Interview by Ilana Gershon
Ilana Gershon: When you are at a book event for an Irish author, how do you explain what an anthropologist brings to the study of Irish writing?
Helena Wulff: If this is when I first make contact, it would be a relatively short conversation as the author would be very busy talking to many people and signing books. I would just ask for an interview and contact details mentioning that I am “writing a book about Irish authors,” focussing on the questions “How come the Irish are such great writers?” and “What do they know that the rest of us don’t know?”
So it would be at the interview that I explain that I, as an anthropologist, hope to bring an understanding of the significance of the Irish history and culture to the making of an author in Ireland. Irish history is significant in Ireland because of the long and brutal British colonization which ended rather recently, in 1922. Irish people have not quite come to terms with the colonial situation yet. As this study is my second major study in Ireland – the first one was published as Dancing at the Crossroads: Memory and Mobility in Ireland (Berghahn, 2007) http://www.berghahnbooks.com/title/WulffDancing – I think I can claim a certain expertise on Ireland, and thus an awareness of its strengths but also vulnerabilities. In my capacity of an anthropologist, I thus hope to bring an understanding of the cultural context that produces these eloquent writers, and their writing as craft and career. I look at the whole process beginning with how writing is taught, how breakthroughs happen, how authors build and maintain reputations, failures in getting published, and finally how decline can occur or simply demise. Looking at the social organization of the literary world in Ireland, also in relation to a global one, I note with interest the societal impact authors have in their role as public intellectuals. The publishing industry with small boutique publishers is clearly crucial, and their connections to global conglomerates.
Ilana Gershon: Has studying how Irish writers engage with their craft affected your own writing practices? Do you write differently, or have a new range of concerns about your texts?
Helena Wulff: My interest in writing goes a long way back. Almost from the start, when I learnt to write, I have been driven by a desire to take writing as a craft seriously. But my writing would not have flourished, had I not had my doctoral training in the Department of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University under the guidance of Ulf Hannerz. In the spirit of Clifford Geertz we were taught not only to read fiction from our fields, but also to keep training our writing skills, to develop a clear sense of style – also about complicated issues.
Now my interest in writing includes both nourishing my academic writing and venturing out into other genres such as journalism and creative non-fiction. I edited a volume on this topic titled The Anthropologist as Writer: Genres and Contexts in the Twenty-First Century (2016).
In addition, I have taught two master’s courses for anthropology students on writing: “Anthropological Writing Genres” and “Writing Anthropology Workshop,” the latter together with my Stockholm colleague Anette Nyqvist who designed it.
For me, writing is like breathing. I am a habitual writer. Having found my form, I still find it fascinating, and necessary, to keep looking for new expressions and formats, to keep developing as a writer. Like Roddy Doyle, one of the most prolific writers in my study, I don’t accept writer’s block. When I asked him in an interview, if he ever gets them, his reply was firm: “I write through them!” He just writes on, even on a bad day. So do I. Eventually it will lift, and I fly! In fact, I enjoy solving the “problems” of getting stuck. I enjoy trying and trying again and again, to finally finding a new solution to a phrasing or a structure or whatever it is that does not work just then.
Repetition as a rhetorical trick is one thing I have learnt from my engagement with Irish writers and their writings. Certainly an awareness of rhythm and tone, but even more of repetition to make a point – which I realize I just did in the section above. Another trick that I have learnt to cultivate from Irish writers, is to use my senses. It was when I was doing participant observation in an MA class in Creative writing at University College Dublin as a part of my fieldwork that the teacher Éilís Ní Dhuibhne called out to the students: “Write through your senses!“ and she went on “and consider all of them: vision, sound, smell, touch, taste!” (Wulff 2017: 54)
Deadlines are key. I am good with deadlines, I dare say. It helps to be well-organized and plan your writing time in great detail. I set aside weeks and days for writing certain pieces. (This has sometimes caused some amusement among friends when I have invited them for dinner three months ahead of time…as that is when I have space in my crowded calendar!) Colm Tóibín, another prolific writer in my study, who in addition to writing fiction to great acclaim, is a prominent public intellectual in Ireland, talked about deadlines when I met him for an interview. Contrary to many writers (and certainly academics…) who have a fear of deadlines, try to push them and risk dancing on deadlines rather than making them, Tóibín noted matter-of-factly: “Deadlines are good. They make you finish” (Wulff 2017: 31).
Ilana Gershon: I was struck by how many of the writers you spoke to will write in longhand, and how rooted this was in the sensual experience of writing with ink (54). I am wondering if writers felt that there was a significant difference between composing in longhand, on a typewriter or computer, and if editing through these different forms was also a markedly distinct experience for them?
Helena Wulff: I was struck too by how many of the writers write in longhand! Not least in this day and age, when writing longhand seems to be a disappearing skill among young people. These writers were born in the 1950s so they did learn longhand at school. What I also found amazing was that (with a few exceptions) one writer after another that I talked to in their homes, showed me the same kind of big blue notebooks with wide margins that were useful for making revisions. Incidentally, the notebooks made me think of the writing exercise books I used in primary school that were corrected by my teacher (after three essays without errors – you got a gold star glued into the margin!).
Certainly these writers found writing longhand, and editing their longhand, more thorough than using a computer. (They did not use typewriters.) Some would edit their longhand up to two or three times before typing it on a computer. And then edit again, on the screen this time, but finding this a different, more mechanical process.
Ilana Gershon: You mention that Irish mothers were a continual theme throughout all your research projects based in Ireland. What new insights to what it means to be or have an Irish mother did you have because authorship was your starting point this time?
Helena Wulff: There are definitely more mothers portrayed in literature than in dance in Ireland, which alerted me to consider “the Irish mother.” The portraits that often are inspired by the writers’ own mothers range from devotion to loving mothers to dismissal of neglecting mothers. It is less common to write about what it is like to be a mother, but there are fictional cases of the fright of losing a child in an accident, for example. The expectation that women will be or are mothers, which is strong in Ireland (possibly because of cultural traces of Catholicism) also came through in fiction such as in Anne Enright’s Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood (2004) which is a collection of racy essays about giving birth and being a mother. This was inspired by Enright´s experience of having her two children rather late in life and well into her marriage.
As I got to know writers, I noticed how close they often were to their mothers. It could be the writer who invited me into his study and in particular pointed out a small painting he had right in front of his desk explaining that “my mother liked it.” Of course, it seems to be about the same to be an Irish mother as to be a Swedish or American mother, from the inside so to speak. With certain variations, mothers seem to have about the same feelings of love and worry about their children. But then the influence of mothers is very different. And here religion, or at least, again, cultural traces of religion, may be the explanation to why certain mothers have more influence than other ones. Catholicism and Judaism, for example, are of course, “inherited” through the mothers and both feature powerful mothers.
Ilana Gershon: How do you think analytical questions about translation are transformed when it is the author of the original text translating the work into a new form, such as a musical or film script?
Helena Wulff: The writers rarely did this kind of translation, especially not on their own. If they did it, it tended to be a co-production together with a script-writer, for example. The analytical questions about translation change as they move from translation between texts in different languages to explain translation between different media such as from text to film or stage. For one thing sound such as music is added. Importantly, Irish fiction is quite visual and strong on dialogue which is why it often works as film.
Ilana Gershon: How has fieldwork for this book shaped the kinds of questions you are asking in your current project on migrant writers in Sweden?
Helena Wulff: My current project is also an anthropological study of a social world of writers, but focusing on migrant writers in Sweden. I am looking at similar themes such as the making of a migrant writer’s career, learning to write, breakthroughs, reputation, the role of the publishing industry and the idea of the “migrant writer,” as well as these writers´ international impact. Contrary to contemporary Irish writers who can stand on the shoulders of the world fame of their giant predecessors such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, migrant writers in Sweden cannot claim any kinship with August Strindberg or Astrid Lindgren. So how come the work of Jonas Hassen Khemiri, successful Swedish writer of Tunisian background, is attracting attention in New York, London, Tokyo and elsewhere across the globe? Khemiri writes fiction, plays and journalism about new issues of physical appearance, terrorism and racial profiling in Sweden. It turns out that it is not contemporary Sweden that evokes interest internationally but local versions of these global issues.
Interview by Rachel Howard
What was your main goal in writing about literacy activists in Tamil Nadu? And how did your goals change as you learned more about the site?
I had gone to do research on literacy activism in Tamil Nadu with a deep interest in language and political economy. My graduate education was fueled by the theoretical energy that had gathered around both questions of language ideology and postcolonial studies. It struck me that studying a movement that promised to deliver enlightenment to the marginalized through written language would enable me to address some of the big questions about power, the materiality of language, and temporality that we were wrestling with at the time. More specifically, knowing that Tamil is a language shaped deeply by diglossia, I went to study how learning the written variety was meant to empower people. I sensed a paradox of sorts in a practice that required people to learn a new register of their own language in order to free themselves. But my goals quickly changed when I realized that the difference between written and rural spoken varieties was perhaps not so important in a context where simply teaching people how to write their own name was such a major effort, and where the literacy movement had also reflected upon its own practice so much in its transition from being a revolutionary movement of sorts to becoming a partnership with government. The literacy had also become a women’s movement, somewhat unexpectedly. So, following the lead of my interlocutors, I became much more interested in the practice of activism itself. New and more interesting questions about writing and embodiment, as well as questions about the very practice of mobilizing rural, lower caste women, who are often thought of as the most subaltern, arose from the ethnography as a result.
Interview by Lindsey Pullum
You’re in line to ride a rollercoaster and, while waiting for your turn, strike up a conversation with the family ahead of you. They have never been to Israel, but seem nice enough and press you to tell them about your latest project. You only have a few minutes before the rollercoaster comes to whisk you and the family away—how would you describe your book?
I have always been interested in national identities, specifically in Israel, and the ways people understand and perform them. In my book I look at what visitors write in visitor books in a major national Israeli site in East Jerusalem, called the Ammunition Hill National Commemoration Site. These books are interesting because, as a whole, they give a fascinating sense of how people respond to and embody national themes and narratives. I see the texts visitors write as ways of participating in the retelling of national identity. When you look closely into these succinct texts, you can see how rich they are in fact. They show different positions with regards to identity, and different things that visitors choose to respond to (and ignore). For instance, while most of the Israeli visitors address the museum and its staff, most North American tourists address the dead soldiers, and yet other visitors address God. Add to that that many visitors draw images, and the book is really highly visual, like and album that combines images and texts.
All this is even more interesting because the book is located inside a museum, and what people write in it immediately becomes part of the museum’s display. In the way the book is presented, the museum actually prompts visitors to write about certain themes and in certain ways, so it is also very interesting to study the book as a public medium. Finally, I was able not only to read visitors’ text, but also to observe visitors write them. In most cases visitors write the texts together (collaboratively), which taught me a lot about how these bits of performances of national identity are being composed. For instance, parents (usually mothers) instruct their children what to write and how to do it (“don’t write ‘I’m happy’, write ‘I’m impressed’—it’s more respectable this way”). So the entire writing scene at Ammunition Hill was fascinating for me.
Interesting you mention rollercoasters! My last article is an ethnography of rollercoaster riders, and their experience with the photographs that are taken of them while on the ride. I studied riders’ images in theme parks in Florida, which are similar in many ways to the curated environments in museums.
You have previously written two books on the Israeli backpackers’ experience. Your latest published work has focused more on museums and texts. Can you comment on your process for deciding on a research project? How did your previous research influence this latest book?
I love this question because often these decisions are not discussed in the academy. My recent book furthers my earlier interests in contemporary cultures and the consequences of tourism and travel, specifically in political contexts (though what contexts aren’t political?). In my previous book I studied backpackers’ narratives. I asked how the stories they shared with me in in-depth interviews were, in effect, storytelling performances whereby the meaning of the interview occasion itself was negotiated (as well as the identities and roles of the participants). The backpackers enthusiastically told me about extensive “libraries” of handwritten letters and documents, which they wrote to each other about their travels. These collections, located in Southeast Asia and South America, were a way of circulating travel-related information, experience and lore. I was fascinated by this, but I didn’t have the funding to study them. This, however, incited my research interest in studying what I later called ‘tourists’ texts’: the role of texts (and entextualization) in travel, and the places, practices and technologies relating to their production and circulation. Knowing I wanted to study texts within such sites, and knowing I wanted to shift from interview-based research (where I supply the provocation) to ethnographically-based research (where the museum supplies the provocation) I then chose a location that was convenient and relevant. The Ammunition Hill Memorial museum was located in the city I love: Jerusalem (where I was born and raised, and where I raise my daughters). This was a matter of access and convenience, and it also accorded with other critical studies I did on political tourism in East and West Jerusalem. On my first visit to Ammunition Hill, where I was scouting the site, the visitor book really impressed me. It was a large and imposing book, made of parchment, and part of a memorial installation in one of the museum’s most ‘sacred’ halls. The minute I saw the book I fell in love with it, and knew I was going to study it.
Language is crucial to your study of texts within the visitor’s book at Ammunition Hill Memorial museum. You analyze language ideologies in terms of handwritten texts and repeated styles of entries. Yiddish and Arabic are absent from the discussion of code-switching even though each language is spoken by certain publics in Israel (99). Is bilingual code-switching with specific regard to these two languages an aspect of your research you would have liked to include more of but couldn’t for some reason? Were Yiddish and Arabic simply not present in the visitor’s book itself?
That’s right: I would have loved to discuss Yiddish and Arabic texts in more detail in the book, yet as you indicate, the texts are mostly in Hebrew and English, with only occasional texts in Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and French. Different reasons account for the absence of Arabic and Yiddish. As for Arabic, the site is located in East Jerusalem, within walking distance from large Palestinian neighborhoods. So physically accessing the site isn’t very difficult. It’s just that the site celebrates—and embodies—the “unification of Jerusalem” as the Israeli/Zionist narrative has it, and so it is clear why Palestinian audiences wouldn’t be attracted, to say the least. Additionally, the site is frequented by Israeli soldiers (on weekdays it serves as a recruiting/drafting center), and that too is a deterrent for Palestinian visitors.
The story with Yiddish is different. I’ve heard Yiddish being spoken at the site, by Ultra-Orthodox Jewish visitors (Haredim) who live in nearby neighborhoods that have gone through demographic changes in the past two decades or so (from secular populations to religious and Ultra-Orthodox populations). Also, the Ammunition Hill Site is spacious and has plenty of shade, and the entrance is free, and this attracts nearby Ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents and their families. So Yiddish is certainly heard, but when Haredi visitors write in the visitor book they do so in Hebrew (or English). When I asked them about this, they answered that they “wanted to be understood,” indicating that they are well attuned to the spoken/hegemonic languages, and choose to use them when expressing themselves publicly. I would also say in regards to Ultra-Orthodox visitors, that they are the only visitors I’ve seen writing ‘bluff’ entries in the book. By ‘bluff’ I mean texts that are signed by fictitious authors (such as a young Haredi visitor signing on behalf of a “very famous and important Rabbi”). Some groups of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish are anti-Zionist, and not subscribing to Ammunition Hill’s national Zionist narrative (by performing bluff entries and sometimes explicitly expressing anti-Zionist sentiments), is their way of using this platform for protesting hegemony.
At one point you mention how the anticipated performance of visitors does not match the actual performance (121). This is especially present in contested entries of the Ultra-Orthodox visitors (122). You argue that the book connects visitors’ biography with Israel’s collective past and collective future (107). Were there any visitors who fell outside of the “anticipated” visitor demographic that surprised you? How does this idea of collective past/collective future relate to non-Jewish Israeli interlocutors?
I seem to have anticipated this question in my response above. I’d add that within the context of museums, specifically in the dense environments of heritage and commemoration, authenticity is a hard currency. And handwriting—embodied in visitors’ inscriptions—plays indexically right into this economy: the handwritten texts are seen as connected to the visitors who write them in an embodied and unmediated fashion, publicly authenticating and presencing their visit and their participation in national commemoration. In the Ammunition Hill visitor book, handwriting is a way of paying tribute and homage to the nation and its fallen heroes (indeed, sometimes visitors leave flowers and notes in the book, turning it into an album of sorts), which is valued for its authenticity. Indeed, as you nicely put it in the question, the book serves as a material platform that physically and viscerally connects visitors’ biographies with Israel’s collective past and future. Ultra-Orthodox visitors improvise on this ‘holy’ tie, and are the only group I’ve seen do so in this way. For other groups of visitors, including those with harsh critique of the site’s ideology (right wing ideological critique of the site, which is itself very conservative), the critique rests on this tie, not on disrupting it. Of course, the only way to learn of this disruption (untying the connection between visitor signature and who the authors actually are), is to be there and to see how texts are composed and written. These observations reveal more tensions between writing and authorship (what Goffman termed “animator” and “author”), as for instance when mothers author a text for their children to write and sign.
Most of your research was conducted in the mid-2000s. Have you seen any changes with the visitors’ book at Ammunition Hill or had any interesting follow up experiences at the site?
Yes. My research at Ammunition Hill was completed organically in 2012, when the visitor book was removed because the museum was undergoing major renovations. The museum is currently closed and will reopen in 2017, celebrating fifty years of Israeli victory in the 1967 War and the “liberation and unification of Jerusalem” (under Israel’s annexation and occupation of East Jerusalem and the Occupied Palestinian Territories). So it’s over a decade now that I’ve been visiting the site, studying it and its visitor book (actually, visitor books: the site holds more than one book, including its “VIP visitor book” as they call it). During this time, I gained insights into the site’s language and media ideologies, as well as into visitors’ actions in that space. For example, a new commemoration hall opened recently, with a new design that is oval-shaped with the portraits of the dead soldiers. This design echoes the iconic Hall of Names at Yad Vashem (Israel’s official Holocaust memorial site), itself echoing the Tower of Faces at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. (Note the semiotics: soldiers are commemorated in a way similar to holocaust victims). At this new hall, too, a visitor book is offered, along with personal letters, diaries and artifacts belonging to the dead soldiers. By locating historical handwritten documents side by side with visitors’ handwritten texts, the site reconfirms its ideology about language, the centrality of authenticity for performing national identity, and its mode and manner of ideologically mobilizing visitors into nationalism.
Since 2011 I have been studying museum platforms in two other Jewish heritage museums (now in the United States): the National Museum of American Jewish History, in Philadelphia, and the Florida Holocaust Museum, in St. Petersburg. I am working on a comparison or juxtaposition of these museums, the different participatory (hand)writing platforms they offer, and what and how visitors compose texts there.
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.