Reimagine the Masters

Sunday morning I’m flipping through the Memorial Day coupon flyers and scanning the headlines when I noticed this title from the WaPo: “Master’s degree programs surge”

Georgetown, for example, awarded 1,871 bachelor’s degrees and 2,838 master’s degrees in 2012. Its annual bachelor’s output rose 12 percent over eight years. Its growth in master’s: 82 percent.

My first thought was about how this is representative of the continuing corporate inclosure of the university. Just like a suburban chain restaurant looking to get its customers served and back out the door without any loitering, universities can hope to improve their revenue by making short graduate degrees more attractive than long ones.

This news story, in addition to having really interesting Marxist remarks in the comments section about capital forcing labor to pay for its own training, got me thinking about how anthropology could get in on the MA hustle. Granted, it’s not a natural fit. For many persons — professional anthropologists included — a Masters in anthropology is not a very valuable degree. How has that come to be? And does that necessarily need to be the case?

Back on the old Savage Minds website I wrote a piece of science fiction called “Brick and Mortarboards” which was about how in the not too distant future it turns out that the neoliberals were right about higher education and the disruptive technology of online classes were putting the universities out of business. It was economic armageddon for the college towns until all that remained were the privately endowed elite institutions that could afford to be above the fray and the schools that became playgrounds for the rich packaging education with lifestyle experiences. In this alternate future because anthropology refused to play ball with the capitalists the market squeezed all of us professionals out of a job, unless you happened to be a programmer and got in on the ground floor writing that highly lucrative anthropology-themed MMORPG.

Doctoral degrees are expensive and in the future perhaps fewer people will be able to afford them. So if our customers students want a graduate degree for less why not sell them a Masters? You generate less debt, still get to participate in advanced study and research, and earn some fancy letters after your name.

One problem with this is that a lot of professional anthropologists have a low opinion of an MA in anthropology. The PhD is the terminal degree and it is the standard by which our tribe measures one’s place as a peer in the scholarly world. A Masters will get you a job at a community college or, if you’re an archaeologist, a CRM job with the state. One of my former SLAC students picked up a Masters in public anthropology and worked for some time in the US for a charitable organization in Africa, but now I think she manages a pet salon or something.

As I’m getting ready to begin my Masters in Library Science studies I am reflecting on the fact that I earned a doctorate without bothering to get a Masters in something else along the way. It’s my perception that many anthros have a narrow view of what a Masters-level education can be and what sort of work this qualifies you to do. These are self-imposed ideological constraints. Try thinking like a neoliberal capitalist! If the market is rewarding Communications and Psychology departments for pumping out MA’s instead of PhD’s then Anthropology could be missing out on a growth opportunity… if only we thought it was worthwhile for someone to buy our “product”.

Alright, here’s the antithesis. Also back on the old Savage Minds I had a post titled “The Greater Humanities”, which was reporting on a talk delivered by Jim Clifford on the future of the university. In it Clifford hailed his audience to think big about what the Humanities could be. He granted himself “a license to want” and imagined an ideal scenario to his own liking, unemcumbered by budgetary constraints or the politics of market demand.

Basically I want to combine the two opposing future imaginaries. There are market pressures that are producing this MA gold rush which Anthropology is missing out on because we have this belief structure in place that tells us the Masters is not a valuable degree in our field. But what if we could reimagine the Masters? What if we started over from scratch? Think big!

Imagine you had talented grad student with a BA from a good school: what would be the best possible thing you could do with them in just two or three years? And why would that be a worthwhile thing for a talented young person to do?

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR 'hidden collections' grant to describe the museum's collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

29 thoughts on “Reimagine the Masters

  1. I’ve started thinking about master’s programs and training in anthropology since I started here at UWF. We have a terminal MA program (where you can specialize in anthropology [and subspecialize in bio, cultural, or archaeo] or historical archaeology) – At the end of spring, we had 66 students enrolled in good standing. It is a massive program — the largest terminal MA program in anthro I know of — partly because we ask our students to do original thesis research, which generally involves undertaking their own archaeological excavation and/or designing their own field research project. We expect our students to take 4 years to complete their MA, a timeframe I’d never heard of before coming here (MA in the US always seems to mean 2 years). But we also boast that 90% of our graduates get jobs in their field or move on to PhD programs, which could reflect the rigorous coursework and scholarship we ask of the students.

    So I’m not one of the anthropologists you mention who think an MA is worthless. I took the MA route myself, having come from a background largely in classics and in desperate need of making up coursework before a PhD program. I loved my MA program (East Carolina University – — it was a great intro to grad school, to the expectations of faculty and camaraderie of fellow students, and to undertaking my own research. It took me two years of hard work, and I came out with a nice little research project that I turned into a peer-reviewed article. But I was lucky that ECU funded me very generously for an MA program. UWF funds many students as well, mostly in hourly lab positions and as TAs, but for far less than I got over a decade ago.

    From experience, an anthropology MA was very useful. My cohort-mates at ECU went on to PhD programs in anthro, public health, and folklore; some went on to teach at community colleges; some to administrative or social research positions; others went off to be professional archaeologists. I see the same thing from our graduates here at UWF. And I honestly counsel more undergrads than ever before that they should do an MA first. A PhD means a roughly 10-year commitment, for a degree that says you can undertake independent research and teach graduate students. An MA is a lot shorter and therefore a quicker, less expensive path to a job and/or to seeing if the student wants to stay in academia.

    I think an anthro MA is a valuable degree, but I’m interested to hear others’ experiences and thoughts!

  2. Beyond just the disciplinary benefits of promoting MA degrees, I think there is absolutely a lot of personal benefit to be gained from an Anthropology MA. Although my own MA degree at Oregon State was not terminal, it certainly provided the necessary training and experience needed for one to find not just a good job, but a job that gives you everyday satisfaction. There might be a twist here though, in that OSU is strictly an applied department. Yet, there are a lot of pluses to an MA in applied anthro. The program at OSU requires you to develop an internship which gives you hands on working experience which is useful when in a job interview a potential employer asks “what can someone with a background in anthropology bring to our organization”. An applied anthropology program also forces you to really think critically about the significance of your project outside of the ivory towers and, perhaps more importantly, why you the researcher are interested in the topic in the first place. This last point is important because feeling passionate about your work is half the battle to producing something with broad and lasting impact. I hear many Profs placing a huge emphasis on the development of significant research questions (including my own doctoral advisor, bless his heart). In this publish or perish world we live in, this emphasis is definitely important, but if you don’t have any kind of emotional connection with your research, levels of motivation tend to decrease rapidly. My own M.A. project, for various reasons, did not develop the engaged angle I had hoped for in the beginning. But I always felt passionate about what I was doing and that is precisely what motivated me into a Ph.D. program (but could easily have motivated me into, for instance, a job promoting alternative agricultural practices in Western China). Finally, an applied program exposes you to a set of very practical and methodologically focused anthropological literature and an engaged mindset which is not always part and parcel of a traditional anthropology MA program.

    Obviously the world of applied work has its controversies, and while I’ve personally come down on the D’Andre side of the debate, I actually sympathize with the Sheper-Hughes argument as well. Frankly, applied anthropology is doing a great deal of excellent work promoting anthropology outside of the discipline. As a discipline we might not be able to support every applied project on the books, but I wish the New York Times or Washington Post would print more about the projects we do support to give the world a better idea of what anthropology can provide outside of the academy.

    Applied Anthro aside, we also have MA and MPhil (teaching and research degrees, respectively) here at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and they produce an interesting range of scholars. In the MA program, we do have a good number of full-time professionals who study Anthropology during evening classes and such. Just before she took her final General Anthropology Exam, I had a great discussion with one of our MA students, who is a civil engineer managing urban stormwater runoff in a neighborhood with one of the highest population densities in the world! Originally she was interested in the big ideas of anthropology like culture, language, and religion. But after finishing the degree, she now sees how the anthropological mind set could be very useful in her job, both as a means of facilitating engagement with the community and critically analyzing its needs. I know many of my MA and MPhil colleagues who are about to start their new jobs and new lives are really nervous about the future, but I have all the faith in the world that they will provide a positive contribution through whatever job they choose to settle into. And some of them will undoubtedly come back to finish a doctorate in the future.

    But here’s another important benefit of doing an MA or MPhil before your doctorate. It forces you to determine if you really want to spend the bulk of your life among the Permanently. head. Damaged. ;-p I say that somewhat tongue in cheek, because actually we should also have a discussion about the value of a Ph.D. outside of academia. Perhaps a raincheck?

  3. So…. just this last weekend i graduated with one of these so-called “worthless” MAs in Anthropology… and what’s worse, it’s Applied Anthropology.

    i don’t feel like i have a worthless degree. i have a higher degree in a discipline i love, and thank the gods i *still* love it, even after the heartache and frustration of the thesis writing process. i feel like i have learned skills and gained knowledge to allow me to work outside of academia where, let’s face it, the jobs are rapidly drying up. And, it taught me that while i adore academia and its hallowed halls… a PhD is not for me. Better to learn it now than 8 years into a PhD program. Plus… i am in my late mid-30s, and i really need to be out in the Real World earning money and making a way for myself in the world at large.

    i’m proud of my degree, and proud of my program. One of the few MA programs in Applied Anthropology, and among those, apparently one of the few that focuses on theory as well as practice. We require our students to have breadth and depth in their topic, taking classes inside and outside the anthropology department, and i never once felt disengaged or like anything “less” than any one else who did a PhD in “traditional” anthropology while in my department. i learned the same skills, i just apply them to solving real world problems, never a bad thing in any economy.

    However, i did get that feeling from others outside my department. i still remember my first AAA sessions, meeting scholars in my field for the first time. Many of them were incredibly excited to hear about my field of research; a kind of niche that hasn’t been explored very much, and on a fieldsite almost forgotten about. They listened with real interest as i detailed my research, and then i saw the light in their eyes die out when i told them i was a Master’s Candidate and no, i wasn’t planning on a PhD right now. For the first time i felt the stigma of the MA degree in my discipline, and it made me very sad. i would be happy to argue that my research is just as valid as anyone else’s, regardless of degree.

  4. Why is this conversation being had without addressing the intellectual and dissertation apartheid which already permeates anthropology, especially after Ryan’s interview with Sarah Kendzior? Over on Sarah’s Twitter feed, she has both tweeted about how race is affecting education/debt/academic precarity and employability/unemployment, and she has done so in conversation with and via retweets from Tressiemcphd, who tweets and writes extensively about issues of academic prestige and hierarcy, and how race affects the meaning of one’s degree and the mobility it does–or does not–confer.

    Yes, I know, always easier just to avoid such engagement so as to reside in the bubble of anthropological ‘white public space’…

    But since Edwin mentioned Nancy Scheper-Hughes, and given the post-Prop 209 faculty demographics and practices of the Berkeley Anthropology department, and how much the reproduce Elizabeth Chin’s 2006 quip about white anthropologists studying everyone while nonwhite anthropologists are expected to study themselves, we should be honest about how this push to encourage the Master’s will only further entrench racism and racial stratification in anthropology. Minorities from groups not deemed smart enough by people like Jason Richwine and Charles Murray–as well as many white anthropologists themselves, despite their claims of believing in the equality of the AAA race statement–are already being tracked to ‘just take a Master’s and teach community college, or something’, precisely because the doctorate is more prestigious and seen as the prospect of the intellectual elite (which, I am sorry to say–in practice and daily actions, not espoused public claims–many white anthropologists do not see darker people as being, with some exceptions made for South Asians via the ‘model minority’ myth). This push for the Master’s will only exacerbate such racist practices/hierarchy/stratification and anthropological ‘white public space’, especially for people already engaged in ‘you don’t get to study whites/whiteness, go study your own or go away’ practices, because they do not truly see minority scholars as equals who deserve to be part of the intellectual elite which gets a doctorate and teaches at an R1 like Berkeley (instead of a ‘good enough for you’ community college).

    Whenever giving advice, particularly on education and employability, please remember the differential effects of race/color/gender/class: no, not separately, but as co-constituting forms of power and privilege (or lack thereof).

  5. And actually, I prefer *not* “thinking like a neoliberal capitalist”, Matt; so as not to encourage anthropological ‘white public space’ and the abuse it fosters, including sociopathic bullying and racist-sexist terrorism as a strategy to get a job (or protect a department’s reputation after public bullying has occurred via its forgrads list):

    Hate crimes occur within what McChesney termed a “neoliberal democracy.” He notes that within neoliberal democracy, interpersonal connection is destroyed:
    “Instead of citizens, [neoliberal democracy] produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless” (p. v).”

    Anthropology can and should be so much more, especially if what some say about its ‘moral optimism’ is true.

  6. Also, Matt, rather hilarious and ironic that issues of race and educational/intellectual apartheid did not enter this discussion until my comment, especially given that the post is titled “Reimagine the Masters” (with apostrophe missing; and hey, I’m not one to talk about typos given how many I usually have from responding from my iPhone, so this is not a holier-than-thou grammar-police rapping) and it is on a site named Savage Minds (and of course I know it’s Levi-Strauss reference, but still… ).

    The double-entendre, however unintended, is worth noting given the issues of intellectual apartheid I have now raised. What ‘masters’ are you, this site actually encouraging being ‘reimagined’? The ones that ‘reverse the gaze’ so “very dark-skinned South African[s]” are not encouraged to ‘just take your master’s and leave’ because a white archaeologist/former department chair/associate dean thinks everything such persons have to say about racism/sexism/colorism is “meaningless”–because they are savages with savage minds and useless thoughts (i.e. like gorillas to be ‘spoken for’, criminals from ‘urban jungles’/’the ghetto’, “very dark-skinned” Africans from the jungle)? Is a ‘reimagining’ of ‘the masters’ of Anthropology’s ‘white public space’ being called for such that plantation/colonial practices don’t continue within anthropology, such that minority scholars are expected to ‘know their place’, including by not studying whites/whiteness and not challenging white ‘authorities’ when they behave in racist/sexist/abusive ways, lest they be viciously ‘disciplined and punished’ as the ‘savages’ they are fundamentally seen as being?

    You can’t really talk about ‘reimagining the master’s’ in anthropology without also addressing the issue of who are the ‘masters’ of anthropology, and thus ‘reimagining the masters’ of anthropology. After all, you are really already talking about an issue of ownership: Who owns anthropology, and the prestige its graduate degrees/education confers?

  7. A new post and discussion thread on the topic DWP raises—“Who owns anthropology, and the prestige its graduate degrees/education confers?” would be most welcome! The discussions on Savage Minds often overlook the range of anthropology programs, subfields, research, and attitudes beyond the pedigree track.

  8. @millerlau:

    Thanks for the support and suggestion for a new discussion thread. Given the non-response to my previous comments, asking similar/related questions, I am doubtful your suggestion will be taken up. And this kind of refusal to engage is itself about–and an answer to (as well as an impetus for)–the question of who ‘owns’ anthropology (and its prestige) that I raised.

    We should be honest about the daily practices which produce, and reproduce, an answer to this question, privileging both whiteness and maleness (who are the Great Minds of Anthropology seen as being, and especially ‘philosophical anthropology’, with its orientation toward post-structuralism and ‘continental’ philosophy?).

    The question is also daily answered in the practices of (racist, sexist) invalidation those who see themselves as ‘owning’ anthropology and being its ‘masters’ engage in–especially because of their positions at and/or training from elite schools/departments: The practices which daily enforce and encourage the idea that one does not need to deign to respond to–or take seriously the questions, concerns, or experiences–of those deemed not “a legitimate member of the community”, however this sentiment may be defined (often in race/gender terms, but also professional status/rank–so an issue directly related to the Sarah Kendzior interview, and the questions I asked which were never answered).

    Sarah Kendzior recently tweeted a link to a definition of racism, on the site Unlearning Racism, and I think what it says about invalidation is germane to this question cum conversation of who ‘owns’ anthropology and the prestige its graduate degrees/education confers, and who the ‘masters’ of anthropology are (and aren’t):

    “The systematic mistreatment experienced by people of color is a result of institutionalized inequalities in the social structure. Racism is one consequence of a self-perpetuating imbalance in economic, political and social power. This imbalance consistently favors members of some ethnic and cultural groups at the expense of others. The consequences of this imbalance pervade all aspects of the social system and affect all facets of people’s lives.

    At its most extreme, systematic mistreatment takes the form of physical violence and extermination, but it occurs in many other forms as well. Pervasive invalidation, the denial or the non-recognition of the full humanity of persons of color also constitutes the mistreatment categorized as racism. ”

    I think it will be hard to have the discussion you (and I) have suggested, because so many (white anthropologists) are reluctant to and uncomfortable with having deeply honest conversations about race/color/gender/power/privilege/hierarchy, especially the more they are benefitting from the structural inequalities and privilege which make academic hierarchy/prestige possible.

    But perhaps I am wrong.

  9. DWP thanks for the response. It is discouraging. It was great that Kristina, edwinschmitt and kethryvis took the time to write about their programs and experiences. Obviously, there are people who have not experienced a full-on dismissive attitude about an anthropology MA degree. If anyone looks at the AAA Guide to Departments, there are hundreds of schools that only offer MA degrees.

    So a good question is, where, and by what sort of people, are MA degrees in anthropology denigrated? Shall we list the schools and programs that think they are worthless so we know what processes of cultural reproduction are operating and where?

    I always appreciate discussion from people outside of the cultural anthropology pedigree matrix. And also, as DWP notes, there is a male white privilege operating in the way pedigree school departments are structured and churn out PhDs as well. It is a system that really makes the discipline a love/hate issue for some of us. best, Laura

  10. Now that we have decided — for the aleph-nullth time — that anthropology, like most human activity, is shot through with prejudice (No, duh), what can we say in answer to Matt’s question? How might we rethink the master’s, to make a degree more relevant to students in need of employment as well as intellectual stimulation? If reducing prejudice were possible — as given such examples as Martin Luther King, Bill Cosby and Oprah it certainly is — how would that contribute to the project that Matt proposes?

  11. @John,

    Your response is not a solution, or calling for a response to Matt’s question. It is, rather, the very racism and uncritical white male privilege Laura and I are writing against.

    Now that we’ve heard for the umpteenth time that you don’t care about racism because it doesn’t adversely affect your life, can we get back to realizing that the question Matt raises is not race and gender neutral and so a one-size-fits-all response will not work?

  12. @John,

    If you informed yourself as to the actual definitions of racism used by critical race theorists, including the one I linked to at Unlearning Racism, it would be clear to you that racism does not simply reduce to prejudice–and you would thus realize that my response to you is not in fact ad hominem.

    Moreover, I did not hijack the discussion. I simply pointed out, legitimately, that one cannot honestly talk about academic prestige and why the master’s degree has less prestige in anthropology without also addressing the issues of hierarchy and structural inequality which produce academic prestige. Entirely DIRECT response to Matt’s actual question.

    With your constant regurgitation of Oprah, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan, and President Obama as examples that we are now postracial, you make clear that you are not interested in thinking critically about racism as structural inequality and not simply individual prejudice, and that you are not interested in having any conversation which substantively challenges a status quo which rewards your white male privilege. So no, I am not making an ad hominem attack in pointing this fact out. You are engaged in derailing. Why is it so hard for you to engage with the concept of racism (or sexism) as structural privilege which affects institutional outcomes (including in the academy and in relation to issues of academic prestige)?

  13. @John:

    Your continuously rude, hostile, and dismissive attitude toward me (and Laura) perfectly illustrates both the Elizabth Chin quote and the issue of intellectual apartheid and prestige I first raised. With your ‘shut up annoying black woman because I don’t want to hear or be bothered to think critically about your analysis of race/gender/whiteness’, you demonstrate the behavior which produces dissertation apartheid in anthropology, and the racist-sexist behavior which results in shunting scholars of color from groups not seem as naturally intelligent toward master’s programs–because thinking critically about race/racism/whiteness is not valued and they are not seen as intellectually competent, and thus deserving of the elite doctorate, because of implicit biases. This racially-structured prestige divide will only be exacerbated by Matt’s suggestion to ‘reimagine the masters’, in the form in which this suggestion is put forth in his post: and thus my reason for commenting as I originally did. ‘Annoying’ ‘doesn’t know his/her place’ minorities will effectively be tracked toward the masters, and away from the doctorate, because of the kind of racist-sexist contempt you have for and regularly display toward me. ‘Those people’, already seen as not the intellectual elite, will be further discouraged from pursuing doctorates with the kind of ‘reimagined’ master’s degree borne of ‘thinking like a neoliberal capitalist’ Matt gestures to.

    So no, I am not hijacking complaints with my necessary interventions on the racial and racist dimensions of academic prestige and what they mean for ‘reimaging’ the master’s.

  14. It seems there are two different types of MA degrees in anthropology.

    There’s the MA degree at schools where it is the only graduate degree program they offer. They don’t see their MA programs as part of a “hustle” or “gold rush” or anything. They’ve been training people to get jobs outside academia or to go on to doctoral programs for decades. I haven’t checked the AAA Guide to Departments for firm numbers, but I’m pretty certain that the majority of anthropology departments in North America do not have doctoral programs.

    Then there are the elite anthropology departments that use the MA as a gatekeeping and punishment device.This MA is usually given to students the faculty don’t want to be bothered with, usually because they are perceived as too much trouble. But often it is because they speak up about racism and sexism so are seem as “problem” students.

    When folks talk about ‘reimaging’ the Masters, it would be helpful if they made it clear which university set-up they are talking about.

  15. @millerlau

    Excellent point. Does raise the question, though — why an anthropology master’s if what you are ultimately aiming at is social work, marketing or becoming a cop, for example?

    P.S. Now of merely historical relevance: Offering no master’s on the way to a Ph.D. Was very useful during the Vietnam War era to those of us worried about losing our 2S deferments and being drafted.

  16. @millerlau writes “This MA is usually given to students the faculty don’t want to be bothered with, usually because they are perceived as too much trouble. But often it is because they speak up about racism and sexism so are seem as “problem” students.”

    “Usually” and “often” are imprecise descriptions, so rather than disagree I’ll simply say that in 40+ years of being a graduate student and professional anthropologist at a number of universities, I cannot recall a single example of someone being discharged with a terminal M.A. from a PhD program because of speaking up about racism and sexism. Given our professional orientation, we’re more likely to reward such students. I can certainly recall a number of instances of people who were terminated because they were academically deficient, and who sincerely believed that they were being terminated for other reasons; we simply cannot place too much faith in what individuals believe about their circumstances, which is surely a fundamental principle of anthropology…

    @millerlau refers to students who are perceived as too much trouble. Academically deficient students are often too much trouble. It happens. Graduate programs may look predatory, admitting more graduate students than they know they will complete, and many more than will find positions in anthropology, but I have yet to encounter an application to a graduate program that says “I’m a needy student who will take up an excessive amount of your time with little hope that I’ll succeed as a student or, ultimately, as a professional.” That’s something we find out later, after they’ve been admitted. We often feel that a terminal M.A. is a kinder way of helping that student transition to something else, after 2 years, rather than allowing them to continue on for 5 or 6 more years, accumulating more debt, loosing other opportunities, and often having nothing to show for it in the end.

    And at least one of the basic problems that Matt addresses is not new. When I was a graduate student at Chicago many years ago there were 3 anthropology graduate entering classes that together totaled nearly 200 students. The department offered, in those days, about 2 or 3 fellowships. Everyone else paid their own way. And after students completed a couple of years of coursework and their M.A. paper, they could shift to a continuing registration basis for about $25 a quarter (this was decades ago, remember). We all knew that the department had admitted most of us simply to bring in tuition to support a well-paid and large faculty, and once we had reached our limit, we’d be channeled out, either with a terminal M.A. or, more often, through simple neglect. Smart students took the M.A. and left immediately. Some, more tenacious, held on and never finished a PhD. When I look over the class lists from those days, I’m struck by the fact that fewer than half of those graduate students ever finished a PhD.

  17. @piper I’ve only been a graduate student and professional anthropologist for 30+ years, but I have seen this often. In many cases the graduate student was doing research that was too controversial , the student was mentally ill, or the student wasn’t acclimating to academic life and a balance with family life (usually women, of course). But I also heard many stories from people who 1) left their PhD programs because they were sexually harassed by professors and when they complained, they got terminal MAs, or 2) they complained about seeing all the resources (funding, TA-ships, office space, etc) go to white male students, and they got terminal MAs.

    I do wish it were true that “Given our professional orientation, we’re more likely to reward such students.” We also punish faculty for speaking out as well. Obviously, you don’t want to believe me, and that’s fine, but please read the new book Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (30 essays!) and the AAA report Racism in the Academy

    I am really disappointed that others continue to blame the victim in these cases, to accuse those who speak out of being “too sensitive” or simply trying to justify other reasons for their troubles. Laura (Miller)

  18. @John, many of the schools that only offer an MA degree have very specialized programs for people who go on to work in contract archaeology, in museums, or as forensic anthropologists, for example. Laura

  19. @Barbara Piper:

    You wrote: ” we simply cannot place too much faith in what individuals believe about their circumstances, which is surely a fundamental principle of anthropology…”

    I think it would be worth applying this same dictum to what white anthropologists say about lack of racism in the discipline, and how it affects both students’ academic performance and how students’ academic ability and performance is evaluated.

    Especially given various forms of rampant abuse in anthropology and the academy, stemming from racism and sexism (among other issues), you cannot actually disentangle academic performance from racism and sexism. If a student’s work suffers because the student is sexually assaulted or bullied and then treatedly hostilely by his/her department and university because both want to cover up the abuse (and again, let’s not forget why Gloria Allred filed a suit against Berkeley, Dartmouth, USC, and Swarthmore last week), is the problem really that the student is academically deficient and just fundamentally incapable of doing the work necessary to obtain the doctorate?

    Did you read the Brodkin et al. article on anthropology as ‘white public space’, in which issues of white anthropogists’ race avoidance, differential mentoring practices, and belief that they could not possibly be racist by virtue of being anthropologists were specifically targeted and discussed as practices which push minority scholars out of anthropology and make it one of the most segregated disciplines?

    Of course no department or individual is going to admit they are discriminating against students because of race and gender, but it doesn’t mean that this isn’t in fact happening. Just because you, *as a white anthropologist*, don’t see the racism does not mean its not there and is not being used to push people out of graduate programs.

    Moreover, when white professors are sending out what they intend as confidential retaliatory emails (which get leaked) encouraging ALL department staff (and faculty) to racially profile a black student to the campus police while this student is carrying “a baby in a tummy pack”, describing the woman in racist terms and the Angry Black Woman stereotype as a “frightening” “loud/argumentative” “very dark-skinned South African”, saying the student deserves to be punished for opening her big mouth to file a hostile climate complaint with the university in the aftermath of a public bullying incident via the department’s forgrads list, and writes that everything the student writes about racism and sexism (her own academic project) is “meaningless” and thus the student is not “a legitimate member of the community” and thus deserves to be smeared as a violent ghetto criminal to punish her, discredit her for telling the truth about the bullying and its cover-up, and make clear that she is seen as persona non grata because of her race/gender/color and not behaving in the expected subservient manner, then yes, it can be fairly said that racism and sexism were used to push a person out.

    Moreover, the October 22, 2010 ‘Dear Colleague’ letter from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights makes clear that bullying and hostile climate can be expected to adversely affect a student’s performance. And having professors retaliate against you in support of such bullying and hostile climate, and/or its cover-up, especially by writing racist emails about you, is not exactly a supportive environment conducive to academic flourishing, now is it? So of course a university, anthropology department that is fostering bullying and hostile climate which adversely affects a students performance is NEVER going to admit that it was racism and/or sexism which pushed the person out; they will just say the person was academically inadequate, making a point NOT to be honest about the source or cause of this ‘deficiency’.

    Moreover, Professor Piper, your comment does not acknowledge how implicit bias actually works. I would urge you check out Banani and Greenwald’s recent book Blindspot, as well as John Dovidio’s work on ‘aversive racism’.

    When you are trained and socialized not to see the racism which pushes people out of anthropology departments, it is easy to claim it isn’t there and no such thing is really happening.

    Your comment is deeply disturbing, especially for how it presents ‘the white racial frame’ as just objective and neutral anthropological authority: itself an issue of ‘anthropology as white public space’.

  20. @Barbara Piper:

    Your dismissive response speaks to why the article “Anthropology as White Public Space?” was written.

    It is rather frightening that you don’t even entertain the idea that you are being told the truth about abuse that many can confirm, especially given the number of recipients of the bullying email. It says quite a lot that your response is not: if there is even a scintilla of a chance that this kind of thing is happening, we should take it seriously and prevent it. Between Brodkin et al’s article and the survey data it was based on, and Kate Clancy et al’s findings on sexual harassment and the AAA zero tolerance statement last month, I don’t know why you find this information so implausible.

    Your response fits the dismissive racism of a white person socialized to dismiss black women who challenge them, and academics socialized to dismiss those of lower rank. And this is not a personal attack. But why the dismissive reaction?

  21. The different worlds of anthropology MA programs and how they are used is starting to emerge a little in these posts. Going back to Kristina’s description of her university’s two MA programs at UWF, we see that the MA there is not at all a kiss-off or a revenue-generating scheme (going back to Matt’s original post) but a meaningful and valuable degree. And then we have people like piper weighing in to make sure we know what her elite University of Chicago (is that correct? just a guess) MA meant, and then an interesting point from John about not having an MA degree in a program and its link to deferments. Finally DWP asks us to also note that the elite schools have used the terminal MA as a tool for disciplining those who speak out. When young people relate stories about sexual harassment or racist bullying in academe, I take them seriously. I hear these stories much too often. Laura

  22. This is a good post. I think MA degrees in anthro are definitely valuable, and I also agree with Matt that it would be good to re-image and rethink what can be done with an MA. I have always found it interesting how the PhD is the only “real” anthropology degree for some folks. We are certainly plagued by our status hierarchies. I agree with others here that we might need to really look deeper into what this means. What’s with all the concern about rank and status? Hmmm.

    Anyway, I am glad that Matt is bringing up this conversation. We have all these people going through PhD programs, but clearly there’s a lack of places for them to go. That’s because PhDs are basically geared toward the production of academics. That’s obvious and we all know it. Sure, some have a more applied focus, but the vast majority are all about training people to work in academia. So ya, maybe it’s time to reevaluate the MA a bit.

    I like the idea of combining an MA in anthropology with another MA in some other field–urban planning, public health, journalism, etc. Something complementary. There’s a lot of potential out there, I think. In fact, if I had it to do over again that’s exactly what I would have done. I would have completed my second MA years ago and would also be in a lot less debt today.

    In the end, all of this talk about rethinking the MA makes me think we also need to rethink the PhD: how much it costs, how long it takes, what kind of training it should entail, etc. Sometimes it seems like we’re just doing things how they have always been done without taking our collective heads out of the sand.

  23. Barbara Piper’s dismissiveness is a case study in how (white) racism works in anthropology. Interesting who is allowed to give their *purely* impressionistic and anecdotal experience/perspective as received truth, while I actually did not speak purely from personal experience, but used a personal experience to concretize actually scholarly research on implicit bias and survey findings on racism and sexual harassment/assault/abuse in anthropology.

    Barbara Piper’s dismissiveness was the kind of dominance display white supremacy and academic hierarchy not only make possible but *encourage*.

    Since I am just a ‘stupid and annoying black woman who needs to shut up’ (the de facto and implicit message such dismissiveness sends), it is not even necessary to engage any of the actual scholarly literature or empirical research I made a point of referencing specifically so as to highlight larger patterns of structural inequality, especially as produced through unconscious bias. Is this what makes for good anthropology–much less ethical, antiracist anthropology in which a use and harassment are treated with the AAA’s recommended ‘zero tolerance’?

    And yes, this all relates back to Matt’s post on reimagining the master’s degree and the issue of academic prestige. If one wants to reconfigure academic prestige (in relation to the master’s, in anthropology), then one needs to understand the force and forces producing academic prestige in the first place: including (racial/sexual) abuse and *domunation*.

  24. @millerlau

    A very nice summary of the discussion so far. Also a demonstration of a common phenomenon described in great detail in Erving Goffman’s _Frame Analysis_. Phenomena which share a common label (here “MA”) may be both inherently different or perceived as different by individuals who see them from different social positions and in light of different experience. Barbara’s experience strikes me as realistic and especially relevant for anyone eager to pursue an academic career leading to a tenured position at a research university. Kristina’s experience reminds us that even within academia there are many alternative paths. DWP’s experience reminds us that prejudice remains an issue even where people in power insist that it is not or hypocritically (perhaps even idealistically) say that it should not be. My own experience may be worth a passing footnote; in the late Joe Levenson’s words, it is now at best of only historical significance.

    The question is, which of these perspectives best informs the project that Matt has proposed, to rethink the MA. In my view, Kristina’s experience provides the best starting point for pursuing this project. Those with the talent, drive, and perseverance to achieve success on the tenure track can take care of themselves. It is those with less lofty ambitions, for whom the issue of possible employment in or out of academia has a particularly sharp edge. In the best of all worlds, the solutions devised will be as fair and free of prejudice as possible. Will that heal the hurt of someone who began with high ambitions and now feels betrayed and punished? Unlikely. Does dwelling on the hurt, as opposed to making concrete suggestions that transcend the hurt and lead to effective action point us in the right direction? I don’t think so. But I am old and cynical. What do others say?

  25. Ryan, to give one answer to your question about all this anthropological focus on rank:
    Well, other than the fact that the entire academy is a hierarchy which encourages and is produced by and through structural inequality (even more in this neoliberal moment of increasing wealth and income inequality), we have to remember that anthropology is a discipline firmly rooted in a history of racial domination, ‘scientific racism’ and the hierarchical classification and ranking of racial groups, and colonialism (internal to the US and external).

    We are still dealing with the legacy of this disciplinary origin, within a country that is still dealing with the social, economic, psychic–structural–legacy of racial slavery/dispossession.

    Moreover, and especially for older anthropologists, we have to be honest about the extent to which people have been drawn to anthropology as the discipline, par excellance, that studies and ‘speaks for’ ‘exotic’/non-white Others: a relationship rooted in power asymmetries–differentials in, yes, rank, status, and prestige–which really doesn’t foster respect rooted in a substantive commitment to anthropology–and which has produced the intellectual and dissertation pointed out by Elizabeth Chin. When a system exists where nonwhite anthropologists are expected to study themselves but whites get to study everyone, is it really surprising that we have all the abuse and investment in rank and status hierarchies that exists in anthropology (or that white anthropologists like Barbara Piper are so dismissive, with such entitled contempt, when a nonwhite–and especially black female–anthropologist–comments on racism among white anthropologists, and everyday practices of white supremacy in the discipline, or academy more broadly)?

  26. John, please stop trying to minimize the racism and sexism and abuse which actually exist in anthropology with your comments about how I am just complaining because I am bitter and personally disappointed. My personal disappointment is NOT the issue. My personal experience is important to speak out about so as to publicize just how bad racist and sexist abuse in anthropology actually are. Why must this point constantly be missed.

    I point to myself to say, what is really going on in anthropology, especially in some elite department’s–at universities being sued for covering up abuse! (Hello, larger problem!), if the (antiblack) racism and (racist) sexism is so bad that a student who comes out of Yale with the Sapir Prize in Anthropology is being bullied and smeared *by professors* as an intellectually-deficient violent ghetto black woman, for speaking out about public bullying and abuse no anthropology department should be making excuses for, tolerating, or covering up.

    Yes, Barbara Piper, Yale’s Sapir Prize is an *academic* award for the student who writes the best senior thesis. So, again, worth rethinking what causes academic ‘deficiency’ and how it is evaluated.

    Also, John, in your attempt to undercut me as just angry about my ‘failed ambitions’, you made a comment squarely at odds with the reality of the current academic job market, as discussed in Ryan’s Sarah Kendzior interview: you will NOT be fine on the track to get a tenure-track job simply because you have the drive, perseverance, and ambition.

    Stop saying some version of ‘that black woman just didn’t make it because she wasn’t smart enough and didn’t work hard enough, and now she just keeps whining about how she didn’t acheive her personal ambitions’: it is not true, and it is a racist and sexist assertion and assumption.

    I speak out for the benefit of others, so that they can acheive their ambitions free of racist and sexist abuse which people should be acknowledging and working to eradicate, not make excuses for.

    And a correction to my previous comment: I meant to write Anthropology’s racist origins do not help to foster a substantive commitment to equality, not a commitment to anthropology.

  27. @DWP

    Instead of continuing our usual dance, allow me to suggest a look at

    There, on Dead Voles, Carl Dike points us to a discussion on The Long Eighteenth Century blog [] devoted to Simon Gikandi’s _Slavery and the Culture of Taste_, a book some consider brilliant that argues that the refined, rational [male] self praised in 18th century aesthetics had as its dialectical antithesis, repressed other, the black African slave, imagined as crude, emotional and frequently female (not always, black little boys could also serve as symbols of subordination and objects of desire).

    The hour-plus long YouTube video that Carl appends to his post is well worth the effort of a careful watching. In it we see a panel of literary and historical scholars, two black men (the moderator and Gikandi himself) and three women, one clearly black, one clearly white, one betwixt and between, discussing the book.

    What I like about it is the historical depth and trans-disciplinary perspective it brings to the issues you have raised in regard to anthropology — reminding us that personal experience and disciplinary identities are only small parts of a much larger picture.

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