By Charlie Piot (Duke University)

I consider Richard Handler a curricular visionary. Three 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 Handler’s new global studies major. It’s the fastest-growing, most popular major at UVA, with over three hundred applications each year for one hundred and twenty-five 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 theoretical critiques of culture and politics, but the term “anthropology” remains illegible to them, especially as a potential major. They prefer majors that seem relevant—relevant to students’ perceived postgraduation job prospects in fields such as health, finance, and policy studies. Interestingly, Duke’s Department of Evolutionary Anthropology has more than one hundred majors—in part, because courses in that major overlap with the needs of students applying to medical school.

Students seem to have no problem taking anthropology classes as long as they fit into their long-term career interests. Thus, when anthropologists teach Global Health or Development Policy courses at UVA, or Development and Africa and Medical Anthropology courses at Duke, enrollments swell. On the other hand, a course like my Culture and Politics of Africa no longer attracts students as before.

Duke’s Department of Cultural Anthropology—a stand-alone unit that separated from today’s Department of Evolutionary Anthropology in the late 1980s—has eighteen full-time faculty members, half of whom have won teaching awards. But we are now 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. Following this logic, I recently designed a course, Anthropology of Money, which is cross-listed in economics (a department with five hundred majors) and public policy (four hundred majors). The course oversubscribed with an enrollment of one hundred.

An initiative that my department has also been considering is whether to subsume a popular Duke undergraduate major, international comparative studies (ICS), as a second track within the cultural anthropology major (CA). ICS has five times as many majors as CA (while teaching courses that overlap heavily with the CA curriculum and being run by two faculty members who are anthropologists). But students choose to major in ICS rather than CA because its name is more legible to them and because they feel it better orients them to careers in international studies and global finance. (Lee Baker writes about the CA-ICS merger in his essay in this volume, a merger that has recently become endangered by the hostile takeover attempt of another group of humanities faculty desperately searching for their own majors. The takeover attempt speaks to how critical the issue of institutional legibility is today for anthropology and other humanities disciplines, which are suffering their own crisis.)

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—faculty preference is to retain our moniker and remain within our current disciplinary home. Among other reasons, we still have a robust graduate program that goes under the name anthropology. Rather than dissolve or utterly transform our department and identity as a discipline, our goal continues to be to opportunistically take on units like ICS and refigure our classes along the lines envisioned by Handler. This will enable us to attract students to our classes, if not our major, and give us a broader impact on how students think about today’s world.

Another strategy our department has been mulling includes creating tracks within the major that conform to Handler’s rethinking outside the major. This would internalize Handler’s externalizing move in which he created an anthropology department under another name, outside UVA’s anthropology department. Thus, we are considering the creation of tracks or concentrations of clustered classes that majors would sign up for, under labels such as “Medicine and Global Health,” “Finance and Development,” “Environment and Culture,” “Media and the Digital,” “Race and Diaspora,” and “Performance and Sport.” Under “Finance and Development,” for instance, I would teach my Anthropology of Money and Africa and Development courses, while another faculty member would teach Anthropology of Business and Anthropology of the Corporation courses. Another would offer a class on East Asian Capitalisms. Another would teach Anthropology and Public Policy. And so on.

The point here is to try to capture student drift toward the policy institutes—global health and public policy—and economics. While such a strategy is likely to increase enrollments and enable us to get our message out to those who otherwise would never take an anthropology class, it remains unclear whether it will increase majors as well. However, increasing our number of majors versus size of enrollments may not matter in this era of butts-on-the-bench metrics.

I conclude by describing an entirely different initiative with undergraduates that I have been involved with over the past ten years—of summer research and development projects in the villages of northern Togo where I have conducted anthropological research since the mid-1980s. These summer projects not only give students a taste of fieldwork and anthropology but also hit them in their soft spot, appealing to their desire to do good in the world. (This work has also led to the publication of a book of student essays, which Alexandra Middleton describes in her essay in this section.)

The student development projects in northern Togo are all small—“DIY”—development initiatives, largely cooked up by the students themselves. They have built two cyber cafés in villages without electricity and running water and have taught computer classes to children who have never seen a computer before. They have created a microfinance program for teens, a scheme that has had a 95 percent rate of return. They’ve designed a health insurance system in one of the village clinics and established a writer’s collective whose aim is to publish novellas about everyday life in the village. Finally, they’ve created an oral history project to archive and publish village histories and folktales/proverbs/naming practices.

These projects are not only appreciated locally—I am urged each year when the students leave to bring another cohort the next year—but also, as indicated above, tap into student desire to do good in the world, by doing something they see as political and having real-world impact. These are millennials who also want to do their bit to change the world, albeit in ways that many in my generation of academics dismiss as apolitical or worse—furthering neoliberal agendas is the worry—a critique I consider wrong-headed.

For both students and anthropology faculty, the value of such small-scale anthropologically guided development work is that its immersive nature makes anthropology real and visceral. Certainly, not all of my students were enchanted, but many of those who were have been forever changed. Several have returned on their own to this Togolese hinterland to engage in research for a senior thesis. One went back for a year of Fulbright study. Another returned for three months during a gap year. A third followed up his summer in the villages with an internship at the US embassy in Lomé, and more than ten of the seventy students who have spent a summer in Togo have gone on to graduate school in related fields, either anthropology or development studies, or they now work for development NGOs. If our mission as teachers is to make anthropology relevant today, this is another way of doing so—one consistent with Handler’s “anthropology-under-another-name” agenda.

To be sure, it takes someone willing to give up time each summer—and, indeed, colleagues have asked why I would want to spend more time with students after teaching them all year. The answer to that question is easy for me. These student projects allow me to return to a place that has always captivated me and, once there, enables me to continue my own research. Moreover, closing the circle, I find myself energized by these bright, politically committed millennials. They ask questions and propose projects I have never dreamt of, and, in so doing, further my own engagement with this area and with an anthropology keyed into the times.

I do not think it is overstating things to say that anthropology as an institutionalized curriculum of undergraduate teaching in the US academy is endangered today. Majors are declining in many departments, formerly popular classes are no longer filling, and faculty teaching lines are not being replaced. At the same time, and paradoxically, we are in the odd, perhaps comforting position of having something of significant value to offer students—critical knowledge about today’s globalizing world. The challenge, then, is to present and make relevant that knowledge in ways that translate to student need in these anxious times—through, among other strategies, renaming classes and rethinking majors, and through demonstrating the real-world relevance of an anthropological view of the world.

I thus see this uncertain moment as a potentially productive crossroads for the discipline, one that provides an opportunity for us to reinvent ourselves in new ways, yet again. But unlike many of those earlier reinventions—which have always been more about theoretical and paradigmatic reimaginings—this rethinking is more institutional/curricular/pedagogical. And its importance for our long-term survival as a discipline may be far greater than any of those earlier rethinkings.