Conclusion: Reading the work that is already there

This is the conclusion to a series of critical engagements with Hugh Gusterson’s paper, Homework: Toward a Critical Ethnography of the University. I won’t repeat the framing of this series here, but you may want to read the introduction to the project, or see the whole list of posts.

I realize it may seem that I have been very hard on Gusterson in this series.

In part, I do think that is justified. Prominent academics with big platforms have a proportionately larger obligation to get things right. They deserve close scrutiny and high standards.

But I still don’t want to make it seem like there was never anything worth taking seriously in Gusterson’s project. Let me briefly state some alternative claims, based on the paper, that Gusterson could reasonably have defended.

1. “There is plenty of anthropological research on universities, it just doesn’t use the approach I think it should.”

We might then have had a discussion about the merits of different approaches to anthropology of higher education.

2. “There is plenty of ethnography of universities, but because it is done by marginal actors, and I am a dominant actor, I’m not very aware of it.”

If Gusterson had said this honestly, it might have led us to an important discussion about what is legible and recognizable within U.S. cultural anthropology. It could have let us discuss the structures of power that organize disciplinary recognition.

3. “There is a lot of critical writing about higher education from feminist, critical race, and intersectional perspectives, but I refuse to view it as sufficient, because it seems to be speaking about minority concerns and not about the general political economy.”

I have tried to say something about this claim already, since it seems perilously close to actually being Gusterson’s (unstated) thesis, and it deserves to be examined quite critically. Such debates resonate more broadly with current debates in U.S. anthropology, in the wake of #hautalk, MeToo, and other controversies about structural exclusion and violence in the profession.

4. “It would be good if more critical work on universities were undertaken.”

Gusterson could easily have made this simple assertion without putting down the existing body of literature. Admittedly, it doesn’t make for very interesting reading. But if it were all that Gusterson had said, I would have readily agreed with him that more critical ethnography of the university could be a good thing.

Is that certain, though? After all, the value of any act of critical research is never given in advance, nor is it guaranteed by the good intentions of the researchers, nor even by picking the “right methods” or “right theories.”

There are many problems with political engagement, but there are even more problems with a lack of political engagement.

Let me be frank: I fear that unless “anthropology of universities” becomes more directly connected to on-the-ground activism and reform efforts within higher education, it may remain a purely academic exercise. And Gusterson, as I indicated, has no clear political project. He just wants to advocate “a lifetime of study.” Even though precarious folks literally cannot afford that

Nevertheless I suppose I am glad, in the end, to see someone like Gusterson working to bring attention to ethnographic research on the university.

I just wish he had done it in a more sympathetic, generous, and more genuinely reflexive fashion.

Gusterson’s dismissal of most of the extant work is, I think, unkind. And I have tried to disprove his key claim: that there is an “avoidance relationship preventing us from systematically studying the institutions we inhabit.”

That avoidance relationship may well have existed in another era, last century. It is now gone. Today there is lots of ethnography of higher education. Lots of it is transnational. Lots of it is feminist. Lots of it is by Black and Brown scholars. Lots of it is by institutionally marginalized folks. It has plenty of different theories, and just as higher education is not a hermetically sealed institution, so too do our theories of it end up being theories of lots of other things too.

The bottom line is that this work is absolutely not the specific province of U.S. cultural anthropology, and there is profoundly no need for critical ethnography of universities to become a new “thing” in mainstream U.S. cultural anthropology.

What mainstream U.S. cultural anthropologists could usefully do is actually read the work that is already being done, and read it deeply (which Gusterson does not always do), and teach this work, and hire people who do it, and extend it when necessary, and improve its disciplinary politics, and definitely not retreat into a weird disciplinary nationalism or “not-invented-here syndrome.”

As Gusterson says, “homework” is in order. But this homework is less about creating a new research field than about learning how to recognize the work that is already there. Folks like Gusterson have a lot to catch up on.

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

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