From the Classroom


Sociologist, surfer dude

By Justin Boulmay

When he was in graduate school, one of sociology professor Jeffrey Johnson’s favorite classes required students to write a paper every other week and then submit their work for review by their classmates. That repeated criticism showed Johnson the strong points and weak points in his arguments. It also taught Johnson that his best work wouldn’t come easily. “The more I suffered, the better it was,” he says.

The longer he’s been in the classroom at East Carolina—which will be 30 years soon—the further Johnson has moved away from teaching by the traditional lecture method. He wants his students engaged the same way he was as a college student. He knows they will work harder if they have a personal stake in the outcome. “If you’ve got something that people care about and then you have them take what you’re trying to teach them and put it to bear on what they care about, they’ll learn more and they’re going to be more interested,” Johnson says.

Jeff Johnson surfing in El Salvador

Jeff Johnson surfing in El Salvador

For his doctoral students, the incentive is to learn more about the mechanics of research. Throughout the semester, his students write objectives, develop questions and hypotheses, and then submit their work to the class for feedback. This teaching method gives students both a finished project at the end of the semester as well as experience defending their views. That knowledge will come in handy when they defend their dissertations before a faculty committee.

Jamie Brinkley, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in coastal resource management and also works for Johnson, said he has even enrolled in courses taught by Johnson that really weren’t related to his major. “He just makes it fun,” he said. “He’s pretty personable.”

Johnson himself likes seeing what happens when his students grasp what’s being taught in class. “I enjoy seeing students get something and actually being able to think critically and apply something and see the lights go off,” he says. “It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s a real satisfying thing.”

Distinguished professor and scientist

Johnson is one of East Carolina’s most decorated professors. He’s served as a distinguished research professor the past four years and was the 2010 Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor. In addition to teaching, he also serves as a senior scientist at the Institute for Coastal Science and Policy. He received ECU’s 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award in Research and Creative Activity. He has authored several books and dozens of peer-reviewed articles published in scholarly journals. He’s a favorite mentor for master’s and doctoral students in the Department of Sociology and the coastal resource management Ph.D. program.

Winning the distinguished professor award “was a great honor, and the people who’ve gone before me—I knew some of the others—it was an honor to be in their presence, in the membership of that particular club.”

Johnson has traveled to Russia, Alaska and the Antarctic for research; he’s journeyed to Panama and El Salvador to pursue another of his passions: surfing. That’s a sport he’s enjoyed since the mid-1960s growing up in California.

Johnson had entered the University of California–Irvine with the intention of becoming an engineer. However, he took an anthropology course and was hooked on the subject. When the local economy suffered layoffs in the local aerospace industry in the 1970s, Johnson started to think that if he was going to be unemployed, then he might as well pursue something he enjoyed.

He graduated from UC–Irvine in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. He started his doctoral classes as an undergraduate student, which allowed him to earn his Ph.D. in social science in 1981.

$2 million in research funding

Research is also something Johnson enjoys and, judging by the amount of funding he’s received over the years, is something at which he is talented. He has received more than 50 grants totaling more than $2 million over the last five years alone to support his research.

Some of Johnson’s work has focused on coastal issues, such as a study in the early 1990s regarding conflicts between commercial and recreational fisherman, as well as tagging data from news articles from the Sudan Tribune to build a network of concepts that reveals the links between particular topics, such as possible conflicts between two tribes. He’s also published research on ear infections among children in eastern North Carolina. Other projects provided Johnson with the opportunity to understand what makes social groups survive.

During research in Alaska, Johnson studied a group of fishermen who were on strike. The group regularly picked on one of its members, but those actions helped to relieve tension among the group, which also rewarded the member it picked on by giving him fish. So Johnson further explored how the importance of these roles by studying different working communities at Antarctic polar-research stations belonging to the United States, Russia, India, China and Poland.

Each study of each station yielded the same answer: the more a group has informal roles—such as the informal leader and even the group “clown”—and maintains a face-to-face connection, the stronger the group will be.

“And lo and behold, it even holds up across cultures that the more of these informal roles of a certain mix you have, the better the group does,” Johnson said.

Understanding human behavior

These days, Johnson is helping the U.S. Army better understand other cultures. He has a two-year contract to develop a basic social-science program for the Army Research Office that will help soldiers better understand human behavior and other cultures. This year he is spending about 60 percent of his time working for the military on the project.

The Army’s request reflects a shift from the “us versus them” social perspective of the world that was held during the Cold War. “There’s all kinds of players in any kind of conflict or any kind of humanitarian effort,” Johnson says. “The real problem no longer is necessarily having to do with weapons or anything else. The problem is trying to understand people, understand culture, understand those kinds of things.”

His work could help the military know how best to interact with people in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, although the program isn’t specifically geared toward the Middle East. Because the course is rooted in better understanding human behavior, it could help explore why the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that occurred this year happened now and not five years ago. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter might have helped facilitate those uprisings, but Johnson also suggests underlying causes like rising food prices and the lack of political freedom.

Johnson visited Iraq last fall and interviewed FBI agents who told him that Iraqi judges don’t even consider forensic evidence when hearing a case. However, many Iraqis have learned about what constitutes evidence in court by watching reruns of such American TV cop shows as CSI.

That’s one piece of a puzzle that also involves overcoming bad history. People have to trust that they’ll be treated fairly when they appear in court, so in a place like Iraq, how do you get a Sunni citizen to trust that a Shia judge will try their case fairly? “Those are all human problems,” Johnson said.

Judging by his previous accomplishments, the Army appears to have found the right man for the job.