Over my 40 years at Teachers College, I have been associated with two main programs. For about 20 years, I was on the faculty of the now closed Department of Family and Community Education. There I sponsored several dozen Ed.D. dissertations. For the past 20 years, I have been associated with the programs in anthropology and have been sponsoring mainly Ph.D. dissertations, though I have continue to sponsor a smaller number of Ed.Ds. Over all my career I have sponsored, and been on the committee of, many dissertations for students from departments outside of my primary affiliations. I have worked with students from Music Education, Special Education, Nursing Education, Curriculum and Teaching, Language, International Education, etc. This is something which I find gratifying and will continue.

This experience has made me quite sensitive to constraints and possibilities in the doctoral process. Still, it may be helpful to clarify the basis on which we may work together. I start by introducing myself.

In general, I am interested in producing more precise and more complex accounts of the conditions with which human beings work. To do so require careful descriptions ("graphos") of human beings in their "natural" (that is "cultural") environments ("ethnos") that are driven by the general principle that the activities of human beings are describable but not imaginable on the basis of theoretical deduction. This general principle drove Boas, and then Garfinkel, and now Latour.

Such graphical accounts of local activities allow more general accounts of the human condition. Without an understanding of such conditions (constraints, institutions, systems, structures, discourses) there is no way to make sense of the practical actions that human beings are continually at work taking. These are conditions which other human beings have constructed over long and generally acrimonious historical processes. Thus, I am convinced that, for example, the actions of a bunch of mostly Englishmen who had come to adulthood on the Western Coast of the Atlantic Ocean, are still central contexts for me, as an individual who was born, raised and educated in France and came to the United States after college 40 years ago. What Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and others (Lincoln, Roosevel, King), did more than two hundred years ago is still powerfully alive in the lives of people who live in the early 21st century United States. I do not find it problematic to talk about this force in my life as "America." At another extreme, I am similarly convinced that certain things my wife and children did a few weeks ago, is still somewhat alive for them and me, as an aspect of the local history that we will be making later today. I am secondarily interested in the moment to moment construction of new historical events--such as this text for example.

[In other words, I am not directly interested in the internal constitutions of individuals--whether one thinks of such a constitution as a purely personal or development matter, or as something that has been, and continues to be negotiated with other individuals. I am not interested in investigating cognitive structures, or affective ones; I am not interested in "attitudes," "beliefs," and such. I am very skeptical of approaches that matter-of-factly collapse major and complex performances into expressions of "self" or "identity."] I am very interested in the historical (cultural) forces which organize for us the particular world of symbolic forms that we are made to use as we struggle to affirm our "I" (which is not the same as our "self"). For examples, I am not interested in answering the question "why can't Johnny read?" (or "why can't Varenne write a simple declarative sentence?"). I am very interested in figuring out who asks such a question, under what conditions, and for what practical consequences. I am interested in the history of this question, in the questions that it replaced, in the linkages between these questions and others (for example, "on what grounds can a person be considered a medical doctor?"). I am interested in discovering what such a question reveals, and what it hides.

Such general statements cannot however be quite helpful by themselves. Somebody who wants to work with me would be well advised to take one or two of my courses besides the purely methodological ones, read some of my work (for example, Successful Failure (Westview, 1998) and the papers on education and cultural production I have written over the past ten years).. 

More specifically, for students in the anthropology programs:

Sometimes during the second semester of their second year, you are expected to have identified the person with whom you wish to be working on the preparation of your examinations and the shaping of your dissertation proposal. This is a mutual process through which some congruence is build between you and the person who will not only "advise" on an academic career but will also "sponsor" the research. As you were advised several times, by the second year you should by then have taken basic courses with each member of the faculty in the program and from any other closely associated with it. On this basis, and other means, you approach one of the faculty and matters proceed.

If you are considering asking me to become your advisor and sponsor, it makes sense for you to take a second course with me, particularly the seminar I run, generally in the Fall. There you will meet students at various stages in the dissertation process, and get a further sense of why I push students in certain directions and the theoretical roots of my current intellectual positions.

More specifically, for students in other programs:

Historically, students have most often come to me because "they want to do an ethnography" but don't know how, and may have been working with someone in their department who does not feel comfortable with the method. This is a necessary first step, but is not sufficient, by itself, to continue a conversation.

Minimally, students who want to use ethnographic methods for research must arrange to take introductory courses in ethnographic methods such as the introductory course offered about every semester (ITSF5000).  Note that introductory courses in "qualitative methods" or "mixed methods" can be helpful but ethnography is a separate methodology. More specifically, I take the position that ethnographic methods do not constitute a set of recipes that allow for easy answers to such questions as "am I using the method right?" [ftn1] My answer, systematically, is "it depends" on what you want to do, or on the degree to which you accept to change what you want to do given what you have done. This is also true of my own work, and thus of the stance I take when I am asked "what would you do?" if confronted with particular analytic questions. Thus, no advice I give is theoretically neutral. It is thus imperative that those who might think about working with me be aware of my ways of understanding how the human world may work.

[for historical purposes, I link here an early version of this statement dated from 1996]

Footnote 1

For a related statement I strongly recommend you look at a nice piece Paul Byers wrote for his students. return to text