Academography Critical Ethnography & Higher Education Fri, 14 Feb 2020 02:23:04 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Project Suspended! Fri, 14 Feb 2020 02:23:04 +0000 Continue reading Project Suspended!]]> Hi all,

Unfortunately I’ve had to suspend this project. Now that I’m not working in (or on) the academy any more, I don’t have the resources to keep up with new research on higher education. For those of you still working in this area, I wish you all the best and wish I could have stayed involved longer.

The website will remain up for a while longer, until the domain name expires.

— Eli T.

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How to study a department and its place in the field Thu, 04 Apr 2019 17:22:05 +0000 Continue reading How to study a department and its place in the field]]> I got an interesting query from a student who wanted to design a comparative research project about two criminology departments and the ways they each construct different versions of their field.

I wrote back with a number of methodological thoughts. I thought I might also post them here, as they sketch out one way to approach this kind of question.

My general intuition is that any academic department is suspended within a number of separate social fields. These would include the disciplinary field, the institutional field of its own university, and the internal field of the department itself. So I essentially suggest that one could start out by mapping these different fields. One could then show how different images of a given discipline themselves emerge from different social locations.

Data gathering

I think you would want to think about finding a balance between archival or documentary research, interviews, and first-hand observation. Interviews can be very rich but it’s also very valuable to do things like see how the department presents itself on the website, what happens at events for new students, the atmosphere in department meetings or seminars, the physical spaces of the department and their moods…  Photos are good memory aids for later description.

Disciplinary fields, departmental fields and hierarchy

I would try to read up a little in the scholarly literature on the relationship between disciplines and departments, since this is often a complicated relationship. It’s worth gaining tools for thinking about how university departments maintain a specific position within a disciplinary field (which may evolve over time, etc). It could be worth reading papers such as Mario Small’s Departmental Conditions and the Emergence of New Disciplines: Two Cases in the Legitimation of African-American Studies, Charles Camic’s Three Departments in Search of a Discipline: Localism and Interdisciplinary Interaction in American Sociology, 1890-1940, or Judith Butler’s Against Proper Objects. Some more general books about disciplinary formation that could be interesting are Andrew Abbott’s Chaos of Disciplines, Ellen Messer-Davidow’s Disciplining Feminism, Karin Knorr Cetina’s Epistemic Cultures, or Fabio Rojas’ From Black Power to Black Studies. In your particular case, definitely read up on the history of criminology as a field, and in its relations to other fields/professions (and to the state).

The question is further complicated because there is generally a field within the department too. Usually different people in a department are going in strategically different directions, and they may have significantly different understandings of their field (or indeed come from different fields and belong to different fields). Part of your objective would be to map the space of positions within the department, and then check out how differently positioned actors construct criminology. Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social fields is very useful in this context.

I think the socialization perspective on disciplines is very important and if I were you, I would think about whether you want to privilege professorial or student perspectives. You can look at both, to some extent, but it helps to have a focus.

Studying the university context

The question of a department’s relationship to its university is also a major topic of its own. Students don’t always know much about the institutional politics of this relation; if you get a good relationship with professors you might be able to inquire directly. It’s often good to find out whether there are institutional metrics that weigh heavily on departmental policy and curriculum. Some places give funds in proportion to student enrollments, for instance; definitely check out any obvious steering mechanisms like this. Remember that institutional power is often indirect in higher education. It may be better not to focus on this question in your research design, because it gets vast and complicated, and may lead you away from the relationship between department and discipline.

Internal hierarchy in departments

There is always a hierarchy of belonging within a department as well. As you map the different actors in a site, try to keep track of which ones are dominant actors/public spokespeople, which ones are more “ordinary,” and which ones may be getting pushed out. It’s good (ethically and methodologically) to notice who is particularly socially excluded. In my graduate program, unfortunately, this often tended to be minoritized students (both ethnoracially and in social class terms).

How to get started with a research proposal

I don’t think it is too ambitious to write in your proposal that you want to study how criminology is differently constructed in two criminology departments. I would go with that as a framing question, and then narrow things down in terms of which actors do you want to talk to and which contexts are the most important. Also, start collecting interesting tidbits of data, stories, rumors, images, etc, that could serve as points of departure for your proposal. A good proposal needs some empirical information to work with, not just theory and methodology!


As a concluding thought: Obviously there are many possible approaches to this question. If you would advocate a different approach, feel free to say so in the comments!

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Conclusion: Reading the work that is already there Wed, 09 Jan 2019 19:19:47 +0000 Continue reading Conclusion: Reading the work that is already there]]> This is the conclusion to a series of critical engagements with Hugh Gusterson’s paper, Homework: Toward a Critical Ethnography of the University. I won’t repeat the framing of this series here, but you may want to read the introduction to the project, or see the whole list of posts.

I realize it may seem that I have been very hard on Gusterson in this series.

In part, I do think that is justified. Prominent academics with big platforms have a proportionately larger obligation to get things right. They deserve close scrutiny and high standards.

But I still don’t want to make it seem like there was never anything worth taking seriously in Gusterson’s project. Let me briefly state some alternative claims, based on the paper, that Gusterson could reasonably have defended.

1. “There is plenty of anthropological research on universities, it just doesn’t use the approach I think it should.”

We might then have had a discussion about the merits of different approaches to anthropology of higher education.

2. “There is plenty of ethnography of universities, but because it is done by marginal actors, and I am a dominant actor, I’m not very aware of it.”

If Gusterson had said this honestly, it might have led us to an important discussion about what is legible and recognizable within U.S. cultural anthropology. It could have let us discuss the structures of power that organize disciplinary recognition.

3. “There is a lot of critical writing about higher education from feminist, critical race, and intersectional perspectives, but I refuse to view it as sufficient, because it seems to be speaking about minority concerns and not about the general political economy.”

I have tried to say something about this claim already, since it seems perilously close to actually being Gusterson’s (unstated) thesis, and it deserves to be examined quite critically. Such debates resonate more broadly with current debates in U.S. anthropology, in the wake of #hautalk, MeToo, and other controversies about structural exclusion and violence in the profession.

4. “It would be good if more critical work on universities were undertaken.”

Gusterson could easily have made this simple assertion without putting down the existing body of literature. Admittedly, it doesn’t make for very interesting reading. But if it were all that Gusterson had said, I would have readily agreed with him that more critical ethnography of the university could be a good thing.

Is that certain, though? After all, the value of any act of critical research is never given in advance, nor is it guaranteed by the good intentions of the researchers, nor even by picking the “right methods” or “right theories.”

There are many problems with political engagement, but there are even more problems with a lack of political engagement.

Let me be frank: I fear that unless “anthropology of universities” becomes more directly connected to on-the-ground activism and reform efforts within higher education, it may remain a purely academic exercise. And Gusterson, as I indicated, has no clear political project. He just wants to advocate “a lifetime of study.” Even though precarious folks literally cannot afford that

Nevertheless I suppose I am glad, in the end, to see someone like Gusterson working to bring attention to ethnographic research on the university.

I just wish he had done it in a more sympathetic, generous, and more genuinely reflexive fashion.

Gusterson’s dismissal of most of the extant work is, I think, unkind. And I have tried to disprove his key claim: that there is an “avoidance relationship preventing us from systematically studying the institutions we inhabit.”

That avoidance relationship may well have existed in another era, last century. It is now gone. Today there is lots of ethnography of higher education. Lots of it is transnational. Lots of it is feminist. Lots of it is by Black and Brown scholars. Lots of it is by institutionally marginalized folks. It has plenty of different theories, and just as higher education is not a hermetically sealed institution, so too do our theories of it end up being theories of lots of other things too.

The bottom line is that this work is absolutely not the specific province of U.S. cultural anthropology, and there is profoundly no need for critical ethnography of universities to become a new “thing” in mainstream U.S. cultural anthropology.

What mainstream U.S. cultural anthropologists could usefully do is actually read the work that is already being done, and read it deeply (which Gusterson does not always do), and teach this work, and hire people who do it, and extend it when necessary, and improve its disciplinary politics, and definitely not retreat into a weird disciplinary nationalism or “not-invented-here syndrome.”

As Gusterson says, “homework” is in order. But this homework is less about creating a new research field than about learning how to recognize the work that is already there. Folks like Gusterson have a lot to catch up on.

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Critical Point 7: The problem of methodological nationalism Wed, 09 Jan 2019 19:08:03 +0000 Continue reading Critical Point 7: The problem of methodological nationalism]]> This is the seventh post in a series of critical engagements with Hugh Gusterson’s paper, Homework: Toward a Critical Ethnography of the University. I won’t repeat the framing of this series here, but you may want to read the introduction before continuing, or see the whole list of posts.

The blindness to intradisciplinary status, gender and power is not the major blind spot in this paper. We also need to pay close attention when Gusterson writes a preliminary disclaimer, seemingly in passing, that handicaps his whole enterprise.

“In view of my own location, the analysis is necessarily—and unfortunately—focused on US universities and their remaking in the context of contemporary neoliberalism” (437).

He is right that the omission is “unfortunate,” but was it remotely “necessary”?

To learn about non-US cases, Gusterson would not have needed to leave home. He merely needed to read the work of scholars who work on higher education anywhere else in the world.

And if he had read this work, that might have made clear that we literally cannot understand the real stakes of the US academy without seeing it, among other things, as an imperial force in globalized academic space.

Indeed, I would argue that one of the single most important points of anthropology of higher education, and its most promising feature compared to the deeply nationalist vantage of most sociologists and education scholars, is that it can think globally and comparatively.

I will not give an exhaustive bibliography here. Let me just note in passing that, to get a glimpse of this urgently needed transnational perspective, one could do well to examine Neha Vora’s recent paper, Is the University Universal? Mobile (Re)Constitutions of American Academia in the Gulf States, which examines the transnationality of American universities and their complex interface with non-American systems of race, class and gender. Or for instance, in South Africa, where I was recently teaching, there is a large body of critical research on South African student politics, the legacy of Apartheid, and the complexities of decolonization, and one of the things that comes up frequently in this literature is, precisely, the outsized influence that North American and European academics still carry in the global system. One cannot understand the urgency of epistemic decolonization in South Africa without understanding the hegemonic force of U.S. academia itself. A hegemonic force that includes U.S. cultural anthropology.

I have come to feel, in general, that there is a good reason why most other national academic fields have a clear perception of U.S. academia, while the U.S. academy — personified here by Gusterson — thinks it need only know itself. That’s usually how knowledge works in hierarchical situations. The dominant party indulges in comparative ignorance about the dominated. Whereas the dominated party develops a keen vision of their Other.

So when Gusterson gives hasty apologies for limiting his project to the U.S. case, he ends up reinforcing a global epistemic hierarchy in the guise of “limiting himself to what he knows.” He writes:

“In view of my own location, the analysis is necessarily—and unfortunately—focused on US universities and their remaking in the context of contemporary neoliberalism” (437).

Gusterson is right to acknowledge that other national cases have their own complexities and variations, but that is not an excuse for the methodological nationalism that he ultimately prefers. He is right to acknowledge too that his own location limits his knowledge in certain ways. But instead of accepting these limits, he should have asked why they were there and what they do. Why should Gusterson’s national location limit his critical analysis to the boundaries of a given national territory? And what kind of hierarchy does this express?

In short, Gusterson’s paper reminds us that there can be no critical ethnography of the university that is not global and transnational in scope. As academic capitalism itself is globalized, so too must be our analysis of it.

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Critical Point 6: Gender and dominated subfields in U.S. anthropology Wed, 09 Jan 2019 19:02:14 +0000 Continue reading Critical Point 6: Gender and dominated subfields in U.S. anthropology]]> This is the sixth post in a series of critical engagements with Hugh Gusterson’s paper, Homework: Toward a Critical Ethnography of the University. I won’t repeat the framing of this series here, but you may want to read the introduction before continuing, or see the whole list of posts.

I was just saying that Gusterson is uncritical about anthropology itself. This extends to a profound lack of self-consciousness about his own institutional location in the field.

When Gusterson originally delivered this paper orally, it was as his Presidential Address for the American Ethnological Society. Now this puts him at the very top ranks of the global status system in the field, because American anthropology is the globally dominant and basically hegemonic center of the discipline, and the AES is at the top of the status system within American anthropology, and then Gusterson was at the top of it.

He chooses nevertheless to inaugurate his paper by punching down at a subordinate sector of U.S. anthropology: the educational anthropology world that I am somewhat part of. Here is the second paragraph of his paper, which wants to show that anthropologists have an “avoidance relationship” to studying universities.

If one looks, for example, at the last four years of the journal Anthropology and Education Quarterly, one finds that, out of over 100 articles, only four focused on universities, and of these four, only two addressed US contexts. Anthropologists have shown a strong preference for studying high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools over the educational institutional sector in which they themselves are most likely to work, despite the obstacles that institutional review boards throw in front of ethnographers studying minors.

Ironically, the reasons why educational anthropologists overwhelmingly work on primary and secondary education are precisely … political economic. Education schools are where the jobs are — such as they are. There are approximately zero U.S. faculty jobs for anthropologists of universities, because traditional anthropology departments don’t need them, whereas higher education programs already control their own (tiny) field and don’t need to hire disciplinary outsiders. Meanwhile, in education schools that train teachers and school administrators, there are indeed a number of teaching jobs in “educational ethnography,” “anthropologists of education,” ”qualitative methods,” and the like.

Thus within the Council on Anthropology and Education (CAE), which is this subfield’s scholarly association in the U.S.A., most of its participants don’t come from traditional anthropology departments, they don’t have a massive amount of disciplinary status, and they come to constitute a relatively dominated, marginal subfield within the American Anthropological Association.

This intradisciplinary status system is in turn deeply gendered. Schooling/socialization/reproduction are gendered feminine. Educational anthropologists — possibly even more than the American Ethnological Society — are predominantly women. And the broader symbolic system that devalues women’s concerns and prioritizes men’s concerns tends to contaminate anthropology as well.

Gusterson seems unaware of this, and yet it puts in question his own methodology. Once one begins to account for the internal structures of gendered hierarchy within anthropology itself, it no longer makes sense for a dominant figure like Gusterson to scrutinize the CAE’s journal, Anthropology & Education Quarterly, to see whether it shows a sufficient preference for publishing work on higher education. The political economy of educational anthropology means that educational anthropologists have to work mainly on primary and secondary education; this is actually their job description. Reading this economic structure as a collective “preference” — or as an aversion to studying higher education — is an analytical mistake that Gusterson did not need to make. And to see Gusterson then go on to dismiss the work of overwhelmingly women ethnographers of college as being too unsystematic, too mired in studying identity/race/gender/students/subcultures/classrooms, basically inadequate and not sufficiently critical…

Well, those who abstain from gender analysis (and I include myself here in my own earlier work) are often doomed to reproduce the dynamics that they refused to learn about. And as Sara Ahmed writes in Living a Feminist Life:

At times, it can be tempting to think: it would be less difficult if I could just stop noticing sexism and racism. It would be easier to screen things out. Personally I don’t think that is an easy option. And I don’t think that it is always available as an option: because having let the world in, screening it out, would also require giving up on the subject you have become. I think this is a promise: once you become a person who notices sexism and racism, it is hard to unbecome that person.

I would love to see Gusterson become this sort of person. I don’t think it is too late. Perhaps the time has come for me to stress this: my point isn’t that his project is altogether terrible or that he is wrong about everything. I have no personal complaint about him; we have never even met.

But my point is that his work remains limited by structures he still seems to want to screen out. If only by making them secondary, by trivializing them a little, by ”just happening” to not be satisfied by women’s ethnographic work on these topics…

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Critical Point 5: Critical anthropology without a critique of anthropology Wed, 09 Jan 2019 18:56:15 +0000 Continue reading Critical Point 5: Critical anthropology without a critique of anthropology]]> This is the fifth post in a series of critical engagements with Hugh Gusterson’s paper, Homework: Toward a Critical Ethnography of the University. I won’t repeat the framing of this series here, but you may want to read the introduction before continuing, or see the whole list of posts.

Throughout his paper, Gusterson presumes that anthropology is basically the “good guys.

The implied “bad guys,” meanwhile, amount to most of the other social sciences. He lumps together “behaviorism in psychology, rational choice theory, Walt Rostow’s developmental stages in economics, ‘realism’ in international relations theory, and opinion polling in communications” as all being “Pentagon epistemology” (438).

Now, I generally sympathize with Gusterson’s political critique of these fields (though it is in awfully broad strokes), but the point is that this discourse lets anthropology completely off the hook, taking for granted that anthropology is a viable site for critical inquiry as such.

Here’s the underlying irony. It is precisely minoritized scholars, Black and Brown anthropologists, women and queer anthropologists who in this century have most powerfully developed critiques of anthropology itself. I will not try to be exhaustive here, but I think, for instance, of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s critique of the savage slot (2003), of Faye V. Harrison’s critique of “epistemological apartheid” (2016), and of Karen Brodkin, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson’s analysis of anthropology as white public space (2011). Again we are haunted by Gusterson’s distaste for theories of identity: his work is diminished by its structural unconscious.

Thus Gusterson’s image of critical fieldwork on higher education generally presumes that higher education is a safe place “for us.” (An us, as I was just saying, that it has not earned.) As such, Gusterson’s paper remains decidedly uninformed by recent intersectional critiques of fieldwork and of anthropology itself as unsafe space, as evident for instance in the collective reflections on women of color faculty that Tami Navarro, Bianca Williams and Attiya Ahmad published five years ago (2013). This latter paper makes the overall institutional message to Black and Brown anthropologists, particularly women faculty, especially clear: “Remember, this space was not made for you” (2013:454).

In the wake of this body of work, it makes no sense to propose that anthropology is the place from which “we” can write a virtuous critique of the rest of higher education.

Instead, anthropology is part and parcel of a globalized system of academic power. Rather than taking it as a good place from which to critique the rest of academia, Gusterson needed to put his own field in question. Reflexivity cannot stop when it gets close to home. There is no critical anthropology that is not also a self-critical anthropology.

Navarro, Tami, Bianca Williams, and Attiya Ahmad. 2013. “Sitting at the Kitchen Table: Fieldnotes from Women of Color in Anthropology: Introduction: Gender, Race, and Anthropological Practice.” Cultural Anthropology 28 (3): 443–63.
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Critical Point 4: The tenured “we” or the subject of liberal pity Wed, 09 Jan 2019 17:29:58 +0000 Continue reading Critical Point 4: The tenured “we” or the subject of liberal pity]]> This is the fourth post in a series of critical engagements with Hugh Gusterson’s paper, Homework: Toward a Critical Ethnography of the University. I won’t repeat the framing of this series here, but you may want to read the introduction before continuing, or see the whole list of posts.

I suggested in the previous post that Gusterson does not really engage with the large body of work on identity and intersectional perspective that has — rightly — become central to critical work on higher education.

Yet he does speak quite freely on behalf of a collective: a collective “we.”

This makes me anxious.

I have argued elsewhere that there is no authentic we in the field of U.S. higher education, because social, political, racial, gendered, national, linguistic, and ideological fractures leave ”us“ fundamentally divided. All general representatives of this system, however critical, are only pretenders, inevitably blind to positions other than their own. I have also observed that the “we” of many academics writing about precarious work tends to lead into liberal pity politics, where a tenured “we” takes pains to distinguish itself from the “they” of adjunct or precarious work, its moral concern subsequently becoming an ineffective substitute for politics.

Unfortunately, this position is more or less where Gusterson ends up. Gusterson aspires to this sort of general we inasmuch as he desires to construct a systematic anthropology of higher education, one not limited to the perspective or problem of a particular social identity. Inasmuch Gusterson’s paper aspires to some kind of general perspective, we are justified in asking just how this perspective is constructed rhetorically, and in asking what it constructs itself against.

On a textual level, Gusterson frequently uses the pronoun “we” to carry his argument. I count about thirty we-s in the body of the text, and only seven I-s. But gradually it becomes clear that this we is not everyone. It becomes clear that you have to be a tenured professor to really count as part of Gusterson’s we. For Gusterson, “we” doesn’t really include adjuncts and other precarious staff. For him, precarious workers are they.

Here is how we comes up:

The big story here, and one that comfortable tenured faculty like myself might prefer not to notice, is the rise of adjunct faculty relative to tenured and tenure- track faculty.

While Gusterson does not manage to contemplate his whiteness or masculinity, he does at least here acknowledge his institutional status, and he acknowledges that it comes with a form of structural blindness: blindness about precarity.

He continues, citing Sharff and Lessinger’s important 1990s-era analysis of the “academic sweatshop”:

In fact, reading the first-person testimony of some adjunct faculty, I was reminded of interviews I read a decade ago with underpaid janitors who said they appreciated working at Harvard because the food the students threw away was indispensable in feeding their families. Based on their interviews with other adjuncts, Sharff and Lessinger report that, aside from the insecurity and low wages, adjuncts suffer from what one of their interviewees described as “isolation, feelings of hopelessness, feelings of worthlessness, being treated like shit.” (442)

There is obviously nothing wrong with being a janitor (aside from the fact that the role is deliberately stigmatized, devalorized and immiserated in most university workplaces). But here Gusterson deploys the figure of the janitor in a way that I find politically toxic. Gusterson is in effect dramatizing the immiseration of adjuncts by comparing them to the lowest class of academic workers, the custodial staff. The adjuncts are more like janitors, the lowest of the low, than they are like me, a comfortable tenured professor: this seems to be the logic of the argument.

In making such a comparison, Gusterson seems invested in pushing the adjuncts’ indignity and starvation far outside of his own self, which he represents as comfortable and even potentially oblivious to the suffering of adjuncts. We pity them: this becomes the underlying structure of Gusterson’s critical address. We don’t get any new analysis of adjuncts themselves here. We learn instead about Gusterson’s own melodrama of disidentification with academic proletarians.

And even on its own terms, the fragment here of self-analysis already lets the tenured faculty off too easily. Gusterson says that “comfortable tenured faculty like myself might prefer not to notice” the growth of precarity in academia. But I must protest this banal formulation — for what kind of tenured professor at this point is still oblivious to the suffering of adjuncts? Adjunct suicides and unionization campaigns are frequently in the media. The AAUP releases an annual report on the status of the profession. Obliviousness at this point is more than an accident or a matter of social structure. If it exists, it is a reactionary existential choice.

In a subsequent paragraph, Gusterson goes on to endorse an adjunct at Harvard who has characterized adjunct labor as “the great shame of our profession.” Yet It seems to me that the latter author, Kevin Birmingham, has earned the right to speak of the shame of our profession in a way that Gusterson has not, because Gusterson’s text is not really representative of the academic profession, but only speaks for its privileged, dominant class fraction. That is why it contains numerous classist references to “comfortable tenured faculty like myself” (442) and to “those of us who are faculty” (444). Throughout the paper, Gusterson presumes that his narrow — indeed, shrinking — segment of the professoriate has a legitimate claim to speak about it in general.

Can the tenured professoriate still speak for the academy in general?

Nothing illustrates better than Gusterson’s paper the problems with their ongoing claims to legitimacy in public discourse.

To be clear, though, my point isn’t that you can never write we in this line of work. It’s that this we needs to be earned, not presumed. Inclusive language requires inclusive politics. Claims to belong, or to adjudicate belonging, or to claim collectivity, cannot just remain a default privilege of the powerful.

Meanwhile, it’s more than alienating, at the very level of language, to produce a discourse that treats adjuncts as starving figures needing pity and shock. Actually what precarious folks need is for more tenured faculty to support their — our — labor organizing campaigns and to stop writing about them — us — in the third person.

But at least Gusterson qua tenured professor knows that his claim to righteousness is troubled by his very status. Gusterson qua anthropologist, on the other hand, is painfully unambivalent about his field’s potential for critical righteousness.

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Critical Point 3: The resistance to identity theories, or methodological whiteness Wed, 09 Jan 2019 16:07:15 +0000 Continue reading Critical Point 3: The resistance to identity theories, or methodological whiteness]]> This is the third post in a series of critical engagements with Hugh Gusterson’s paper, Homework: Toward a Critical Ethnography of the University. I won’t repeat the framing of this series here, but you may want to read the introduction before continuing, or see the whole list of posts.

The corollary to Gusterson’s return to political economy is a rejection of what we could call, very broadly, identity theories. By identity theories I mean the whole set of traditions which have insisted that all thought emerges from a particular place in the social world, from a particular subject position.

Such traditions insist typically that identity matters and it matters who speaks and it matters where we speak. One version of this project is called standpoint theory. But the general rubric I have in mind is much broader, including intellectual traditions like feminist theory, race theory, queer theory, intersectional analysis, postcolonial theory, ideology theory…

Such theories question all claims — especially Eurocentric and colonial claims — to unmarked, universal reason. They call attention to the default whiteness of too much critical theory. They put in question masculinity and gender relations. They may problematize heteronormativity. They comment on the geopolitics of knowledge in a postcolonial era.

Gusterson does not let himself really engage with identity theories. As we saw at the outset of this series, his resistance to “identity” goes along with his aesthetic resistance to scholarly research that seems too “particular” or “partial,” and his general sense that “ethnic and gender relations” are merely “particular” phenomena, whereas he aspires to something more general.

As such, his work has a certain resonance with what Gurminder K. Bhambra terms methodological whiteness. Bhambra writes:

‘Methodological whiteness’, I suggest, is a way of reflecting on the world that fails to acknowledge the role played by race in the very structuring of that world, and of the ways in which knowledge is constructed and legitimated within it. It fails to recognise the dominance of ‘whiteness’ as anything other than the standard state of affairs and treats a limited perspective – that deriving from white experience – as a universal perspective. At the same time, it treats other perspectives as forms of identity politics explicable within its own universal (but parochial and lesser than its own supposedly universal) understandings.

I don’t want to oversimplify: of course Gusterson is aware in principle of the significance of racial structures of domination in U.S. higher education. But for want of a more extensive engagement with theories of race and of identity in general, he nevertheless ends up, to borrow Bhambra’s formulation, “treating other perspectives as forms of identity politics explicable within [his] own universal understandings.”

Now for the sake of fairness, my general impression of Gusterson’s resistance to identity theories does demand two qualifications.

Qualification 1: Gusterson does make a major gesture towards feminism. It’s where he gets the title of his paper. He says as much in a footnote (446n2):

[Note 2:] The title is also a reference to Kamala Visweswaran’s (1994) feminist argument in favor of a reflexive “homework” that acknowledges its own locations, blind spots, and partialities.

OK so in sum… feminism is both consecrated by citation, and consigned to a footnote.

This, I fear, pretty much sums up the token place of identity theory in Gusterson’s paper. Of course Gusterson is quite right, in his reference to Visweswaran, that we should try to “acknowledge our own locations.” Yet the problem is: by gesturing towards positionality quite abstractly, and in a footnote, he walls off this project, literally demoting it to the margins of his paper. Correspondingly, he fails to ever actually do the work of figuring out what his position means.

Qualification 2: Gusterson does think about racialization and minoritization as it intersects with his preferred style of political economy. For example, he thinks about producing inequality:

Universities have become part of an apparatus that is sedimenting inequality and making social mobility harder. Universities lean heavily in admissions decisions on standardized tests, despite compelling evidence that these tests are biased against racial minorities and those from lower socioeconomic groups. (443)

And he invokes the racialized economic discipline of student debt:

For minority students who borrow then drop out, instead of being a ladder to increased earnings and status, the university system becomes a trapdoor through which they fall to a life of increased debt without increased earnings, their ambitions for self-betterment used against them as a means of keeping them down. (444)

But it is one thing to be aware of the sociological realities of racial exclusion and another to let its existence inform one’s epistemology and even one’s sense of self. Gusterson does the former, not the latter.

Thus “minority students,” as he repeatedly calls them, are essentially Other to him, constituting his object of political-economic inquiry, rather than informing his subject position. Gusterson would perhaps say that he was just being realistic. Clearly it is not Gusterson who fell through a trapdoor into a life of increased debt without increased earnings. He is not the one whose ambitions for self-betterment were used against him. It is not he — a white Englishman whose first degree is from Cambridge — who identifies as a minoritized subject.

Now it is not that I wish Gusterson would identify “as” someone he “is not.” What I wish is that he were more viscerally aware of his own location and how it informs not just his experience but his entire system of theoretical values and categories. And I wish he had let identity theories — in all their guises — enter his own thinking more deeply.

As things stand, Gusterson does not really take seriously either his own specific social position or the vast literature on identities and standpoints. He writes in the main as someone who has the privilege of looking, and not so much the burden of being looked at. Methodological whiteness, indeed.

N.B. There may be those who wonder: Who are you, Eli Thorkelson, white North American anthropologist, seemingly unmarked subject, to applaud identity theories and denounce Gusterson’s indifference towards them? To which I would respond that the question is, of course, quite valid. This is not really the place for an autobiography (here’s a brief one), but I would at least note that I would locate myself in a structurally intermediate position, as a product of an elite U.S. anthropology Ph.D. program, yet also in precarious circumstances, and working on topics outside the mainstream of anthropological research. In any event, as the editor of Academography, I feel a professional obligation to care about the politics of representation in papers like Gusterson’s.

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Public Anthropology and Student Politics Syllabus Wed, 21 Nov 2018 03:36:40 +0000 Continue reading Public Anthropology and Student Politics Syllabus]]> I wanted to share one last syllabus that I’ve taught myself: this one was from when I taught last year at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. The prescribed title was “Public Anthropology,” but it was really a critical survey of student movements since the 1960s, seen in global perspective with a focus on South Africa.

I’ll just post the course description and reading list, and then add a few further comments.

Course Description

This module is aimed at understanding the public role of anthropology in moments of political conflict and educational crisis. It will reach this goal through critical reflection on the notions of politics and publics, and through ethnographic study of the history of student protests since the 1960s, culminating in a reflexive study of the #FeesMustFall movement in South Africa.


Part I: Anthropology, publics and politics

Sept. 11 – Decolonizing anthropology in South Africa

  • Nyamnjoh, Francis B., and Nantang B. Jua. “African Universities in Crisis and the Promotion of a Democratic Culture: The Political Economy of Violence in African Educational Systems.” African Studies Review 45, no. 2 (2002): 1-26.
  • Dubbeld, Bernard, and Kelly Gillespie. “The Possibility of a Critical Anthropology after Apartheid: Relevance, Intervention, Politics.” Anthropology Southern African 30, no. 3&4 (2007): 129-34.

Sept. 13 – Power and the Postcolony

  • Mbembe, Achille. “The Banality of Power and the Aesthetics of Vulgarity in the Postcolony.” Public Culture 4, no. 2 (1992): 1-30.
  • Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. “Reflections on Liberalism, Policulturalism, and Id-Ology: Citizenship and Difference in South Africa.” Social Identities 9, no. 4 (2003): 445-73.

Sept. 14 – Decolonizing Knowledge

Sept. 18 – Publics & Counterpublics

  • Cody, Francis. “Publics and Politics.” Annual Review of Anthropology 40 (2011): 37-52.

Sept. 20 – Policy and Critique

  • Mosse, David. “Anti-Social Anthropology? Objectivity, Objection, and the Ethnography of Public Policy and Professional Communities.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12, no. 4 (2006): 935-56.

Sept. 21 – Test 1

We will have a written test in class covering questions about Part I of the module.

Part II: Historical anthropology of student protest

Sept. 25 – Public Holiday

There will be no class or reading today.

Sept. 27 – Biko

  • Biko, Steve. I Write What I Like. Oxford: Heinemann, 1987. (Selections.)

Sept. 28 – France

  • Feenberg, Andrew, and Jim Freedman. When Poetry Ruled the Streets : The French May Events of 1968. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2001. (Selections.)

Oct. 2 – United States

  • Jones, Alethia, and Virginia Eubanks, eds. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith. Albany: SUNY Press, 2014. (Selections.)

Oct. 4 – The 80s and “neoliberalism”

  • Bundy, Colin. “Street Sociology and Pavement Politics: Aspects of Youth and Student Resistance in Cape Town, 1985.” Journal of Southern African Studies 13, no. 3 (1987): 303-30.

Oct. 5 – SASO to SANSCO

  • Badat, Saleem. Black Student Politics, Higher Education and Apartheid: From Saso to Sansco, 1968-1999. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council, 1999. (Selections.)

Part III: #FeesMustFall

Oct. 9 – #FeesMustFall

  • Badat, Saleem. “Deciphering the Meanings and Explaining the South African Higher Education Student Protests of 2015–16.” Pax Academica 1-2 (2016): 71-106.

Oct. 11 – Gender

  • Cornell, Josephine, Kopano Ratele, and Shose Kessi. “Race, Gender and Sexuality in Student Experiences of Violence and Resistances on a University Campus.” Perspectives in Education 34, no. 2 (2016): 97-119.

Oct. 12 – Colonial History

Nyamnjoh, Francis B. “Black Pain Matters: Down with Rhodes.” Pax Academica 1-2 (2015): 47-70.

Oct. 16 – Stellenbosch

We will discuss a range of ethnographic materials dealing with the history of student organizing at Stellenbosch University.

Oct. 18 – Course Review

There is no assigned reading for today. We will review the module content.

Oct. 19 – Test 2

We will have a written test in class covering questions about Parts II and III of the module.


As always, the first time you teach at a new university — not to mention in this case, in a new continent — there is a lot to learn about fitting into the local context. If I were teaching this again, I would tinker quite a bit with the readings, especially in the first and last sections, and replace some of the denser texts with shorter, punchier ones. But I was happy with the general course structure, which moved from theories of publics and politics to protest histories and then to current events. The South African #FeesMustFall movement was still quite recent when I taught this class in September 2017.

I also found that this class was complicated to teach at Stellenbosch because my students themselves were deeply divided along political lines. It wasn’t the mission of the class to endorse any particular protest movement, of course, but it did insist that we take student protests seriously, and be willing to learn about them. For some of my South African students, that stance was controversial. A few people walked out the day we talked about Steve Biko.

Instead of assigning traditional papers, I asked students to do two teaching exercises. The idea was that you had to try teaching someone about something we’d learned in class, and then you’d turn in a short written reflection on how it went. I actually found that this was very effective: my students largely had no experience with teaching, but asking them to teach seemed to help shake them out of some of the traps and conventions of regular academic writing.

I’ll attach the full syllabus as well, and some of the lecture notes are also available on GitHub.

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Resources for Resistance: A politically engaged reading list Thu, 01 Nov 2018 14:09:48 +0000 Continue reading Resources for Resistance: A politically engaged reading list]]> Maximillian Alvarez kindly offered to let us repost his short bibliography of Resources for Resistance, which affords a great, broad introduction to recent critical writing on higher education. (Much of it is U.S.-oriented; it also includes reflections from Canada, Britain, Australia, Mexico, and some more transnational cases.)

We’re borrowing the list from the end of Alvarez’s manifesto last year in The Baffler, Contingent No More. The manifesto is well worth reading for its general reminder that organizing against precarity should also be about organizing against the academic star system and against the dominant structures of academic knowledge.

For teaching purposes, this list could provide many useful starting places, especially since many of these texts are shorter form essays that could work well on syllabi.

Resources for Resistance (an introductory bibliography):

Craig Lambert, Harvard Magazine, “The ‘Wild West’ of Academic Publishing

The Conversation, Articles on Academic Journal Debate

Hugh Gusterson, The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Want to Change Academic Publishing? Just Say No

Michael White, Pacific Standard, “How to Change the Centuries-Old Model of Academic Publishing

Jonathan Gray, The Guardian, “It’s Time to Stand Up to Greedy Academic Publishers

Jane C. Hu, The Atlantic, “Academics Want You to Read Their Work for Free

Modern Languages Association, “The Future of Scholarly Publishing” (2002 Report)

American Council of Learned Societies, “Crises and Opportunities: The Futures of Scholarly Publishing” (2003 Report)

Christover J. Broadhurst and Georgianna L. Martin (Eds.), “Radical Academia”? Understanding the Climate for Campus Activists

The Sociological Imagination, Radical Education Projects

Robin D.G. Kelley, Boston Review, “Black Study, Black Struggle

Simon Batterbury, The Winnower, “Who Are the Radical Academics Today?

Gwendolyn Beetham, Feministing, “The Academic Feminist: Summer at the Archives with Chicana Por Mi Raza (An Interview with Maria Cotera)”

The SIGJ2 Writing Collective, Antipode, “What Can We Do? The Challenge of Being New Academics in Neoliberal Universities

Culum Canally, Antipode, “Timidity and the ‘Radical’ Academic Mind: A Response to the SIGJ2 Writing Collective

Yasmin Nair, Current Affairs, “The Dangerous Academic Is an Extinct Species

Cary Nelson, American Association of University Professors, “A Faculty Agenda for Hard Times

Jennifer Ruth, Remaking the University, “When Tenure-Track Faculty Take On the Problem of Adjunctification

Thomas Duke, The Undercurrent, “The Cause of the Adjunct Crisis: How a Research Focus is Destroying Higher Education

Debra Leigh Scott, Adjunct Nation, “How American Universities Have Destroyed Scholarship in the U.S.

Mary Elizabeth Luka, Alison Harvey, Mél Hogan, Tamara Shepherd, Andrea Zeffiro, Studies in Social Justice, “Scholarship as Cultural Production in the Neoliberal University: Working Within and Against ‘Deliverables’

Alison Mountz, Anne Bonds, Becky Mansfield, Jenna Loyd, Jennifer Hyndman, Margaret Walton-Roberts, Ranu Basu, Risa Whitson, Roberta Hawkins, Trina Hamilton, Winifred Curran, ACME, “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University

Sarah Banet-Weiser, Alexandra Juhasz, International Journal of Communications, “Feminist Labor in Media Studies/Communication

Heather Fraser and Nik Taylor, Neoliberalization, Universities, and the Public Intellectual

Kevin Birmingham, The Chronicle of Higher Education, “‘The Great Shame of Our Profession’

Marc Bousquet, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation

Shannon Ikebe and Alexandra Holmstrom-Smith, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, “Union Democracy, Student Labor, and the Fight for Public Education

Anonymous, Inside Higher Ed, “Treadmill to Oblivion

Lucia Lorenzi, thoughts on mediocrity

Miya Tokumitsu, Jacobin, “In the Name of Love

Sarah Kendzior, Vitae, “The Adjunct Crisis Is Everyone’s Problem

Hamilton Nolan, Gawker, “The Horrifying Reality of the Academic Job Market

Denise Cummins, PBS, “Why the Backlash against Adjuncts Is an Indictment of the Tenure System

Christopher Newfield, American Association of University Professors, “Avoiding the Coming Higher Ed Wars

Henry A. Giroux, Truthout, “Angela Davis, Freedom and the Politics of Higher Education

Charles R. Hale (Ed.), Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship

Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, Social Text, “The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses

Ji-Young Um, #alt-academy, “On Being a Failed Professor: Lessons from the Margins and the Undercommons

Undercommoning Collective, ROAR, “Undercommoning within, against, and beyond the University-as-Such

Zach Schwartz-Weinstein, Is This What Democracy Looks Like?, “Not Your Academy: Occupation and the Future of Student Struggles

Trish Kahle and Michael Billeaux, Jacobin, “Resisting the Corporate University

Levi Gahman, ROAR, “Dismantling Neoliberal Education: A Lesson from the Zapatistas

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