Ep. #50 An Anthropology of Universities: Jodie Trembath on Selling Academia

This episode, Kylie interviews a very familiar guest … Dr Jodie-Lee Trembath (aka Jodie from TFS)! Now, Jodie’s no stranger to qualifications, but this year she completed her PhD – which is a MAMMOTH achievement – so we thought it was about time to pick her brain to understand more about universities and fieldwork. They start off by discussing Jodie’s research in Vietnam, about ‘authenticity’ and the perpetuation of an authentic image, about the navigation of being both an ‘insider’ and an ‘outsider’ in the field, and finally they talk about us – that is, The Familiar Strange project.

This is also Kylie’s first interview on TFS!

QUOTES (because I couldn’t pick just a few!)

“As an academic, I feel, myself, to be a resource that a university can exploit. I’m not merely an actor in the system, I am a resource that is being used within the system, often in ways that I don’t necessarily consent to.”

“I think I got in because they [universities] didn’t make sense to me. I was an outsider and I hadn’t really had anything to do with universities when I was growing up … To then go into that system and discover that it was so bizarre – there were so many things about being at university that confused the hell out of me, and so, I think I always felt like I do now as an anthropologist: that I was an observer that didn’t entirely fit in, but that I needed to do work to pass as somebody that did fit in.”

“The idea of cultural capital is that gather these resources … particularly throughout your childhood, from your family and from your education, and that those resources set you up to be comfortable and competent in a particular space. And everybody gathers that cultural capital, but the kind of cultural capital that you gather shapes how you behave as an adult and who you become as an adult.”

“It was useful to cultivate both insider and outsider personas because as an outsider you get to ask dumb questions and that’s so important on fieldwork because if you’re not … you don’t get to unpack how arbitrary culture can actually be. And cultural norms often come about through this range of background instances that are no longer apparent, I guess, to the people who are now living them out … They feel completely normal and right in that context and it’s only when an outsider comes along and says “but why do you do it that way?” that people start to question … But working with academics [or insiders] was useful to be able to sometimes…. sympathise [with others]”

As an insider and outsider, “It’s like you’re always two people in [the field] because on the one hand you’re YOU having a good time with people you really like and respect and wanna hang out with, and then you’re also, at the same time, having to maintain a professional distance.”

Authenticity is such an interesting concept because it’s like smoke: you can never quite catch it, you can never quite pin it down. And I think the reason for that is because it’s always subjective.”

“Is this food authentic? Well, that depends on whether YOU think that authentic food needs to be from a particular place, whether it needs to have a particular flavour, have specific ingredients that come from a particular place? If you don’t think all of those things are necessary for authenticity, then you might think that a particular food is perfectly authentic, and vice versa.”

“I was in a Western university in Vietnam, which markets itself very heavily towards … the upper middle classes, who the university at least believes are aspiring towards … a Western ideal in their education. So they’re very much marketing themselves towards those students and their belief about those students and whether or not this is true is a different thing … But certainly the university marketing department and the academics believed quite heavily that what the students wanted to see in a university was a traditional, authentic, Western experience of academia. How that looked was crafted around the Vietnamese imaginary of the Western ideal university.”

“If you’ve come [to an international university]… you believe education is transformative for people’s lives and that if you come to this country and bring education to these people [as a researcher or lecturer], then that’s going to be transformative for them. When you discover that you are in fact there to be a ‘white face’ and market the university, that can be incredibly disheartening and depressing… what difference are you actually making if you’re not there to really be an educator…?”

“It really was about saying ‘Let’s take these [anthropological] tools and give them to other people’ … That was, kind of, where [The Familiar Strange] started. And from there it just grew into this really beautiful space for us, where we got to have intellectual conversations every week together and have interesting topics to be able to debate, and we were just really fortunate that people wanted to listen and that they wanted to engage with that … That was the dream … That’s always been our goal with this project – it’s to not just talk to each other, it’s to talk to the people that are listening and have them talk back.”

“There’s arguments against jargon, right? Jargon can be just so exclusionary and that is a terrible thing, when you are exuding others with your use of language.”


If you loved hearing Jodie’s thoughts on this episode, why not check out her blogs too?! https://thefamiliarstrange.com/author/jodieleetrembathgmailcom/

And if you’d like to know more about what inspired Jodie to research researchers, the ANU College of Asia and Pacific wrote this last year:

If you’d like to know more about cultural capital, try giving this video by Sociology Live! a watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DBEYiBkgp8

Kirin Narayan’s piece ‘How Native is a “Native” Anthropologist?’ can be found here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/679656

The book Jodie mentions ‘Being an Academic’ by Joelle Fanghanel (2011) can be found here: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=kuurAgAAQBAJ

And ‘Trapped in the Gap’ by Emma Kowal: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=T7d-BAAAQBAJ

This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific and College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.

Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com
Shownotes by Deanna Catto
Podcast edited by Matthew Phung and Kylie Wong Dolan

Feature Image “Backlight Leave” by Markus Spiske (2019) from

Image of “Books” by Christopher (2008) from Flickr

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