Critical Point 2: The return to political economy

This is the second post in 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 before continuing, or see the whole list of posts.

I was saying in the last post that Gusterson smuggles in his own preferred theoretical approach beneath a set of ostensibly neutral epistemic criteria, such as “systematicity” and “self-awareness.” His preferred approach is, in substance, a contemporary version of political economy. So let us take time here to see what Gusterson’s political economy looks like.

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Critical Point 1: The aesthetics of good and bad ethnography

This is the first substantive post in 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 before continuing, or see the whole list of posts.

As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, Gusterson’s paper calls for what he pictures as a more “systematic” anthropology of the university. It is worth revisiting his initial formulation in detail:

Some good ethnographic studies of aspects of university life have been written, but it must be said that, after three decades of “repatriated” anthropology (Marcus and Fischer 1986), the anthropological literature on universities is, taken as an ensemble, underdeveloped, scattered, and riddled with blind spots. And in this literature universities tend to be treated as spaces where particular phenomena, such as ethnic or gender relations, can be studied, but not as institutions to be theorized in and of themselves. (435)

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What does a critical ethnography of the university look like? A critical reading of Hugh Gusterson

Last year, the anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, known for his book on nuclear rituals at the U.S. government’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, published a sort of manifesto in American Ethnologist entitled “Homework: Toward a critical ethnography of the university.” It is the most prominent statement on anthropology of universities to emerge from U.S. cultural anthropology in recent years. I wanted to write up some thoughts about its argument, which I think deserves to be considered carefully.

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Furner, “Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865-1905”

Eli asked me to review one of the major books on the history of the social sciences in the United States, Mary Furner’s Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865-1905. The book was originally published by the University of Kentucky Press in 1975 and a new edition with a long and interesting preface was published by Transaction Publishers in 2011. The current edition was published by Routledge in 2017 and there is a Kindle edition. Since the Kindle edition is what I used, all quotes will be to Kindle locations rather than page numbers.

Why bother with a 43 year-old book by an American historian in a blog on the ethnography of academia? For one thing, the level of ethnographic and behavioral detail Furner is a nuanced tour de force. Despite its compelling qualities, the book completely fails to capture the issues uniquely affecting American anthropology and therefore sets us a task that has yet to be addressed. The book remains, however, the most detailed and sustained treatment of the passage from political economy as a combined analytical/social reform effort to a set of academic disciplines called the social sciences that have mostly abandoned social reform and even abandoned the discussion of social reform issues in anything but veiled terms. The cases of the rebels she so vividly documents, and the controversies they created and how they were settled, rewards a close reading for the clues they provide to the present passive, defensive, and inert postures of most of the non-STEM fields.

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Madden, “Reflections on Teaching in a For-Profit College”

Radical Teacher has just published a very interesting auto-ethnographic piece by Jaime Madden, called “Instructor or Customer Service Representative?: Reflections on Teaching in a For-Profit College.” I wanted to pick out some important moments from it.

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Naidu, “Glaring invisibility: Dressing the body of the female cleaner”

I’ve been teaching more South African ethnographic work lately, and I just came across a great paper about outsourced campus cleaning staff at the University of KwaZulu Natal. Maheshvari Naidu‘s 2009 Glaring invisibility: dressing the body of the female cleaner is a particularly rich feminist ethnography of how black African women cleaning staff relate to their mandatory work uniforms. The bottom line is easy to convey: They don’t like them. Yet they are required to wear them.

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Goodman, “Acts of Negotiation”

I’ve been interested lately in a stream of new work coming out on language politics in global higher education. Yesterday I came across a new paper on English language instruction in Ukraine: Bridget Goodman’s “Acts of Negotiation: Governmentality and Medium of Instruction in an Eastern Ukrainian University,” just published in Anthropology & Education Quarterly. It’s a fine-grained ethnographic analysis of what’s at stake in teaching in multilingual situations.

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Joshua Sperber, “Making the Grade – Rating Professors”

I was delighted to come across Joshua Sperber’s new research project about Rate My Professors. In Making the Grade – Rating Professors, published in CUNY’s New Labor Forum, Sperber studies what happens when students can “rate their professors” on the web. The project was based on an online survey of 41 students and 47 adjunct professors, which seems to have elicited a wealth of rich qualitative data. Continue reading Joshua Sperber, “Making the Grade – Rating Professors”

Levin and Greenwood, “Creating a New Public University”

Last year, Morten Levin and Davydd Greenwood published a book whose title sufficiently indicates its broad scope and ambition: Creating a New Public University and Reviving Democracy. The subtitle, Action Research in Higher Education, indicates the authors’ preferred method for realizing their goals. The book is written in plain language and speaks at a general level to participants in American and European higher education. Berghahn Books is releasing it in paperback in 2018. It is neither an ethnographic case study, nor a global history, nor an abstract critique of higher education. Rather, it is a manifesto for what public universities might look like if they were thoroughly democratized; it is a practical guide to participatory research as a means of organizational change; and it is a general theory of why participatory democracy is inseparable from any education worth having.

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Daniel Kontowski, Liberal arts colleges and the liberal arts movement in Europe

I am writing to bring the work of Daniel Kontowski and his colleagues to your attention.  I met Daniel when we participated in Susan Wright’s “Universities in the Knowledge Economy” EU project and I became very interested in his doctoral work at the University of Winchester.  He has a diverse set of projects focused on the emergence and evaluation of liberal arts education in Europe.  It was, frankly, the first I knew of this movement having arrogantly assumed that the liberal arts college is a US institution.

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