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.

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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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