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.
Continue reading Furner, “Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865-1905”
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.
Continue reading Naidu, “Glaring invisibility: Dressing the body of the female cleaner”
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.
Continue reading Goodman, “Acts of Negotiation”
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”
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.
Continue reading Levin and Greenwood, “Creating a New Public University”
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.
Continue reading Daniel Kontowski, Liberal arts colleges and the liberal arts movement in Europe
Susan D. Blum reviews Cathy N. Davidson’s new book, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux.
Out with the Old! What Students Need Now
Cathy N. Davidson has been writing about her experiments in education for years (for example here and here and here). She brings to her new book deep understanding of the context, history, successes, and shortcomings of the dominant forms of higher education—college—and highlights several dozen approaches that are more successful. These are more appropriate, she argues, than the conventional forms, which have not changed in more than a hundred years, because they respect students’ abilities, teach them to employ the affordances of not only technology but also other people, and anticipate that the content of whatever they do in college will have only limited relevance in the future—so they need to focus on learning to learn. Conventional colleges have outlived their initial purposes, which were to train managers in a newly industrializing and urbanizing society, when books were scarce and simply ingesting information was challenging enough. They selected only top students and churned them through a disciplinary mill, certified by authorities.
That’s not what we need now.
Continue reading Cathy N. Davidson, “The New Education”
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.”
Continue reading Susan Blum, “I Love Learning, I Hate School”
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).
Continue reading Ethnography of the University Initiative at the University of Illinois