Welcome to Academography!

There’s more and more great ethnography of higher education, but so much of it is hard to find.

The point of this project is to bring this set of work together. We think that both newcomers and established researchers could use help keeping track of everything that’s happening in the field.

It’s an extremely diverse set of research. It comes from people in all sorts of fields, from many different continents, from many different political perspectives, from different institutional positions. It overlaps with what’s lately been called “Critical University Studies,” but also includes work in science education, policy studies, critical sociology, educational anthropology, higher ed research, anthropology of knowledge, history and sociology of science, laboratory studies, reflexive cultural studies, and no doubt others.

The project is sponsored by the Committee on Postsecondary Education at the Council on Anthropology of Education, but anyone is free to get involved. We’d love to hear from anyone working in the field or just starting out. Especially let us know when you come across new research we should write about.

We can be reached at academography@gmail.com. You might also want to sign up to be notified when we publish new content.

Cathy N. Davidson, “The New Education”

Susan D. Blum reviews Cathy N. Davidson’s new book, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux.

Out with the Old! What Students Need Now

Cathy N. Davidson has been writing about her experiments in education for years (for example here and here and here). She brings to her new book deep understanding of the context, history, successes, and shortcomings of the dominant forms of higher education—college—and highlights several dozen approaches that are more successful. These are more appropriate, she argues, than the conventional forms, which have not changed in more than a hundred years, because they respect students’ abilities, teach them to employ the affordances of not only technology but also other people, and anticipate that the content of whatever they do in college will have only limited relevance in the future—so they need to focus on learning to learn. Conventional colleges have outlived their initial purposes, which were to train managers in a newly industrializing and urbanizing society, when books were scarce and simply ingesting information was challenging enough. They selected only top students and churned them through a disciplinary mill, certified by authorities.

That’s not what we need now.

Continue reading Cathy N. Davidson, “The New Education”

Susan Blum, “I Love Learning, I Hate School”

Susan D. Blum has recently published an unusually personal contribution to social research on university culture, in her wide-reaching book I Love Learning, I Hate School: An Anthropology of College (2016). Blum is an anthropology professor at Notre Dame, and the book expresses a desire to make existential sense of her own confusing experience as a college teacher. As such, it struck a particular chord with me as I was trying to make sense of my own students last year at Whittier College, when I was doing my postdoc. Blum’s book speaks mainly to fellow college and university teachers; at one point, Blum addresses her readers as “dear fellow faculty” (20). As a book for teachers by a teacher, it has the counterintuitive mission of getting us to empathize with bad students, and of making sense of bad classroom atmospheres, which it considers inevitable rather than merely unfortunate. In this sense, it is a more critical and expansive alternative to the discourse of “teaching tips” and “rubrics for best practices” that circulate in a mock-cheerful — but always to my ear vaguely threatening and technocratic — fashion in numerous “Centers for Teaching and Learning.”

Continue reading Susan Blum, “I Love Learning, I Hate School”

Ethnography of the University Initiative at the University of Illinois

A few years ago there was a special issue of LATISS about a noteworthy initiative at the University of Illinois, the Ethnography of the University Initiative (EUI), which aims to support courses based on student research about their own university. Its virtue is precisely that it is not a traditional ethnographic research project, but a collective project that supports student ethnographic research. The special issue (from 2013) is a little older than most of what I write about here, but I wanted to post some quick excerpts from the issues, in guise of an introduction to the project, and an appreciation of the admirable reflexive research that it fostered. I might also note here that this project has also yielded an important ethnographic monograph, the late Nancy Abelmann’s The Intimate University: Korean American Students and the Problems of Segregation (which I previously reviewed in LATISS).

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Speech, monuments, and the legacy of silence

While there is an extensive literature on campus speech codes and their increasingly coercive impact (see for example Greg Lukianoff, Freedom from Speech) on classroom behavior by faculty and students, private conversations, and the selection or dis-invitation of controversial campus speakers, the analysis has tended to focus on the politics of speech and freedom of speech and not on why speech has become so dangerous and controlled.  The current controversies over Confederate monuments and their consequences seems linked to this in various ways.  I have nothing of particular interest to say about these topics directly.

Continue reading Speech, monuments, and the legacy of silence

Shore and Wright on Neoliberalism

In their 2016 “Neoliberalisation and the ‘Death of the Public University,’” Cris Shore and Susan Wright give a handy summary of how one might think about the sometimes overused term “neoliberalism”:

Neoliberalism is a problematic concept. Excessive use of the term as a portmanteau for explaining everything that is wrong with contemporary capitalist societies has rendered it an empty signifier devoid of analytical value. As a noun, it suggests something universal and ascribes uniformity and coherence to an assemblage of processes and practices that are far from uniform, consistent or coherent. Like Peck and Tickell (2002: 463), therefore, we prefer to use the term “neoliberalisation” as it highlights the multi-faceted and continually changing set of process associated with neoliberal reform agendas, which assume different forms in different countries. That said, these reforms usually bear close “family resemblances”, to paraphrase Wittgenstein. These include an emphasis on creating an institutional framework that promotes competition, entrepreneurship, commercialisation, profit making and “private good” research and the prevalence of a metanarrative about the importance of markets for promoting the virtues of freedom, choice and prosperity.

Continue reading Shore and Wright on Neoliberalism

A growing research bibliography

As I’ve noted in several of our recent posts, we have started using the online bibliography Zotero to keep track of our growing library of critical research on higher education. So this is just a small announcement: you can view our growing library on the Academography Zotero page.

Zotero has some useful tagging functions, so we’ve tried to classify everything we write about in terms of topic, geographical region, etc. I’ve also started adding new work that I’d like to write about, and tagging it “queue,” to help me keep track of everything that’s out there. So if you are ever curious to see what new research work is coming out, you can consult our queue on Zotero — there is always more new work than we can possibly discuss here in detail.

Annie Vinokur, “Governing universities through quality”

Annie Vinokur is an emerita professor of political economy who recently ran a project, FOREDUC, on “The Future of Education Systems” at the University of Paris-X. I’ve previously reviewed a 2010 journal issue that came out of the FOREDUC project, which was edited by Vinokur and Carole Sigman. I want to write a few words here about a new paper that Vinokur recently published in French, “The quality-based governance of universities,” which is a useful complement to much of the recent Anglophone literature on neoliberal policy in higher education. As a critical political economist, Vinokur’s specialty is thinking about the relationship between flows of capital and social institutions.

Continue reading Annie Vinokur, “Governing universities through quality”

Commentary on “The New Political Economy of Higher Education”

A brief commentary on:

“The New Political Economy of Higher Education”, Special Issue of the journal Higher Education, Editors: Johannes Angermuller, Jens Maesse, Tilman Reitz, Tobias Schulze-Cleven, Higher Education, Volume 73, Issue 6, June 2017. https://link.springer.com/journal/10734/73/6/page/1

Eli Thorkelson put me on to this special issue of the journal Higher Education. I confess I had not seen it and that I was pleasantly surprised to see the robust theoretical and empirical work coming from a group of scholars who I was unaware of. Since I read as much as I can on US and European higher education (in English and Spanish), the fact that I was unaware of this network of researchers suggests that others might gain as much as I have from learning about their work.

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Alison Mountz, “Women on the Edge”

The geographer Alison Mountz published a remarkable paper last year, “Women on the edge: Workplace stress at universities in North America” in The Canadian Geographer (or on ResearchGate) . Based on 21 interviews and first-hand observations as a career academic, Mountz documents a series of difficult — at times impossible — working conditions and their bad consequences for the women in question. These difficult working conditions included gendered and racialized inequities, such as devalued research topics and disproportionate burdens of emotional labor. They also included more generalized bad consequences of contemporary academic work environments, such as generalized overwork, an “always on” situation exacerbated by technology, and a lack of boundaries between work and home life.

The personal consequences of these work-related stressors are multiple and, taken cumulatively, heartbreaking. They are above all psychological and affective, covering stress, burnout, anxiety, despair, isolation, fear and loss. They also extend into the human body, including weight fluctuations, problems with diet and sleep, and physical or mental illness. Mountz speaks of:

a constant aching and tiredness, coupled with insomnia—waking up alert in the middle of the night or extremely early, unable to sleep again; a yearning for sleep coupled with its elusive nature, a familiar frustration… (p. 213)

Continue reading Alison Mountz, “Women on the Edge”

Institutionalizing Critical University Studies

One thing I’ve been keeping an eye on for a while is the slow institutionalization of a subfield of “Critical University Studies” (call it CUS). For those who may not have come across it, CUS is a sort of compromise category that brings together a diverse set of interdisciplinary research and criticism on higher education. Jeffrey Williams began publicizing the field qua field in a 2012 piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where he noted, as I recall, that the name was modeled on “Critical Legal Studies.” CUS, by contrast, still lacks its own Wikipedia article (I leave that as an exercise to the reader), but I’ll just note for now that CUS brings together some very different political views about higher education, ranging from social democrats like Davydd Greenwood to revolutionaries like the Undercommoning project.

Continue reading Institutionalizing Critical University Studies