Category Archives: Education

NotSpeaking as communal achievement: emergence and termination shocks

Imagine a situation (from experience in a small town in Southern France):

Person A announces “I do not speak to person B” which, in French, might be reported by A to X, Y, or Z, as “On ne se parle pas.”  “On” here is an indefinite pronoun often used in French for “we.”  The declaration constitutes a community of A, B, X, Y, Z with the rule “A/B do not speak when they encounter each other.”  The rule is both description and prescription, or perhaps more precisely differentiated instruction about the meta-pragmatics of an interactional style.

NotSpeaking is a complex speech act, and a trigger for further speech acts.

NotSpeaking requires instruction since, everything else being the same, it is performed at a moment when the two could and should speak, as, say, when walking by each other in some parking lot.  In rural Southern France, at the turn of the 21st century, such moments start with an expression of acknowledgment that the encounter has started (smile, re-organization of the body, etc.), possibly preliminaries, then “la bise” (three “air kisses” on alternate side of the head with no body contact), and then either developments that might last very long, or else a brief comment about being in a hurry, leading to various closing statements about, say, “having aperitif before we leave.”  NotSpeaking, as speech event, involves turning away of the head at the time when the expression of acknowledgment should have appeared (or other bodily movements as, for example, turning away into a side street).  NotSpeaking ends after the two bodies have passed and return to their earlier state.

As Bourdieu explained in one of his best passages about ritual insults in the Mediterranean ([1972] 1977: pp. 10ff), Maussian gifts (of which NotSpeaking is a peculiar case)  do place obligations on both participants but the response is not automatic.  Much is involved.  For example, one or the other of the party might make an exaggerated display of greeting by directly looking at the other and saying something like “Bonjour!”, perhaps with a smile.  In this case, not NotSpeaking may actually be an insult, whether in intent or in subsequent assessment.   In any event, the field is very well organized indeed for what is definitively hard work!

In brief, NotSpeaking happens within what has also been called a “community of practice.”  But this is not the nice, cosy “community” of Wenger (1998).  It is a dark place as many, in the Summer of 2016, have found, whether in Paris, Nice or other such sites of interaction and political violence.  I prefer to us the work “polity” for the groups that emerge as someone or other starts doing something to others that what was not until then part of their “normal” but now becomes inescapable.  One cannot make war by oneself, and one cannot not respond to acts of war.  Anthropologists will have to think further about this.

One way to start is to wonder about the emergence of temporary polities when people become significant to each other (whether in love or war).  The question of emergence does lead to questions about beginnings and ends, as well as questions about participation.  NotSpeaking may start when one of the protagonists decides not to speak to the other the next time they met.  And it may be that this next time is when B finds out that A does not speak to him anymore—and that may be the “start” for B.  One could even look for the instructional moments when A asserts to B, in body movement if not in words, “I do not speak to you anymore” (or the reverse as these things do change).  Conversely, the actual performance of NotSpeaking can be said to start when the two notice each other and to end a few seconds later.  What is central to me here is that NotSpeaking is specific to particular persons at particular times and requires the setting up of the encounter as a NotSpeaking.   Not speaking to billions of strangers is not relevant here.  Only NotSpeaking to a non-stranger is relevant (whether the non-stranger is an erstwhile intimate, or an erstwhile total stranger).  NotSpeaking, at the turn of the 21st century, in Southern France, is a syntagm that inscribes something in history.

There may be a way of thinking about the emergence of a new polity in history (or the re-organization of an old polity) that I have never seen used in anthropology.  It would involved borrowing from physics what is called “termination shocks.”  I learned about those a while ago in an article in Discover Magazine about Voyager 1 entering interstellar space.  Termination shocks are ubiquitous (check you bathroom sink where you can make one by running water hard into it).  NotSpeaking, (making war, falling in love) similarly arises in the interaction between contradictory forces that makes something very real: a boundary marking different kinds of normal, and difficulties when crossing the boundary.  NotSpeaking catches people who may be hurt by it.  And then its effects fade into inter-communal space where the tiny drama can be safely ignored.

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Policy? or Politics?

Could the hegemony of “policy” be coming to an end?

For many years state officials, “private” foundations, benevolent billionaires, academia and a certain elite media have been telling everyone else what is what in “education”.  (For one sense of this set look at Brill’s 2010 story in  the New York Times magazine).  In the world of academia where I live, this will have been the decade of “data-driven” “policy” “studies.”  We keep being told, repeatedly, such “narratives” (stories? fiction?) as:

In Rhode Island schools, a multidisciplinary effort helps teachers to quickly understand what skills their students have already grasped and which subjects need more attention. In Houston, a regional alliance has noticed signs of students going off-track on higher-level math skills and acted to intervene.

What do these stories have in common? Success here derives from access to data, or big data as it’s sometimes called. The examples above come from the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit effort driving education outcomes through hard numbers.
(GovTech November 2014, retrieved in December 2015)

What interests me here, of course, is the hint of an “actor-network” of local schools and a corporation “e.Republic, Inc.” “The nation’s only smart media and research company focused exclusively on public sector innovation for state and local government and education” (retrieved in December 2015)

One problem with just sketching an actor-network (an excellent thing to do) is that it can end with an altogether static map and little sense of the movements through it, or the temporalities that assemble and then sometimes dissemble the network.

So, recently, I have tried to write about such networks as acting (and revealing themselves) through crowded conversations (deliberations).  I am experimenting with generalizing conversational analyses (somewhat like Latour generalized ethnomethodology when he moved from looking at the production of knowledge in short interactions among a few people (Garfinkel et al. 1981;  Goodwin 1995), to looking at a laboratory (Latour 1979), to looking at the scientific enterprise as a whole (Latour 1987).

And so, once upon a time, we had Senator Kennedy and President Bush (as symbolic leaders) producing “No child left behind” after very long conversations that started at least 20 to 30 years earlier –unless it is 200 years (Varenne 2007, 2011).

And then, a few years later, President Obama and Arnie Duncan, his secretary of education, started new conversations which, among other things,  privileged “data-driven policy.”  I am necessarily wrong in suggesting that they are those who literally started these long-turn taking sequences that were disrupted last years.  But they can stand as markers of a new sequence with somewhat different participants and discursive order as the original metaphor (a child is like a sponge) developed into practical conceit (regulations, the attendant bureaucracies, the texts to be produced among the various actors, etc.).
Continue reading Policy? or Politics?

An actor-network of consequential consociates: applying anthropology to one’s personal case

In this post, I am doing something somewhat different from the usual.  I am maintaining the order I think I have established (at least as I look at it, retrospectively): this is an experiment in anthropological theorizing and teaching.  But I am delving further into parts of my life that I have not brought out.

So here it goes: applied medical anthropology

A few years ago, my wife, Susan, was diagnosed with a form of cancer known as “myelofibrosis” (who may not know it under that name might be a topic for another post as the exact name can be consequential—see below).  The “official” diagnosis was made, not surprisingly by an oncologist, the acknowledged, state approved, expert who can transform speech (this is myelofibrosis) into not simply an act, but a sequence of new moves a particular set of others, from the patient, to her family, to insurance companies, must now make. [This would be easy to model as a special case of entry into a particular kind of polity of practice.]

The oncologist told us, as I remember it four years later, something like: “People live with this for 15 years or more … You are likely to die of something else … It will change your everyday life as you will now have to schedule regular medical visits.”  I remember she was altogether good at telling us something that we knew, and much that we did not know: we had certainly never heard of this cancer or of its treatment.  Of course we went to the Internet and learned what we could, talked to her further, and settled into what I am experimenting in calling, for various theoretical reasons, a “new normal.”  Actually, what we learned was not extremely bad news for people entering in their 70s.  The oncologist then (and I will keep emphasizing conversational and interactional temporality) tried a drug that would alleviate the symptoms of a cancer that affects the production by the bone marrow of red blood cells: profound anemia and the attendants limits on mobility.

Susan’s body, in its thinginess and peculiarities, was leading us to various particular disabilities that can be mitigated or expanded depending (de Wolfe 2014).

So, this was actually a good time for us to adopt the car culture of suburbia.  The long walks in Manhattan to which we were accustomed would not have been possible anymore.  We escaped one disability.

Things were relatively stable for a few years.  We had educated ourselves in still another polity of practice.  We evolved a new adaptation to the now extent conditions given our resources and consociates.  This was now our new normal, the culture we could not quite escape (though we tried some bricolage with it).

At that point I would have described our “actor-network” as consisting of:

  •     a general practitioner
  •     a clinic with a staff of
    •    oncologists
  •  a   mail order pharmacy
  • a radiology center

That is, ethnographically, these were the people with whom we had to talk in order to maintain the syntagmatic order of the treatment.  Each of the person (but not any) could authoritatively tell us when to show up for an appointment, what tests or drugs to take and when.  This question could be asked here but not there.  This act could be performed here but not there, before but not after this other act, etc. [one should also be able to model this syntagm.]

At that point further actor nodes in the network remained as faint indexes mostly buried in the conversations with the interlocutors we mostly had to address.  We did receive reports from the insurance company about what it was paying the doctors, how much it reimbursed for tests and drugs.  While reading these we were amazed (guilty? thankful for the opportunity?) at the cost of the primary drug: $1,600 a shot, every six weeks.

But cost and attendant controls was not part of the syntagmatic order of the treatment as we experienced it so far.

And then something happened.

In my other life, as long-term employee of Teachers College, I know that insurance companies are big players in constraining what we can do.  Every few years, we are told of long conversations TC has with the various major companies.  We are told about the final proposals and why TC might shift, as it did starting in January 2015, from United Health Care to Aetna.  The cost of these conversations are barely indexed though I have a good sense that it is not trivial, either from TC or the companies: staff time and compensation, consultants, lawyers, writers of glossy presentations, etc.

Anyway, the shift by my “employer” (the term is consequential here) brought to my practical attention the insurance company as we registered on new web sites, a new mail-order pharmacy, new styles of reports, and we continually checked and re-checked that the various doctors that were part of my wife’s actor-network were also “in network” (consequential category in American insurance).

I thought this would only be a minor annoyance and that we would return to the “old” (2014) new normal.

This was not to be.

Aetna told us (clinic, oncologists, Susan and I) that the drug, Aranesp, that had worked at maintaining Susan’s condition for three years was:
a)     experimental for her disease
b)    experimental drugs were not covered by Aetna’s contract with “the employer”
Aetna told us, emphatically, repeatedly, after a variety of appeals by various actors, “NO MORE PAYMENT FOR THIS!” Through this speech act Aetna revealed itself as an inescapable interlocutor in the ongoing conversation.  The expanded text of Aetna’s statement repeatedly indexed two different other worlds:
a) it challenged, successfully, medical practical authority (Aetna did not attack its legitimacy but its everyday consequentiality: what is not reimbursed will not be used)
b) it challenge me to, perhaps, challenge TC about a not so minor detail in the contract it has signed with Aetna (and may or may not have allowed it to undercut United Health Care)

I will not go through the many conversational turns that led, after three anxious weeks to Susan starting a new, and altogether experimental treatment (since we will not know for several months whether it will work) at the (reimbursed after full consultation and authorization) cost of … $11,000 a month (not to mention added visits to the oncologist, more costly tests, a blood transfusion)!!!  (I cannot help but believe that Aetna, as a monstrous network of actors with conflicting authority, confused itself: the outcome is altogether … surprising!)

Who knows that Aetna may be correct in its act and is practicing medicine better than our oncologist (though Aetna is careful, I think, never to shapes its speech as an instruction to “do that”).  But, for now, here is our expanded actor-network of consociates who make a difference:

  •     [the one listed above is still very much active]
  •     various parts of Aetna:
    • the doctor(s) who categorized Aranesp as “experimental-for-this-purpose” and the other doctors who discussed our oncologist’s recommendation (she told us how one of them told her to not get so involved in the case! She was not happy!)
    • the staff members of the clinic who have to check the why’s and wherefore’s of each step, repeatedly, with the staff member of Aetna.  The number of phone calls, waits on hold, recalls, faxes, etc. is astonishing.
    •  Susan multiple calls to clinic, hospital, Aetna special pharmacy.
    •  various parts of Teachers College

There are many anthropological points but, to emphasize my usual themes:

  • these are not matters of social structure (à la Parsons) or modern governmentality (à la Foucault) nor even neo-liberalism.  There are matters of structuring through interlocking conversations that transform the field even as they seek the production of temporary (immortal) new normals.
  • in these conversations everyone “screws around” (Garfinkel) even as they all play deeply with matters of life and death (Varenne & Cotter ).
  • ethnomethodology, conversational analysis, and actor-network-theory (that expands on the other fields) are the most useful starting framework but they are not sufficient
  •  screwing around and playing deeply will always produce something extra-vagant (Boon ) that is not predictable on the basis of efficient rationality.
  • each moment in the evolution of the normal-for-some-now (“culture”) makes sense as a syntagm in a local order.  But this syntagm is always at the edge of catastrophic collapse that leads, in temporality, to

A)  instructions “do NOT screw around! Stay in line! Do what your doctor tells you to do”

B)  efforts to bricolage one’s way out of the order and thus:



de Wolfe, Juliette   2014    Parents of children with autism: An ethnography. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Varenne, Hervé and Mimi Cotter   2006
“Dr. Mom? Conversational Play and the Submergence of Professional Status in Childbirth.” Human Studies 29:41668.

[here is the list of the most common references I use. Many of these are implicitly indexed in this post]

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On grades as statements: to whom?

Ray McDermott and Jean Lave once told me that they asked Rancière whether his writing influenced his teaching.  As they tell it, he looked surprised and answered something like “not at all!”  A reader of Successful Failure once asked me whether I still gave grades.  Besides stuttering, I said something like: “I am required to (by my university and New York State)” and/or “students would not accept my not giving them grades.”

Over my 40years+ at Teachers College ,I have also been part of several faculty-wide conversations about “grade inflation.”  These never went anywhere and, by now, I gather from various sources, only about three grades are given: A, A-, & B+.  Personally that is, mostly, what I do and it is not altogether different from distributing grades among A, B, & C, except that it limits, mostly again, student complaints.  And while I do not grade “on the curve,” I do get nervous when I find myself only giving A’s.

Now, of course, what is the point of giving differentiated grades?  More specifically, what difference does it make? to whom? and with what consequences?  Taking the “gift” of grade as a statement, who is the audience?

A grade is structurally in the position of the “assessment” moment in Mehan (and many others)’s model of the “lesson.”  The teacher sets a curriculum, asks students to do something related to “the class,” and then differentially assesses how well each individual students performs the task (“has learned” in the current authoritative language among accreditation agencies).  The grade then becomes a datum (actually just another word, in latin, for “gift”) to the student.  But a grade is also a gift to others besides the student—though not to everyone given various legal strictures about who may see a student’s grade (tracing who may see a grade when and for what purpose would actually be a way of revealing the structure of social reproduction).  These “others” may then legitimately mete various consequences that have nothing to do with the original class, e.g. they may give the student various privileges, including, at the high school, college or Masters level, admission to a further degree program.  Thus the grade that looks like a private communication between teacher and student, is also a coded statement to powers-that-be (admissions officers, funding agencies, accreditation bodies, etc.).  Which is why, of course, grades are a political issue and “grade inflation” a political problem (see also my post on Lake Wobegon).

What does all this have to do with “education”?  Little, I say, with many others.  In recent years, I have gotten to say that I translate my current designation as a “professor and advisor of graduate students” into a “masters of apprentices.”  In that perspective, I maintain that I give grades because I am required to do so but that they should only be taken as a statement about a progression and my potential willingness to work with the student as apprentice.  The grades I give are not about individual learning per se.  This “faction” (fact making that may constrain in some future) is easier to maintain at the doctoral level where it is actually the case that one receives a doctorate not by accumulating grades but by demonstrating that one can be recommended for entry into a discipline or profession.  So, I’d say:

Code equivalent to a statement like:
A+ = “Wow!”
A = “You are at mastery at this stage.”
A- = “You are well on your way.”
B+ = “OK, but discipline yourself”
B = “You may be in the wrong career given your talents”

In the long run, my “real” assessment of a person work is the enthusiasm of my letters of recommendation whether for funding or professional positions.  And these letter never never mention grades since “Pass” is the only possible one at the final levels.

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On education on Lake Wobegon

Everytime I introduce my work with Ray McDermott, I echo something he probably says more eloquently than I: “What schools all about? They are about determining which 50% of children are below average!”  Given that much of this is done through testing, and that the good test “discriminates,” then I sometimes say, to provoke, that schools are all about discrimination. (See for example a short introduction to “Interpreting the Index of Discrimination” )

Such statements grab the attention of students, but I am not always quite convinced that the answer is more than a provocative quip.

And then I read paragraphs like one that introduced a recent story in the New York Times:

Ohio seems to have taken a page from Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. Last month, state officials releasing an early batch of test scores declared that two-thirds of students at most grade levels were proficient on reading and math tests given last spring under the new Common Core requirements. (October 6, 2015)

The story is of course not about how successful the schools of Lake Wobegon or Ohio are.  The story is about “the problem that a lot of policy makers and educators were trying to solve,” as “Karen Nussle, the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a Common Core advocacy group,” is quoted as saying.  As summarized by the New York Times, “The Common Core was devised by experts convened by state education commissioners and governors to set uniform benchmarks for learning. … But as the results from the first Common Core tests have rolled out, education officials again seem to be subtly broadening definitions of success.”

In other words, as McDermott and I argued, success if indeed defined by failure (1998).  It is necessary to fail students in order to demonstrate that other students are successful.  It cannot be that all children (or even most, or even more than some measure of the average) should be “proficient.”  The label must apply only to a certain percentage.

The “debate” (though the New York Times is not really debating as the article clearly sides with Common Core policy makers) is thus about labels, statistical uniformity, comparability across the United States—and forms of unacceptable tinkering if not cheating.

The debate is not about learning, and even less about education.

“Only in America” am I tempted to say, except that, actually, there is something interesting going on here that a call to political theories of cultural arbitrary (as all theories of culture, from Boas onwards have been, when taken strictly) should highlight.  The story is also about a political struggle among the elites about precisely how America should work, in general, and in the detail of the lives of politicians, schools administrators, principals, teachers, parents and other adult who might express opinions or vote about all this—not to mention university professors designing tests, billionaires funding “school reform,” union leaders and many others.

I make this list to bring attention to the evidence that all these people, in the worlds that they inhabit will talk and act in ways that will often make problems for each other, and that they will do that purposefully (systematically and deliberately to cross-reference Larry Cremin and my take on “education”).  In relatively neutral language they are conversing (which is not quite the same thing as “negotiating”) often with the hope of producing something different than the probable or expectable.  They are not simply acting in terms of their dispositions (habitus, etc.).

I make the list also to move further than where Ray McDermott and I were when we completed Successful Failure.  As Jill Koyama (2008) noted, we mentioned “America” but did not quite show how it actually produced what we observed, in temporality.  We had essentially worked by drawing a structural model of a historical moment (“culture”) that emphasized the relationship between democracy, meritocracy, the institutions that they produced, and the consequences for individuals (to simplify of course).  We were directly inspired by Louis Dumont (1980 [1961]) on the relationship between individualism and racism.

This kind of (Lévi-Straussian) structuralism can be helpful, but it never was able to specify how what was modeled actually came into reality in the day to day life of those caught by the culture.  So, more or less explicitly, social theorists implied or stated that what was modeled was real and powerful enough to generate what could be observed.  McDermott and I wrote extensively against this move to “structuring structures” (to quote Bourdieu’s jargon).  But we did not quite find a way to state how the democratic fight against birth privilege ends up producing discriminatory tests, the failing of teachers who do not “add value” to children and all other policies justified by calls to the discovery and reward of individual merit.

Thus my interest in following what the New York Times reports, and how it writes its reports.  I take these as statements within a conversation, in the same spirit as McDermott wrote about Rosa’s “I could read it”: the statement makes sense given the conditions but it is not produced by the conditions.  The conditions are set by earlier statements, most of them made by other people, far away and long dead, as McDermott and I like to say.  But the actual statement (act) is produced by a particular person, caught together with specific persons (consociates), at a given time.  In that perspective, it makes sense for bureaucrats in Ohio to move the boundary between proficient or not.  And it also makes sense for others powers-that-be to try and move it back.

What of course no theory of culture can answer is “why should it make sense?”  except perhaps if “a” culture (epoch, episteme, …) is understood, again, as a statement making sense in terms of earlier statements (culture…).  Thus, the shift to democracy, meritocracy, schools, testing, might be seen as a response to earlier discourses and institutions for elite production.  How to move the conversation to its next statement is our problem, as political actors and, I would say, as educators attempting to convince various audiences that they are on a track that may only make matters worse.


Dumont, Louis 1980 [1961] “Caste, Racism and ‘Stratification’.” Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Tr. by M. Sainsbury. Rev. ed.. In his Homo hierarchicus

Koyama, Jill 2010 Making failure pay: For-profit tutoring, high-stake testing, and public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


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What about these schools in Port-au-Prince?

For students looking for a dissertation topic in anthropology and education: what about all these schools in Port-au-Prince?

a school in Haiti
Photo by Herve Varenne

This may have been my second surprise after I landed in Port-au-Prince and took a walk between the Hotel Olufson and the Champs de Mars: what about all these schools?  The walk down Rue Capois is about 15 blocks.  There are about one school every other block.  There are at least as many on the parallel Avenue Christophe and, I found out many many more in the neighborhood southwest of the hotel where I was driven.  This area is but a small area of the city and so I have no sense of what is happening, school-wise, in the rest of the city.

A few of these schools are clearly marked as governmental like the Lycee Dessalines.  Others are linked to a church.  But many more do not appear to be either and they are the ones that fascinate me: who attends? Who organizes? Who set curriculum and pedagogies? Who funds? Who teaches? How are the teachers recruited?  When were they set up? How many are being set up?  How many fail?  How do the students pay? What do the alumni do? Etc.

a school in Haiti
Photo by Herve Varenne

When need ethnographies of something that should blur further the useless distinction between formal and informal education.  These are schools.  They must be formal but not quite in the same manner as state school in Euro-America must be.  They are also the product of an informal process as various entrepreneurs, and people with little access to government schools, come together they “do school” for purposes that may have little to do with “education”–as one’s skepticism makes one imagine.

While shopping for some souvenir to bring back, I had a brief conversation with a young man in charge of the store.  He spoke quite good English (but no French).  I asked him where he had learned.  He gave me the name of a non-governmental school, affirmed he had learned English in three months and that was all he needed from that school.  This made a good story I could not “verify” but it hints at processes that are more akin to those that interest Rancière than to those that interest Bourdieu: if one is to run a tourist business, learning English is essential.  This is an intelligence working at education in an altogether “informal” manner, even if it briefly involved a “formal” step (though I am very curious about the pedagogy used in the school!).

Note that someone I met mentioned the number of people in Port-au-Prince that could converse in Portuguese and other languages brought into Haiti by the United Nations.  How did they do it?

These, of course, are all very poor people who have lived throughout their lives in the most difficult conditions imaginable (very weak governments, misguided help from NGOs and the “international community,” an earthquake, a cholera epidemic, more misguided help further blurring the lines of governmentality).

a school in Haiti
Photo by Herve Varenne

So we need more ethnographies.  And we need ethnographies from other parts of the world if, as I suspect, Haiti is not unique.  Jessica Garber, for example, is doing a pilot project in Phnom-Penh, Cambodia, where she was told there may be thirty “international schools” (for a population of two millions)!  I once heard a fascinating paper on “Crazy English” in China.  I am sure there are many other examples of the ways human beings around the world are taking their conditions and producing instructional “techniques” (in Mauss’ sense) never before seen by humanity.

a school in Haiti
Photo by Herve Varenne

They will help us construct further an anthropology of the world at the beginning of the 21st century.  My hope, as some of the students I have worked with closely know, is not to stop the analysis with a simple call to “globalisation” or “neo-liberalism.”  Labeling epochs by attaching labels to them does do much.  Moralizing about greed, the will to power, or desperation does not do much either.  We must discipline our own motivations so that we can report on what human beings can do.  It will remain the pride of anthropology that it will illustrate what can happen locally when certain forms of governmentality and national sovereignty morph, and thus limit the temptation to over-generalize.

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Is this blog “property”?

Is this blog “property”?  If so, whose? And who controls the answers to these questions (and the consequences thereto attached)?

Once upon a time (let’s say about three months ago), I thought the answers obvious enough: “in America,” this blog is “mine.” It is expression which I could transform it into property if I decided to commercialize it and/or sell it.  It all had to do with “freedom of expression” and particularly “academic freedom,” privileges granted by the Constitution to individuals.

And then I was taught about “work for hire laws.”  As summarized in a work for hire document written at the request of a corporation developing a “policy on intellectual property” (note the word “property,” not “knowledge”) the law says:

Under the Copyright Law, the copyright to a work created by a person in the course of his or her employment is Work for Hire, which belongs to the employer rather than to the individual creator.

I remembered reading something about this around issues of whistle blowing in large corporations, but never thought much about it, assuming that this was other people’s problems.

I was wrong.  The paragraph continue:

The law provides, therefore, that works created by faculty members in the course of their teaching and research, and works created by staff members in the course of their jobs, are the property of the College.

Note the “therefore.”  This blog is the property of the College, by law.

But not to worry:

It is traditional at this College and other colleges and universities, however, for books, articles and other scholarly writings by a faculty member to be deemed the property of the author, who is considered to be entitled to determine how the works are to be disseminated and to keep any income they produce. This tradition reflects the College’s commitment to encourage members of the community to write and to publish what they wish. In recognition of that longstanding practice, the College disclaims ownership of Traditional Works of Scholarship.

Over the past several weeks I have pushed and prodded the people involved in writing and re-writing all this, that is in transforming ideas into potentially authoritative texts for which they are being paid but which will never be considered “theirs” (deans, lawyers, other staff).  In the process (besides making myself somewhat obnoxious—and I apologize for unnecessary outbursts!) I got to think further about an issue I could not quite figure out.  Over the past years, many on the faculty have complained about the movement of the College towards a “corporate model.”  Two years ago, the controversy swirled about the College’s President sitting on the board of directors of a Large Multi-National Corporation.  But I was not quite sure whether this was a complaint about individuals or about something broader.

What is, interactionally, the “corporate model”–leaving aside the values, beliefs, interests, etc. of individuals who may benefit from it, or who may resist it?

One answer lies in taking seriously what I was told again and again when I objected: “Herve! This is the law! There is no choice here!”  the College is a corporation, no different from Apple or Google (in another generation one might have written “no different from General Motors”)! You are an employee!”  And I was reminded that all my emails (all that I receive from colleagues, students, etc.) are archived at the College (actually, they are physically on Google servers) and may be read at the discretion to the College.

The corporate model, then, has to do with the reality (non-negotiable) that my personal life, as employee, is largely at the discretion of the College.  Technically, in recent anthropological jargon, the College is a Latourian agent who (to quote from above) “deems,” “considers,” “encourages,” “disclaims.”  The College (speech) acts.  All this is controlled, allowed and enforced by “the law of the land,” that is by the College’s Sovereign who grants Corporations certain privileges.  That is, the Law does not require that my blog be deemed property of the Corporation.  The Corporation may disclaim.  But the Corporation is now the Active Subject that speaks through internal policies, sub-regulations, etc.  The Sovereign (State, nation, people) has stepped back.  A preamble may state that a “policy” regulates rights:

This copyright policy retains and reasserts the rights of faculty members for books, monographs, articles, and similar works as delineated in the policy statement.

Politics (the protection of expression and academic freedom) has been devolved to policy.  State actors yield to corporate management.  We are more fully than I thought in the world of the “Non Governmental Agency” (and, of course, the word “agent” has to be taken in all its many meanings) with its specific properties (affordances).  This world has been coopting broader and broader areas of everyday intervention around world.  For example, in my world, what used to be considered major decisions about, for example, the control of public schooling has been devolved to various corporate bodies with various, more or less delineated, right to participate, authority to regulate and mete sanctions.  I wrote about this when the teacher education programs at TC had to yield to NCATE (and produce a lot of “work-for-hire” intellectual property) (Varenne 2007).  I was fascinated by report from Steven Brill in the New York Times about the web that has been entangling the aftermaths of the No Child Left Behind Act.  The report was about the wonderfully awfully named “Race to Top” program.

So, one might answer the questions about property, ownership, and control of my expression, with a quip: the Benevolent Billionaire Barons of the 21st century!  This, of course is too simple as it does not specify the mechanisms that makes this blog “deemed” my own by Teachers College (and I thank the Corporation for its generosity).

More on that another day.

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Anthropologies of the dangerous (?)

[my current thinking about the title and rationale for an event the Joint Program in Applied Anthropology at Teachers College, Columbia University is planning for the Fall 2014]

There may be some truth to the romantic image of the anthropologist (archaeologist?) as daredevil pursuing dubious knowledge, motivated by obscure interests.   Why else would any scholar, or apprentice scholar, insist on visiting far away mountains or islands (or other scary neighborhoods nearer at hand), if it wasn’t because some knowledge about humanity and its possible futures cannot be gained from the comfort of one’s armchair (or even hard seat in the library)?  Boas, Rivers, Malinowski, Mead and countless others left the comfort of home on the conviction, we continue to share, that the knowledge they, and we, seek can only be gained by placing ourselves in dangerous places—not only when the danger may spring from wild beasts, poisonous plants, or not necessarily friendly peoples, but when it springs from sovereign authorities.  “Powers-that-be,” from governments to organizations controlled by governments to private foundations or universities more or less controlled by corporations and the more or less benevolent rich and powerful, may open routes to new locales no Indiana Jones could otherwise reach.  But they also control what can be made public, how and when.  They can be dangerous to one’s career, or coopt it, all the more so that the proposed knowledge challenges this or that common sense.  We also need to understand these dangers, theoretically and practically.

Anthropological knowledge can be dangerous and there is an argument for keeping it in protected environments away from polities that would use it to nefarious ends.  But at least some anthropologists always intended, and continue to intend, for their work to enter the political, no matters the dangers.  From Boas onwards, anthropologists have written specifically against what made so much sense that it could drive political action at the largest of scales, justify action, or mask the other motivations that can move people to act.  But many anthropologists have also gone far beyond what has been called, for much of my middle professional life, “deconstruction” (or “cultural critique”).  They have also wanted to help.  Emblematic is Ruth Benedict’s work for the American government in World War II.  This was actually but one aspect of the work of other anthropologists of the time as they founded the Society for Applied Anthropology.  W. Lloyd Warner was involved, as well as Conrad Arensberg, Allison Davis, Eliot Chapple, not to mention Margaret Mead.  That call to help took many form including Sol Tax’s “Action Anthropology” that was also a critical response to what “Applied Anthropology” was becoming (Bennett 1996).   It led to the creation of the Council on Anthropology and Education that provided an institutional framework for entering conversations about the evolution of schooling policies.  And it led to the inauguration of the “Joint Program in Applied Anthropology” at Columbia University as one of the responses of the Columbia department to students’ call for “relevance.”  The history of what an editorial in Current Anthropology called “going public with anthropology” (1996) is long and we must ground our own call in this history.

The desire to help may also have led to Oscar Lewis’ decision to enter the fray of the contentious fields that constituted policy relevance in the 1960s as he wrote, fatefully, about “the culture of poverty.”  This may have been a high point in the public acknowledgment of anthropology as having something to say outside of academia.  It may also have been the low point that soured many of those who, as students, may have called for relevance in 1968 and then later argued for a withdrawn casuistic irony that may not even be dangerous—as Shweder’s knew when he noted that Clifford Geertz was applauded, in the safety of our association, for “challenging … received assumptions” (1991: 72).

Many anthropologists, of course, picked up the task of responding to Lewis and, they continue to hope, to the polities that keep returning to what moved Lewis, often with specific attacks on anthropological critiques.  Indeed much of the more vibrant anthropologies of the turn of the 21st century have addressed matters that are directly dangerous in political term: abortion, pre-natal care and the new technologies of life and death, motherhood, disability, world diseases, drug use, the mining of natural resources, the production of scientific expertise, to mention but a few notable achievements.  Not only do they challenge assumptions or beliefs from the top of the battlements, but they also enter the fray as they trace in detail how this or that policy, regulation, routine practice, etc. enables or disables this or that possibilities for building personal lives.

Obviously, the danger now is not in the imagined travails of journeys off the beaten tracks.  The dangers lies much closer to home, like the research anthropologists now conduct.  Whether we continue to use labels like “applied anthropology,” revive others like “action anthropology,” create new labels (“public anthropology,” “engaged anthropology,” “anthropology of trouble,” etc.), the fact remains that many of us will not remain in ivory towers.  We will face the dangers that must be faced to elaborate the knowledge our ancestors, grand-parents, siblings and (dare I say?) children have been seeking and continue to seek.  We now need to move a long conversation forward.

Bennett, John 1996. “Applied and Action Anthropology: Ideological and Conceptual Aspects.” Current Anthropology, Vol. 37, No. 1, Supplement: Special Issue: Anthropology in Public  pp.  S23-S53

Shweder, Richard 1991. Thinking through cultures: Expeditions in cultural psychology.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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on college education, snake oil, and Silicon Valley

My readers and students know my skepticism about the financial, or human capital, “value” of college education (December 12th, 2012; April 18th, 2013).  And they know I quote a lot of “anecdotal evidence,” including from my immediate family.

My point of departure often was a column by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times who echoed academic arguments, often from economists, about this very value.  This of course has been powerfully amplified by national politicians, cheered by universities dependent on student loan guarantees.

So it may interesting to wonder about the possibility that the conversation about college is entering a new phase.

For Friedman is now being educated by Google and he is wondering about what Google is doing might lead:

LAST June, in an interview with Adam Bryant of The Times, Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google — i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies — noted that Google had determined that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.” He also noted that the “proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time” — now as high as 14 percent on some teams. At a time when many people are asking, “How’s my kid gonna get a job?” I thought it would be useful to visit Google and hear how Bock would answer. (How to Get a Job at Google, Part 2: April 19 2014)

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