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About the University

Bowen Paulle

Bowen Paulle

Who: Bowen Paulle (1970)
Studied: American Studies and Sociology; took his doctorate in sociology in the Netherlands
First job: Selling clothing at a market in NYC
Favourite spot at the UvA: Café de Brug on the Roeterseiland Campus, because of the light
Essential: ‘Teams, teams, teams.’ A network lets you achieve more than you ever could alone.

The making of a sociologist

‘In my background, you can see the making of a sociologist. I grew up in New York City, on the Upper West Side, in a middle-class family. My grandfather was a Humanities professor and my mother was the director of a women's shelter in the Bronx. I played basketball, and in America you don't play with a club, but through your school. The good players didn't attend the preppy white middle-class schools, they were at the inner-city schools. So in order to get on the court with the serious ballers, I transferred to one of those schools. I was the only white guy on the basketball team and the only middle-class kid in the whole school. That kind of outsider experience makes you look at the world in a different way.’

New York in the 1980s

‘I grew up in New York the way it was in the 1980s, during the crack epidemic. I remember it like it was yesterday: taking the subway home after a night out and coming across one addict after another, homeless people, sometimes stoned or aggressive, begging me for money. I get out at my stop and see ten or fifteen crackheads between me and my mother's apartment. All of them high and some clearly on heroin. And that was in my own neighbourhood – a middle-class, developed part of town. When I went to visit friends in the poor neighbourhoods, it was even worse... indescribable, really. Drug markets, crackhouses, pregnant women smoking crackpipes. Having seen and experienced all that, it doesn't exactly prep you for Wall Street. Instead, you become a sociologist to try and learn what you can do about it.’

I'm obsessed with inequality and what we can do to combat it

Obsessed with inequality

‘I'm like a wind-up doll. Turn the key in my back and I start marching. My childhood motivated me to get an education. A lot of guys from the inner city African-American culture I grew up around were plenty smart. Not so much bookish, maybe, but charismatic, adept, easy talkers. The distribution was more or less the same among the middle-class: you had guys that are dumb, and those that were really smart. But when you look at those same guys five or ten years later, the ones from middle-class families are doing fine, while the inner-city kids are dead or have turned to crime. When I realised that, I thought: what the fuck? I'm obsessed with inequality and have pragmatic questions about what we can do to combat it.’

You can find solutions through experimentation

Looking for solutions

‘All children make mistakes, but some of them have resources that help them stay on the right track. I had a safety net like that myself when I was young, but many of my classmates didn't. They ended up in jail, or got shot, even though they were every bit as intelligent as I was. So my question is, how can the educational system help that kind of at-risk young people? One way to find solutions is through experimentation. By combining Randomized Control Trials with ethnographic field research. I don't believe in keeping theory and practice separate from one another: you have to apply theory to real-world practice and vice-versa. Why does one thing work and where did that other thing go wrong? Why does something work in one place or context and not in another? Together with a team of quantitative researchers, I experiment with concrete solutions for concrete situations. Theories have to be predicated on the real world and must contribute to finding answers to societal issues.’

High-dosage tutoring

‘My thesis is about the lower layers of society and secondary education in Amsterdam and New York City. Despite all the major differences between the countries, the poorest groups in these two cities have a lot in common: intergenerational poverty and the lack of a safety net for the children's benefit. Together with the UvA, we've developed SEPP: the Scalable Education Programs Partnership. This partnership is intended to explore interventions that could potentially lead to a breakthrough, using methods including educational programs for underprivileged pupils. We experimented with “high-dosage tutoring” as well, in which two kids receive an extra hour of maths help from a tutor each day. Many preparatory secondary vocational education (VMBO) pupils fail to attain the 1F level – the scholastic level they should have been at when they finished elementary school. VMBO pupils who took part in the tutoring programme for five months, on the other hand, were shown to have made up for 71% of their deficit relative to the 1F level in that time. Pupils in the control group, who did not receive tutoring, reduced their deficit by only 17% on average. And these aren't some kind of vague subjective results: they're empirically substantiated facts. We can build on these results as we continue to search for a breakthrough to benefit vulnerable children, families, schools and neighbourhoods.’

The UvA has an amazing network


‘The UvA has an amazing network that includes aldermen, alumni, and the Amsterdam University Fund. Once you're on their radar and doing work that they want to encourage, the UvA can offer you a lot of assistance and new contacts. The UvA has a well-established reputation within the scientific community, too; we have some real big-shots here on campus. That helps when you're trying to establish connections with other research teams. I've been visiting the Netherlands regularly since I was a kid, and I studied at the UvA in the third year of my programme. When I was offered a position as a research assistant here, I knew I'd end up staying. I too have built up a network here.’

The Netherlands

‘My stepfather was Dutch. I visited here as a child to meet his family and immediately thought, what fool would ever stay in the US if he had the choice? The Netherlands has major problems of its own, but they're not even close to those facing the United States. Things are infinitely more civilised here, much less violent. Even before I spoke Dutch, I felt more like a European, more Dutch than American. Of course there are certain aspects of the US that I miss, and it's a privilege to have even made this journey. But here in the Netherlands is where I feel at home.’