decasia: critique of academic culture

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critical anthropology of academic culture
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The force of race in a Missouri college town

Dom, 11/02/2018 - 17:31

Back in 2011 I went for a bike trip in southern Illinois and made it just across the river to Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I wrote about my trip at the time but I’m embarrassed to say that I mainly saw the place in terms of class — it was a largely run-down, working-class place — and, in racial terms, I only noticed that it was largely white.

It turns out that Cape Girardeau was just in the news, in a Guardian report on rural racism in America. A lodging house in town was once included in the Green Book for Negro Travelers, a historically important guidebook telling black people where they could safely travel in the United States. But Cape Girardeau is nonetheless a highly racist place.

In the latest Guardian report, it becomes emblematic of the experience of driving while black:

For younger African Americans, racial profiling by police has become the new frontline in their experience of driving while black. Marshall Egson, whose family owns a large colonial-style house in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, which was listed in the Green Book, likens the cumulative effect of being stopped over and over again by law enforcement to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Every time I go out in my car I worry: am I going to make it home?” he says. “Over time it gives you PTSD. The way I see it, most every black man in America has PTSD.”

As the road miles of my tour of Missouri pile up, past and present seem to elide. When did the Green Book end and the present begin? Has there ever been a break?

I kick myself as I read this for not having had the political consciousness to have even looked into race in this town before writing about it. The stories are there to find.

For instance, in 2005 there was a rally against racism at the local hospital, which was reported on IndyMedia:

In July 2004, I lost my mother, my best friend to blatant discrimination and negligence from a very oppressed and racist hospital. After several attempts of trying to resolve this matter peacefully with the hospital, all efforts where ignored. So on March 26, 2005 my family along with the National Alliance of Black Panthers gathered in front of St. Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau, Mo to protest in a peaceful manner. We wanted to shed light on the past events of racism and unfair treatment of African Americans, as well as Minority Medicaid recipients.

According to Holli Wrice, who wrote the report, the city police rapidly tried to halt the demonstration:

During our peaceful protest, a police officer came to our demonstration and told us not to use the bullhorn, and stated this was against city ordinance. Sistah Shazza and myself demanded to see the ordinance rule. (Allow me to mention that The NABP as well as myself had contacted the Police Department prior to the demonstration, to see what measures we can take for such usage of the bullhorn, and obtain a permit and etc). The Officer told us if we continued to use the loud horn, he would lock all of us up.

The protesters were also subject to acts of overt racism, on Wrice’s account, beginning with a threat of vehicular homicide by the KKK:

Several hours into our peaceful protest, the Ku Klux Klan drove a truck as close as they could to us repeatedly coming very close to the curb in which we were standing. They yelled niggers; all the while they drove their pickup with a huge confederate flag waving from the rear of the truck. Some of my family went to a nearby restaurant and they were called niggers. Employees from the hospital showed their nametags and gave us the middle finger.

Wrice eventually concludes that “Racism still exists and is very thick and blatant where I reside, here it is 2005 and you still have white supremacists sporting Klan uniforms, Man, I need to tell them that is played out now, times are changed. America is still ass backwards, its up to us to keep the dream alive and going.”

A few years later in 2012, the KKK (defended by the ACLU) won a court case against the city to gain the right to leave flyers on people’s cars.

The racism that affects a town is of course almost certain to affect the local university. So it’s not surprising that the local college, Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO), is associated with similar dynamics. (I’m not, of course, claiming to be an expert on SEMO or to be giving an exhaustive analysis of it. What follows is just what I can find out with a bit of online research.)

A recent analysis of language use on Twitter named SEMO #1 in the nation for frequency of “derogatory” speech, based especially on frequent use of the word “bitch.” The survey was methodologically controversial — and denounced by the college itself — because it consisted purely in a statistical analysis of the spatial proximity of derogatory language to the campus, without considering context or verifying that students were the ones doing the tweeting. But while the data is obviously a very indirect measure of campus climate, if you ask me, it definitely says something about local prejudices.

Local reporters in any case readily corroborated the findings. One Twitter user commented that “SEMO is super racist”; another person showed that students from the campus were advertising a “slave auction outside the university center.” Meanwhile, about two years ago, one student started an online petition (with 81 signatories) to denounce his teacher’s “hate filled racist rant blaming people of European ancestry for the plight of those of African ancestry.” (What specifically was said?) A 2016 Black Lives Matter exhibit was defaced with a pro-police message. And in a Facebook group “Living at Southeast,” efforts to discuss racism were shut down by school administrators.

A few years earlier, in 2013, an online forum discussion about whether SEMU is racist generated this response from someone in Cape Girardeau named “Nazi pride”:

“Black women r disgusting and mostly bald lol even black men kno white women are way more beautiful that’s y there always trying to bag one the white race is the apex of beauty and knowledge we tought u how to read write your welcome btw without us ud be wearing loin cloths chucking spears at elephants.”

In a remark like this, the level of racism and white supremacy is so extreme, it’s hard to even notice the exceptional stupidity that goes with it.

Meanwhile, liberals wrote to the newspapers in the wake of Ferguson with thoughts like, “As a lifelong Missouri resident, I’m sad that our state has gotten a racist reputation… I know most of us aren’t racists and are sad that Missouri has been labeled as a racist state.” As if racism was just an image problem and not about contesting white supremacist discourse and practice on the ground.

This brings me to my mea culpa as a scholar of higher education. When I went to this town in 2011 — admittedly I was just passing through, but still — I didn’t ask the right questions or look in the right places. And I completely missed the racial and racist dynamics that hang over this town, and over its local university.

It’s an analytical mistake I don’t plan on making twice.

Edit: I see that some people from SEMO are perhaps reading this post! I’d welcome additional commentary, corrections to my impressions, or any other feedback.

Categorías: Universidade

Teaching and timelessness

Xov, 08/02/2018 - 20:22

As I write, night is falling slowly and heavily, like a train gaining momentum gracelessly. It’s easy to feel sleepy when I come home after the all-day heat, which still lingers in the house, but I eat dinner early and make myself go for a walk, the better to sit down afterwards to prep for class tomorrow morning.

It’s Thursday, and my last class of the week is about twelve and a half hours away. Some part of me wants to start getting revved up now, since it still feels performative to teach, taking an energy that I try to build up in advance.

But a painless and oddly physical sense of disorientation has also set in, clouding the evening clock. It remains viscerally confusing to be alone in South Africa, teaching; my family is in America while I’m out here this year, as I’ve mentioned before. (This is very hard in completely obvious ways, which I won’t elaborate just now.)

In any event, I’ve been here the past three weeks, but the days and nights never quite learn to get along. Each day there’s too much coffee or too little, too little motion or too much, and never quite enough sleep, and even that, always disorganized. Time is like an outfit that you thought would fit, but when you got home, somehow it was slightly too small.

There’s an institutional reason for this over and above the existential factors; while elsewhere teaching usually confers a stable rhythm, here it’s a bonus source of disorientation, since here my class isn’t scheduled at the same time from one day to the next. I’m just teaching one class this quarter, which meets four days a week; twice it’s at noon, one day it’s at eight in the morning, which is inconveniently early, and one day it’s at nine. The evening before the early class, an unwelcome, unsleepy energy sets in.

I’m not an anxious teacher, as these things go. And increasing experience brings some kind of dedramatization. If my offhand math is right, I’ve taught about 160 university class sessions, cumulatively. It’s enough to start to be habit-forming; I’ve started to take certain parts for granted, like the basic logistics, the classroom “learning materials,” and the grading. While other parts — how to pace the material, how to adapt to diverse learning capacities — still feel like a work in progress.

But the odd thing about teaching is that, as soon as the first day of class was over, it stopped seeming like the first week of the term. Instead, it seems to me right now — this is Day 4 — that this class commenced at the birth of the universe and will continue on, exactly like this, for at least 525,000 years from now. I actually really love this class — teaching people how to do ethnography is probably my favorite thing to teach — so I don’t think this sense of timelessness is a form of angst, escapism, or complaint. Nevertheless, I don’t remember this degree of disorientation from previous classes.

It’s lucky that I have many alarm clocks.

In the meantime, the crickets are loudly keeping time, the last light is gone from the west, and I’m thinking about how to teach my students some feminist epistemology in the morning.

Here’s what I’ll look out at when I hastily print my teaching notes in the department office:

Categorías: Universidade

Housework and anxiety on the day before class

Dom, 04/02/2018 - 09:36

It’s a Sunday.

The ants are everywhere around the kitchen sink, swarming through the crack in the dishwasher door. Afterwards, every time you feel the tiniest itch, you suspect the ants of crawling on you.

I want to explain here to you how the arrival of the ants is not just a natural phenomenon. I want to discuss how it emerges from the local economy of housework, from the South African system of cheap domestic labor. And its antediluvian structures of race and gender. I want to say something about how those who purchase domestic labor may prefer to leave certain kinds of work, like dishwashing, for those who are paid to complete it. And about how that may inadvertently provide the ants with a food source.

But it’s hard for me to write here in detail about my household economy. There’s a lot that’s hard to talk about in this social context. Not that anyone tells you not to speak about it. They don’t need to.

The economy of domestic labor in South Africa — as in southern California — is completely visible but barely spoken about. Hidden in plain sight, the eye can take it in, but the tongue should be still.

It was hard for me to find a place to stay when I first got to Stellenbosch. So I was happy to find a little apartment. It’s in the basement of a big house overlooking the city. At night the city lights twinkle down in the valley. Proximity to the mountain is of course a form of class symbolism.

The neighborhood, Bo Dalsig, is one of the wealthiest in the country. All the houses have huge gates and security systems. The residents come and go in expensive cars. On weekday mornings, the domestic and yard workers climb the hill on foot.

At first, I walked to work. It took about 25 minutes. Then I bought a bike and it took 10. Then last week, my colleague lent me his spare car, which isn’t any faster than biking to get to work, but makes it much easier to come home with the groceries.

It’s the day before classes start, and I’m teaching a medium-sized lecture class about how to do ethnography. I’ve taught this topic before, a few years ago in Chicago, but this year I rewrote the syllabus to focus much more on analyzing ethnographic situations. The lectures are organized around a series of basic concepts: situations, projects, culture, ideology, representation, contradiction, practice, strategy, conflict, reflexivity, that sort of thing. Meanwhile the students will be doing fieldwork each week and talking about that in discussion sections. Here they’re called tutorials.

I’m looking forward to teaching, in spite of some minor anxiety about the first day of class. You never know quite what will happen in a class; you just know you’re physically invested in the outcome. Before I was a teacher, I didn’t realize how much one has to invest in the role and the ensuing performance. I’ve never been a stage actor, but I think of teaching as a cousin of acting.

One time an eminent, retired woman academic told me that she still got anxious before giving conference talks. And if you stop getting anxious, that’s a problem, she added. The same for teaching, perhaps. I’ve never had much stage fright, so for me, the anxiety is more a source of energy than of paralysis.

I’m writing about anxiety again because I really think it’s important — wait actually, I’ve said this before, so I can quote myself:

“It’s important for teachers who aren’t women to acknowledge their anxiety and vulnerability, given the preposterous gender ideals that still circulate in academic culture.”

Of course, the economy of teaching remains hard to write about publicly, especially in the present (i.e. not in hindsight), because there’s so much that goes into maintaining role separation between teachers and students, so much backstage work on both sides. And because the class and gender and race lines in many university systems are real, and remain very fraught. Not entirely unlike in the domestic work context.

But I’ll have to come back to this. It’s the day before the first class, so in the spirit of seriousness, I will go into my office on a Sunday morning and write my lecture. The first day of class, you end up spending half the time explaining the logistics anyway. There’s domestic labor in the classroom too: neatening things, making organization, clearing up cobwebs.

Categorías: Universidade

Why we can’t abolish “best”

Mar, 30/01/2018 - 20:44

In my email right now, there are 10,364 messages signed with American academia’s standard valediction:


I have always found best an incredibly alienating sign-off. So alienating that I am tempted to say that it should be abolished. Though as you’ll see, I’ve become ambivalent about that view too.

What is it that bothers me about Best? It’s rote, of course. It’s a bit cold. It’s terse. It’s a mindless convention, and while I don’t hate conventions per se, I hate when conventions deprive us of an occasion for some sort of human warmth. It’s styrofoam sociability.

If you read this little word literally, it raises an obvious question — best what? Best… indifference? Best customs? Best formalities? Best is a modifier, but what does it modify? Best wishes? That’s what I think it is usually supposed to mean, but best wishes is truncated, too. I suppose it means something like I’m sending you my best wishes or I wish you the best (in life?).

In South Africa where I’m teaching, sometimes people do say Best, but there is also an alternative convention: Kind Regards. I actually like it much better than Best, because it seems to mean something more definite and much warmer, but it’s hard for me to use in practice, because it’s not part of my habits. One student told me that “kind regards is overrated anyway.”

Still, instead of writing Best, I like writing yours or take care (for friends) or some pithy adverb expressing a mood or cheers (when I feel informal). One of my grad school teachers was famous for signing messages VBW, S, for “very best wishes, sincerely.” I used to sign off peace when I was in college, but it long since started to feel like an affectation. Sometimes when I just sign my name, eli, that feels almost unmediated.

But honestly, I mostly sign my work email best wishes because at least it’s best something.

And if I’m even more honest, the fact is that best wishes becomes a bit rote, too.

I want to say we should abolish Best, but I begin to suspect that any valediction will become rote if it’s overused, and thus relatively empty.

The more I think about it, the less I’m sure what would be a good norm in writing sign-offs. Perhaps there can be no good norm in the way I want, because the very reason we have norms is to save people from having to particularize and humanize their professional relationships.

Is it possible to institutionalize warmth?

It comes to mind that in any cultural system, there is a set of possible greetings and sign-offs that are organized through their differences from each other. Thus, in my part of American culture, the handshake is the standard professional greeting, and it’s distinguished primarily from waves (more informal) and hugs and kisses (more intimate), on an ascending hierarchy of warmth and intimacy. The handshake is a bit impersonal, ultimately, not because of any of its tangible qualities, but because of its symbolic difference from hugs and the other options.

It follows that what makes best impersonal is that it’s marked as being more cold and institutional than yours or sincerely, and also more formal than take carepeace, etc. So if we were to put an alternative term like kind regards where best currently sits in our system of sign-offs, it would presumably become just as hollow.

The question is thus not about abolishing best but about figuring out why we need to be able to ritually signal this very minimal warmth. Why do we need to constantly exchange cold warmth with each other? What is the meaning of institutionalized sterility? It’s more than nothing, but by design, it’s not much.

If you write best a lot, what’s it doing for you? Is it just the easiest option, given the cultural environment? Or does it have some aesthetic merits I’m missing?

Maybe best is, perversely, doing something useful for me after all. It gives me a thing to very publicly not do. Does that just mean I’m inhabiting the worst form of hipster culture — in essence, depending on mainstream norms as something to reject, as if that rejection in turn conferred a tiny bit of authenticity?

Maybe. I still don’t want to sign best, though. Like someone said once on TV: “Best is the worst.”

Categorías: Universidade

The Crêperie at Nanterre

Xov, 23/11/2017 - 12:52

The University of Paris-X at Nanterre is now just called Université Paris Nanterre. I went there this week to poke around in the archives of my fieldsite. On the way to the library I stopped to find something to eat, and it turned out that the nearest campus eating establishment was an ethnographically useful site. Admittedly, I am getting somewhat out of practice as a campus ethnographer, but I still noticed a few things.

The business consisted in a white van kitted out as a crêpe-making stand. The side of the van folded up into an awning, exposing a window through which food and money were flowing swiftly, in opposite directions. I hesitated before committing myself to the queue, which was quite long, but there was no other obvious place to eat at the entrance to the campus, and I suspected that the truck’s popularity was a promising sign.

The truck was the occasion for two overlapping social situations: the students waiting in line and the actual scene of crêpe-purchasing transactions. The student clientele struck me as fairly representative of Paris-area humanities-and-social-sciences: majority women, quite racially diverse, and dressed largely in long black coats, which have been the normative cold-weather apparel as long as I have been acquainted with the Paris region.

There seemed to be some gender dynamics at work. Sociability seemed to cluster around groups of women students (two or three or four at a time), while solitude seemed a more masculine performance (I saw more male students waiting by themselves). I was reminded, overhearing students’ conversations, that it’s not just the ethnographers who are outsiders on university campuses: I heard two students having a long discussion about which building was which, as if not everyone had a clear knowledge of campus geography. Meanwhile, student sociability didn’t seem too affected by ethnoracial differences, on any level that I could immediately observe.

(I don’t, incidentally, know absolutely for sure that these people were students; I didn’t ask. But their fashion choices, their markers of social class, their youth, their backpacks, their casual socializing, and their proximity to the campus seemed conclusive. Ethnography demands leaps of interpretation.)

The customers who were there with friends were obliged (normatively) to bid them farewell as they left the site with their food. This entailed standard French departure rituals, which could hypothetically have entailed la bise, the ritual kiss, which is common in friendship contexts involving women. Presumably it takes a bit of effort to faire la bise [kiss], and I noticed a shortcut: one woman announced to her friends “bises!” [kisses] instead of actually making the gesture in question. Standard French practice when you’re in a group, I suppose, but it also reminds me of the way you would sign a letter to a friend. In that sense, the verbal exclamation “kisses!” seems to hint at a takeover of physical interaction by writing. The becoming-prose of the world.

On the other hand, perhaps one should say instead that these little moments of sociability were a sort of “found poetry,” secreted within the lines of an otherwise pretty hasty commercial exchange. You had to pay before you got your food: the staff would tell you what you owed when they had a moment of downtime, as your crêpe was cooking. There were two cooks, each making three crepes at once. Curiously, the place billed itself as being dedicated to sweet crêpes (“Le P’tit sucré”) but in reality almost everyone (80%+) wanted savory food. Lunchtime.

More to say about commercial exchange in this site, but for now, I’ll just leave a few other images of the scene.

To the left, a large plaza leading towards campus.

Twenty minutes later the scene by the truck was very empty, as lunchtime died down.

But new waves of people were regularly disgorged from the suburban train station.

Categorías: Universidade

Pre-made objects

Xov, 23/11/2017 - 07:44

I’ve been thinking lately about how, in ethnography, some objects of inquiry seem to come ready-made, almost pre-packaged, while others are so unclear, blurry, flou (in French), that it’s hard to decide how to examine them.

For example, since I finished my doctoral dissertation in 2014, I’ve published (or am in the middle of publishing) five papers about French university politics. But I’ve published nothing about French philosophers’ daily lives, even though something like half of my ethnographic fieldwork was about that topic.

The fact is that political activism comes to me, for the most part, pre-packaged. It divides itself up into little groups (or big groups) that usually have names and mission statements. It produces political events that have fairly clear forms, boundaries, starting and ending times. This is most obvious when you write about something like a single protest event (like my paper on the Ronde infinie des obstinés), but it’s true too for my paper about precarity politics, for instance, since precarious work is not just a social phenomenon, but a defined political cause.

In contrast, in spite of a considerable body of research on everyday life, I find it harder to write about. These spaces where people are bored. Where nothing happens. People chatting casually. Going to and fro. Eating sandwiches. Consuming, producing, exchanging. All the spaces of capitalist ordinariness — and universities are also spaces of capitalist ordinariness — are hard for me to write about ethnographically.

Now, one might object that ethnographic observers have a lot of latitude in how to construct their objects of inquiry. One isn’t given an object: one makes the object. As if everyone just had the power to make an object! But OK, it’s true: objects only become objects under inspection, subject to a conceptual grid that you bring with you as a perceiving subject. Objects aren’t accessible all by themselves, they are actively posited.

But without denying the role of conceptual activity in object construction, the fact is that the world already comes to us in a series of pre-given forms, which are never purely individual constructs. It’s not just ethnographers who create form by objectifying the world. “The locals” do that too, and their forms are often more durable, more institutionally viable, more solid, than ours. Natural processes create form too: the flow of wind or water erodes the rocks and soil and gives the landscape its form.

Of course it’s fair to say that anthropologists, collectively, have created some durable forms too. The very idea of “culture,” for instance. But I don’t think most of us are doing that when we do our own research. (Alas, much social research is not participatory action research — which at least supposedly leads to more durably institutionalized outcomes.) And as an individual, lone researcher, I don’t think my own research activity has created any very durable social forms.

So once you get past all the caveats, the interesting question becomes: how is one’s thinking, one’s research, affected by the fact that some parts of the world come to you pre-formed, as if pre-made for analysis, and others come to you messily, vaguely, or not at all?

Here we rejoin a standard topic of professional discussion, since lots of anthropologists have tried to find “new objects” the past twenty or thirty years. Kathleen Stewart suggested recently that precarity is a key condition of new forms:

“Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986) cleared a field for an attention to emergent forms. A new object of analysis became legible, took on qualities, trajectories, aesthetics. Writing followed it, pulled into alignment with it, becoming tactile and compositional. Culture was reconceived as an assemblage of disparate and incommensurate things throwing themselves together in scenes, acts, encounters, performances, and situations. Writing became an attunement, a response, a vigilant protection of a worlding. Both writing and culture became potentially generative and capacious. A writing might skid over the surface of something throwing itself together or it might pause on a strand as it moved with other strands or fell out of sync, becoming an anomaly or a problem. Writing could be a way of thinking. What follows here is a brief composition of precarity. I take precarity to be one register of the singularity of emergent phenomena—their plurality, movement, imperfection, immanence, incommensurateness, the way that they accrete, accrue and wear out…”

But this raises a new question. Under what conditions are new objects possible? When can one perceive emergent phenomena and when are they illegible? (I have a very different view from Stewart about how to analyze precarity, but let’s leave that aside.) And why privilege emergent phenomena in the first place (aside from reasons of disciplinary strategy)?

Or rather: Isn’t the question of how to apprehend an “emergent object” secondary to the question of how the spectrum of possible objects already organizes us as researchers? The work of social form precedes us (as Stewart would no doubt agree), and for me, doing self-conscious social research involves trying to become conscious of all the unconscious forces that predetermine our work.


Categorías: Universidade

Butler on nonsystematic writing

Mar, 31/10/2017 - 19:50

I’ve been re-reading Butler’s work lately because I’m thinking about political mimesis, and I was struck along the way by her very frank and admirable comments about the fact that if you write a bunch of things over time, you don’t necessarily want to go back over them to make sure that your view is the same everywhere.

She starts out by commenting on the sad fact that one rarely has any clue how anyone will read anything one writes:

One writes without knowing whether the reader will read closely or not, whether the work will be understood in terms of what came before, and for the most part, one is content with being read intermittently, partially, and perhaps even relieved that no one will look too closely. I don’t have the luxury of that relief with either one of these essays. Oddly, in being asked to respond to them, I am also asked to write yet more precisely on the occasion when it seems to me that, surely, I have already written too much.

Then she continues with a reflection on the inconsistencies that emerge from writing that develops over time:

Further, I’m in a particular bind, since it never occurred to me to try and establish an internally consistent philosophical position. Because I am, as I write, a living being, I develop new views, call some of the old ones into question, change tracks, return to older problems in new ways. But I have never, I think, sought to reconcile the writing that I have done at one time with the writing I have done at another. In part, I do not want to look back too closely, since I am living and thinking now, but also because whatever I am living and thinking now emerges from that “before” and in ways for which I am surely grateful, but for which I have no ready account. That others seek to take account of what I have written across several works is surely a gift to me, though it is not one I could or would give myself, and so not one that I can offer in return. My response will have to be something other than an account in any systematic sense. After all, one writes and then writes again, but it is probably not the case that what one writes first serves as a set of philosophical premises from which the later work is derived. There is perhaps a different kind of temporality at work, a circling back to issues left unprobed, new efforts to approach a set of problems, the exercise of a certain possibility of repetition that does not seek to produce a seamless continuity between what is past and what is present. Indeed, the discontinuities allow for the possibility of starting anew, starting again, with some of the same problems with which one began.

If one wanted an accessible image of the difference between systematic philosophy and critical theory, this is probably as close as one can get.

(From “Reply from Judith Butler to Mills and Jenkins,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 18(2):180-195.)

Categorías: Universidade