Written by Madeline McCann, graduate student in REEI
Several years ago, I was driven to Russian studies by my desire to escape the familiar. I felt sick of studying United States history—of regurgitating year after year the events and narratives that had been hammered into me since grade school. Strangely, it was an undergraduate course on Russian history that finally triggered, for the first time, my deep fascination with the politics and history of the United States. That is why Dr. Michael Burawoy’s opening words at a recent informal talk with IU graduate students immediately resonated with me. The best thing for a scholar in the United States to do, he said, is to leave the country and learn what a strange place the United States is.
Indiana University, with its enormous focus on area studies specializations, excels at preparing students to leave the United States and learn more about various parts of the world. Unfortunately, area studies specialists sometimes face an uphill battle in the job market, particularly in academia. Incidentally, in a talk the day before, Dr. Celeste Wallander of the U.S.-Russian Foundation mentioned her own struggle with pressures pushing area-studies specialists out of academia in the early 2000s. As a student in an area studies program, therefore, I was extremely glad to hear Dr. Burawoy emphasize the importance of locally specific knowledge.
Dr. Burawoy, a sociologist who has studied industrial workplaces in Zambia, Chicago, Hungary, and post-Soviet Russia, is a well-known proponent of extended ethnographic research and local expertise. At this talk, he emphasized the importance of area studies as a means of combating provincialism within and beyond academia. According to Dr. Burawoy, many of the theoretical paradigms we use in the social sciences are built from the United States’ model, but in fact, the United States isn’t a model portrait of global societies. It’s extremely particular, but you have to have something to compare it to in order to understand that. I deeply appreciated his words, and indeed, they fit intuitively with my own experience.
At the talk, Dr. Burawoy also warned students that it is important to understand the growing bifurcation of the university job market. As universities have transformed increasingly into profit centers with hard budget constraints, Dr. Burawoy explained that many have begun to seek out ways to maintain salaries while reducing costs. This has led universities to freeze faculty positions and increase lectureships, creating divergent paths for tenure track and contingent employees. In this context, Dr. Burawoy emphasized that it is important for young scholars to carefully consider their personal goals and preferences when seeking out employment at universities.
I left Dr. Burawoy’s talk with (the all too familiar) unease about my future job prospects, but with a reaffirmed conviction in the importance of my degree. Wherever I go next, I believe that my experiences in an area studies program will provide an important backdrop for my continued work and studies. If nothing else, I hope that years spent trying to understand the world beyond my own backyard will endow me with the tools necessary to critically examine the once invisible foundations of my own home.