The (Disciplinary) Problems with Input/Output 1

Despite having not posted for a fairly long time, I’ve discovered that my blog is (accidentally) a productive space- 2 of my posts have evolved into papers that are in press for publication, and a couple eventually made it to being conference papers. Too productive if you ask me… so allow me to alter that with a rant that is very much tied to this over-productivity. My rant, I think, will be exemplary of many people in many different graduate programs, but I use my own experience to illustrate.

Recently, I’ve been reading for my comprehensive exams, which will be based on my two “expertise”: urbanism (it’s actually modernism, but I had to trick the anthropologists into letting me study something that anthropologists hate), and cultural semiotics (yet another thing anthropologists hate). This is where the problem of input/output starts. It’s not just solely a problem, as you’ll see, of an imbalance; rather, what the ‘input’ is, and what the ‘output’ is are not only imbalanced, but useless half of the time.

To start: input. Reading for my exams has been great for the most part. It would have been fantastic, had it not been the insistence of my committee that there be more anthropology in it. At first, I was confused. I assumed that I was supposed to become an expert in these three areas, widely read and able to do theoretical acrobatics between authors. SURPRISE! not the case. The first problem of input starts with what you are inputting. My committee says, “This looks like a wide ranging bibliography, and we’re sure it would be a fantastic read, but you need to read more anthropological sources on the topics.” Now, what were they really saying? In the disciplinary crisis of the humanities (which anthropology would NEVER admit to being a part of), the only way to confirm your borders is to erect them for everyone. The input problem, for my comps, is this: instead of becoming an expert in topic areas, which would allow one to do truly progressive work, my committee is instead asking me to be an authority on the anthropological discussions of these topics. We came to a mutual agreement on this argument, whereby I inserted some anthropology into my bib. With few exceptions, they have been the worst things I’ve read both in terms of prose and ideas. The big problem: they’d rather describe than explain, which is subsumed under the fact that anthropologists nowadays are either a) bad economists or b) outdated philosophers.

So, the problem of input comes down to one simple thing, here at least: indoctrination. In the crisis of the humanities, how do we make anthropology real? By speaking it into existence (Bakhtin’s text and utterance might be interesting to use here). It is as if, through comprehensive exams, the old guard confirms their existence as organized intellectuals by disciplining younger generations into those borders. This makes me specifically wonder what disciplinary boundaries will look like when my generation is the ‘old guard’? Are enough of us pissed enough to split these things apart? Or, disciplined by both comps and praise from the ‘discipline’, will enough of our generation believe themselves to be anthropologists?

The second problem to complain about: output. Now this, I believe, is a problem discipline by discipline, and by no means expect my case to be transplantable. But I’m sure that it is in some cases (I can’t be the only one that’s feeling stifled, right?). Publications are the lifeblood of the academic- in order to get hired, promoted, funded, etc. one has to re-invigorate the pool. “Publish or perish” as they say. While this may or may not be the case in graduate school, the overall sense of output is terrible. This is how I will get back to my problem of over-productivity.

Here at the UO, classes go in 10 week cycles. For this reason, instructors for graduate courses (at least in anthropology) assign what I’d like to call ‘softball’ essays. The end of the term is not so much about using the concepts learned, or even discussing their problems at length, but in ‘putting them in dialog’ with one another. How does one get an A on such questions in an anth course at UO? simple: 1 paragraph summarizing an author, the next paragraph saying something about how this is like someone else’s idea, and summarize that next person. Rinse and repeat. I know what you’re thinking, “that sounds like maybe a C- essay for an undergrad and a #FAIL for a grad student.” But don’t mess with the format, because if there’s something that anthropologists hate more than being told their humanities, it’s intellectualism. And heaven forbid you think that someone OUTSIDE of the discipline ( or its 2 earmarked philosophers: Marx or Foucault) do it better!

So, why has my blog been over-productive? Because it seems like the only place that I can write crazy ideas, take a chance putting things together that don’t fit together, in the analysis of SOMETHING besides the ideas themselves.

It is with those problems from which the imbalance of input/output sprouts- whereby input into the mind vis-a-vis reading outweighs output vis-a-vis meaningful work. But, as I read the compromised bibliography of my comps, I’m transported back, ever so temporarily, to my utopian intellectual world; a world where I can read things that interest me and I can use, without being hampered into speaking anthropology into being. And it is this reason why, I believe for anthropology at least, so much meaningless work is written by graduate students: the faculty, afraid of our revolutionary interests in the deconstruction of their field and their discipline, worry about our ability to speak anthropology into existence. Only half-way through the vulcan mind-melt of the disciplinary regime, our work may articulate to the discipline that it itself does not exist, just as the frightened child tells the monster under his bed that there is no monster under his bed.

Or maybe it’s just bad writing.

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One thought on “The (Disciplinary) Problems with Input/Output

  • Bryce

    After reading this over, I’m left with responses to my own work:

    I think that the notion of the ‘old guard’ is too opaque, and over generalized. I don’t think a lot of the old guard consciously guard the pearly gates of intellectual fortitudes. The paradox is that those gates are guarded. I’m transplanted back to a conversation I had in the hall way with an instructor, talking about an upcoming course that went like this:

    Me: (referring to the course just finished) It was a nice course, but it all seems too abstract. There’s the ideas of how society functions, yes, but how do you prove it is functioning like that- can you find it in art, theatre, tv, music anything?

    Instructor: We’ll do more of that in (next course), but I think what you’re referring to, cultural production, is more cultural studies than anthropology.

    Hidden, in the instructor’s claim, is that guarding of disciplines: for many people, what looks like anthropology but might involve something they don’t agree with like popular US culture or media (or anything that doesn’t have to do with social inequality), it’s not anthropology. Another ‘scapegoat’ that I hear used a lot here is ‘that’s folklore’.

    But, to be fair, there are a lot of instructors here that violate the tendencies suggested above. But the tendencies are all of the worst parts bound into a whole that shapes the experience. Do some people require papers that aren’t an evaluation of ideas- YES; are some instructors open to you bringing in outside theorists more useful than those you used in class- YES; and do we just purposefully write crappy essays to fill requirements- sometimes.