Guest Post: An Open Letter to Anthropology

[The following is a guest post by graduate student of anthropology. All names have been changed.]

Dear Anthropology,

I want you to know why I feel the way I do about you. You have absolutely, irrevocably, broken my heart. One day, I may forgive you. Today is not that day. Today is the day that I write my story. What you do with it is entirely up to you.

Like so many anthropologists, my story begins with an eager, optimistic first year graduate student primed and ready for the greatest adventure of her life. In fact, this story starts with two of us. Selena and me. I remember the day Selena and I became friends like an anniversary. It was May 2013. We met up after a theory class, utterly defeated. On that day, we realized that something was terribly wrong. Whether it was a problem in our department, in our university, or in the discipline itself it took us three more years to figure out what that thing was.

In the convening time, we spent hours sitting on Selena’s apartment floor telling each other the story of our lives ten times over until dawn on more occasions than I can count. We bonded over things like working in bars, our favorite Bjork music videos, and the painful lessons we learned from loving people who hurt themselves and the people around them. You know, the usual stuff. We were thick as thieves. Every day we spent in the Ivory Tower, we stole another morsel of knowledge to take home and incorporate into our ritual story telling event. For a time, we were complacent, even happy, despite the misery that our academic situation afforded us[1]. When I would tell Selena that I was ready to quit, she would somehow coax me into staying. That was how our life together as graduate students went. Until one day, it ended.

Our department terminated Selena in May 2016[2]. In that moment, I lost one of the best colleagues I will ever have. You did, too. See, Selena was the type of student who read everything. She read all the books and articles that her professors assigned to her, and then she read five more books and ten more articles[3]. For a year before her exams, Selena stayed in her apartment and read every damn thing she could get her hands on while she wrote her proposal. To Selena, anthropology was everything. Her degree was her life blood, the thing that she would take home and say, look what I did. Look what we can do. Look what people like you and I can do.

Selena was a first-generation college student. Her grandparents immigrated to the US from Mexico. Spanish is as much her first language as English is. When she was sixteen she became pregnant with her first child. At that time, she worked on the assembly line at a Sony disc factory where she met her future ex-husband. She raised two more children before she came to graduate school. All three of her kids were teenagers when she decided to get a PhD. She made a sacrifice, leaving her family to go back to school in another state. For her, it was a long-term investment. She thought, once she had her doctorate, she could get a good job, better than any job that she would have access to otherwise. Then, she could help her kids through school so that they could get degrees and good jobs, too. That was the plan.

Our department terminated Selena during the oral defense of her comprehensive, or qualifying exams. Her committee asked her what she wanted to do with her research. She said she wanted to write ethnography. They laughed and told her that she does not know what anthropology is. They told her that ethnography is not what anthropologists do[4]. Her committee told her that people like her do not need PhDs. Some of her committee members may read this and say, that is not what happened. Whatever you intended to say, that is the story you gave to Selena. That is the story that she must live with every single day for the rest of her life. That is the story that she must tell her kids, their father, her friends, and her former colleagues when they ask her why she came home without a PhD.

It has been two years now since Selena’s termination. I want you to try to imagine what that memory feels like for her today. Seriously, take a moment to feel the weight of her story in the pit of your stomach, in your soul, or wherever it is that you keep the things that hurt the most. Carry this feeling with you. Use it to make better decisions with your students, in committee meetings, at conferences, and in job interviews. Remember Selena. Remember what you did to her so that you never make a mistake like this again.

All the very best.


[1] i.e. We were broker than two covered wagons on the Oregon trail trying to ford a river that was way too deep for us to travel through and live to tell the tale.

[2] They gave her a ‘Terminal’ Master’s degree and asked her to leave. Before this happened, I always thought the Terminal Master’s was a voluntary option for folks who had decided not to finish the PhD. Now I understand why they call it ‘Terminal.’

[3] She was also president of our Anthropology Graduate Student Association in her second year.

[4] Google sociocultural anthropology.

  1. Unfortunately know somebody who was pushed out of their Ph.D. program because of faculty making it impossible to finish their dissertation research. Such a tragedy being so close and to then have the one group of people (who are presumably supposed to have your best interest in mind) be the reason your life plans have to change. Ironic how anthropology professors can use the very “power” they rail against in their lectures to ruin their students.

    Great read!


  2. Full Professor June 7, 2018 at 3:20 am

    Imagine you are a faculty member. You have a student who is bright and hardworking, but whose work is just not very good. You have worked and worked with this person, but it doesn’t seem like they are making progress. You know in your heart of hearts that the likelihood that this person is going to get a job are slim. And you know that if this student incurs more student debt—say, $50K—that it will create such a crushing burden that it will affect this person forever. Now what is the most moral, ethical thing to do? To keep stringing the student along, knowing he or she will end up in adjunct hell, or give him or her an MA and send them off to find a career path that won’t drown them in debt and leave them with a precarious contract job?

    I think faculty are in a difficult position: blamed if we kick students out, blames if we let them go to the PhD and then find themselves without jobs. What exactly do you think we should do when we think a student has little likelihood of success?


    1. Hi FP! Thanks for your thoughts. I think that the moral and ethical thing to do is to have this honest and genuine discussion about career outlook instead of making them feel stupid for trying. Anecdotal, yes, but I personally don’t know a single person who was kicked out of a program that had that discussion.

      Even better would be to expand the meaning of job prospects and to normalize/destigmatize non-academic jobs as viable options, post-graduate school, rather than give up on students because they won’t succeed in academic positions. Those students might not become great professors, but they can do other kinds of important work with their PhDs. Bonus: a lot of non-academic jobs pay better than academic jobs, so that should help you get their financial burdens off your conscience. Double bonus: if you widen the scope of your goal, you increase the likelihood of taking credit rather than blame. Win-win-win for everyone.


      1. I agree with Powis. I did my doctorate in anthropology at [Redacted by Editor], at this same department. I was completing my dissertation the year this person was rejected from the PhD program. When I entered the program I made it clear I was not interested in pursuing a typical tenure track academic career path. That I wanted to do applied work, that I was interested in publishing and researching and maybe even teaching now and then but not in the University ivory tower framework. I wanted to be out in the field. I wanted freedom to apply my doctorate without the many constraints of the academe and university politics. It was clear the whole time I was at [Redacted by Editor] that the department is very oriented towards that traditional academic career. Which makes no sense as Powis pointed out there are often better paying jobs outside of academia and ideally the more anthropologists we have working in many different fields, the better for our world if they apply the many important and (supposed to be) ethically grounded tools they learned during their education as anthropologists. I also agree with Powis that communicating clearly with a student about their work makes sense. And even if they wouldn’t do well in academia they might have a great skill set for another kind of job. Lets stop thinking so narrowly about where anthropology is useful. If our only career is to be a professor of anthropology then what is the point of anthropology as a social science even existing? We should be able to apply our work out there in the non-academic world, and help make the world a better place.

      2. Editor’s Note: Please do not include any information in your comments that threaten the anonymity of the authors. Thank you.

    2. Dear Professor,

      I feel it’s dangerous to assume that this student’s work was “just not very good.” In all likelihood, if she had an advisor or committee who understood where she was coming from, we wouldn’t even need to have this conversation. To me this situation is about implicit bias, re: racism, among faculty and the ways that their discrimination manifests behind closed doors in academia under the guise of ‘rigor’ or ‘intellect.’ FYI, she had an all white committee.

      Also, leaving a PhD program after four years without a degree is far more expensive than finishing in the long run. She would have had access to higher paying jobs with a PhD than without one, academic or not. If you don’t believe me, try doing a job search with a Master’s degree sometime, and then compare those jobs to the jobs you could apply for with a PhD. Next time you’re in the position to terminate a student, choose not to. Let them make that decision for themselves.

      My completely biased opinion is that she would have been a great professor. She could have been an advisor for students like her: intelligent, creative, and dedicated. You’re whole argument is reproducing the same paternalistic rhetoric that punishes non-traditional students for being different and ultimately excludes them from higher education. If we had more professors like Selena then stories like this would happen less often.


  3. Full Professor June 7, 2018 at 12:26 pm

    I appreciate these comments, particularly Dick’s comment about valorizing jobs outside the academy and helping students find their way to them. I think the future of our discipline depends on that, in fact. So yes, more of that.

    I think it’s unfair to assume without any other evidence that what happened here is racism. (And, may I say, a bit cheap to insinuate that I’m a racist.). I don’t know the faculty involved in this case or whether they are racist or non-racist. What I do know is that the logic of the job market actually puts pressure on faculty to recruit and retain minority graduate students. Every program cares about its placement rate, and almost all universities want to increase the number of minority faculty on staff. This means that in average, placement rates for minority students are higher. (I know one department that in the 1990s, deliberately pursued this strategy—and made into the top 5 PhD placing departments, despite having a faculty of 10!). So if minority students are doing work that is going to be good enough to get them hired, departments have strong incentives to retain them.

    It is hard for graduate students to understand some of the logics of these decisions from where they stand. It was hard for me at that stage (and I, too, was an enraged grad student, although mostly over issues of gender bias—those were the times). But it is important to understand that grad school in the US is not structured like a vocational training program, where if you finish you get a job. It is much more like professional football, where people are cut at each level and where only a small number make it to the NFL. The job of the faculty is, sadly, not to nurture the strugglers but to push the most talented to be total superstars. You can dislike that (I do) and think it should be changed (I do) but that is how the system currently operates.

    Long story short: I don’t think racism is necessarily the best explanation for stories like this. The structural incentives of a pretty messed up celebrity-driven star system explain it alone.


    1. A blind spot in this “NFL” argument derived from how out of touch faculty at elite institutions are to the current job market and goals of PhD students. While you might be pushed to produce “superstars”, how many jobs are there at that level to begin with?

      I have colleagues that graduated from R1s who continued to feel like failures when they landed tenure track jobs at highly ranked SLACs because they weren’t placed at an R1. This is total absurdity. 1) If the “star makers” at R1s want to help with superstar placements and the embarrassment of riches that goes along with those positions, they need to retire and create space for job seekers. 2) The majority of employment in academia is not at research institutions. The pedagogical training students receive at these “star maker” institutions is woefully inadequate because of the (false) perception that teaching won’t and shouldn’t matter if you are a “success” in the field. Linked to this second point is that PhD students don’t need to be theoretical trailblazers with their work to make substantial and valuable research contributions (even writing ethnography, which all other disciples are currently poaching from us and that, as usual, we are disavowing because we won’t belong to any club that will have us- making anthro increasingly irrelevant from a public perspective and leading to the closure of departments).

      The NFL analogy really misses the part of the job market that is hard work and good fortune rather than unique (usually privileged) brilliance. I’ve known more than a few academic MVPs that have not landed TT jobs anywhere while plenty of us that do solid work without R1 status or acclaim in the field have been hired and support the future of anthropology every day with our teaching and non “super star” caliber research.


      1. Full Professor June 13, 2018 at 11:52 am

        I am completely in agreement that the “star maker” culture of academic anthropology is completely out of whack with the job market, and unbelievably unhelpful to grad students. My point was that the faculty are *still* under tremendous pressure to push the best and ignore the rest, as nuts as that seems. There are reasons faculty behave the way they do, and they go beyond being racist, mean, or whatever—-they are not personal, but related to structural forces in the system. a i don’t like it either.

    2. “Philosopher” June 10, 2018 at 1:20 pm

      Professor’s attempt to reduce a clear example of racial microaggression to a kind of colorblind mediocrity argument that tries to persuade readers to empathize with “conflicted faculty”, is just… wow! Way to take a spin there!

      In my experience, as a PhD student in a different field, faculty have no problem with mediocre students given they’re the right shade of white, and interested in (not producing in) “traditional” areas of research. These mediocre students are rewarded with coveted research assistantships, their own classes, lecturing positions and extra funding so they can be on the 7-10 year plan—our program is supposed to be 5-6 years. One of these mediocre students harassed male students of color and even made death threats to a tenured faculty member (also a man of color). Both the department and college were aware, but what happened to this mediocre student? She got a corner office, miraculously finished a dissertation that came from nowhere, and when she couldn’t get hired despite presenting at her first conference after she finished, was hired by the department as a lecturer.

      The grad students of color (myself included), and those few white students working in “non-traditional” areas, are the most accomplished in terms of publications, conference presentations, society activity, department, university, and external awards, and grant recipients, yet our experience is still very much like Selena’s. So tell me how protecting and rewarding mediocre students, while subjecting “super star students” to daily microagressions is anything but racism? To argue that racism is not the best explanation, or worse, that perhaps Selena was a mediocre student and the faculty did her a favor, only demonstrates a willfulness to ignore and excuse this kind of behavior that is rampant in graduate schools, across the country and across disciplines.


  4. Magnus Fiskesjö June 7, 2018 at 12:52 pm

    It seems quite strange that anthropology faculty would laugh off a student that says she wants to write ethnography, and then terminate her. If true it’s sad, and, verging on the incomprehensible. I wonder if something is missing. Can you explain more what went wrong?!


  5. It is completely beside the point (any point) to discuss “alternative career opportunities” or anything of the sort in the context of this letter. Leaving aside the time, dedication, and money already invested (and who can give anyone back a minute of lifetime lost), the spirit and reasons for this student’s commitment are not so easily dismissed. Nor are the contributions they might make in the future, given the degree of competence and investment they have demonstrated already.

    To top it off, we all know that the door’s that open for Selena and her work with a Phd cannot be replicated by any other alternative career or achievement. For those more interested in the work itself than in personal ambitions, those doors are essential passageways to continuing in one’s chosen field.

    The defense of teachers and members of the Selena’s examiners expressed in some comments here are also beside the point. If the statement is true (or partially true) that her dismissal was based on the fabrication that ethnography is not a fully qualified specialty of anthropology, then there is simply no excuse for their decision. That assertion is preposterous.


  6. I’m not in the department where this happened, but as a current grad student the situation is painfully familiar. So are the confusion and disbelief of the professors in these comments.

    In response to Professor Fiskesjö’s question, to me there’s is nothing incomprehensible about this story. The faculty asked a marginalized student what she intends to do with her PhD and, upon hearing that she wants to write ethnography, belittled her and told her that simply doing ethnography does not make you an anthropologist. Essentially, they read the student as insufficiently theoretical, and forced her to take a terminal masters.

    This happens all the time in departments where certain students (white men) are given the encouragement and support they need to develop their ideas, while others (women and students of color) are met with constant skepticism about their intellectual capabilities and theoretical rigor. I’ve personally seen how white men in my department are consistently given opportunities that other students are not and even walked through developing research projects when they’re struggling with a lack of ideas. Meanwhile women of color are actively discouraged from moving forward with their own projects and told they “aren’t ready to synthesize theory.”

    Even if the faculty was correct in their assessment that after three years the student was too narrowly focused on writing ethnography and not exhibiting enough of an orientation towards larger theoretical debates in anthropology, that must be understood in relation to how academia undermines certain students and lavishes resources on others. Her faculty failed her.

    To the anonymous professor who would like us to believe that minority students have an advantage, I have little to say to you beyond asserting that racism and sexism are alive and well in anthropology. Since you’re commenting on this blog I assume you’re an anthropologist. Rather than asserting those with less power are less capable of understanding the situation, you should remember your training and take what graduate students say about their lives in the academy seriously. I assure you, women and students of color pursuing PhD’s understand the power structures governing their lives and career outcomes.


    1. “Philosopher” June 10, 2018 at 1:43 pm

      Yes, yes, and yes!! This “colorblind mediocrity” argument is so out of touch with reality, and is clearly debunked when you see the ways in which departments bend over backwards to support and protect certain shades of mediocrity. Really appreciate your post!


  7. As a professor, I’m embarrassed by how quickly profs here are jumping to the arguments of ‘fit’ with the program and likelihood of the student’s own competence and performance as the reason for dismissal, rather than asking ‘how and why did a program fail a student at that stage in the program so thoroughly’. What I have come to realize is that these institutions generally only want to pass those who already fit seamlessly into the boxes and slots and rubrics of the discipline and its myriad departments. Very little room for transformation or innovation. While there are of course always exceptions, my experience is that when a WOC student isn’t ‘fitting’ into a doctoral program, it’s generally an indication that we’ve failed to be a space to foster dynamic thinking and pedagogy, and failed to be a space that can imagine itself beyond whiteness, maleness, and the status quo. “The job of the faculty is, sadly, not to nurture the strugglers but to push the most talented to be total superstars” — now there’s a depressing indictment of white supremacist euro-american anthropology if I’ve ever heard one.


  8. Takami S. Delisle June 8, 2018 at 3:39 pm

    I find it important to comment on the subjective speculations made by the “Professor” in this comment thread, particularly “You [professor] have worked and worked with this person [student], but it doesn’t seem like they are making progress” and “I don’t think racism is necessarily the best explanation for stories like this.”

    I agree that there are so many unknowns about Selena’s situation in the open letter. We don’t know how ‘hard’ her advisor worked with her. Neither do we know whether she was subject to any ‘overt’ racist incidents in the program. Likewise, as someone who was once pushed out of a predominantly white anthropology graduate program (although the faculty may not portray my exit in this way), I could say the same things: that my white advisor and committee members may have felt they worked ‘hard’ with me, that they may have believed there was no racism in the program, and that they may have concluded that I wasn’t just intellectually cut out for this. I will never know because, as Dick suggests above, there was never an opportunity given to me to have “genuine discussion” with them.

    From a perspective of an immigrant woman of color, I can say that my advisor and committee members offered so little time (15 min individual meeting per month and a committee meeting per semester, when I got lucky) to work with me. There was no space in the program for me to discuss racism without facing backlash. Coming from a family background where nobody had any knowledge whatsoever of what it is like to go to graduate school, I had no idea what it meant by a ‘grant application,’ ‘qualifying exams,’ and ‘proposal writing,’ and yet I was mostly left alone to figure out how to navigate through the processes in the extremely competitive environment for graduate students. And I was too intimidated by my advisor and committee members to ask for help. Even if the program had offered me an exit interview, I wouldn’t have told my story because I was so scared.

    Sure, there are some structural problems, but to say that professors are exonerated from any mistakes in situations like Selena’s suggests that power hierarchy based on academic elitism, whiteness, and sexism isn’t a stranger to academic anthropology at all. In my ideal world, anthropologist professors would be great allies for graduate students to negotiate the structural problems, instead of throwing their hands and saying “there is nothing we can do to help you in these structural problems.” If professors wish they weren’t such an entrenched part of the culture of the toxic academy, isn’t anthropology the very thing that they could use to challenge it or to become better mentors to their students? Or perhaps it is too romantic to assume that anthropology professors are well equipped to do so given anthropological knowledge about how power makes power holders to believe what they think they know is the truth. At least I’m not the only one who sees Selena’s story as an example of how race, class, and gender work together as systems of inequity within academic anthropology


  9. Full Professor June 8, 2018 at 3:54 pm

    I would not deny for an instant that it is much more difficult to be a person of color or a minority of any other kind in the academy. My only point is that in fact none of us know why this student was turned away from the PhD program. To assume it was because the faculty were racist, without any evidence of that or knowledge of the specifics of the case, seems unwarranted.

    As for minority students understanding the reality of their lives: I am sure they do. And I am equally sure that graduate students don’t understand the kinds of tasks that faculty have to contend with, including decisions about when to dismiss students. That is only because you haven’t been in these meetings or had to make these decisions. It’s a question of experience, not of ethnicity.

    I am all for a discussion of race in the academy. But let’s talk about the other factors that play into this situation—the fact that the top 5 institutions fill 95% of the jobs, the crazy celebrity culture of the discipline, the adjunctification of the academy, and the ways that theory (and the bad writing that goes with it) are valued way more than well-written ethnography. It seems to me that all of these are at work in the case at hand.

    The system is fucked up in more ways than one.


  10. And—just to respond to the comment above—I, too, think we need to do more to help students understand the mechanics of stuff like grant proposals and comps. I didn’t know any of that when I came to grad school, either. (Hell, I thought that “hermenutic” was a way to seal a jar. You know, like “hermenutically sealed for your protection!”). That should be done for all students, as a regular part of the curriculum, not left to advisors.

    As for the argument that faculty should be allies to grad students: I could not agree more, and I think most anthropologists would, too. I would be curious what you think about why your advisor only had 15 minutes a month for you.


  11. Female assistant professor at a public university here. This letter is touching and raises important concerns. I found myself disturbed by parts of it. In all my experience, I have never seen faculty be dismissive of a struggling student in the way this letter describes — in every encounter I’ve seen, a struggling student’s issues have been treated with seriousness and compassion. Sometimes I see faculty frustrated by these cases, but never dismissive. I see that there is, at best, a mis-communication between faculty and student here, and perhaps the faculty could have found ways to prevent the negative impression that Selena and the author came away with. But the notion that faculty cavalierly dismissed a student and then “terminated” her does not ring true to me.
    I am also concerned by the suggestion that racial bias explains the treatment Selena received. That is a very serious accusation. Is there any evidence to support it, besides the fact that the committee members were white? I’m not saying that institutional and structural racism does not structure students’ lives. My concern is with the implication that racial bias motivated the decision.
    Finally, the author tells us that Selena thought “once she had her doctorate, she could get a good job, better than any job that she would have access to otherwise.” So the author’s assertion is that Selena was unaware that PhDs in anthropology face enormous challenges in getting jobs? In my experience I have not found students to be quite as naive as that, especially students who enter programs later in life, as parents, with extensive work experience. In comments above, Selena’s supporters insist “women and students of color pursuing PhD’s understand the power structures governing their lives and career outcomes.” I agree – I’ve found students very much in touch with the realities of the struggle they are engaged in. To portray Selena as a hapless victim with unrealistic expectations does her a disservice.


  12. While I understand why people want to accept the possibility that faculty were just saving an underperforming student from debt and wasted time, it is not a random distribution of students who are told this. Anecdotally, the only person I am aware of in my program who was gently reminded that a “PhD is not for everyone” was the only black man in our program (for decades probably). I imagine if you surveyed who is told this vs. who is mentored through the PhD, you would find a rather incriminating pattern (of what I hope is implicit bias, rather than malicious racism, though the net effect is the same).

    One thing I’m very surprised has not been pointed out is Serena’s status as a mother. I have seen 1) parenthood in general actively and vocally discouraged for grad students, 2) parenthood implicitly discouraged through stipends too low to support a family and the overt rationale from professors that the below-poverty level stipends are enough to cover living costs if you just have a roommate, and 3) mothers being shunted out of the program by a complete lack of support.

    The 3rd point is the one that I lost two smart, hard-working, successful fellow grad students to. They both described receiving less and less support and feedback from the same advisor who started pouring more of his energy into his childless female students and his male students, even if they had children. There’s definitely a pernicious belief among some academics that you won’t be able to hack it in academia if you’re a mom.

    There are definitely a lot of factors at play here, but Serena’s story reminded me a lot of what happened to my friends (though they left from neglect, rather than overt termination). I think the most recent parent who graduated from our PhD program was in 2013, and we’ve had a lot of parent grad students.

    Thank you for sharing this story and encouraging some much-needed critical perspective on our discipline.


  13. Takami S. Delisle June 8, 2018 at 10:45 pm

    I’d like first to say thank you to Professor Sue for your comment – which includes too many important points to be highlighted. It’s comforting (ironically) to know that I’m not the only one to find Full Professor’s earlier statement alarming – “The job of the faculty is, sadly, not to nurture the strugglers but to push the most talented to be total superstars.” Obviously Full Professor finds it sad, but I’d like to know whether he’s doing anything to rectify this “sad” predicament. Or is he, like I said earlier, going with the flow because there is nothing he can do in the structural problems?

    Secondly, Full Professor’s assertion – “That is only because you haven’t been in these meetings or had to make these decisions” – reminds me of many conversations I’ve had with other graduate students about how professors infantilize their graduate students. Students may be naïve about academic politics, (hidden) rules, and processes, but their life experiences prior to graduate school should not be underestimated (as the female assistant professor in this comment thread points out). Some of them continue to care for their parents and/or children. Some come from 60 hr/week hourly paid jobs. And there are those who left their teaching or other non-academic managerial jobs to pursue their graduate degrees. These students have had to make a plenty of difficult decisions in their lives, even though these decisions didn’t happen in “these meetings” that you mention in your comment. Of course, we don’t know what goes on behind the closed doors, and there may be a general lack of transparency from the faculty side. But graduate students are quite aware of tough decisions and career trajectories their professors often face, more aware than realized. For instance, many graduate students (at least from my experience) try to avoid asking untenured professors for help with our difficult situations, because we’re concerned about their job security. So it’s quite unnerving to hear that the blame is put on ‘supposed’ students’ ignorance of the faculty’s tasks.

    Third, and this is to respond to Full Professor’s claim “It’s a question of experience, not of ethnicity. I am all for a discussion of race in the academy. But let’s talk about the other factors….,” how do you know that the “experience” you speak of is not instructed/informed by “the white racial frame” (to borrow Joe Feagin’s term)? How can you be so sure that these decisions made in these meetings were entirely free from implicit biases shaped by academic elitism, sexism, or racism? This is what I meant earlier by “how power makes power holders to believe what they think they know is the truth.” And no, I’m not quite ready to move on to “the other factors” until the discussion of race is complete.

    And finally, to comment on the female assistant professor’s concern about “the suggestion that racial bias explains the treatment Selena received. That is a very serious accusation.” – Willie, the author of the open letter and Selena’s trusted confidant, clearly asserts in her/his comment that Selena’s situation was about “implicit bias, re: racism.” Due to the anonymity, any “evidence to support it” that you wish to seek can’t be revealed here. But nevertheless, my sense is that we must believe it even if Willie wasn’t in any of those closed-door meetings. We must believe it because, as Willie explains in the open letter, both of them recognized early on through their own everyday experiences that “Whether it was a problem in our department, in our university, or in the discipline itself it took us three more years to figure out what that thing was.” After all, racism isn’t only about overt physical or verbal violence that has been practiced by the KKK, but also about much more covert, subtle remarks and actions. And these subtle incidents happen to many minoritized anthropology students much more frequently than you may be willing to believe. These stories just don’t come out for various difficult reasons. So this is not “a very serious accusation.” This happens to many minoritized students. And that’s the true unfortunate reality.


  14. In response to the female assistant professor who has called Selena a naive, hapless victim with unrealistic expectations. She was acutely aware of the risks she was taking in choosing her career path. However, she still would have had access to better jobs with a PhD than she does without one.


  15. Willy,
    You misrepresent what I wrote when you say that I called Selena a naive, hapless victim. My point was that the original letter does her a disservice by making her appear naive. I think it is unlikely she was. Putting this aside, your repeated assertion that having a PhD would make Selena more employable gets to the heart of the matter, and is something we can learn from. Why do you think this is so? Between MA and PhD are four or more years of opportunity costs, and foregone opportunities to gain skills, to network, and to advance in a career. It also means 4 or more years of foregone income. Again, we don’t know Selena’s situation. Did she have stipend support? What were her teaching obligations? How might she support a year of field research? Was she incurring debt? We don’t know. But the notion that a PhD is a net benefit, job-wise, is one that we should work to dispel, in order to avoid miscommunication and misunderstanding.


    1. A ‘naive’ and ‘hapless victim with unrealistic expectations.’ Those are the words that you wrote to describe Selena. Because she thought she could get a better job with a PhD than she could without one. I do not think that she was naive, or hapless. I do think her committee, and other members of the discipline have victimized her. And I know that she is a survivor.

      So why do you think she that she was naive for choosing anthropology as a career path? If, as you suggest, students should not expect to get jobs with their degrees, then why are you inviting graduate students to get PhDs in your department?

      Graduate students attend PhD programs at our own expense. Even if we have academic appointments with tuition remission, we are still working to pay off our degrees. Even with student loans, we are still taking ownership over our own futures. Getting a PhD is our choice, our investment. I agree that students need to know that academic job prospects in anthropology are dismal. I agree that the student loan system is atrocious. I disagree that these facts are grounds for student termination.

      Is it really so naive for low income, non-white, first generation students to invest in anthropology degrees with the expectation that we will find gainful employment afterward? Or that having a PhD will grant us acces to jobs that we would not have access to otherwise?

      Do we really need to teach our students that anthropology is just a hobby, or an elite club with exclusive membership?

      If you are concerned that students have unrealistic expectations about the job market, then maybe take some time to learn about what our job prospects really are, including non-academic jobs. So much evidence exists that PhD students have better access to jobs, academic or not. We, graduate students are paying for our education with our blood, sweat, and money. The least you, professors can do is help us to get the degrees that we came here to work for.

      Please, stop gatekeeping our discipline.


  16. AnthPhDCandidate June 13, 2018 at 3:39 pm

    Like many others commenting on this thread, I was not there and am not familiar with the finer details of Selena’s experience. However, as an anthropology PhD candidate in an elite university, it is very, very easy for me to believe the author’s version of this story; that Selena was treated unfairly and in a discriminatory manner.

    I think that some people making comments here are using too narrow of a definition of racism in their dismissal of the possibility that racism was a factor in Selena’s termination from the program. I am a white American man, speak English as my first language, and have not been terminated from my program but there are parts of Selena’s story, as it is presented here, that are so familiar to me that I believe it. My class background is very different from most of my peers/the faculty in my department and I am a non-traditional student in many ways (first generation college student, older, married with children, was raised in a conservative evangelical household, etc). I also work in a less traditional anthropological area. Regardless of my enthusiasm for the discipline and consistent affirmation that the work I do is of sufficient quality, I am often at a disadvantage when it comes to disciplinary cultural reproduction; particularly in reproducing the anthropological “dialect” and other forms of behavior and affect that anthropologists consider prestigious. As often as I find myself feeling these things, I know it is exponentially worse for POC and international students, especially from less-privileged backgrounds. The part of this story where Selena answered “ethnography” and was told that she was wrong made my blood boil. Ethnography is absolutely what anthropologists do. She was being told that she was not a suitable candidate for disciplinary cultural reproduction. Basically: “you are just not one of ‘us’ .” Again, it is very easy for me to believe that this is exactly what happened.

    It has also been my experience that anthropology faculty really want to believe that they are the most radical and progressive agents in the fight against evil in our society. They will go to great lengths to maintain that belief and they really recoil at charges of racism, classism, misogyny, and abuses of hierarchical power. These aggressions get obfuscated behind masks like “rigor” and “intellectual merit.”

    I also want to affirm the position here that senior faculty in particular really struggle to understand the career aspirations of contemporary graduate students. We are now in an era where the bleak nature of the academic job market is no longer a secret. For faculty who fetishize the TT job, it is hard to understand why we even take the risk. The class background of some faculty is such that they feel that they had to *step down* to the academic job and a low six figure income. Without guarantee of the protections of tenure and the benefits of the academic prestige economy, why would any of us commit to the ordeal of graduate study? From that position, it can be very hard to imagine that for some of us (I’m sure this included Selena), we experienced upward social mobility the moment we matriculated into our fancy PhD programs. Whether or not the TT job comes our way, we will experience further social mobility as soon as the PhD is granted. Selena, sadly, will not.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: