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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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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