Interview by Ilana Gershon
Questions for the author:
If you were stuck in an elevator with a colleague from another department, and had just been asked what your book was about, what would you tell them?
It is a critique of higher education, and of schooling in general, that shows a mismatch between the ways human beings learn in almost every context in life outside school, and the ways schools structure learning. Using understanding of human learning derived from anthropological inquiry everywhere (across time and space, as we love to specify), as well as insights from psychology and cognitive science, I explain why so many wonderful young people go through the motions of doing what they are told, in order to accomplish goals completely unrelated to learning: getting good grades, fulfilling requirements, pleasing teachers, getting credentials. It is true that these are necessary in the actual world we live in, but that doesn’t mean institutional education should be this way. Tinkering with classroom elements can help, to some extent, but it is the system overall that requires revolutionary change. It is not possible for an individual professor or teacher to solve these systemic problems. And they are wide and well known problems, leading to a tragic waste of time, energy, and money.
You are very present in this book – you talk about your educational background, how much you love learning, and quite a bit about the moments you despair as a teacher. I would love to know more about your writerly decisions in representing yourself. Did you see yourself as a character that you needed to describe in certain ways? How did you decide when to insert yourself into a chapter, and when to reveal particular things about yourself and your family?
Some of the book emerged from my own efforts to figure out what I thought, but as I turned fragments of reflection and research into a book, I did make “writerly decisions” to be frank and open about the involvement of an actual, bodily, socially situated, affective human being—because all teachers have to bring their personhood to the encounter with students, who do this as well. Since one of my many aims is to demonstrate that learning cannot possibly be successful, in most cases, if it aims to be purely cognitive and purely individual, it seemed relevant to show all the ways my own biographical context shaped what and why I learned. Motivation is another of the key themes here, and until I was motivated by a need to understand all the ways students differed from me, I did not. Further, in anthropology and the human sciences generally, for at least three decades we have been explicit about the misleading pretext of disembodied “objectivity,” a view from nowhere, and efforts have been made to situate the viewer, to show that all observation is limited. Reflexive writing has been common in anthropology since the 1980s, but we might also see its roots in the psychoanalytic writings of anthropologists from much earlier.
Beyond all this, in writing this book I wanted it to feel like a story, almost a detective story, of beginning with a mystery and ending with a solution (the solution is understanding, not primarily a prescription for action). Readers tend to be sympathetic to flawed narrators, and I certainly reveal many of my own flaws. I have experienced quite a bit of fear at revealing so much cluelessness on my part, but I put my vulnerable self into the hands of readers, and rely on their compassion—just as I now hope that students can reveal their own vulnerability to teachers rather than pretending to be something they’re not. Without lacks, gaps, mistakes, there is no room for growth. Learning is one form of growth.
I also bring my family into the story because they were formative in my re-education. This is a feminist decision to reveal my relatedness, rather than to pretend that I am a self-contained all-knowing purely rational individual deriving insight only from theorists and ethnography. One of my daughters, Elena, helped edit the introduction. I did get general permission from all of them to include stories, though they did not read all of them prior to publication—and I have worried a lot about the ethics of that decision.
As a professor myself, I am very aware of how much institutional constraints shape my teaching. First, I received remarkably little training on how to teach. Currently, I have to develop undergraduate courses that will appeal to a large enough number of students to even run, and to appeal to even more students if I want to help a graduate student have a TAship. At the same time, there are significant institutional pressures not to spend too much time on teaching. As you beautifully pointed out the constraints on students, I kept wondering about those on faculty. If you were to add a chapter of ethnography with faculty members, what do you think you would focus upon?
That’s a great idea! And several people have assumed that the book was about faculty, because faculty are suffering.
I would write about fear and love, about the constraints and the changing metrics of evaluation. I do mention that in the chapter on grades and “audit culture,” “‘What Do I Have to Do to Get an A?’: The Real Skinny on Grades,” because many of the constraints on students are mirrored by constraints on faculty. As universities become more corporate, and assessment appears to be the goal rather than a means for arriving at a different goal (perhaps learning or contributing to knowledge, or becoming a well-rounded citizen), both students and faculty become adept at “the game of school.” And games can be thrown.
Marilyn Strathern has edited a book on Audit Culture: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics, and the Academy (2000). Audit culture is more developed in the UK than in the US, though in the sixteen years since that book was published, our universities have become much more similar.
Much has been written about the precarity of adjunct faculty, the adjunctification of faculty, working with no job security or benefits for poverty wages, despite having top credentials and experience. (I taught that way for six years, myself.) And this shameful employment situation is real and must be more widely known.
The economics of higher education affect all the decisions throughout every institution, from the need to have classes of a certain size to teaching loads to funding available for travel to conferences to filling empty faculty lines with personnel of a certain rank.
But I would focused on secure faculty at well-resourced institutions to show that there is a problem even here, as I have done with my focus on high-achieving students. Faculty arrive with love for our subject and love for the enterprise of learning, only to be confronted by a need to police our students, to cajole them into reading, to get them to care at least a little about our class, to prevent corner-cutting (including cheating and plagiarism, the topic of my previous book, My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture [Cornell 2009]), to get strong teaching evaluations, to please students while also demonstrating “rigor” to our faculty colleagues. All this has to be squeezed into some limited amount of time because at institutions of higher education at a certain level of prestige, teaching only matters for tenure if it is substandard. As all faculty know, it is publications and grants that “count”; poor teaching could derail a strong publication record, but excellent teaching can’t substitute for a weak publication record.
Faculty at most institutions now are demoralized; there is tension with administrators and trustees and students and “the public.” Faculty are exhausted from constant interaction on social media, including email, and on supporting undergraduate and sometimes graduate student participation in conferences and research—writing dozens or hundreds of letters of recommendation every year—and advising undergraduates engaged in research. Technology changes all the time and we have to keep up with that, along with the publications in our own and adjacent fields. We have to become expert at writing committee reports and filing expense reports; senior faculty evaluate junior faculty. We all apply for grants and evaluate manuscripts and participate in conferences—but the Holy Grail is peer-reviewed journal articles.
This “shadow labor,” or “shadow work” in Ivan Illich’s term, is as real in institutions supposedly devoted to the production and dissemination of knowledge as it is in more mainstream corporations, but despite the motives that got faculty there, there is a real danger that the shadow labor could overtake the important work that keeps faculty employed. Faculty get “mentored” to teach them to juggle the many balls and the constantly changing metrics of evaluation; there are excellent organizations such as the heroic Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s National Center for Faculty Development. But these are needed because it is all so hard.
I could imagine shadowing several faculty; asking them to do time-use studies; interviewing faculty in several disciplines, at various levels of employment and at diverse institutions. I actually do keep up pretty fully with the trends in faculty experience. And what I see is faculty trying to retain some degree of dignity and balance while they feel themselves assailed from all sides and running ever faster just to keep in place.
You discuss several different approaches to grading to engage more productively with the fixation students have on grades. Which ones have you found more effective for your purposes, and why?
People have asked what I would do to change higher education, and my responses are varied. Ultimately I think we need far fewer people getting to a much smaller but still varied form of tertiary education, but meanwhile if I could make only one change, it would be to eliminate grading.
Among many other critics of grading is Alfie Kohn, whose Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Prasie, and Other Bribes changed my life. The problem with grades is that they make the goal extrinsic to the learning experience itself. Then the grades can be sliced and diced, compared and analyzed, and like all other assessments come to be seen as objective, precise measures of what are actually diverse and complex phenomena: human beings learning multifaceted and complex subjects.
In my own classes, among students who have diligently regarded “getting good grades” as the central purpose of their young lives, I try to downplay the importance of grades. I don’t talk about them much. And I ask students to evaluate themselves. Students like rubrics, which have a downside (it feels like a recipe or formula, which reinforces the sense that grades are the goal), but I aim to have them reflect on their own purposes for learning, both in the medium context of the course as a whole and in the immediate context of the particular assignment, and them to evaluate how successful they have been at meeting their own goals. I invite them to explain why they might have fallen short of their goals (“not enough time” is by far the main explanation) and to request help for things they may not quite understand. Some students try to fool me by saying that everything is excellent, but over the course of the semester most students are pretty honest. I ask them to give themselves a grade, although I have also discussed with them by then the flattening of information that accompanies a grade. Is excellent content with flawed writing—maybe A plus C—the same as pretty good content and writing? Do they both get a B? Wouldn’t it be far more useful for the student to receive a narrative evaluation—not as justification for the grade but as helpful information for the goal of improving and learning?
I also ask students to suggest a final grade in the course, based on the cumulative record, their engagement, their learning. In very small classes, under twelve or so, I try to meet with every student several times a semester to talk about how things are going.
Most students have been very positive about this, though some resist because it is more work. An ironic solution is to give credit for the self-evaluation.
This is very unfamiliar for many of my students, who have spent at least twelve, if not fifteen, years, in pursuit of a grade bestowed by a powerful teacher. It takes most of a semester, in many cases, to explain what I’m talking about.
You end the book talking about a wonderful class that you taught, in which the students liked it so much that they would meet at lunch to talk more about linguistic anthropology. How has teaching been for you since finishing this book?
It’s been very hard! The semester just before the book came out was one of the worst I’ve had in a decade with regard to teaching, for a variety of reasons, but the one during which it came out was again very successful. I try to bring all my students along with my viewpoints, to show that I understand their predicament and am not focused on judging but on working with them to learn. At my previous university, University of Colorado Denver, it was not difficult to explain social class, because most of our students were first-generation college students, working nearly full-time, but at Notre Dame it is more abstract a concept. Similarly, students suffering in schooling understand the irrationality of the system instantly while those succeeding at it have a little harder time. But the strain on high-achieving students has increased so drastically in the last two decades that they readily recognize their own oppression. The widespread scourge of mental illness among college students is real and worrisome; I don’t scoff at their “helicopter parents” nor at their own thin skin. As an anthropologist I am not inclined to blame individuals for not measuring up to some abstract ideal model of liberal arts learners devoted to cultural literacy—or whatever the latest Fall from the Golden Age trope has it—but to grasp the entire sociopolitical and sociocultural context.
That is harder to change, though, even if I can analyze it. So sometimes it is frustrating to see the ways the system goes on, even though my own critique is so clear to me.