Anthropology of the University Syllabus

Davydd Greenwood kindly shared his syllabus for an Anthropology of the University course. I believe he taught this course for about ten years at Cornell University, so it presumably went through many iterations. Here’s the description:

We examine the contemporary university as a social and cultural system. The seminar involves an examination of the convergences and divergences between the trajectories of the sciences and engineering, the humanities, and the social sciences in contemporary universities and some international comparisons with the trajectories of universities around the world. The overall aim is to link an ethnographic analysis of the microstructures of departmental differentiation, professional hegemonies, and local financing with the larger-scale processes of transformation of universities’ place in society under the pressures of corporatization, globalization, and competition from a host of alternative higher education institutions.

Here’s the list of books they read:

For more details, read the complete syllabus here.


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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

3 thoughts on “Anthropology of the University Syllabus”

  1. Hello Davydd, I loved seeing your syllabus and wonder how I didn’t “find” you before. As part of the Ethnography of the University Initiative (started by the late Nancy Abelmann and Bill Kelleher) at the University of Illinois, I’ve been teaching\thinking about the ethnography of the university for about 14 years. And I have wanted to move the course more from an investigation of “student life and culture” to the examination of public higher ed’s corporatization, privitization which are, of course, related, but I struggle sometimes to engage students in those “larger” issues. I use the little primer by Clawson and Page called “The Future of Higher Education” which is accessible and helpful. I wonder who your students are (Undergrad/graduate)? and what kinds of ethnographic projects your students have understaken over the years? THanks so much for sharing your syllabus, and for your work. I’m delighted to find this Academography project!

  2. Thanks, Gina, for your comments. When I began teaching about this, Nancy Abelmann´s book on the “intimate” university was one of the first I found. We corresponded briefly. I am sorry to learn that she has died.

    Anthropology has taken a very long time to come around to studying one of the principal institutions it operates in. When I was in graduate school, even my decision to work in Spain was questioned because it was “us” rather than studying “them” and many considered that working in the Basque Country was not “real” fieldwork. Since the “red scare”, anthropology exiled itself to non-domestic locations and disciplined itself mainly to be quiet about issues of domestic social import. I have tried to tell this story in a recently published piece on anthropology and the organization of higher education. Information about it is available at my ResearchGate site.

    The students for my course were all undergraduates, even though the course could have been taken by graduate students. It was a very rewarding experience because it was a small enough group with each student doing their own ethnography that I could get to know them (and they could get to know me). By mid-semester, the students would be sharing their own hopes and frustrations with an institution that was not nearly as committed to their education as they had imagined. If one topic particularly attracted them, it was meritocracy and the coercive role it played in their lives. And they were surprised to know that faculty, staff, and administrators struggled with these issues too. Though modest, the experience gave me hope that higher education as an aspiration is not dead; it is just in jail serving a 30-year sentence. Morten Levin and I have summarized our views on these issues and our hopes and guidelines for reform in a book called Creating the New Public University and Reviving Democracy, published by Berghahn.

  3. Thanks for your response, Davydd. I’m inspired by your experience and look forward to reading more of your work. One of the most rewarding aspects of my work with the Ethnography of the University Initiative was the interdisciplinary sharing of syllabi, readings, exercises, and pedagogical approaches to studying the university. I’ve found a bit of that joy here and look forward to reading more posts on Academography.

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