In the Minister’s office

Last weekend, under the auspices of a program called European Heritage Days, I went on a tour of the offices of the Minister of Higher Education. I’ve been in the building before for various academic events, but, unsurprisingly, the part that has the Minister’s office is separate from the part that ordinary visitors usually see.

This gate isn’t normally open to the public. There was something vaguely contradictory about the staff’s relation with the public, like in an art museum where they’re there to smile at you but also to protect the place against you. At this gate, two people stood watch in suits: one of them was radiant and tried to persuade every passing person to come visit; the other (back to the camera) seemed silent and kept watch.

Farther inside the premises, there were security guards stationed at every corner. I suspect that they don’t patrol that heavily on usual days, since the workers seemed unfamiliar with each other. I overheard one guard asking another, “What was the name of that guy downstairs, again?” “Umm, no idea.”

This, the building where the Minister has her office, is what I would describe as standard French government architecture. Pale stone, French and European flags. Leaping arches, solemn columns. The decoration is more than merely functional, but not ostentatious.

The first room you saw inside was this, apparently a place where they hold press conferences and the like. I noticed that the decor combined very traditional features like a parquet floor and a chandelier with very businesslike, modern features like a tiled ceiling and little spotlights. I guess that’s how you try to be modern while retaining the aura of past forms of architectural dignity.
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OECD on French university reforms

I’ve had the impression for some time that French faculty critics of government university reforms tended to view them as a neoliberal project originating with the OECD, but until this week I’d never looked into the OECD’s actual position on France. It turns out that they have taken a stance that supports the government reforms pretty much 100%. The following is from the OECD’s economic summary of France, done in 2009:

A number of significant reforms have been launched recently to breathe new life into public research by increasing its funding, but also by strengthening its organisation and governance. Creation of the Research and Higher Education Evaluation Agency (AERES) has laid the foundation for evaluating universities and research laboratories more systematically against criteria such as publications and patents. It is important that this principle be reinforced. Indeed, the recent decision to upgrade university career profiles is an opportunity to raise the performance bar for the entire teaching-research profession. The reform underway at the CNRS, designed to enhance its co-operation with universities and other national research organisations, is a welcome step and should also help improve the productivity of public research. As well, the newly created National Research Agency should be supported and its role expanded inasmuch as it promotes project-oriented public research, which will make for a more balanced allocation of resources in comparison with a situation where funds are awarded essentially on an institutional basis.

France is in fact the leader among G7 countries for the share of higher education institutions in the total number of patents filed by inventors living in the country, but few of them are actually brought to market. The spillover effects of public research could be enhanced by creating technology transfer and licensing offices in the universities, as a useful supplement to the “business incubators” policy. Finally, the “Universities Freedom and Responsibility Act” has laid the initial groundwork for autonomy in the French universities, which should boost the quality and efficiency of higher education. Notwithstanding the many helpful measures taken to date, however, the effort to reinforce university autonomy should be pursued further, particularly in the areas of budgeting and hiring and remuneration of personnel. This goal would be well served by allowing the universities greater freedom to select incoming students and to set tuition fees. Higher fees should be paired with an expansion of the system of students loans recently introduced.

I fear that this bit of text may present a spurious sort of transparency for an international reader. What strikes me as interesting, and may come as news to some of you, is that basically every claim here is presented as the epitome of simple common sense and yet every single claim would be radically contested by French faculty critics. Just to give a quick list, I’ve seen critiques of the National Research Agency and the idea of project-based research funding; I’ve seen critiques of the Research and Higher Education Evaluation Agency and of evaluation by quantitative measures of research productivity; I’ve seen critiques of the reorganization of the CNRS, and certainly of the idea of trying to orient research more closely around patents and commercialization; and above all there was an entire protest movement in 2009 dedicated to stopping the law on university “autonomy.” This movement, moreover, was particularly focused on stopping tuition increases (which the OECD supports) and stopping the deregulation of academic labor (which the OECD describes optimistically as “autonomy… in hiring and remuneration of personnel”).

My point here isn’t to take sides or to go through the pros and cons of these policy decisions, but simply to make the broader observation that the OECD writes as if none of their recommendations were in the least politically controversial, as if they were the product of a pure pragmatic desire to do whatever is most “helpful,” whatever will “breathe new life” into the system… as if all the critics were a bunch of fossils and the OECD was simply the voice of impartial practicality. It seems to me that, whether or not they’re right on the substantive issues, this elision of policy disagreement is telling, and intellectually unfortunate.

Photos of an Irish university

Last month I was in Maynooth, Ireland, for a conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists. It’s a small town outside Dublin, beside a canal full of lilypads.

I went through a grim suburban railroad station in Dublin on my way there. But in the pedestrian bridge over the tracks, there was a pair of grills that produced one of the most intense moiré patterns I’ve seen.

When you got to the campus, though, there was an sense of almost physical relief compared to the tightly enclosed urban campuses where I work in France. This was the enormous lawn just beside the old part of campus.

It even had wildlife.

The old campus itself was stone. Everything there was very quiet. (I think this part of the campus is the seminary, matter of fact.)

Admittedly, the cars and parking lots have risen up between the old buildings like a bituminous tide.

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The University of Chicago’s politics in 1950

I was just skimming a long interview with Richard Rorty (downloadable here) and I came across a really surprising description of politics at the University of Chicago sixty years ago.

RR: I was at Chicago until ‘52, and then I was at Yale from ‘52 to ‘56. I remember watching the Army-McCarthy hearings at Yale. Chicago was perhaps the left-most American university except maybe CCNY and Columbia. When the communists took Czechoslovakia in ‘48, I was a member of the Chicago student senate (or whatever they called it). I introduced a resolution of sympathy with the students of Charles University who’d been killed by the Communists. It was killed 40-2, because it was seen as lending aid and comfort to the capitalists. It was viewed as red-baiting. In those days, Chicago students genuinely believed that saying anything nasty about Stalin counted as red-baiting. The student newspaper was communist, and eventually it turned out that the editor had been registering for one credit a quarter. He was getting paid, believe it or not, by Moscow gold. He was being paid by the party to run the student newspaper. When McCarthy came along and said the Communists had infiltrated everywhere, he could produce lots of similar examples. But, of course, Chicago was not typical of the American academy at that time. I spent my time at Chicago making red-baiting remarks, as I had been brought up to do. I became unpopular with my fellow students for making them.

Admittedly, I have pretty much no evidence one way or the other, not being a historian of the university at midcentury, but given the current state of campus politics, one is hard pressed to believe that this university was ever the “left-most American university,” or that only 2.5% of elected students would have voted to condemn a Communist action. The university I know today seems more apolitical than anything else, and is certainly at least as marked by the pro-market Milton Friedman heritage as by any kind of leftist politics. To be sure, there’s a vague memory that SDS was big in the ’60s and that there was a building occupation in 1969, but even if you read the 2008 newspaper article commemorating that event, the sense is that the student body was quite diverse and far from monolithically radical. The time Rorty describes, of course, was twenty years before that, just as the Cold War was getting started — at a point when I suppose American views of the USSR may have been temporarily relatively positive, in the aftermath of the US-Soviet war-time alliance.

My guess is that Rorty is exaggerating in his description of late-40s communist sympathies at the University of Chicago; I doubt it was ever as widespread as he makes it out to be. In his description, you get the impression that pretty much 100% of students other than Rorty himself were communists, which strains credibility. Indeed, it seems exemplary of the hyperbolic mindset of someone who feels so politically outnumbered that they begin to imagine that they are the only one on their side surrounded by nothing but their opponents. “OMG, we’re surrounded by Communists!” — wasn’t that a popular trope of American political hysteria in the 50s?

Nonetheless, even if Rorty’s report is only half true, it’s enough to suggest that the politics of the university’s student body have shifted dramatically over the years. It would be interesting to know more about the historical and sociological reasons why that has happened.

Ways of using ethnographic data

(A van advertisement called “a new look at the future” is just one example of how the “future” is mobilized in French marketing discourse.)

I am not a specialist in the literature on ethnographic methods per se, in spite of being an ethnographer by profession. This, I think, is a common situation for people in cultural anthropology; to judge by the lack of clear methodological discussion in most ethnographic articles, ethnography today doesn’t really demand much explicit methodological reflection. (In contemporary linguistic anthropology, by contrast, research methods are far more clear — though there too, and perhaps this ultimately is true of any empirical science, there is an enormous amount of unspoken choice, often arbitrary, that comes prior to the analysis of any particular object.) There is, of course, an existing literature on qualitative methods, one which in my experience is more often invoked in other social sciences, like sociology, where there is a greater range of possible methods and where method choice may demand more explicit justification. In cultural anthropology, on the other hand, ethnography is the norm and the default, and this literature on qualitative research is seldom invoked. I don’t really know that literature myself; at best I could give you citations of books I haven’t read.

Anyway, here I just wanted to give a little breakdown of ways of using ethnographic data. I won’t try to stipulate what does or doesn’t count as ethnographic data, though I’ll emphasize in passing that, paradigmatically, ethnographic data is what an ethnographer learns by personal observation of some stretch of social life somewhere. It can of course also involve any number of other materials, like photographic images, audio/visual recordings, native texts and artifacts (including genres like journalism that report on other stretches of social life), interviews (which are themselves a form of observed social life), secondary sources like demographic data, and so on.

It seems to me that any particular piece (or form) of ethnographic data can serve one of many epistemological functions, some of which I want here to delineate. Any given piece of ethnographic data can serve as any (or several) of the following:

(1) Historical data: a datum of “what happened” in a particular place and time. Part of the task of ethnography is after all to record events, processes, histories that did take place, and ethnographic data are at one level evidence of what happened. I would emphasize that this kind of “historical” data (for lack of a better word) need not be limited to direct observation, in spite of ethnography’s famous fixation on the concrete. On the contrary, our historical data is frequently quite indirect. My dissertation, for instance, will probably tell a story about French universities that really begins more than ten years ago, which is of course long before my arrival in France, and for which I’m assuming that various secondary sources provide reliable evidence. I will probably end up merging secondary sources and personal observation into one single historical narrative.

(2) Aesthetic data: a datum whose later representation conveys to readers the texture, the feeling, or the sense of a situation. There can, in other words, be ethnographic evidence that helps to create something of the ethnographic “reality-effect,” i.e. the sense of narratively superfluous but aesthetically crucial evidence that, among other things, helps create the impression that the ethnographer “really was there” in their fieldsite. (This is the sort of datum that I take it is central to creating the notorious “ethnographic authority,” but I would note that the employment of aesthetic details does have real epistemological and even emotional or stylistic functions as well as this authority function.)
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Academic activism flier, september 2010

I confess I’m not sure this will really interest anyone besides me, but on the off chance… this is a quick translation of the higher education flier that accompanied the street demonstration I wrote about a few days ago. It’s useful if you want to get a sense of what oppositional faculty are talking about. I’m attending the OECD conference on higher education management this week, and something else at the French Ministry of Higher Education, so I should shortly have lots to say about the political contrast between official and oppositional discourse. Plus I’ll get to feel fair and balanced.

Mobilize together!

Working and studying conditions in research and higher education

As this school year starts, staff and students are seeing no improvement in their working, studying and living conditions. The government’s reform of teacher education [mastérisation] is showing all its negative effects: there are former job candidates who can’t apply twice, candidates who pass the hiring exam but still don’t get jobs [reçus-collés], acrobatics aimed at creating [new] “teaching MA” programs after a parody of accreditation, interns put in front of classes without any real professional training, whose secondary school colleagues have refused to tutor them… The university and research map has been profoundly modified by the accelerating restructuring of research organizations (new Instituts at the CNRS, merger between the INRP and the ENS-Lyon) and of universities (with processes of inter-campus “fusion”), which have lurched into being through bidding on the government’s recently borrowed infrastructure funds [Grand emprunt]. The multiplication of individualized research grants (PES, PFR, …) threatens teamwork, essential in our sectors. Precarity is rising among the students, under the combined effects of rising fees set by the government (tuition, student health insurance [sécurité sociale], campus dining halls) and rising housing expenses.

Job cuts

We have already seen a freeze in government workers’ salaries for 2011, cuts of 36,000 public sector jobs, and a drastic fall in the number of teaching jobs up for hiring (11,600 jobs versus 15,125 the year before, with a 55% decline for primary school teachers). Under the cover of “deficit reduction,” the latest government announcements presage new public sector blood-letting, further falls in our purchasing power, accelerating degradation of the services offered to the public, and accelerating degradation of staff working conditions, with an ever-rising growth of precarity.

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Fictitious seminar on imaginary disobedience

I’ve been reading some listserve archives from the 2009 strikes and I came across a mocking proposal for an alternative seminar. I don’t think the somewhat heavy-handed irony is likely to get lost in translation.


You will find below a proposal for an alternative seminar.

A seminar titled “The expression of social malaise” will be held every monday at 9pm. Drawing on the recent works of our colleagues from Guadaloupe and those of our working-class neighbors from 2005, we will learn to generate acts of symbolic, media-ready disobedience.

The seminar will begin with a theoretical exposition of alternative means of expressing social malaise (occupying train stations and commercial buildings, setting garbage cans on fire, vandalizing bus stops). The practical application of these means will be open for discussion, and there will be a presentation on indispensable information for strikers (about the cracks in the riot police’s armor, protecting yourself from tear gas grenades, and practical legal advice).

The second part of the seminar will be dedicated to physical exercises relevant to this expression of social malaise (exercises in dispersion, intensive running, basics of close combat, unarmed and with blades, throwing paving stones, fabricating Molotov cocktails, and so on).

Course credit for students will involve an individual and spontaneous student project, preferably of a practical nature. This seminar can be counted for credit either in Law or in Communications.

Participants from the experimental centers of Clichy-sous-bois and Villiers-le-Bel will intervene in the seminar.

A and M

PS: If this proposition is taken seriously, the organizers of the seminar are not to be held responsible.

Some of the listserve participants then chimed in with suggestions on the grading system; whereupon a professor suggested rather more seriously that even in fun, such discussions probably shouldn’t be left in the public record.

It’s probably superfluous to note, at any rate, that the humor of the proposition apparently derives from the juxtaposition between the register of illegal street violence and academic discourse. The former is mockingly dignified by the latter; the latter is profaned by the former. One is left wondering, though, what sort of impulse towards imaginary disobedience motivated the authors, and what sort of social function this humor is serving or undermining.

Higher education marches against xenophobia

Last weekend there was a march in support of immigrants and against the expulsions of the Roma from France. The march was called “In the face of xenophobia and the politics of pillory: liberty, equality, fraternity,” and was a commentary on increasingly harsh French policing of immigrants this summer. My friend Moacir, who came to the march with me as an honorary participant-observer, has some interesting comments on the mechanical reproduction of its political messages, i.e. on how most people carried pre-typed, printed political signs and how this doesn’t necessarily discredit them, but rather constitutes a show of unity.

It strikes me, in hindsight, that it’s worth emphasizing that the march bore a diversity of political messages. While an anti-Sarkozy, pro-immigrant message was certainly the predominant message and the one picked up by the media, there were also, for instance, a number of people marching on behalf of higher education and research, attempting to add their own message to the mix and to show political solidarity with the larger project.

To the left was the “Recherche Publique Enseignement Supérieur” (Public Research Higher Education) balloon.

Later on, I found the banner of Sauvons l’Université (“Save the University!”). I asked someone what the political situation was in the universities this fall. “It’s the rentrée [ie, homecoming, the start of the year],” I was told, “so there is no situation yet; it remains to be created.” I rather like that tiny comment as a fragment of local political temporality.
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Fieldwork, Year 2

I’m sorry to see I haven’t posted a thing in a month. That should change rapidly as I get back into the swing of fieldwork. Starting a second year of research feels quite different from starting a first year; the language is somewhat less problematic, the campus feels familiar, and there are a lot of people to greet. If anything, people seem a bit surprised I’ve stuck around more than a few months, which says a lot about the kinds of scripts that people expect to follow in research relationships here. I don’t think I’m the only ethnographer who’s had this experience; Amelia Fay wrote of her work in Newfoundland: “My repeated presence in the community seems to have separated me from other researchers, who come in, take what they need and never return… People here are starting to recognize me more, trust me and welcome me. It’s taking a long time to build this relationship but I’m finding it so rewarding.” I don’t know if I could bring myself to express it quite so forthrightly, but that does sound familiar.

The logistics of being a temporary visitor to a foreign country continue to frustrate, it has to be said. Here’s the view from the new apartment:

Alas, the place is too expensive to hold onto, and, somewhat against my better judgment, I’m moving into a big dorm complex for the rest of the fall. It’s not going to be the most pleasant place to live, but after all, all the famous ethnographers of universities seem to have lived in a dorm at one time or another. Admittedly, my research isn’t mainly about student domestic life, but I think it may be interesting to have some acquaintance with it.

Luckily, I have some work space to escape to, at the University of Chicago’s building in France.

It’s a bit strange having more office space than most tenured faculty at my fieldsite, which is a commentary in itself on the intense inadequacy of financial and material resources in French public universities.

Anyway, I have a lot of things to write about. More coming soon.