One of the best ways to find out a university’s reputation is to ask the faculty that chose to invest their time and careers here. Dr. Ellen Whitehead, a recent PhD graduate from Rice University, is a new faculty member in Ball State’s Sociology department. She said,
“I really appreciated the emphasis on quality teaching here, I also liked how involved Ball State is in the community and with community partners here in Muncie. And that’s exactly the kind of environment I was hoping to be in.”
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Whitehead to discuss her research, first year teaching goals, and the complicated process of making soap.
What led to you studying Sociology?
It perhaps sounds a little cliché, but in my freshman year of college I just had an amazing sociology instructor. I started at a community college and really didn’t know what direction I wanted to go in and just had an awesome instructor that was super energetic and passionate about the topic. I think it really conveyed to me just how much of an impact having someone like that in the classroom can have on students. Up through undergrad and through grad school I had some really supportive mentors and faculty and I think it made me really passionate about the idea of teaching.
What is your research focus?
I primarily focus on family sociology, race and ethnicity, and stratification. At a more specific level I’m really interested in the resources that extended family members transfer to and from one another as a way to make ends meet. This is sometimes referred to as the private safety net. Within that I’m interested in how this becomes a sphere of inequality based on what family members have to give, and the inequalities that emerge from that along racial or class lines.
In my beginning course work I was interested, in the topics of race and ethnicity and housing inequality. I began to realize that there was a lot more research to be done on how family connections play a role in that. People often make decisions about where to live or where they can live based on proximity to family members, what kind of support they might have from family members. So, you often hear stories where someone was able to buy a house because they got a loan from their parents for a down payment. I just felt like overall there was a lot more that could be done to understand the role of family in structuring housing and neighborhood outcomes. Then I became interested in how access to family members with resources and having networks in place where you do have those relationships with family to provide those resources, how that can shape exposure to, or protection from, disadvantage.
In terms of teaching, what are some of your goals for your first year here? What are you most excited about?
I think a big goal for this first year is just getting to know Ball State better, getting to know the students better, and just getting a little bit more connected with the campus and Muncie community. I am teaching a class on family and society this semester, which I am really excited to teach. It’s something I haven’t taught before, but I really like the topic and I’m enjoying that.
Another thing that I’m hoping to get more involved with is working with students on research projects. Something that I care a lot about is exposing students to the research process. I think I might work toward that with some of my current research projects, figuring out ways of bringing students on board if they are interested.
What are some of your hobbies/non-academic interests?
Outside of work and school and all that, I enjoy doing crafting. I enjoy making some things that have a more practical use. I make soap and candles and that’s been an interesting experience. Especially with the soap, because there is a whole chemical process involved with making it. So, it took me a little bit of time to get into it, but I enjoy doing that. Beyond that my husband and I really enjoy hiking and camping, we are hoping to do some backpacking this coming summer, maybe figure out some areas in this region that we could explore some more.
We also have two cats, so I really enjoy just hanging out them. Their names are Abri and Merle. The name Merle always makes me think of the Walking Dead, he’s a really evil character but has that redemption.