By Alexandra Middleton (Princeton University)

 What draws an undergraduate anthropology student to pursue a graduate degree in anthropology in the twenty-first century? What kind of experiences can expose undergraduate students to the world of professional academic anthropology? How do we, as educators and pedagogues, create an undergraduate climate of doing anthropology, not just studying it? That is, what engenders a more active, agentive engagement with the discipline and its methods, or a means for students to test their interest, capacity, and proclivity in what it means to be a practicing anthropologist? As doing anthropology requires us to travel outside the Ivory Tower to fieldsites—from a three-hundred-person village in northern Togo to the basement of a Silicon Valley startup—what spaces exist beyond the classroom and academy to engender this exposure for undergraduates?

To consider such questions, I decided to turn the lens back on myself. What drew me, once an undergraduate cultural anthropology major, to pursue my PhD in anthropology? One particular engagement stands out as distinctly formative and persuasive, a unique combination of fieldwork and undergraduate publishing led by Charles Piot, my professor and adviser at Duke University. In revisiting this experience, I hope to tap into a larger conversation about how rethinking, reinvesting in, and perhaps even reinventing undergraduate publishing might offer a pathway toward cultivating, at the undergraduate level, a reinvestment in anthropology itself.

In August of 2011, I was part of a group of five undergraduates who had just returned from a summer spent in Kuwdé, Togo, conducting our own independent fieldwork projects. We were just one generation in what is now a lineage of about seventy students who have traveled with Charlie to Togo over nine consecutive summers. As Charlie mentions in his essay in this collection, we carried out a mixture of fieldwork and small-scale development projects. The uniqueness and privilege of this summer fieldwork experience was not lost on me. Indeed, it is rare to accompany an anthropologist such as Charlie to the very fieldsite where he completed his own dissertation research decades ago, meeting and engaging with some of his very same interlocutors. Charlie’s long history of engagement with the village of Kuwdé created a unique point of entry that can take many years to build.

When it came to our independent inquiries and projects, each student held full rein. In my cohort, student work ranged from an ethnographic exploration of Kuwdé’s traditional medical system to the construction of a solar-powered cyber-internet café. Simultaneously, we observed Charlie conducting ethnographic interviews in parallel for his own research. Slightly distinct from a traditional field-school model, this balance of shadowing a professional anthropologist in their work while also conducting our own blurred the boundaries between studying and doing in an embodied, practiced way.

Upon our return to the US, we contemplated how best to translate our fieldnotes and summer experiences into written form in a way that might reach broader peer audiences. The usual outlets—for example, a one-page report to the summer funding agency or even a chapter of a forthcoming senior thesis—seemed rather insular and limited. During my time in Togo and after my return, a particular book kept entering my mind. It was titled Health Care in Maya Guatemala: Confronting Medical Pluralism in a Developing Country, edited by John Hawkins and Walter Randolph Adams, and I had read the book in my Indigenous Medicine and Global Health course at Duke. While topically relevant for someone studying indigenous medicine and the ethical-moral challenges of development, the book actually entered my mind for another reason. Save for the introduction and conclusion, which were penned by the editor-professors, the book was written entirely by undergraduates. There was something palpably accessible about reading these chapters and knowing that their writers were in much the same developmental stage as I was. They grappled with some of the same questions I did and wrote in a language I found to be more accessible than most professional writing in anthropology. Their conversations were familiar. Reading them, I felt as though I were dialoguing with some of my peers back in Togo. Struck by the resonance of this book with my own fieldwork experience, I approached Charlie with an idea. “Charlie, do you think we could do something like this?” Charlie, in his characteristically optimistic and eternally can-do spirit, replied, “I don’t see why not!”

That spring and the following fall, we assembled a weekly writing group of students from two consecutive summer programs. We began writing up our fieldnotes and interviews into chapter-length essays. Once we had workable drafts, we invited John Hawkins, one of the editors of Health Care in Maya Guatemala, to Duke to hold a workshop on undergraduate writing for publication. Hawkins highlighted the unique challenges his group faced, from writing for an undergraduate audience to communicating the value of undergraduate publishing to academic presses. We also held an editing workshop with Ken Wissoker of Duke University Press, who acquainted us with the intricacies of peer review. One of the most resonant recommendations Ken gave us was to create a space to be honest and reflexive in our work. He emphasized harnessing, rather than downplaying, our unique subject position as emerging scholars. What were the moments when our ideologies and expectations came up against field realities? How did we navigate these moments?

 Following the advice of Hawkins and Wissoker, we decided to open the book with five shorter, more personal essays—reflexive exposés of the moments that didn’t make it into the second half of the book that houses the more traditional chapters. By detailing, in a conversational tone, how our field experiences informed our analytical work, these exposés were critical in terms of demonstrating the pedagogical value of student engagement. In writing them, we were able to breathe a sigh and let go of the mantle of strained professionalism. In the end, our chapters are legible to broader audiences precisely because we imagined ourselves speaking to fellow undergraduates.

Some students confronted their own preconceptions and stereotypes, as well as reappraised their motivations for going to Togo in the first place. As Ben writes:

I wanted to go to an ‘exotic’ locale, where I could be of help . . . to Africa. No, not Togo. Africa. . . . My only experience with Africa prior to Togo consisted of reading books such as Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart and viewing Hollywood films such as Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland. Africa for me was a wilderness . . . rampant with corruption and crises. Africa was thirsty, and this thirst could be quenched by even a freshman college student. . . . I now realize how naive I was in my reasons for going to Togo. The personal relationships I formed . . . tore apart my Western stereotypes of Africa. (Ramsey 2016, 31)

In my aside, I reflected on my own evolution alongside my fieldwork from a self-conscious premedicine undergrad burdened with having to justify my interests in studying nonbiomedical practices to a budding anthropologist questioning the values and assumptions undergirding “medical efficacy” in the first place.

With these passages, the book became less of a detached presentation of research conclusions and findings and more of a transparent, at times even humorous, guide or conversation with other undergraduates about the realities of doing anthropology and development work as a young scholar. It was my hope that they spoke to what George Marcus (2009) has called the “fieldwork imaginary”: our temporal anticipations and the negotiation of their consequences in real-life encounters.

Since its release in August 2016, Doing Development in West Africa: A Reader by and for Undergraduates (Piot 2016) is currently being taught in a dozen undergraduate classrooms (of which we are aware) across the country, in anthropology departments as well as interdisciplinary global health, African studies, and development programs. Its appeal, we believe, resonates with part of a broader trend in universities today to offer multidisciplinary global internship programs, many of which emphasize “doing development.” Its value, then, lies in the application of an anthropological lens to the oft-depersonalizing and decontextualizing logics of “development” itself. By tending to “the local” and observing the consequences of our interventions firsthand, this anthropological lens offers an invaluable shift in critical consciousness and reflexivity at the undergraduate level. It implores undergraduates to question handed-down notions of “moral good” and “need” and to confront the embedded assumptions within their own “fieldwork imaginaries.”

What, then, about my experience may speak to a broader recalibration of undergraduate pedagogy and curriculum? This experience of writing and publishing Doing Development in West Africa highlights an untapped frontier for undergraduates in the realm of publishing, as well as marks a discursive space that our discipline has, I believe, yet to fully harness. While undergraduates may have published prior to arriving to graduate school, often this publishing takes the form of coauthorship with a senior advisor. Several journals specifically exist to publish undergraduate work, including AnthroJournal, Journal of Undergraduate Anthropology, and the e-journal of the National Association of Student Anthropologists, but often this work takes the form of course papers or literature reviews as opposed to ethnographic fieldwork-based writing. An overwhelming majority of these journals are online, as opposed to print. Furthermore, many of these journals have short half-lives and are in seeming decline. Imponderabilia, a journal for undergraduate anthropologists run by the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge with a mission to bridge the gap between undergraduate and postgraduate publishing, retired its website in 2013. The web address for Focus: An Online (peer-reviewed) Publication of Undergraduate Articles and Photography in Anthropology, which once attracted nationwide participation, now results in a “404-not found” message.

Beyond the journal model, one is hard-pressed to find a peer-reviewed publication written entirely by undergraduates. Indeed, Health Care in Maya Guatemala (2007) was the only example we had to work from. As of now, aside from Health Care in Maya Guatemala and our own book, we know of no other exclusively undergraduate-written anthologies in the discipline. Why this paucity? And what does this say about our investment in publishing at the undergraduate level? One might point to the strained political economy of academic publishing. Indeed, a plethora of critique surrounds the digitization of academic journals, as well as the commercialization of public research by private publishers, which stifles and stymies the pipeline of “publishable” work (Pirie 2009). To be sure, the scalability of book projects like Doing Development in West Africa faces certain barriers. As already mentioned, the sustainability of programs like ours in Togo depends heavily on people like Charlie who invest immeasurable time and energy into them. And as one reviewer pointed out, such projects may only ever be feasible for more well-endowed institutions like Duke. At the same time, given the vast profusion and steady growth of undergraduate development and study abroad initiatives across the globe (University of Oxford 2017), it seems equally plausible that Duke University Press could collect enough accounts to constitute volumes 2 through 10 of Doing Development, perhaps each with different genres, including public health, microfinance, and education.

To the question of the import and value of undergraduate publishing, some scholars, particularly from the biological sciences, have staunchly opposed the enterprise as a whole, arguing that undergraduates produce “sub-par” research that would never be published in a “real” journal (Gilbert 2004). But such critiques of undergraduate-only publishing overlook a crucial element of the process: writing by undergraduates for undergraduates produces a different kind of writing, a genre unto itself. Whereas most undergraduate writing endeavors exist under the construct of writing for a teacher and a grade (which itself is embedded in an institutional power dynamic), writing for peers is an entirely different enterprise. Furthermore, most of these controversies and debates over undergraduate publishing are not even happening within anthropology, but are largely relegated to STEM fields. The absence of such conversations is both concerning and telling. Perhaps we need a reorientation of value. If we were to shift our attention from publishing as solely an outlet for senior research to ask what else gets produced, we might open ourselves to new terrain, one in which the not-so-sophisticated but emergent deserves an audience and readership.


Gilbert, Scott F. 2004. “Points of View: Should Students Be Encouraged to Publish Research in Student-Run Publications? A Case Against Undergraduate-only Journal Publications.” Cell Biology Education 3 (1): 22–23.

Hawkins, John Palmer, and Walter Randolph Adams. 2007. Health Care in Maya Guatemala: Confronting Medical Pluralism in a Developing Country. Oklahoma City: University of Oklahoma.

Marcus, George E. 2009. “Traffic in Art and Anthropology: How Fieldwork in Theater Arts Might Inform the Reinvention of Fieldwork in Anthropology.” In Aesthetics and Anthropology: Performing Life, Performed Lives, edited by Ina-Maria Greverus and Ute Ritschel. Berlin: Lit Verlag.

Piot, Charles ed. 2016. Doing Development in West Africa: A Reader by and for Undergraduates. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Pirie, Iain. 2009. “The Political Economy of Academic Publishing.” Historical Materialism 17 (3): 31–60.

Ramsey, Benjamin. 2016. “Students Reflect.” In Doing Development in West Africa: A Reader by and for Undergraduates, edited by Charles Piot. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

University of Oxford. 2017. International Trends in Higher Education 2016–2017. Oxford: University of Oxford International Strategy Office.