13 April 2011

On the Future of Anthropology

Almost three and a half years ago I wrote an entry on this very blog describing my thoughts on the value of anthropology in the future. This entry, On the Future and Anthropology, is one of the biggest sources of traffic to my blog. Evidently many people around the world search for the terms future and anthropology.

Since then the character of the blog has changed nearly as much as the thoughts and experiences inside me. And I feel obligated to offer some updates with regards to the role and future of anthropology.

My feelings on the state of the world and the values that anthropology has to offer have not changed significantly. Anthropology has precisely the nuanced, worldly perspectives which can give important meaning and insight into contentious issues of human rights, violent conflict, capitalist ethics and the like. The future and anthropology are almost certainly well suited for each other.

However, the future of anthropology is far less certain. I've now been a student of anthropology for nearly six academic years and this past year has made something abundantly clear to me: anthropology spends its days around the world learning things, but sleeps with its head in its ass.

Since the original post I've entered a graduate program and anthropology and I am undergoing the academic and professional training of its future practitioners. I have found that as graduate students we are not taught how to write, how to teach, how to engage, how to listen or even how to speak. We are instead taught how to become effective and tactical academics, working to succeed in an academic system that almost any professor will say is broken.

As students, we learn to write for publication and not for an audience. We learn that presentations are venues to place information in front of an audience, instead of presenting it to them. We learn that teaching is a form of employment and a hassle conflicting with what our truer academic goals should be. And we take these lessons and apply them in classrooms full of young undergraduate students. And we take these lessons and apply them to our own classrooms full of our peers. And we take these lessons to anyone we know who might, for a minute, entertain a masturbatory exposition on the theoretical context of our research.

This is only one experience and it is not intended to reflect on the abilities and motives of my colleagues, professors or mentors. It is also likely that other departments better emphasize the possibilities of contribution in anthropology, or at the very least, the encouragement of innovation. However, I must at once place blame on the individuals as well as the structures. We are agents, each day making decisions to contribute, create or re-create.

Professional anthropologists complain of the stigma attached to writing for popular audiences, but do not confront it. They sit bored to tears in graduate seminars listening to bright students drone on illustrating an astounding ability to retain and comprehend (without contributing to knowledge), but they do not change the format. They endlessly pour over poorly written term papers, but do not teach writing.

They complain and wait for tenure honestly, I think, expecting to change the system when they have the clout. But to change the system whilst sitting atop its structure would place careers and standings in jeopardy. Change will not come from the top, it will not come in time.

There are glimmers of hope, those individuals who would demand that we find a voice before all else. And it is precisely a voice that anthropology needs to find. Not a unified voice necessarily, but one that is spoken clearly. Not an applied voice necessarily, but one that engages. Not a popular voice necessarily, but one that appreciates an audience.

As a musician, an artist and, perhaps, a scholar, I have come to recognize the role that performance plays in every day of life. Writing a term paper is a performance. Writing a journal article is a performance. Presenting a paper is a performance. Teaching is a performance. Celebrating with colleagues is a performance.

Performances do not need to be perfect. In fact, it is the imperfections which make them lively and real. Their value lies in creating a shared space of communication, translation, listening and reflection; what have I heard and seen, what have I learned and taught, what have I created and how have I shared it?

Anthropology needs to learn to perform instead of present. To create instead of write. To engage instead of teach. As students we should demand a change in vocabulary and expectations to follow. If anthropology can do these things, if we can do these things, then the discipline will have a bright future. If we cannot, then anthropology might as well stay where it is.