By Alisse Waterston (City University of New York, John Jay College of Criminal Justice)

Most authors represented in the collection of essays, “Attending to Undergraduate Desire,” are professors and/or students from among the most elite and prestigious, if not the wealthiest, institutions of higher education in the United States. This is important to note because some of the especially interesting dilemmas discussed in the essays and, indeed, the core concerns—What do today’s undergraduates want and/or need? How do particular pedagogical approaches and the discipline of anthropology fit with those needs, wants, expectations, aspirations?—reflect student as well as faculty social positionalities. In “Lessons from the Field,” Carolyn Rouse references her position as an African American to state how and why black people in US institutions are “inclined to seek socially beneficial applications for our academic knowledge production” (emphasis mine). Rouse goes on to write, “There is a racial politics to theorizing that makes our work illegible to others when we talk about things other than race.” I think the question of the racialized, gendered, and classed political economy of higher education in this country and of anthropology as a discipline in all its aspects (research, writing, teaching, learning, and in its “applications”) is essential. If we are “attending to undergraduate desire,” we need to understand where “our” students are coming from, and we need to face up to the privileged seats from which we—the professors—offer critical pedagogy and social critique that may float well in hallowed lecture halls but all too often crumble when they hit the ground (though it doesn’t need to).

I appreciate that each contributor is grappling with aspects of these issues, some to great effect. I believe we need more of the kind of confrontation offered in the teacher-student dialogue by Anne Nelson Stoner and Richard Handler. I am grateful to them for their provocative essay, which inspires my response. These dialogues—between professors and students, and between us—provide opportunity for critical reflexivity. It provides a space for all of us to try to come to terms with the most challenging of contradictions inherent in the interplay between our particular social locations, ethical positions, moral commitments, occupational obligations, and the promises and possibilities we offer “our” students.

In “Between Understanding and Action: Anthropological Pedagogy and the Habitus of Privilege among US Undergraduate Students,” Stoner and Handler put the social location of UVA students front and center (as “mostly from privileged backgrounds”), but, notably, not that of the professor. Stoner’s honesty is refreshing. She notes the disaggregation between students’ “growing intellectual understanding” (“anthropological critique”) and the way they conduct their own personal lives, a tension she engages thoughtfully.

The student seems to offer these tensions as a challenge to her professor. In an effort to address them, the authors offer a frame comprised of “several interrelated dichotomies: the rational and the emotional, the professional and the personal, the experience-distant and the experience-near, and the world of work and world of fun.” The professor “asks why we should assume that affect is more important than intellect in motivating either teachers or students to take political action?” (emphasis mine). Inherent in the question is an either/or-ness and a weighting (more or less important), which isn’t necessarily the student’s question. I interpreted the student’s concern to be with the disconnect between aspects of her (and other students’) experience and her (emergent) understanding that the very assumptions underlying the pedagogy to which she was being exposed led only to “growing intellectual understanding” without the development of a fuller understanding that involves intellect, reason, affect, emotion, thinking, action, the personal and the political, and as feminist scholars and activists have long argued, the political in the personal—in other words, all of it at the same time. Stoner’s incipient understanding of her need and desire to integrate more fully is reflected in the discussion of her discovery of Sufi literature.

I appreciate that Professor Handler is open to Stoner’s challenges, though I get the sense he deflects it a bit. For example, Stoner asks: “Isn’t critical thinking playing the same game?” (i.e., “training students to adopt a proper attitude”). Handler responds: “‘critical thinking’ has become a cliché in liberal arts fundraising discourses . . . (and has become) a skill that corporate employers will buy . . . but it cannot mean questioning the ultimate goals of the organization or its place in the wider sociopolitical system—meanings that it might have, or might once have had, inside the academy.” What is Professor Handler asking his student to do, really? When I say he deflects a bit, I mean he seems to look away from the implications of the kind of critical thinking he imparts.

Critical anthropology has the potential to unleash revolutionary potential. However, are we professors bringing critical anthropology to students for its revolutionary implications? I don’t think so. This is why it is so important to face up to all our social locations, especially for those of us who are professors sitting in privileged and relatively safe locations in the academy. However critical we are in theory, in practice we are all liberal subjects working within the logics of neoliberal capitalism. I don’t think we can ask more of our students than we ask of ourselves. And Stoner seems to be yearning for something not so split into two, into a this-or-a-that. With the consciousness she has from the knowledge she has gained in her undergraduate studies and through the guidance of Professor Handler, she seems to be asking how to move forward in the real world, to provide for herself and her family, do meaningful work, minimize harm, participate in human-centered social change, and also partake in the pleasures and joys that life can bring.

Where I work (a public, urban university with working-class, working-poor students of color whose median family income is $42,000 as compared with UVA, where two-thirds of the student body is white and median family income is $156,000), the challenges and concerns are quite different (New York Times 2017). Let me explain.

I am a professor in the Department of Anthropology and also serve as cofaculty and codirector of an innovative undergraduate seminar and internship program (open to students from any major) that operates out of the Interdisciplinary Studies Department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, one of the dozen CUNY senior colleges. As a college whose mission is “public service,” John Jay consistently faces financial shortfalls for several reasons, including that it is a public, not a private, university, and that its graduates tend to work in the public, not the private, sector, and thus its alumni donations cannot match those of Columbia University, located several blocks uptown, or New York University, several blocks downtown, from what I consider our midtown educational jewel. John Jay is designated by the federal government as a Hispanic-serving institution (nearly 40 percent of students are Latinx), and as a minority-serving institution because over half our student population are from underrepresented groups (80 percent; about 20 percent are designated white). It is also lauded as a “military friendly” school and has been named among the top twelve “best colleges for veterans.”

Theory in anthropology urges us to appreciate context and contingent history. With this in mind, the kinds of policy and practice changes instituted at John Jay over the past fifteen years are nothing short of remarkable. In 2004, Jeremy Travis became the fourth president of the college. An attorney by training whose field of expertise is prisoner reentry, Travis had previously served in NYC government, in nonprofit social service and research organizations, and as the head of the National Institute of Justice under President Bill Clinton. As a college president, Travis faced the “neoliberal” pressures affecting institutions of higher education we so often talk about. And he was faced with making some critical choices.

Given the facts of John Jay’s (very poor) financial state, the pressure on college presidents today to focus almost exclusively on fundraising, and the college’s historical reputation as a “cop school,” Travis might have focused on (literally) capitalizing on the opportunities of the expanding national-security state in the post-9/11 period. Instead, Travis envisioned the college as a major teaching and research hub for the study of “justice” in all its manifestations. At a time when other universities were shrinking offerings in the liberal arts, during Travis’s tenure (2003–2017), John Jay expanded them, developing strong humanities and social science programs to complement its preeminence in the fields of criminal justice, forensic science, and forensic psychology. “Educating for justice” became the college tagline, easily visible on a wall of bold words that grace the college’s 59th Street entrance: Educating for criminal—international—moral—racial—academic—real—gender—religious—political—economic—legal—philosophical—cultural—environmental—social and poetic justice.

Where previously there were only majors with a criminal justice bent, now there would be new majors dedicated to the very disciplines within which the professors at the college were trained. Over a six-year period (2008–2014), new majors were launched in anthropology, economics, English, gender studies, sociology, philosophy, and more. This is an amazing accomplishment in the context of an austerity budget and pressures to conform to the demands of the neoliberal university.

Anthropology@johnjaycollege (as we refer to the department) offers students what Jason Antrosio describes in his post-Trump election reflection on Sidney Mintz and “Anthropology’s Unfinished Revolution.” Antrosio argues about the importance of providing undergraduates “a dose of global history, and especially of the interconnected history of colonialism, capitalism and slavery.” Connecting “anthropology matters” with critical anthropology and history, Antrosio quotes Michel-Rolph Trouillot: “the ultimate context of [anthropology’s] relevance is the world outside, usually starting with the country within which we publish rather than with those that we write about” (Antrosio 2016; Trouillot 2003, 114).

My students know the content of “critical anthropology” because they live it; my job is to guide them toward deeper knowledge of the causes and consequences of their lived experiences with strong doses of global history (Waterston and Kukaj 2007). As most of my students prepare to enter the real world of the national security state as workers in the criminal justice system or in criminal justice reform, my job is also to provide my underserved, aspiring minority students the tools and skills they need to get opportunities they did not have before. I bring critical anthropology to my students 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 (see Baker, this collection).


Antrosio, J. 2016. “The Discovery of Sidney Mintz: Anthropology’s Unfinished Revolution.” Living Anthropologically, December 16.

New York Times. 2017. “Economic Diversity and Student Outcomes at America’s Colleges and Universities: Find Your College.” January 18.

Trouillot, M. R. 2003. Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Waterston, Alisse, and Antigona Kukaj. 2007. “Reflections on Teaching Social Violence in an Age of Genocide and a Time of War.” American Anthropologist 109 (3): 509–18.