Alex Cockain’s recent paper, “Identity Work at a Normal University in Shanghai,” documents the subjective dilemmas and blockages that are created when vocationalist higher education meets a bad labor market. Why force yourself to attend university when the prospects afterwards are unclear? Why value education in itself in an instrumentalist world? What happens when the educational self is torn by ambivalence and contradictory ideals? Cockain explores these questions through an intricate ethnographic analysis of student identities at his own former workplace, an unnamed non-elite (“normal”) Chinese university. The data essentially emerges from student interviews and written self-reports, along with some autoethnographic recollections of his own classroom encounters.
This is an introduction to a series of critical analyses of Donald Trump’s impact on higher education.
The intense instability of the U.S. political situation in the days since Trump’s inauguration makes it hard for any of us to know the future or even the present. Nevertheless, the ascension of the Trump administration — a possible misnomer, admittedly, since “administering” is a plainly inadequate label for their praxis — forces us to think reflexively about our situation as academics and as denizens of the U.S. academy. What, then, is the impact of Trump on higher education? What has it been already? What will it continue to be?
Some initial elements of the situation are already becoming clear. Trump’s election sparked a wave of racist incidents across U.S. campuses, particularly by (invariably male) white nationalists, with swastikas painted on campus buildings, Muslim women choked or grabbed by the hijab, and threats of “tarring and feathering.” Scholarly research is being affected across the disciplines, as the EPA freezes and then unfreezes grants for environmental research, while humanities and the arts are targeted by threats to abolish the NEA and NEH. The currently-contested immigration ban on Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen affects more than 17,000 international students, and has led visiting speakers to avoid visiting the country: “I simply do not have the stomach to deal with being held and interrogated for hours after a transatlantic flight only to be refused entry based on directives imposed by a government where neo-Nazis are pulling the strings,” one wrote. Other scholars are proposing boycotts of U.S. academic conferences.
Vita Peacock turns in a significant contribution to the growing literature on precarious academic labor with her “Academic precarity as hierarchical dependence at the Max Planck Society,” which she published this year in the open-access journal Hau. Peacock’s paper is a challenge to what we could generically call “neoliberalism theory,” a body of thinking which has often viewed the ongoing explosion of precarious labor as a consequence of the general process of neoliberalization that has reshaped the global political economy since the 1970s. In academia, to rehearse the obvious, neoliberalization usually refers to things like the growth of contract and audit-based funding systems; the treatment of students as consumers (whose student debt is considered an investment in “human capital”); the expansion of academic branding and marketing; and the generalized decline in job security for university staff. Indeed, when the contingent workforce grows to 74.8% of all academic teachers in the United States (in 2007), one may reasonably speak of a growth of precarity. It matters how we analyze and historicize precarity, though; which is the crux of Peacock’s intervention.
Peter Magolda and Liliana Delman mount a strong ethnographic critique of the hypocritical treatment of service workers in midwestern U.S. universities, in a recent paper entitled “Campus Custodians in the Corporate University: Castes, Crossing Borders, and Critical Consciousness.” The first section of the paper presents three rich ethnographic cases; the second half is a meditation on why universities treat service workers so badly, and on what might be done to transcend the “caste system” in higher education.
This will be the first in a long series of pointers to recent literature in the field of ethnography of higher education.
Neha Vora published an interesting paper last year in Anthropology & Education Quarterly, “Is the University Universal? Mobile (Re)Constitutions of American Academia in the Gulf States,” which looks at globalized higher education in the Persian Gulf. Framed within a postcolonial theory context, Vora sets out to examine what becomes of “universal” ideas about higher education in the Gulf Arab States, emphasizing that many of these universals obscure their own cultural origins as they spread outside the West through overseas campuses sponsored by Western elite universities. Vora’s paper is thus fundamentally skeptical of critiques of globalized higher education that obscure their own cultural origins, and one of her paper’s great merits is to underline the nationalist limits of higher education scholarship in much of the Global North, particularly in imperial/post-imperial societies. British critiques of higher education are usually deeply focused on Britain; French research on higher education generally focuses on France; and as Vora emphasizes, U.S. research on higher education is largely blind to non-American points of view. Vora cites a convincing example of an American scholar who dismisses an American academic collaboration in Doha “having never been there, seen the universities, nor spoken with the students herself.”
Bonnie Urciuoli teaches anthropology at Hamilton College.
Eli Thorkelson: I’ve known you and your work for quite a while, Bonnie, and we went to the same graduate program at Chicago (albeit 30 years apart), but I only just found out as part of this interview that your early work was on Puerto Rican speech communities, and then you gradually became more interested in American constructs of multiculturalism, race and class, right? And then a few years after you got tenure, you started working on higher education diversity discourse, focusing on your own institution, Hamilton College. How did that shift come about? Was there some moment when you decided that you had to write about where you worked?
Bonnie Urciuoli: I got to Hamilton in 1988, and within a year or two I noticed students, generally recruited through HEOP (Higher Education Opportunity Program), who came from the neighborhoods where I had done fieldwork or neighborhoods much like them, and who could easily have been younger members of the families I worked with on the Lower East Side (1978-79) or in the Bronx (1988). HEOP plays a key role. It was established and funded by the state to provide higher education assistance to academically and economically disadvantaged students who show academic promise. The decision to admit a student through HEOP takes place in the admissions process, and students are offered financial packages combining grants, loans, and work-study, some funding from the state, some from the college. Incoming cohorts are 30-40 per year. All participants attend a five-week summer program before their first year. This is a sort of college prep boot camp with classes in various subjects taught by college faculty. (The boot camp part is because of how the residential aspect of the program is run, not so much the academics.) HEOP cohorts include white students, often children of college plant or clerical employees, or sports (usually football, sometimes basketball) recruits but the white HEOP kids tend to disappear into the mass and HEOP is generally identified with Latino, Black, and Asian students. Those kids tend to become the core of the student ‘cultural’ organizations (LaVanguardia, Black Student Union, Asian Cultural Society). From 1972 through 2001 HEOP was the main source of ‘diversity’ for the college; in 2001 the college started partnering with the Posse Foundation to develop another ‘diversity’ source. But I am getting way ahead of my story. Also if you’re interested, I have a ms under review on this very topic. Not to mention a book chapter.
Carol Brandt works on science education at Temple University.
Eli Thorkelson: Your work on science education seems like it comes pretty directly out of your own higher education trajectory, which was in anthropology, botany, and educational thought, right? Do you think you could start out by telling the story of how this diverse set of interests formed, and how you ended up in New Mexico doing your PhD and working on American Indian science education?
Carol Brandt: As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I was an anthropology major and studied archeology. At first I was in the human osteology lab and working on disease patterns in prehistoric human populations as a work-study. At the same time, I was strongly interested in biology and had almost completed double major, if I had only done the organic chemistry. After graduating with a BA in anthro, I found a position working with the University of Colorado at the Dolores Archeology Project in southern Colorado. It was one of the last huge US Corps of Engineers projects in the Southwest that involved inundating an obscene amount of land at near Mesa Verde by damming the Dolores River. This area had thousands of Puebloan and Basketmaker sites dating from 200 BC to 1200 AD. Because I had biology and botany coursework in college, I found myself doing archaeobotanical analysis for several years. Eventually I decided to get a MS in Botany at Colorado State University to continue this work. After getting my MS degree, I worked for the Pueblo of Zuni doing archaeobotany for six years.
Davydd Greenwood kindly shared his syllabus for an Anthropology of the University course. I believe he taught this course for about ten years at Cornell University, so it presumably went through many iterations. Here’s the description:
We examine the contemporary university as a social and cultural system. The seminar involves an examination of the convergences and divergences between the trajectories of the sciences and engineering, the humanities, and the social sciences in contemporary universities and some international comparisons with the trajectories of universities around the world. The overall aim is to link an ethnographic analysis of the microstructures of departmental differentiation, professional hegemonies, and local financing with the larger-scale processes of transformation of universities’ place in society under the pressures of corporatization, globalization, and competition from a host of alternative higher education institutions.
Here’s the list of books they read:
- Arum, Richard and Josipa Roska, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
- Ginsberg, Benjamin, The Fall of the Faculty. Chicago: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Kirn, Walter, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. New York: Anchor, 2010.
- Ruch, Richard, Higher Ed, Inc.: The Rise of the For-profit University. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
- Jean Schensul and Margaret LeCompte, Essential Ethnographic Methods: A Mixed Method Approach, 2nd edition. Lanham, MD: Altamira, 2013.
- Tuchman, Gayle, Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.