Sympathetic Vibrations and the Neo-Liberal Arts College: Response to Bonnie Urciuoli, "Strategically deployable shifters in college marketing, or just what do they mean by "skills" and "leadership" and "multiculturalism"

Don Brenneis
Dept. of Anthropology U.C.S.C.
Santa Cruz, CA 95064

In this significant and provocative essay, Bonnie Urciuoli provides an exemplary analysis of how the academic worlds in which many of us work are discursively represented and, ultimately, shaped. Her examination of the language of liberal arts college recruiting is in itself a model of discourse analysis. Her argument is that certain phrases key to liberal arts college recruiting function not only as shifters (in the sense developed by Jakobson and Silverstein among others) but also as powerful rhetorical devices, strategically employed and often effective with their audiences. Beyond this, Urciuoli gives us a precise language and method for examining the broader reaches of contemporary academic culture. Her work resonates with several other approaches in an emergent critical examination of the contemporary academic scene - and suggests ways in which critical works in this critical literature might be rethought and extended.

In these brief comments I want to do several things: first, to respond to - and pursue - several specific points in her discussion; second, as someone who has taught both in liberal arts colleges and in a larger university setting, to raise some suggestions regarding comparison and context; and, finally, to suggest how Urciuoli's analysis speaks to other recent work on academic practice both in north America and in the U.K.

At the heart of Urciuoli's paper is a compelling case for the consequentiality of the semantically vacuous. She extends the arguments made by Silverstein (1976) and extended by Parmentier (1997) that those terms most deeply embedded in - and taken as central to or definitive of - particular cultural communities are often denotatively empty. Such terms draw their force, rather, from the indexical roles which they play in articulating - or suggesting the articulation of - different discursive fields. The terms central to Urciuoli's study - skills, leadership, multiculturalism, and the like - serve as such shifters. Further, she demonstrates the ways in which college administrators use these terms as key strategic elements in their marketing, specifically linking liberal arts education and its supposed outcomes with values specific to the business and management world. Despite its relative brevity, Urciuoli's pursuit of this argument is both well developed and rich in specific examples, and the tripartite taxonomy she provides is quite useful for exploring the language of college recruiting materials. Her consideration of how multiculturalism figures within the constellation of terms is particularly astute. I was recurrently struck by other contexts in which "multiculturalism" figured strongly, as in the recruiting literature for management programs in which it is often linked both with workforces, i.e., with groups to be managed, and with increasingly complex (but potentially very profitable) marketplaces.

Several other points were striking in Urciuoli's account. One was the particular kind of reflexiveness evident in odd moments in the texts she analyzes. She is very astute in exploring the generative gaps in these metamaterials, and the overt points made by writers within the discursive field itself are often stimulating. While I think that the latter portion of her quotation from U S News and World Report (beginning "I draw the reader's attentionÉ") must be in Urciuoli's words rather than the editors', the striking if always necessarily partial sophistication of practitioners was such that it took me a second take to recognize that, even if they recognized "fetishization" as an aspect of their work, they probably wouldn't write about it. Similarly, I was intrigued by the title of Michael Lang's piece from the Hamilton Alumni Review; what did he have to say about "abstract nouns"? As anthropology and related fields become increasingly embrangled in the kinds of marketing practices addressed here (See, for example, Frank 1999), some perhaps unexpected cross-discursive field resonances are likely to occur.

Urciuoli documents the translation of values for a liberal arts education at a particular moment; some historical tracing of how such forms of self-representation have changed within a somewhat longer time frame would be fascinating. At what point does this particular cluster of skills-related terms come into visible play, for example, and when does "multiculturalism" in this particular configuration of senses become salient? The shift suggested in the Hersh article which she cites from what might be called substantive values claims, e.g., "an appreciation for culture," to skills seems critical, and tracking the relevant texts seems a promising further step. Equally important, in some ways, is Hersh's invocation of a relatively new but already critical kind of social group shaping educational practice, the "stakeholders" consulted in the study he commissioned. At the same time crucial audiences and powerful shapers of policy and practice, even when only implicit or imagined, "stakeholders" are relatively new on the scene, and, as Urciuoli notes for the core terms in her own analysis, they resonate directly with managerial practice rather than academic lexicons.

A second dimension in which some comparative exploration might be revelatory has to do with the types of schools drawing upon such terms. Liberal arts colleges constitute a particular kind of institution with particular marketing problems and resources. To what extent do larger - and especially public - institutions use the same SDS strategies, and in what ways do they differ? If skills continue to figure centrally in their discourse, are the same skills - or more specifically articulated and technically defined ones? How the liberal arts are figured in a range of institutional discourses is a question of real consequence - in relationship to debates about, for example, distance learning, or, perhaps closer to home for many of us, concerning the degree to which arts and humanities (the traditional liberal arts core) should continue to figure in university education. At times, from the Silicon Valley perspective at least, it appears that the last refuge of arts and humanities is as "content providers" for new media. The SDS strategies Urciuoli considers illuminates a different range of ways in which these areas are recontextualized and revalued at the same time as they are reshaped to different ends.

Finally, I want to note the resonance of Urciuoli's work with several other related lines of inquiry - and to reiterate the potential value of the analytical method she lays out for rethinking these approaches. A critical text here is the late Bill Readings' The University in Ruins (1996). Readings starts his critique of contemporary higher education with a tour through the omnipresent but semantically empty and unmoored notion of "excellence" in the discourse of administrators and, at times, of teaching academics themselves. He then moves to his major argument, which is, in overbrief summary, that the cultural values ideology which had long sustained liberal arts education (a la Hersh) was vanishing due, in large part, to the lesser importance of nation-states in education - and the increasing salience of a global, dislocated, and flexible political economic regime. There are a number of points of significant resonance between Readings' broader argument and Urciuoli's interpretive framework, but what I specifically want to note here is the analytical value of, as suggested by this paper, taking "excellence" as particular powerful because of its vacuousness - and rethinking Readings' argument in terms of the discursive fields and practices to which "excellence" serves to link the academic. Perhaps hollow spaces resonate all the more fully.

A further point of articulation for this essay is with the series of recent studies of notions of "audit" and "accountability" in British higher education (most recently Shore and Wright 1999). These two terms - and the related constellation of words and practices which they implicate - are central to government funding in the U.K. and have achieved salience and significance equivalent to Urciuoli's terms for admissions marketing. As "skills" and their kin speak to the desired qualities of future managers, so "audit" and accountability" articulate with patterns of organizational control and power. They are immediately and patently consequential in the British context, but they are also far from inaudible in the very different funding context of the U.S. Certainly the idea of stakeholding (and of responsibility to stakeholders) is central in both areas. The type of semiotic analysis demonstrated here adds a powerful tool to the range of critical strategies which we can use in examining - and responding to - institutional practices in which we are often both implicated actors and potential critics. Shore and Wright close their article with a plea for greater "political reflexivity" (1999: 572) regarding our role in such practices within a neo-liberal institutional world. Urciuoli's exceptional essay not only encourages a similar reflective engagement on our part but provides a powerful range of ways with which to reconceptualize the rhetorics and redefinitions of higher education.


References cited

Frank, Thomas
1999 Brand you: Better selling through anthropology. Harper's Magazine 150: 74-79.

Parmentier, Richard
1997 The pragmatic semiotics of cultures. Special issue of Semiotica. 116
(1): 1-115.

Readings, Bill
1996 The University in Ruins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shore, Cris, and Susan Wright
1999 Audit culture and anthropology: neo-liberalism in British higher
education. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (NS) 5(4): 557-575.

Silverstein, Michael
1976 Shifters, linguistic categories, and cultural description. In K.
Basso and H. Selby, eds. Meaning in Anthropology. Albuquerque: University
of New Mexico Press, 11-55.

Don Brenneis
Department of Anthropology
Santa Cruz, CA 95064
Vox (831)459-3855
Fax (831)459-5900