The Dean Asks...Professor Emeritus Gil Geis

Celebrating the passion, dedication and personal stories of Social Ecology faculty, staff, students, alumni and benefactors, “The Dean Asks…” is a feature in which Interim Dean Valerie Jenness interviews people inspired by the pursuit of excellence and encourages participation in interdisciplinary education to solve complex societal problems. Over the next year, please check back to read or listen to additional installments. View Archive


Valerie Jenness, Dean of the School of Social Ecology, recently interviewed Gil Geis, Professor Emeritus of Criminology, Law & Society, School of Social Ecology. Professor Geis is an amazingly prolific writer, a much loved teacher and mentor, and an inspiring professor. His work spans the areas of sociology, psychology, history, criminology, criminal justice, law, media studies, education, and policy studies as well as many sub-disciplines among them. He has published on a dizzying array of topics, including education, race relations, Scandinavian studies, the death penalty, film censorship, prisons, prostitution, crime and crime victims, policing, community corrections, rehabilitation, organized crime, prisoner rights, rape, homicide, victimless crimes, legal ethics, drugs, violence, social problems, good Samaritans, compensation, restitution, deterrence, witch trials, criminal justice policy, research methods, the O.J. Simpson case, the UCI fertility clinic scandal, medical fraud more generally, and corporate crime.


Val: Gil, you are the recipient of the 2011 Daniel Stokols Award for interdisciplinarity in research. It’s fitting that you will receive this recognition because you are one of the most prolific scholars in all of the social sciences. Your work, which includes over two dozen books, more than 250 journal articles, over 100 book chapters and 30 monographs and is notable for its superb interdisciplinary and remarkable breadth over a number of fields (Professor Geis’s CV can be found here). Knowing this, there is a question that comes up all the time when people talk about Gil Geis: how do you do it?

Gil: One element of my publication record is a consequence of longevity. I’ve kept at what can become a discouraging enterprise that doesn’t seem to get any easier with time. I enjoy the publishing game-the contest-and I have a pathological sense of curiosity that drives me to want to learn more about things that interest me. I don’t mind rejection. In fact, I’d like to have chiseled on my gravestone, “Revise and resubmit.”

Val:  Because you and I share an academic world, we know a lot of people that work really hard and put in the hours and have the types of curiosities you have, but it doesn’t result in this volume of writing and the kind of diversity of topics that you’ve written about. I can’t think of another scholar that covers as much territory as you cover.

Gil: The only person that I am trying to please is myself. I gave up trying to please my mother long ago. I take research as a personal challenge. Can you make sense out of your material? Can you start with an idea and flesh it out over a couple of dozen pages? It is always very pleasant if somebody likes what you do but I have a colleague who points out that the readers of what we write typically could fit into a telephone booth. I only read criminological material if it seems likely to contribute to something I am writing or plan to write.

Val: Is the competition with yourself then?

Gil: Yes, I’m not a careerist—never have been.

Val: But you have had a stunning career by the way you approach things.

Gil: Well, I have been extraordinarily lucky. I was unbelievably fortunate (and will be eternally grateful) that the Navy sent me to college after I was a radioman on a destroyer escort for a year or so and then financed my graduate education here and in Scandinavia. I also was very fortunate to teach at places that were tolerant of my idiosyncratic interests.

Val: Can you give us a little overview of your career trajectory, maybe starting with where you went to get your Ph.D. and how things went from there?

Gil: I went to the University of Wisconsin to get my Ph.D. This was in 1953 and it was a terrible time to get a job. I went to work at the University of Oklahoma because it was the only job that was available.  I stayed there for five years and made $3000 a year when I started; when I left I was making $3500 a year.

Val: Was that considered good pay at the time?

Gil: It was terrible pay at the time.  I had a wife and two children and I taught four classes a semester. A job opened up at L.A. State and I got out of Oklahoma. At Oklahoma, there was a famous psychologist, a guy by the name of Muzafer Sherif.

Val: The famous conformity studies person?

Gil: He said, “Don’t pay any attention to ‘em just write.” I had a very good background in writing and I write very easily, and that’s important. I was on every newspaper in high school and college and I worked on several newspapers after I graduated, worked for the United Press for a little while. Writing comes very easily for me.

Val: When you wrote as a journalist, was it different than when you wrote as an academic or was it all the same to you?

Gil: No, you get the facts straight and that’s very important. You make sense out of it, hopefully, and you’re writing to a deadline; you can’t play around with it forever. That, too, was very important.

Val: I think that a distinguishing feature of your work across the array of topics is that you write in a kind of rich, engaging style that pulls people in. How did you learn to write that way?

Gil: I published two paperback detective novels when I was a kid. I started out (it’s not on my c.v) with a brilliant piece in the Plumbing and Heating Journal and never looked back. I have diaries that I have kept and I read a lot; read endlessly and very eclectically. The New York Times publishes the best 100 non-fiction books of the year and I read every one of them because I want to force myself to read stuff that I otherwise wouldn’t go near. It sometimes takes several years to read one year of recommended books and then I just start all over again on a newer list.

Val: If you were addressing people who desire to be the kind of writer you are and produce the kind of work that you’ve been able to produce across your six decades, what kind of tips would you give those people who want to be able to do what you do?

Gil: I think that they should be English undergraduate majors and I think that they should read endlessly, voluptuously and enjoy it. And write. You know, it becomes habit-forming.  

Val: You are also an incredible collaborator. I just want to list a few of the people within the School of Social Ecology that you have collaborated with in your 35 years at UCI: Arnie Binder, Paul Jesilow, Beth Loftus, Joe DiMento, John Monahan, Bob Meier  Ray Novaco,
Ross Conner, Henry Pontell, Kitty Calavita, Jim Meeker, John Dombrink, Sanjoy Mazumdar and yours truly, Val Jenness. I’m sure that there are others. You are a prolific collaborator.  Maybe you could tell us how you collaborate.

Gil: I just wrote an article for the Journal of Criminal Justice Education on collaboration.

Val: What’s the key to your successful collaborations, because everybody wants to collaborate with you and you always seem to make it happen across, what I would argue to be, some very diverse personalities and skill-sets in your co-authors.

Gil: Two things about collaboration. One, it makes things less lonesome; you’ve got somebody else to blame. Two, it is nerve-wracking in the sense that if you don’t get accepted, you feel that you are letting someone else down.

Val: You are also known as a great teacher or great mentor. Can you talk about how you have maintained the commitments that have enabled you to earn the reputation of being a great teacher?

Gil: It’s a question of pride. You go into a classroom and if you’re a disaster, and you skulk out of there and you go back to your office, and the only thing that you can salvage is, “Well, I’m going to get another shot at them.”

Val: Tuesday at 1:00.

Gil: Exactly. You’re not on stage and this is not the opening night and the reviewers are going to beat you up. It’s sense of pride. And I don’t want to be boring; I don’t want to bore myself.

Val: One of the things, Gil, that I know you and I share is a commitment to education. We’ve talked about it quite a bit. As I watch support for education, higher education in particular, erode, I’m reminded of something President Kennedy said: “Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities because in each of us there is a private hope and dream, which fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone.” For me this summarizes why we should all be committed to education—is that it has a kind of individual and a collective good. Why do you value education?

Gil: What I see education as almost uniquely doing is trying to convey a sense of excitement about knowledge, about knowing things, about learning things. The facts change in three years anyway. But I want them to think that it’s exciting, it’s interesting, it’s fun. All that I can convey to them is that I find learning worthwhile.

Val: Is there anything else that you want to tell us? I really want people to know who you are and how you think. What else do you want to tell us about that? Do you believe that your work has had an impact?

Gil: I may have had some impact in regard to focusing attention on white-collar crime and when I worked for the President’s Commission I was responsible for publicizing crime victim compensation. But I am wary of do-gooders. Survivor of murder victims now testify in the penalty phase of trials, a development I dislike. I once was in Split in the old Yugoslavia and the guide said that Diocletian decided to build a palace there to enhance the glory of the Roman Empire and it turned out to herald the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire. I took that lesson to heart: be careful what you recommend.