Re: Mob Scenes (lengthy)

Dan Jorgensen (dwj@JULIAN.UWO.CA)
Wed, 8 Dec 1993 11:23:46 -0500

This started off as a note to Kathleen Williamson, but I decided that it
was maybe good to send it to the whole net. Apologies for the length...

On Wed, 8 Dec 1993, Kathleen G Williamson wrote:

> let's face it there are too many people, period. ole mother nature will
> take care of that, but to the point --
> don't those professors who have adopted this attitude (whether it is right
> or wrong is not the issue here), esp w/the vociferousness of Agnar, have a
> wee conflict of interest when they are the gatekeepers in such subjective
> screenings like preliminary exams, etc. I lived in a lovely town once,
> up in the mountains of Arizona, and it suffered from this syndrome --
> everybody wanted in, but also wanted to close the door behind them! there
> are many forms of "capital" and some people want it all.

Hi Kathleen. Further to your point, if I read you right, I would say that
the gates will be shut and the numbers whittled down with precious little
help from me. Perhaps one way to frame this is to ask yourself how you
respond -- and this time seriously, all kidding aside -- when a talented
undergraduate comes and tells you they want to become a professional
anthropologist. There was a time (although I saw little of it) when you
would do everything you could to encourage them and not give it a second
thought. After seeing several such prospects consigned to the flames,
however, one becomes a bit more circumspect: James Carrier's motto,
"truth in advertizing" ought to be a watchword. So now one is obliged to
tell people what they can expect such a commitment to cost them and what
their realistic chances are of being able to do what they want to do. The
one ray of hope people hold out these days is for non-academic employment,
since, as AAA informs us, more than half of all practicing anthropologists
do so outside a university or museum context. But that is generally not
what students have in mind (and I make a point of asking them about this).

Now there has always been a high attrition rate in PhD programs in all
disciplines, but anthropology's is particularly high given the exigencies
of fieldwork and the length of time somebody's life has to be put on hold.
And all of us have friends and people we went to school with who were
disappointed in their ambitions, including some who were very good
anthropologists and got squeezed out for no better reason than that there
were simply no jobs for them. Others have jobs, but only just, eking out
an existence than nobody but an academic would put up with. Finally, some
of us also have friends, such as a young colleague of mine, who have spent
years as academic nomads waiting for a real job and find, when they get
one, that they will only be able to hold on to it if they (so says the
department) publish two books with reputable presses in the next five
years. (Now without much more reflection, it should be clear that this
contributes to the production of lots of stuff nobody wants to read...)

So it's nasty out there, something that the AAA feeding frenzy should also
make clear (you know, the desperate and justified anxiety on young faces
trying to gauge the most opportune conversation to strike up). None of
this is the result of nasty old mean-spirited silverbacks trying to
protect privilege, but rather an expectable outcome of the fact that we
have for some time produced more anthropologists than anybody can find a
use for. To return to what kicked off the discussion, it is a fair bet
that a lot of what one sees in current academic life -- especially in
anthropology -- is not just a matter of intergenerational politics, but
instead reflects bad "market conditions," with the result that P.R. and
various marketing ploys (and here is where a lot of PoMo seems to come
in) have an efflorescence. (Tangentially, a confirmation of the old David
Schneider line, which explains that the nastiness and bitterness of
academic competition is a reflection of the fact that the rewards and
prizes are so small and meagre in relation to the number of contestants.)

If there were anything really creative going on out there, it would be
less in the direction of providing an alternate form of academic stuff,
and more in terms of providing an alternative *to* academic stuff (hats
off to Steve Maack and company here). So I'm all for aiming for
"sustainable" anthropology by cutting back on production and finding more
uses for anthropology -- as opposed to multiplying the number of sharks in
the tank.

Enough for now,


PS: I should probably say that, as always, the best students often
refuse to be daunted by the doom and gloom. More power to them. But
their chances of coming out of it in good shape are considerably slimmer
than they were for me (and that was no picnic).

Dan Jorgensen Email:
Department of Anthropology Voice: (519) 661-3430 x5096
University of Western Ontario FAX: (519) 661-2157
London, Ontario
Canada N6A 5C2