By Lee D. Baker (Duke University)

At Duke University, seniors get the first registration window, and, like clockwork, my senior advisees scramble to make appointments one or two days before their window opens. For me, at least, advising is always a tug-a-war between the transactional and transformational: ensuring that advisees meet requirements, but also inviting each student to make meaning out of their education by looking at the courses they have taken and reflecting upon the experiences with which they have engaged. I want students to select courses that form a coherent pathway. Too often, a student’s education entails a jumble of thirty-four courses required to graduate, and an incoherent mix of study-abroad experiences, internships, and volunteer activities. I want students to continue to stoke their curiosity and select courses that build on their volunteer, leadership, and global experiences, as well as develop their interests and passions.

Last fall, Crystal White (a pseudonym) came to my office, and she had a surprisingly coherent education. As an international comparative studies major, she had taken Arabic for four years, studied abroad in Cairo, and took courses on Palestine with anthropologist Rebecca Stein and on premodern Islam with historian Omid Safi. Her transcript depicted a strong theoretical grounding in postcolonial studies, transnationalism, and a critique of neoliberal states.

Crystal carefully placed her iPhone, Starbucks skinny latte, and keys on my desk and confidently flipped open her MacBook Pro. A simple ponytail fell in a cascade down her burnt-orange Patagonia quarter-zip, and a pendant of three identical triangles hung from a delicate gold necklace around her neck.

Crystal had put together an impressive interdisciplinary education focused on understanding the languages and cultures of the Middle East. I was very impressed and congratulated her on the way she crafted a rigorous and robust education inside and outside the classroom. She graciously accepted my praise and explained that it was challenging, but rewarding. “So,” I asked, “what are you planning to do after you graduate?” She responded quickly, confidently, and enthusiastically, “I am going to work for Homeland Security and eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from our country.” I nearly fell out of my chair. She went on, “I am a patriot, and I love my country. Islam is a beautiful and valuable religion, we just have to be smarter and more creative than the terrorists, we have to stop the process of self-radicalization and prevent people from coming to this country who manipulate the teachings of the Kor’an in a way that promotes terror.”

I thought to myself, this is not your typical anthropology student. At Duke, cultural anthropology rarely attracts Republicans or members of Delta Delta Delta, the apex of the so-called core four sororities on campus. Republicans and Tri-Delts, however, are attracted to international comparative studies. Affectionately known as ICS, this interdisciplinary major for undergraduates integrates language learning with global and area studies. With more than one hundred majors, it is the fourth largest major in the social sciences, bested only by economics, public policy, and psychology. An interdisciplinary gateway and senior capstone course bookend the major. In addition, students choose four language courses, four courses focused on a region of the world, and four courses focused on globalization or transnationalism. Good advising and a student’s commitment to developing a coherent pathway are the keys to successfully crafting an education with meaning. Done well, it is a robust and rigorous education that explores language, culture, and society from different perspectives and disciplines. Students combine research, civic and global engagement, and interdisciplinary learning to prepare to become global leaders in a complex world. Done poorly, it is an incoherent jumble of classes that have little thematic consistency. Most educational plans students stitch together hew along the lines of the former, rather than the latter.

One of the overall strengths of the program is its diversity. Although it has its share of conservatives, the major attracts students committed to the Antifa and BLM movements, world peace, and interfaith dialogue. Although students are more likely to work for an international NGO or go to graduate or professional school, we do have those who go to work for Bain Capital or the Department of Homeland Security. The vast majority of students are women, more than half of the students are people of color, a large percent are international students, and some are even members of our Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC). In a world that is increasingly polarized by race, class, and politics, creating a diverse community of learning constituted from smart students from different parts of the world, different subject positions, and different political orientations seems not just important but vital to the value of institutions of higher education. What role could interested anthropology departments play in fostering and supporting this type of learning community? Are anthropology programs positioned better than other disciplinary departments to facilitate an interdisciplinary program focused on critical global studies? Well, at Duke, in the past, the answer to these questions was maybe and probably yes. Now, the answer is maybe but probably not.

International comparative studies began at Duke forty-five years ago. In 1973, an interdisciplinary committee proposed a new major called comparative area studies with the goal of exploring “the problems of contemporary societies through a study of interactions between traditional societies and the forces of social and political change” (Hasso 2012, 12). I think it is important to note that the origin of this new program did not develop from Cold War area studies programs. Members of the committee, which included anthropologist William “Mac” O’Barr, wanted students to explore how traditional cultures in developing counties were responding to current events that generated rapid globalization. In 1973, those included the OPEC oil crisis, the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam, Bosque and IRA terrorist bombings, the coup in Chile, and the independence of Belize and the Bahamas. It was the same year that the US Supreme Court made abortion legal in Roe v. Wade, Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, and Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, and Led Zeppelin dominated the rotation of vinyl on the AM dial.

From its beginnings, ICS has always had robust enrollments, and for the past decade, it has been fairly steady, bouncing around one hundred, while anthropology has steadily lost majors, from a high of approximately sixty in 2006 to a low of twenty-five today. The cultural anthropology department has fifteen full-time faculty members, while ICS has two regular-rank faculty and one adjunct (or union faculty, which is what we call them now at Duke). The program also has a director, me. The program partners with other programs for language instruction and the global and area courses, so ICS can survive with only two regular-rank faculty members. It helps that both are extremely committed, enthusiastic, and engaged with their advisees and classes.

Students compose an interdisciplinary education by taking courses in other departments. Like at other universities, history, literature, and cultural anthropology, as well as the language programs, have been hit hard in the wake of the overall decline in majors in the humanities and interpretive social sciences. Simply put, ICS provides increased enrollments for these programs that have seen declines in both enrollments and majors over the last decade.

Although regular rank, the two faculty members are not on the tenure track. They are professors of the practice, as we call them, or PoPs for short. ICS has a program committee that provides advising, mentorship for undergraduate research, and strategic guidance, yet the program is dependent upon volunteer labor of faculty who are appointed in other departments. As one prominent faculty member reported to the student newspaper, “I am deeply committed to the ICS students I advise, but my first obligation, inevitably, is to my principal department. ICS students deserve to have more faculty whose primary commitment is to them” (Ramkumar 2015, 7). Identifying advisors and research mentors is a perpetual challenge, but also challenging is identifying faculty who are willing to chair reappointment review committees for our PoPs, which are only slightly less cumbersome than chairing a tenure-review committee. Finally, finding faculty members to serve as director has been virtually impossible. First, the workload is equivalent to being a department chair; however, it does not have a graduate program, it is not a department, and there are only two faculty members, with the prospects of adding only one more. Although I think it is a tremendous professional growth and development opportunity, faculty just don’t think the investment in time is worth it.

Another reason principled faculty members have not been attracted to providing leadership for this distinctive program is that the administration does not want to invest the resources in ICS to make it a full-fledged department. Leaning on a particular vision of the neoliberal university, these faculty members logically argue that a model of education that outsources teaching to other departments makes the program a parasite, not a partner. The model is driven by efficiency—not the pursuit of excellence and knowledge. They are not wrong, but it does assume there is one model for successful education: the traditional department model with a set number of FTEs relative to the size of the major.

For eight years, I served as the dean of academic affairs and three years ago had the privilege to try to solve this challenge of trying to provide stable and sustainable leadership for this program. About fifteen years ago, however, when assessment was just becoming an integral part of the accountability component of the neoliberal university, the ICS director asked me (I was then serving as director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Cultural Anthropology), “What are your learning outcomes, because ours are pretty much like yours, so maybe we could collaborate on this exercise?” Right then and there, however, I thought if were so similar, why are we in different units? Except for ethnographic methods and anthropological theory, the learning outcomes were essentially the same—using critical theory to help students gain a nuanced understanding of different parts of the world, globalization, transnational, and the impact of colonialism and global capitalism.

In 2015, my colleague Linda Burton, then dean of social sciences, and I had to take over the leadership of ICS as deans. One effective approach to solve this problem, I argued, was to integrate ICS within cultural anthropology. I believed that the two units would be stronger together. To make a long story short, a committee agreed but made it clear that “a successful partnership between the Department of Cultural Anthropology and International Comparative Studies programs depends, as so many do, on a balanced combination of collaboration and independence.”

I agreed to continue my service as director of ICS and agreed to chair our cultural anthropology department with the explicit provision that I would work toward structuring an enduring and sustainable partnership. But then we got a new dean of social sciences who thought otherwise, and has charged a new committee to explore what it would take to structure an autonomous and independent ICS. On the one hand, the entire exercise was a waste of time and political capital, but on the other hand, the conversations our cultural anthropology department had around pedagogy and the type of students we should be teaching were productive.

I have also learned that we, as anthropologists, are well positioned to foster a learning community and a community of learning grounded upon critical global studies with a diverse group of students—not just the left-leaning students committed to global health, social justice, and anticolonialism. We need to teach students like Crystal who believe Islam is beautiful and want to prevent terrorism.

The committee recommended and the dean agreed to maintain ICS as a stand-alone program. The question remains, however, how best can anthropologists teach and reach students who are not our usual suspects? Therefore, our department is currently thinking both strategically and deliberately about how best to offer courses that would attract a wider swath of students to foster and facilitate diverse communities of learning. Privileging anthropological concepts and perspectives (not necessarily methods and theories), we plan on offering clusters of courses that explore such themes as race and social justice, medicine and global health, finance and development, environment and culture, media and the digital, and performance and sport. The Duke administration does not want our anthropology program to integrate ICS into our department. However, we envision playing a leadership role on campus by offering courses along these specific themes. We want to partner with literature,, African and African America studies, history, education, philosophy, and gender, sexuality, and feminist studies to develop interdisciplinary “clusters” of courses around students’ interests. What I learned from our ICS students, and what I have gleaned from the falling enrollments in our department, and cognate departments is that students are not necessarily interested in the theories of philosophy, historiography, or ethnographic methods. They are interested in, for example, global climate change and rainforest deforestation. So they pursue this curiosity by learning Portuguese or Spanish, history and literature of Latin America, international development, and take an anthropology class on the environment and the Anthropocene.

Our department believes that students who want to work for the Department of Homeland Security or the military should also have anthropology as part of their education. We hope these soon-to-be young professionals will learn from our more traditional students who might be viewed as our “core constituency,” which will create a vibrant and diverse intellectual community that will help all students prepare to be global leaders for a complex world.


Hasso, Frances, 2012. “International Comparative Studies, Duke University, Application for Formal Program Status.” Duke University: Arts and Sciences Council.

Ramkumar, Amrith, 2015. “ICS Looking for Stability.” The Chronicle: The Independent Daily at Duke University. August 21.