Anthropology’s Alternative Facts

After attending the AAA and AAR meetings, I wrote a blog post called A Tale of Two Conferences. In it, I bemoaned the sorry state of the AAA’s engagement with issues of real-life (as opposed to academic jargon) precarity and the scandal of adjunctification, in terms of any kind of visible programming dedicated to Ph.D. career assistance.

Very shortly after its posting, Dr. Ed Liebow, the Executive Director of the AAA, commented on that post. Here is his comment in its entirety (bolding added):

I completely agree with Dr. Kelsky’s view that the future of our discipline depends on revamping our training programs. It is absolutely central to my personal mission as AAA Executive Director to make the association a more welcoming organizational home to anthropologists employed (or aspiring to employment) in the business, government, and non-profit sectors. That is my own decades-long career background; I am convinced it is where the future of the discipline is headed, and I am pretty sure it is why the Executive Board hired me in the first place.

So when I read Dr. Kelsky’s account of her experiences earlier this month at the Annual Meetings of the AAA and the American Academy of Religions / Society for Biblical Literature, I wondered whether she and I attended the same AAA Annual Meeting.

By my count, there were 33 events on the program that had an explicit focus on careers in business, government, and non-profit sectors (see full list at the end of this comment). These events ranged from workshops in specific sectors to mentoring events to a field trip to the Googleplex to paper presentations in career domains as varied as museums, cultural resource management, user experience research, and health care. One of these events, the Careers Expo, featured more than 60 employer organizations in the business/government/NGO sector, and attracted more than 700 visitors over the course of the afternoon-long event.

Is it an upstream swim against a strong current to re-orient training programs so they valorize a diverse range of career paths and actually prepare students to be anthropologists, and not just anthropology professors? Yes, unfortunately, but there are promising signals that the tide is shifting. A summer institute of department leaders hosted by AAA in 2018 focused a considerable amount of discussion on promising practices in training program innovations, and we will continue these institutes. An Association board strategy session committed further resources to professional development across the whole post-graduate career trajectory, and we are contemplating a major fund-raising campaign that will focus on pipeline issues, professional development, and public outreach to increase awareness of the important contributions that anthropologists make to the world from a variety of different organizational platforms.

Here is my message to Dr. Kelsky and other anthropologists working in business, government, and non-profit settings: please join us to help the Association live up to its full potential as a scholarly and professional association that helps advance our understanding of the human condition and applies that understanding to tackling the world’s most pressing problems.

2018 Annual Meeting Events open to all registered attendees:
1. Anthropologists in Tech: Making the Transition from Academia to UX Research
2. Anthropology Outside Academia, Part I: Personal Reflections from Anthropologists working in User Experience Research and Design
3. Anthropology Outside Academia, Part II: Personal Reflections from Anthropologists Working in Business, Marketing, and Consulting
4. How I Built my (Van) Life
5. Profiting from Wind Shifts: Wall Street Traders, Sailors, and the Digital Transformation of Investment Banking
6. User/Design Researcher by Trade, Anthropologist at Heart: Discovering Anthropology Outside Academia through the Encounter with Cultural Others
7. We All Work in Tech Now: Some Reflections on Shifts in Career Paths in Stock Trading
8. 2018 AQA Diversity Speed-Mentoring Session
9. Anthropology between Academia and Practice
10. Black Girl Participation in Technology: Past, Present, and Future
11. Consulting in Organizational Culture and Change
12. Craft: Contestation, Adaptation and Resistance
13. Design Anthropology: three stories about cultural critique outside the academy and teaching anthropologists
14. Doing Consumer Research and Collaborating with Clients
15. Evaluation Anthropology Mentoring Session
16. Linguistic Lives as Working Lives: Legal Interpreters and Labor Organizers as Language Workers
17. Participatory Research and Ethics in Mesoamerican Fieldwork
18. Training Anthropologists Rather Than Professors
19. 13th Annual NAPA / AAA Careers Expo: Exploring Professional
20. Anthropological Pioneers in Silicon Valley
21. Anthropology in the Digital Age: A Personal Chronicle, 1962-2018
22. I Am the Very Model of a Modern Anthropologist
23. Navigating Careers in Archaeology: A Mentoring Session Sponsored by the Archaeology Division for Student Members
24. Teaching Museum Anthropology and Cultural Equity by Design
25. Technological Innovations in Anthropology at the Dawn of the Digital Era
26. ABA/AFA/ALLA/AQA/SAW Mentoring Event: Career Strategies for Contingent Faculty
27. Addressing Academic Precarity: How to Transition from Academia to Industry
28. Change in the Anthropological Vocation: Resisting and Adapting Ethnography in Silicon Valley
29. Middle East Section (MES) Mentoring Meetings
30. NAPA Networking Event
31. Standing up for Anthropology: Learning to communicate effectively across disciplines and showcasing the value of anthropological knowledge
32. Square Pegs in Round Holes

I was pleased at Ed’s comment, and took it entirely at face value. I believed he was engaging in total good faith, because it never occurred to me for a moment to imagine that the Executive Director of an academic association would do otherwise.

And so I responded instantly to him, writing as follows:

I’m glad to hear it, Ed. Is there any way to search the schedule/app so that all of these show up under a single heading, so that the job seeker can target their conference time? in other words, are these collected together under a “Careers” (or some other term) heading? Because, if not, they will not be locatable to the vast majority, and will remain known only to silo-ed sets of members (ie, the middle east section, or the ABA, etc. etc.). What I found effective in the AAR conference was the way that all careers-related content was highly promoted, and also searchable using a single term in their schedule and app.

And Ed, I’m glad you’re doing all this, but I don’t get the impression it’s visible to most vulnerable, precariously-employed members, because the AAA does NOT enjoy a good reputation among them. So step two needs to be: make it visible, make it accessible, make it affordable.

Ed did not respond.

Two other anthropologists did, however. One of them – “Avery” – shared the actual abstracts of two of the papers that Ed was proudly touting as evidence of the AAA’s careers-related programming. Neither of them had anything to do with careers. They were standard scholarly conference papers.

And the other commenter shared this: “I was part of one of those 33 sessions that are listed (but not one for which Avery helpfully provided an abstract). We briefly touched on alt-ac, but it was certainly not the focus (intended or actual) of our panel.”

This commenter concluded, “I find it a bit disingenuous to include it on a list of panels about alt-ac options.”

And I am left with only one conclusion. Ed Liebow, Executive Director of the AAA, came onto my website, and lied to me, and to my readers.

He made flatly untrue statements that 33 events were “career-related” when they were not.

Let’s look at the list above with a more discerning eye: #s 4, 5, 7, 12, 17, 20, 21, 32…. at the very least those are not papers/panels devoted to career support for precarious/vulnerable Ph.D.s. Furthermore, #s 8, 10, 26, and 29 are events arranged by particular interest groups for the benefit of their own members, and not initiatives of the AAA. It is unethical for the Executive Director of the main organization to attempt to claim credit for events the organization did nothing to organize.

Ed’s list indicates that there were indeed more careers events on the AAA meetings schedule than I realized, and I am very, very glad that there were. But there were nowhere near the 33 claimed.

I have not delved deeper into the minutiae of the list to find a precise breakdown, because the exact number does not matter.

What matters is that the Executive Director of the American Anthropological Association DOES NOT CARE ENOUGH about Ph.D. precarity to be bothered to provide either accuracy or truth about actual AAA careers programming.

Or, in the idiom of our times: careers programming for unemployed anthropology Ph.D.s is clearly such a nothingburger for the AAA that any old slipshod list of alternative facts can be thrown together as “evidence” of action.

Maybe there were 5 events, maybe 10… but when the Executive Director of an academic association will lie in public to try and make that association’s record of caring about the precarious look better than it is… well, that establishes beyond the shadow of a doubt that the problem itself starts at the very top. And as sorry as I am to say so, it confirms my impression that the AAA indeed does not care, and is not acting in good faith to seriously prioritize the needs of the actually vulnerable.


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