Teaching: What I do and why

Just as I orient my research to a social justice perspective, my teaching and service are motivated in this same direction.  Throughout my career, I have worked hard through curricular development, administration, teaching and mentoring, to impart the centrality of the social justice mission, which helped create sociology, as a discipline, and is at the heart of a liberal arts education. My goal is to instill in students the confidence, skills, and critical consciousness, to produce their own action-oriented research.

Prof. Barb Brents

I have been active within my department and in departments across campus. Among my proudest accomplishments at UNLV was my central role in moving Women’s Studies from an undergraduate minor in the 1980s, to a freestanding department in the 2000s. In 2004, I was invited to co-edit the premier issue of UNLV’s Creative College Teaching Journal. I have also served as a member of the steering committee for the Carnegie Foundation/American Association of Higher Education and Accreditation Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Initiative, at UNLV.

I have achieved the most recognition from my various roles in graduate education. From 1998 to 2010, I received numerous awards for teaching and mentorship from the University and the Nevada System of Higher Education. In 2001, I was elected chair of the UNLV Graduate Council. I served on the Graduate College Executive Committee, chaired the Graduate College Student Funding Committee, and served on the Graduate College professional development committee. I was a facilitator at annual UNLV Planning Retreats, on graduate education and research, and gave a training session on professional development for graduate coordinators. I have spoken at graduate student orientation sessions and gave a workshop at the American Sociological Association’s Directors of Graduate Study Mini-Conference. I have also chaired the Outstanding Student Paper competition, for the Political Sociology section of the ASA.

As a member of the Sociology Department, I have invested heavily in my students and our graduate curriculum. From 1998 to 2001, I was the Graduate Coordinator for our department. In my years at UNLV, I have chaired 25 and have been a member of more than 60 graduate committees. I have been on so many outside committees, I have lost count, but estimate that I have been an outside advisor to well over 35 M.A. and Ph.D. committees, in departments across campus.

Prof. Barb Brents with Sociology Graduates
Prof. Barb Brents with Sociology Graduates

Serving on graduate student committees is only part of my commitment to our graduate students’ professional development. As a mentor I believe in modeling active engagement and passion, as a scholar and citizen. I strive to inspire students, to make a difference in the world, and work to become not just professional sociologists, but passionate, engaged scholars. I have always taught and advised, according to the philosophy that students learn best, take on more ambitious projects, and do better work, when they are active participants in learning. This, to me, means treating students as colleagues, in the production of knowledge. 

I am lucky to have had some very bright and committed students, and they have been high achievers. I have co-authored one book and four publications with students; presented 14 papers with students at national and international professional meetings; and many undergraduate students have presented papers, developed in my classes, at professional conferences. I have collaborated with students on several grants, and I encourage my graduate students to develop work in single-authored papers, and many have published from their research.

One of my advisees received a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Award. This was the first, and up until a few years ago, the only such award received by a UNLV graduate student. One received the Beth Hess Memorial Scholarship award from the ASA, SSSP & Sociologists for Women in Society. Another student was UNLV Graduate and Professional Student Association President. Two received a University and Community College System of Nevada Regents Scholar awards. Three of my students have received UNLV fellowships, three have received awards from the UNLV College of Liberal Arts, and others have received smaller university level scholarships and departmental awards.

The work I do, with graduate students, has also allowed them to produce research, central to debates on the politics of sexuality. Recently, two students have published or have forthcoming articles in the journal Sexualities, based on their M.A. level research. I am currently working on a collaborative project with students, examining tourism and the adult entertainment industry.

Prof. Barb Brents with Current and Former UNLV Grad Students
Prof. Barb Brents with Current and Former UNLV Grad Students

Over the years, the graduate and undergraduate students, I have mentored, have taken to heart the call for public sociology, through activities as diverse as organizing their own collective internships, using research from my classes for social change (for example, research on Nevada campaign financing, and a student project on summary eviction processes in Clark County, all of which helped influence policy). Because of my, now, deep roots in the activist and policy communities, I have been able to connect people to a variety of projects, which have assisted local grassroots and local government initiatives.

Most recently, I connected a graduate student with a particularly sustainability-minded ‘bureaucrat’, in local city government, on a project for my political sociology seminar. The project grew to a working group of students and faculty, researching aspects of urban sustainability, and culminated with both the City of Las Vegas and the regional growth commission funding the Las Vegas Metropolitan Area Social Survey, one of the city’s first serious surveys, designed to assess social sustainability at the neighborhood level in Las Vegas. Together, I have worked with undergraduate and graduate students on causes as diverse as sex worker rights, peace and justice, civil liberties, environment and a variety of women’s issues For this work, I have been recognized by the Las Vegas Centennial Committee and Southern Nevada Women’s Political Caucus, and was one of 256 women who have made a difference in 100 years of Las Vegas History, honored on the ‘Wall of Women’.

Barb Brents accepting GIST Distinguished Award
Prof. Barb Brents accepting GIST Distinguished Award

Students have gone on to engage in activities, ranging from nonprofit work, to more traditional academic outlets. Students have become faculty members at the University of Nebraska, California State at Northridge, and University of Minnesota at Mankato, as well as some who have taken on more applied jobs, such as founding a women’s political action committee, in New York, and various positions in Las Vegas in research, government, corporate diversity and philanthropy. 

~Barb Brents

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Welcome to my world!

I have to say it! The admittedly clichéd, but sincere, desire to “change the world” drives my sociology. My work before tenure sought to understand the power dynamics that create laws, particularly the role of business and economic institutions, in creating social policy. I have always sought to be an activist, by putting these insights into practice, both inside and outside traditional political institutions, in the community, in teaching, and in research.

Prof Barb Brents

Prof. Barb Brents, UNLV Department of Sociology

But, my sociology has been profoundly affected by living in Las Vegas, where the objectification of women seems so blatantly transparent, yet complex and contradictory inequalities, tied to sexuality and gender, beg for fresh examinations. My feminism, activism and scholarship have turned to research on sexual commerce. Sexuality has been relatively ignored by political and economic sociology, yet it has become an important part of our economy and a powerful force for social change. Both my teaching and my research examine how struggles surrounding sexuality reveal contemporary forms of race, class and gender inequalities. I, now, see my work as at the forefront of a small, but growing, number of scholars interrogating the political economy of sexuality.

For the last 15 years, I have been involved in research, exploring the politics, culture, organization and labor, in Nevada’s legal brothel industry. Despite their uniqueness, I was surprised at how little research had been done on the brothels. Kate Hausbeck and I began a large ethnographic project, collecting data and doing early analysis, which culminated in several publications. The article ‘Violence and Legalized Brothel Prostitution in Nevada’, in Journal of Interpersonal Violence, is much cited for our finding that there is little violence in legal brothels, lending credence to the conclusion that legal indoor sex work is relatively safe for sex workers, and that legalizing prostitution may be a way to challenge global sex trafficking. The article ‘Marketing Sex: American Legal Brothels and Late Capitalist Consumption,’ in Sexualities, analyzes sexual consumption and furthers the argument that adult-oriented businesses are using mainstream, traditional forms of business organization and marketing. This article was reprinted in the most recent edition of Sex Matters: The Sexuality and Society Reader, by Stombler, et. al.

state of sex book cover

The State of Sex

The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex and Sin in the New American Heartland (Routledge Press), is the culmination of a decade-long research study of Nevada’s legal brothels. As far as I know, it is the largest and most comprehensive study of legal prostitution. Co-authors, Crystal Jackson, Kate Hausbeck and I, look at the context, history, organization and work in the brothels. The study of prostitution has been highly contentious, debating primarily whether prostitution is work or necessarily coercive. Our comprehensive approach shifts the focus from individual women’s choices, and puts it on the economic dynamics that drive gendered inequalities, gendered politics and gendered work, in this particular arena of consumption. We find that while prostitution may be unique in some ways, for good or for ill, the organization, consumption and work is much more similar to late capitalist interactive service businesses, touristic consumption and work than we typically believe.

I am now working to extend these insights and further use the sex industry as a site to understand the intersections of culture and economics. Recently, collaborative research, with British scholar Teela Sanders, resulted in the article ‘The Mainstreaming of the Sex industry: Economic Inclusion and Social Ambivalence’, in Journal of Law & Society, comparing Las Vegas, Nevada, and Leeds, UK, to show how neoliberalism effects the mainstreaming of sexual commerce. Other works in progress include studies of: the construction of ‘market morality’ in political debates around sexuality; the relation between tourism, consumption and sexuality; heterosexuality in the sex industry, the emotional and bodily labor of selling sex; and consuming sex. I am building on collaborations overseas and with other UNLV scholars, on a longer-term interdisciplinary project, for the study of globalization and sexuality.

Barb Brents Researching on Location

Prof. Barb Brents with Kate Hausbeck and Crystal Jackson

My academic research on sex work, sexual markets and sexual politics extends past work on social policy, political violence, and social movements. An article with colleague Robert Futrell ‘Protest as Terrorism: The Potential for Violent Anti-Nuclear Activism’, in American Behavioral Scientist, analyzes the potential for violent activism among protesters, drawing on my own research and activism, in anti-nuclear movement. I also include, in this dossier, an article written with graduate student Deo Mshigeni, ‘Terrorism in Context: Race, Religion, Party and Violent Conflict in Zanzibar’, in The American Sociologist, drawing on his research with a potentially violent youth wing of the minority political party in Zanzibar, where globalization and Islamic fundamentalism have impacted racial identity.

Las Vegas aka 'Sin City'

Las Vegas aka ‘Sin City’

I am also engaged in collaborative work on the political economy of contemporary culture, through a multi-year study of sustainability and community, in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Area Social Survey is a collaborative project, with the LVMASS team (graduate students and two other Sociology faculty), the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Commission, and the City of Las Vegas. The project gathers neighborhood-level data on the attitudes, knowledge, and opinions of Las Vegas residents on neighborhood, environmental and social sustainability issues.

~Prof. Barb Brents

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