On Training Anthropologists Rather than Professors

From the Series: Academic Precarity in American Anthropology: A Forum

Photo by Tim Sackton, licensed under CC BY SA.

There is something rotten in academia right now. This idea is at the heart of David Platzer and Anne Allison’s essay “Academic Precarity in American Anthropology.” Drawing on interviews with anthropology PhDs, as well as their own professional experiences as anthropologists in and out of academia, they argue that the turn to adjunct labor is an increasing and problematic trend across higher education. However, as the number of PhD degrees granted continues to rise and the number of tenure-track jobs decreases, not all disciplines will experience this trend as a crisis of equal proportion. For disciplines with longstanding and robust professional opportunities outside of academia, doctoral students are not all presumed to be training to be professors. Here, the shift to adjunct labor matters, but not in the same way as it does in a discipline like anthropology. For cultural anthropologists, the great majority of doctoral programs train students to be professors. This does not mean that some students do not want different careers; they do. But there are not clear career paths for cultural anthropologists beyond academia. There is no equivalent to the well-paying government and private-sector jobs available for economists with PhDs, or even the same sort of salaried or contract labor available to archaeologists. Paired with data showing that most anthropology graduate students aspire to be professors, this lack of clear career options beyond the academy stands to be debilitating. What is an anthropologist to do?

In my department at the University of Colorado Boulder, we have debated this question for at least a decade, if not longer. Given the uncertainties in the job market, some of my colleagues believe that it is unethical to accept students into a doctoral program. Others argue that it is equally problematic to deny a bright, promising student the opportunity to pursue a PhD based on our assumptions about a future job market or the rigidity of possible career paths. The result has been to compromise by trying to admit the “right” number of students each year. That metric is, of course, elusive. Despite our best efforts to determine the perfect number and then enroll that number of new students, we never seem to be able to accomplish it.

If numbers are not the answer, though, then what is? Perhaps this is a question of rethinking not the number of PhDs produced, but the ways in which we train anthropologists. What would it take to train students for careers beyond the single option of professor? And how do we train our students to be professors in the first place? If we are honest, that training is highly partial. We train doctoral students in disciplinary knowledge, the conduct of original research, theoretical argumentation, and so on. For the most part, we do not provide substantive training in teaching, writing, or management, all skills involved in working as a faculty member. While many departments have recently made efforts toward what we tend to call “professionalization,” these attempts are too often inconsistent within as well as across programs. We train our students rigorously and consistently in only one component of what it means to be a professor: the life of the mind. Acknowledging this is a key step toward rethinking how we might train our students. The next step is identifying programmatic changes needed to prepare students for a range of anthropological careers both inside and outside of the academy. It is not enough to count on ethnography remaining trendy in the tech industry or design worlds in order to address the shortage of academic jobs for anthropologists. Ethnography alone will not save anthropology PhDs.

What would it mean to train doctoral students as anthropologists in a broad sense, rather than just as future anthropology professors? What skills would they—and we, as faculty members—need? One thing to consider is how we train undergraduates to think broadly as anthropologists. We train them not only to know anthropology in terms of theory, method, and history, but also to think anthropologically in general. Teaching at a large public university with several hundred anthropology majors, I presume that the majority of my undergraduate students are not going on to careers as professional anthropologists. I think of their anthropological training as something that they can take with them in their future careers and lives. This includes a commitment to possibility and plurality, an insistence that any given way of being in or ordering the world is but one of many ways to do so, and a valuing of life as actually lived by real people. We lose a general sense of these hallmarks of anthropology in the specialized milieu of graduate training. How might we bring it back?

Given the wide range of possible careers in which cultural anthropologists might find themselves—from writing and publishing to user interface design to development work to politics to organizational research, to teaching—what skills might apply across these domains and be considered particular to anthropology in a way recognized outside of academia? The outdated and inaccurate image of our discipline does not help. Our task therefore is multiple: to share with the world the unique perspective of anthropology so as to help employers see anthropologists as valuable to their work; to determine how we might train anthropologists for intellectually rich careers other than that of professor; and to implement those findings in our graduate programs. Key here is acknowledging the possibility of a fulfilling intellectual life outside of the academy, as well as admitting the deficiencies in our current models of training. With all of this in mind, let’s join Platzer and Allison in thinking about how we can transform graduate training in anthropology—and perhaps contribute to the larger project of transforming the academy itself.