Doing “Being Ordinary”

By Dr. Portia Sabin*

My husband called me last night from Chicago, where he is in seminary studying to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.  He told me he thought that the Harvey Sacks article I gave him — “On Doing ‘Being Ordinary'” — was quite applicable to his current situation.  He has an interview this Friday with the RSCC, a national body whose function is to determine whether or not ministerial candidates should be allowed to proceed in their candidacy.  Doing poorly at this interview generally means you should find another calling, and as such is a source of much discussion amongst candidates.  He reported that his conversations with other seminarians had led him to believe that they were all hard at work educating one another about the appropriate attitude to have regarding their upcoming RSCC interviews, and that this attitude appeared to require anxiety.  Indeed, NOT being anxious did not appear to be an option for someone who otherwise was doing “being ordinary” in that group.  Because it is so “ordinary” for seminarians to be anxious, my husband wondered if the RSCC board members would find it odd if a candidate was not anxious during the interview.  I said that while the board is no doubt part of the “culture of anxiety” in which candidates go about their daily business, they are also Americans, and that in America confidence and self-possession are also social facts.  Therefore I suggested that he could go into his interview without displaying anxiety and not fear that the board would consider his behavior too “out of the ordinary” in the given situation.

This is only one example of the many ways everything I’ve learned from my Anthropology & Education studies has influenced (affected? infected?) my daily life.  I’ve been having conversations like these with my husband for 14 years, as he became a convert to my theoretical perspective after our very first fight, where he told me he believed in nature over nurture and I said he wasn’t necessarily wrong but simply had chosen the completely uninteresting and unknowable over the interesting and knowable.  For some reason he said, “That’s the girl for me!” at that point and we’ve continued on in intellectual harmony every since.

*Dr. Portia Sabin got her Ph.D. from the TC Anthro & Ed program.  She interrupted her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington after one year to take over the family business, the record label Kill Rock Stars, started by her husband in 1991.  She currently sits on the boards of the American Association of Independent Music and The Recording Academy, Pacific Northwest Chapter.  She most recently dipped her toe back in academia by teaching Introduction to Cultural Anthropology at Portland Community College in Fall 2013.

Ethnography as a radical activity

My curiosity to unwind tangles and make complexities visible—to reveal inequities and marginalized individuals and groups of people—and to tell their stories with integrity, demands that I take seriously my roles as an anthropologist. I agree with Ray McDermott, who claims ethnography as “radical activity.” Much of my research focuses on the authority of officials to make policy, and ethnography becomes a way to speak truth to power. I study education policy (broadly defined) as a field of activity, situating it as a complex, productive, multidirectional process in which people, policy and places interact to shape and enact mandates across diverse contexts replete with political subjectivities and differentials of power. My empirical investigations extend across multiple sites and social structures, and offer a cultural analysis that captures the complexity of education processes. These investigations can be situated across three interrelated, strands of inquiry. They are: the productive social assemblages of education policy; the controversies of globalizing education; and the politics and complexities of language policy and newcomer education.

Writing ethnographic accounts is part of the academic work expected of me, but increasingly when I grapple with my own ideas, and aim to integrate the knowledge gained from study participants, critical theorists, social scientists, colleagues, and students, I find myself drawn to sharing what (I think) I know in other forms—written letters to editors, school newsletter columns, blogs, and Facebook posts.  Along these lines, I have just begun a one year fellowship with Public Voices Thought Leadership/The OpEd Project whose aim is to increase the range of voices and ideas in the world, and ultimately give ideas “a chance to be heard, and to shape society and the world” (  Being a Fellow affords me the opportunity to insert an anthropological voice into the public conversations about education. Drawing on my recent ethnographic research with refugees and newcomers networks, I am writing my first OpEd about the need for greater ESL provisions in the Refugee Act of 1980.

Jill Koyama is a graduate of the programs in anthropology. She is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Practice in the College of Education at the University of Arizona. You can read her academic work in a variety of journals, including the American Journal of Education, Anthropology and Education Quarterly, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Journal of Education Policy, and Educational Researcher.  Her books include: Making Failure Pay (University of Chicago Press), School Connections (Co-edited, Teachers College Press), and US Education in a World of Migration (Co-edited, in press with Routledge Press).  You can also follow Jill on Facebook-jillkoyama, @Koyamawonders on Twitter, or at

Jill in cold NYC 



Whither the Future of Anthropology in Education?

For more than half a century, anthropology and education have had a productive relationship. Ethnographic methods have enhanced understanding of how education happens, inside the classroom and outside, close to home and abroad.

TC has always been a leading voice in this exchange. Margaret Mead, who taught at the College from 1948 to 1960, was among the first to focus her field on American schools, and her young protégé, future TC president Lawrence Cremin, absorbed her vision of education as occurring not just in classrooms but in all the theaters of daily life.

All of which made the College the logical venue, in mid-October, for a two-day conference titled “The Future of Anthropology and Education” – a future that currently seems very much in question.

“Anthropology is disappearing as a focus in many education schools, and major foundations no longer back anthropological research in the classroom,” TC President Susan Fuhrman said in welcoming attendees from two-dozen institutions, including Stanford, Northwestern, McGill, Princeton, Oxford, and the University of Pennsylvania. Anthropology also is losing ground to the tidal wave of large-scale “Big Data”-driven projects that increasingly attract funds.

“It is not self-evident that our discipline and its approaches are sustainable,” said the conference’s convener, TC Professor of Education Herve Varenne. “We must figure out how to educate our audience about the power of what we do.” (Varenne has received the 2013 George and Louise Spindler Award, from the Council on Anthropology and Education, recognizing his lifetime achievement in the field.)

Many of the field’s central values hark back to the creation of the Council on Anthropology in Education in 1970. For example, Nancy Hornberger, outgoing editor of the Anthropology & Education Quarterly (AEQ), said that the journal’s mission “remains the same: to publish ethnographic studies on learning and teaching both in and out of school.”

“We want research that goes deeper than just talking to people,” Hornberger said, adding that long-term participant-observation is still what distinguishes the field. “But today submissions based on narrative and discourse analysis are growing,” she said. “We need more systematic ethnographic accounts.”

But today submissions based on narrative and discourse analysis are growing, she said. The impact of digital media spaces on ethnography is an important new concern. The relationship between researchers and participants is in constant flux, partly due to new methods and partly due to constraints such as those imposed by institutional review boards. Meanwhile, Hornberger said, public schools and districts “are making it harder for teachers to feel free to have researchers in their classroom, and that is having an impact on our field.”

Another major challenge facing the field is how to influence policy and hold power structures accountable.

Peter Demerath, of the University of Minnesota, said that anthropologists should not speak in a private language, but “should speak as we do in public, be clear and lay out our arguments in terms of the conventional wisdom that they are responding to.” Instead, he said, Demerath added: “we need to get over our deep-seated fears of reductionism and our reluctance to generalize. Policy-makers need to hear unitary messages.”

In the conference’s final plenary, Jill Koyama, of the University of Arizona, called for anthropologists in education to speak out more and worry less about the precise institutional status of the sub-field.

“We’ve been so preoccupied with how anthropology of education came together, and is maintained together,” Koyama said. “I do not feel that anthropology needs to be in the service of education. Collaborate, integrate, critically inform – but do not subsumed.”

Koyama urged her colleagues to be forceful in asserting the role of anthropology in education, calling for more work on race and class, more critical scrutiny of the anthropologists’ own institutions, and more blogging and other public work, even when this is not encouraged or rewarded. “We have ourselves to blame for not being invited to the table,” Koyama said. “We need to get our voices out there.”


Post originally posted here.

TC Education Anthropologist Herve Varenne Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

Herve Varenne, TC Professor of Anthropology and Education, has received the George and Louise Spindler Award for lifetime achievement from the Council on Anthropology and Education. The honor – named for the husband-wife team who, along with TC’s Margaret Mead, did much to establish the field – was announced this past week at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association. Varenne and Elsie Rockwell, a prominent Mexican education anthropologist, each received this year’s Spindler award.

The Council’s award committee credited the French-born Varenne with exerting a “profound effect” on the field of anthropology and education, noting that his first book, Americans Together: Structured Diversity in a Midwestern Town (1977), “sparked a comparison to another famous French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, because of [Varenne’s] insights into American culture as expressed through the actions of ordinary people.”

More broadly, the committee said that Varenne is “widely recognized for advancing theory and asking the counterintuitive questions…including: Are people really predisposed toward anything? Is there an ‘American culture’? Is learning outside school settings as powerful or more powerful than that of in-school settings? Why do we assume ‘community’ and is it even possible?”  

The flavor of Varenne’s ideas comes through in an essay he wrote in TC Today magazine in the spring 2012 issue of TC Today magazine, which was dedicated to technology.

Noting the ease with which non-experts from children to grandmothers have learned to operated computers, Varenne asked, “What if teaching and learning are not specialized activities? What if they are ubiquitous processes regularly activated when conditions require them? Dewey intuited this, but we must investigate a more radical set of opportunities. Could schools simulate the conditions under which newcomers realize that they must learn a skill and find the people who will help them? Perhaps by specifying curricula, pedagogies and the experts one must go through to be certified as knowing something, schools have been unwittingly limiting educational activities and the rewards they produce.” 

In nominating Varenne for the award, Jill Koyama, a faculty member in education leadership and policy at SUNY Buffalo, praised him for demonstrating how “cultural categories have perceived, real, and often, enduring consequences,” particularly for those in education.”

Another nominator, Lesley Bartlett, TC Associate Professor of Education, hailed Varenne “for shifting the attention of the social sciences from ‘learning’ as a process with lasting individual consequences, to ‘education’ as an open, collective, and deliberative process of continual transformation and change.”

And Ray McDermott, Professor of Anthropology at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, wrote in his nomination of Varenne:  “Call him genius, call him creative, call him the new de Tocqueville (150 years later), they all apply, but the important point is that he puts on the table, every time he speaks, every time he writes, a different and important point of view on the American nation, the American school, and the American family.”

At TC, Varenne’s many courses have included the Ethnography of Education, American Culture, Technology and Culture, and The Dynamics of Family Life. His books include American School Language: The Rhetorical Structuring of Daily Life in a Suburban High School (1983); Ambiguous Harmony: Family Talk in America (1992); Successful Failure: The School America Builds (1998; with Ray McDermott); and Alternative Anthropological Perspectives in Education (2008, with TC Professor Emeritus Edmund W. Gordon).

In each of those works, the emphasis has been on determining an applied approach for his field that answers the needs of the day. Or as Varenne himself put it at a conference he convened at TC this past October on the future of anthropology in education: “It is not self-evident that our discipline and its approaches are sustainable. We must figure out how to educate our audience about the power of what we do.”


More info here