Five Questions with Ryan Hagen

(February 2024)

Ryan Hagen joined the department as a PhD student in 2011, became a postdoctoral research scholar in 2019, and was appointed Lecturer in 2021. He recently received the Excellence and Commitment to Teaching Award from the Division of Social Science here at Columbia. In celebration of this achievement, we're excited to feature Ryan in the second installment of our "Five Questions" series. Read his answers to our questions below!

Ryan Hagn

How has your teaching evolved since you were first a TA here in the department? What advice would you give to your past self with respect to teaching?

I've come to think that building a course is like writing a book. You have a cohesive argument you're trying to make, there's a narrative structure that unfolds over the semester with its hooks and puzzles and even little cliffhangers along the way that keep everyone engaged, and by the end you've all travelled somewhere intellectually that you couldn't have gotten to without doing the work of the course, weighing the evidence, allowing yourself to be transformed by the argument. And like writing a book, teaching a course requires a deep respect and empathy for your audience.

Where the book metaphor breaks down, wonderfully, is that in teaching a class you're interacting with your readers continuously. You're co-creating the thing as you go. Especially as a TA just starting out, you have a tendency -- or at least I had a tendency -- to get nervous and caught up in trying to project authority and expertise. That's natural, I guess, since as a grad student you're in this state of always confronting all the vastness of your relative ignorance while trying to maintain a performance of competence and self-assuredness. But really what you've got to do is let down your guard a bit and bring your students along as partners in the process of discovering something new about the texts you're reading and the techniques of inquiry you're trying to master.

What is your favorite lesson or material to teach? Why?

Early on in my Social Theory class I have the students look at Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergère" and together we use it to reconstruct Marx's theory of alienation. It's a fantastic painting. A woman stands behind a bar, and as you look more closely you see that behind her is a large mirror reflecting the nightclub where she's working. In the reflection, we see the woman talking with a customer off to the side, a man in a goatee and top-hat. But there's a disconnect. If we move from the reflection to the woman's face, we see she's not looking off to the side at the customer, she's looking straight ahead at us, with this lost expression. She's disassociating -- while she's at work, she's just another commodity behind the bar, like the bottles of beer and the dish of oranges laid out front of her. She's laboring to produce this world of the nightclub that she cannot partake in, a scene that is arrayed against her as an alien force. Talking through the painting helps students get inside this idea of alienated labor. It's also something they can relate to, apart from all Marx's talk about bolts of cloth and the mephitic breath of the factory. In the 21st century service economy we instantly recognize the expression on this woman's face! So using this painting to anchor the conversation lets us talk also about Hochschild's concept of emotional labor. It's a great deal of fun as a lesson, and then we go outside the classroom and see this face everywhere we look -- and of course from time to time we wear it ourselves. That's the idea, to put these old ideas in touch with the students' everyday lived experience.

Some of the best assignments are the ones that resonate with students in ways I didn't expect. In The Social World, introducing social structure, I assign this slightly unusual pairing of readings: Granovetter's "Strength of Weak Ties," alongside a paper by Anjanette Chan Tack and Mario Small, "Making Friends in Violent Neighborhoods." The Granovetter piece is a classic of course, and I think it's important for students to actually read the text, since the idea of weak ties has leaked out of the academy and picked up all kinds of distortions in popular culture that they'll likely encounter first. In the popular consciousness it becomes this very anodyne thing about how important acquaintances are to getting a job, or how important it is to have small talk with your barista. But it's so much more than that! Among other things there's this whole section where Granovetter speculates about how network structure might influence political efficacy on the community level, and that in this case in the West End of Boston, a lack of bridging ties may have doomed the community's fight against urban renewal. Well, this sets the students up to think about Matt Desmond's work on network ties and political efficacy in impoverished urban communities, and Sencha Medwinter's study of bridging and bonding capital in post-disaster recovery in the Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy, both of which we read later in the course.

But it's just as important to read Granovetter alongside Tack and Small, a study of the network structures and friendship strategies of elementary school students in violent, high-poverty Chicago neighborhoods. Their paper complicates our understanding of tie formation. In some conditions, children find they have to be very strategic about who they become friends with and how deep those friendships go, and this can have effects that last well into their adult lives, with consequences for the reproduction of inequality at the macro scale. From my students I got two different but complementary sets of very personal reactions to these readings. Some said they felt seen, because they'd grown up in violent neighborhoods themselves and had made friends in the ways described in this article, and they felt relieved to be able to put more general language to an experience they'd thought was more unique to them. Other students talked about how they'd grown up in privileged neighborhoods, had never considered what it would have been like to make friends as a kid in a high violence, low trust social context, and how much perspective they felt they'd gained from the reading. 

Mills writes about how sociology helps us link our personal troubles to social issues, but it's another thing to see students making that connection in real time, themselves.

Tell us about a teacher from any time in your life who made a particularly big impact on you. How have they influenced you inside and/or outside of the classroom?

I've learned so much from faculty in this department, both in terms of teaching and mentorship. But in my classroom teaching style my biggest influences are Cyrus Patell and Bryan Waterman, who taught me literature as an undergraduate at NYU. They were always experimenting with bringing different media into the classroom -- music, art, film, bits of ephemera from the city that helped us as students connect with the texts we were reading. And they gave these spellbinding lectures that made the material seem incredibly urgent, turning a remote text like White-Jacket into the perceptual key you realized you needed to decode the present world around you. I'm always trying to recapture that in my own teaching, and the days when I think I've managed to do it, those are the most rewarding sessions.

What research project(s) are you currently working on?

Right now I'm finishing the manuscript for my first book, a study of risk, disaster, and social change in New York City. It combines fieldwork I did with the city's emergency management agency with interviews from the pandemic oral history project I co-directed to explore how people and organizations navigate the practical problems of life in a world where history is no longer a reliable guide to the kinds of risks and disruptions we increasingly encounter. What practices do people and institutions use to reassure themselves of the constancy of the social and material environment around them in an unstable world? How are these practices shaped by their identities and social locations? How does variation in the ability to navigate an uncertain world influence inequality? 

Those questions are at the heart of all the work I'm doing. I've got a few papers drawing on the pandemic research, one with Denise Milstein about the repair work that people undertook to make their way through the crisis of the Covid lockdowns, and another about how material objects and people stabilize each others' identities. 

Drawing on the lessons of pandemic research and my earlier work on disaster risk management, I'm designing a project about how people are adapting to climate change in their everyday lives. We sometimes think about climate change as a set of punctuated events: this hurricane was supercharged by climate change, or that wildfire wouldn't have been as intense without a drier, hotter climate. Or we think about it as a crisis of expertise: do we believe the people who say climate change is happening, or the people who say that it isn't? But as the effects of the warming planet become more readily manifest, we're going to see slow, chronic stresses and transformations on a profound scale. How do people cope when their most important relationships with people, organizations, and elements of the "natural" world are upended by departures from expected climatic norms? When you have to shift outdoor work to the nighttime because it's too hot during the day, or when you have to retreat from a neighborhood because of chronic flooding?

How do you like to spend your time when you're not teaching or working on research?

I'm never happier than when I'm on a bike, whether it's exploring New York or taking a long ride in the countryside, or on my Peloton (#TeamLovewell). I also love reading fiction -- on my nightstand right now are Kaveh Akbar's Martyr and The Maniac by Benjamín Labatut. I spend a lot of time with my kids, who are 7 and 9 years old. We listen to records and play soccer and got really deep into Wingspan, a board game about birds and ecosystems.


Congratulations on the award, Ryan!