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.