Returning to the field

Here in the airport at Boston it’s dark. Not yet night, but a gristly dusk. A man in an orange vest is standing almost motionless on a yellow platform next to our aircraft; periodically he climbs up and down a ladder; periodically he pushes buttons on a console. The runways are white with snow and the sky looks like whale oil. It appears that they are unloading a large snowdrift from the aircraft’s hold; a large pale mass, with jagged edges and wrapped in a net, is being pushed back and forth on a little dolly. As if the plane was transporting an iceberg in a sack.

I am waiting for my flight which will bring me back to France and hence to my fieldsite. It leaves in an hour. It seems a bit strange, flying on new year’s eve, but it was, of course, the cheapest flight and I want to be back on monday for classes. I find it hard to say why it’s a little sad to spend a holiday in the nonplace of the airport and the airplane, but that inarticulate sense of missing out maybe owes its inarticulateness to the fact that the sacred is social and comes to us outside like a norm, a norm which one can feel without being able to explain. In one of my first anthropology classes we read about the Sun Dance, a native american ritual for renewing the world (I think; it was a long time ago), and I remember saying to my professor that I couldn’t relate to that, that it seemed weird to endow a dance with any kind of cosmological significance. But my teacher said, We have New Year’s, it’s sort of the same thing, a ritual of renewing the social world (even if not necessarily the physical world, I probably quibbled to myself).

The sense of returning to the field is different from going the first time; the anxieties of beginnings are presumably over, but I have a sense of having far too much to read, far too much to do, to figure out; there’s a (predictable) sense of not having a satisfying order to impose on my data and field experience; there are 1936 items just in my RSS feed of French research-related blogs that I haven’t read; there are 1790 PDFs in my folder of scholarly articles, mostly waiting to be read; the digital moment makes it too easy to acquire too much; it could be called a state of perpetual epistemological excess. The emerging orders of the situation still feel tenuous.

But the flight is boarding soon and the limits of this post are not going to be set by the internal limits of what I could say about going back to my work but rather by the grumpy clock of the airline gate agents. For the time being, I will just post a wordle of the pdfs I haven’t read. The field of article titles I read gives a pretty good sense of my research interests:

But also seems a little predictable really.

the gender of the academic name

Two weeks ago I was at a bar with a pair of other American graduate students. A fake british pub or something. The kind of parisian establishment that gets away with serving bad food by cloaking it in an “anglo-saxon” theme. The kind of place with cheap low couches and cramped tables and a superficial shine and a tin charm. Periodically a noise rang out as an overworked server let a glass slip and crash behind the bar.

At some point a ways into the conversation, one of my friends wanted to tell us something about gender in academia. It was a mixed gender conversation, I hasten to add: a woman to my left and a man to my right. (I pick these gender category terms out of resignation, feeling that all available lexical options disappoint, wanting to signal social types without endorsing them, not wanting the essentialism of “woman” and “man,” not wanting the diminutives of “boy” and “girl,” not wanting to hint at biology with “female” and “male,” wanting the informality of “guy” and “gal” but “gal” is too contrived.) Anyway, my friend said she’d noticed that, when academics talk about other academics, they are likely to use the first and last name when referring to a woman academic, while men academics often get mentioned by last name only. This to her was entirely part of everyday life, undesirable but obvious.

But I was taken somewhat aback by this claim, and I think the other guy there was too. I realized afterwards, to my shame, that our common reaction was one of doubt. We wanted to think of counterexamples. Exceptions that would disprove the rule. Isn’t Judith Butler pretty reliably called Judith Butler? we were asked. But isn’t Butler a pretty common name? Well, but there aren’t any other famous academics called Butler, now are there? Or take Simone de Beauvoir. Pretty much always Simone de Beauvoir, isn’t she? Well, yes. Who could deny that? While on the other hand Sartre, it came to my mind, is indeed pretty much always just Sartre. Or take Hannah Arendt. Is Hannah Arendt always Hannah Arendt? Well, yes, pretty often, though I think maybe at the philosophy department in Paris-8 she may occasionally become just Arendt. But other mid-century German male philosophers seem to go by their last names far more often. Marcuse is just Marcuse. And “Adorno” also seems to travel pretty well by itself, as a practically self-contained sign of pessimistic dialectical prose convolution. Or take Eve Sedgwick. She’s pretty often called Eve Sedgwick, no? But not really Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, that’s a mouthful. We didn’t reach agreement about that.

It came to mind that this sort of disparity in naming is pretty well known in American politics, where last year Hillary was often Hillary but Barack Obama pretty quickly became plain old Obama. But I hadn’t ever thought about it in an academic context. I wanted to know, is this the same in writing? No, said my friend, you hear it more in spoken contexts, while in writing there are slightly more formal protocols about when you mention the first name. What about in personal contexts? Like with first-naming your advisors? Yes, she conceded, things change when it’s someone you know. If you were going to do a research project about this, how would it go? We weren’t sure about that.

It was a conversation that was partly inconclusive, a conversation torn by the din of other conversations elsewhere in the bar, a conversation as full of social and emotional static as of audible interference. But at any rate, our doubt, our skepticism, our resistance to the claim at hand, I mean mine and the other male’s resistance, as I concluded later after we’d all gone home, was not laudable. Our doubt, I felt, was only accidentally about expressing scholarly skepticism about an unfamiliar claim. A lot of our defensive response seemed in hindsight to have been saying tacitly: what, who me? Me, possibly uneven in my treatment of others? Me, uneven according to an unconscious and institutionalized principle according to which academic males would be allowed to claim the privilege of impersonality, according to which men could be coded objective and scholarly by being tacitly depersonalized through the everyday effacement of their first names, while women would remain the marked category, marked as having gender, marked as women, through a logic of association whereby first names would invoke a more personalized relationship to strangers who are thus marked feminine? What, me, maybe casually sexist? Who, me?
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Paris-8 by the light of different days

p8autumn1

This is the university where I do my research, this year. I like this picture because it has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with the overdetermined and crass narratives that so easily predetermine one’s whole perception of this campus space. This is the tree that has grown up behind the amphitheatre with its jagged roof, the arms of the branch entirely geometrically incompatible with the sawtooth linearity of the dark building. There’s nothing here about politics, nothing here about pedagogy, this picture contains no academic knowledge, it embodies no concept unless you count the concept of mute visual juxtaposition of organic and inorganic form. There’s no knowledge in this picture, no sociality, no people, no conversation, no texts, no pedagogy, no politics, no record of human activity besides the roof built to some absent architect’s scheme. It’s autumn but you wouldn’t know that except from a couple of tiny leaves that gleam yellow in the underexposed daylight.
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Race, French national identity, and disciplinary politics

I saw the following statements posted on Sauvons l’Université. I have, of course, no personal knowledge of the facts of the situation, but it’s a culturally interesting scenario:

Academics solicited for participation in a “debate” about “national identity” (nov-dec. 2009)

Mail addressed to a teacher-researcher at a university in Nantes

Monsieur,
[…]
In the framework of the debate over national identity, on Friday December 11th, 2009, at 6:30pm, the prefect plans to welcome Monsieur Jean-François SIRINELLI, professor of contemporary history at SciencesPo and director of the SciencesPo history center.

The prefect, Jean DAUBIGNY, will preside at the meeting. Monsieur SIRINELLI will speak on the theme of “National and Republican Identity.” His comments will be followed by those of Monsieur MENARD, regional delegate for research. The debate will then be opened to all.

The prefect would like to see the audience composed of high school and university students. He would deeply like to see university students and teachers in letters and languages participating in the event.

He would be grateful if you could please distribute this invitation to students and teachers. You will find the invitation attached.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me at …

very best wishes, […]
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French university pedagogy seen by an American

Something should be said about professor-student relations. For the most part, contact is limited to the classroom, where the student’s ignorance is taken for granted and the professor does all the talking without permitting questions. The theory is that the students haven’t enough background to make intelligent inquiries.

At Nice last summer, on the final day of a month-long session, the students, under the direction of the two young American assistants, prepared a series of skits commenting on their experience. One skit consisted of two scenes in a classroom. First, an “American” professor entered in sports shirt and tennis shoes, telling his students he wanted to know them and inviting them to his office to discuss their problems, even their life outside the classroom. When he had finished his brief, informal talk, he asked if there were any questions, and of course no hands were raised. The next scene presented a young woman, a doctoral candidate from the Sorbonne, as the lecturer — chic, crisp, equipped with a quire of notes. At the end of her virtually unintelligible lecture, she too asked if there were any questions. When a dozen eager hands shot up, she replied coolly, “Answer them among yourselves. I shall see you again next week at this same hour.”

I found this in an American’s comments on French university pedagogy… set in Bordeaux… in 1966. In other words, in a moment fairly far removed — one might think — from contemporary university realities here. It’s a description from an era when a novelistic style of describing everyday life was more common in academics’ professional commentary, and some of its syntax is not contemporary. Take the last sentence of the first paragraph, “The theory is that the students haven’t enough background to make intelligent inquiries.” Is there not a ring of a different era in this phrasing, this vocabulary?

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