Public anthropology plenary at the Melbourne AAS conference

I was excited to convene the plenary with Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Tess Lea and Greg Downey. Each of them have an amazing track record in bringing anthropology to bear on global issues, the public and make a contribution in society. I had engaged with this topic for a while now, coming out a free education movement, helping to set up a free university and thinking about the role anthropology plays in public discourses and the impact our work has on the people we work with as well as society more broadly. The University of Queensland offered me the opportunity to create free content and a social anthropology MOOC based on a 1st year course I teach on the Anthropology of Current World Issues. I have had my reservations about MOOCs, but wanted to create something of use to students, our department as well as the discipline and included a series of interviews with anthropologists we met along the way of filming. For those interested, here is the edX sign on page to do the MOOC World101x, but all videos are also available on youtube.

OK, enough of a plug for my MOOC. One of the people we interviewed was Rob Borofsky in Hawaii who runs the Center for a public anthropology and over a couple days with him we had a series of discussions on the role of the anthropologist, the political engagement we can/should/must have and the role of such activism in our discipline. The interview with him is available here. At the plenary I quoted a short definition of his from the early 2000s where he says public anthropology is the:

“ability of anthropology and anthropologists to effectively address problems beyond the discipline – illuminating larger social issues of our times as well as encouraging broad, public conversations about them with the explicit goal of fostering social change”

He has since written a longer explanation, especially to address the long history of and engagement with applied anthropology.

My own view is that anthropology can do much more to translate our research findings, our accumulated academic knowledge, into social effects and impact both in our fieldsites and at our home institutions/societies and contribute to public discourses we are already engaged in.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, who has a long history of what she calls militant anthropology shared some stories with us of her work and called upon (some) of us to be engaged anthropologists or agents provocateurs who infiltrate the structures of power and sometimes must put our bodies or words on the line – these are not mediators and the positions we take up can hurt us, professionally, personally and physically. She also called upon anthropologists to invite criticism and have courage to take risks with our opinions (based on the evidence we collect). This will not work for everyone, nor should it, but I think she engaged a theme that seemed to run through much of the conference, one of unsettling ourselves and others.

Tess Lea focussed on the difficult task of communication and actually bringing our knowledge into the public realm AND have it read. She has just published a fascinating book on Darwin that is part memoir, part socio-cultural analysis and history for a public audience. She is also a filmmaker and said that this has been tough and profoundly under appreciated. Particularly our workplaces and the bureaucratisation of measuring our work outputs/impact has led to a tension in what sort of work gets produced and valued at the university and the discipline. Good writing, one that is sophisticated, interesting and engaging (i.e. a page turner) and that says some hard truths/things is difficult to master and we are never really taught (creative) writing as a skill, just expected to be doing it (in A* journals).

Greg Downey, who also runs a great Neuroanthropology blog, focused on teaching (I asked him to, because he ram the first anthropology MOOC,  which is fantastic) and he sees public anthropology as an integral part of his teaching work. His MOOC is on ‘becoming human’ and covers evolution, biological anthropology and dispels some often held popular myths about genetics. Take it, it’s free! – and wonderful to see a teacher so enthusiastically talking about anthropology. It is also politically important when considering teh recent rise of white student groups on campuses (or at least facebook) across Australia. Greg has intervened on their facebook posts, dispelling myths about genetics and nature and WHITE MAN CIVILISATION…they should just take his MOOC already. He left us all feeling fuzzy and happy by calling on us all to love each other, help each other and create human networks of shared knowledge. Oh and we should all chill out (especially on AASnet) and take a breather. Anthropology is a public good and we also have to be good to each other.

The following discussion was fantastic too, with interventions by Erin Taylor who runs an anthroplogy blog/magazine/wonderful place to spend time online popanth, Ghassan Hage on the role of capital that can push particular views and arguments and someone’s mother who thinks anthropologists are ‘useless alchemists’. Spirited exchanges followed and I had run out of paper to scribble along, so please add comments below with your recollections.

I hope you can share this around and I’ll upload the video as soon as it becomes available. See you all in Sydney next year!



Public anthropology

In recent weeks Savageminds drew attention to the need for anthropology to be more engaging and public, with posts by Erin Taylor and Alex Golub. Taylor called on anthropologists to do more in spreading the word(s) of fellow anthropologists already working hard to make anthropology more accessible. Little gestures, perhaps a retweet, comment or facebook link gets the word out a little more. She also called on university departments to value interventions beyond the book, book chapter and journal article. Sadly universities largely administer us according to metrics that value income and reputational standing as attested by journals and book presses and not outreach, engagement and community work. But this is where Golub’s suggestions hit home in startling fashion: He recommends Amazon reviews and Wikipedia entries. The former ties our expertise to our (rarely significant) commercial value in publishing. We can spread reviews and insights about academic work much faster and to a wider audience. Goodreads is another good review website with a wide readership. Wikipedia, on the other hand, allows academics a space to share their accumulated knowledge, reference and cite as well as create knowledge in a free (well sort of) and shared platform. This is where education makes its mark, for Wikipedia is often the point of departure for many student (and academic) essays, a first stop to discovery and the more we can share on that first step of learning and discovery, perhaps we can entice more people into the depths of further research in libraries, open access repositories etc.

I think that apart from broadening our outreach and sharing each others’ work we must also continue to and become better at inserting ourselves more in general debates and discussions. Too often ‘commentators’, ‘opinion writers’ and ‘experts’ on TV panels, radio shows and news papers are made up of people with little or no expertise in the areas they comment on. Anthropologists with real experiences and expertise can and should intervene, provide comment and discuss matters relating to our expertise – and it is vast!

One major impediment to a more visible public anthropology has been alluded to last week by Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker where he dissects the recent commentary by journalist Nicholas Kristof calling for more interventions by academics. Rothman notes that increasingly professors write for small audiences of their peers in order to attain and remain in an academic position. The golden age of being a professor is over with faculties shrinking and competition over remaining jobs and fellowships lead to a skewed arms race where university metrices dictate impact and our standing much more than outreach and public intellectualism. These have become bonuses, something to pursue ‘on the side’ apart from the income generating teaching work and reputation increasing research work. All this points to a need for redress in what we believe an academic to be and what role s/he should play. It’s easy to call for more interventions, as I just did, but with fewer academics around with fewer time to devote to public interventions we must also address the systemic gutting, ‘rationalisation’ and weakening of most tertiary systems at present.

At the next AAS (Australian Anthropological Society) meeting in Melbourne in December we will have a plenary on the role of anthropology in the media, our communities (where we work – both in the field and the university) and towards our public(s).
Confirmed speakers:  Nancy Sheper-Hughes; Tess Lea and Greg Downey

MOOCs and the humanities: a battle to come?

MOOCs and the humanities: a battle to come?

Aurelien Mondon and I in the Guardian Higher education section on the influence of online learning and how some of the (business) models out there are overturning our ideals of education. The original post was also carried by Opendemocracy:

The education revolution

It has gotten quiet around the Australian government’s education revolution, the one that includes an infrastructure boost of $16.2 billion and a digital education revolution that brings together the National Broadband Network, information technology and schools as well as laptops and personal computers for secondary school students.

The revolution is said to end this year (total funding of $64.9 billion for 2009-2012). This is a shame, as there was no real revolution – more of an increase in funding for a little while.

New websites that aimed to provide better information and choice to the new consumers of education, such as or, have been mired in problems and have had little success in better informing or revolutionising how parents or students decide where to learn and study.

Those revolutions are happening elsewhere. Let’s take a quick world tour of some of the most interesting revolutionary ideas out there. Not long ago the Khan Academy made headlines for its innovative marrying of youtube and tutoring into an ever-expanding resource of short clips that teach people anything from art history to venture capitalism, with a strong focus on maths related subjects.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has for a long time provided open courseware to select courses. These are materials, lecture notes and videos which can be downloaded and read/listen/watch to simulate attending a course. MIT has been joined by an illustrious list of mainly American universities that offer entire or parts of university courses online for free.

Last year a course on artificial intelligence, taught by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor, and Google’s director of research, Peter Norvig, attracted over 160,000 students from 190 countries. Subsequently they launched, which offers free online robotics and internet related courses. allows anyone to start their own course, whereas other providers maintain some quality control, in terms of allowing only universities access.  For instance, iTunesU, a part of the Apple family, podcasts university lectures, seminars and whole courses (the Melbourne Free University also podcasts there now), and offers a range of university courses run by a consortium of Stanford, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton.

The defining aspect of this education revolution is technology and its power to make information and content available to ever more people at little or no cost. This is an important step in leveling the playing field in global education and the sharing of knowledge in times of globalisation. But there is still something missing in this type of education, which is the dynamic community of learners that extends beyond a mere learning space.

Two years ago a group of us started a much smaller and less ambitious project – to bring free higher education to Melbourne. Thus our endeavour is more in line with the free schools/university movement of the 1960s than the technological transformations of online learning. Our principles and ideas are lodged more firmly in the present and the community within which we operate.

Being grounded is a good thing, but also a limiting factor. Our courses are available in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne, our intellectual and physical home, and thus limits our ability to extend our free educational offerings. We tried to ameliorate this by podcasting lectures, but expansion is not what we are really about.

What the open courseware and free iTunesU lectures cannot provide on their own is the intellectual exchange and transformation of dialogue that characterise our sessions, which are built on an equilibrium between talk (monologue) for 45 minutes and discussion (dialogue) for 45 minutes.

We don’t aim to teach others, but allow everyone a voice within the learning space where teacher and taught (ideally) dissolve into equal partners working together. Within months we were receiving emails from people around Australia and abroad urging us to set up free unis in their hometowns.

We were flattered, but again, that is not what we, the Melbourne Free University, are about, we replied. Our rootedness in the community is an integral part of our charter and thus we encouraged others to start their own free universities; each community is different, and free universities need to respond to the particularities of their own communities.

To support them, we have written a short guide on ‘How to Start a Free University,’ which shares what we have learned over the past two years about starting and running a free university.  It is not a step-by-step guide, but explores the issues people need to consider when setting up a free university, details our successes (and failures), and shares reflections and feedback from participants and others involved.

Let the revolution begin.

The Melbourne Free University has just celebrated its second anniversary and the launch of its guide on ‘how to start a free university’. The guide is available for free to download at .