All posts by Ryan

Ryan Anderson is a cultural anthropologist. His current research focuses on the politics of development and land in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently living out in the California desert, where he's working on his next move in the chess game that is life. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

No funding? Don’t do it! (on getting a PhD in anthropology)

The following is another installment for the Anthropologies/Savage Minds issue on Student Debt.

Well, it’s that time of year when prospective grad students around the country are anxiously pacing around their mailboxes waiting for responses from all the PhD programs they applied to.  Many are wondering who accepted them, who rejected them, and, of course, if they got funding.  That’s the big question.  Getting a full-funding offer is the highest mark of acceptance and application success.  It’s like getting the golden seal of academic and departmental approval.  It means you’re in.

Getting accepted without a funding offer is a not-so-wonderful middle ground.  Like getting a happy-face sticker that says “Great Job!” when you really needed a paycheck.  It feels sort of like acceptance, but there’s something hollow about it.  A lot of people decide to enter PhD programs without funding, thinking that at least it gets them in the door.  If they happen to have piles of extra money on hand, or family support, or a full-time job, or maybe even a partner who is working, it might be a reasonable choice.  Might being a key word there.  But many people simply don’t have access to those kinds of financial resources.  In these post-economic crash, disintegration-of-the-university-as-we-knew-it times, I think more students need to seriously reconsider entering PhD programs without full funding.  Why?  Because it doesn’t make any sense to go into debt trying to get a PhD in anthropology (let alone plenty of other disciplines).  Sarah Kendzior said it best on twitter not too long ago:

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Ghosts, Wolves, and Distractions: Student Debt and the Development Anthropologist

This is an invited post by Douglas La Rose for the Anthropologies Student Debt Issue (#20). Douglas is a graduate of San Diego State University’s Applied Anthropology M.A program. He is an applied environmental anthropologist who has been living and working in rural Africa since 2005. He worked as a consultant for both the United Nations Development Program and the African Adaptation Program, and also established his own agroforestry project in Ghana in 2011.  Currently, he works for Nuru International Ethiopia as an agriculture program specialist in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region of Ethiopia. His writing on Nuru Ethiopia’s agriculture program can be found here.

In order to make a real difference, you have to go deeply into “debt.” You have to take out a massive personal capacity-building loan to prepare yourself for the rugged terrain that is the world of international “development.” If you carry the heavier cross of wanting to entertain post-development notions – of deconstructing the way the North interacts with, represents, and perceives the South while “practicing” development – you must also drag along its corollary baggage: being a naysayer in an industry of entrenched professionals and experts. If you have had the misfortune of being trained beyond the capacity that is desired of a development professional – a reflexive applied anthropologist always willing to intervene with a “now, wait a second” – then you suddenly become less an asset than a perceived enemy or an implant.

In this academy-abandoned landscape of moving forward with a kind of loosely defined and intensively critical development philosophy, the very contours and nature of debt become something like a ghost. Debt becomes something that is difficult to believe in as a real entity. It is negative capital that must be plodded through to realize a sense of personal freedom. But at the same time it exists in a realm of voices, letters, phone calls, and news articles. One is constantly reminded of it – even distracted by it – but as it howls it is difficult to feel the substance of its howl. The wolves at the door appear to be more holograms than threats. Why throw your livelihood to these beasts when you have a child to feed? Why acknowledge their scratchings when your real task at hand is to co-create an agriculture program in Ethiopia or bring attention to indigenous adaptations to climate change in marginalized areas of Ghana? The ghost of debt becomes something like a joke. The voices, the letters, the phone calls, the news stories, the “bubble” – all of it collapses under the immensity of its absurdity. Of course, this is all wrong and unpatriotic. Right? Continue reading

What Comes After the Public University?

This is an invited post by Ann Larson for the Anthropologies Student Debt Issue (#20).  Larson is a graduate of the PhD program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center where she researched first-generation students in higher education. In academic exile, she has worked as an adjunct professor, as a public relations assistant, and as a (volunteer) communications and technical coordinator for Strike Debt. Her writing on debt can be found here, here and here. She writes about academia on her blog.

YOUARENOTALOAN[1]

With total student loan debt over one trillion dollars, millions of students and families can never hope to repay what they owe, especially since there are no individual solutions to the problem. Student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, and student loan lenders can and do garnish debtors’ wages and social security checks. The powers of lenders to collect are unprecedented in the history of creditor/debtor relations.

Yet, belief in upward mobility through education is still a profoundly American ideal. In the midst of the latest recession, politicians and elites have argued not for the redistribution of wealth but for making college “more affordable” in the belief that increasing access to education makes more fundamental social changes unnecessary. Forgotten, too, in the emphasis on college financing is that education is not just a path to a job. It’s a site of human desire, aspiration, and hope for the future. Continue reading

Student Debt and Activism in New Zealand

This is an invited post by Hollie Russell for the Anthropologies Student Debt Issue (#20).  Russell is a student at Victoria University of Wellington, about to start her Masters in anthropology with a student loan debt of $33,515.08. Her interests include politics, activism, and good coffee. Follow her on twitter @hollierussell8

In New Zealand, student debt is a pervasive and powerful feature of student life. Neoliberal user-pay ideologies led to the introduction of tuition fees in 1989 and the formation of the Student Loan Scheme in 1992. Through the scheme many New Zealand students have become increasingly indebted to the government in the form of financial loans. As of June 2012, 701,000 people had a student loan with Inland Revenue and the nominal value of loan balances was almost $13 billion (MoE 2012). My own loan balance sits at $33,515.08 which is just above average for postgraduate students.

The prevalence of student loans and the massive amount of debt owed by students in New Zealand has directly influenced student activism, but has also affected participation indirectly because of its influence on the priorities, energy and time students have had. It seems that, that which could potentially inspire students to action often discourages them.

One way student debt effects activism is by influencing student’s priorities. Due to debt, most students take on part-time work, which on top of assignments, revision, lectures, and tutorials, does not leave students with much spare time. Additionally, when students do have free time, they are more likely to spend it doing activities and joining clubs which will benefit their résumé, a result of the anxiety surrounding their debt. As Paul Comrie-Thomson (2010) points out “a prospective employer is going to be considerably more inclined to take on a member of the debating club than say a member of the University’s Marxist community”. Zoe Zuccotti, a student activist herself, echoes Comrie-Thomson’s idea, explaining the conflicting features of contemporary student life: Continue reading

Understanding the risks and resisting the Kool-Aid: An interview with Karen Kelsky about student debt

This email-based interview with Karen Kelsky is part of the Anthropologies Student Debt Issue (#20).  Kelsky runs The Professor Is In, an academic career consulting business.  She is a former tenured professor and department head with 15 years of experience teaching at the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  You can find her on twitter here: @ProfessorIsIn

Ryan Anderson: How serious is the student debt problem?

Karen Kelsky:  NSF data shows us that almost 50% of all Ph.D.s in the Humanities and Social Sciences are finishing with debt. In the Social Sciences, almost 10% of all Ph.D.s are finishing with over $90,000 debt.  Over 13% have $50K-$90K.  So almost a quarter of all Ph.D.s in the Social Sciences have more than $50K of debt just from graduate school alone, not including the debt carried forward from college.

In the Humanities, while only 6.8% have debt above $90K, almost 13% have $50K-$90K debt, and a whopping 33.2% have debt of $10K-$50K.  Again, these figures do not include undergraduate debt, which is usually higher than grad school debt, since so many Ph.D. programs carry some form of funding.

I’m using NSF data here because it’s “scientific” and harder to deny than the entries on my informal and unscientific Ph.D. Debt Survey.  But the Survey, an open source Googledoc spreadsheet that is now well over 2200 entries (and still open to more!) gives the human stories behind these numbers. Continue reading

Reader Letter: Ontology and the anthropological butter knife

[The following is an anonymous reader letter I received in response to some of the recent discussions about anthropology & the ontological turn.]

I don’t get the ontological turn, to be honest.  Oh, I get it intellectually, this struggle to understand how we can understand the other yet also incorporate that into our philosophy, and to open up our thinking beyond just a mentalese version of culture (rules, symbols, etc.).  We’re material beings, we’re agents, the world is a material place, other people think differently than we do… You think that would all be common sense at this point for anthropologists, rather than a big existential crisis all over again.

Oh, I do think the ontological turn is doing interesting intellectual work; I like theory after all, and this is a struggle on the sociocultural side, a bit of an identity crisis about the loss of culture and the expansion of ethnography to just about everywhere.  But I also see it as doing a fair amount of disciplining work, of promoting a high-intellectual agenda, of saying there’s serious stuff going on, and that’s what really matters.

It would be simpler to say, philosophers, we love you, you’re really smart, well trained, good at debate.  But you’re also royally screwed, and experimental philosophy, that won’t really save you.  And then just to claim philosophy as our own.  I’ve often thought that, that anthropology is really an empirical, grounded philosophy, an investigation of how people think and act based on what they actually do and say.  It’s like going back to the Greek philosophers.  But we’re not doing that.  Rather, the new ontologists are trying to act daring enough to claim that ground, but really don’t seem well-versed enough to get into that fight. Continue reading

Consuming the Academic Bubble

This is an invited post by Jeremy Trombley as part of the Anthropologies (#20) Student Debt issue.  Trombley is a PhD student at the University of Maryland studying environmental anthropology. His dissertation research focuses on the use of computational environmental modeling to understand and predict the effects of environmental management practices on the Chesapeake Bay. In addition he has done research on coal power in western Kansas, traditional cultural properties (TCPs) in rural Nevada, and aquatic invasive species (AIS) on the Eastern Shore. He blogs at Struggle Forever!

Sometimes I feel as though I’ve been swindled. Not by anyone in particular but by an institution that is relentlessly trying to prop itself up despite its progressive decline. That institution is the academy – once a public good devoted to the free production of critical knowledge, it has become in the last few decades a corporatized factory for the production of capitalist consumers and wage slaves. More than that, it has become itself a product for consumption where what’s for sale is the facsimile of intellectual freedom and integrity. Like so many extravagant island resorts, universities offer manicured landscapes, leisure activities, freedom from the wage clock – all for a price and all safely sectioned off from the harsh realities outside. But the price is going up, and students – the consumers of this image world that they are being sold – are taking on increasing amounts of debt to pay it. What’s more, they’re told this is “good debt” – like buying a house, right? Remember when owning a home was the “American Dream” – a symbol of financial security? Now that bubble has burst – the academic bubble, I believe, is not far behind it.

Bubbles happen when a sector of the economy becomes delusional – when those who take part in it believe it to be free from the economic rules upon which our world is constructed. Academia has become such a delusion. But bubbles are not accidents – they are an inevitable part of a system that seeks the maximization of profit as the ultimate value. Speculators dive in, drawn by promises of wealth and freedom only to be crushed by the inevitable collapse of the delusional space. The speculators are consumers themselves, buying into a vision sold to them by the real beneficiaries – the banks, insurance companies, and, in the case of academia, the Universities. In this case, the speculator-consumers are the students – drawn in by the lure of “good debt”, stipends, the image of freedom and intellectual engagement, and the promise of a good job when it’s all over. Continue reading

Anthro student debt: Stories from the debt-free

The surveys are open for another week, but there’s one aspect of the first survey that I’d like to explore a little closer right now: the respondents who reported being free of student loan debt on Survey #1.  Out of a total of 226 responses (as of this morning), 75 people reported that they have zero student loan debt (33%).  This is the most common response to the question about debt.  The second most common response was student debt between $11,000 and $30,000, which was reported by about 19% of respondents.

So what’s going on with the folks who reported no student loan debt?  What do these responses tell us?  My first question when I saw these results was whether the “zero debt” segment would be overwhelmingly positive in terms of their outlook about anthropology and their academic career.  I also wondered if this segment would be more dismissive about the student debt issue, since they don’t have any debt themselves.  As is often the case, however, the actual results offer quite a lot more than the story the raw numbers seem to tell. Continue reading

Student debt survey updates

Here’s a short update about the two student debt surveys I started last week. Both surveys will be open for another week.  After that I will compile the responses and share the results here as part of the Savage Minds/anthropologies series on student debt.  The first survey has a total of 226 responses so far.  The second survey, which looks at debt by country and institution, has 113 responses.  Thanks everyone for taking the time to do the surveys!  Please note: It would be great to get some more responses from biological/physical anthropologists, archaeologists, and linguistic anthropologists (and other sub-fields) for these surveys.  Responses from socio-cultural anthropologists dominate both surveys (65% in the first survey, 56% in the second).  Look for another update in one week when these surveys close!

On taking ontological turns

I didn’t make it to the AAA 2013 meetings.  I heard the news though: ontology is the next big thing.  I’m not sure what to make of this.  I am all for getting your theory on, but so far I haven’t heard anything from this latest ontological craze that’s really hit home.  Maybe I’m not paying enough attention.  Maybe I’m not reading the right stuff.  Or, perhaps after several years of being subjected to high doses of academic theory-talk, I have overdosed and now have some sort of weird allergy to anything that remotely resembles jargon.  In that case I just need some Benadryl and everything should be in order shortly.

I did read a post over on Allegra by Isaac Morrison about this whole “ontological turn” thing that makes some good points.  Here’s how it starts: Continue reading

Anthropologies: Anthro student debt survey, round 2 (debt by country/institution)

This survey is part of the Anthropologies (#20) issue about student debt, here on Savage Minds.

As of about 7:30 PST on 1/20/14, the anthropologies/Savage Minds student debt survey has 191 responses.  Thanks everyone for taking part in that first survey!  The point of the survey was to get a general understand about debt as it relates to the broad community of people who identity themselves with anthropology.  This includes people in the US, of course, but also beyond it.  But one of the flaws in the survey is this openness.  As readers here on SM and Facebook pointed out, I should have included a question about the country in which people studied anthropology to help parse out the numbers.  Thanks for the input.  That was a pretty big omission on my part!  So, in an attempt to answer this question, I have written up a very short follow up survey that attempts to get a better understanding of debt by country/institution.  Please note that you will be able to see everyone’s answers to the survey once you hit the “submit” button at the bottom of the page.  Once I close both surveys I will compile everything and share the results here on Savage Minds.

Please click here to take the second survey.

Thank you for taking the time to take this follow up survey.  If you have any questions, comments, or concerns please email me anytime: ethnografix@gmail.com

UPDATE 1/20/14 at 4:41 pm PST: We already have 47 responses for this survey!  Thanks everyone.  ONE IMPORTANT NOTE: If you have no student loan or credit card debt, please enter a ZERO instead of leaving answers blank!! Thanks!!

Anthropologies: Student Debt in anthropology (Survey)

In order to kick off the first Savage Minds/anthropologies issue about student debt, let’s start with a short survey.  Following on the heels of Karen Kelsky’s recent survey about PhD debt, I want to see if we can get a little more information about student debt in the discipline of anthropology.  This survey is open to anyone who has ever studied anthropology at the undergraduate or graduate level (past and present).  It’s also anonymous.  If you finished your degree yesterday, we want to hear from you.  If you dropped out, fill it out and tell us why.  If you finished back in 1980, we want to hear from you too.  I am going to let the survey run for two weeks, which means it will close on Friday, January 31.  Let me know if you have any questions: email me at ethnografix at gmail dot com.  Thanks in advance for taking the time to fill this out!  And please pass this along to your anthropology colleagues and friends!

Click here to take the survey!

UPDATE 1/17: As of about 8:45 pm PST, there are already 60 responses!  Thanks!!  When the survey closes I will compile everything and post the results here on Savage Minds.  In the mean time you can see an overview of all responses after you click the submit button.

UPDATE II, 1/20/14: Based upon a few reader comments about the lack of a question about the institution/country in which people have studied anthropology I have created a short follow up survey: Student Debt in Anthropology Survey #2 (Debt by country/institution).  Thanks for all of your help and input everyone!

Stoller and the 2014 challenge for social science

Paul Stoller has a new piece on HuffPo about saving the social sciences (and liberal arts).  Here’s a good snippet:

The challenge for the social sciences — at least for me — is to simultaneously maintain rigorous standards while producing works that clearly and powerfully articulate important insights to broad audiences across a variety of media. In my discipline, anthropology, the challenge is to communicate critical insights about social life in such a way that moves audiences to think and to act.

Many of my colleagues devote considerable energy to debate the whys and wherefores of nature, culture, social change, globalization and ontological turns. These debates are usually articulated in specialized languages that may demonstrate brilliance but often limit the reach of insight. There is no reason that theoretically informed findings cannot be communicated to broad audiences.

See that last line?  He’s right.  Read the rest here and then go write something that would make Stoller proud.

Anthropologies on Savage Minds

After a couple years of running the anthropologies project and writing for Savage Minds, I have decided to combine my online energies.  Anthropologies is moving to Savage Minds!  The core idea of the project is going to stay the same, but the way it works is going to change a bit.  Instead of publishing collections of essays all at once in journal-esque format, the new anthropologies here on Savage Minds will entail a series of themed, invited posts over a 1-2 month period.  At the end of the series I will publish the collection in either E-pub or PDF format to make things nice and accessible.  I think it’s going to work out very well.

All upcoming issues will be announced in advance to encourage as much participation as possible.  If you have any comments or ideas, please feel free to email me at ethnografix at gmail dot com.  Suggestions and ideas are always welcome.

The first Savage Minds/anthropologies issue will focus on the pressing, depressing, and ever-worsening subject of student debt.  It’s an issue that affects far too many people, and it needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.  I wrote about student debt here on Savage Minds a while back–at the end of the post I mentioned the idea of marshaling anthropology to start finding some answers.  That’s what this issue is all about: bringing anthropology to bear on a subject that hits close to home for a lot of people trying to slog their way through grad school, recent graduation, adjunct-hood, and the horrible job market.  Several contributors are already lined up, and the first installment of the series will be online soon!  In anticipation of the student debt issue, check out this must read article on the Chronicle of Higher Ed by Audrey Williams June (published today), which mentions the PhD Debt Survey that Karen Kelsky started just a few days ago (it already has more than a thousand anonymous responses).  Also check out Rebecca Schuman’s related piece on Slate.  Those two articles will be a good prep for taking on–and hopefully pushing back against–the entrenched problem of student debt.

*Upcoming themes include: The politics of global warming and environmentalism; Aging; The uses and abuses of “culture”;  An anthropology of the stuff we eat.  And more!  This series is open to suggestions, participation, and ideas, so please feel free to post your comments here or email me (ethnografix@gmail.com).

Is an NSF Grant Just another Fetish?

[This is an invited post by Tony Waters. Waters is a Professor of Sociology at California State University, Chico, and occasionally blogs at ethnography.com.  His application for a PhD program in Anthropology was rejected in 1988 because he was unable to put together the appropriate charms needed by the admissions committee at an unnamed western United States university.  In an attempt to please the gods of the tribe he has since offered up his first-born at the altar of an unnamed Anthropology PhD program in the eastern United States.]

I made a somewhat off-hand comment one of Ryan’s posts about graduate education.  I think I warned graduate students about “fetishizing” various types of grant sources like NSF, NIMH, Fulbright, and the various others sources of grad student funding which students compete to get.  This initially got me a deserved sharp rebuke from Ryan.  After all, who was I as a fully tenured, overpaid, and underworked full professor to complain about graduate stipend which (obviously) are few and far between?  Well that question is fair enough—but Ryan has also graciously offered me a chance to elaborate.

First my backstory.  One of the reasons I am not an anthropologist is that in 1988 after eight years working in Thailand and Tanzania mostly with refugees (which is what I wanted to study), I would need at least eight years to become an anthropologist.  In large part, it was explained to me that this was because (obviously) fieldwork is required for a doctorate in anthropology, you might need to try two or three times before success.  But never mind while waiting for the grant to come through you would need to work 2-3 years as a t.a. waiting to strike gold.  It was sonorously explained to me that to do field work, you would need pre-research visits, protocol visits, and finally what was in the early 1990s a $20,000 grant from Fulbright or NSF to buy your plane tickets, fly back to places you have already been, collect the data to do the field work.  The field work would then take another year or two to do the write-up, and so forth.

So I ended up in Sociology, and completed a PhD in 5-6 years, without fieldwork and wrote a dissertation based mainly in the library.  I also heard that I would never get a job unless I:

  • Could get a grant, preferably one via NSF or one of the other federal agents which pay “overhead.”
  • Curried favor with letter writers (i.e. they themselves) who controlled the job market via social networks.
  • Delivered multiple papers at conferences, preferably those organized by their networks.
  • Made a theoretical break-through in your dissertation, which they would sign off on. Continue reading