ASU Turns a Department into a School

ASU’s new School of Human Evolution & Social Change doesn’t have “anthropology” in the title but is, in fact, built upon the previously existing anthropology department. According to their website:

The new School has enriched this anthropological core by broadening its faculty to include members from a wide range of other disciplines from the life sciences, social sciences and humanities in order to introduce and define revolutionary new approaches to long-standing questions that have never been more compelling. We see this significant step as important in transforming anthropology and its role in understanding today’s world and creating a better tomorrow.

As Rob Capriccioso reports, in this Inside Higher Ed piece, it is a radical solution to a long existing problem in the field: the demise of the traditional four-field anthropology department.

Many universities in recent years have dealt with fights between anthropologists more oriented toward culture and those more oriented toward physical sciences, and some of those fights have led to departmental splits. Arizona State, in contrast, is adding to the field — and taking anthropology out of the name.

I earlier wrote about how anthropology departments often end up reproducing the whole university within a single discipline, ASU’s approach seems to acknowledge that by turning a “department” into a “school.” But it does this with some risk.

Interdisciplinary departments at many schools can function in one of two ways: Some service other departments. Someone can be an anthropology or a history major and also take classes in women’s studies. While others attempt to assemble a new discipline. In a review conducted of two African American Studies programs at two major universities (I can’t say which), it was found that the students at the one which attempted to function autonomously did a much worse job of getting jobs for its graduates than the one which serviced traditional disciplines. The problem being that the former program failed to properly socialize its students into the traditions and practices of any particular discipline.

My feeling is that ASU will succeed by either retaining its anthropological core, or by working with students from other departments. If it tries to create an entirely new discipline it may end up making life very difficult for its graduates. In Capriccioso’s article he interviews Linda Wolfe, who expresses similar concerns about funding:

Linda Wolfe, the chair of anthropology at East Carolina University, who holds the biological seat on the anthropology association’s Executive Board, cautioned that winning grants may pose a challenge for some anthropology scholars at Arizona State’s restructured school. “Grants, like those at NSF — there are a few that can be awarded to interdisciplinary programs, but most of them are for mainline disciplines,” she said Tuesday.

Upon reviewing the mission of the school, Wolfe added: “This kind of program isn’t going to strengthen anthropology, it’s going to destroy anthropology.… I think their rankings will go down because it’s not an anthropology program anymore, it’s an interdisciplinary mish-mash.”

I’m all for tearing down the boundaries between disciplines, but it is a risky venture and it is the graduate students who are likely to bear the burden of such risks.

(Thanks to my anonymous tipster for the story.)

3 thoughts on “ASU Turns a Department into a School

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  2. Hey thanks for posting the article I suggested. I wanted this article posted somewhere because it seem to be something that many anthropologists might not know about if they don’t have direct contact with people at ASU or (as in my case) happened to come across the article in Inside Higher Education. (I don’t think many people outside of ASU know what happened. I haven’t heard anything about this from other generally aware people in my department) I am ambivelent towards the idea of a new school which is interdisciplinary and not called “anthropology”. On the one hand, it could allow for richer scholarly discourse and a focus on topics that other departments might not focus. On the other hand, I,like Kerim, have a feeling it could be problematic from the standpoint of graduate students. First, the “school” is going to have problems promoting its program. While I did receive advice from professors about applying to graduate schools, not all of the graduate schools to which I applied were recommended by professors. Anthropology is big enough that professor are not necessarily aware of the current locations of specific anthropologists and/or anthropologists specializing in areas not represented in their own departments. I actually found out about my current school through the web since my advisor was unaware of some the professors who were here. I think this is becoming the norm for many disciplines. ASU could see a large drop in the number of graduate students entering because either they don’t know about the number of anthropologists in the “school” or because new graduate students want to go to a “real” anthropology (or sociology other social science) department).

    Second, graduate students getting degrees within the program will most likely have difficulty getting jobs. I have a feeling that professors at some universities might not want to hire people who don’t have a degree in anthropology. It will also limit job oportunities for the ASU PhD. holder to within the US since I doubt that many in Europe will be aware of what the new “school” represents.

    Third, what will happen to undergraduates at ASU who are interested in anthropology. If they want to go on to graduate school what discipline’s department will they go to?

    Finally, how the heck are we supposed to expose more people to the strengths of anthropology if we are not calling it anthropology anymore. Many people are exposed to anthropology through introductary classes. By creating a new school, hundreds of students who might have been exposed to anthropology in the past will probably think that anthro is either about dinosaurs (you’d be suprised how many college educated people think this) or have a view of anthropology that would be more true for the 1930’s. In this sense I think that the “school” is potentially dangerous in that it erodes anthropology’s ability to accurately represent itself to the general public.

  3. I don’t think it going to hurt anyone getting a job as long as the graduate student can stay focused. If they are interested in a research position related to bioanth, for example, then getting a job in an anthropology department is going to boil down to three critical questions: One, is your research anthropological (whatever that means now)? Two, are you published in competitive journals in your field? Three, can you secure outside funding? If you cover these three bases, then I doesn’t matter if your degree is from the school of maps, monkeys and savages.

  4. A point of clarification: as an ASU graduate student in the new School of Human Evolution and Social Change (SHESC), my degree will technically be a PhD in “Anthropology”, not in “Human Evolution and Social Change.” The degree remains the same, although eventually there may be more than one degree offered through the school. Other departments at ASU, such as Biology (now the School of Life Sciences), have gone through similar transformations and seem to be doing quite well. Most of us here at ASU are pretty positive about the change. ASU seems to be supportive of anthropology and there have been a number of good faculty hires that will ultimately benefit grad students by providing for committees that can handle overseeing projects that span across disciplinary or methodological boundaries. I for one am not worried about the name change making us less hirable.

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