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.