Who needs alumni from ‘top schools’?

Everyone acknowledges that the academy is shrinking and that full-time, tenure track job positions in anthropology (and everything else) are getting harder and harder to find. Depending on your point of view, this decline might be a result of the recent recession, a ticking time-bomb set off in the late 70s as higher education’s runaway growth became obviously unsustainable, or a pathology traced back to the rise of the research university after the civil war when college presidents realized no one would earn a BA unless they made it a prerequisite for professional school.

One concern that I’ve heard which seems almost equally universal is that in a shrinking job market the most likely people to get shafted are the newly-minted Ph.D.s from ‘not-the-top-schools’. I’m not sure this is exactly true.

At first, it seems obvious that The Top Schools are the most prestigious and their faculty are the most connected. Given this fact, it seems clear that if anyone will be able to get their students hired — irregardless of the quality of the students’ work — it will be The Top Schools. But now that the squeeze is on, academic departments are facing some issues which may not necessarily mean The Top Schoolers are the best fit for the new positions. Consider what schools increasingly want these days:

Teachers: many Top Schoolers do not have a tremendous amount of teaching experience — they are protected from the grind of teaching by scholarships and awards. Even those that do teach often have the luxury of teaching Top Schooler Undergraduates who, frankly, are often so overprepared for college that they will succeed despite the traumas inflicted on them by graduate students. Of course there are large state schools (Michigan, e.g.) where graduate students can pick up some teaching cred, but I’ve seen many Intro To Anthropology syllabi from Top Schoolers concocted for the job market that feature hundreds of pages of Lévi-Strauss and Weber — not really that realistic for a lot of intro classrooms.

Methods: Top Schoolers in cultural anthropology tend, in my experience, to the be extremely laissez faire about methods in fieldwork. For many, this is because they are so theoretically advanced that they have exploded any notion of the text that would require them to take fieldnotes. For many others, they are simple of such a blue-blooded lineage that one simply does not discuss these matters.

As the assessment-and-measurement screw tighten on our discipline, however, departments are more and more interested in people who can teach methods courses — and by methods courses I mean actual courses on how to do ethnography, not the standard Marcus-and-Clifford contemplation of what fieldwork might be like if you did any — for several reasons. First, departments are justifying themselves these days in terms of ‘application’, which means methods. Second, ethnography’s cachet is actually quite high right now and many people from other disciplines (and I’m talking like marketing and stuff) want in on our secrets.

In this kind of environment it seems to me that someone with a degree from a Decent School who has, you know, coded fieldnotes to refer to, is probably going to be better placed than a Top Schooler who snorts in incredulity when someone has the temerity to ask him whether his findings are generalizable.

Research: Another dimension of the holy grail of applied anthropology is that research will actually tell us something about the world, and do so in a timely fashion. In contrast, the dominant mode of production in Top Schoolerdom tends to see ethnography more as a work of art — one which has a topic, to be sure, but whose value really comes from the beauty and value added to it by the ethnographer. In particular, the goal is to ‘make a contribution to theory’, which often means a leisurely and gentile comment on the history of past thinkers. In this case ‘theory’ is a series of conceptual references to important thinkers, often a genealogy created in the act of writing the book, the construal and creation of a genealogy for one’s self out of unexpected thinker being a major part of an argument’s elegance. It is difficult to justify this sort of thing when people want to know what do to with all the graves that are going to be dug up in order to make way for the highway.

Now, I am not sure that I am right about all this, but if I am then I think we can see what the implications are: although Top Schoolers might be best positioned for jobs in terms of their cultural capital, the best people to meet the demand for new jobs might be the Second Stringers of people who come from perfectly decent but not spectacular schools.

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

45 thoughts on “Who needs alumni from ‘top schools’?

  1. Do you have any data to support the claim that the academy as a whole is shrinking? Apart from occasional brief dips, the budgets of most large grant agencies and the endowments of most big schools have grown much faster than inflation over the past 30 years.

    Perhaps this is only true in a few disciplines?

  2. For cultural anthropology Ph.D.s in North America, an additional line of argument focuses on the status of training across the classic (North American) four (sub-)fields. Top Schoolers are much less likely to have taken graduate level coursework in archaeology or biological anthropology (and to a lesser extent linguistic anthropology). Cross-training remains central in numerous Decent School programs, sometimes for ideological reasons and sometimes for the practical (career) reasons that I am evoking here. Decent School graduates with coursework in three or four (North American) sub-fields are (seen as being) much better able to handle the complex and broad teaching obligations found in schools with just one, two, or three anthropology faculty members. One can actually be a critic of the so-called sacred bundle and still benefit at a practical level from it. There are programs that purposefully avoid even interviewing Top Schoolers because of this breadth issue. It links up with the factors that Rex notes.

    “If we bring Dr. Top School” here, they’ll just leave after a few years.” is another burden that Top Schoolers face at, for instance, regional public universities.

  3. at my “top school,” the graduate atmosphere seems much like what you are describing, but the undergrads expect the “applied stuff.” I’m currently TAing a course on Buddhism for the Religion Dept. … many students expressed interest in the “politics” (i.e. China/Tibet), are in the public policy programs, and the 8 or so anthropology majors have done work with the most applied professor.

    it seems to me that the theory is still expected to be critical though. is that at all competitive? Can anthropology have an edge on english, comp. lit. etc. because it fits the not-eurocentric, postcolonial niche? This seems to be going on to some degree.

  4. @Rex
    you’re right. But I can’t decide if you convinced me:
    a) because I would like that to be true since it seems right / common sense
    b) because it’s similar to what I was thinking based on my limited experience
    c) because you’re from a top school

    I would like to see some data on actual hiring trends.

  5. Perhaps I should have said “the number of tenure track positions is declining”, which is certainly true. As for ‘the academy’ enrollments are increasing (at the moment) but funding/resources are declining, and for-profit colleges are increasing. Getting degrees from somewhere, somehow, is becoming ever more ubiquitous, but the reasons for doing so are growing ever more unclear (especially considering the cost of education) — particularly graduate degrees, which qualify one for tenure track positions that are increasingly not there.

    Another Top Schooler/1 Field thing that drives me nuts is that a standard part of any cultural course is providing a critique of race/thick theories of human nature in order to demonstrate to people why culture is an independent order of determination which can be studied and that, therefore, there should be cultural anthropologists. But Top Schoolers are often completely oblivious to debates about how human beings work biologically because or if they are aware of them see them only of interest as something to deconstruct or analyze, not situate themselves in relation to.

  6. Here at OSU, the president of the university is thinking seriously of getting rid of the whole concept of tenure. Changing times, changing times… But then, if you sober up and look at it objectively, higher education is a bigger bubble than real estate, and has been so for a long time…

  7. I have to ask. How many people do ya’ll think go for a Phd, because they really want to be professors?

    I’ve been curious about this, because it is hard for me to believe that the idea of an academy gig (low pay, competition, 6 year probation, etc…), is appealing enough to that many people. 5 to 6 years of job experience trumps a PhD, unless you’re going straight to professorship.
    Actually, in the world of practice a 2nd or 3rd MS could be had faster, and make you much more marketable.

  8. I can not believe you used the antiword – “irregardless” 🙂 My mentor from a “NOT top notch school” would have excoriated me for such a word.

    Interestings piece though!

  9. I wonder if it’s also possible to complicate the ways in which older practices of academic work lead to academic reputation? I have two issues in mind. What I’m thinking of first is that 40-50 years ago a department such as Chicago had a large number of faculty who were widely regarded as the intellectual leaders of the cutting-edge of cultural anthropology, but as their best and brightest students dispersed out into other universities, and did brilliant work there, and then in turn their best and brightest students further dispersed, we find in 2010 that many top 20-25 departments have genuinely great anthropologists on their faculties, and students of those faculty have excellent chances of being very competitive on the academic job market.

    When I was a grad student at Chicago in the 1970s it seemed that most of our faculty got their PhDs from Chicago, but today the UC web sites lists only Judith Farquhar and John Kelly as Chicago PhDs – now people come from Hopkins, Santa Barbara, Arizona, etc. Similarly, my first post-doctoral position was at Harvard, where the local wisdom was that the graduate students were much better than the faculty, and only went to Harvard for the cache – there are excellent anthropologists at Harvard, but these days if you want to study psychological anthropology you go to UC San Diego, not Harvard.

    Second, I wonder if measures of academic excellence lag behind a bit. We are all waiting for the new NRC rankings of PhD programs, and I remember the chaos that surrounded the last NRC rankings in the early 1990s. Simplistic reputational measures of excellence just didn’t work. The alternative proposals – like the one developed by the fellow at SUNY Stony Brook, based on citations – are good for some disciplines, but not necessarily anthropology (cultural anthropologists have really interesting citation practices, it turns out – heavy emphasis on prestige citation, for example – that makes the ranking of cultural departments based on citation surveys of faculty pretty odd….). My impression is that, for cultural anthropology, there is more agreement on which departments are in the top 10 than there is on the top 20, but scratching a little beneath the surface suggests that some of these top departments are coasting on out-of-date reputations.

  10. I can not believe you used the antiword – “irregardless” 🙂

    (Ir)regardless of what schoolmarms may want you to believe, negative + negative doesn’t always = positive; it can also = extra negative. When you take prescriptive grammar at face value the terrorists win. :–)

  11. Very interesting post. Does it matter that it comes from a successful Chicago Ph.D.?

    Something I’ll add: Students at second-tier programs often have a strong “blue-collar academic” sensibility. By this I mean that students at these schools know they’re not going to get a decent job based on the program they attended or the “names” on their committee alone and, as such, take their professional development (publishing, taking on teaching and service responsibilities) very seriously at the pre-Ph.D. level. Certainly not saying that this is always the case or that students at top schools lack this “sensibility,” but think it’s worth mentioning.

    Anyway, perhaps this is good news for the Arizonas, Floridas, and SUNYs of the world.

  12. JP says “Very interesting post. Does it matter that it comes from a successful Chicago Ph.D.?”

    Of course — in many ways this post is a nostalgic farewell for the world of leisure and decadence which I remember so well…

  13. All communication involves corruption. but there are two basic kinds of corruption and one is more noble than the other. The first revolves around friendships based on common interests and ideas. Friends support each other because they agree, and that agreement is active and engaged. The second is based on friendship alone the ideas are secondary. You support the ideas because they’re held by your friends. That agreement is disengaged and passive.
    What’s the difference between ideas and prejudices? That one will always involves judgment, which is why my suggestion for a timeline not of influences but simple facts.

    But as an old girlfriend of mine told me (and she’s always being courted by top tier programs) all collegiality in her field is quid pro quo and that’s not a good sign.

    The more people are interested in status the less they’re interested either in people as such or in the work of observation. And in a culture of technical mastery, which is a form of rationalism, observation is slighted, and you end up with the academic ghetto of scholasticism: a discussion that describes only itself.

    “Hyde Park. Where black and white hold hand in hand… against the poor.”
    My favorite memories are Valois and Harold’s By biggest regret was turning down an invitation from the super of my building to go out bar hopping at after hours clubs on the south side. This was in 1987.
    Terry Turner made me curious but not enough to make me ignore the rest.
    I was bunking with grad students in the graduate anthro program.

  14. It’s been this way for about five years, the Top Schoolers are trickling out the door at graduation with $90,000 in debt and after a few years of a postdoc or year long non-tenure one year teaching positions, they’re figuring out that they really aren’t any smarter or any further academically than PhDs who went to good state schools (and graduated 5 years sooner and then taught for 5 years), and with much more practical educations they’re more employable and have graduate debts closer to $40,000. I’ve been advising my graduates against schools like Chicago and Yale for years and sending them to Univ of Washington, Seattle, or U Texas Austin; solid programs, with teaching assistantships that give them experience and in state tuition. These students find jobs in the classroom or applied jobs if they so choose.

  15. All communication involves corruption. but there are two basic kinds of corruption and one is more noble than the other. The first revolves around friendships based on common interests and ideas. Friends support each other because they agree, and that agreement is active and engaged. The second is based on friendship alone the ideas are secondary. You support the ideas because they’re held by your friends. That agreement is disengaged and passive.

    Seth, we have quarreled a bit here on Savage Minds. That makes me especially want to say that this observation is shrewd and good-to-think.

    Tangentially, it reminds me of how I used to answer Japanese friends who asked about the difference between the Democratic and Republican parties in the USA. With tongue firmly in cheek I replied, “Democrats are corrupt but idealistic….Republicans are just plain corrupt.”

  16. @JP, yes, the lack of blue collar sensibilities at the Elite schools limits their graduates, and at my institution (a solid second tier public university) our last four hires have almost intentionally been chosen because they were scholars from non-elite institutions. The reasons for this seem to have been both the lack of blue-collar sensibilities, and an accompanying lack of political engagement from the candidates we interviewed from the Elite universities–they were full of the latest critiques and could use many impressive big words, but they really demonstrated the silence we all see from the Elite universities when things like Human Terrain or the war in Iraq arrive. Look on this blog how the Elite graduates view Human Terrain and other military anthropology links as now being essentially “boring” and how their critiques remain largely unpolitical, and you will have some idea of why Elite graduates seem smartly bland to growing numbers of us at the good second tier publics. If tenure disappeared at Elite universities I wonder if any anthropologists there would protest. When was the last time an anthropologist at an Elite university used their tenure to bite the hand that feeds them? David Graeber would easily have gotten tenure at my institution and could have carried on his critique, Yale did as the other Elites would have done, so why would we want to hire from these ranks? The academic freedom fights seldom happen at the Elite universities, not because academic freedom rules there, but because the faculty have been tamed, and those of us on hiring committees need younger colleagues who will carry on the struggles we have undertaken and not surrender what we have fought for; few of my colleagues see this coming any time soon from the candidates from Elite universities.

  17. ethnography’s cachet is actually quite high right now and many people from other disciplines (and I’m talking like marketing and stuff) want in on our secrets.

    I worry that in the long run this might be bad for the discipline of anthropology. Isn’t the old kung fu master supposed to keep one move all to himself?

    The reasons for this seem to have been both the lack of blue-collar sensibilities, and an accompanying lack of political engagement from the candidates we interviewed from the Elite universities

    I find the notion that anthropological work has to be overtly politicized to be worthwhile truly disquieting.

  18. “I’ve been advising my graduates against schools like Chicago and Yale for years and sending them to Univ of Washington, Seattle, or U Texas Austin”

    I always thought it was funny that my only experience is good state schools with applied programs within the departments, and most of my profs. were graduates of Harvard, Yale, Stanford and the like.

    I think the most important thing for grad. school is to pick the program to fit your needs and goals. If you want to be a Lawyer or MBA, then Harvard it a better choice; not so much for anthropology. That’s the way I’ve always understood, and heard, of the way departments were categorized.

    If you want to do underwater archaeology you go to A&M, if you want applied or practicing then you have about 5 state schools to choose (UNT, U.of Maryland, and U. of S. Florida are the tops), if you want a more scientifically minded department you go to Arizona. If you want to do advocacy you go to UT Austin. Political, you go to UC Berkley. You go to Michigan for other things, and you only go to Chicago or Columbia if you want a life in the academy.

    You can see in the list that going to one of the top applied schools would be like career suicide if you want to go into the academy, and visa versa.

  19. “ethnography’s cachet is actually quite high right now and many people from other disciplines (and I’m talking like marketing and stuff) want in on our secrets.”

    When I took business anth. there were only 3 anthros. taking it. Most of the people were getting PhDs in marketing, advertising, or business geography. Right now U. of North Texas is thinking about creating an ethnographic certification program for none anthropologists to get training in ethnographic methods for non-anthros. Last time I talked to someone about it from there, I heard they were also thinking about changing the tenure track to allow anthros. with significant applied experience to use that towards tenure, rather than having someone with 10 or more years of very impressive experience having to begin like fresh PhDs with no experience; which is the current practice.

    It really is a stupid practice to take someone with so much experience and knowledge, and relegate them to a massive cut in pay and lost of social position. It basically ensures that the best and brightest that made it “out there” never get a chance to educate the next generation.

  20. “the candidates we interviewed from the Elite universities–they were full of the latest critiques and could use many impressive big words, but they really demonstrated the silence we all see from the Elite universities when things like Human Terrain or the war in Iraq arrive.”

    I always thought the purpose of an undergraduate education was to teach people how to understand the world from a broad range of disciplines, and imbue them which the critical thinking skills needed to use that knowledge for application in their lives; creating better citizens and a better society for everyone.

    I always hated it when a prof. felt the need to push an agenda on me, and felt it was their job to do my thinking for me; requiring that I simply regurgitate back to them a ready made, simplistic, and pre-formed view of the world. What I especially didn’t like was the assumption that many made that we were were either totally ignorant of certain things, or that we were obviously on the other side of certain issues, since they didn’t see us at their rallies. I think this was no different from born again Christians, who were former sinners, who assume that no one has ever heard about Jesus before they tell us all about him. Real blue collar folk in the middle don’t often spend a lot of time at rallies, because we are working.

    The world is a very complex and messy place, and the positions put forth by anthropologists, especially anthropologists, teaching students should reflect that reality. We are in the business of trying to figure out ‘what’s really going on’, and that requires coming to a problem or issue without thinking we know exactly what’s going on. Young students want you to give them all the answers to their questions. A bad teacher is someone that gives them what they want without guiding them and letting do the work themselves.

  21. “David Graeber would easily have gotten tenure at my institution and could have carried on his critique”

    I lived with David in Hyde Park. He was an old friend. My joking description of the place comes from him, but what I said applies to him as well.

  22. Obviously, I find Grapes’s reading of both me and David Graeber garbled beyond recognition. That said, I do agree with them that Top Schoolers often (but not always, of course) seem schizophrenic when it comes to politics — preaching an extreme, almost Maoist leftism but then being totally quietistic in practice or, even worse, as clubbily exclusive as the House of Lords. In graduate school I was always considered a sort of reactionary right-winger for not embracing analysis-as-politics — this was a place where one professor wrote about commodification, hegemony, ad inequality and also described themselves as “a world-class shopper”.

  23. Hi Rex,

    If you had to advise a new graduate student, would you advise him or her to take courses in all (sub) fields, even if his interests were, say, only the anthropology of science and technology and cognition? I am going to be starting at a “top” school (I think) as a graduate student this fall and it would be great to know your thoughts!

  24. I think its worth covering your bases — at the very least it might introduce you to professors who you might not otherwise cultivate. Its fun to take courses which are only tangential to your topic — often that is where the most interesting insights originate. Also – fieldschools can be a blast!

    So why not learn a little bit about anatomy or neurochemistry if you are going to do cognition. Or really understand why the anthropological critique of the IQ literature works. If you are thinking about studying technoscience in Neoliberal Bhutan, why not take an archaeology course to really give you a long historical view of your area?

    Of course it really depends. I have a student for whom anthropology is really in dialogue with philosophy, and having to take biological anthro is just forcing him into a disciplinary alignment that doesn’t make much sense. So obviously there isn’t a single solution.

  25. CL wrote:
    “It’s been this way for about five years, the Top Schoolers are trickling out the door at graduation with $90,000 in debt”

    I am currently at one Elite School (to continue our odd capitalizations), but was admitted to another E.S., and have friends at yet a third. No one comes out of an anthropology program with that kind of debt. Unless you are talking about law school (or hell, a wild couple MFA years) all the Ivy programs I am aware of pay their graduate students VERY generous living stipends, free tuition, travel allowances, and summer funding. Of course, there are differences among programs, but the scene at (for example) UCs is a lot tougher money-wise. UC students get plenty of labor extracted from them though– I mean “are instilled with plenty of teaching experience.”

    No one should go to an anthro grad program that costs them any money. Especially given our job prospects, that would be a silly thing to do.

  26. Just wondered what a transformation of the question might yield: What does it mean when a graduate of a top-rated school ends up (for good and bad reasons) at a less-than-top-rated one? What might it mean to the structure of the conjuncture? (Would said person not hire himself?) And, could Rex have started this thread if he had graduated from from (e.g.)U. Arizona? Just some random reflections about what I find a most problematic post. d.

  27. I have reviewed applications for tenure-track positions at Chico State (Sociology primarily) for a number of years. The first thing we look for is teaching experience as a TA, and preferably as an independent class. I can’t remember even one of the applications from the elite Ivies making this cut as a new PhD. They simply don’t have the teaching experience., They may have loads of research experience, and even an article in one of the big journals, but unless they have teaching experience, they do not make the short-list.

    In other words, teaching experience comes first, big name second.

  28. Deborah –

    You ask what it means when a graduate of a top-rated school ends up at a less-than-top-rated one. The answer, I think, is that this is what normally happens — if Top Schools only trained enough people to reproduce themselves they’d admit like one student every three years.

    There are a couple of things that could happen if a Top Schooler got hired at a Decent School. The first thing is my own experience — a huge ginormous dose of remedial work on teaching and learning and field methods. In many ways this blog has been a lot about my own process in this regard: discussing books on methods, on teaching, on mentoring, and so forth. So to answer another of your questions, the blog was very much born of my desire to share that experience. This entry wouldn’t have been written if this was not autobiographical on my part.

    And this particular post was, of course, a way to reassure my students about their value as Decent Schoolers. Drinking kava just yesterday one of the ABDs in my department was like “thank you so much for the post!”

    The other thing that could happen — and which I feel is happening in some places — is a growth in the amount of posturing about ‘applied anthropology’ on the part of some departments. As someone who regularly reads socioeconomic impact reports from PNG, I am keenly aware of the difference between my expertise and that of a professional consultant working in that country — and I still feel that I am closer to the ground ethnographically than some of my fellow Top Schoolers. I think as pressures to prove utility and relevance increase, Top Schoolers teaching at Decent Schools may be increasingly forced to take postures about ‘what anthropology is’ that are at odds with their actual training.

    Finally, a quick clarification: first, I never said that I would never hire a Top Schooler. God forbid I should have problems as terrible as another line in my department and a file full of well-heeled applicants for it! This post is about the ironies of the disjuncture between what the job description favors and what the networks of patronage favor.

  29. In response to Deborah Gewertz’s question. Could this be as simple as a question of supply and demand? Clifford Geertz once wrote something about this, in which he observes that all of academia, not just anthropology, is characterized by social mobility from the centers to the periphery. The supply of graduates of top programs always outnumbers the number of jobs provided by those programs. Thus, it is inevitable that, as he wryly remarks, one can always find someone from Princeton teaching at a small state school in Mississippi.

    Tony’s comment adds a second consideration, whether the product of top programs is what potential employers are looking for. In our day (Deborah and I are, I believe, in the same age cohort), the rapid expansion of American academia to accommodate both the growing numbers and rising aspirations of the Baby Boomers had created a temporary bubble in which all sorts of new schools imagined themselves achieving prestige close, if not equivalent, to that of top programs. Now that the bubble has burst, employers for whom that goal is not even a remote possibility are asking themselves what they really need.

  30. As someone who did undergrad at a top 5, it makes me feel like most everyone who isn’t at a top program is resentful, regardless of their program fit. I couldnt imagine going from UoC to UCR or Harvard to UMaryland because the department is amaaaaazing and applied.

  31. Thinkin, of course you can’t. That is precisely why people in your situation wind up employed in the unskilled labor segment of the service economy. Like unemployed actors, they drive cabs, wait tables, and wait for the big break. A few will get it. Many won’t.

    There is, I suspect, more to this situation than macroeconomic factors alone. A year or so back, I read a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education that suggested that education was going the way of retailing, where high-prestige stores like Saks or Neiman-Marcus flourish at one end of the scale and convenience stores flourish at the other; but the old mid-range giants like Sears are having a hard time. The Ivy League and its private-school rivals in other parts of the country will maintain their cachet, The community colleges will cater to those looking for marketable skills. The hurt will be concentrated in state-supported institutions that liked to see themselves as plausible alternatives to the high-prestige private schools and hired accordingly, providing jobs for top school graduates that, in terms of their emphasis on research and publications, resembled those at top schools.

    This is, of course, only a model and requires closer examination. There may, however, be something to it.

  32. Isn’t using Chicago as the paradigm of a ‘top school’ problematic? The ‘top schools’ vary a lot in style and substance — and in fact, even within each ‘top school’ there are important differences depending on who a graduate student works with in any particular program: some students will receive rigorous training various research practices — others will rarely even /see/ their ‘advisor.’

    I remember, Rex, when Dennis McGilvray noted at the ‘Fashioning Anthropology’ conference that many if not most anthropologists are downwardly mobile: educated in elite and wealthy institutions, and teaching at different sorts of places.

    Finally: I’ve always thought the University of Arizona *is* a ‘top school’ for PhD work in anthropology. Are people taking ‘top’ here to mean ‘private’?

  33. I think part of the problem here is raised by Strong. As I said before, don’t you have to separate the university brand from the department brand when you get to the PhD level? I know I consciously picked a grad. program from a lower brand school, to get the type of education that I needed. I graduated top of my class for my undergrad. and could have gone anywhere for grad. school. I could have gone to a “top school,” would not really have been able to do anything with it. If I ever do get my PhD it’ll probably be at U. of Arizona, because they have the type of program I like, and teach the things I need to know. And, all the people I know that came from there are hyper competent anthropologists (albeit most that I know are archaeologists).

    An aside in this thread…

    I took a multiple regression course in the psy. ed. department of my university, and met a physics PhD student in it. I thought it was strange to see a physicist in the class, but he told me that it’s a common new trend in the field for PhD students. He said that many physicists are learning how to be better teachers, and that he wasn’t in the class to learn mult. reg. which was simple to him, but learn how to teach mathematical concepts. He said that people in the field often get minors in education or educational psychology to make themselves more marketable to universities, and to try to demystify the field to bring in more students.

    I think we have to admit that we are not that pragmatic, and that we like the mystery surrounding anthropology.

  34. In addition to unpacking ‘top school’ it might be worth the time to unpack ‘teaching anthropology.’ A committee at Chico State is looking for someone who can do lecture hall management while the committee at the local branch of the state university and the small liberal arts school is looking for someone who is able to lead an undergraduate seminar, for example.

  35. MTB, that’s right. I’ve been on three search committees in the last year (two Sociology, one History). In each case we were looking first for someone who could hit the ground running on a 4/4 load with lots of gen ed, classes capped at 25-30, with generally unprepared students who need active learning to get and stay engaged. This pretty much rules out prima donnas with grandiose research ambitions and no evident vocation for teaching; or to put it more positively, there are plenty of candidates out there with ample teaching experience from adjuncting or visiting gigs who know the difference between a statement of teaching philosophy and a statement of teaching practice.

    As for research, it has to be there and it’s nice if it’s interesting, but it doesn’t much matter what it is because we have small departments and can’t afford the specialization it would take to teach in-field, nor do we have research funding to speak of. So research is kind of like an ante in our version of the game. What we want to see for sparkle is the intellectual curiosity to learn new teaching fields on the fly as needed.

    It’s interesting as a comparison that in the Law the top schools have relatively poor Bar pass rates, whereas regional schools get almost everyone through the Bar on the first try. The reason is that the top schools teach theory and leave practice for the apprenticeship as court clerks or at the Big Firm, which can afford to pay uselessly ornamental newbs a fat salary for a couple years while they learn on the job. Whereas again, the grads from the local schools have to jump right into the grind of ordinary practice.

  36. Yes, I agree with the comments above — two desiderata when it comes to this argument would be 1) avoiding ressentiment 2) categorizing the hundred or so degree-granting institutions into more than just two categories.

  37. Question for Paliimpsest. To what extent do you think that your analysis and conclusions are shaped by your being an archeologist? I ask because so much of our discussion here assumes that anthropology = cultural anthropology, and it seems likely to me that archeologists at top schools get, quite literally, more hands-on training than their cultural anthropology counterparts. Could there be something to this?

  38. This problem has been facing academia and anthropology for at least 30 years. I wrote about it in my dissertation – “Anthropology and the Social Engineer: A case study of the professionalization and elaboration of the social scientist’s role.”

    One can track the flow of PhD’s from the top schools to lower schools and within the 10. Even in the mid-1970s it was obvious that there would be an overproduction of Ph.D.s and an overload of tenured faculty in the 1980 – 90 in a declining market. Too many of my generation either got caught in the Adjunct trap, or left the formal profession to pursue careers where they could apply the skills and hide the degree they had earned.

    Among my conclusions were:

    A need for an acceptable and valid role and career track for applied anthropology recognized within the profession.

    Teaching tracks for all levels of education from high school on and an appropriate recognition of the value of such career choices by the profession.

    A professional ethics code that reflected the needs of each of these roles rather than setting up unrealistic conflicts of interests based on a purely academic idealism.

    As the University becomes more commercial and market oriented, the anthropological profession must adjust and prepare products that society wants and needs and which insures the sustainability of the academic core. This includes not being Goldman Sachs and sell a PhD to a student while betting against the student.

  39. Rex, I resent your insinuation that I am resentful, you insufferable privileged top-school snob bedwetter.

    Palimpsest, your post hits a lot of the high points. I don’t generally think there’s an assumption that top-schooler’s can’t teach; as it turns out even with a teaching priority all three of our current finalists are top-schoolers, as were both our Sociology hires. Rather, there’s an awareness that some subset of top-schoolers are hyperspecialized and delicate like tropical orchids, and will wither in the harsh environment of 4/4 loads and disinterested students. This is undeniable since top schools are uniquely tasked with selecting and cultivating this sort of biota, and we all know the type. It’s an awesome type in the right context and disastrously not in the others.

    E.g. we had one here a couple years ago (in another dept.) who by the end of its second year was giving all the students A’s and like a caged beast spent each period kicking the classroom furniture.

    Anyhoo, in order to produce their wondrous fruits top schools tend to short the younguns on actual teaching experience, and coddle them with transparently concocted pseudo-teaching of outstanding undergraduates, which is then ritually oversold as massive promise in recommendation letters. What this means is that when they come out there’s no way to tell the ones who might actually have some gift and disposition for trench teaching from the ones who just absorbed the right teaching philosophy verbiage from a prep seminar.

    Since we can’t afford to keep getting it wrong, we really want to see some record of actual successful teaching of students likely to resemble ours, preferably as a result of active seeking-out of such teaching, and a teaching statement that describes experiences and practices rather than lofty ideals. In effect we want to see a teaching apprenticeship of some kind, whether during or after grad school. Mine, for example, lasted three years before the stank of a top school and a hot-house research field was completely washed out and I looked in-play.

  40. Carl, that’s fine with me since I never insinuated any such thing. That said, if there any other extremely vague, two-word generalizations I’ve made on this blog that you believe I wrote specifically to single you out that you’d like to complain about — have at it!

  41. Sez you. Well, now that you mention it, I did take some personal offense at that whole “savage minds” thing. Maybe if you could change it to “savage tans” I’d feel more appropriately appreciated.

  42. @John and Carl

    I hadn’t thought about it, but perhaps being an archaeologist does color my thinking here. Even some of the top schools have a strong CRM component, so the importance of “practical skills” may be stressed. Also, some of the schools that are definitely tops in cultural anthropology, like Chicago, are not as strong in archaeology. The top schools in archaeology – Michigan, Arizona, Arizona State, and Berkeley – are all big state schools, with lots of TA slots and not enough funding. Harvard and Penn are probably the only private schools that make the top list in archaeology.

    Or maybe archaeologists are just more down to earth (sorry – I couldn’t resist).

  43. Rex, you’re not being nearly provocative enough, so I’ll help you out by throwing a little gasoline on the fire. Back when I was on the job market, an observation shared between myself and an academic sister was that women from Top Schools appeared to have greater difficulty in landing tenure-track or permanent (I’m in the UK, where there is no tenure) jobs than did women from Good Schools.

    Of course this is based on anecdotal evidence only, and I happily await all the indignant replies with anecdotal evidence to the contrary. But think about it: in the late 90s and early 00s, most search committees were being chaired by senior academics (i.e. men) who had entered academia in the 70s, when a PhD from pretty much anywhere could land you a post. So if a female job applicant isn’t problematic enough to this generation – and we all know what the hiring statistics are like – a female applicant with a PhD whose brand name is swankier than that of the committee chair is more or less doomed.

    I have other theories to account for the phenomenon that are even more paranoid, but will leave you with that one. Rightly or wrongly, I am still advising undergraduate women to steer clear of the Top Schools if they intend to enter the academic job market after their PhD, and will probably continue doing so for the next 10 years just to be on the safe side.

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