Self-governing schools in Tanzania

“Neoliberalism” is always an unsatisfying category, but as it does broadly designate a cluster of policies and institutional logics, it tends to stick around as an ideal type. David Harvey puts it like this:

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.

I usually prefer to talk about “New Public Management” instead of “neoliberalism,” though, because it more directly picks out a set of governing techniques (audits/markets/contracts + incentives) and leaves aside the question of the “philosophy” (if any) that lies beneath.

One of the papers that made a major impression on me in thinking about neoliberalism/NPM, in any event,  was Alexander Mitterle’s excellent “Un socialisme académique?” Mitterle shows that many of the institutional governance mechanisms that we call “academic capitalist” were already found in socialist East Germany. As I summarized his findings in my review of the edited collection where he published: Continue reading Self-governing schools in Tanzania

Does academic informality matter?

Since I started teaching at Whittier, I’ve been thinking about how I like my students to address me. There’s something of a local norm of just calling everyone “Professor.” It cuts down on cognitive overhead, no doubt, to be able to address all of one’s teachers by their title; it saves on having to keep track of their names. Not to mention that my last name is hard to pronounce, so perhaps students don’t know how to say it, or don’t care to risk getting it wrong…

I’ve started to tell them they can call me “Eli,” as a sign of… a sign of what? Familiarity? Informality? Friendliness? Being easygoing? Not wanting to reinforce the old-school hierarchies? Some combination of these. But it also occurs to me that telling my students what to call me is still a way of inhabiting authority, even if I ask them to call me something less-hierarchical. So instead of requesting that they call me “Eli,” I just frame it as giving them the option of calling me by [firstname]. They can exercise it as they choose.

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Is writing composition or improvisation?

In my corner of the academy, one isn’t really taught much about writing.

One is taught constantly to produce texts and to judge texts, but that isn’t the same thing, because writing is a process, and the text is merely the product. A theory of a product isn’t a theory of its production.

There is of course a cottage industry of advice, guidelines, tips, “rules for writing,” writing strategies, and so on. Generally this advice is instrumentalist. It tells you, “Picture your reader!” “Write short sentences!” “Always revise!” “Have modest goals!” It tells you, in sum, “Write like this if you want to succeed.”

The problem with this sort of writing advice is that it isn’t really about writing. It is about career success, behavioral self-optimization, and complying with norms.

The second problem with writing advice is that it constantly equates writing with composition. But composition is only one metaphor for writing. Perhaps improvisation (to borrow a sibling musical category) is another possible metaphor for writing. Maybe it’s even a good one?

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Whittier College at the end of summer

I grew up partly in a college town, and I’ve been around college campuses most of my life. One of my favorite times of year is this late-summer empty moment that happens after summer sessions finish and before classes start for the fall. It’s peaceful; you get a clearer view of the space.

Here’s what Whittier College looks like this time of year.

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Courtyard of the Campus Center

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Derrida on complacency and vulgarity

In Benoît Peeters’ biography of Jacques Derrida, there is an intriguing interview with Derrida that was never published. Peeters writes:

In 1992, Jacques Derrida gave Osvaldo Muñoz an interview which concluded with a traditional ‘Proust questionnaire’. If this text, meant for the daily El País, was in the end not published, this is perhaps because Derrida deemed it a bit too revealing:

What are the depths of misery for you?: To lose my memory.

Where would you like to live?: In a place to which I can always return, in other words from which I can leave.

For what fault do you have the most indulgence?: Keeping a secret which one should not keep.

Favourite hero in a novel: Bartleby.

Your favourite heroines in real life?: I’m keeping that a secret.

Your favourite quality in a man?: To be able to confess that he is afraid.

Your favourite quality in a woman?: Thought.

Your favourite virtue?: Faithfulness.

Your favourite occupation: Listening.

Who would you like to have been?: Another who would remember me a bit.

My main character trait?: A certain lack of seriousness.

My dream of happiness?: To continue dreaming.

What would be my greatest misfortune?: Dying after the people I love.

What I would like to be: A poet.

What I hate more than anything?: Complacency and vulgarity.

The reform I most admire: Everything to do with the difference between the sexes.

The natural gift I would like to have: Musical genius.

How I would like to die: Taken completely by surprise.

My motto: Prefer to say yes.

[From Derrida: A Biography, p. 418]

One could say many things about this. But for now, I mainly want to observe that I am struck by the open sexism of admiring “thought” as a woman’s virtue while singling out “vulnerability” (in essence) as his preferred “quality in a man.” Of course, one of Peeters’ interviewees remarks that “In spite of his love of women and his closeness to feminism, he still had a bit of a misogynistic side, like many men of his generation.”

Style, bad prose, and Corey Robin’s theory of public intellectuals

Ten years ago, before I started doing research in France, I wrote my MA thesis about the politics of “bad writing” in the American humanities. Empirically, my major case study was about a “Bad Writing Contest” run by the late Denis Dutton, which dedicated itself in the late 1990s to making fun of (ostensibly) bad academic prose. The winners were always left-wing critical theorists like Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler and Fredric Jameson.

I ended up concluding that the Bad Writing Contest was a scene where low-status-academics got to symbolically denounce higher-status academics, so in that sense the whole affair was basically about status dominance; but I had put the project behind me, until I was reminded of the topic by Corey Robin’s recent comments about Judith Butler as a public intellectual. I’d like to focus briefly on his main claim: that Butler’s seemingly inaccessible writing style did not prevent her work from being culturally generative and iconic. As he puts it:

It is Gender Trouble—that difficult, knotty, complicated book, with a prose style that violates all the rules of Good Public Writing—that has generated the largest public or publics of all: the queer polity we all live in today.

To be clear, Robin’s view is that Butler’s success as public intellectual was neither because nor in spite of her prose style, but rather that success was altogether orthogonal to prose style. He proposes that “it’s not the style that makes the writing (and the intellectual) public. It’s not the audience. It’s the aspiration to create an audience.”

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Working-class in academe

When the Minnesota Review changed editors a few years ago, the old back issues disappeared from their website. Fortunately, one of my favorite essays, Diane Kendig‘s “Now I Work In That Factory You Live In,” from the 2004 issue on Smart Kids, is still available through the internet archive. As one of my recent posts sparked a bit of discussion of social class in higher education, it occurred to me to look back at Kendig’s essay. It recounts a great moment where class status is revealed:

In 1984 I began full-time teaching in a tenure-track position at a small college in Ohio. One day, walking across campus with one of the most senior members of the faculty, I was discussing with him some classroom difficulty we were both having. He shook his head in resignation and said something I have heard faculty all over the world say so often, as though it explains everything, “Well, you know, most of our students come from working-class backgrounds.”

This time, for the first time, I did not stand there in shamed silence. Although it was not my most articulate moment, I said, “So what, Richard? So do I!”

He stopped walking as he threw back his head and laughed. Then threw his arm around me and said, “So do I, Diane. So do I.” I don’t know what that moment meant to Richard, but for me, that moment meant that I was able to say that being working class is not an excuse or a sorrow or a shame. It happens to be where I come from.

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He doesn’t hold back his criticism

I was looking at one of my interviews with philosophy professors and was struck by this little explanation of why he had not picked someone as his dissertation supervisor (directeur in French):

– Normalement j’aurais dû faire ma thèse avec XYZ, car c’était lui qui m’avait le plus inspiré, mais je connaissais suffisamment XYZ pour savoir que je ne réussirais jamais à faire une thèse avec XYZ.

– C’est-à-dire ?

– C’est-à-dire que c’est quelqu’un dont la moindre remarque m’aurait blessé au profond, et comme c’est quelqu’un qui ne menage pas ses critiques, je pense que, euh, j’aurais pas pu, quoi. Bon, je vais pas raconter ça, parce que c’est un peu intime, mais c’était pas possible, quoi. Voilà.

In English, here’s how that comes out:

“Normally I should have done my thesis with XYZ, because he was the person who had inspired me the most. But I knew him well enough to be sure that I would never manage to do a thesis with him.”


“Meaning that he’s someone whose tiniest comment would have hurt me so deeply, and as he’s someone who doesn’t hold back his criticism, I think that, uh, I couldn’t do it. Well, I’m not going to tell you about that, because it’s sort of personal. But it wasn’t possible, eh? Voilà.”

The cruelty of criticism can shape an academic career,  we see. Personal acquaintance with academics can trigger revulsion. And pure intellectual commonality (“inspiration”) is no guarantee of human solidarity.

That’s what I learn from this little moment. That, and the sheer sense of blockage that can set in when academics stop to retell their lives. You’re reminded of moments of impossibility, of those structural dead ends that are as much subjective as institutional. “It wasn’t possible, eh?” he summed up. As if that was the whole story (even though he also told me he wasn’t going to tell me the whole story).

(On a more positive note, this interview does remind me of one piece of practical advice. If you are interviewing in French, and are otherwise at a loss for words, c’est-à-dire? — “meaning?” — is almost always a good way to get people to keep talking.)

Affiliation is power (without irony)

As many of my readers probably know, the big controversy in my field this year (in American cultural anthropology) has been about a proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions, essentially as a protest of the Palestinian situation. The substantive politics have been debated for months and years, and I’m not going to get into them here. But this past couple of months, I’ve been subjected to unsolicited weekly email missives from the anti-boycott faction, and as an ethnographer of academic culture, I couldn’t help noticing the extremely standardized introductory format that they all use:

My name is Jill Korbin. I am the Lucy Adams Leffingwell Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Case Western University. I am also a lifetime member of the American Anthropological Association and President-elect of the Society for Psychological Anthropology. I am writing to ask that you vote against the boycott of Israeli universities.

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The risks of expertise in studying higher education

I just got home from a great panel on “Re-Creating Universities Through Critical Ethnography” at the Society for Cultural Anthropology Meetings. It was organized by Davydd Greenwood, who was my teacher in college and has been working on anthropology of higher education for longer than I’ve been an academic. We also had Susan Wright, who’s worked on European higher education reforms since the 1990s, and Wes Shumar, who became a prominent critic of commodified higher education with College for Sale.

Davydd is known best for doing participatory action research, so naturally we wanted to devote half of the panel time to working collaboratively with the audience. We planned to ask them questions like these:

  • How do we bring about change in the university when so many of us are deeply committed to the hierarchies and the elitism in the current systems of higher education? (Especially as neoliberalism pressures us to be more individualistic and more competitive.)
  • Let’s be utopian: What kind of higher education do we truly want, and how might we get there from here?
  • Which anthropological concepts/ethnographic texts are useful for analyzing our own practices and devising ways to change them?
  • How does the university work when the current management and accountability models, if fully applied, would actually destroy them?

We were also hoping that, after sharing our presentations with the audience, we could engage them in trying to collectively generate new questions, new research agendas, and new strategies for re-creating universities. That didn’t entirely work out. What happened instead was experience-sharing – the crowd was small enough that everyone could take a turn at describing their own institutional circumstances and dilemmas. This turned up a wide range of situations, everyone from graduate student unionizers and undergraduates to junior and senior faculty. Correspondingly, the participants shared a wide range of strategies for intervening in their institutions: everything from open-source publishing advocacy to arguing over budgets to militant faculty committee politics. (I did notice, incidentally, that graduate students were under-represented in the audience compared to the conference public in general; I’m not quite sure why.)

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critical anthropology of academic culture