On Having an Ax to Grind

“Productive scholars have an ax to grind.” That was a lesson imparted on me by one of my undergraduate mentors, Brian Murphy. We were walking across campus during my senior year, and I had been talking about the possibility of pursuing some kind of graduate degree, at the time in Literature. Brian was narrating how, despite enjoying the scholarly work he had done throughout his career, he never felt particularly driven to participate in the arguments motivating many scholars in the discipline. (Little did I know that the postmodernism debate was in full rage mode at the time.) Frankly, I didn’t really know what to do with the advice at the time, but I tucked in away.

A man comes to get his ax ground, sometime in the Middle Ages? (From Married to the Sea)

While I was working on the Master’s degree that followed (in Science Fiction Studies at the University of Liverpool), I had things I was interested in, but the work was driven more by curiosity and expediency than having a real argument to make. Over time, the thesis I wrote there developed more of an argument and ended up being publishable as a couple of articles about superhero utopias and the role of law and capital in superhero comics. But to this day, I’m not sure I have much of an ax to grind when it comes to superheroes.

It was while working on revising that content that I received a second piece of advice, this time from Hai Ren, a faculty member I worked with at Bowling Green. Hai suggested that to write a dissertation, one needed “three theorists.” Hai’s point, as I understood it, was that you need some parameters on the ideas that you’re working with, and that having three theorists — who, he suggested, one reads in their entirety (queue up the qualifying exam reading list) — gave a writer the ability to play off differences and consensus between sets of theory. If I wasn’t sure what ax I had to grind, Hai gave me a way to craft one.

I’ve made the same recommendations to students over the years, but I add that the theories that one adopts should really be ontologically compatible. So monists and dualists don’t go together, nor do communists and free marketeers, nor biological determinists and social constructionists, etc. I had started thinking about this after reading Judith Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power, where she draws together Freud, Lacan, Bourdieu, Foucault, Kristeva, Irigaray, Hegel (and others, I’m sure, but memory fails me). Butler’s “toolbox” approach struck me as eliding the profound differences between a thinker like Freud, who really believes in some form of biological determinism, and Foucault, who really does not. You can put them together, but you can’t really build a sound theory out of them because the ontologies don’t fit together. That is, unless you find ways to treat some thinkers as existing within an ontological paradigm developed by others who you take more seriously (e.g. Freud’s use of biology is a form of Foucaultian discourse and not really materially reductive. But I’m skeptical.).

If you go look at the introduction to The Slumbering Masses, I’m pretty explicit about using three sets of theory and having an ax to grind: I’m trying to work through the overlap between Bruno Latour, Bernard Steigler, and Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, and I’m trying to bring them to bear on how we conceptualize the interaction between medicine and capitalism in the U.S. That means, in part, that I’m rejecting medicalization as a way to think about human nature and its interactions with capitalist forms of medicine (which you can read about here).

That doesn’t mean that I’m only working through the theories that come out of those four, white, relatively elite, able-bodied, heterosexual French men. I’m intensely aware of who these men were (and are), and use their monism to engage with other thinkers (especially Genevieve Lloyd and Moira Gatens, two Australian Spinozist philosophers) and the subfield interests I have (especially science and technology studies and feminist medical anthropology). Those engagements helped me suss out things from the theories I was using and guided me through my interactions with those rather large fields of literature. It also gave me a way to talk about things like my “contributions” to the field and the “significance” of my research (scare quotes to denote my general skepticism of that kind of grant-speak criteria). In saturated areas of study, being clear about your theoretical commitments can also make clear what you’re doing differently than other people working on the same topic or area of study.

I try and get students to think about what they believe. Stop thinking through the ecumenical polytheism of graduate study, and consider what kind of world you want to make with your scholarship. What is the ontology that you’re committed to? And who are the right thinkers to join to that project? It shouldn’t just be people that you enjoy reading, but people (and sets of theories) that you fundamentally share a common sensibility with. In committing to a set of thinkers, what differences can you map out between them and how might they guide your interactions with key concepts in your field? That can provide a ton of grist for the mill, both in terms of the initial dissertation, but also in articles and other spin-off projects.

I have other axes to grind — especially around racism in science and medicine — and those too are informed by my theoretical commitments. Having a pretty solidly determined ontological commitment gives me a framework to engage with whatever springs up. And, over time, I’ve changed the people most central to the projects I work on now. But having a set of theoretical commitments helps to guide what and how I read as well as the kinds of questions I ask about the phenomena that I’m drawn to work on.

It took a while, but now I have axes to grind…

Experimenting with Montessori in the College Classroom

When my first child enrolled in preschool, I started to get interested in Montessori approaches to education. As a pedagogical practice, Montessori approaches have largely focused on preschool and elementary education, but there’s a growing interest in finding ways to apply Montessori approaches to higher education — through middle and high school, as well as in the university classroom. In Fall 2018, I taught a small Social Studies of Science and Technology class where I decided to experiment with a more Montessori-like approach. At its heart, Montessori education seeks to instill in students the ability to ask their own questions of the course material, and to facilitate their finding answers to those questions. Rather than impose expectations of content from above through the lecturer-expert instructor, a Montessori approach seeks to create a more symmetrical relationship between the instructor and students. Overall, it seemed to work pretty well.

That would be Theseus following Ariadne’s thread straight into the Minotaur’s lair. A bit of a metaphor, maybe?

The course ended up only having five students (down from a peak of 13), and they were sophomores and juniors, only one of whom was an Anthropology major (which matters only because it was an Anthropology class, ostensibly). I declined to put General Education distributions on the class, which likely kept the enrollment low since students are Gen Ed hungry at my institution. I have a sneaking suspicion that the format of the class might have also turned off some students, especially since my recent experience is that many students just want to be lectured to (hence my experimenting with a format like this). As a result, I thought the class was a little too small, and that a larger class (more like 12-15 students) would have worked better. As it was, one student was really engaged, and most of the other students seemed to be along for the ride… (You can see a copy of the final version of the syllabus here, as well as a list of the guiding questions and threshold prompts.)

This is how I structured the class: We started by reading a book that I hoped would set the tone for the class, and also help the students generate a list of “guiding questions.” That book was James Jones’ Bad Blood, which is about the Tuskegee syphilis “experiment” and the long history of medical and scientific abuses of racialized bodies in the United States. It raises all sort of questions about race, objectivity, data, ethics, media, and methodology, and is written for a pretty general audience. We took a class period to watch Nova’s The Deadly Deception episode, which interviews Jones and brings the book’s project up to date (circa 1993). We then took a day in class to generate a list of guiding questions that would help frame the next section of class. This all took about a week and a half.

As we prepared for the next section of class, we read the Introductions (and sometimes first chapters) of several books — Helen Verran’s Science and an African Logic, Kim TallBear’s Native American DNA, Priscilla Song’s Biomedical Odysseys, Warwick Anderson’s Colonial Pathologies, and Mario Biagioli’s Science Studies Reader. My goals in doing so were to give the students a sense of the breadth of possible topics that might be covered, as well as the shared mission of science studies scholars. We spent a lot of time talking about methods and the citational practices of each of the authors. Who was being cited, how were they being cited, and what specific articles, chapters, or books were being discussed?

That led us to generate a list of author names and readings that we used our guiding questions to shape. As much as we could, we relied on the Science Studies Reader to provide us with readings, which was easy for a lot of the most canonical content (e.g. Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, etc.). It also led us to select readings from the Science Studies Reader that I normally wouldn’t have picked, but which made sense given our guiding questions. Toward the end of this section, we again took a day to generate a list of updated guiding questions, which revised the earlier list with some nuance and added several new questions.

At this point, the students had their first assessment, a written Threshold assignment. Each of the Thresholds — and there were two more throughout the semester — posed a big question and asked the students to pair guiding questions to it in the search of an answer. Students were free to use any of the course materials from the preceding section by way of providing their answer, and could pair the guiding questions in any way they wanted to. Over time, they had more and more guiding questions to draw from, and at only one point did I ask them not to use a specific guiding question (because they had all used it once already) in a Threshold paper.

Since I had demonstrated to them how to go about finding readings associated with the guiding questions (through our citation tracking), the next section of the class was curated by the students. They picked guiding questions they wanted to seek answers to, and I paired them together based on their shared interests. In a larger class, the groupings would have been larger, and this section of the class would have lasted longer. Each student was responsible for presenting a reading to the class, and they could draw on any of the books we had on hand, as well as articles and book chapters they located through library searches. The result was way more diverse than I would have ever planned — they picked scholars, topics, and readings that I had never encountered.

The presentations — like all student presentations — were a mixed bag. But when I needed to, I intervened to keep things on track and get students to think about the connections between the stuff they had picked and the other course content. And throughout the course, I sometimes stepped into the role of lecturer, especially when they were encountering difficult content for the first time. This didn’t stop during the presentations, but I tended to use my interventions sparingly and definitely let students feel the pressure of being underprepared.

Because the group was rather small, the time I had set aside in the syllabus for student presentations was too much. As we approached the end of the student presentations, I asked the students what they were curious about and we generated a list of topics. It ended up resolving into a section on bodies as epistemic objects, and we covered a wide variety of kinds of bodies, from the microbial to the human to the planetary.

Opening the class to student curiosities — and supporting their labor — definitely resulted in a different class than I would have planned on my own. That said, in many ways the kinds of questions and answers the students generated were along the lines I had hoped they would be, but the ways they chose to get there varied (especially in terms of the readings they chose). A larger version of the same class would have probably been much more dynamic. I doubt such an approach would work for a class larger than ~25 students, but maybe…? If you experiment with classroom approaches like this, let me know — I’m really curious about how it might be refined.

Diversifying the Network

In one of the first meetings I had with my dissertation adviser, Karen-Sue Taussig, she recommended that I read Catherine Lutz’s “The Gender of Theory” and “The Erasure of Women’s Writing in Sociocultural Anthropology.” (If you haven’t read them, go read them right now.) Lutz makes two interrelated points: despite the number of women working in sociocultural anthropology, they tend to get cited less frequently than men, and when they are cited, they’re cited as providing empirical evidence that supports an argument rather than theory that can be tested or employed. (And if you think that was a problem of the 1980s and 1990s, you can read the follow-up, “The Problem of Gender and Citations Re-raised in New Research Study” [although the link doesn’t seem to be working…] and then mull over what’s really going on in pieces like this.) At the age of 25, and a few years into my graduate studies, I might have been in just the right frame of mind for such an intervention. It resulted, immediately, in a hyperawareness of my citational practices — and shaped the kinds of questions and projects I wanted to pursue.

One of those projects has been steadily diversifying the network, both personally and professionally. In 2017, I was asked to comment on an early version of Nick Kawa, José A. Clavijo Michelangeli, Jessica L. Clark, Daniel Ginsberg, and Christopher McCarty’s “The Social Network of US Academic Anthropology and Its Inequalities,” and reading its final version was a stark reminder of just how much work is to be done. If you ever wanted evidence of that, here’s Kawa et al.’s data rendered in one handy image:

kawa social network us anthro.png
A network analysis of Ph.D. placements of tenure-track faculty based on where their degree originates and where they were hired. See more here.

Here are some practices to consider if you want to disrupt the reproductive tendencies of the discipline at every level. My guiding principle is that power is meant to be subverted, and whatever meagre institutional and reputational power I have should be used to make more inclusive social and institutional networks.

Every year when I’m pulled back to the American Anthropological Association meetings, I make sure that I participate in two panels. One has to include a majority of people who I’ve never been on a panel with before; and one has to include at least 50% recent Ph.D.s (or in-progress ones) and contingent faculty or “independent scholars.” Sometimes both of the panels meet both of the criteria. I’m not sure that I have much draw on my own, but whatever draw I have should be shared with less secure or established scholars than myself. Beyond that, I want to be exposed to ideas and research that I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. I can read my friends’ work any time, but curating a panel with strangers on a topic of my choice lets me engage with new content and publicizes it for others. It also means that my network grows in these AAA-related spurts, and I’ve watched my network permanently diversify over the years through this practice.

If you keep having the same conversation with the same people, something is wrong. Even if those people are diverse, if the network stabilizes, it’s not being as inclusive as it could be. It can be hard to exclude old friends from conferences, workshops, special issues of journals, whatever, but if the collective project is to diversify the network, they should be doing the same thing to you. And this leaves you open to be included in other people’s efforts. Stale networks are pretty obvious, both from the inside and the outside. My guiding rules are a place to start to disrupt reproductive tendencies, and I’m sure that employing them will help refine a system that works for other people.

If someone asks me to do something and I can’t, I suggest a junior scholar or someone at a non-elite institution (or both). If I can’t do something — a talk, peer review, a conference panel, whatever — I always try and make sure that I provide at least three names of people who might fit the role. My preference is always for younger people than me, although I’m very sensitive to my ability to say “no” and the obligations younger scholars fell toward saying “yes.” That said, I will commit to doing something even as over-commitment if I know that the next person to be asked is someone who isn’t as diversity-focused as I am. Better a white person with an eye towards diversification than one who isn’t diversity focused (or at least that’s how I console myself).

I don’t just count citations; I also consider how a citation is being used. This is true for syllabuses and publications. I tend to start syllabuses by piling up books and articles that I’m sure I want to include in a class, and at that point make sure that the foundation of the class is diverse (i.e. at least 50% books by women, with attention to minority status ensuring that 50% of the books are also from authors from underrepresented backgrounds). After I put the rest of the syllabus together, I go through it and make sure that it’s diverse throughout. In cases where I have to include a dead, white, male writer, I make sure that the texts around that person are by other kinds of writers. I tend to make sure that 60% of a syllabus is comprised of non-white male contributors. I also try and make sure that theory and evidence are supplied equally by all of the contributors to the syllabus. (If you think that teaching the canon means only teaching dead white guys [or living ones], just remember that it’s not in the canon if it hasn’t reached the point that non-white, non-male scholars are discussing it!)

In terms of publications, I tend to make a first pass through the manuscript citing as few people as I possibly can. Part of that is pragmatic — I don’t want to get hung up on inserting citations, and if there’s a lot of new stuff I’m planning to cite, I prefer to do all of the data entry and management during the revision process. But the other part is that I learned in the past that I over-cite. I would tend to cite too many things and then have to remove them to reach the word limit I was shooting for. I found that having to remove citations was harder than having to put them in afterwards, and that working this way helped to see who I really needed to cite. Moreover, it meant that when I was inserting citations, I could be more deliberative about who I was citing for what. Like with my syllabuses, when I do have to cite a dead white guy, I try to ensure that the citations around him are more diverse. And when I have to engage with a lot of white guys, it’s usually because I’m doing some critique…

All of these citational practices are aspirational, and I’m sure that not all of my publications meet the criteria I’ve set for myself over the years. That might be hypocrisy, but it’s also due to requests from peer reviewers and editors to cite certain work and the stark reality that working in some corners of academia means there are limited sets of scholars to engage with. The solution to the latter is to develop frames for one’s work that are capacious and bring in perspectives from feminism, critical race studies, disability studies, class-focused research (not just Marxism), and postcolonial studies. The solution for the former — sometimes — is to just not cite those people, despite requests (which gets easier to do with seniority).

When serving on hiring committees, one of the implications of Kawa et al.’s research is the need to make sure that the committee is institutionally diverse. One sure way to at least contest the dominance of particular departments in the placement of Ph.D. holders into tenure track jobs is to have people who aren’t from those institutions serving on hiring committees. If your department lacks people that fit this criteria, have a faculty member from another department serve in a non-voting, consultative role. I served on a committee like this years ago, and it was helpful because the person from outside of Anthropology couldn’t have cared less about the institutions that people were coming from since his discipline had different elite institutions; he helped to focus other committee members’ attention beyond institutional backgrounds. If that sounds uncomfortable, you could have someone go through all of the applications and redact institutions, people’s names, and acknowledgement sections. (If there isn’t an Adobe macro for this, there should be…)

I’m convinced that underlying a lot of the resistance to change in the academy is a fear of being displaced in the present and the future, especially in the context of fears about the end of the tenure system and job scarcity. Wholesale displacement is unlikely, but some marginalization is inevitable. But that’s in relation to a century and a half of dominance in the university by white, male voices, so it’s relative to total dominance. Incrementalism can get a bad rap, but when the allies in power are faced with their own potential obsolescence, a gradual approach can make important headway while ensuring that the threats to individuals are mitigated. Changing institutions is a long game, and keeping the end point in mind while addressing the concerns of the present is one way to ensure that change will come, however gradual it might be.

These practices are a start towards diversification. If you have other suggestions, post them in the comments or provide links.