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Some people choose academic life because they are naturally curious. Some choose it because they enjoy the life of the mind.
Chris Pieper chose it because he couldn’t drive a tractor.
Chris’s great-grandfather started farming in his teens near Oglesby, Texas, just 40 minutes from Waco. Chris’ grandpa picked up the reins (literally) before the age of 10 in Pyron, Texas, and farmed dryland cotton for the next 60 years. Chris’ father began in 1972 helping his dad on the home place near Roscoe and is still at it.
“Every male I knew over the age of 25 was a farmer,” Pieper recounts. “The probability of two farming families coming together and producing a sociologist is nearly zero,” he jokes. “But then, I’ve been an outlier for a long time.”
At Baylor, Pieper specializes in political sociology, a subfield that examines the role of power in social relations, particularly in economic and cultural institutions. He says got interested in the subject partly through his childhood in rural West Texas.
“I remember very distinctly running a spray rig one summer when I was about 16; spraying Johnson grass while listening to Rush Limbaugh on my Walkman,” Pieper recalls. “I loved that show, not because I thought he was right all the time, but because he was doing a kind of populist social analysis, breaking down the news and putting it in an entertaining format.”
That experience led him to join the high school debate team, write opinion articles for local newspapers, and study journalism at Southwestern University. After earning an MA in journalism from UT-Austin, Pieper did “PR for the poor” at a think-tank in Austin.
“During that time, it really became clear to me that lasting social change was not going to come through government, but through those whom the elected listen to: voters, the people,” Pieper added. “That’s what solidified my desire to study social movements and the moral commitments that inspire them.
In 2004, Pieper returned to UT-Austin for the Ph.D., where he researched the moral connections between religion, politics, and activism. He continues that line of inquiry today in collaboration with several graduate students. In 2015, he published a book examining the inspirational and pro-social dimensions of doing social science called Sociology as a Spiritual Practice.
Teaching, though, is Pieper’s first love. Each semester, he typically teaches what he calls “the bookends of Baylor” – freshmen and senior courses. “I have the opportunity to shape them coming and going. It’s a challenging but deeply rewarding experience. My students always teach me more than I teach them,” he concluded.
Pieper says that Baylor is an ideal place for what he does because of the department’s widely recognized strength in the sociology of religion, and because of the university’s sincere commitment to transformational education.
According to Pieper, sociology is the only science whose mission is to diagnose social ills and prescribe effective treatments. The medicine, he says, is well-informed, passionate, and morally grounded citizens, which universities such as Baylor are serious about producing
In a way, this farm boy is still practicing the craft of his forebears. “Every year I plant seeds in the minds of close to 300 young people. Just like my dad, I always pray for a bumper crop.”