Edited by Carolyn Rouse (Princeton University) and Richard Handler (University of Virginia)

This collection of essays focuses on an aspect of being an anthropologist that are rarely discussed: the need to be entrepreneurial in a university milieu where values drawn from the business world seem to be displacing those of the academy. Critically, at an institutional level, we need to sell our discipline for continued buy-in and financial support from deans, provosts, and/or trustees. From their perspective, it is incumbent upon anthropology chairs to justify a department’s occupation of valuable real estate and need for anthropology lines (FTEs). To do this, we must grow or sustain undergraduate class enrollments, increase or stabilize the number of department majors, and make sure our graduate students get placed in jobs within or around the edges of our field. Therefore, in order to legitimate the discipline of anthropology to the institutional powers that be, the first thing we must do is attend to undergraduate desires.

There was a time when the prospect of studying the other in exotic locations in order to familiarize the strange, in the manner of Margaret Mead, was considered sexy. In the past two decades, however, the desire to observe people at a distance has been replaced by a desire on the part of undergraduate social science majors to change the world through applied or hands-on engagements. And now many students enter our graduate programs openly expressing a desire to use their research to participate in public-policy debates.

The desire to do good in the world is admirable, but unfortunately anthropology’s more nuanced approach to knowledge production is rarely translatable to large audiences. In the past twenty years, the more humanistic approach to theorizing experience has been replaced, in the social sciences, by a near obsession with quantitative and “evidence-based” approaches. This means many students consider anthropology ill-suited for their aspirations to be “public intellectuals.” As faculty, we can scream all we want about the increasing (mis)use of ethnographic methods in business, technological design, and economic and urban planning, but students can barely hear us over the self-congratulatory din of quantitative social scientists patting themselves on the back for producing hard, predictive data compared to our soft, theoretical interventions.


In order to legitimate the discipline of anthropology to the institutional powers that be, the first thing we must do is attend to undergraduate desires.


As a result of our inability to convince students that the slow, hard work of ethnography has more analytical heft than the fast, cookie-cutter approach to the study of human behavior, our enrollments have been falling. Anthropology departments, which finally gained an institutional foothold in the 1960s and 70s, have recently been asked to prove their relevance to academic administrators. And many universities now use alumni job placements and earnings as metrics to determine a department’s value. After graduating, our majors do well with employment because our approach to knowledge production is useful for fields as diverse as public policy, journalism, and business. But because our majors tend to not to go into some of the highest paid postgraduate professions, such as engineering, pharmaceutical sales, finance, and investment banking, they also tend to earn less relative to their peers in their first years out of college. Do these lower earning metrics mean universities should stop investing in anthropology departments?

For those of us on the front lines, the stakes could not be higher. Many of the authors of this collection are currently in the position of having to make anthropology legible to students and administrators. The consequences of illegibility are reductions in the number of FTEs and/or absorption into other programs that administrators and trustees value. The problem is not with our discipline. In the wake of the 2016 US presidential election and the rise of authoritarianism in the so-called developed world, anthropology and ethnography have never been more relevant. Given that all the authors are evangelical about our discipline, the solution we have chosen is marketing or, more precisely, translating the value of anthropology into a language the market can understand. What follows are examples of ways in which we have made anthropology legible at our various institutions without abandoning the methodological core or humanistic value of anthropology.

We start with Kim Fortun’s (UC Irvine) reflective essay “Ends of Undergraduate Anthropology Education?” This piece encourages readers to put our motivations to attend to undergraduate desire in historical perspective. Fortun reminds us about the twentieth-century scholars in our field who worked with student protestors to make anthropological knowledge production relevant and engaged. In doing so, her piece reminds us that the present may not be so different from the past.

Following Fortun’s generative essay is “Between Understanding and Action: Anthropological Pedagogy and the Habitus of Privilege among US Undergraduate Students” by Richard Handler and undergraduate Anne Nelson Stoner of the University of Virginia. They discuss the vast divide between the critical theories mastered in the classroom and the student behaviors and identities performed outside of the classroom.

Charles Piot (Duke University) writes about the rebranding of anthropology at Duke in “Teaching Anthropology in an Age of Unrecognizability,” followed by an essay by Alexandra Middleton, a student who was a beneficiary of Piot’s curricular intervention. In “Beyond the Fieldwork Imaginary: Cultivating Undergraduate Exposure,” Middleton describes the value of participating in Piot’s book project as an undergraduate at Duke. This piece reflects on the generative value of writing with and for undergraduate peers.

Jennifer Schlegel (Kutztown University) reflects on undergraduate desire from the vantage of a public institution in “Keeping One Day Ahead: Undergraduate Anthropology in a Regional Public University.”

Carolyn Rouse (Princeton University) describes why she chose to attend to her pedagogical and theoretical interests by taking students to the field in “Lessons from the Field: Pragmatism, Design Thinking, and an Existential Reframing of Engagement.”

In “Teaching and Critiquing Global Health: Or, “‘I Think I’ll Go into Consulting,’” Ramah McKay (University of Pennsylvania) describes the difficulty of balancing the critiques and celebrations of global health given that many of her students accept uncritically the role of finance in improving the health of populations.

In a funny and insightful piece, “Unusual Suspects: Teaching Anthropology outside Our Comfort Zone,” Lee Baker (Duke University) writes about teaching students whose politics are antithetical to his own and why institutionally this is important.

We end with a critical reflection on the essays in this volume by former AAA president Alisse Waterston (CUNY/John Jay College of Criminal Justice). Waterston accurately notes that most of the essays in this volume were written by professors housed in private institutions that serve a disproportionately wealthy student body. She then describes how after 9/11 her public institution’s president, Jeremy Travis, used his position to intervene by expanding humanities and social sciences majors rather than investing in more security studies at a school known for criminal studies. Given that her students are often victims of neoliberal policies and racist policing, Waterston describes why she teaches “critical anthropology” in order to “to provide them analytic tools to articulate what they already know (embodied knowledge) and to offer a nudge toward consciousness as they enter the world of work as it currently exists, no matter what they choose to do.”

It is in this spirit of reminding ourselves why anthropology matters, and therefore why the institutional piece matters, that we offer this series of essays.

ESSAYS:

Ends of Undergraduate Anthropology Education?
Kim Fortun

Between Understanding and Action: Anthropological Pedagogy and the Habitus of Privilege among US Undergraduate Students
Richard Handler and Anne Nelson Stoner

Teaching Anthropology in an Age of Unrecognizability
Charles Piot

Beyond the Fieldwork Imaginary: Cultivating Undergraduate Exposure
Alexandra Middleton

Keeping One Day Ahead: Undergraduate Anthropology in a Regional Public University
Jennifer Schlegel

Lessons from the Field: Pragmatism, Design Thinking, and an Existential Reframing of Engagement
Carolyn Rouse

Teaching and Critiquing Global Health: Or, “I Think I’ll Go into Consulting”
Ramah McKay

Unusual Suspects: Teaching Anthropology outside Our Comfort Zone
Lee Baker

The Habitus of Privilege and Position
Alisse Waterston