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"Savage Minds" - 3 new articles

  1. We Don’t Need Another Hero
  2. Where your money and your articles meet
  3. Anthropology & Academic Publishing: Update
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  5. Search Savage Minds
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We Don’t Need Another Hero

This quarter’s American Anthropologist reprints two distinguished lectures from AAA conferences past, including Jeremy Sabloff’s excellent “Where have you gone, Margret Mead? Anthropology and Public Intellectuals.” Even though I was in attendance at the 2010 conference in New Orleans I somehow missed this talk. You can be sure that my absence had nothing to do with Bourbon Street, seafood, bread pudding, or cruising city neighborhoods with lost cab drivers looking for avant garde art installations. Nothing at all.

Which is a shame, because I’m heartened by the AAA’s earnest interest in exploring the public role of our discipline although I am skeptical as to whether this will amount to more than a trend to be tossed aside when something else bright and shiny catches the discipline’s attention. Maybe I’m reminded of similar calls for anthropology to be interdisciplinary only for that to amount to so much lip service. You can’t make a career publishing in journals of history, American studies, or education. If you want to be an anthropologist you are expected to publish in anthropology journals. Interdisciplinarity be damned.

If you are a dues paying member of the AAA then you can read the text of Sabloff’s plea for heightened public engagement behind a pay wall. While blogging does feature in his essay (with mad shout outs to Daniel Lende and Michael Smith), whether the Association’s decision to pursue a toll-gated publication regime managed by Wiley-Blackwell is at odds with his call for public engagement is, unfortunately, not addressed.

Did you see what I did there? Public. Publication. Eh? Eh?

To the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” Sabloff pines for the day when our discipline had a public intellectual in Margaret Mead, one who captured the nation’s imagination, her commentary circulating freely in popular culture. Excepting the important contributions made by practicing anthropologists and professionals engaged in cultural resource management, Sabloff rightly perceives a great gulf separating anthropology from mainstream American society as well as public policy.

We need a celebrity intellectual, he writes, on par with Richard Dawkins, Henry Louis Gates, Paul Krugman, or Cornel West. Sabloff convincingly argues that the structure and traditions that bind professional academia inhibits the creation of such figures. (It’s worth noting that Mead spent the bulk of her career outside the tenure track at the American Museum of Natural History or laboring as an adjunct professor.)

Indeed, I am struck by how the American academy functions as a highly efficient Frankfurt School-esque Culture Industry, siphoning off organic intellectuals from their native communities and sequestering them in ivory towers of silence. Its spooky how effective it is at reaching that goal. Almost as if by design.

The academy gives little incentive for anthropologists to engage the public, with the emphasis falling instead on the publishing of research. Calls such as Sabloff’s for the expansion and reevaluation of criteria for hiring, tenure, and promotion to include such outreach dovetail nicely with ongoing discussions here at Savage Minds and elsewhere on the state of academic publishing. I think this connection should be explored further.

While anthropology does have a figure like Paul Farmer, he is rather low profile in terms of his pop culture cache. For Sabloff we need anthropologists represented in “highly visible media,” butting heads with Bill Maher, taking phone calls from Katie Couric, and trading jokes with John Stewart (his examples).

I thought these choices were kind of odd and to be honest they rubbed me the wrong way. There are anthropological shows on television already or at least shows where a relationship to anthropology is overt and lies on the surface: Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, Antiques Roadshow, the lamentably deceased Postcards from Buster. What Sabloff seems to be saying is that while there currently exist shows on, say, the History Channel that are relevant to themes in anthropology, authentic anthropologists do not play a starring role in them and so mainstream society does not associate them with the anthropology “brand.” But this is not my main beef.

I’m going to come out and just say it. We don’t need another Paul Farmer.

No! Wait! I take that back. We do need more Paul Farmers. We need as many Paul Farmers as we can get, the man is incredible. Maybe what I mean to say is that I’m no Paul Farmer and I hazard to guess that you, gentle reader, are no Paul Farmer either.

I’m definitely not showing up in “highly visible media” any time soon but I am really, really good at teaching Introduction to Anthropology. I think getting more of us engaged in public policy is a terrific idea, but I’m not sure what the policy implications to my research on American Indian theatrical productions for tourists would be. Urging the AAA to get someone to helm public relations sounds keen. But what does it have to do with my everyday responsibilities?

What if instead of celebrity intellectuals we think of what can be done with the AAA’s rank and file. There are, relatively speaking, very few elite professors at prestigious universities compared to the large cohort of professionals at land grant, directional and second tier state schools, HBCU’s, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges. There are hundreds more adjuncts and small timers. If public anthropology is to become a social movement within the field we don’t need rock stars, we need foot soldiers. Encouraging professors to get behind a television production initiative sounds worthwhile, but it also sounds really easy. Especially for me because I won’t have to do a damn thing!

I guess begging anthropology to produce celebrities rings hollow to me. Like one time at a SANA business meeting someone rose from the audience to say, “SANA should do something about xyz” Really? And how do you suppose professional societies ever manage to do things? SANA is you. What you’re actually saying is that you should be the one doing something about xyz, only you don’t realize it yet.

In Errol Morris’s cult documentary “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,” the director juxtaposes interviews of four eccentric personalities to mind blowing effect, including robotics engineer Rodney Brooks. It’s Brooks who in his fantasies of extraterrestrial colonization coins the phrase that Morris gives as the film’s title. You see, in its exploration of Mars, NASA has relied upon a large, elaborate, and expensive robot – if it breaks then you’re out of luck. The robots Brooks proposes to send are about the size of a dinner plate and far less expensive, so you can send many more.

What I’m trying to say is don’t sit around waiting for the next Margaret Mead. And anthropology doesn’t become more relevant to Jose Six-pack once we cross Marshall Sahlins with Marshall Mathers. We can all be public intellectuals of a local, non-celebrity sort. Find something where you are, some way to play a role however small and do it. It doesn’t have to be hard. You don’t have to write a grant. Just share what you know and what you do with the people around you. Let public anthropology be fast, cheap, and out of control.

 

Where your money and your articles meet

Continuing the spate of renewed enthusiasm for diagnosing the mess we are in, here is a fantastic article by David Rosenthal, currently at Stanford library. It’s part of a workshop on “The Future of Research Communication” for which he was asked to diagnose what’s wrong. It’s cogent and complete in the form it currently takes, I look forward to the report.

Just a few nuggets to get your outrage on:

- Rosenthal clearly diagnoses one of the problems with the “bundling” strategy (i.e. giving deep discounts for buying multiple titles, instead of choosing what is needed by a given institutions) that large and small publishers have aggressively pursued. His suggestion is that it is responsible for the dilution of quality, and the proliferation of outlets that might otherwise starve for lack of interest.

- In terms of peer review, which is done primarily by the same conscientious people over and over again (you’re welcome): “In 2008, a Research Information Network report estimated that the unpaid non-cash costs of peer review, undertaken in the main by academics, is £1.9 billion globally each year.”

- Wiley-Blackwell’s 2010 results show their academic publishing division had revenues of $987M and pre-tax profit of $405M, a gross margin of 41%. The parent company’s tax rate is 31%. On the same assumption the net profit is $280M; 28 cents of every dollar of subscription goes directly to Wiley’s shareholders.

There is much more to make you weep…

 


Anthropology & Academic Publishing: Update

Well, if there’s one thing that George Monbiot’s piece about academic publishing has accomplished, it has certainly created some discussion around the internets.  First of all, Lorenz over at anthropology.info has a great post that provides a good summary of some of the debates, reactions, and discussions about this whole issue.  Lorenz also provides an excellent selection of related links at the bottom of this post.

There are two specific posts that I want to highlight out of all this.  The first is Jason Baird Jackson’s post “How enclosed by Large For-Profit Publishers is the Anthropology Journal Literature?“  This one is definitely worth a read for anyone who is interested in this whole publishing conundrum.  Jackson also talks about some of the possible avenues for anyone who is concerned about where to publish: “Recent commentators in the anthropology publishing discussions have wondered whom they should be publishing with in light of their concerns over the state of publishing in the field?”  Check out his post to see what he recommends.

The other post I want to highlight is by Kent Anderson, who writes for the SSP (Society for Scholarly Publishing).  His post, “Uninformed, Unhinged, and Unfair–The Monbiot Rant” argues, first of all, that Monbiot’s “fundamental economic misunderstanding is that price is the defining problem when it comes to the accessibility of scientific information.”  So if price is not the issue when it comes to accessing academic information, what is?  Anderson argues that the actual problem is “specialty knowldge,” meaning that most academic articles aren’t going to be understood by anyone outside of a very small circle:

There is no price in the world that’s going to make that scientific paper, or thousands of others, intelligible, relevant, or meaningful to me in any way that’s going to affect my ability to function in a democracy.

Anderson continues his argument by putting forth a real gem:

And people who do need to see those papers can see those papers, probably know the authors, probably heard the poster session or talk at a meeting, and will know about the published report if it’s at all worth reading.

I could not disagree more with that line of reasoning.  There is a point to be made about the accessibility of [some] academic writing, but I think Kent Anderson has taken things way too far in his effort to shift the discussion away from the economics of the situation.  He has taken an issue that does indeed merit consideration (i.e. how academics write and present their work), and made an incredibly reductive argument, as if the general public cannot possibly understand anything that academics/scientists write. Since there’s no way the general public “gets it,” the argument goes, all of these other questions are superfluous.

I do think that academics can and should rethink how they present their work–this is an important issue.  At the same time, I think there is plenty of good science and academic writing that is absolutely of interest to wider audiences–but much of it happens to exist behind some pretty expensive pay walls.  Kent Anderson has effectively used this issue of “specialty knowledge” as a way to dodge the questions of cost, price, and economics altogether.  I’m not buying his argument, at all.  And I am absolutely not buying the idea that those who really “need” access to already have it.

 

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