Factory, lab, guild, studio

At one point in my life I heard a professor give a wonderful paper about their academic career at three different institutions and the way that each of them approached the process of educating their members. It was funny, revealing, and very well done. Fear of retribution for drawing such a clear picture, though, meant that the prof in question swore they would never circulate the paper, even to people who had watched them read it. Since I can’t give credit to the original person, and have come up with one more style of my own, I thought I’d try to relive some of the paradigms of departmental approaches to education that we are all familiar with.

First, some departments are organized as factories — students are assembled piece by piece by professors following a highly mechanized and invariant system of activities. These sorts of departments aren’t particularly interesting to work in, and none of us would (I imagine) be interested in working in them. I imagine the department as factory as a space full of enormous lecture halls, scantron tests, and highly quantified metrics used to judge whether each member of the faculty is performing their duty.

Most departments are not organized this way. In some, for instance, a guild model is more common. Like the medieval associations that I analogize them to, departments organized as guilds emphasize that membership has its privileges — members of the guild are protected and encouraged by other members, and all of the guild understands itself to be in opposition to the unwashed masses. I think here of high-prestige departments, or departments with extensive old boy networks (I’m not naming any names!). Indeed, it may not even matter what sort of work you do at all as long as you do it within the hallowed walls of the department. Another option towards understanding the guild, though, would be to imagine particularly tendentious departments with a single paradigm with which all of their graduate students are indelibly stamped.

This is similar to the idea of the department as lab. The focus here is not so much the social network as it is the shared sense of problem. The department has a few charistmatic professors (often with charistmatic grants) and a coterie of students working under them filling in bits of the puzzle that drives the lab as a whole. MAs, PhDs, and other published by students emerges naturally from the central concern of the department. It is not that individuality is discouraged, but the discipline is framed as one in which collaborative research efforts produce field-wide answers to current issues.

Finally, we might want to talk about the department as studio. In the classical artist’s studio, young students observe the master at work and learn from them even as they use their pursue their own unique vision. The community around the studio is intense, connections are made, and various movements are created, break up, and die away. Ultimately, though, the goal is not imitation — there is no point in trying to become another Picasso. The successful students develop a vision and voice that is uniquely their own, albeit one in which the influence of their own teachers can be discerned. Most of the studio community end up spending their careers producing solid but uninspiring landscapes, while a few inspired geniuses produce masterpieces which, while well remembered, do not really build on each other in any way other than providing influence to the next generation.

We speak a great deal about the status of anthropology as a science, but it might be interesting to see how much mileage we get when we conceptualize the science-humanities continuum in terms of organizational paradigms rather than more complex (and abstract) issues in epistemology, etc. etc. I suspect my own alma mater might best be characterized as equal parts guild and studio, with just a touch of factory while programs like UCSC’s History of Consciousness swing more heavily towards the studio model and Oxford, say, towards the guild. What do you think?


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

5 thoughts on “Factory, lab, guild, studio

  1. This may seem a bit harsh, but I simply could not get past the first paragraph of this entry – the switching from singular to plural and back, and back again, renders it quite unintelligible.

  2. Nicholas: Read this.

    Rex: Great post! I’ve often thought about how academia remains an essentially midieval institution, but I now realize that I may have overgeneralized from my own particular experience.

  3. Good to think! Working in a department where every faculty member has both an office and a lab (some much larger than others….), and having been an undergraduate science major, I think the lab model is under-utilized in anthropology. Studies have shown graduate students in the natural and physical sciences are generally happier with their programs than those in the social sciences and the humanities and the main reason seems to be because of the more sociable set-up (around a lab) of graduate training on the sciencey-science side of things. I couldn’t help noticing that my friends who went on to pursue natural science PhDs finished much faster, in part because their graduate training quickly took the form of a job with a workplace (the lab) and a boss (their graduate supervisor) and they had to put in a real work week every week.

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  5. Thanks for the interesting post! My MA is a product of a “guild” system strained thru a “factory” cheesecloth. The dept I studied in wasn’t prestigious, but certainly opinionated, and Marvin Harris was their God. Guilded faculty attempted to stamp every student with their Harris World View, but it really didn’t sit well with me. Dissent as well as reading work besides Harris was adamently discouraged. Since I didn’t agree with Marvin Harris [more a Geertz fan], I paid the price. This system either stamps a dept’s singular view upon students, or causes them to rebel. I rebelled, making certain my graduate work included healthy doses of not only Geertz but Foucault and Levi-Strauss as well. My dept hated it. Needless to say, I am proud to have graduated sans *stamp*.

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