Erin Debenport on her new book, Fixing the Books: Secrecy, Literacy, and Perfectibilty in Indigenous New Mexico

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Interview by Shannon Ward

You identified commonalities in the processes of creating the San Ramon dictionary and pedagogical texts, as well as in the speech genres and cultural practices they encode.  For example, both texts are continually refined, or “perfected,” through editing meant to closely control the circulation of knowledge about certain linguistic and cultural practices. Also, both texts contain chronotopes that link authoritative knowledge about the past to present community issues and the potential future implications of cultural and linguistic loss or revival.  How do these features of the texts intersect with other socialization strategies practiced informally within families or among community members? That is, how does the use of these texts fit into broader language and cultural socialization within San Ramon?

The most visible socialization strategies that connect to ideas about perfectibility at San Ramon were approaches to childrearing and the associated transmission of knowledge. Although outside the focus of the book, I noticed that caregivers—both men and women, parents, non-parents, adults, and teenagers—felt comfortable “correcting” children, telling them to be respectful, to listen, or simply stop what they were doing if they were misbehaving. This connects to the idea that the responsibility for the transmission of knowledge is shared among all community members. Related to this, adults would often correct or comment on behavior even when the child was performing a task correctly or behaving themselves.  Once I heard a Head Start teacher say, “That’s the way, Amber. You don’t go messing up the play area when you spend time there,” almost keeping the master/apprentice “channel” open between teacher and child. A new way that texts are figuring into broader patterns of language and cultural socialization at San Ramon and the other Pueblos is through the use of Facebook. When posting about community events or commenting on tribal policies, I have noticed that the past is often invoked in this new context, as in “Make your ancestors proud and help clean up the arroyo this Saturday.” Processes of perfectibility are apparent here, too, as users craft elaborate comments, replies, and visual materials while composing Facebook posts.


The student authors of the Keiwa soap opera, As the Rez Turns, artfully employed characteristically Pueblo speech genres, extracommunity genres, and non-Native images of indigenous people to create subtle social and political critiques. How does this project differ from young people’s everyday interactions that may (or may not) similarly display multiple intertextual links? What does it suggest about changing possibilities for young people’s community-directed action?

I think the soap opera project differed in that the abstract notion of a “language dialogue” provided enough distance for participants to employ such intertextual links while discussing things like tribal politics, “tradition,” and Native identity. Usually the two “realms” are quite separate: the copious use of pop culture references and the production of intertextual links on one side and the serious work that is being an engaged community member on the other. As far as changing political possibilities, I think this is an example of how new spaces for critique are opening up almost within new forms of language circulation. I would not go so far as to say that Facebook and other platforms are singlehandedly enabling youth participation and political action, but I would say that I continue to see social critique within such spaces, spaces that are considered to be frivolous or unconnected to tribal history and values by older community members.


You argue that language revitalization projects perform culturally and linguistically meaningful work beyond preserving grammar and phonology. For example, language revitalization projects serve as metapragmatic resources for reproducing cultural practices and morality, as well as for enacting social critique (pg. 112). Participants in these programs thus tend to view them as beacons of hope for future linguistic and cultural revival, even in the absence of data proving the successful reverse of language shift (pg. 112-117). What possibilities do you envision for expanding recognition of and support for these other facets of language revitalization, in San Ramon and beyond?

I think that one potential influence of the U.S. educational system and dominant approaches to parenting in this county is that increasingly younger tribal members insist on being given credit “for trying” or for attending language classes regardless of their linguistic abilities. In such moments, youth connect attendance and participation with “being Indian” or being a good community member, invested in the future of the Pueblo. I have started to work with an additional Pueblo community, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo (not a pseudonym) in El Paso, Texas, and these kinds of connections are much more overt there than at San Ramon. Due to their distance from the other Pueblos, intense discrimination, state educational policies, and the predominance of Spanish in the region, the Southern Tiwa language was largely lost at the Pueblo. Their language program has been an incredible success, however, with the emergence of several advanced speakers who have learned the language as adults. While meetings with other Pueblos or native speakers of the language can be stressful for these learners, they often say that the fact that they are trying to learn shows that they are true Pueblo people rather than being able to speak Southern Tiwa without making any mistakes.


While Pueblo secrecy radically affected your participation in the community of San Ramon, you also harness secrecy in your ethnographic writing, for example, by focusing on cultural and linguistic knowledge production without revealing the content of this knowledge. What aspects of ethnographic methodology aided you in continually adapting to the changes and complexities of your consultants’ relationships with outsiders?  That is, how did your ethnographic training help you reconcile your initial expectations of your anthropological endeavor with the constraints (and associated possibilities) you encountered in your fieldwork, analysis, and writing?Your description—“continually adapting to the changes and complexities”—really captures my experience perfectly! Having to always revise my new and ongoing projects keeps this concern at the forefront of my thinking and research, too. I think that two parts of my ethnographic training continue to inform how I research and write in and about Pueblo communities: being introduced to the ideas of informed consent, harm, and language ideologies; and being introduced to literature on knowledge production and power. I first experienced the former when preparing my IRB, which was a surprisingly nuanced process at my graduate institution (there was a separate IRB for social sciences, so I felt guided by scholars working on comparable projects). My advisor also shared with me instances where he chose not to circulate language examples as part of a language project to which he contributed. Also, critiques of language revitalization discourses by scholars including Jane Hill, Robert Moore, Joseph Errington, and Peter Whiteley alongside work on language ideologies and literacy (especially by Paul Kroskrity and Justin Richland who have worked in Pueblo communities) really paved the way for being able to think about such projects as both objects of analysis and potential sites for conflict or collaboration. However, it was really being in the field and realizing the stakes involved with keeping secrets that led directly to the choices I eventually made in the way I presented data in the book. Lastly, works in anthropology, social theory, and science and technology studies that analyzed the ways that anthropologists produce and circulate knowledge had a tremendous effect; Bourdieu, Foucault, and Fabian were key.



Anna Weischselbraun’s Constituting the International Nuclear Order

My dissertation examines how the International Atomic Energy Agency, the organization responsible for verifying the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, can remain technically authoritative in its judgments despite the fact that it is often accused of being politicized. What I describe on page 99 of my dissertation is a crucial moment in the way that the IAEA conceptualized the nuclear safeguards it carried out for treaty verification (see below). This moment was precipitated by the IAEA’s failure to detect Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in the early 1990s. I argue that a significant epistemological shift was required from a fundamentally quantitative-administrative logic to a qualitative-dynamic logic in the methodological transformation from considering only the activities a state had declared to the IAEA to attempting to evaluate all of a state’s nuclear-related activities (in particular, those relevant for the development and production of nuclear weapons). And, I further argue, this shift undermined the epistemic ideology of bureaucratic objectivity through which the organization had historically come to be seen as authoritative. Epistemic ideology–based on notions of language or semiotic ideologies–is a set of assumptions and values about what knowledge is authoritative and the forms of representation that render it such. By theorizing the production of authoritative knowledge as a semiotically mediated process, I develop a framework for studying knowledge and power in the world that takes into account the epistemic norms and representational conventions that most participants remain largely unaware of. This approach goes beyond reductivist narratives that explain what happens at international organizations in terms of competing national interests, to provide an alternative understanding of the aspirations and limitations to projects of international governance.

This is a critical and significant shift in epistemic mode. The original epistemic mode of accounting for the type and quantity of nuclear material in a state, previously the bedrock of the IAEA safeguards system, becomes in this new epistemic mode only a component (if an important one) of the entire approach to nuclear verification. The detection of clandestine nuclear activity requires a larger view of the state’s activities and relies on the accumulation and synthesis of information critically related to a state’s industrial, technological, and scientific infrastructure. In this way, IAEA safeguards inspectors no longer exclusively focus on how a state might pinch off nuclear material from its safeguarded facilities when an inspector isn’t looking, but first attempt to identify the “technically plausible” paths to a nuclear weapon a state might pursue. This methodology requires the involvement of “analysts” whose expertise is constituted as language skills, subject matter familiarity, and technical knowledge, and whose work involves gathering a variety of data on industrial and scientific activities in the state that are relevant or potentially related to the development and production of a nuclear weapon. The work of analysts and the contribution they make to the evaluation of the “state as a whole” has been viewed with deep suspicion [by member states].

Anna Weischselbraun. 2016. Constituting the International Nuclear Order: Bureaucratic Objectivity at the IAEA.” Phd dissertation. University of Chicago.

Blum on the publication of her new book, “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College


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.

Susan Blum is a Professor of Anthropology at Notre Dame.  “I Love Learning; I Hate School” is available through Cornell University Press, 2016.