Tag Archives: anthropology of universities

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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notes on a lively conference on universities

The mood last weekend in Minnesota was sometimes fiery, sometimes like a storm about to break, with groves of raised hands waiting to be called on; other times a bit calmed, a bit weary from ten straight hours of sessions, or sobered by the complexity of the topic or even the complexity of the discussion. It was a conference called “Rethinking the University,” three days long, at first in a dark business school ampitheatre, and then in an old assembly hall with wooden beams and weak sunlight seeping through opaque windows.

The crowds ranged from thirty to ninety, I’d guess; panels dealt with everything from academic labor and grad student unionization to radical pedagogy, the liberal arts, academic knowledge with its marginal branches like theatre and design, Marxian theories of affective labor and Italian autonomism, and of course academic branding and corporatization. A high degree of political commitment, and widespread involvement in the labor movement, set the tone of debate; a number of participants were labor historians, union organizers turned grad students, past members of SDS, or “seventies feminists” (as one woman called herself). Only a few non-academics showed up, raising questions about how to bridge the gap between academic discourse and other kinds of organizing.

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American conferences on the university

I was making a little list of conferences on the university and I thought, for quick historical reference, it might be good to post them here. When I try to make a list – and I’m sure this is a very incomplete one – it turns out that there’s a pretty continuous flow of scholarly interest in the topic. (And this is all ignoring the work of ASHE and other education research groups that I don’t know.)