Remembering Erving Goffman

Carol Brooks Gardner:
I Don’t Have Words Enough to Describe Goffman’s Generosity

Carol Brooks Gardner, Professor of Sociology at the Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, wrote this memoir at the invitation of Dmitri Shalin and gave her approval for posting the present version in the Erving Goffman Archives.  The answers were received on December 3, 2008.

[Posted 12-03-08]

  Do you recall the impression that Goffman’s ideas made on you when you discovered his writings? 

A.  Vividly.

When first reading Goffman as a 19-year-old undergrad, I felt galvanized. I had understood the significance of the everyday in social interaction before but had not known that there was a sociology in which its study was a legitimate topic. I had (and have) a progressive neuromuscular condition that affects even the smallest muscle movement, including such fine muscle movements as those needed to smile, nod, make eye contact, or draw a breath so that one might speak audibly, to larger muscle activity needed reliably promise someone (for example) that you were going to be someplace at some particular time. As you may imagine, all these characteristics set me up to be aware of the small points and possibilities of immediate social interaction and communication. I never had imagined any academics could be sensitive to these aspects of communication – much less that a social theory could be built on that sensitivity intellectually redacted. The sociology of Goffman changed my perception of academe.
Q.  What led you to Penn? 

A.  I was a partner in a freelance editing business in New York. In some sense (the financial sense was the most salient), it was rewarding; in other ways, it limited creativity in a way that, at the time, I couldn't see myself tolerating for long.

I chose to return to school, and to Penn in particular, only because Goffman was still teaching and because Penn was where he taught.

I wrote Goffman a letter asking if I could audit a class of his on social interaction. Buttressed by a recommendation from Sue Tripp, the letter was something of an application, a hopeful one, for I knew that Tripp had once written I was “the best undergraduate” she had taught – but that, of course, was in a field of undergraduates, not future professionals.

In his return letter, Goffman said that I'd be allowed to audit and that I'd write a paper in return. If the paper was satisfactory, he would see what he could do about getting me admitted to Penn.

I Amtrak’d in from Manhattan; audited the class; wrote a small exercise paper (Eviatar refers to it); and submitted a term paper at the end of the semester. Goffman saw that I was admitted to Penn and had a full ride that first year.

Q.  Did you choose this graduate program in part because Goffman was teaching there? 

A.  [See previous answer.]

Q.  You were in the sociology department while Goffman was not – did that complicate your communications?

A.  I'm assuming you mean my communications with Goffman touching on the sociology department: No. He was perfectly above board.

I also spent little time in the sociology department because Goffman made it clear from the start that he required me to take or to audit a long list of courses in other fields, principally folklore, Urban Studies, linguistics, and anthropology. I was also to keep up my foreign languages.
As for a prescription for communicating with Goffman about work, he set out rules that dovetailed pretty much with the way in which I worked anyway, and the way in which I wrote and had to work and write because of physical limitations. (This was, of course, long before the A.D.A., and few granted people with disabilities any accommodations, reasonable or not.)

Goffman said to suggest a topic I wanted to write on; to write; and to bring him the result – “I'm mainly an editor,” he said, which was fine with me (so was I), and he was both an able and an incredibly quick respondent when he received work – he read and critiqued one 80-page paper I wrote overnight, and another in the same span. 

(The system he outlined worked well for me, since I was only intermittently able to be out of bed and about and indeed to this day still have to read and write lying down: I could schedule observations as I chose for those “good days”; leave tasks of coding and transcribing for times when I was “down” or confined to bed; and write whenever I could. For other students his part in the design of this system might have seemed that of a disinterested teacher. For me it was the only system that would have been workable.)

I was to call Goffman, he said, whenever I had something for him to read, which I did, of course. I’d then mail it or give it to his editorial assistant, who saw him often. It’s probably a sign of what a momentous step it was in delivering any product to him that, while I’ve forgotten my own phone number in Philadelphia and my husband’s work number, I still clearly recall Goffman's (KI 5-4466). 

Q.  What impression did Erving make on you when you first met him? 

A.  I recall when I first saw him – I don’t know that I ever met him in the sense of a formal introduction.

The “first saw” part: The summer between my junior and senior year at Berkeley, Ervin-Tripp saw that I was invited to join a summer institute on sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, and anthropological linguistics for faculty and grad students, although I was an undergrad. Ervin-Tripp told me that every person of interest I’d studied would be there, and indeed they were: Basil Bernstein, Dell Hymes, John Gumperz, many other academics of note, and grad students who became academics of note – and Goffman.

His height would have to have made an impression on anyone. When I saw him for the first time, I recalled immediately that sentence in Stigma where he suggests that, when anyone enters a room, the person is expected to have certain basic physical characteristics, including being of a certain height. How many rooms must he have entered, I thought, when he was immediately aware of in some way having disappointed strangers’ expectations.
Q.  Anything stood out about his appearance and demeanor at that time and thereafter?

A.  Goffman was very cleancut that first time I saw him in 1968, far more so than many men Berkeley professors felt they had to be: The first day I saw him, he wore a moderately expensive summer suit of pressed khaki-colored pants with a crisp coordinating suit jacket, bright red sports shirt, his dark hair slicked back straight and cut conservatively, bright brown eyes, and a quick style of movement with tonus largely confined to the face and hands. All in all, he had the manner of someone very bright, perspicacious, and somewhat worried: He gave the impression of someone who knew his smarts would enable him to win the esteem of others if there were an even playing field – and who also knew enough to know that even Olympic playing fields have bumps if not deep ravines.

The next time I saw him after that summer was in the large (and hopeful) group of students of which Eviatar’s told you – like Eviatar, I made it into that class and others. The main thing that caught my attention when I saw him at Penn was that he seemed to have undergone the sartorial transformation that other men academics had also undergone by the 1970s: His dress featured Lee cords or khakis, there was a medium-wale olive cord suit I recall, often sand-colored Wallabies, less formal shirts (in particular, I remember multiple class days when he featured a certain shapeless long-sleeved black shirt that looked like it had been beaten to bits in a river on a primitive washing stone – if it had been an antique, you would have called it “distressed”). At that later time, his hair was worn “naturally,” or as we thought of nature in the 1970s: soft, without brilliantine so that the curl showed, beginning to gray. He also had bifocals, and no one could mistake how reluctant he was to don them when he had to do so. His demeanor seemed much like what I’d seen that summer in Berkeley: the smart-aleck kid, not without vulnerabilities, who thought he was the brightest boy in class – and just happened to be so.

You probably have enough stories (or legends, as they may be) of what’s reputed to be Goffman’s prankster self. They always remind me, in form and action, of some of the anthropological Raven-As-Trickster stories – they’re that predictable in portraying the Other as Decent Dupe, the Prankster as somewhat wily and unfair. Some of the best known of these have been in print for some time and you seem to have collected more, and, since they do follow a pattern, I don’t think I need add to them. In regard to women being featured as dupes or embarrassed by his public put-ons, which I’ve heard as part of the charge he was a misogynist – Well, Goffman may have been a misanthrope; I never knew him well enough personally to offer a qualified opinion. However, I do know he was unfailingly courteous to and supportive of me at a time when he needn’t have been – when there was simply nothing for him in it. If he believed in you, he stuck with you; he told me at one time that women were a lot better than men at noting the sorts of things he was interested in, and I suppose that was nice to hear – although I couldn't help but privately note to myself that neither Lyn Lofland nor Sherri Cavan had been rewarded by what should have been a grateful profession by being named a Franklin professor at Penn. I certainly know how much he thought of Lofland and Cavan, for he used their work as exemplifying what I should require of myself. I've also heard that he referred to Lofland, Cavan, and me variously as his "best student." That could disprove his misogyny--or it could invoke the picture of Goffman knowing we three had heard these contradictory evaluations and grinning at the thought of what we were to make of them
Q.  How did you find Goffman as a teacher, his lecturing style and grading habits?

A.  As a Franklin professor at Penn, Goffman really didn’t have to teach at all, so it’s always interesting when people say he was a horrible teacher or he taught only reluctantly. He certainly didn’t project the extroverted, relentlessly self-confidant speaker considered desirable as today’s baseline professor, and I do wonder if some who have been critical of Goffman’s teaching have forgotten that there are other sorts of teaching than in front of a podium or even in a classroom. I also wonder if people forget that, in order to commit to having Goffman’s sensitivity, you also commit to be being open in a way you can’t necessarily turn off at will, as much as you intend to hide it with intelligent, amusing, or even aggressive talk and manner: In public at least he was, more than anything, a man virtually without barrier or, if you will, without integument – does such a person not continue to be a sensitive when in front of a group of students?

I remember one lecture in front of that small class of grad students when he was speaking, with the surface brashness he often used, and inviting comments on one concept of his in Relations in Public. A student took him at his word and recited what he felt to be the shortfallings of the concept. When he’d finished, Goffman was silent for a moment, and then tears filled his eyes briefly and he said: “You know, it’s easy to criticize.” There was another brief silence – then he went on speaking. I’d seen other instances of his being simultaneously open and sensitive at the classroom podium.

As for outside of classroom teaching: It was always clear to me that, if it wasn’t Goffman’s purpose to teach in the spirit of Mark Hopkins on one end of that log with you, the lucky student, on the other, then he achieved that model anyway. After work was submitted and critiqued, he invited you to his house and would talk with you about what you had written for two, four, six hours. The same was true of phone conversations, if distance separated you and he, when working on the dissertation.

I don’t have words enough to describe his generosity. The academic world that was developing at the time he died was increasingly one in which the phrase “Ivory Towers” was uttered with the same intonation used when saying “Augean stables”; more than at any other point in the history of recent intellectual life in the university, it was then clear that institutions of higher learning were destined to work on the same principles and embracing the same values as advertising agencies marketing a perhaps questionable product or musical theatres looking for their Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Q.  What made you chose Goffman as a dissertation advisor?  Was he sympathetic to your sociological project, how did you settle on the research topic?

A.  I think I answered this, more or less, earlier. His subject matter, social interaction, was the only topic I’d ever thought of studying formally with enthusiasm and fascination, and Goffman was the only person to teach that topic. He told me, at several points when I was taking the endless list of courses he’d mapped out for me, that when I was finished with my coursework I was to suggest a topic. If he approved of it, he’d work with me as my advisor and accept me as a student. Up until then, he wasn’t my advisor and I wasn’t to call him so (I didn’t; if pressed, I always carefully said, “I study with Goffman”).

When I did suggest a topic that was near his liking, he said: “You’re going to do gender differences in public places.” It was pretty much what I had in mind too, although I didn’t want to restrict it to gender as a variable. The implication was clear, however: If you’d like to work with me as your advisor, you’ll be doing this project. I agreed. (After I finished the dissertation in August 1982 and, for Goffman, it was a matter of polishing the chapters to his liking, he told me it was now acceptable to call him by his first name. I never quite managed that and slipped once on the phone and called him “Dr. Goffman.” There was a silence, then he said: “You know, it’s interesting the meaning that formal address has once you’ve been told you needn’t use it.” I thought of a passage in his dissertation, also I believe in Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, when he speaks of Shetland locals who are told to call the visitor by his first name but persist in using title-plus-last-name. I said: “Yes. It’s a distancer.” He said, “So it is.”

Q.  Did Erving let you do your research without much interference?

A.  Yes, very much without interference once the topic was established. I lived in Los Alamos, New Mexico, when I finished my coursework. For many reasons – among them, the pleasure of getting away from life in Los Alamos, New Mexico – I wanted to use nearby Santa Fe for my participant observation. Goffman was enthusiastic about Santa Fe, which he knew as a ski resort. He told me to do a participant observation study (he reserved the term “ethnography” for studies where you lived fulltime in the place where you did fieldwork, and I follow this usage) for at least a year; classify my notes; sketch out chapters; and then get in touch with him. That is what I did, and his critiques on the chapters added more and more to their length, largely through his suggestions for gathering more and more fieldnotes on specific topics he believed I would need. We spoke every few months.

Then, fairly early in 1982, he phoned me – that in itself was very unusual – and asked me how far I’d gotten since we last spoke. We each had a 3-month-old daughter at the time and he knew I’d been bedridden for more than half of the previous year and the year before that too, and I remember I just laughed and said, “Since we last talked [a couple of months earlier]? Not far.” He said in a worried tone, “Well, you should hurry up. Just hurry up,” but nothing more. I agreed – but it was an odd call.

Not too long thereafter, I called him, asking for Dr. Goffman, and a voice I’d not heard answered the phone, and this phone voice was almost professionally modulated yet hesitant – I wondered if it was someone I didn’t officially know about, for example, his sister the actor – and the voice said carefully, “Right now he’s hard to get hold of. Would you like to leave your name and someone will call you back?” I did; someone called back; and that was how I learned he had a plasma cytoma. “But,” the person who called me said, “it’s not a really bad kind of cancer at all. His doctors said, “‘This isn’t what you’ll die of.’”

My husband, who overheard the call, was a scientific modeler of cancer processes of some repute, and, further, his medical training enabled him to understand exactly what was being conveyed by Goffman’s doctors, whether Goffman and his family understood it then or not. Overhearing us speaking, my husband clutched his head between his hands and muttered inaudibly to anyone but me: “Oh no. Of course it’s not what will kill him: The infections will kill him after he has chemotherapy.” It was an impossible conversation to continue, of course, and I rapidly ended it by assuring my interlocutor that I’d have my husband check to see if his colleagues at Sloan-Kettering had any drug or treatment trials that could be of use to Goffman; from my husband’s response I suspected the answer was no, as it turned out to be, and that the prognosis was grim, as it was.

My husband named, almost to the day, when Goffman would die, and told me other details of this type of cancer, at least as oncologists knew it in the early 1980s. I have no idea what Goffman knew or thought about his condition – I’ve heard some say he thought he’d be delivering the Presidential address at the next ASA meeting – but of course as someone who didn’t know him personally I behaved as if the recovery he seemed to foresee would indeed occur. For example, he had me buy a ticket for a plane trip to Philadelphia to come to the house and speak at length with him on a date that, from what I then knew from my husband, would be about a month after his death; and it was so.

Whenever I spoke to Goffman after I knew his diagnosis and when he was indulging in small games of having me change some term or other in the dissertation back and forth then back and forth again, or having me add “twice the amount you now have of fieldnotes” (my dissertation was 1,125 pages long) to little purpose but a control game, I couldn’t help but think that neither of us had this sort of time to waste.

Q.  Was he favoring a particular methodology, theoretical framework, research site?  Were there any major mid-course corrections?

A.  [Some of this answered earlier.] Corrections on minor points only, but those could (as you may imagine from the previous comment) were irritating ones that made me recall all the gamesmanship books I’d read (and that he’s actually noted in a Presentation of Self footnote, I think). He affected to be amazed, for example, that I’d not referenced a particular work on abnormalities of gaze, a reference without which my dissertation would doubtless be incomplete; this turned out to be a dissertation itself, an obscure one of little value to my topic, but a dissertation that took 6 weeks to secure.

In addition, there were clearly legitimate points he wanted me to add or alternative interpretations he thought I should include. Perhaps these could have waited, but they invariably improved the dissertation. Of course, his telling me by August 1982 that aside from the minor corrections he felt it was finished, complete, and more than satisfactory was a tremendous boost, and I’m sure he knew it.

Q.  Anything stands out in your memory about the completion of the thesis (I understand there were no formal defenses at the time)? 

Nothing that stands out besides the incredible University of Pennsylvania policy for securing permissions for dissertations.

At the time – I pray it’s changed – the student had to secure written permission, and pay fees if applicable, for every quotation or close paraphrase above 5 words’ length, exactly as if the dissertation was a marketed product that would net the student huge amounts of money instantly. There was no notion of “academic fair use” that Penn seemed to recognize. If I did not do this properly, I was told the dissertation would be turned back and I would have to begin again – a delay of some months that I knew I could not afford. I was on the phone with the permissions specialist frequently for a period of more than two months, and on the phone tracing down copyrights for the same period, writing checks, sending them Special Delivery and paying for written permissions to be sent back to me Special Delivery so I could compile the package. The written proof had to be submitted along with the dissertation and would be checked usage by usage.

I had more than 300 passages that qualified. The process took almost two months, hundreds of dollars that it was unreasonable to expect the graduate student to have, and that was after I’d deleted many quotations or paraphrases.

Q.  How did Goffman react to the final product and assessed your overall your efforts?

A.  [Pretty much answered elsewhere.]

Q.  Was Erving helpful in your landing the first job?  Did he aid your efforts to publish your work or help advance your career?

Not in the traditional sense. However, he introduced me to people who were among the most talented and humane in the profession, and I doubt that was by accident.

Q.  Did you keep up with Erving after you have left the school, any memories about the last time you saw him or communicated with him? 

A.  [Wrong timeline for any of that, sad to say.]

Q.  As you look at Goffman’s corpus from the vantage point of the present, do you feel that your perception of his scholarship has changed over time?

A.  No. My only regret is that I haven’t had more time to follow his example.

[End of the recording]

* The Erving Goffman Archives (EGA) is the web-based, open-source project that serves as a clearing house for those interested in the dramaturgical tradition in sociology and biographical methods of research.  The EGA is located in the Intercyberlibrary of the UNLV Center of Democratic Culture,  Postings on the website are divided into four partially overlapping sections:  “Documents and Papers,” “Biographical Materials,” “Critical Assessments,” and “Comments and Dialogues.”  For inquiries regarding the EGA projects, please contact Dr. Dmitri Shalin,  When you cite the materials collected for the EGA, please use the following reference:  Bios Sociologicus: The Erving Goffman Archives, ed. by Dmitri N. Shalin (UNLV: CDC Publications, 2009).