Academic work as charity

In so many ways, academic work is hard to recognize as being work in the standard wage-labor sense of that word. It can take place at all hours of day or night, outside of standard workplaces, without wearing standard work clothing — in bed with the laptop at midnight, perhaps. American popular stereotypes allege that teaching is outside the realm of productive action and thus second-rate — “those who can’t do, teach.” That’s a maxim which devalues the feminine work of reproduction in favor of an implicitly masculine image of labor, but I digress; my point here is just that such claims reinforce the image of academic work as being in a world of its own.

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The “Age of Precarity” after the doctorate

I have my doubts about whether precarity is always a good category for academic labor organizing. But from within the universe of European precarity discourse, I especially admire Mariya Ivancheva’s recent summary of the situation of early career researchers in her 2015 paper “The Age of Precarity and the New Challenges to the Academic Profession“.

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Language politics and the French “Master” degree

I’m planning on writing more about French higher education policy in the next few years, since even after my dissertation there’s a lot to learn. For instance, there’s something curious about the national origins of the French system of diplomas. Here are the standard types of university degrees in France:

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The institutional conditions of possibility of David Harvey

In a 2015 essay by David Harvey (need I add, “the venerable Marxist geographer”?) that reflects on the relations between different radical currents in the academic field of geography, he gives an interesting comment on his own conditions of institutional survival:
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Dijon vous craignez

I’ve been working on a paper about the failure of left-wing internationalism at the “European counter-summits” (at least the two that I was able to observe in 2010 and 2011), and I’ve gotten interested in this love letter to the organizers of the 2011 Dijon counter-G8 university summit. A student left it on the ground in marker as they left the event, which was politically pretty unsuccessful, as my paper explains.
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Teaching and bad affect

I’m teaching an Anthropology of Europe class and I decided we’d end by talking about current events. So the week before this, we talked about the Greek economic crisis and Syriza. This week, we talked about Brexit. On Thursday, we talked about Islam and political violence in Europe (France in 2015 — Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan — and then, by way of contrast, Germany in 1993 — the Solingen burning of a Turkish family’s home).

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Plato and the birth of ambivalence

I’ve been teaching a class on anthropology of education this fall, and we spent the first several weeks of class reading various moments in educational theory and philosophy (Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Dewey, Nyerere, Freire). The first week, we read Book 2 of Plato’s Republic, which (famously) explains how the need for an educated “guardian class” emerges from the ideal division of labor in a city. Our class discussion focused mostly on Plato’s remarkably static and immobile division of labor, a point which rightfully seems to get a lot of attention from modern commentators on the Republic. (Dewey put it pretty succinctly: Plato “had no perception of the uniqueness of individuals.”)

But I was more intrigued by Plato’s remarkable, zany account of the origins of ambivalence, which I don’t think has gotten so much recognition. We have to be a bit anachronistic to read “ambivalence” into this text, to be sure, since the term in its modern psychological sense was coined by Eugen Bleuler in 1911. Nevertheless, I want to explore here how Plato comes up with something that really seems like a concept of ambivalence avant la lettre. It emerges in the text from his long meditation on the nature of a guardian, which is premised on the initial assumption that the guardian’s nature (or anyone’s nature) has to be singular and coherent.

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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.

whittier-summer - 1
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 ——. 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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