Activists Only: Reading Between the Lines of an Academic Job Ad

Peter Wood

We’ve recently posted two reports on matters at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and are a bit reluctant to go to that well again, though its supply of ideological distortions of academic inquiry seems inexhaustible. But each time we write about UMass, someone calls our attention to yet another folly.  Previously, we looked at the “social justice” master and doctoral degree program in the School of Education, and the undergraduate major in Social Thought and Political Economy.  Today we have a job posting from the UMass Anthropology Department, which is looking for a linguistic anthropologist. As the message from the search committee cried out, “Please circulate!” we oblige: 

Job Advertisement: Linguistic anthropologist

The University of Massachusetts Amherst seeks to hire a scholar in the Department of Anthropology at the assistant professor level starting Fall 2009, with a specialization in the social life of discourse and language. PhD preferred at the time of appointment. The Department is building on our teaching, research, and service concentration on the causes and manifestations of inequality and the promotion of social justice in the Americas. This position is part of a group of hires in these areas across the subdisciplines of anthropology. The successful candidate will have a vision and strong record of research and teaching in issues of discourse, power, and inequality, with a specific area concentration that enhances our department’s strength in the Americas, with a preferred focus on Latin American, Caribbean, or Latino studies.

The Department has a strong preference for research that addresses the racialized politics of language: racism, colonialism, creolization; language shift, linguistic profiling, language and media, and language reclamation; the role of language and discourse in the constitution of race, gender, and sexuality; institutional(ized) discourses of education and socialization; and bi- or multilingual communities.

The department seeks candidates who:

• will strengthen our curriculum in research methodologies, data collection, and analysis, and have expertise in digital technologies for working with discourse data.

• demonstrate a willingness to serve linguistic communities through their research.

• are integrated into the racialized communities they study, as a means to build on the strong community outreach initiative of the department.

 • value and encourage research and teaching across the subdisciplines of anthropology.

 • will strengthen our cooperation with interdepartmental programs with these same foci.

The department is committed to developing a more diverse faculty, student body and curriculum. 

I’m an anthropologist and can’t say that I find this especially shocking. My discipline left the slippery slope of political temporizing long ago in favor of the free fall into the chasm of outright political activisim. But perhaps it serves some purpose to document business-as-usual in academic anthropology. 

When I was a graduate student in anthropology in the 1970s at the University of Rochester, my linguistics professor, Christopher Day (b. 1936), was a specialist in Jacaltec, a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala. Day was also a political activist who advocated on behalf of revolutionary groups in Central America. He was a good linguist and an effective teacher who kept his politics out of the classroom, but his political passions grew and, as I recall, he resigned his tenured position around 1978 to become a full-time activist. His scholarly papers ended up at the Latin American Library at Tulane University. I once ran into him in a grocery store parking lot demonstrating on behalf of some Marxist revolutionary group.   What became of him, I don’t know, but it appears that if he is alive today he would not qualify for the UMass position. 

Linguistic anthropologist check

preferred focus on Latin American, Caribbean, or Latino studies check

strong record of research and teaching check

in issues of discourse, power, and inequality No

addresses the racialized politics of language: racism, colonialism, creolization; language shift, linguistic profiling, language and media, and language reclamation; the role of language and discourse in the constitution of race, gender, and sexuality; institutional(ized) discourses of education and socialization; and bi- or multilingual communities.   No

demonstrate a willingness to serve linguistic communities through their research No

(“Their research” seems to mean the candidate’s research, not the linguistic community’s research, but anthropologists have more important things to do than worry about clear pronouns.)  Day was eager to help the Mayan communities in Guatemala, but he didn’t confuse that with his linguistic research. So no again.  

are integrated into the racialized communities they study, as a means to build on the strong community outreach initiative of the department No

Does this mean the candidate has to be a member of the community? Day was from Oregon and not of Mayan descent. So, no. “Integrated into the racialized community” appears to be a cute way to avoid saying “position open only to blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans,” but that’s what it amounts to. 

So the UMass Anthropology department has cobbled together a job description that would successfully fence out even an accomplished senior scholar whose scholarly specialization broadly fits and who shares the Department’s basic political orientation. He would be excluded because his linguistic research was separate from his political preoccupations and because he was not and could never be “integrated into the racialized” community he studied. 

The grocery list of topics for which the UMass Anthropology Department has a “strong preference” is made up of real topics. Scholars in linguistics can and do study “racism, colonialism, creolization; language shift, linguistic profiling, language and media, and language reclamation.” Some of these, such as “creolization,” are of considerable theoretical significance. So it would be wrong to say that the Anthropology Department could have no legitimate justification for this list. But it does seem worth emphasizing how the Anthropology Department labeled its desiderata. These items are examples of the “racialized politics of language.”

So we have a race-centered subject area coupled with a ban on candidates who are not part of a racialized community. We might call this the terminal trivialization of intellectual seriousness in a discipline that has succumbed completely to identity politics. Just one more item to keep in mind the next time you hear the AAUP or some other apologists for the liberal hegemony in higher education explain that the reason why there are so few conservatives in the liberal arts is that conservatives just aren’t interested in these fields. No, the doors are welded shut. 

What does this mean for UMass students? It means that a possibility of studying anthropological linguistics with the best scholar and teacher that can be found has been foreclosed by a search that specifies, in effect, that only applicants of certain skin colors need apply. It means that the anthropology that students might study at UMass has been compromised by a faculty more concerned with racial politics than in-depth understanding of culture and language. And it means that their chances of encountering faculty members who, like Chris Day, could draw the line between scholarship and political advocacy, have further diminished. All in all, it means the students will shortchanged.   

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