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Audit Culture and History as Craft

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I am fond of E. P. Thompson and I have found in some of his works useful ways to articulate not only scholarly work, but also the way in which I teach history as a discipline. In particular, I’ve found his notion of artisanal work useful to explaining how academic work is different from, say, the stereotypical corporate workplace. Artisans work on their own time and produced according the principles of what Thompson called the “moral economy” in contrast to the market economy which becomes the dominant force within capitalism. Two weeks ago, I returned to this analysis and considered how the panopticon and online teaching served the market economy. In particular, I suggested (almost argued) that the transparency of student behavior to the gaze of the instructor conditioned them to participate in the so-call “information economy” where every aspect of an individual’s identity is observed, recorded, and redeployed (typically to encourage consumption or the production of goods).

While ruminating on these things, I stumbled upon an article by M. Herzfeld entitled, “Deskilling, ‘Dumbing Down’, and the Auditing of Knowledge in the Practical Mastery of Artisans and Academics: An Ethnographers Response to a Global Problem,” in M. Harris ed, Ways of knowing (Berghahn Books, 2007), 91-112. Characteristic of Herzfeld’s work, this article is dense and significant, so I found myself more mesmerized than necessarily comprehending. From what I can distill, he argues (among other things) that academic work is under the same pressures the ultimately undermined artisanal modes of production (p. 91). The emergence of a culture where administrators (if not fellow academics) expect quantifiable results and by doing so anticipate a kind of “replicability” that runs counter to the fundamental intellectual premises of disciplines like anthropology (p. 97). To Herzfeld, the way in which students acquire the kind of knowledge available through anthropology is parallel to way that apprentices learned from master craft men. Of course, artisanal ways of work have ultimately collapsed in the face of the pressures of the market economy which put greater pressure on the consistency of production and less value on the unique abilities of the individual artisan. As a result, in the place of artisans, we now have deskilled and marginalized labor. The need to maintain this pool of deskilled labor depends upon a kind of “prefabricated knowledge design” which ensures that workers have docile bodies and minds, capable of accommodating market forces (p. 93). In other words, the irregular and creative outcomes of artisanal methods of producing knowledge are undesirable in the market economy which looks toward consistency in production. The goal in education then is to produce consistent outcomes at the expense of creativity (and we must assume with Herzfeld that these two potential outcomes are mutually exclusive).

The discipline of history, like anthropology, often finds itself in a nervous place when faced with this philosophy of education. I’d contend that it is exceedingly difficult to demonstrate that students understand the notoriously ill-defined “historical method” through quantitative means. Thus scientific (or, better, scientistic) means of judging the success or failure — the consistency — of the educational process are ill-suited to evaluate the discipline of history as it currently stands. It is possible, of course, to make sure that students know some basic historical facts, but few within the discipline would accept this “prefabricated knowledge” to be a particularly significant indication of one’s ability to be a historian. We acknowledge the central place of method in the historical discourse by calling the one required class in the historical curriculum here at the University of North Dakota, The Historians Craft. We explicitly situate history within the tradition of craft — that is artisanal — production (pp. 98-99). The outcomes in this class, and in historical research more generally, are uneven, unpredictable, almost impossible to quantify and to replicate. The reasons for this are rooted in the varying nature of historical source material as well as variation in students’ (and historians’) ability to grasp any particular body of historical source material. Experience plays a key role in our abilities as historians and, as the saying goes, you can’t teach experience.

Lest we think that Herzfeld’s paralleling artisans and anthropologists predicts the ultimate collapse of academic disciplines that embrace knowledge over skills, he concludes with an optimistic vision. Anthropologists, like historians, trained through experience are quick to realize the flaws in any form of assessment that endeavors to reduce actual learning to numerical or structural models (pp. 106-107). In fact, the sensitivity among historians and anthropologists to the irregularities present in any form of data (and to the power structures that create these data sets) put them in a position to reject assessments that undermine their devotion to knowledge production. I’d add to this that our understanding of the context of audit culture allows us to subvert it goals by forms of passive resistance which range from mimicking successful outcomes through the deft manipulation of scientistic language to intentional misrepresentation of the audit culture’s expectations for the discipline. How long these strategies can sustain the discipline speaks as much to the health of the discipline and its continued ability to produce knowledge as it does the strength of the powers that seek to de-skill academic artisans in the name of scholarly production.   

Categories: Teaching
  1. February 3, 2010 at 8:14 am

    I’m really interested in reading Louis Menand’s new book, The Marketplace of Ideas. Check out a review and NPR interview

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