Ten years ago this summer I started my PhD at Sussex. I have a predilection towards a good listy blog – so I thought I’d look back over the last decade at how the lives of anthropologists have changed in this time: five ways it’s got better, five ways it’s got worse.
5 ways it got better:
Like all powerful tools Google has its drawbacks. It contributes to one of the ‘Ways it got worse’ list that follows. It is also complicit in surveillance, annoying advertising, tax evasion and other problematic practices. But in terms of making the life of anthropologists easier or more productive it is has had more impacts than I’ll manage to think of here. Literature searches (in Google search or Google Scholar) have become so much easier tat it is easy to forget the meandering path from one book to the next through a trail of references that I used to go through as an undergraduate.
Beyond searching for key words the ‘cited by’ and ‘related articles’ functions in Google Scholar let you follow paths of connectivity that shave days off writing papers and reading lists. Google image search makes jazzing up wordy Powerpoints immensely easy. You can find direct quotes within seconds rather than having to trawl though books, find news stories when you can’t remember where you read X. You can find phone numbers and email addresses details of grants and deadlines; unearth teaching resources and films. In 2013 I find it hard to envision life without Google.
2. Digital recording devices
Bulky dictaphones; awkward tapes; posting tapes to relatives; paranoia about the demagnetising properties of airport metal detectors; inability to easily back up recordings; turning tapes over at inopportune moments in interviews – these are all problems of the past.
New abilities to record, store and copy days or weeks worth of interviews and films digitally has made audio and visual recording easier, less burdensome and less time consuming while also increasing the audio and sound quality available to ethnographers everywhere. Coupled with programmes like Nvivo that offer the ability to file, share, annotate and code this data, digital recording devices are offering opportunities to change the way we make field notes and conduct interviews.
3. Electronic journals/books/blogs
The rise in online journals and online libraries like JSTOR has changed the way that I use journals entirely. Aside from the journals sent to me through the post due to membership of organisations or my own publications I can honestly say I have not picked up a hard copy of a journal in either of my last two jobs. That’s over three years in a post-hard-copy world. While books are clearly going in a similar direction there is still something tactile about an ethnography or an edited volume that draws me towards them whereas endless photocopying and massive filing cabinets are not something I miss in the slightest. The transition from laptops to tablet PCs is clearly going to accentuate this digitisation of reading material and as a result of that teaching will doubtlessly change too.
This as been accompanied by the rise in blogs as a new medium which bypasses the glacial pace of anthropological publishing. For me, coverage of the Human Terrain System was a milestone in anthropology. The frustratingly slow pace of research, writing, submission, editing and publication resulted in a chasm at the heart of anthropological writing while anthropology was in the news more prominently than it had been in years. Blogs on the topic were immediate and accessible. Starting to write this blog is an acknowledgement that this medium has advantages over other forms of writing. Alongside new moves towards open access, this is part of a complete overhaul of in the written forms anthropology takes that will doubtlessly see more changes over the next decade.
Whether you’re a marker or a markee – Turnitin has changed the system of submitting work and giving feedback massively. There are many grumbles about not being able to mark in your garden or on a train to be had. There also seems to be accompanying ratcheting up of scrutiny of marking procedures that accompanies the introduction of a new system – but that’s disgruntling but for the best. But the big improvements that Turnitin brings with it are A). a digitisation of marks and grades that makes record keeping more accessible, less demanding of dusty cupboards and more fitting with globalised student and staff movements. B). It makes plagiarism very easy to prove (in many cases). A decade ago it used to take detailed knowledge of key texts and some real detective work to prove plagiarism. Just a few years ago it used to take the endless googling of suspicious passages, dropping one word, then another, then another to try and figure out which one word had been thesaurused . Putting a case together against a student took a real act of will. I once lost three days to a particularly bad batch of essays. Now Turnitin does it for you and I’m happy.
Willful plagiarism at any stage in your academic life deserves punishment. It makes a mockery of those who play fairly, those who took their time to teach you and those whose work you’ve stolen. Turnitin helps me catch you. This pleases me.
5. Finding our way out of postmodernism
When I first started my PhD social anthropology felt a bit stuck. Foucauldian post-structuralism, Strathernian complexity, Baudrillardian linguistic uncertainty were at their peak. The only areas in anthropology where anybody seemed able to say anything at all certain was in critiquing others – either within the discipline or outside it. While this lead to prosperity in anthropology extending into development, medicine human rights and other areas it perhaps wasn’t the best thing that ever happened to ethnography. An unbearable amount of ethnographies became introverted – representing their argument as limited to their own specific view of one particular place. It felt like cross-cultural comparison was dying. While we’ve kept bits of this (I wouldn’t want it any other way) I feel much more comfortable that we’ve got more meaningful things to say than just criticism.
5 ways things have got worse
6. Competition for jobs
I was speaking to a Professor of anthropology not long ago (the British type not the American ‘all lecturers are professors’ type) and he told me that he’d got his first lectureship with just one article in print. That would be unthinkable now. There has been an escalating arms race of early career publications (partly driven by my next bugbear) where entrance level academics are expected to have an array of impacting publications in print and enough on the burner to demonstrate you’ll be fruitful for years to come. The main source of this arms race has been the masses of DPhil students being processed by departments across the country and throughout the world. With most institutions having a number of PhD students at a similar level to the number of staff in the department the creation of anthropologists outnumbers the number of new teaching and research positions arising each year. While I don’t expect every DPhil to want to become a lecturing anthropologist, I’ve been through the ringer myself and have been watching as friends who are excellent researchers and teachers have struggled (and are still struggling) to find permanent jobs within higher education. Associate tutors/visiting tutors/teaching fellows and other teaching-only positions are often poisoned chalices – massive teaching loads preclude publishing in a publishing-centric career stream. While some departments and supervisors have realised this and are sending DPhils into the world prepared for these eventualities the harsh realities often come as a massive surpise to those entering the melee. It certainly did for me.
In much the same way that university staff increasingly critique A-level syllabuses (for non UK-reader replace A-level with another pre-university assesment – complaints seemt o be similar elsewhere) for teaching students ‘how to pass tests now’ rather than teaching them ‘how to learn’ – the REF (Research Excellence Framework – the artist formerly known as the the Research Assessment Exercise) has become about playing the game. It’s not new, it’s just getting more refined. It exacerbates the above problem for junior academics, it leads to the destabilisation of departments as everyone tries to get the best roster of academics their budget can stretch to leading to mass movement. I know some sort of assessment is necessary in the current climate of free market competition between universities – but I’m sure it can be done better than this.
The introduction of student fees in the UK is a hideous thing at all levels. A prosperous society should invest in its intellectual future. Students have suffered (and will suffer the burden of debt for years to come) ore than staff – but we feel the pain to. With recruitment numbers dropping – there will be aftershocks felt across academia in the not too distant future. But for the time being the main change is that students are increasingly demanding their money’s worth. Rightly so. But when combined with the increased pressures posed by REF on research we’re being squeezed from both sides. This sucks.
The rise in talk about ontologies and multiple ontologies is just euphemising what we used to call culture and cultural relativism. This annoys me immensley and I will more than likely go on a rant about it in the not too distant future. Viveros de Castro is fantastic – perspectivism is interesting – but the ontological turn resulting from his work is Emperors New Clothes-like. I may be wrong – I have been before – but I sense a backlash coming.
5. Student plagiarism
It’s not all sunshine and lollipops emanating from Google. The temptation to cobble together essays from websites and texts has also been facilitated by the search engine. Essay writing services abound. Turnitin offers Writecheck – a sister product that allows students to check if they’ve rejigged the work of others enough to make it undetectable.
While some aspects of plagiarism, collusion and cheating become easier to catch – others are being facilitated by new technology. On one level cheating is probably an effective life strategy and some might even want to reward it – but I happen to think that a level playing field is important. Sadly these services and technologies are run by people who want to make a profit. Those who can afford to cheat have more opportunity to do so. This seems doubly unfair and therefore doubly disgruntling.