Distraction Free Reading

A Second Project from Hedgehog to Fox and Back

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth entry in the Second Project Series. This series explores an often undiscussed moment in professionalization: the shift from the research you began as a graduate student to the new work undertaken as an early- or mid-career scholar. This series is especially interested in personal journeys and institutional features that enabled or constrained this transition. If you are interested in contributing, please contact Lisa.

Almost a decade ago, I presented a dissertation outline to my graduate advisor. Scanning the page with rising incredulity, she decreed, “Well, it looks like a great book, but it’s not a dissertation.” Such encounters transformed my protean liberal-arts-trained being into someone who could play the hedgehog-like scholar (Berlin 1953). In his classic essay on The Hedgehog and the Fox, philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguishes the hedgehog, whose work builds one big idea or program, from the fox, who chases diverse ideas without subordinating them to a core claim. Hedgehogs: Dante, Plato, Proust. Foxes: Shakespeare, Aristotle, Joyce. We trickster-loving anthropologists may fancy ourselves foxes. But writing a dissertation reads as consistent with hedgehog culture and personality. The dissertation or dissertation-based book assembles ideas into an edifice, into one Idea. Foxes may lean more toward article-production. Berlin knew, of course, that the distinction was overdrawn. We’re all a bit of both. And, when I completed the dissertation and began to experience the academic job market, I had to learn, once more, when to play the fox and when to play the hedgehog.

Writing a dissertation can, and perhaps should, be transformative, a course of unsettling, subjective re-fashioning. I won’t extend Malinowski’s romantic take on fieldwork, asserting that dissertation-writing should push advisor and advisee both “to the metaphysical wall” (Stocking 1992, 45). But I will say that I’ll never have a reader like Susan Gillespie again. Trained as an archaeologist, Gillespie knows how to wield a fabled Marshalltown trowel (see Flannery 1982). (For those unfamiliar with archaeology’s material culture, the “Marshalltown” is a sacred object par excellence. These pointed trowels with an Iowan provenience can be filed continuously and serve diverse digging functions. Kent Flannery, in his well-known story, “The Golden Marshalltown,” regards the trowel as a sign of good, solid archaeological hard-work coupled with a commitment to the subfield as a means of adding to collective, cumulative knowledge of human culture.) By the time I completed the dissertation, Gillespie’s sharp Marshalltown had formed a stratum of paper debris – nearly 200 pages – on the cutting room floor. I had to steal her shovel to dig myself out; I am deeply in her debt.

But the market made a fox of me once more. It fragmented the hedgehog that formed through the dissertational rite and write of passage. With substantive and structural revisions, my dissertation could have become a book. But a lack of stable, persisting institutional support led me to prioritize smaller projects, articles instead of a book.

Red fox looking wise

The Fox knows many things, including how to get a job (photo public domain)

When I received my doctorate from the University of Florida in 2010, I hadn’t managed to land a full-time job or postdoc. I moved to the Washington D.C. area to take an adjunct position at George Mason University. There I briefly worked a part-time service job on the side to make ends meet. In the Spring, the department transformed my line into a full-time visiting assistant professorship, a rare act of consideration in our cut-throat and cut-budget sector. In 2011, I landed a two-year teaching postdoc at North Carolina State University. From there, I went west to a visiting position at Texas Tech, where I had to fight to be reappointed for a second year. I happily moved from the plains of the Texas panhandle to the rolling hills of western Massachusetts. At Mount Holyoke College, I was initially appointed as a visiting lecturer before landing an assistant professorship in 2016, six years after completing the doctorate.

Mine is an all-too-common story. It’s the job market reality – at best – for many academy-oriented cultural anthropologists. This is especially the case for those of us who could not or did not attend the few elite programs whose graduates land an inordinate proportion of research university posts (Kawa et al. 2016).

In the absence of secure and continuing employment, my research strategy was to prioritize CV-lines that required less risky time investments than a book. I survived on articles, knowing all along that I had bigger stories to tell (and telling search committees such). To be frank, most of the completed dissertation ended up on the cutting room floor too. I chopped the strongest chapter to size and sent it to Cultural Anthropology. The editors kindly desk-rejected it in a matter of days, recommending that I give it a go at one of the other major venues for disciplinary reproduction. After a vigorous revision under Tom Boellstorff’s editorship, the chapter-turned-article found its home on the pages of American Anthropologist. A second chapter, one more suitable for the eyes of archaeological theorists, made it to print in the Journal of Social Archaeology. Sometimes I fib a bit, saying that the dissertation spawned three articles. The third was actually written from scratch in the style of the dissertation for a job talk. I didn’t get the job, but the talk later took form on the pages of Social Studies of Science, a nice consolation.

My work from the 2010 dissertation to the 2014 essay on “Listening in the Pakal Controversy” comprised a first project. It has conceptual integrity as a provocation to the anthropology of science. It draws attention to how STS’s epistemic practices continue to reify “science,” and it asks that we direct our attention to alchemies of all kinds, forms of knowledge on the scientific margins, including sites of linguistic, historical, and cultural knowledge production. It encourages the use of STS concepts in rethinking the history of anthropology. Substantively, it reveals “Maya hieroglyphic decipherment” as a curious complex of material and aesthetic practices governed by a modernist language ideology and productive of a public committed to the whiggish reduction of diverse ancient text-artifacts to “writing.” So, although it remained in some ways undisciplined, the project contributed directly to the social and literary reproduction of anthropology and STS. I outlined some of these implications in two theoretical essays for Theory, Culture & Society, the seed of which was buried in that stratum of debitage on Gillespie’s office floor.

I was on the market for seven years. I applied for hundreds of jobs and had a mere two campus interviews for tenure-track positions, despite a growing publication record and, eventually, an extensive teaching portfolio (across cultural and linguistic anthropologies). My intention in making this experience public is not to decry a system that we know all-too-well is no meritocracy. It is, instead, to convey tangibly and personally an experience of “surviving” the market through a strategy of article-production that eventually opened up space for an experimental second project. It may not be a good or reproducible strategy, but it worked, eventually, for me.

By 2012 I had begun to take a softer position on the politics and ethics of decipherment. I wrote a playful essay questioning multispecies anthropology by reading it against the late artist and Mayanist Linda Schele’s attachment to the rabbit as an animal spirit companion. The article was grounded in some of the same archival work that animated my science studies-based dissertation. But it took shape in a style that chafes against disciplinary norms (or so I’d like to think). By first establishing that my work could contribute clearly and directly to academic systems of epistemic reproduction, I could more comfortably proceed to a project that seems riskier in its form and frame. Completing an experimental ethnography has pushed me to think of archival materials as cultural traces, storied anthropological fragments that enable us to feel and know in new ways, including contradictory ways. For me personally, there’s no experience more anthropological (in the best sense), more estranging-yet-familiarizing, more human, more soulful, than reading a correspondence-based archive.

I still have some articles from the job-market-era floating around the margins. But my central project is now a book for any kith and kin who take interest. I guess we can call it a second project. Or should we enumerate thusly at all, speaking anthropology’s programmatic language of disciplinary power, which, once again, seems to take the privilege of sustained ethnographic fieldwork as an “obligatory point of passage” (Callon 1986)?

In any case, I’m drawn more to figures than fields. The book takes up Schele’s figure of the edgewalker, a generative spirit and scientific artist who remakes the past with loving genius. It’s a story about culture and history as tricksters themselves. And it’s an insistence that anthropology amounts to the spiritual work and play of walking alongside them anyway. I’m doing my best to walk alongside Schele, a surrealist artist who, after a loving encounter with the site of Palenque, helped to decipher Maya hieroglyphs and popularize decipherment. Schele’s work, in part, was that of the charismatic leader; she drew a public to decipherment as she reanimated ancient Maya lords, giving them soulful form and force in the present. I treat her remaking of the past as an artistic refusal of stark distinctions between living and dead, religion and science, or past and present. She edgewalked each of these ostensible divides, constructing herself quite deliberately as a thinker who remade the center of a field from its horizon. I don’t know that Schele ever sharpened a Marshalltown, but she, nevertheless, found herself on a cutting edge.

When I close the book on this project, I’ll send a copy to Gillespie. I hope she’ll see it as an elegy for a woman I never knew, as a counter-prestation, and as an effort to put a fragmented self, or two, back together.

 

References

Berlin, Isaiah. 1953. The Hedgehog and the Fox. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Callon, Michel. 1986. “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of Saint Brieuc Bay.” In Power, Action and Belief: a New Sociology of Knowledge?, edited by John Law, 196-233. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Flannery, Kent V. 1982. “The Golden Marshalltown: A Parable for the Archaeology of the 1980s.”  American Anthropologist 84 (2):265-278.

Kawa, Nicholas C., Chris McCarty, José A. Clavijo Michelangeli, and Jessica Clark. 2016. “The Social Network of U.S. Academic Anthropology.” Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Minneapolis, MN.

Stocking, George W. 1992. “The Ethnographer’s Magic: Fieldwork in British Anthropology from Tylor to Malinowski.” In The Ethnographer’s Magic and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology, 12-59. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press

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