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.

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.”

Blum’s substantive argument is straightforward. Everyone complains about college (Ch. 1), even though no one can agree on what it is for (Ch. 2); therefore we should take a step back to question the underlying “paradigm” of higher education (Ch. 3), which is based on a decontextualized form of “real-fake learning” and a culture of (easily gamed) obedience (Ch. 4). This leads to a culture where grades are fetishized (Ch. 5) and students, largely turned off by formal education, end up feeling more energized by non-academic activities than by their classroom teachers (Ch. 6). This leads Blum to ask how human beings learn in general, outside of school settings. She sketches a standard anthropological image of human beings as social, affective and embodied creatures; she then uses that image to draw out a contrast between the practical and imitative ways that humans learn “in the wild,” and the deliberately impractical (“Cartesian”) ways that humans are asked to learn in college (Chs. 7-8). Finally, she concludes with some notes on how education might better promote “intrinsic” motivation (Ch. 9), happiness and joy (Ch. 10), and ultimately a “learning revolution” that takes us beyond the factory model of schooling (Ch. 11).

There is a great deal that one could say about the different moments of Blum’s argument, which I can unfortunately only evoke in very broad strokes. I am happy to report that several of the chapters could work on their own as general introductions to larger bodies of critical research. The chapter on grades (ch. 5), above all, could work well in a teaching context, given its rich ethnographic corpus and its many piquant observations about grading culture. “The reified sign becomes internalized,” she quips in a section on how grades induce “anxiety and fear” (127-128). Blum’s best chapters blend ethnographic data with anthropological analysis, or synthesize others’ research into her own personal critique of college culture; as such, I recommend them to fellow teachers who want to teach about teaching.

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.

These issues brought to mind the work of my late, lamented friend and colleague, the Israeli sociologist and therapist Dan Bar-On.  The author of many interesting books, Dan was a refugee who family fled Germany to Israel.  In his therapeutic practice, he found many children of Holocaust survivors who were deeply troubled by the silence of their parents or families about what had happened. He concluded that the silence itself prevented them from working through these issues and traumatized many.  After a time, he became curious about the children of the Nazi perpetrators and eventually went to Germany to meet some of them. He found they were suffering similar traumas brought on both by silence and shame.  His book about this is called The Legacy of Silence: Encounters with Children of the Third Reich.  Eventually he brought a group of the survivor’s children and the perpetrator’s children together to share their experiences on the basis that “working through” these issues was their only way forward. Later Dan found that the legacy of silence affected even the grandchildren’s generation.

This raises both an ethnographic and pedagogical issue for me. Are we “working through” these issues  or are we reproducing the trauma of slavery and genocide by silencing them.  What has anthropology to say about silence, taboo, and social healing?  When is silence and taboo socially valuable and when is it destructive? How can we be relevant to the current scene based on lessons we have learned from our fieldwork and ethnographic analyses?

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. In Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere this narrative has typically been framed as taking an “investment approach” to higher education, one that recasts public spending on education in the short term and instrumental language of “return on investment”. This philosophy is also epitomised in the withdrawal of government funding for the arts and humanities and corresponding emphasis now placed on promoting the supposedly more “economically relevant” fields of Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (the STEM subjects). The name of the game is now about generating new income streams – through “export education”, forging partnerships with business, commercialising university IP, leasing or selling university infrastructure, and developing spin-out companies. These have now become normalised and naturalised features of academia. In the new university, what “counts” are those things that can be “counted”, quanti ed and translated as financial returns to the institution. As one Danish minister summed it up, the aim is speed up the translation of research from “idea to invoice”.

In short: “neoliberalism” (which insinuates that there is a monolithic ideology out there) can become a vague and problematic category, but “neoliberalisation” remains a useful term for capturing a series of family resemblances among reform processes that do have real similarities across national and institutional borders.

In the background here is a large anthropological debate on neoliberalism, but I can’t go into that; here I just want to signal what I take to be the bottom line for higher education scholars.

As one minor addendum to the broad point, I might also add that, in the European context, I also find quite useful the more specific label “New Public Management,” which designates, approximately, “neoliberal management practices in the public sector.” It’s useful to differentiate these from the philosophical discourses on neoliberalism, like “there is no alternative” to capitalism, or “there is no such thing as society.” It’s also useful to differentiate policy discourses from the dynamics of everyday life in neoliberalizing institutions (e.g. there are interesting questions about when and whether neoliberal policies create “neoliberal subjectivities” among local actors).

See Also:

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.

Here’s the English-language abstract of her paper:

Since the 1990s universities have seen a proliferation of methods for quality assessment and management. Borrowed from the New Public Management business model, they impose a definition of quality on universities which is radically opposed to their traditionally held values of quality of knowledge and professional autonomy. This unprecedented movement can now be seen as participating in the capitalist absorption of a non-commercial public sector. We endeavour here to analyse its origins and the uses of quality measurements and management techniques in the process. We assess where this transition could lead according to the recent British government White Paper (May 2016) which intends to establish a market open to all providers, for-profit and non-profit, granted equal access to the public funding of students’ loans. This market would be regulated by a single non-departmental quality agency, concerned only with students’ value for money.

What I like about her paper is that it considers a set of policies and trends that are familiar to anthropologists working on “neoliberal” European higher education, but from a quite different angle and a higher level of abstraction. As a point of terminology, Vinokur generally uses the European category “New Public Management” (NPM) instead of the more ambiguous term “neoliberalism.” I agree with her that NPM is a much more precise category and that “neoliberalism” can become a fraught term, but I will freely use both terms here because both have been widely used in the literature on this topic.

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.

Continue reading Commentary on “The New Political Economy of Higher Education”

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.

Anyway, I realized today that there are actually three book series in CUS, which seems like a clear barometer of institutionalization. It may be useful for new people to the field to see them all assembled in one place:

Continue reading Institutionalizing Critical University Studies

Applied Anthropology and Higher Education

Over at the Society for Applied Anthropology, a Topical Interest Group (“TIG”) on Higher Education has recently come into being. I attended their first set of sessions at the SFAA conference in 2015 and found them to be a large and quite diverse group of people, many working outside of the academic social sciences. The TIG recently sent out a newsletter that announces some of the interesting work they are doing in 2017, which I thought was worth reposting here.

If anyone wants to get in touch, the current co-chair, Brian Foster (formerly provost at the University of Missouri-Columbia), can be reached at fosterbl@missouri.edu.


From Brian Foster, Co-Chair
Society for Applied Anthropology

It was great to see many of our affiliates at the SfAA meeting in Santa Fe, many of whom were presenters in our TIG’s cluster of sessions and quite a few who presented in other areas. Our cluster of sessions on Anthropology of Higher Education was very impressive: great papers, great discussion in the sessions, and a good deal of informal interaction. We had over 100 presenters (including more than 30 who were first-timers in our TIG) in 25 sessions.

A new “feature” of this year’s cluster was a mini-cluster of seven sessions on diversity which was perhaps the richest and most thoughtful discussion I have ever seen on diversity in higher education. The structure was to address the question “How does it play out to be Hispanic in Higher Education?” And how does it play out to be Black, Native American, Asian, White, and a Woman? And then there was an overarching session with a discussion of the first six sessions were similar and were different—e.g., not surprisingly it plays out very differently to be Black than to be Asian. One goal of this mini-cluster was to identify new perspectives for sessions in the 2018 meeting in Philadelphia. A brief set of notes on the overarching session is provided below. A major question is whether to organize such mini-clusters in key content areas as a way to achieve more structure for future meetings.

Continue reading Applied Anthropology and Higher Education