Saturday, February 16, 2008

Identity Politics and Faculty-Graduate Student Relationships

A short while back (a couple months ago if memory serves correctly – which it may or may not), there was a nice section of essays written by anthropology graduate students on the topic of graduate student – faculty relationships published in Anthropology News.

There was one sentence in one of the essays that particularly struck me. (I won’t say which essay, in part because as is typically the case, once I had finished reading the issue, I left it in my department for someone else to pick up and read, and as a result I don’t have it in front of me, and in part because it seems nasty to me to single out a graduate student as if for attack – not really my intent anyway – on the basis of one sentence out of an otherwise nice essay – and in any case, my reactions are more to the sentiment expressed there, which I’ve encountered among other students, too, while the rest of the essay seemed more original or unique in its content.) The sentence basically argued that faculty can’t really understand or fully relate to graduate students because they’re not in the structural position of being graduate students.

Even though I discarded the copy of the issue, I’ve kept mentally coming back to that statement since. I have three sorts of reactions to the sentiment expressed in it.

1. My initial and immediate reaction (and one I still hold, though it’s no longer my sole reaction) was to think something along the lines of, “That’s ridiculous. Of course, faculty can relate to graduate students.” One thing virtually all faculty have in common is that we’ve been graduate students. Many, if not most, faculty can relate to the experiences of current graduate students because we had similar experiences when we were graduate students. And if (a big “if”) understanding or relateability derive from experience of a structural position, faculty are in an ideal position to understand graduate students, even if the reverse is not true, at least not most of the time (I add this last qualification, because part of the experience of graduate school is often the gaining of things like “teaching experience” by partially occupying the position of “faculty member” – the division between graduate student and faculty is more of a graded continuum than a clear and absolute line).

2. My second reaction is that this is a strange position for an anthropologist to take. If direct experience in occupying a particular social position or structural position is a prerequisite for understanding or relating, then the discipline is in serious trouble (and there are many who think it is for many reasons, with a long line going back at least several decades at this point of worrying [or anticipating] that the discipline of anthropology is immanently going to fly apart, implode, disintegrate, deteriorate, or otherwise have big troubles).

If we take the sentiment that faculty can’t relate to or understand graduate students and extend it logically at all, we might wonder how graduate students might relate to one another – they don’t occupy the same exact positions and have the same exact experiences, or indeed how we might really understand anyone at all – a longstanding and still significant philosophical question. If we take philosophy and psychoanalysis at all seriously (and I do – at least much of the time), we might, even must, conclude that we don’t really understand or relate to our selves.

All of this is true, though in a sense operationally and pragmatically false – no one who functions in the world operates as if it is true. Put another way, this is to confuse total understanding with understanding at all, total relateability with ability to relate at all. In pragmatic terms at least, most of us relate to ourselves at least tolerably well; we relate to and understand those around us not absolutely but well enough to function almost as if we did; ethnographers understand something, even much, about their research subjects’ lives without, and without need of, total understanding.

3. I think what the student might have meant was that faculty members might not be able to relate to students in the here and now because being a grad student here and now is different from faculty member’s past and usually spatially/institutionally different experiences.

I often can relate quite well to my students, but it might be provisionally wise to proceed as if my first reaction is not true, and to attempt to relate to graduate students in the same way that anthropologists attempt to relate to research subjects – to stop, look and listen carefully.

Structural positioning doesn’t determine consciousness, experience, or actions deterministically, but it does matter, and my students don’t have the same experiences as I did as a student. Like a lot of scholars, I had experience in more than one graduate institution, in my case earning degrees from one quite large state university (the University of Georgia) and one medium-to-large private institution with lots of money (Cornell University). In some ways, my grad student experiences parallel those of the students I now work with – there are certain commonalities to the grad student experience the characterize most institutions of higher education – but teaching at a mid-size regional state university (the University of West Florida) with much less student funding available than at the graduate institutions I attended (just to identify one, albeit an important, variable – student funding), the students I work with in some ways have very different experiences and concerns than I did as a student.

That is, just as I do think the student writer was incorrect in arguing that faculty can’t relate to or understand graduate students (understanding or relating doesn’t depend on experience of the same exact structural positioning, and in fact in any case faculty have had structural experience as graduate students), having occupied a social structural position or having had experience of a particular identity category (in this case “faculty” or “student,” but the point could apply to identity categories and politics generally) doesn’t translate into automatic or necessarily easy understanding of others occupying the category.

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