More open thoughts on anthropology and academia

Since my last blog post got picked up by Ryan at Savage Minds, related discussions on the subjects of academia, anthropology and disciplinary discontent have been taking place around the web, including in the comments thread on Savage Minds, the comments on this blog, the forums at the OAC, on Twitter, Facebook, Anthro-L and in a number of other places that I have not fully managed to keep track of. A number of perspectives on the issues I raised and more have been revealed, with mostly everyone on the same page: A lot of things suck in our professional lives and we should really figure out a way to do something about it.

I have also had commiserations and confessions of maltreatment via email. Some of what I have read has been inspirational while much has been disheartening. Some people offered explanations for our failed system (like the bureaucratization and corporatization of academia), while others put forward deeper concerns (over dominance, power and lack of agency in departments) and a few even attempt to offer long- or short-term practical advice to slowly piece together solutions.

Since it's not really feasible for me to chase up the various threads that progressed while my attention was diverted to other things, I am taking the time here to post some of my fragmented thoughts based on the responses I have had the chance to read over past two weeks. It's by no means comprehensive, but I will do my best to weave it into a coherent narrative.

The system is broken, long live the system

So far I have only had private admittances of abuses of power within departments. I would very much have liked to hear others' experiences before going back into it. But I will offer more examples here in response to the remarks on the OAC and elsewhere that changes in the university system, bureaucracy, funding and corporate mindset are responsible for a breakdown in communication within institutions. I certainly agree with this, even though it is not the entire story. For instance, take this comment by David Graeber on Savage Minds:

Still – I'm thinking aloud here – there has to be something more complicated. I don't think the situation was that fundamentally different in the ’60s and ’70s, when there were, indeed, a fair number of professors who took advantage of tenured positions to challenge the structure of the university. I suspect that after that, there was a general feeling among those running the system that this would not be allowed to happen again. The invasion of corporate, managerial principles in the university probably served as much political ends as economic ones. I went to an OWS seminar over the summer with Gayatri Spivak and she made one point that really stuck in my head: "even thirty years ago, when we said ‘the university,’ we meant, ‘the faculty.’ Now, when we say ‘the university’, we mean ‘the administration.’"

Thinking back to my time as a student, even as far back as my undergraduate years, the teachers I had were fairly open about their discontent with the way the UK university system had changed over the past 20 or so years, whether in the form of after-class venting or through the use of a casual eye roll or sarcastic smirk in response to some new central administration mandate. The fact that academic departments and central admin talk past each other is nothing new. But there is no doubt that the administrative changes which have been most difficult to stomach have been at the departmental level. We can't shift the blame for these quite so easily.

I can recall some specific instances that, looking back now, have affected me along the way. As an undergrad, I had a lecturer who regularly got appreciative standing ovations from the undergrad audience (no small feat; my cohort was rather lackluster). His disdain for academia, a palpable mix of exasperation and sadness masked by black humor, was on permanent display. By the time I started my PhD, he had left university life entirely, which was a bit sad for me because he was a really great lecturer and teacher. What a loss to the profession, driven out by bureaucratic nonsense. His absence, which I had originally assumed was because he had simply moved to another job, lingered in my mind (more than once I would have liked his opinion on my work) and got me thinking for the first time about the conditions that would cause someone to leave academia. Those thoughts stayed with me, but only at the back of my mind, as I dove into my PhD.

Other things have happened since which made me dismayed, and at times angry, at the career path I had chosen. Between my mostly enjoyable time as an undergrad and returning from my PhD fieldwork, things in my department had changed dramatically. Power was, and continues to be, increasingly concentrated in the hands of newly appointed administrative staff. The representatives of the business model in academia that Keith Hart refers to as the "corporatization of universities" in the OAC forum altogether altered the dynamic of intra-departmental relations in a matter of months. The environment became toxic to the point that I hardly wanted to spend any time in my own building during office hours. And I'm not the only one.

I luckily had the support of my trusted advisors who had known me for years and who were able to intervene in desperate times against the draconian admins. I pity newcomers with less of a support system in place. Research students before submission feel vulnerable and we were, on certain occasions I mention in my previous blog post (see the links therein), made to feel worthless by the new admin. As I got nearer to submission, I stopped caring about repercussions. I routinely broke the administrators' dumb rules like when I could or couldn't disturb them with the paperwork that they required I submit, and demanded copies of my contract before stepping foot in a classroom. Eventually, I openly announced to other department members that I no longer wanted to have to personally deal with one specific admin staffer in question. To my surprise, even the other admins were relieved to hear someone else say it, not to mention certain academic staff. They all disliked this person, but were too afraid to come forward. Apart from commiserating, I'm pretty sure no one ever did anything about it.

Fight or flight

The truth is that other people in my department suffered equally, if not worse, at the hands of power-hungry admins and oblivious senior faculty members out of touch with the poisonous reality of day-to-day life on campus. It was suggested in a comment to me that those who feel abused at work should simply go up the hierarchy and complain about the abuser to someone in a position of authority. This seems obvious, but there are a number of reasons why most students and junior faculty do not see this as an option.

1. They believe that it will affect their progress/status as a student or member of staff, from passing their PhD viva to achieving tenure or keeping their job at all.
2. They would have to go on working or studying in a department where they have reset their loyalties and those of others, after which point they fear being outcast as "weak" or seen as a troublemaker, whether openly or more surreptitiously (walking into rooms to hear conversations stop immediately and hushed whispers follow them out).
3. They think that no one will listen.
4. It takes more time and energy than one has, given the workloads heaved on the bottom-feeders of a department like adjuncts and grad students, to take complaints fully up the ranks all the way to Chancellors or Presidents, putting the dedication to their work in jeopardy along the way.
5. In the end, it is probable that no one will listen, anyway.

In short, many find that it is easier to be bullied than it is to stop it. I can also verify instances (shared in confidence and therefore not to be repeated in full) where complaints to higher-ups were summarily ignored or brushed under the carpet.

Back to my own story to illustrate some of these issues. When I returned from the field in 2009, university admins had instituted graduate teaching assistantships in an attempt to save money; but framed, of course, as a way to provide teaching experience to PhD students. Prior to that I had been the only pre-fieldwork PhD taking classes and was teaching part-time as the UK equivalent of an adjunct without the label of "graduate teaching assistant". This new title, on the other hand, came with the same pejorative connotation that many adjuncts in the US fight against. If there were any doubt of reduced status, it also came with a 30% cut in my hourly pay. I entered a fight with the responsible admin to get my pay back up to something mildly respectable. It is telling that in order to do so they had to change my title back to assistant lecturer. From then on, every single thing to do with money would bring a fight with this person, even for access to my research fund which was a small bursary earmarked for my student expenses. The constant fighting was exhausting.

I later found out that I was not alone. There were others being treated just as badly, if not worse. And they were exhausted, too. Living with fear and anxiety in one's own job takes its toll.

At the same time, the most disenfranchised among us began hemorrhaging allies in the fight against administrative tyranny. My department has a rotating Head system (exorcist imagery not intended, but apt), and one of these people who I had the displeasure of knowing at some point in my academic history was, in my opinion, a complete jerk. He took no time to get to know me at all before summonsing me to a meeting that reeked of indiscriminate cost-cutting. His authoritarian demeanor did not help. On other occasions, he was spiteful, rude, and made inappropriate comments to female students. He also appeared to be more closely allied with the administrative staff than the academic faculty, resulting in the fact that – from my point of view at least – there was little point in approaching this person about abuses of power among his subordinate colleagues during his temporary term as Head of Department.

Because academia relies on such a hierarchical system, people are affected in different ways, separated by static categories and self-interest. By the time I finished my doctorate, almost all of the senior staff that had openly expressed dismay or had otherwise been generally supportive and compassionate people in the department had retired or left. Those somewhere in between either benefited from the new system or kept quiet to avoid making waves or perhaps even remain blissfully ignorant amidst their own career trajectories of how difficult it was for some members of the department.

Passing on prejudices

The comments on Ryan's Savage Minds post quickly turned the subject of privilege and race. Racial discrimination is a problem in the academy and especially, it seems, in the US. That issue was satisfactorily covered in several pages of comments. Racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, etc, all have no place in academia, but academic life does not exist in a sterile bubble for anthropologists any more than in any other discipline. Imagining that universities should be culture-free zones because anthropologists know all about cultural constructs is part of the problem.

However, what I found myself reflecting on in more length after reading the two pages of rather repetitive comments on SM is the clear indication, to me at least, that anthropologists have trouble talking about some very important things sensibly, concisely, and realistically. This comes back to my original point that we are of no help to each other if we remain out of touch and disinterested in other peoples' hardships while we are not in the field. Almost everything socio-cultural in our professional lives at home seems to offend us at some deep and intimate level. And this is sad to behold because it was through an education in anthropology that I first realized some pretty useful tools for dealing with life; like how humans are not all that fantastic a species to begin with, making our innate egotism rather farcical in the grand scheme. Do our own lessons on the global human experience offer us no input into life in the academy? I find this hard to believe.

And yet, Anthropology as a whole has a massive PR problem. Sites like the OAC, PopAnth and blogs like Savage Minds and Anthropology in Practice, among others, make valiant attempts in their own ways to remedy our public relations failure. But there is little hope if academic anthropologists, the guiding forces in our field, cannot get their own houses in order. It's no surprise when we routinely deal with each other - whether publicly, behind office doors or through clandestine email exchanges - with such disrespect and hostility. Working to change the public face of anthropology is difficult given the malcontent brewing right beneath the surface within the discipline itself.

I fear that, as a direct result of all this, the next generation of anthropologists is suffering. A fumbling inability to take a clear stand on, for instance, race, that is not out of touch with reality or in itself inherently racist, causes confusion when people turn to anthropology to make sense of the world. My students have been woefully under-prepared to discuss race beyond the idea that perceptions of racial boundaries are culturally constructed. Having said that, I taught in the UK and many of my students tellingly saw race and racism as distinctly American problems. Anyone who has taught subjects like race or ethnicity knows that class discussions can easily stir up intense anger and indeed no small amount of confusion.

Militant social justice bloggers on Tumblr (I'm guessing that undergrads make up a good proportion of the vocal anthropologists on Tumblr) recently caused the expulsion of a white, teen former child star now enrolled in an anthropology degree because he took offense to the idea that "all white male anthropology students are assholes" as espoused by a black female supported by advocates of the check-your-privilege school of activism. Young "anthropologists" joined the onslaught, arguing that he was ignorant for daring to study the subject at all, i.e. he had no place even studying anthropology, what with being white and privileged. Those who came to his support were tantamount to handmaidens of colonialism.

In my experience, calls to "check your privilege", do not inform. Quite the contrary. They stifle debate and learning by instilling fear and forcing people onto opposed sides of a self-perpetuating battle of skin tones. Those unknowingly born with white privilege are not allowed to support those without it, because their support is de facto disingenuous and their empathy transparent. How easy it is to wipe out the entire discipline of anthropology in one fell swoop. Instead of eradicating racism, such an attitude revives its power and reifies US debates on race as somehow universal. They're not. It also overlooks other significant forms of oppression that crosscut racial categories (e.g. class, gender) and makes us blind to them.

I'm worried about the hyper-relativism that anthro students take away from their intro classes. The take home idea seems to be that we cannot define anything objectively; and therefore right and wrong do not even exist except in our minds, notwithstanding that our "white"-washed minds are tainted by prejudice. The cure is to simply recognize that everything we think we know is imaginary and culturally constructed. In turn, anyone is able to invent their own equally valid meanings for everything that exists in the world (your students really think this), accepting or rejecting what they just don't like, and in turn say and do what they want with impunity. Pick and choose your worldview or download a new one tomorrow from your favorite celebrity's Facebook page! That's anthropology! Only it's not. Yet that is the thought process we seem content to plant in students' minds.

Part of the excitement and allure of an anthropology degree - it snags many a convert from other disciplines who inadvertently learn something when taking a single anthro elective - is that moment when you first find yourself questioning the nature of your own society. It's revolutionary, enlightening and students love the experience. But when they can't find their way back down to Earth, when they assume that anthropology is only about questioning every minute detail of the objective world to the point that nothing exists in any concrete terms, we have lost them for good. No wonder ethnography becomes the end-game and anthropology - comparative science - is no longer done.

Without a doubt it is time to acknowledge white privilege and, since we're on the subject, gender privilege, prestige privilege (where you studied and under which big names), age privilege, as well as other overt or subconscious forms of power, control and restriction of agency. For those who might have taken issue with my suggestion that culpability lies with individuals, I would like to reiterate that point as follows. We have to be careful who and what we blame for the situation we find ourselves and academia in today. Fixating on token –isms or blaming university management's bean counters will not solve anything, as cathartic as it may be. This reasoning explains away the underlying fundamental fact that people would like to forget: we are all part of this mess. No more passing the buck. We don't need to wait for administrations to get around to being altogether nice people (don't hold your breath) anymore than they are going to wait around for us to give them a gold star for keeping our campuses running. It is far too easy to avoid finding solutions if we dismiss everything as outside of our control, just like the novice anthropologists' overzealous reliance on cultural relativism to explain the world.

Where to go from here

On the subject of solutions, I would direct readers to Erin Taylor's thread on the OAC which is taking a more practical and inside approach to solving these issues. Erin, David Graeber, John McCreery and Keith Hart, among others, are offering plenty of wisdom. John McCreery has been pushing for a solution that exploits, rather than cowers from, the business turn in academia.

Although I am also adverse to the corporatization of universities which I credit with a downfall in quality of education and research environment, I have read John's posts and respect what he is saying in terms of figuring out an alternative given how universities now work. What I got from him is that one way to foster meaningful change at the university level (barring all-out revolution or the demise of the current academic system, which, let's face it, are long shots) could be to turn our own prejudices around. If universities are all about money and they hold a monopoly on the legitimacy of education, there may be a way to affect change by attacking that dynamic to positive ends.

This means throwing away some of our inherent reservations about markets and marketing, branding anthropology and making ourselves relevant in a changing world. Anthropologists should be recognized as authorities on culture and society, not just stand by and let others take over that role.

John Hawks has spoken eloquently on this at Anthropologies:

Just at the time the public and our institutions are crying out for more open publications, anthropology's largest professional association closed off its journals. Not that it matters much, nobody reads them anyway. The New York Times, on the other hand, many of my dear colleagues (and all our administrators) do read. There, they find articles about anthropology once every six months or so, which lately have featured a nightmare tale of foot-shooting and backpedaling. Not good.

President Obama's mother was an anthropologist. Never has the field had such name recognition and exposure at the top level of government. So naturally, our expertise is highly sought by government agencies, scientific funding sources, lobbyists and opinion leaders, right?

Isn't it strange? Anthropology, supposedly engaged deeply in diverse communities around the world, is almost totally disengaged with the American public. Long ago, anthropologists spoke out on our origins, history, and diversity. Now, the public is much more likely to hear about human relationships and diversity from popular books and television programs hosted by amateurs. The most celebrated (and most watched) television program today touching on anthropology is Ancient Aliens.

So I reiterate again, anthropology's problem is at least two-fold: how we engage with each other and how we present ourselves to the rest of the world. Both go hand in hand. Alas, if recent history is anything to go by, burying our heads in the sand hoping for positive changes to materialize from one day to the next will leave us waiting for a long time indeed.

Image credit:

2. Exorcist meme (origin unknown)
3. Check your privilege meme (via
4. Cultural relativism cartoon via Language Log.


ryan said...

Another good post, Fran. And I like the direction you are going here, which moves us toward seeking solutions and--gasp--what can be done about some of this. Sometimes I think my threads on SM run long on venting and short on seeking solutions, so I appreciate where you are taking the conversation. We need more of this.

"We have to be careful who and what we blame for the situation we find ourselves and academia in today. Fixating on token –isms or blaming university management's bean counters will not solve anything, as cathartic as it may be. This reasoning explains away the underlying fundamental fact that people would like to forget: we are all part of this mess. No more passing the buck."

Exactly. The problem is us. We have made things as they are, and we continually support and remake these "systems" every day that we take part in them. Blaming admins and other abstractions may indeed feel good, but it doesn't really get us anywhere. When we pay tuition, or work for low wages, or spend hundreds of hours writing grants, or stand by and watch unfair practices, or participate in a broken publication regime--we are all taking part in upholding something that ain't working.

"Anthropologists should be recognized as authorities on culture and society, not just stand by and let others take over that role."

Yup. And it's our job to make this happen. Why do people always ask me if I study dinosaurs? Is it the fault of "the public" that they really have no idea what anthros are really doing in the 21st century? Nope. That's our issue. And we are indeed letting others take over the role as authorities on things like culture and society. Alex Golub put it well on SM recently when he said that Jared Diamond is the Margaret Mead of today. In many ways, I think he might be right. Think about what *that* means for the field!

"Alas, if recent history is anything to go by, burying our heads in the sand hoping for positive changes to materialize from one day to the next will leave us waiting for a long time indeed."

Ya, and there is a lot of burying heads in sand. That's why we have to keep pushing these conversations forward...and I think we have to look for various ways to do this to draw our colleagues in while seeking out new possibilities for expanding our reach and finding new audiences.

Thanks again for this post. Important stuff. More folks need to hear this, and think about where we are going.

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