Exploring Justice

chris wildeman

Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

Christopher Wildeman ’02 is an associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, a visiting fellow at the Bureau of Justice Statistics in Washington, D.C., and a senior researcher at the Rockwool Foundation Research Unit in Copenhagen. With Lauren Porter ’06, he was recently back to campus to discuss mass incarceration, the criminal justice system and their effects on children, issues he’s been passionate about since graduate school.

Can you speak to how Dickinson’s useful liberal-arts education applies to what you’re up to now?

Dickinson prepared me to do a broad range of things. I was a philosophy, sociology and Spanish major, so I lived in Mexico for a semester. The most important thing Dickinson did was prepare me to be a clear writer and a clear thinker and to connect those two things really well. With the field I'm in, if you can write quickly and clearly and get your ideas across well, it's easy to be successful. And if you can't, you sort of flail around and work 100-hour weeks and struggle to get tenure or a job in the first place. So for me having that broad education, with a focus on learning to write and think and interact, that helped me.

What was your favorite activity or organization at Dickinson?

Being on the soccer team was where I made most of my closest friends, including my friend Todd Arsenault [’99, associate professor of art], who teaches at Dickinson now. He was very nice to me when I showed up to college as a green-haired freshman on the soccer team with a Southern accent. I really needed a hand with that transition. But in retrospect, meeting my wife, Priscilla [Benith Wildeman ’03], there was the best activity I engaged in. (We didn't date in college, so it's retroactive.)

What jumps out as a great memory from your time at Dickinson?

Going to Philly to concerts every month with my wife (before she was my wife) and getting in the car and having a chance to talk about how things are going and go do something different. Seeing bands like Godspeed You Black Emperor, Bright Eyes, Pedro the Lion. ... And then we'd come back and I'd always appreciate how calm and straightforward everything was at Dickinson. And I used to see hardcore shows in the (now-defunct) Arts House basement. I don’t really like hardcore all that much, but it was fun going to concerts where my friends lived.

What sparked your interest in mass incarceration?

I was really interested in childhood inequality in grad school. And I realized that there was this big gap in the literature where no one talked about how these high levels of incarceration could contribute to inequality among American children. So pinning that down and making that the focus of my work was an intriguing possibility. I kind of moved into studying the child welfare system the same way.

What kind of professional challenges do you run into day to day?

Mentoring grad students can be tough—trying to help them think about doing something that is novel and a unique contribution but also a somewhat safe bet. Relating to undergraduates is sometimes difficult. Honestly, the biggest problem is learning to say no. The only way to make life manageable is to say no to a lot of things that involve travel. But I’m bad at that …

You just built a time machine: Where and when do you go?

In my class we've been talking a lot about conditions of confinement, so it would be interesting to go back and see how people were designing the original prisons. Amusingly, Benjamin Rush, who had a strong hand in designing the Pennsylvania system of punishment, would be one of the folks it would be most interesting to meet.

You’re going to live on an island by yourself for a year: What books, albums and movies do you take with you?

Spiderland by Slint, first. I think I would take Fiddler on the Roof. Everyone else in the world hates that movie, but I really love it. For books, I'd take something long I never made it through but always meant to. In college, I read all the time. But I basically just read 15-page articles at this point. If I had to choose something I had already read, anything by Larry Brown would work. I especially liked Dirty Work.

If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?

I wish my wife and I had gotten together as undergrads. Although I'm sure there's some good reason we didn't partner up that early. I’ve made a bunch of bad decisions though, and it would be nice to take those back. But that’s life.

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Published October 29, 2015