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing.
Professor Jenness is the author of four books, including, most recently, Appealing to Justice: Prisoner, Grievances, Rights, and Carceral Logic (with Kitty Calavita, University of California Press). Her work on prostitution, hate crime, prison violence, transgender prisoners, and prison grievance systems has been honored with awards from the American Sociological Association, American Society of Criminology, the Society for the Study of Social Problems, the Pacific Sociological Association, the Law and Society Association, the Western Society of Criminology, and Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America. Professor Jenness is an award-winning teacher and mentor, having received the American Society of Criminology’s Outstanding Teaching Award and UCI’s Academic Senate’s Distinguished Faculty Award for Teaching.
In this Alumni Spotlight Q&A, Dr. Jenness shares how she initially chose UCSB for graduate school, her current project that enables incarcerated individuals to earn a bachelors degree, and why some of the best sociologists are disguised as comedians.
What drew you originally to UC Santa Barbara to pursue a Ph.D. in Sociology?
I lived in California earlier in my life, out in the Mojave desert — in Rosamond and Palmdale —the sorts of small Western towns that many people have never heard of. From there, I moved to Washington state and, for many reasons, wanted to come back to California. For me, the draw was to the Golden State more than a particular UC campus. So the question became “which UC school?” I recall that when it came time to apply to graduate schools, I needed to take a look. I knew very little about graduate school, other than from various folks — including an undergraduate professor of mine — who encouraged me to go to graduate school. I was coming from a regional state school in Washington and I didn't have the kind of cultural capital that bestows all the things you probably should think about when choosing a grad school.
I literally drove down the state and stopped at all of the UC schools, from north to south, I just pulled into each campus and walked around, probably believing that I had some way of systematically assessing what campus would be best. Each UC campus is, of course, impressive. When I came to UC Santa Barbara, it struck me as a beautiful campus, with the mountains and the ocean surrounding it. I liked that it was close to LA, but not in LA. I liked the feel of the campus. And there was a very famous criminologist in the Sociology department at the time by the name of Donald Cressey. And I thought that was pretty cool. I had read a textbook by him as an undergraduate and thought “Oh, Donald Cressey is here”. Not that I knew what it meant to work with somebody famous like him. Not that he had agreed to work with me. As I look back on it, I didn’t have a clue about how to think about faculty and how to work with them as a graduate student.
After my “grand tour” I did a little research and learned that the Sociology department was (and is) nationally ranked. I can't remember the specifics of the rankings. But I knew it enjoyed a really wonderful reputation—and it still does! But so too did a lot of the other Sociology departments in the UC, so I don't know if that was dispositive. I don't recall meeting people and having any profound moments when I visited the place. I just walked around the campus and thought, well, this would be a good place to live. It was also a good place to have lunch. I recall a wonderful place called “Freebirds” — with great burritos — in Isla Vista.
So you're at UC Santa Barbara starting graduate school. Can you walk us through your research at UC Santa Barbara, and were there any professors or colleagues that stand out during your time, perhaps Donald Cressey whom you mentioned?
Donald Cressey retired shortly after I arrived. I was a TA for him a couple of times and enjoyed that very much, but I never worked with him on research. That was okay. There were lots of wonderful professors there — and there still are. It’s a fabulous Sociology department. The four faculty with whom I worked most closely on my dissertation committee were Beth Schneider, Sarah Fenstermaker, William Bielby and Tamotsu Shibutani. They were all incredible — in general and to me in particular. I had a very eclectic dissertation committee. If you look up those folks, they profile in very different ways.
And I think in a very real sense that was the gift of Sociology at UC Santa Barbara: that someone like me who did not have the kind of background that predicts success — including, for example, that cultural capital I mentioned earlier — might benefit from having a department like that, where I could work with four senior scholars who are very different, each with unique contributions to make the field and to my training. And that was just what I needed. I had a wonderful time because I just gravitated to people who I connected with, who were clearly very smart and accomplished, and were ready and willing to help me with what I wanted to do — not just in their particular specialties. While I was there, from 1985-91, it was a pretty smooth ride from arriving to Master's to PhD to first job.
So I'm one of those students who feels very well served by that department and certainly the campus. I mean, it was no fun being a poor student in a place like Santa Barbara; it’s an expensive town to live in. I had bumps and bruises personally along the way, but in terms of my “professional” life, it was a good run. I learned how to be a graduate student, which included learning to take advantage of all the campus has to offer, and I taught my first undergraduate courses, including on deviance (using Sarah Fenstermaker’s lecture notes!), and published my first major article while there, which launched my career. I’m forever grateful for that — that UCSB provided me with an environment to “learn and launch,” as I call it.
I wrote a dissertation on the prostitutes’ rights movement, which became the basis for my first book, From Sex as Sin to Sex as Work. Basically, it interrogated a social movement committed to decriminalizing sex work by moving away from seeing it as a kind of sexual matter and towards a work relations and labor matter. I thought it was pretty interesting that an organization called COYOTE, which stands for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, was pursuing such legal reform. I was interested in the people behind the movement, the legal reform, and how the politics of sexuality and social control relate to it. It was a social movements dissertation with a focus on the status and welfare of women, particularly women who are marginalized, violence against women and women's work, and organized efforts to incite social change. I've often wondered if I could have done that kind of dissertation anywhere else. Because it wasn't a conventional topic and far from a conventional treatment; indeed, some advised against this particular topic and focus. I got the dissertation done with a lot of help from those folks I just mentioned and we did so in a way that set the stage for me to publish my first book.
Coincidentally, a few years later, I got a call from someone at UCSB who let me know that I had received the Donald R. Cressey Award from the department for that work. So, it came full circle. I give Santa Barbara a lot of credit for not only educating me and training me —- they really did do that — but also positioning me for a kind of career that I couldn't even have imagined, couldn't even have thought about it. I mean when I was growing up a good career was, in my mind, consistent work that paid well and didn't leave blisters on your hands or dirt under your nails. I credit UC Santa Barbara with providing an inflection point in my life that really propelled my career and enhanced my life. That is an incredible gift and one for which I will always be grateful. The faculty with whom I worked were key, and I recognize this kind of gift is a campus effort. And if there were one quote for the grad division, it would be “Thank you for the gift that keeps on giving.”
Since your time at UC Santa Barbara, you have continued to do a lot of research on prostitution, hate crimes, prison violence, and correctional policy and practice. What drew you to study these marginalized populations?
I went from studying the prostitutes’ rights movement to various kinds of legal formations around hate crime. Ryken Grattet, another UCSB Sociology alum (who is now chair of sociology at UC Davis), and I have written about such formations in a book and series of articles. This work centers on the notion of particular crimes being motivated by bias or hate — hate crimes — and are thus worthy of enhanced penalties. It is a modern legal invention that has been institutionalized in criminal justice in the U.S. and elsewhere. Working on that research was wonderful for so many reasons, including the fact that I enjoy working with Ryken and credit him with making me a better sociologist, the work was timely, and it found a home in both academe and policy circles. While finishing up that work, I got interested in the interior of prisons in California, and I studied things like prison violence, in particular sexual assault, and a non-violent conflict dispute mechanism called “the inmate appeals system” in California prisons.
For me, what's interesting about all these topics is they really speak to our relationship to the state and our relationship to law, and they speak to the structure and workings of marginalization and inequality. I'm interested in the intersection between the law, the state, and inequality. How we divide and hierarchically arrange ourselves, and the way the law plays a role in that — a very powerful role — is not only interesting sociologically, but it is also extremely important because it shapes people’s lives and more specifically their life chances. So much hangs in the balance of this socially constructed social organization.
The topics I have studied are what others have called “gritty subjects”. Sometimes when I teach about my work in class or give public lectures about my work, it's upsetting to people. For example, when I teach or lecture about sexual assault of transgender women in prisons for men in California and elsewhere, I quote directly from some of the people we interviewed to understand their experiences. I often share statistical and qualitative data that people find upsetting. And why do I study that? Because I find it particularly illuminating when I want to understand the most basic social processes of stratification, gender, sexuality, marginalization, and social control. These are core sociological concerns. Equally important, I want to make sure people—indeed entire audiences, including public policy audiences — hear the voices of others who are so often rendered invisible through the very social processes that lead to their marginalization and attendant injury. So, yes, it’s not pretty. But, it’s real and it really matters.
You were recently honored with a Distinguished Faculty Award for teaching at UC Irvine. Can you walk us through what makes a truly exceptional teacher and how do you hope to inspire other faculty that may not see teaching as critical as their other roles?
It means a lot when your peers decide that you're the person they want to officially and publicly say “good job” to. So that award means a lot to me. It means a lot because it is bestowed by UCI’s divisional academic senate, which represents the faculty — my peers. It means a lot because they give just one award per year and in any given year there are lots of great teachers on my campus to choose from. And it means a lot because teachers and teaching matters. They matter because our students matter.
As I mentioned earlier, for me education is an unbelievable gift that keeps giving. And as I once wrote in a published bio, it is the debt I can never repay. I just can't. But what I can do is keep making payments. So I think about what I do now — as an educator in general and a classroom teacher and mentor in particular — as making payments. Some people use the verbiage, pay it forward. I don't use that because, to my ear, it sounds like a one-time thing. I think of myself as making payments on this incredible gift and a debt I can't repay. And I try to keep that front and center when I teach, especially during the pandemic when remote teaching was difficult for students and faculty alike.
By the way, when I'm at my best teaching, I'm learning the most. Because I like learning, and I learn lots from my students, I have a clear self-interest in this part of my job! There’s nothing like 400 students in front of me to teach me something, to teach me lots of things, beginning with their point of view and including rightfully placed critiques of what I can easily take for granted. I enjoy being provoked to think “Wow, where'd that come from?” So my teaching begins with this sense of debt, travels through my employer’s mission, and often ends with my own learning. But, of course, it never ends. It’s an endless rich dialogue and I appreciate having that conversation in my life.
Three final comments on teaching: First, I often say to people keep in mind that every student in front of you is somebody's child. Whether they're in the back row, the front row, in your office hours or elsewhere, that's someone's child and we owe someone's child a lot. Second, over the years, I’ve learned lots about pedagogy. A few years ago, I learned a great deal by enrolling in UCI’s Learning Institute and, as a result, reinvented myself as a classroom teacher. Now, I’m more attentive to setting the stage for engaged learning and embracing best practices related to inclusionary teaching. Last Winter I taught an Introduction to Criminology, Law and Society course to 400 undergraduate students and I was privileged to engage with a wonderfully diverse section of our student body. As such, you can imagine that they have very diverse relationships to the topic of crime, law, criminal justice and the like. We do a section on law enforcement and policing. We do a section on courts and judicial decision-making. We do a section on punishment and corrections. To me, now, the thrill of teaching is figuring out how I can master active learning. Because, at this stage in my career, I believe that's how people learn. And now I routinely ask: how can I do it with inclusionary teaching? These are my central questions. Third, let me say this: There is a quote from Nelson Mandela that I use a lot: “Education is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world.” Very telling words from this hero of mine who paid an incredible price to change the world, an incredible price. I think when I look at people like Nelson Mandela, and I read a quote like that, I can spend a little time on active learning and inclusionary teaching. It's the least I could do.
Your academic and public service records reveal a long history of work to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. Most recently, I see you’re working on a program to ensure students in a California prison have a pathway to earn a BA in sociology from UCI.
Yes, diversity, equity, and inclusion are imperative. Why? UC has to serve the state of California and that includes looking like the State; excellence in research and education and DEI go hand-in-hand — in my mind, you can’t accomplish one without the other; and it’s just the right thing to do — commitments to justice require it. As we lived through the pandemic over the last year plus, so much disparity was laid bare. For me, that was yet another reminder of the necessity to fulfill our lofty promises about diversity, equity, and inclusion in our institutions and in our lives.
Thanks for asking about what I’m working on now. Right now I’m on a leadership team with my colleagues here at UCI — including my colleagues Kermet Reiter, Carroll Seron, and Pavan Kadandale — that has been working to “launch LIFTED.” LIFTED stands for Leveraging Inspiring Futures Through Educational Degrees and is a demonstration project that will enroll incarcerated undergraduate students in a BA-degree program in Sociology through UCI. We’ve been working on this for a few years and we recently enjoyed a public signing ceremony at which the UCI Chancellor and the Secretary of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation signed a MOU in support of this program. At that ceremony, we were pleased to announce the endorsement of the program by Michael Drake, President of the University of California. When we admit our inaugural cohort of students into this new program, it will be a milestone in the history of higher education in the state of California.
This is an exceptionally meaningful project for me because it ties together my scholarship, teaching and mentoring, and administrative and service work; and it manifests my passion for delivering on higher education’s many promises about diversity, equity, and inclusion. If all goes well, it will make history and put UC on the map in terms of larger trends in higher education that speak to including people who are incarcerated in the promise of higher education transforming lives and communities. It's a real passion project for me because it brings together two institutions with which I am very familiar: the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the University of California. Together this program enables them to partner to extend access to higher education and afford some of the most disadvantaged people in our state the opportunity to benefit from all that higher education affords; and it does so in an era in which the ravages of mass incarceration demand redress. The California’s Master Plan for Higher Education says we should serve anyone, any place. Okay. There's some people, there's a place, let's serve them. Doing so is long overdue and I’m so proud my campus is out in front to provide a pathway to a BA for those who are incarcerated. My hope is other campuses join in, including UCSB!
For more information on UCI’s LIFTED program, click here.
I understand that you are a big fan of stand-up comedy. Who are your favorite comedians and why?
I do love good stand up.
I was recently reminded of one reason I love stand-up comedy when I was watching an interview with Mo’Nique, an academy award-winning actor (for her role in the film Precious) and one of my favorite stand-up comics. She was asked if she ever feels pressure to do comedy that is “politically correct” or apologize for things she’s said on stage. Her response was something like this: “No, because in my humble opinion, comedy is the universe’s medicine. Oftentimes we say what you want to, but you’re too afraid to because you don’t know what kind of reaction you’ll get. The gift we [comics] have been given is the gift of truth.” She went on to describe what she does on stage as a stand-up comic as much-needed truth-telling about which she can’t engage in second guessing or appeasement. To do so would, in her view, dishonor the gift that has been given to her: truth-telling. I should mention that a few years ago I went to see Mo’Nique live at The Improv in Brea and about halfway into her show, as I sat in the front row laughing hysterically, she called me out and engaged with me one-on-one. I was mortified, but of course I loved it.
Love and mortification aside, I appreciate so-called observational comedy that speaks to some truths about us, our communities, our societies, and the human condition writ large. For me, some of the best stand-up comedy is some of the best sociology. Observant. Insightful. Provocative. Informative. When done well, stand-up comedy makes me think (always a good thing), laugh (always a good thing), and bond with others (always a good thing).
So, yes, I’m a fan of those who say something that I sense is truth, even as I can’t — or won’t —say it because of my own inhibitions. Stand-up comics like Richard Pryor, who Rolling Stone deemed the best stand-up comic of all time a few years ago, Lily Tomlin, George Carlin, and some younger ones like Dave Chappelle, Kathleen Madigan, Jim Gaffigan, and Michelle Buteau (who I just learned about a year or so ago) are great social commentators. They — and surely others — really understand people, social structure, and the times in which we live; indeed, they render it apparent and point to the absurdity of it, or to the paradox of it, or to the irony of it. Lily Tomlin once said: “When I’m happy I feel like crying. But when I’m sad I don’t feel like laughing. I think it’s better to be happy: then you get two feelings for the price of one.” For me, there's something just uniquely restorative about going to a place for two hours where the sole purpose is to laugh with others. And as the pandemic winds down, that is what I look forward to doing.
For more information on Valerie and her teaching and research, click here.
For more information on UCI’s LIFTED program, click here.