Monthly Archives: May 2013

Sarah Kendzior interview

Back in the day when I was a graduate student (Stanford 1967-1972) the world was oh so different in so many ways. The discipline of Anthropology seemed alive, vital, relevant; there was money (NIMH, NIH, foundations) for study and for research; the ‘Developing World’ seemed to welcome the attentions of young American scholars; and there were jobs for those who survived the process of doing research and writing a dissertation… Of course all was not so rosy as it seemed to us, and big changes were just over the horizon. The 80s and 90s were a bonfire, a train wreck, and departments wrangled and split and tenure-track jobs dried up and money and foreign welcome evaporated. I was safe in a tenured position, but increasingly restive in academia… so I made a successful leap into library school (Simmons 1991-1992) and thence to a job I loved as a Reference Librarian and then Science Librarian. My vantage point on academic Anthropology has been pretty distant for more than two decades –I don’t follow the literature, and many of the current hot topics and controversies are far from my interests anyway. Still, I claim the identity ‘Anthropologist’ and enjoy the ambiguities it affords (few people have any clear idea of what an anthropologist is or does), and I continue to learn about human variety and follow my own paths of inquiry. I do follow the Savage Minds blog, and often find provocative material therein. Case in point: today’s interview with Sarah Kendzior, a writer for Al Jazeera English and (of course) a blogger. Here’s a chunk from the interview that strikes me as beautifully observed and expressed:

Graduate students live in constant fear. Some of this fear is justified, like the fear of not finding a job. But the fear of unemployment leads to a host of other fears, and you end up with a climate of conformity, timidity, and sycophantic emulation. Intellectual inquiry is suppressed as “unmarketable”, interdisciplinary research is marked as disloyal, public engagement is decried as “unserious”, and critical views are written anonymously lest a search committee find them. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by the Academic Jobs Wiki.

The cult mentality of academia not only curtails intellectual freedom, but hurts graduate students in a personal way. They internalize systemic failure as individual failure, in part because they have sacrificed their own beliefs and ideas to placate market values. The irony is that an academic market this corrupt and over-saturated has no values. Do not sacrifice your integrity to a lottery — even if you are among the few who can afford to buy tickets until you win.

Anthropology PhDs tend to wind up as contingent workers because they believe they have no other options. This is not true – anthropologists have many skills and could do many things – but there are two main reasons they think so. First, they are conditioned to see working outside of academia as failure. Second, their graduate training is not oriented not toward intellectual exploration, but to shoring up a dying discipline.

Gillian Tett famously said that anthropology has committed intellectual suicide. Graduate students are taught to worship at its grave. The aversion to interdisciplinary work, to public engagement, to new subjects, to innovation in general, is wrapped up in the desire to affirm anthropology’s special relevance. Ironically, this is exactly what makes anthropology irrelevant to the larger world. No one outside the discipline cares about your jargon, your endless parenthetical citations, your paywalled portfolio, your quiet compliance. They care whether you have ideas and can communicate them. Anthropologists have so much to offer, but they hide it away.

some surly thoughts

Eight years ago (as I was on the final approach to Retirement) I was wrestling with the discontinuity between my visions of Education in the liberal arts context and the gelid realities of liberal arts institutions. At that time I was in the habit of keeping running logs of thoughts and discoveries, and these four seem especially relevant to today’s thoughts:

  • How It Looks at the end of March 2005
  • Endgame (March-August 2005)

    …a place to accumulate odds and ends that have to do with preparing for retirement –ruminations, legacy stuff, things to do and not-do, etc. This is it. To some degree, it’s also a continuation of The Disgruntlement File, but the Watchword is/should be Fuggeddaboudit!, liberally applied, with a dash of Master Kung:

    The Master said, “To learn something and then put it into practise at the right time: is this not a joy?
    To have friends coming from afar: is this not a delight?
    Not to be upset when one’s merits are ignored: is this not the mark of a gentleman?”

    (Leys translation –but see the end of this page for other renderings of the passage)

  • SUMMARY from early June 2005
  • Ruminations on Infospace (10 June-4 August 2005)

In the nearly-eight intervening years my engagement in the scuffles and food fights of Education has waned to almost nothing –I still track some edublogs, but nowadays I don’t usually feel inclined to try to influence anybody (something I used to take pretty seriously) or even to post my thoughts in the quiet backwaters of this blogspace. In the last year or so I’ve watched the buzz about MOOCs go from mumble to frenzy, and I haven’t been provoked to register my own (jaundiced) opinions on this most recent version of The Emperor’s Clothes. Here’s the bit of what Cogdog said that got me started today:

I remain astounded that anyone with a fully functioning neocortex talking seriously about MOOCs being some model of saving educational costs when the word is each course rings up a tab of $250k (edx) or even more. What does an institution get for dropping a quarter of a million per course?

I can tell you what you do not get- an ongoing open sharing of the processes, of what worked, what did not work. Not a Udellian narrating of the process. It’s more like another loaf of pre-packaged Wonderbread off the racks.

And it ties back to what Leslie Madsen-Brooks recently summarized eloquently in using UMW as a case example of innovation on higher education. That’s right, look beyond the Ivies and the Silicon Valley darlings, and you land at a tiny, public liberal arts college in Virginia. Jim Groom writes it all in the title- the Innovation isn’t Technical, It’s Narrative.

I spent 6 months working at UMW thinking they had some magic in the water (did not taste any). But it’s a culture of open sharing, not the final products, but the makings thereof. It’s not a mindset of saying, “Look what we experts hand you like Greek gods”, it’s an ongoing narrative of trying, asking, failing, reflecting, of process, not just product.

Exactly. Ongoing narrative is precisely the Grail to which teachers and learners need to attend, and to which they need to commit themselves. I now think that it’s always been true (though I didn’t discover/realize it myself until maybe 20 years ago, after I made the leap from classroom to library), though we now have tools at our fingertips that make the individual narrative distributable and greatly broaden the possibilities of collaboration as a basic modality of education.

So once again I thank the lucky stars that I got out when I did.