Journal Club

Something I have thought about since leaving graduate school is how theorists and ideas become influential. How, for example, did Taussig sweep the discipline in the late 80s and early 90s? How did that behemoth of a snowball get rolling? I wonder, because an odd feature of my graduate training was how little formal structure was in place to make sure we apprentice anthropologists were reading the current literature. Perhaps it was just me, but I felt that a lot more credit was awarded both in seminars and at parties for being able to trot out points from, say, the minor essays of Rodney Needham than for having something to say about the latest issue of AE. And again, it may just have been me but I only started paying close attention to disciplinary journals and the differences between them toward the end of my grad school sojourn — that is, as I started to think about trying to publish myself. I definitely felt that I had to figure a lot of it out on my own — what it meant for something to be a “Cultural Anthropology” sort of an article and so forth.

It’s made me remember something I used to hear about as an undergrad bio major: “Journal Club”. No, the first rule of Journal Club was not don’t talk about Journal Club 😉 I never went, but it seemed to be something that grad students had to attend — ie, though it was called a “club” it was a formal part of their training — and at which what they did was discuss the latest articles in the major journals. Doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea, and I wonder why we anthros don’t do it (or maybe other schools do, and only mine didn’t). It seems peculiar, in retrospect, that this kind of thing — the peer-reviewed best of our own collective research results, hot off the presses — wasn’t more at the heart of our formal training. So my queries are: is it a formal part of trainng at other schools? If not, why not? And, to return to the start, how does new research and how do new researchers become “hot”?

10 thoughts on “Journal Club

  1. journal clubs? sounds a bit off to me. i like mandatory reading lists given to graduate students, but the ‘flavor of the week’ seems a bit off. we only have to look at recent studies of citations to see that few of the latest articles in premiere journals ever beomce notable in the long term. in fact, usually long term popularity tends to come from the periphery as much as from the core (at least where ideas are not stagnant). i do think that reading journal articles should be done though… i think it should be done in relation to each class, each methods seminar, and similar topics. but then i also think that people in graduate school should keep a well documented two column research journal.

  2. then i also think that people in graduate school should keep a well documented two column research journal.

    What about a blog!?

  3. I’ve had a similar experience so far in my grad student career (at Columbia) with being relatively clueless about the latest trends in anthro journals, but I wonder if this has to do with your school, or even more narrowly with your advisor?

  4. We have nothing of the sort in my graduate program. There were several half-hearted attempts by us grad students to start something of this sort. It seems that this kind of a forum could be very useful, but only if 1) it’s organized by the students or participants themselves, rather than imposed by faculty as another requirement; 2) there is something else holding the group and its reading lists together, besides a focus on currently “hot” research. If you wanted to organize something like a journal club, I imagine that it could work well in an online format.

    Taussig is actually quite an interesting example for thinking about why certain anthropologists become influential because, at least in my opinion, his work doesn’t lend itself to developing frameworks for other projects etc. While this may have something to do with his popularity (there is an understandable appeal to work which is well-written, original and suggestive rather than pedantic-sounding and overtly programmatic), I think that all the self-perpetuating talk about T’s charisma has also been important.

  5. Hey Ozman

    I have always preferred books to journal articles and largely because I find journal articles way too formulaic and short. You often have to set up some strawman to display how your research blows the pants of what has come before and then you have to prove it in 35 pages or less! It is too forced and I feel that not much can be said in 35 pages so that often there are just gaping holes, leaps etc.

    Sometimes one call pull off an argument in 35 pages and there is some real contribution made to a body of literature, which are often the “great” articles that you come back to time and time again.

    I think there is a real need for a journal that dares to publish around 50 pages or more publishers like Prickly Paradigm that will publish the short book genre (80-100 pages) and this more so in anthropology where we are supposed to give some sort of dense ethnographic account.


  6. howdy Biella! Your comment really wowed me because I am *lazy* *lazy* *lazy*, to be honest I mostly hate books. I am classically one of those people who thinks “isn’t there an article version of his/her stuff?” So it’s cool that you prefer the long versions. Though now that I think about it, I definitely can call at least as many books that knocked my socks off to mind as I can articles. I guess what I hate about books is that if the majority of books and articles are not “notable in the long term”, to quote Jeremy, it’s less painful to get through an article than a book of that sort.

    Jeremy — what is a “two column research journal”? Sounds interesting.

    Kerim — hooray for blogs, of course ;), but I was thinking about a sort of universal format for introducing novice students to disciplinary concerns. Though maybe grad students should be reading SM for credit…. (kidding! kidding!)

    Tak/Eugene — your comments prompted me to remember how little of the stuff that seemed *amazing* when I read it before fieldwork continued to seem useful afterward. So to that extent, maybe reading the journals early on is not a good use of time? Later on, though, it seems pretty vital — just in terms of figuring out who you want your audience to be and how to reach it. so it would be interesting to hear more about the attempt by grad students to self-org such a forum at Eugene’s program. the bit about the talk about the T-man having been self-perpetuating, *no doubt* — but how did it start? Who are the taste-makers for our discipline if not grad students? Young profs? Old established profs? Granting agencies? Freemasons?

  7. I would encourage students to receive credit for reading Savage Minds, but not if it takes time away from their perusal of the minor essays of Rodney Needham.

    /me trots out discussion of Needham’s 1973 Oceania essay entitled simply ‘Prescription’

  8. Biella wrote: “I have always preferred books to journal articles and largely because I find journal articles way too formulaic and short”

    I have to agree. What I like about articles, though, is the possibility of following a paper trail. The most valuable part of the article to me is the reference list for research purposes.

    For teaching, though, I find that short and clearly written articles work well for in-class work. A classis that I tend to use is Keith Basso’s “Giving up on Words” which is a nice combo of ethnographic description and theoretical analysis of the value of silence in Apache culture. Since the article is broken up into 6 types of situations in which silence is used as a communicative device, students can be borken up into groups with a section assigned to each group for discussion and analysis. Then the class gets back together and each group presents their findings. Then we go over the commonalities and differences as a group.

    At one point, I did something similar with an article by Claire Sterk on prostitutes.

    So, yeah, articles have their uses for me and I *do* try to make a point of browsing through recent periodicals on a regular basis just to see what’s going on (not an easy feat to find the time to do this with a new teaching career, motherhood, volunteer work and attempts to maintain a fulfilling social life . . . and now I get into blogging . . .sheesh!)

    But overall, my preference is for books . . .even old ones.

  9. Nancy — that Keith Basso article sounds great, I haven’t seen it, thanks for passing the teaching idea along!

    given what you and Biella have said, I wonder what ever happened to the good old fashioned “monograph” — that sort of in-between length that once seemed to hold such a proud place in the discipline? It does seem like sort of the perfect size for a lot of anthropological topics — too much for an article, not quite enough to sustain a fully interesting book.

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