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?”

“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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The teacher’s body

I used to have a pretty decorporealizing view of teaching, back when I was starting out as a classroom ethnographer. I mainly paid attention to the teacher’s voice, to classroom discourse, to power and authority structures. This was a strategy of objectification that I used to find useful, critical, and sufficient. It was also a product of the theoretical atmosphere at the time (2003-4), with its emphasis on language, semiotics, and micropolitics.

But now that I’m teaching, I find myself more and more affected by the weird force of collective gaze and mood that constantly strikes the teacher’s body. To teach is to be observed. To be seen. I used to see teachers as subjects, agents who were generative of social structure. Now it’s sinking in just how much teachers are also objects. Objects of students’ perception. Of their own self-perception. Of historical expectations that they had no hand in creating. They become meteorological instruments measuring the collective weather.

In the classroom I’m constantly getting caught up in these little gusts or gales of shared affect. Sometimes there’s a good atmosphere or a sense of excitement. Other times the room feels confused, lost, paused, stuck. I’m the first to admit that this kind of affective knowledge of the classroom situation is horribly unreliable; you don’t really know what anyone is thinking just by looking at them. But it’s still the best feedback you have, the most immediate measure of collective sentiment. An imperfect form of realtime knowledge that – as a realtime social actor — you need.

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Revisiting field interviews

I’ve been going back lately to my interviews with French philosophy teachers and students. I just never had time to transcribe or work on most of them during my dissertation, so I have a backlog of dozens of taped interviews, most of which are quite long and rich. I’d like to transcribe all of them, since I’m under less pressure to finish a manuscript right now, and I think they may have some documentary value in their own right.

It’s a strange, intense experience to relive conversations that took place five, six or seven years ago. All the anxieties of fieldwork come back to me; I’m annoyed by my own vague, poorly structured questions, and by the imperfections in my French accent. Often I’m amazed by the richness of my interlocutors’ experience, and their impressive ability to recount things to me, in spite of my limits as an interviewer.

One thing that becomes inescapably clear from these interviews is that the structure of a narrative is a shared accomplishment. I was quite entertained today by a moment where my interviewer took more responsibility for narrative continuity than I did:

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Overproduction as mass existentialism

Earlier this year, I observed that there are two kinds of scholarly overproduction, “herd” overproduction and “star” overproduction. I’d like to come back to that line of thought to push it a bit farther.

I previously argued that if academic overproduction is in many ways market-like we might want to push for a better regulated market in knowledge. I suggested that this could be a complementary strategy to the usual denunciations of market forms in academic life. There is nothing the matter with critiques of market forms, I will stress again; but for all that, they need not be the end point of our thinking.

Continuing that line of thought, I’m wondering whether mass overproduction of academic knowledge may not have some unexpected effects. Its most obvious effect, of course, is the massive amount of “waste knowledge” it generates — the papers that are never read (or barely), citation for its own sake, prolixity for institutional or career reasons, pressures to publish half-finished or mediocre work, etc. All of these are the seemingly “bad” effects of mass overproduction.

But does mass overproduction have any clearly good effects? I like to imagine that one day, machine learning will advance to the point where all the unread scholarly papers of the early 21st century will become accessible to new syntheses, new forms of searching, and so on. We don’t know how our unread work might be used in the future; perhaps it will be a useful archive for someone.

More immediately, I’m also wondering if mass overproduction is creating new forms of self-consciousness in the present. In Anglophone cultural anthropology, it seems to me that mass overproduction is forcing us to constantly ask “what is at stake here?” Older scholarship seldom needed to ask itself that question, as far as I can tell, and certainly not routinely, with every article published. It became common, somewhere along the way, to ask, “so what?”

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American representations of French social movements

So over in France these days there’s a pretty major protest movement against efforts by François Hollande’s Socialist Party government, and its current Minister of Labor Myriam El Khomri, to reform French labor laws. These reforms go in the general direction of “fewer protections for labor, more flexibility for employers,” and the details are still being negotiated, in the face of substantial public pressure. The reforms, however, have not received a great deal of coverage in the English-language media, and what there is seems to be more about reproducing worthless stereotypes about French culture than about any actual analysis. I was going to actually write about the protest movement today, but instead I got distracted by an embarrassingly bad article in today’s New York Times, which begins with the following attempt at comedy:

It was published several years ago, but a cartoon on the front page of the French newspaper Le Monde roughly summed up the situation across the country last Thursday when several hundred thousand public employees and students went on strike.

“What if we went on strike for nothing,” asks one demonstrator in the cartoon, which appeared in 2010 during one of France’s periodic strikes. “Ah! Not a bad idea,” another answers.

OK, so the premise of the article is that this is a strike that is basically “for nothing.” The title, incidentally, was “Crippling Strike in France May Have Been About More Than Labor Law,” in case you were in any danger of taking seriously the political issues at stake here. The journalist — Celestine Bohlen, apparently a former European bureau chief for the Times — thereby makes clear from the first that the article is going to be organized around a smug, dismissive, and depoliticizing interpretation of French politics, as if strikes were simply a sort of periodic, dysfunctional gag reflex in the body politic.

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Philosophers without infrastructure, Part 2

Following up on my last post (and indirectly on a couple of older posts), I came across an interesting interview extract that comments in a bit more detail on the lived experience of being a philosopher with practically no work infrastructure. Here’s a philosopher from Paris 8 commenting on his workspace:

Professor: “I don’t think I’m giving you any scoop in saying that, on the material level, the Philosophy Department is the poorest one in the country. It’s clear — it’s very clear, even. When, for instance, young colleagues were arriving after I got here — at the moment I’m thinking of Renée Duval who sent me a message asking, so, where was her office [Laughter] although she didn’t have an office. And, you know, even at Paris 7, if you want to meet, I don’t know, Frédéric Gauthier, I say Frédéric Gauthier because we know each other pretty well, so, indeed, he will make an appointment with you in his office.”

A department secretary interrupts: “Still, they don’t have their own offices, they have a shared office for teachers.”

Professor: “Non non non non non non non. Gauthier, he has an office, and there are other offices. At most, they’re two to an office. Of course! No, here, it’s on the edge.”

Secretary: “Yes, it’s on the edge.”

Professor: “Yes, here, it’s borderline scandalous. Meaning that, for example, we wouldn’t have to be meeting here [in the staff office space].”

Secretary: “Mais non, I agree with you.”

Professor: “Mais oui. And, well, there’ll be an office, we would be in the office, indeed, we could both of us shut the door. So for example, the master’s thesis exams happen here [in the staff office space].”

Me: “Really, they’re here?”

Professor: “Yes, it happens — and so people who show up, we can’t prevent them, it’s the office — where they turn in their homework, where they come for information, but, still, it’s scandalous. The first year, when I came, throughout practically the whole first year, I spent the first twenty minutes of class with the students looking for a room. It’s since been stabilized, but—“

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Philosophical lab infrastructure

The short version of this post: Philosophers have practically no lab infrastructure.

The long version:

Coming back to my research about philosophy departments in France, I was recently reading an institutional document describing the (highly-rated) research laboratory for philosophers at the University of Paris-8. Apparently it was a bureaucratic requirement to write a section describing the “infrastructures” available to the laboratory. But since Paris-8 is a typically underfunded public university, operating in cramped quarters on a small campus in the Parisian banlieue, the sad reality is that their infrastructure was quite limited. To the point of comedy.

I quote:

Infrastructures

L’unité dispose d’une salle de 35 m2, équipée d’un téléphone, de deux ordinateurs fixes et d’une connexion par WIFI. Elle est meublée de tables, chaises, et bibliothèques. Elle est située dans un bâtiment neuf de moins de deux ans. La surface disponible par chercheur membre de l’équipe à titre principal est de 1,5 m2.

The unit possesses a room of 35 m2, equipped with a telephone, two desktop computers and WiFi access. It is furnished with tables, chairs and bookshelves. It is situated in a new building less than two years old. The available surface per principle laboratory researcher is 1.5 m2.

One and a half square meters per researcher is just about enough to cram a chair into, and clearly not enough for any sort of individual workspace. Accordingly, there were none; the room in question was purely used to hold small seminars. The whole laboratory staff would never have fit inside it, and when they did have meetings, they took place elsewhere.

There is, of course, something charming about the plaintive note that at least the tiny room is “situated in a new building less than two years old” (the building pictured above). It’s as if the author felt obliged to put only the most positive spin on a clearly inadequate situation. Nevertheless, there is something to learn here about what counts as infrastructure for philosophers at Parisian public universities: in short, all the productive infrastructure (the books, the libraries, the computers, the desks) is elsewhere, generally at home, and the campus becomes purely a place of knowledge exchange, not of knowledge production. Which is why it it is possible to have a philosophy lab with practically no facilities.

Scholarly meetings with a “Disclaimer and Waiver”

I’m guessing that most anthropologists don’t read the Disclaimer and Waiver to which you must consent when you register for conferences through the American Anthropological Association. It is a decidedly legalistic document, full of odd stipulations about liability, privacy, copyright, and responsibility. In principle it is an “agreement” between the user and the association, but as an exchange, it is decidedly one-sided: you the user are asked to give various things away, in return for which you get nothing in particular. And in form, it is identical to the End User License Agreements that, as we know, the vast majority of users accept without reading. It does not really seem to be written to be read; it seems to be written to be invoked in extremis in some moment of unexpected (yet planned-for) crisis.

In any event, it is a curious document. Here it is as of March 2016; I’ll highlight a few important passages.

Disclaimer and Waiver

As a condition of my participation in this meeting or event, I hereby waive any claim I may have against the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and its officers, directors, employees, or agents, or against the presenters or speakers, for reliance on any information presented and release AAA from and against any and all liability for damage or injury that may arise from my participation or attendance at the program. I further understand and agree that all property rights in the material presented, including common law copyright, are expressly reserved to the presenter or speaker or to AAA.

I acknowledge that participation in AAA events and activities brings some risk and I do hereby assume responsibility for my own well-being. If another individual participates in my place per AAA transfer policy, the new registrant agrees to this disclaimer and waiver by default of transfer.

AAA intends to take photographs and video of this event for use in AAA news and promotional material, in print, electronic and other media, including the AAA website. By participating in this event, I grant AAA the right to use any image, photograph, voice or likeness, without limitation, in its promotional materials and publicity efforts without compensation. All media become the property of AAA. Media may be displayed, distributed or used by AAA for any purpose.

By registering for this event, I agree to the collection, use, and disclosure of contact and demographic information. This information includes any information that identifies me personally (e.g. name, address, email address, phone number, etc.). AAA will use this information to: (a) enable your event registration; (b) review, evaluate and administer scholarships or other AAA initiatives; (c) market AAA opportunities you may potentially be interested in; and to (d) share limited information (e.g. title, company, address and demographic information) with third parties that perform services on behalf of AAA. AAA does not distribute email address or phone numbers to third parties or partners performing services on behalf of AAA. AAA may use this information for so long as AAA remains active in conducting any of the above purposes.

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critical anthropology of academic culture