Response to Richard Handler’s “Three Ways of Being Interdisciplinary in the Neoliberal University: Suggestions for the Future of Anthropology in the Undergraduate Curriculum”

Click here for Handler’s essay.

Charles Piot
Duke University

Richard Handler is a curricular visionary. Two years ago, I was an external examiner on a committee to review area studies at the University of Virginia—a broad review of units across the university working on things global—and many of those we spoke with were buzzing about (and envious of) Handler’s new Global Studies major. It’s the fastest-growing and most popular major at UVA, with over three hundred applications each year for 125 major slots. What anthropology department in the country today can claim as much?

The secret, according to Handler, is teaching anthropology under another name. He insists that students still enjoy our classes and appreciate our critique—the theory we deploy in parsing culture and politics— but the term “anthropology” remains illegible to them, especially as a potential major. They prefer majors that seem real-world relevant—relevant to students’ perceived post-graduation job prospects (in the fields of health, finance, and policy studies, for example). Taking required courses in a major on topics that are not oriented around such career interests does not appeal to them, but taking electives or classes cross-listed with their majors—which also fit their long-term agendas—does. Thus, when anthropologists teach global health or development policy—in Handler’s case, a class on Critical Development Studies, in my own, Development and Africa—it works for them and enrollments swell. On the other hand, a course like my Culture and Politics of Africa (or the earlier Peoples and Cultures of Africa) no longer does.

Duke’s cultural anthropology department, a unit with eighteen full-time faculty, half of whom have won teaching awards, is down to nineteen majors (from over thirty majors two years ago). Enrollments in classes remain high, however, especially in those that conform to Handler’s formula: Medical Anthropology, Global Health, Development and Africa, Climate Change and the Environment. I will offer a new class in the fall, The Anthropology of Money, which, cross-listed in economics (a department with five hundred majors), public policy (four hundred majors) and markets and management (a certificate program with four hundred enrolled), will likely fill up. (Here, the “anthropology of” moniker is trumped by “money.”) Interestingly, Duke’s evolutionary anthropology department has more than one hundred majors—in part, because courses in that major overlap with the needs of students applying to medical school.

An initiative that my department is currently considering is whether to subsume a popular Duke undergraduate major, International Comparative Studies (ICS), as a second track within Cultural Anthropology (CA). ICS has five times as many majors as CA, while teaching courses that overlap with many of our own—in global political economy and global cultural studies. The director of ICS and one of its two regular faculty members are both anthropologists. But students choose to major in ICS rather than CA because its name is more legible to them and because it better orients them to careers in international studies and global finance.

Rather than entirely giving up on our disciplinary identity—by changing our name to global studies, for instance, or relocating CA faculty members to other departments—my own preference is to retain our moniker and remain within our current disciplinary home (because, among other reasons, we still have a robust graduate program that goes under the name anthropology), while opportunistically taking on units like ICS and refiguring our classes along the lines envisioned by Handler. This will enable us to attract students to our classes (though probably not to recruit more majors) and give us a broader impact on how students think about today’s world—perhaps more than ever before. This approach might, then, be the new face of a robust public anthropology.

Piot, Charles. 2017. “Response to ‘Three Ways of Being Interdisciplinary in the Neoliberal University: Suggestions for the Future of Anthropology in the Undergraduate Curriculum.'” American Anthropologist website, March 20.