Ambivalent Spaces in the (Neo)Liberal Arts

How do we respond to the pressure to become responsibilized faculty members in today’s market-driven college context?

What is the future of anthropology at liberal arts colleges in the United States? In this late capitalist era of unprecedented college costs, student loan debt, and economic uncertainty, the dominant narrative that the role of a college education is to ensure future financial success is understandable, and one to which colleges must respond. As faculty members at a private, Midwestern liberal arts college, we are ambivalent about students’ positions as professionalizing consumers of higher education and our roles as faculty members within the context of the (neo)liberal arts college.

Students and their families want reassurances that the money they spend on college will generate financial returns, and sooner rather than later.
We have increasingly observed our students engaging in professionalizing techniques of the self—creating LinkedIn profiles, completing internships, and attending professional development workshops. In the language of neoliberalism’s critics, students are self-regulating their time and experiences in service of postgraduate goals. We see further evidence in the mini résumés that populate students’ email signature files, which list their programs of study and their employment and leadership roles. Students become responsibilized subjects, documenting their participation in myriad preprofessional and cocurricular opportunities. They are acquiring experiences and skills that they anticipate will benefit them as graduates in the world of work or graduate school, but is this the learning that higher education is meant to facilitate?

Students and their families want reassurances that the money they spend on college will generate financial returns, and sooner rather than later. We have to prove that their investment is worth it, and that case needs to be made in financial terms. Cris Shore (2010, 15)suggests that we have experienced a fundamental shift from understanding higher education as a public service for educating future citizens to one that increases students’ upward mobility in a capitalist system. The goal has moved down a notch on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What happens when students and their families are primarily focused on that ultimate outcome? It can make it more difficult for faculty members to impart the value of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that do not as readily or directly translate into financial gain for individual students. Yet we teach them because we see needs in the world for this knowledge, these skills, and these dispositions. We need students who are ethically engaged and concerned with social justice. We need students who care about environmental sustainability. We need students who understand how to navigate social and cultural difference.

Carrie Gabella/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Skills, as practical technologies of the self, are the twentieth-century canon. Dan Berrett (2016) contends that all parties involved, from students and parents to professors and employers, increasingly agree that acquiring transferrable skills is the goal of higher education. But which skills matter? Anthropology offers students a culturally relativistic disposition that helps render the strange familiar and the familiar strange in a diverse and globalized world. Ethnographic methods are a toolkit they can utilize to better understand behaviors and beliefs across the broad spectrum of humanity. Though we often attract students who are fascinated by human diversity and the study of cultures for their own sake, decisions about majoring in a given discipline are often grounded in practical concerns about future job prospects.

These accumulative processes of creating new courses of study, credentials, and means for tracking student success allow us to see that the academy (even our small and relatively private corner of it) is subject to the same market-driven neoliberal demands as other enterprises.
For small liberal arts institutions like Augustana College, aggressively marketing our value to prospective students and intensively monitoring current students’ progress seems the only way to endure as an institution. In this context, promoting the utilitarian value of an anthropological education is taken for granted. However, our primary response to the pressure to become responsibilized faculty members ourselves is ambivalence. We find ourselves questioning our own roles in interdisciplinary projects that can be read as a symbiotic hallmark of a liberal arts approach and simultaneously as an entrepreneurial survival strategy. Is it possible to perform as a strategic and flexible neoliberal subject without internalizing neoliberal values? When, at a recent full faculty meeting, our college president suggested that we might add an interdisciplinary minor in social justice, what motivated us to mobilize and suggest that this endeavor might best be housed in our academic department? Was it an understanding that the work that we do in our department is fundamentally aligned with explorations of sociocultural diversity and inequality as well as local and global struggles for social justice? Yes. Was it an understanding that this program might add human and material resources, as well as draw additional students, to our department? Yes. This may be an opportunity for fruitful collaboration across disciplines and meaningful work for students, but it is also necessarily tinged with what Davies and Petersen (2005, 95) call “the pleasures of mastery within the game of neo-liberalism.”

These accumulative processes of creating new courses of study, credentials, and means for tracking student success allow us to see that the academy (even our small and relatively private corner of it) is subject to the same market-driven neoliberal demands as other enterprises. For our colleagues at public research universities, financial gain and market value are more closely connected to the products of their research. As faculty members at a private and tuition-driven college, the pressure to become flexible entrepreneurs is a result of the need to recruit and retain a robust student body.

Anthropology is intrinsically valuable, but teaching in a career-driven context means that we feel the need to advertise our value, particularly when paired with other more career-oriented fields such as public health, environmental studies, or business. No doubt, this generates wonderful and rich learning opportunities for students, but the market value of these moves looms large, and it is increasingly difficult to focus on one over the other. As Vincent Melomo argues, “The potential role that anthropology in particular can have in transforming people, society, and culture is lessened if anthropology is done only in service to the economy or, taken to the extreme, if anthropology does not exist in such institutions at all” (2013, 369). We therefore persist in our attempt to find a space—ambivalent, uncomfortably contingent, and nuanced—between neoliberal corporatism and a romantic ideal of the liberal arts.

Carrie Hough and Adam Kaul are associate professors of anthropology at Augustana College. For a more detailed discussion of these ideas, see their chapter in Symbiotic Anthropologies: Disciplinary Collaboration in a Neoliberal Age, edited by Emma Hefferman, Fiona Murphy, and Jonathan Skinner (forthcoming).

Cite as: Hough, Carrie, and Adam Kaul. 2018. “Ambivalent Spaces in the (Neo)Liberal Arts.” Anthropology News website, July 16, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.913

Comments

Thanks, Jason! Look out for the longer forthcoming piece too. Also, keep doing what you do. I enjoy following your posts and your blog.

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