Who is the Greater Threat to Reading in the Academy? Aggrieved Students, or Budget-cutting Administrators?

Aggrieved students find books dangerous; neoliberal administrators say they’re useless. I’d take the former any day

Corey Robin is a political science department chair from New York. He finds that bottom-line focused higher education administrators to be a greater risk to an educated society than aggrieved students. He has a provocative essay in Salon “Higher Education’s Real Censors What We’re Missing in the Debate over Trigger Warnings and Coddled Students.” In effect he is asking, what is worse, a student worried about something that challenges their own self-concept and is able to raise a ruckus in the press, or an administrator who routinely cancels classes because of low enrolment? Which one, the student or the administrator, cuts off more conversation about what really matters? The student at least stimulates a conversation, and challenges others to read the disliked book. The administrator cuts reading off every time a class is cancelled because of low enrollment.

Robin’s point is that the educated mind is at greater risk from budget cuts, than it is from the occasional ruckus about “trigger warnings” on syllabi, or invitation for controversial speakers to come to campus.

As part of his essay he includes a great quote from Kafka about the power of books—if they are read:

Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, at a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.


How I Spent My Summer Vacation (and Other Stuff)

It was 53 degrees this morning where I live at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Fall is in the air, which is nice because with the drought going on it’s been a long, hot, and breezy/dry summer in our woods and it’s still fire season, at least until we get our first good rain. While I have been here in northern California goofing around with my dogs, hiking, writing poetry, and clearing brush, Tony was writing stuff for the blog, and traveling throughout Germany and in Thailand and China; Marianne was busy with her dissertation work and being a mom and gardener (her tomato pictures on facebook looked really good!).

There is something comforting about the rhythm of the school year, and even though I’m not a teacher anymore, I adhere to the education season still and feel like it’s time to get back to work. This week we want to let you know about our new ethnography.com facebook page, where we post blogs but also images, resources, and other fun stuff for smarties. Please stop by to give us a “like” and help us spread the word.

Following an eventful week of participant observation, I will be posting blogs this coming week about my visits to the Academic Senate Forum at Chico State and the Butte County Fair in Gridley, CA. The fair was a working class extravaganza and my husband and I enjoyed being in the company of others who find flower displays and diving dogs entertaining.

The Academic Senate Forum at Chico State was another kind of classed experience. I spent two and a half hours with the professional middle class (PMC) in a meeting environment that was all too familiarly strange (I served on the academic senate when I was an adjunct at Butte College). Chico State has been on my radar, stories of huge workloads, distrust of administration, compensation and lack of step increases/opportunities for staff, administrative overreach, and issues with Diversity. You can read about it from Chico State’s Orion here. And, here’s a link to get the skinny on what the problems are, which includes a link to the “Campus Climate Survey” at the bottom of the page. I will be posting about this later in the week, so check back if you want to hear this ethnographer’s story of an Academic Senate Forum.

Don’t forget to stop by and see us on facebook!


The Tattooed Professor Has Some New Year’s Resolutions for Academics

The Tattooed Professor (AKA Kevin Gannon) has some New Year’s resolutions for academics and they’re so good, we wanted to tell you about it. We like the Tattooed Professor here at e.com, we think he’s cool and provocative; I like him because he is direct, something we working class people value. This time, the Tattooed Prof offers some kind words for you professors beginning your academic year. He wants you to be mindful and committed to a “better academe” because lord knows, higher education is fraught at the moment.

It’s great advice, the kind I used to ignore when I was adjuncting at Butte Community College and Chico State. I’d say, “Seven classes, no problem!” Academic Senate, 5 committees, and advising a student club? “Oh heck,” I would tell colleagues, “I like stress.” And I was full of shit, let me tell ya. What Tattooed prof wants you to know (me too) is that life-work balance is a good thing; eating at a table instead of in front of a computer is even better. Take time and don’t stress out, remember as Tattooed Professor’s wife would say, “Will any babies die?”


In addition to some good advice to chill out, I liked these points:

  1. Know your colleagues: Yup, tenured and tenure track, that means you need to stop and say hello to your adjunct colleagues in the hallway. Adjuncts are the red shirts of academe, and they know it. If you are truly committed to collegiality and student success, you will need to make an effort to cross that status boundary because a culture of collegiality starts with you all; those with power have to make the first move.
  2. Climb over silo walls: In other words, there are people at your workplace doing stuff that makes things flow and keep things running, these people are called “staff” and they are some of the most invisible and least appreciated people on your campus. While the president is thanking all the faculty in convocation and you all are atta-boying and atta-girling each other, these folk are waiting for you to leave so they can clean up. Get out of your offices and take a break from your clique, there are all kinds of people working on your campus.
  3. Know what you love to do: This one is my favorite because it was the kick in the ass I needed about writing. In this one, Tattooed Prof wants you to “Know what it is you love to do, and make time to do it.” Yeah, it’s hard to write, teach, do idiotic administrative paperwork, and eat/sleep/be human. I remember. Read this part especially, it is encouraging and important. These are words I heard before, but I like the Tattooed Profs version better: ASS IN CHAIR.
  4. Perspective: I kinda already talked about this one, but again, we smarty academic types struggle with life-work balance, we want to do it all and we can get pretty stressed out when we cannot. Academe is a culture of being stressed out, I have seen (and participated in) the “I’m so stressed out” Olympics, where I and colleagues would compare our crazy/busy lives (I usually lost because I don’t have kids). At any rate, remember to ask yourself, “Will any babies die?” If the answer is no, then CHILL OUT.
  5. Check your privilege: After reading this one, I want to have a collegial coffee in the campus coffee shop with Tattooed Professor and his administrator wife. Finally, a White dude with tenure lays it out. I don’t need to say anything else, I’ll just drop this quote below.

      Ask yourself: who chairs our committees? Who speaks the most in faculty meetings? Do we enable academic bullies? Contingent faculty have an array of macro-institutional dynamics stacked against them. And this is just on the faculty-staff side–our students also experience the effects of power and privilege. What’s our role been in that? Who do we call on in discussions? What assumptions do we make about students’ levels of preparation or suitability for different programs of study based upon their backgrounds? What are we implicitly doing with and among our students? What are the “hidden transcripts” embedded in our interactions with our classes? Have we abetted the operation of privilege? Or have we called privilege out–named it–and let our students examine it critically, to discern its operation and effects?

Enjoy reading this piece, here’s the New Year’s Resolutions for Academics again if you missed it above. At the bottom of the page, Tattooed Professor posted a pic of his Pittie-Boxer mix Daisy, a beautiful dog with a great mantra: “Wag more, bark less.”

***Here’s my Pittie-Jack Russell mix Twilly, his mantra is play, play, play!

The Psychobiological Nature of the Human Being, Going Back to School, and the Nature of ‘Manpower”


University classes start on Monday, and once I again I resume my task there of creating students who are “disciplined” to the “seamless into the demands of bureaucratic production.” To do this, we will adjust their very psychobiological nature as a human being to the demands of the university. There will be demands put on them to show up on time, study on their own time without direct supervision, and write papers about esoteric subjects of my choosing. I will help make them into “an optimal economic form of ‘manpower,’ which is put into a new rhythm and shaped to the requirements of the work.” We do this by systematically deconstructing the functions of every muscle, including the brain, and then reconstructing it into that optimal economic form. Embedded in this is the capacity to obey unquestionably and habitually, even when orders have not been given. Thus, the modern worker habitually knows what the bureaucracy, factory, or Boss wants and does it—such habitus is what makes modern society possible.

This rather depressing description of education is an adaptation from Max Weber, who was writing about the demands that the industrial revolution and the demands it put on labor to conform to the pre-existing structures of factories and bureaucracies.  Weber’s words from his essay “Discipline and Charisma” are as follows:

the psychobiological nature of a human being is totally adjusted to the demands of production specifications, which are what the tools and machines of the outer world require. In short the human being is adjusted to the functions demanded from him.  The human being is stripped of his personal biological rhythm, and then is reprogrammed into the new rhythm according to the prerequisites of the task. This is done by the systematic deconstruction of the functions of every muscle, and then reconstructed into an optimal economic form of “manpower,” which is put into a new rhythm and shaped to the requirements of the work. (Source: Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, by Max Weber. Translated and Edited by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters, 2015. Pages 6-7, and 71)

So if after reading that cheery paragraph from the classical sociologist Max Weber on the first day of school, I recommend the following song, in an of the many versions that are found on the internet: “Little Houses” by Malvina Reynolds. Little Houses is a song all about what Weber calls “Discipline!”

Why Can’t the School of Oriental and African Studies Fix Their Low Graduation Rates in the Social Anthropology program?

onsidering finishing your PhD on the 30 year plan? It can be done, it seems—Miranda Irving writes about her experiences on the 30 year plan here. Her PhD. in Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies was finally awarded in 2015. Embedded in this article is a nice link to what she wrote in 2006 about unfinished PhDs here.

Last month I wrote about the process of cooling out the graduate student who does not complete the PhD. The trick for the system is getting the graduate student to blame themselves for non-completion, rather than the grad school factory that is set up by professors to tolerate “non-completion rates” of 30-70%. Miranda does indeed accept responsibility for her own non-completion, and ‘fesses up and describes well how the grad student is cooled out.  She has been “cooled out,” in the sense that she is willing to blame herself for failure to complete a system designed with a high non-completion rate.

Still, wouldn’t it be nice if the SOAS Chair of the Social Anthropology Department wrote up the department’s explanation for why such high non-completion rates are designed into the system of the anthropology program there? Presumably it could be printed The Guardian as well. Perhaps that Chair could answer the question of why systematically high PhD completion rates are solely product of accumulated student failures, rather than of a system designed by the professors?

What is More Important in a University, an Assessment Plan for Nebulous Learning Outcomes, or a Climbing Wall?

Anyway, my kids knew where the Climbing Wall was when they attended a private Liberal Arts college.  Somehow they never came home and told me about the Student Learning Outcomes that were presumably on their course syllabi.  There is a very engaging article by Erik Glibert “Does Assessment Make Colleges Better?  Who Knows?

I have to finish my course syllabi for Fall 2015 this week, and will dutifully put on the Student Learning Outcomes of various programs because doing so is relatively harmless.  Still, I wonder why I so dutifully do this exercise?

Basic Human Decency and Death by Hanging in Britain’s Colonies

Every once in awhile, I’ll revisit George Orwell. Last week it was for “Shooting an Elephant,” when I lectured here in Thailand about the nature of ethics and state/political power. The essay is great for teaching about the nature of state power, in this case using 1920s Burma where Orwell himself served as a British colonial police officer for several years.

But shooting rogue elephants peacefully eating by the side of the road was not the only thing that Orwell wrote about, or was called to do. British colonial power required the regular use of hanging of criminals to maintain order. As I wrote in an earlier post about hanging in British Tanganyika here ate Ethnograpy.com, the British memos were meticulous about ensuring that the process was dignified, humane, and especially did not unnecessarily upset the officers and warders carrying out the sentence ordered by the judge. The Acting Superintendent in Tanganyika wrote the following in 1921,

In the first place it is absolutely essential that proper steps should be made leading to the pit, so that the body of the hanged man can be properly carried up for burial. At the present time, the entrance to the it is by an ordinary ladder and any one decending [sic] the pit, for instance the doctor, has to duck his head to clear the platform. It is quite impossible to remove a body with any decency by this exit.


The present system is revolting to any decent ideas. The body is hauled up by the neck, through the trap doors, through which it has dropped, without undoing the noose. Last Monday a very heavy and big man was hanged, and his body had to be treated in this way, with unpleasent [sic] results to all who were present.


At the time the gallows was made, the Superintendent of Police expostulated at the proposed plan, but for some reason or other, possible expense, it was decided to go on with the original design. At Lindi, Tanga and Mwanza Gaols, proper cement steps have been made, and are satisfactory. I desire to ask that the necessary improvements to remedy the existing state of affairs at Morogoro may be taken in hand at once.


Another point requiring your attention in the cross bar which holds the trap door in position. When this is released and falls into its groove in the wall, it should be caught by a socket of some kind, to prevent its rebounding on contact with the stone. At present it is quite possible that, in the rebound, it hits the hanging man as he drops from above. True, if the hanging is properly done, the man is probably dead before he receives the blow from the iron bar: but you will agree every possible precaution should be taken against any suggestion of inhumanity.


Finally the present chain supplied from your workshops is far from satisfactory. The other day it was necessary to take off some links to shorten the drop. At the first tap of a hammer, the link snapped. Surely this is not right. I have instructed the Assistant Superintendent of Prisons to send this chain to Daressalaam as soon as it can be spared for your inspection.


I trust that you will be able to treat these matter as urgent, as they are of vital importance, if the executions are to be carried out without any regrettable incident.

In other words, the effective administrator of hangings pays attention to details, and makes sure that the neck is snapped in a humane fashion, that the doctor is not revolted by the need to haul the corpse up by the neck to see if there is still a heartbeat, and certainly a blow from an iron bar as the man drops through the trap door is out.

In other words, the effective administrator of hangings pays attention to details, and makes sure that the neck is snapped in a humane fashion, that the doctor is not revolted by the need to haul the corpse up by the neck to see if there is still a heartbeat, and certainly a blow from an iron bar as the man drops through the trap door is a suggestion of inhumanity.

I’ve read the memos colonial Tanganyika a number of times, and often wondered, who were these men that the British bureaucracy snapped the neck of? What did they do, what did they think, where were they from, where were they buried? When I had a chance, I looked through the British colonial archives, but never could find documentation. At least not until re-reading Orwell’s essay about Hanging in colonial Burma.

At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path…. It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man…. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned-reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone

Did the prisoners in Tanganyika avoid the puddles as they walked to the gallows,  too? Did they take a little dance to the left during their final 40 steps so that there feet would not be muddied?

And what did the guards and hangmen think? Literature by the likes of Orwell helps us imagine what the agents of the colonial state thought, and how they imagined their place in the grand scheme of the execution:

Francis was walking by the superintendent, talking garrulously. ‘Well, sir, all hass passed off with the utmost satisfactoriness. It wass all finished – flick! like that. It iss not always so – oah, no! I have known cases where the doctor wass obliged to go beneath the gallows and pull the prisoner’s legs to ensure decease. Most disagreeable!’

…..We went through the big double gates of the prison, into the road. ‘Pulling at his legs!’ exclaimed a Burmese magistrate suddenly, and burst into a loud chuckling. We all began laughing again. At that moment Francis’s anecdote seemed extraordinarily funny. …

Participation in such an execution ritual even had the salubrious effect of bringing a few of the colonized closer to the colonizer:

We all had a drink together, native and European alike, quite amicably. The dead man was a hundred yards away.

And as for the other prisoners in the prisons—the ones not scheduled for the execution, the day was also a downer, because they would not get breakfast until the execution was completed:

‘Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can’t get their breakfast till this job’s over.’



George Orwell “The Hanging” see http://www.online-literature.com/orwell/888/

Tony Waters, http://www.ethnography.com/2015/01/gallows-tale-i-the-hanging-file-of-tanganyika-territory-1922-1928/


Dee Thao’s Movie about Hmong Identity in Laos, Thailand, and the United States

At this time of getting ready for Fall classes, just a reminder that Dee Thao’s movie about Hmong identity is an excellent introduction to issues involving the Hmong in the United States and Laos, as well as more generally issues of identity, migration, refugees, family, and generations. It’s 24 minutes, which fits well with a discussion. I know that I’m planning on using it this Fall for my International Engagement class. THe link is here.

Click to continue reading “Dee Thao’s Movie about Hmong Identity in Laos, Thailand, and the United States”

Encounters with Benjamin Bloom: Part One

For the last few semesters, I have taught a course on “ethnographic methods” to designers in an MFA program. The class itself is my own design but the title was gifted to me. I can’t say that I approve of the term “ethnographic methods,” but one has to go along at times. In the main, it is every bit as fun as it sounds. I demand students delineate and pursue their own projects, rather than safely shepherding them through a series of artificial exercises. Though they have their ups and downs as the semester goes along, they have responded with some wonderful work.

The problem they encounter in class is the same they will face on a regular basis as designers, and I think the nature of this problem marks an important point of confluence between design and anthropology. The shared joint is most apparent at the beginning of a project when the parameters are fully in flux. At this point, stating concretely what is to be done two or three steps out is difficult. Donald Schön (1984) recognized this issue long ago and wrote of the main problem in design as one of “problem setting.” That is, design is not about applying the most efficient means to a fixed and understood end, but rather about grappling with the relation of the end to the means. It is not possible to specify in advance what should be done if the contours of the problem cannot yet be fully grasped. The end is not given; it must be discovered. This is the difficulty. And here, there are no right or wrong solutions, only better or worse. I often tell my students exactly what they hear in their design classes: “keep going” and “try again.”

Schön’s pedagogical outlook is derived directly from John Dewey, an influence seen most clearly in Schon’s emphasis on experience rather than cognition. Experience educates. It has pedagogical value. And again, there is a parallel with anthropology, in which your body must be placed somewhere in the world in order to experience something. In both anthropology and design, the experience of ambiguity and serendipity followed by deliberation and judgement is the most powerful educator. Yet this creates a problem with curriculum design, especially when “learning objectives” in the Bloomian sense are in play. And with “methods” as well, but that is for another time.

Learning Objectives

The curriculum theory popular at all levels of education today, as those of us caught in its web well know, is heavily invested in the concept of learning objectives. Learning objectives, as they are widely invoked, are a product of the University of Chicago, where following the Second World War, Ralph Tyler and his mentee Benjamin Bloom synthesized a line of curricular philosophy stretching back to W.W. Charters. In doing so, they popularized the concept of learning objectives matched to a curriculum designed to impart these selfsame objectives to students. A correlate of their curricular philosophy is that the learning environment, and the experiences within this environment, should be tightly controlled so as to remain in service to the learning objectives.

The process of developing learning objectives is a form of back engineering. Given a known job, say railroad engineer, you first ask what cognitive traits are required to perform the job of a railroad engineer. Then you create a list of these traits. Finally, you design a curriculum (deriving from the Latin for the course of a race), which imparts these cognitive traits to students. The assumption here is that the category of railroad engineer is a stable and well-characterized configuration of traits. We know, and we assume, what a railroad engineer does. The advantage of the “learning objective” approach is that it makes the assessment of cognitive knowledge about these traits simple. If a railroad engineer is the sum of discrete cognitive traits, then a standardized test will do.  And here the correlate becomes important. As in the laboratory, a tightly controlled learning environment makes measurement both easier and more accurate.

The problem is that human action, to paraphrase Michael Polanyi, knows more than it can tell. What Polanyi termed tacit knowledge lies beyond the measure of learning objectives. That is, even the simplest human action is more than the sum of its cognitive demands. Experience, deliberation, improvisation, and judgement play their inevitable role. Anthropology, specifically in its reliance on ethnography as the main pedagogical tool (don’t be fooled into thinking ethnography is a method), and design are two fields where tacit knowledge is unavoidably pushed to the fore.

I am going to pause for the moment. Next time, I will trace the development of learning objectives and point to an alternative pedagogical approach that has largely been pushed aside in the Bloomian rush.

Michael Polanyi. 2009. *The Tacit Dimension*. Reissue edition. Chicago ; London: University Of Chicago Press.

Donald Schön. 1984. *The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action*. 1 edition. New York: Basic Books.