Stop the silence, and some suggested reading (more about the state of academia)

Here is my opening thought: What’s stopping us from rethinking and reshaping academia?


I’ll tell you one thing that’s stopping us: the belief that “nothing can be done” to fix the system.  As long as we all stand by and accept this, surely nothing will change.  That’s one easy way to keep the status quo going: Don’t hold out hope for alternatives.

Silence is another big part of the problem.  Silence, in some cases, because of a certain fear of retribution (loss of funding, or a job, or tenure, or [INSERT YOUR FEAR HERE]).

It’s almost like we really don’t believe any of that stuff we read and quote and talk about all the time.  You know, all the stuff about power and hegemony and social change and so on.

Ya, that stuff.

We anthropologists like to talk a lot about agency and power and other neato ideas, but for some reason when it comes to the internal political issues we face in academia, all of that goes away.  Everything becomes “too complex,” too entrenched, or simply impossible to even think about changing.  What’s with all the fatalism?

Yes, of course I understand the fact that there are certain “structural problems,” and that some issues exist at higher levels.  And I understand that certain things are out of our control.  But, beyond all of the structural determinism, what CAN we do to start dealing with the serious issues that plague the academy?  Anyone?  What things ARE in our control?  What can we change?

One thing is for sure: silence leads us nowhere.

Speaking of no longer remaining silent, please read this post over at Analog/Digital by Fran Barone.  Just read it.  Here’s my favorite quote:

It is almost laughable that I and many others are even vying for positions in this profession. And yet at the close of this blog post I will be applying for two more academic jobs, one research and one teaching. Glutton for punishment? No. The fact is that I love the work that I do when I’m able to do it; I believe in the value and worthwhile impact of my research and the quality of my teaching; and I think a strong academic sphere is essential to the wellbeing of society. Making change from within the system is not nearly as difficult as it is from out here. And it is really not that hard to be respectful, engaged, open and honest. I can’t understand why so many people struggle with it. I’m tired of not saying anything about it for fear of retribution or never getting a job and you should be, too. Maybe I won’t get a job in the future because of this post, but then it probably wouldn’t have been the right environment for me, anyway.

Go read what she has to say.  Then, as Fran says at the end of her post: SAY SOMETHING.


UPDATE 11/26/12: A few related links:

See Erin Taylor’s post “Producing academic scholarship: If universities are failing, where else do we go?” over at the OAC.

And check out Jeff Nall’s piece “Working for Change in Higher Education: The Abysmal State of Adjunct Teacher Pay.”

UPDATE 11/28/12: Check out Paul Stoller’s article on Huffington Post: “Changing Culture in Higher Education.”


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

56 thoughts on “Stop the silence, and some suggested reading (more about the state of academia)

  1. I would like to amend my previous comment that universities fear legal action even when justified to universities fear it most *especially* when it is justified. The more clear it is that they have engaged in abuse and its cover-up, the more committed they are to covering it up–precisely because of the PR disaster that would ensue (again, think the paradigmatic example that the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal has become). And so universities cover up sexual abuse, racist bullying, and the rest.

    When the university is first and foremost a corporation, *brand management*–not actually being humane, ethical, or just–is the primary objective. Precisely because huge-scandal reputational damage has a multitude of financial effects, for individuals within the university and for the university as a whole. And this is worth thinking about, in relation to Erin’s comments on a global perspective on universities, as the elite US universities spread abroad to set up campuses and joint universities outside the US.

    What vision for and practices in the university will this transnationalization bring? Especially when these US universities are clear that they are capitalizing, in all valences of this term, on their extant status/prestige/brand recognition? (How) will this transnationalization spread the same problems with which the US academy is already beset? Something else to think about.

    The cancer may be metastasizing beyond the US. Yes, globalization.

  2. Ryan, think this Chron of Higher Ed article from Monday should be of interest in light of your post and comments to it, especially as a way to concretely think about the habits of fear and deference which coerce silence and self-censorship, and how this internalization of deference/fear/silence is racially inflected; the ongoing issue of academic ‘white public space’ and the enduring colonial patterns/legacies in anthropology such that black anthropologists (in this particular instance) do not have the same freedom to discuss the intersections of sexuality and white supremacy, including so as to study and forthrightly discuss white sexuality in the ways white anthropologists have long studied the sexual practices of non-whites; and the issues of hierarchy and implicit bias which produce abuse (and contempt/disrespect):

  3. The problem is that unless every Ph.D student is guaranteed an academic position, a large number will have to find an alternative path outside of academic. Anthropologists and other grad students need to start thinking about non-academic employment as an option. Economics and many physical sciences Ph.Ds have more of a “choice” between academia and the private/NPO sector. I entered my current Ph.D program (sociology) after some work in the private sector, and could probably find a solid job if academia doesn’t work out.

    I definitely sympathize with the problems of adjuncts, grad students, etc, but I think the academy definitely fosters an attitude of “tenure-track or bust”. Many of my fellow academics came from other academic programs or jobs that pay less than a grad student stipend! I have friends that languish with a finished dissertation rather than accepting their situation and looking for a private-sector job. Unlike masters students, who have often sunk tens of thousands of dollars into their education, (most) Ph.D candidates are paid enough to support a modest lifestyle and have only invested their time, blood, sweat, and tears. The deeper problem is that scholarly work is made out to be something that can only be done in the academy. Ph.D students who find fulfillment in their expansive research projects have a hard time imagining being satisfied with any other sort of position. The irony is that academics are willing to let people make their lives unpleasant (or do it to themselves!) because of the presumption that they are doing important, urgent work. Academia is their “dream job,” but it rarely feels like a dream to those living it.

  4. @Eric

    The following has been posted in several other places (OAC, Dead Voles, Anthro-L). Be interested to hear your take on it.


    Erin asks, “What if there were something like life-long learning in anthropology?”

    Sitting on top of our kitchen counter is a book, Haruo Shirane (1998) Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashô. Shirane was a friend of my wife in graduate school at Yale. I pick the book up, start browsing through the introduction and come across the following passage,

    The seventeenth century witnessed not only a dramatic rise in the standard of living for almost all levels of society but a striking change in the nature of cultural production and consumption. In the medieval period, provincial military lords (daimyô) were able to learn about the Heian classics from traveling renga (classical linked verse) masters such as Sôgi (1421-1502), but the acquisition of classical texts was limited to a relatively small circle of poet-priests, powerful warriors, and aristocrats, who were deeply rooted in the traditional culture of Kyoto. A monopoly—epitomized by the Kokin denju, the secret teachings of the Kokinshû—had been established over the study of classical texts, the study of which was often passed on through carefully controlled lineages, in one-to-one transmissions to the elected few. In the seventeenth century, by contrast, anyone who could afford to pay for lessons could receive instructions from “town teachers” (machi shisô) in any one of many arts or fields of learning. The transmission of learning was not dependent, as it had been in the medieval period, on the authority of poetry families or the patronage of large institutions such as Buddhist temples or powerful military lords.

    I am reminded that, in Japan today, there exists alongside the universities a system of “culture centers.” Operated mostly by newspapers and department stores, they play a role analogous to that of the “town teachers” mentioned by Shirane, offering lifelong learning classes to housewives and retirees on a vast range of subjects from homely cooking skills to classical Japanese literature and urban planning.

    This reflection reminds me of other worlds of private education in the West, piano and other music teachers and operators of craft shops who offer classes in knitting, crocheting or macrame, operating in effect as one-teacher culture centers with a limited range of offerings. My mind spins on, where was it that I saw a reference to philosophy cafes? A Google search turns up 5,700,000 hits. The first, from Wikipedia, says,

    Café philosophique (“cafe-philo”) is a grassroots forum for philosophical discussion, founded by philosopher Marc Sautet (1947–1998) in Paris, France, on December 13, 1992.[1]
    There were about 100 “cafés-philos” operating throughout France and some 150 cafés-philos internationally at the time of Sautet’s death in 1998.[2][3]

    The subjects discussed at the cafes had a range that varied from the Santa Claus myth to truth to beauty to sex to death. They posed such questions as What is a fact? and Is hope a violent thing? Sautet made the discussions seem fun and exciting. The concept was to bring people together in a public friendly forum where they could discuss ideas. A cafe tended to have this type of atmosphere where people were relaxed drinking coffee and carrying on conversations. This concept ultimately developed into Café Philosophique that he founded.[4]

    Thousands of participants in philosophy cafes worldwide have adopted Sautet’s idea as a way to enhance their thinking. Ideas are thrown out with concern for accuracy and philosophical rigor. The concepts discussed were in the spirit of tolerance and openness. The idea of Sautet’s philosophy cafes have spread around the world. The concept that started in France and subsequently entered England, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, and eventually throughout Europe is now in the United States, Canada, South America, Greece, Australia and even Japan.[2] Due to this success, the French president Jacques Chirac sent a founding member on a good will mission to Latin America to introduce the concept there.[3]

    A common element in these, I will call them “para-academic,” institutions is their social dimension. On any given subject, those who come to learn could find more brilliant lectures and better illustrated demonstrations on-line via Coursera, iTunes U, etc. What they still can’t find is social opportunities, real-world places to meet people who share similar interests, in settings where a shared hobby can lead to drinks, dinner, or (we gracefully draw the curtain) other forms of social activity.

    Is it possible to imagine at least a few entrepreneurial anthropologists living comfortably, even prospering, by pursuing this line? Just had dinner last night with an American friend living in Japan who has spun teaching English to dentists into organizing tours to international medical conferences and has just founded a company to take advantage of what she has learned and the contacts she has made to organize other, now I will call them “learning-socializing” events, related to politics and spirituality, topics in which she has strong personal interests. Not an anthropologist (originally and still, in another of her many roles, a professional jazz pianist), but perhaps a model that anthropologists stuck with no jobs or crap jobs in today’s academic world might want to consider.

    Just saying.

  5. Sorry for triple-posting. Kept getting database error message and so thought comment hadn’t posted.

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