Alex Cockain, “Identity Work at a Normal University in Shanghai”

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.

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Vita Peacock, “Academic precarity as hierarchical dependence”

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.

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Magolda and Delman, “Campus Custodians in the Corporate University”

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.

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Neha Vora, “Is The University Universal?”

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.”

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