Interview with Mariya Ivancheva (University of Leeds)

Mariya Ivancheva is currently working on a research project with the Universities of Leeds and Cape Town called “The Unbundled University.” Some of her recent work includes “The Discreet Charm of University Autonomy: Conflicting Legacies in the Venezuelan Student Movements” (2016), “Academic freedom and the commercialisation of universities: a critical ethical analysis” (2016, with Kathleen Lynch), “The age of precarity and the new challenges to the academic profession” (2015), and “The Bolivarian University of Venezuela: A radical alternative in the global field of higher education?” (2013). You can also follow her on Twitter or Academia.edu.

Eli Thorkelson: I was really interested to see that your early work was about Walter Benjamin’s theory of utopia, and that you’ve written a great deal about Bulgarian women’s and environmental movements (and migrant workers in Britain) as well as about university politics in Venezuela and precarious academic labor in Europe. Do you think you could say a few words about how your research projects have evolved since you entered the academy?

Mariya Ivancheva: Where to start… All these different topics and field-sites might sound thematically and geographically eclectic – even more so, given that my current field research is in South Africa. The new project I just started working on with the University of Leeds and the University of Cape Town is on widening of access to higher education through digital technologies, in contexts where marketization and disaggregation of traditional degrees (unbundling) are going on. And yes, many times we come to study topics that mix our biographical and intellectual trajectory with contingencies of educational institutions and the job market…

Still, I would rather think of my interest in all these projects as feeding into one bigger intellectual/academic project, which I have tried to address through different field sites. Walter Benjamin’s (unwritten) theory of utopia, which I explored in my days as a student in Philosophy and Social Theory, had a strong influence on my thinking. Benjamin insisted that lost revolutionary moments (unsuccessful struggles or intentions that don’t enter the historical record, because official history is written by the winners) need to be salvaged “from the garbage heap of history”. I see myself as a social historian of lost projects of radical social change. As an anthropologist, I study them not only in their own contemporaneity but through the concrete material and social effects left behind in their aftermath.

My major case studies are about progressive projects that started with good intentions but – due to a combination of structural and agentive forces – have gotten derailed or faced unintended consequences, failure, and sometimes oblivion. Such is the story of my main field sites, state socialist Bulgaria and Venezuela of socialism of the 21st century, and I see many commonalities in post-apartheid South Africa. These were places where good intentions failed, and the institutions which reproduce an unequal society got perpetuated in spite of egalitarian aspirations. By studying these projects’ initial intentions, their historical development (including turning points of rupture or continuities), and the legacies and silences left in their aftermath, scholarly research can help nurture the historical imaginary of new generations.

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Making invisible actors visible in universities as organizations

From an organizational perspective, it seems to me our grasp of how universities work remains quite spotty.  We have a variety of studies of students of different kinds: multicultural, international, by gender, fraternity and sorority members, adult students, not every kind of student and experience but a good start.  We have a stack of work on professors both by professors and about professors.  We have portraits of senior administrators and their self-portraits and their picture of the faculty and students and we have some work on admissions and “enrollment management” staff.  But universities and colleges do not operate simply by faculty teaching, students studying, and administrators “administering”.

There are all sorts of relatively invisible roles, however, that make these organizations possible and they matter a great deal to the functions and sustainability of the institutions.  Groundskeepers, maids, food service personnel, accountants and budget officers, human resource officers, buildings and properties managers, dining staff, alumni affairs staff, public relations staff, and so on are all part of the organizational structure.  They are diverse, ranging educationally and economically from the bottom and operating within a narrow organizational span to relatively well paid people with a broad span of responsibilities.

My point arises from my observations on my own campus over the years.  In every one of these categories, there are people who actively contribute to either the academic mission of the institution or to the quality of life makes it a better place to work than it would be otherwise.  In every one of these categories, I have found people who support the learning/teaching mission of universities and people who don’t.  I have seen two different people in a relatively high staff position with similar education and compensation, play their roles very differently. The actions of one undercut the organization in an authoritarian and self-interested way and the other helped make up for a variety of defective processes and structural linkages in a way that made the organization effective and more efficient.

I think positive staff contributors, often unrewarded and disregarded, should be represented in our ethnographic work.  They are part of the conditions of possibility of the institution, not mere “staff” to be hired and fired at will or to be outsourced without consequence.  By not making their roles visible and showing some of the ways they play their role, we allow senior administrators, faculty, and students to think that only they “are” the “university”.  Let’s help broaden the view.

Olena Aydarova, “Glories of the Soviet Past or Dim Visions of the Future”

Ian Lowrie writes about Olena Aydarova’s recent work on Russian teacher education:

It is probably impossible to write about postsocialism without coming to terms with nostalgia and the legacy of the past. It is a particularly sticky past, which lingers in memories, texts, and institutions. Research on post-Soviet education has been preoccupied with this weight, and rightly so: Soviet history and its recollections inevitably color the everyday practices of learning and teaching in Russian schools and universities; triumphant recapitulations of the achievements of the Soviet educational system are often written into the very documents announcing neoliberal reforms designed to sweep away the institutional legacies of that system. However, the tendency in much of this literature has been to treat the past as, well, past: a dead weight bearing down on a lively present. Olena Aydarova’s recent and refreshing article, however — “Glories of the Soviet Past or Dim Visions of the Future: Russian Teacher Education as the Site of Historical Becoming” — certainly tarries with the past, but in an ultimately more productive vein than many of its contemporaries.

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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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Critical questions on Trump and higher education

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.

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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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Welcome to Academography!

There’s more and more great ethnography of higher education, but so much of it is hard to find.

The point of this project is to bring this set of work together. We think that both newcomers and established researchers could use help keeping track of everything that’s happening in the field.

It’s an extremely diverse set of research. It comes from people in all sorts of fields, from many different continents, from many different political perspectives, from different institutional positions. It overlaps with what’s lately been called “Critical University Studies,” but also includes work in science education, policy studies, critical sociology, educational anthropology, higher ed research, anthropology of knowledge, history and sociology of science, laboratory studies, reflexive cultural studies, and no doubt others.

The project is sponsored by the Committee on Postsecondary Education at the Council on Anthropology of Education, but anyone is free to get involved. We’d love to hear from anyone working in the field or just starting out. Especially let us know when you come across new research we should write about.

We can be reached at academography@gmail.com. You might also want to sign up to be notified when we publish new content.

Interview with Bonnie Urciuoli (Hamilton College)

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.

Continue reading Interview with Bonnie Urciuoli (Hamilton College)