For some time now, I’ve been meaning to write something about the Harvard email controversy because I think it teaches us something important about how we think about academic labor. First, a brief recap:
Last summer…Harvard was hit with scandal: “College officials [said] around 125 students may have shared answers and plagiarized on a final exam.”
Word about the scandal got to the news media in part thanks to a leaked email.
Here is what Harvard said happened next:
Consequently… a very narrow, careful, and precise subject-line search was conducted by the University’s IT Department. It was limited to the Administrative accounts for the Resident Deans… The search did not involve a review of email content; it was limited to a search of the subject line of the email that had been inappropriately forwarded.
Over at the Anthropology & Environment Society’s “Engagement” blog, Janis Alcorn has a pretty fascinating post about some of the social inner-workings of large bureaucracies. In this case, USAID–an organization that she has 25 years of experience working with. The post starts off with a quote from an interview with Andrew Mathews, who argues that bureaucracies function by “bleaching out local context and coming up with big simplifications.” Alcorn disagrees:
I would counter by positing that good bureaucracies do not bleach out local context. Instead, they create big, simplified umbrellas that cloak the complex, dynamic range of local circumstances and thereby give the staff of government bureaucracies the space to address local circumstances despite changes in political direction.
Later in the post, Alcorn brings up one aspect of USAID’s bureaucracy that resonates a bit with some of the things I saw in my own fieldwork. She writes:
I entered USAID during the transition from President Reagan to President George H.W. Bush. There was a flurry of activity creating documents for “transition teams.” In effect, those documents served as ideologically-aligned, simplified umbrellas that shielded the professional, non-ideological work of the agency.
This shielding of ideological/political work is really fascinating, and it reminds me of a few cases I encountered while doing fieldwork, in which certain organizations were used as a sort of “scientific” or “objective” screen to cover over individual members’ political desires and perspectives. Continue reading