Notes from the Bat Cave
From the Series: Academic Precarity in American Anthropology: A Forum
I’m going to make this personal.
The office space for adjuncts in the social sciences at the University of Houston–Downtown has no windows. I call it “the bat cave,” due to its dimness. What the office does have is a row of desks and a printer. It is home to some of the most committed teachers I’ve met anywhere.
I used to have a desk. In my own office.
In my twenties I was an assistant professor at a design school in Rhode Island. Typography and print design were my specialties. It was a secure academic job, and I left it to pursue an expensive master’s degree in the social sciences. Why? A combination of unrealistic professional advice, and a sense that I really ought to be an anthropologist.
I ultimately moved on to a PhD program, and I beat some serious odds in being offered a tenure-track position. But, in the end, I couldn’t accept the job. My family can’t leave Houston at the moment. So I committed one of the cardinal sins of female academics by putting my family’s well-being ahead of my own. Not being willing to commute by airplane to see my toddlers on the weekend (which was suggested to me by two senior anthropologists). Not being willing to move half of us (suggested by another).
So, as I’ve written elsewhere, I’m a slave to a relevant position opening up at one of the local universities. And Houston is not much of an anthropology town, Writing Culture(and this journal) aside.
Opportunities for work as an academic anthropologist are limited, in part, because many departments refuse to evolve, teaching courses on topics irrelevant to students’ career goals or research budgets. I saw one local department dissolved entirely after the senior faculty refused to teach new courses or even to incorporate texts written after the 1970s.
As an adjunct, I have been part of a maddening dance in which I report my students’ interest in topics ranging from business anthropology to the anthropology of design to usability studies. I offer to share sample syllabi with the departments I work for. I offer to cross-list my courses with the business and design schools. But reluctant full-time colleagues say “there isn’t much student interest in anthropology.” Or, worse, “we can’t let you do that because it might draw students away from the courses of full-time faculty.”
Whatever the reason, students are not being served by these games, and they are not enrolling in anthropology courses at the universities where faculty refuse to acknowledge the ways that anthropological methods are used outside of academia. Indeed, I see more references to anthropology in job ads for technology companies these days than I do on academic job boards. But most of us have to find our way to these ads on our own.
When I scan the anthropology course listings at universities in the city where I live, I see courses on almost every part of the world, structured around scholarship built on rich and lengthy fieldwork. Yet there is just one course (not currently being offered, but a placeholder in the catalog) on applied anthropology. And nothing that suggests an informed perspective on the booming user experience industry, in which I also work.
In the essay at the center of this forum, David Platzer and Anne Allison write that “such ignorance stems . . . from the stigma that still attends applied and nonacademic work within anthropology.” I remember a fellow graduate student coming to me and confiding that he did not intend to seek an academic position. He felt that he couldn’t tell the faculty in our department, at the risk of falling out of favor. My professionalization included the study of successful academic job letters, but when I graduated I had to book an appointment with my university’s career services office and sheepishly ask how to write a resume. (You don’t put everything you’ve ever done on it? Where do your conference presentations go?)
I did this in secret, just like my colleague.
* * *
The business anthropology contingent of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) is vibrant and dedicated, but there are a few things I noticed at the 2017 annual meeting: 1) we all go to each other’s panels; 2) the majority of AAA members do not (this is common, admittedly, for panels devoted to a single region or subspecialty); 3) most of the applied anthropologists I know avoid the annual meeting, because they feel that the conversations there are largely irrelevant to them, and; 4) the sense of urgency felt by many in the business anthropology contingent is not shared by academic anthropologists.
As a business anthropology panel organizer, and as someone who has been vocal about both my lingering desire for a full-time academic position and my decision to make radical compromises in my own life, I receive two or three inquiries a week on LinkedIn (didn’t know what that was until 2015!) asking me for advice on moving from the academic world to the business world. I have some insight on this process. But it’s hard to talk to accomplished people about how little most people in the business world care about their academic accolades. They care about positions held and portfolios. These talented academics are thus facing the need to start over, to learn a new set of buzzwords and to accept junior status in an organization despite their years of research experience.
While, in graduate school, we measured success in terms of our mastery of a theoretical canon, the business world generally isn’t interested in our citations of Weber or Durkheim. But it is, in its own way, profoundly interested in research methods. Alas, most of those that it has embraced belong to psychology and sociology (two fields far less skittish about applied research than our own).
Let me be clear: my ambivalence about the business world lingers, after years of training have left me with the standard critiques ready at hand. But the city where I live, a practical place with a legacy of unabashedly pursuing wealth, presents a useful case study of what happens to departments that refuse to swallow their pride and meet students’ needs.