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.”
[00:00:00] Kylie Wong Dolan: Hey, everyone. First off, we at The Familiar Strange want to acknowledge and celebrate the First Australians on whose lands we're producing this podcast and pay our respect to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, past, present, and emerging. Let's go.
[00:00:27] Kylie: Hello and welcome to The Familiar Strange. I'm Kylie Wong Dolan, your familiar stranger for today. Welcome to the podcast, brought to you with support from the Australian Anthropological Society, the Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific, and College of Arts & Social Sciences, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. Produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.
Today, I'm speaking with Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath. As any regular listener will know, Jodie is a founding member of The Familiar Strange and now managing editor with the team. Jodie started out as a high school drama and English teacher before moving to Vietnam to work in the Oxford University Press marketing department and to teach English at Saigon Technology University. Later, over several years at RMIT Vietnam, Jodie lectured in communications and then became the senior writer in the marketing and communications department.
This is what got Jodie interested in her PhD topic. What she was seeing in these universities in Vietnam was quite different from what she was reading in the literature. In fieldwork, things were different again, but at each university, she found a common determination to internationalize and drive up profits. Today, Jodie and I begin talking about outside observations as the kind of training for doing ethnography and the murky distinction between being an insider or outsider in the field. We discussed Jodie's research in Vietnam at a branch campus of a Western University.
In a neoliberal globalized environment, the university crafted a very particular image of itself to appeal to prospective Vietnamese students. An image of an apparently authentically Western University. Jodie talks me through the amorphous idea of authenticity and the many appearances it had in her fieldwork. White academics were one selling point for the university and Jodie draws out some of the challenges of this kind of commodification. We finished up talking about this project, The Familiar Strange, how it began, where we are, and what's to come. This is also my first interview for the project, and it was as ever a pleasure to speak with Jodie.
Before we dive into today's interview, did you know we have a Facebook chats group? Join us on The Familiar Strange chats on Facebook and provide some valuable insight on today's interview. Here it is, me and Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath.
[00:02:38] The first thing that I wanted to ask was a bit about your background and experience with universities. Something that struck me from one of our earliest conversations this year was how many degrees you've done, [laughs] and how qualified you are, firstly, the fact that you continue to work in a university, and that you did your fieldwork during your PhD at a university. It seems like a really prominent theme in your life. I just wonder if you could tell me a little bit about how your interest in universities as a student and also as an observer, how that began?
[00:03:14] Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath: Now I'm institutionalized, so I just can’t get out, but I think I got in because they 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, I'm the first in the family to go to university. It certainly wasn't a given that I would go to university or I wasn't universally encouraged to go. It was something that I really wanted and thought would be fun.
I was relatively good in school and so it seemed like a fun thing to keep doing. 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. 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 in order to pass as somebody that did fit in.
In my first year, I learned the theory of cultural capital in a sociology of education class and cultural capital, those of you who are not familiar, which is almost everybody in the world, I think, unless you've done educational sociology like I did or are an anthropologist, but the idea of cultural capital is that you gather these resources particularly throughout your childhood, from your family, from your education, and that those resources set you up to be comfortable and competent in a particular space.
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. For me, I realized when I took that class, that I was not exhibiting the right kinds of cultural capital in order to pass and that I needed to, like in My Fair Lady where Eliza Doolittle learns how to become-
[00:05:23] Kylie: Oh, yes that's right.
[00:05:23] Jodie: -speaking my language, yeah. That I needed to learn that language, I needed to learn the body language, I needed to learn how to dress and how to pass. I was so grateful that I took that class so early on in my undergrad and my undergrads were in drama and education respectively, I did a double degree. To have picked that little gem up so early, let me really embrace the fact that I was not just doing a drama degree to learn how to act on a stage. I was going to use my drama education to learn how to act in a university.
[00:06:02] Kylie: In your story there, I really like how it sounds like you've mastered the art of being an insider-outsider. That's something that you've played with and cultivated potentially for many years. I wonder if you see that as being true because that's something that I started to see in your thesis.
[00:06:17] Jodie: I don't know that I've mastered anything really, [laughter] but I do think that it's something that I've cultivated heavily and in terms of being an insider/outsider during my fieldwork, I don't see that as a dichotomy. One of my supervisors, Kirin Narayan, talks about being a native anthropologist and in fact, coined that term. She talks about how, when you are going back into a field that you ought to be very familiar with because it's basically your home turf, for her, that was going into an Indian community that she was very familiar with, that she had grown up in and out of. Being in that space is actually quite disarming because you're no longer just an insider, but you're not really an outsider. That can be very dislocating.
That was very much my experience going into a university environment for fieldwork having spent a lot of time in universities, both as a student and professionally because they didn't see me as an insider. My participants didn't see me as an insider, I wasn't one of them, and also, I was a PhD student. So although I was of a similar age to lots of them, I was further down the hierarchical ladder, I suppose. I wasn't an insider in that sense, but I was an insider because I speak university now.
I was able to pass, I guess, in that environment when I needed to, but 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 asking the questions that everybody else would be like, "Okay, they don't know what they're talking about," you don't get to unpack how arbitrary culture can actually be.
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 have become arbitrary but they also feel completely natural. They feel completely normal and right in that context and it's only when an outsider comes along and says, "Why do you do it that way," that people start to question, "Oh, is that not the only way that it can be done?"
It's really important to be an outsider in that context, but working with academics, it was also useful to be able to sometimes be able to play the insider role and say, "Oh, yes, marking. I understand about marking. I've done marking. Marking is the worst. Yes, I completely can sympathize with that." I don't see myself as either, but I definitely cultivated both personas.
[00:09:06] Kylie: That sounds like a really valuable skill.
[00:09:09] Jodie: I think it's probably one that every anthropologist uses to some extent, particularly because we're in the field for such a long time. Over time, you start to feel like an insider in any given context. When that happens, there's cache in that. That gives you something and it gives your participants something as well. It gives them a sense of trust in you.
[00:09:29] Kylie: Actually, I would like it if we could elaborate a bit on the idea of trust. There's something that you said to me not too long ago about how the way that you comport yourself. I think you personally, this is the way that you told this story, enabled people to confide in you to a greater extent than you imagine they might some other anthropologist or another person working in your position. I wonder what the relationship between that kind of comportment and your "insider-outsider", what that relationship might have been.
[00:09:59] Jodie: Yes, that's a really tricky one because people often see me as non-threatening, which is a good thing because I am not threatening anybody, but I think that having that, it's not a facade, it's not one persona, it's almost an alter in a sense of having multiple people within a person. If you think about that way of being with people, it does tend to relax people into feeling that they can tell me things. I would like to think that I am a good confidant, I don't share what people tell me and I hope I earn that trust.
What it does mean is that I have to be quite careful to reinforce all the time when I'm in the field, I am writing this down, this is for the purpose of research. If you tell me this, you need to then tell me if you don't want me to use it and I'm going to keep asking you about that. Often, people forget when I'm in the field that I am doing research. I do need to be really vigilant about following up with people from an ethical perspective so that they remember that this is not just a casual chat, that they are always on the record unless they tell me that they're not.
[00:11:07] Kylie: That sounds incredibly difficult. It's not something that I'm looking forward to I think that's a dilemma that probably every anthropologist in fieldwork must face.
[00:11:17] Jodie: I think so, yes. It was something that we talked on the last panel episode. Simon said that ultimately, fieldwork becomes like hanging out with your best mates. In some ways, that's true, but for me at least, it's like, you're always two people in that context because, on the one hand, you're you, having a good time with people you really like and respect and want to hang out with, and then you're also at the same time having to maintain a professional distance.
[00:11:47] Kylie: This might be an interesting segue into the idea of authenticity that you speak about in your thesis. I wonder if presenting yourself and thinking about yourself differently according to the kinds of work you're doing and the kinds of people you're around if that informs how you think about authenticity? Were there particular situations or dispositions that you employed that enabled you to feel maybe more or less authentic than others?
[00:12:09] Jodie: Yes, authenticity is such an interesting concept, because it's like smoke, you can never quite catch it, you can never quite pin it down. I think the reason for that is because it's always subjective. There is, to my mind, no objective reality of authenticity, there is not an authentic anything. 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 flavor, 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.
Authenticity in a fieldwork context, as in whether or not you are being an authentic person, for me, I'm constantly observing myself in the same way that I am constantly observing other people. I don't think of myself as the researcher in a space, of my opinion as being more important than theirs, or the way that I'm seeing it. It's just another way of seeing a particular phenomenon from the perspective of my research and whether or not a university is being an authentic version of what a university should be. Again, there are these different paradigms of what a university "should" be.
Joelle Fanghanel wrote this fantastic book called Being an Academic, and she talks through these different ideologies, that universities are built around. There's the idea that a university should be there for the sake of education. Education for education's sake—we should become a more educated society because it's good for society. Full stop. There's that, there's another one that says universities should prepare students for the world of work, that they should produce citizens that can contribute to society and in our society, that's a capitalist society. Then there's another paradigm that says, universities should be transformative, they should try and change the world for the better, they should make people's lives better, and that that's our goal in both doing education and research.
What I found when I went into the field was that those three paradigms, those three ideologies were being talked about all the time, absolutely, but actually, there was this other ideology going on as well, which I called a perpetuation ideology, which was that we need to keep, universities should continue universities and that if we didn't continue the university, then the university wouldn't continue. It was very cyclical and it was very much tied up with doing marketing in order to keep the university going because if we didn't, the University wouldn't keep going, which seemed very hollow in terms of the original authentic idea of what a university does and should do.
That was where I got into the idea of authenticity and whether or not authenticity even should exist because clearly, these ideas were so contested and so subjective anyway.
[00:15:32] Kylie: It seems possible also that the idea of the perpetuation ideology, that that sustains all three ideas. In some ways, even if they're competing, they're sustained anyway.
[00:15:44] Jodie: Absolutely.
[00:15:45] Kylie: Right, so is that what sustains the ideology?
[00:15:47] Jodie: People can jump from holding a transformation ideology to holding a production ideology; people can jump between those two so easily and then flip in the same conversation into believing in education for education's sake. People jump back and forth all the time and don't seem to see any contradiction in it when they're talking.
[00:16:09] Kylie: Does authenticity remain the mainstay? Even when there's a bit of flip flop between what might be most important in a university, is there some bedrock value around authenticity? No, it's just the perpetuation ideology.
[00:16:22] Jodie: Yes, I wouldn't even say that, I would say that what people believe to be an authentic University underpins whatever ideology they happen to be purporting at any given moment and that they don't even notice the subtle shift in their thinking between what they believe in authentic university to be in any given moment. There are absolutely some people who wouldn't go near, say, a production ideology, that they are hardcore, education should be for education's sake, universities are here to be independent. They are for the public good, not for fueling a capitalist economy. There are definitely those people, and there are definitely people who are focused on any given one. Even so, the language of the others tends to creep in and that's why I think that the idea of authenticity is so nebulous.
[00:17:12] Kylie: What about from the students' perspective? What do you think students attending this university and how do you think they interpreted or thought about authenticity?
[00:17:22] Jodie: This is a really core idea of my thesis. On the one hand, you have how academics feel about a university and the purpose of university, but on the other, students often have quite different ideals around that.
Because 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, they're very much marketing themselves towards those students. And their belief about those students, whether or not this is true is a different thing – I didn't interview students, I didn't gather data from students particularly.
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. Now, whether or not that was actually the Vietnamese student ideal, I don't know, but it was certainly what the staff thought the Vietnamese imaginary was.
[00:18:42] Kylie: Can we back up for a second? Let's talk a little bit about the university you did your fieldwork at.
[00:18:46] Jodie: Sure.
[00:18:47] Kylie: It was an international branch of a university that had its main campus-
[00:18:55] Jodie: In a Western country.
[00:18:55] Kylie: In a Western Country.
[00:18:56] Jodie: There are four, at the time I was doing fieldwork, there were four international branch campuses in Vietnam.
[00:19:02] Kylie: They had set up a campus in Vietnam and were trying to entice Vietnamese students to study there and offer a campus experience and a university experience that replicated in some way or was seen to replicate in some way, the university experience that they might have had, had they gone to that Western country. Is that right?
[00:19:23] Jodie: Yes, spot on.
[00:19:24] Kylie: Could you tell me how did the university present itself to appeal to Vietnamese students?
[00:19:30] Jodie: Okay, so there were a number of layers to that. We start with the physical presentation of the university. It looked different to Vietnamese universities. From the perspective of the architecture was funky as you would imagine a big funky Google-style campus would look. They were modeling their architecture on and they always brought in western architects to do the designs and it was very sleek surfaces and bright colors and very clean lines. There's an irony to that, isn't there? Because when I personally think about what my "authentic" Western University looks like, it looks like Oxford, it looks like Cambridge. In Australia, it's the Sandstone Universities, not new and modern and sleek. In Vietnam, new and modern and sleek is preferable, and old is out.
[00:20:31] Kylie: Or seen to be preferable and seen to be out.
[00:20:33] Jodie: Right. Although I lived in Vietnam for a long time and that was certainly my perception of my Vietnamese friends and students also. I should also say that it's not that the University that I did my fieldwork at wasn't doing research. They had loads of market research behind them to tell them what students wanted to see. It's not that they didn't have the research, it's that I didn't gather that data myself and that's why I'm making that distinction. Yes, lots of clean lines, color, beautifully landscaped lawns, gardens, lots of amazing equipment, huge sports facility.
For a lot of the academics coming onto the campus from other countries, they were like, "Wow, this is so schmick, so much more pleasant in many ways than being on the home campuses that they had come from, and so in many ways, not a very authentic version of what a university looks like in a Western country, but it had air conditioning and it had bean bags for people to sleep on and it had microwaves. These were things that were not common in Vietnamese universities certainly at the time, I'm not sure now. They were seen as a point of difference for students that wanted that Western experience and thought that that was what a Western experience looked like according to their market research.
There was that starting level of how things looked and how they physically felt. That was one thing that they were doing. They used their physical environment to capture the feeling of a Western university as they felt that Vietnamese students felt that it should be.
[00:22:12] Kylie: Yes, I love that.
[00:22:14] Jodie: Then in addition to that, a big part of it was who they hired. Approximately 80% of the academic staff were not Vietnamese, 20% were. A lot of them were white, and that was talked about constantly on campus by both students, staff of every nationality as being what the students wanted. It was very much seen as, "This is what we sell. We sell white academics, and therefore, we need white academics because otherwise how are we going to sell them?" That filtered down into everything, it filtered down into marketing practices and it felt filtered down into recruitment practices when they were recruiting staff.
[00:22:56] Kylie: How did these white academics feel about being represented that way and being recruited potentially for those reasons, or largely for those reasons?
[00:23:03] Jodie: It was really complex. It was a really complex experience for those who were conscious of it. I don't think everybody was conscious of it, but anybody who was having any conversation with the marketers of the University were aware that white faces were a necessary commodity on campus. For the academics, there was definitely a feeling of, “But hang on, I've gone into academia to live the life of the mind. I'm an intellectual and I use my brain because that's something that I've grown up being good at usually,” and so to then go to a place where you're valued for your looks is jarring, really jarring.
At the same time, it gives you a whole heap of privileges that you have probably not been conscious of in your previous life being a minority group. As a white person in Vietnam is probably not something that most white people have experienced. To be a minority that gets privileges but also is being exploited, it's a complex place to be, and to then have to manage the identity work that comes with being marketed as a product when you think of yourself as an intellectual, it's tough and a lot of people struggled.
[00:24:42] Kylie: One really influential ethnography by Emma Cavell speaks about the stigma of white privilege and how being a white person or a non-indigenous person in Australia in particular contexts, while this is a privileged identity, it's also a stigmatized one and one that people feel in some cases, in a sense, ashamed of or apologetic for and people “self-efface” in Cavell's words. I wonder what kinds of techniques white academics used at the university to manage that, to manage feeling like a commodity, to manage wanting to be also seen or seen primarily for their intellectual capabilities.
Also, add into the mix the fact that they're in a new country or a country that they're not from, pursuing a career as a teacher and a researcher, how did people make sense of these multiplicities?
[00:25:31] Jodie: Well, in as many different ways as there were different academics there, depending on what people's motivation is for coming to a university like that, and it probably changes from person to person day to day, but depending on that motivation is going to depend on what strategies a person might use to manage the dislocation that occurs to their identity once they get there.
If you've come, you believe in a transformation ideology, you believe that education is transformative for people's lives and that if you come to this country and bring education to these people, 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 because you're-- What difference are you actually making if you're not there to really be an educator or do transformative research?
[00:26:31] Kylie: I remember reading that these Western universities had built campuses overseas and in, can we call them developing countries?
[00:26:39] Jodie: Yes. Well, it's a really contested term but nobody's come up with what should be used. Let's go with developing for now.
[00:26:48] Kylie: The idea that these Western Universities had created new campuses in developing countries seemed to be in my reading in your thesis, an effort towards decolonization. I wonder how these white academics felt being positioned in that way as selling an idea of whiteness but being part of an effort to decolonize. I wonder if they ran up against each other in a-- I can't even imagine what way. That sounds really conflicting and challenging.
[00:27:15] Jodie: Yes, so what I observed during my fieldwork was that there was definitely this experience of chaos. That people were coming into the space of this university, most having been academics in other countries, often their home country but sometimes they had been in other countries as well, coming into this space thinking that they were there as competent professionals. They'd been hired because they were competent professionals and that they were going to come into this space, plunk themselves down and continue to be an academic.
Because in academia, certainly Western academia, there's this notion that it is consistent across the world and that you can basically pick yourself up move to a new place, and that academia will be the same wherever you are, and that is absolutely not the case. For most of those academics coming into that space, they had lost this huge network that they had built up in their previous workplaces, detached themselves from that network to a large extent, and found themselves rootless in this new environment. To come into that space in a way that was already difficult, moving house is difficult, moving state is difficult, moving countries is difficult, moving jobs is difficult. Any of those things is tricky and then to come into this new space and discover that you are perhaps more like a marketing material than an academic.
Perhaps this is the case in other universities to varying extents too, but at this university, it was quite explicit. It was talked about a lot, which I haven't seen in other countries and other universities as much, and so really it was in your face, it was hard to avoid the idea that the academics were part of the sales pitch. What I observed was these academics going through this sense of crisis as they arrived. Generally, for a good three to six months, they needed to be managing that experience.
The university has an expectation that they're not just purchasing an academic for the purposes of teaching, research, and service, which are the three traditional tenets of academia, that they are also purchasing professionalism. When they're talking about professionalism, they're actually talking about the way that they expect an academic to behave. They want somebody who can be efficient, they want somebody that can produce a lot, they want somebody who can stay calm and not kick up a fuss because if you kick up a fuss, then it doesn't actually matter how good you are at all the other stuff. If they have to performance manage you in any way, then all of those other good qualities that you may have basically get negated.
[00:30:11] Kylie: Because the university can't perpetuate in the way that you described before.
[00:30:15] Jodie: Exactly. Exactly, and it's harder to sell you. It's harder to put you in front of a group of prospective parents and students and say, "Look, we have great people that you are going to want to come and work with," if you have a person there who's falling apart at the seams.
[00:30:32] Kylie: Do you not think that those kinds of that value for professionalism in all the ways that you've described is translatable to all universities? Was that unique to there?
[00:30:40] Jodie: No, not at all. This is 100% something that I see across the board. I've been involved with nine different universities over the course of my career and that one is consistent. In fact, the goal of my thesis wasn't necessarily to show how this environment was different to other universities, which is usually the goal of anthropology is to look at a place and show how it's different and compare it to the things we already know about the world. My goal was actually a bit different to that. My goal was to say, I think this is an extreme case of something that is consistent across the board and here but for the grace of God, go I and everybody else.
In this kind of extreme neoliberal, globalized environment, what manifests when those ideologies intersect in this environment, and therefore, what can other universities expect to happen if they continue to go down that neoliberal, globalized path?
[00:31:38] Kylie: Right. Is that what other universities are doing?
[00:31:41] Jodie: I think a lot of them are, yes. I think certainly in most countries, not most Western countries, most countries, there is an increasingly neoliberal agenda. Again, that gets interpreted differently in every country and it looks different in every country and every environment, but the neoliberal logics around corporatization of the university, profit-driven logics, treating students as customers, and students expecting to be treated as customers, these are things that we're seeing all over the world. The more that that happens, the more that we are likely I think to see this sense of that academic labor is changing.
Because it's not just teaching, research, service, and professionalism, it is all of that, and then in addition to that, it's also marketing the university. Your job becomes marketing the university, and to a large extent, being the marketing materials of the university.
[00:32:37] Kylie: Do you think there's any way back? Should there be a way back?
[00:32:39] Jodie: Well, as an academic myself, I'm not a fan of the way things are headed. I too feel commodified, and I don't like that feeling.
[00:32:51] Kylie: Can I ask you about that?
[00:31:15] Jodie: Sure.
[00:32:54] Kylie: In what sense do you feel commodified?
[00:32:56] Jodie: In the sense that 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. That's part of the reason I got out because the only way to decline from being exploited is to leave the way that it currently stands. I intend to go back into academia in the future, but I think it needs to be a conscious choice that we each make in being in and out of academia, and I wasn't able to make that decision the way that I was feeling by end of my thesis about academia.
[00:33:41] Kylie: Let's talk about the opportunities that are available to anthropologists beyond this institution. You founded some years ago, this project, The Familiar Strange, that is trying to get ideas in anthropology accessible to the public freely so and to engage people in anthropology. Can you tell me about how The Familiar Strange started, some of your reflections, and what opportunities and what kinds of freedoms perhaps it's given you that your experience in the university hasn't been able to?
[00:34:11] Jodie: Yes, Ian, Julia, Simon, and I founded TFS in 2017. I think for us, it started off as an outlet because we were all angry about Trump being elected. For all of us, it was this really transformative experience observing that happen. We were talking about it using anthropological theory and trying to unpack how the hell it had happened and feeling like how lucky are we that we have these tools, that we have this vocabulary to be able to at least try to make sense of it. Not that we have, by the way, made sense of it, but at least we had language to be able to try and unpack it and not feel that the world was just drowning in despair. That at least there was some sense to be drawn out of it.
That felt really powerful. I think we were very motivated to say these are tools that other people could be using. For me, anthropology was a new thing, and it blew my mind. I was reading things I had never thought about before. It was just-- I really felt like there was something in anthropology particularly that was different to all of the other education that I had done that could help people start to draw out some of the weirdness that is going on in the world right now. It really was about saying “let's take these tools and give them to other people because otherwise, we're all going to drown together.”
That was where it started. Then 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. We were just really fortunate that people wanted to listen and that they wanted to engage with that. That was the dream, that people would want to engage. That's always been our goal with this project is to not just talk to each other, is to talk to the people that are listening and have them talk back.
[00:36:31] Kylie: I wanted to ask about how far the project's come, if you have any stories about your time as a familiar stranger, and also if you want, a little bit about your vision. How do you think about The Familiar Strange beyond now?
[00:36:45] Jodie: Okay. I think what we hoped for this was that in addition to the idea of these tools being useful to others, we also felt that the anthropology scene in Australia is really vibrant and that there's a lot going on here. We wanted to provide a platform for Australian anthropologists and anthropologists based in Australia to be able to get those ideas out beyond an Australian audience. That's still our goal.
The majority of our listeners now are in the US and the second largest group is in the UK. That's really cool. I hope that that means that as Australian anthropologists engage with the project, that their ideas are starting to make their way out into the world, and not that we're the only platform obviously doing that, but it's another way. It's another channel that people can use to get their ideas out. I would like to see TFS continuing to be that channel, particularly for Australia-based anthropologists.
I think that there's such value to having your people and being able to speak a similar language to the people around you and there's arguments against jargon. Jargon can be just so exclusionary. That is a terrible thing when you are excluding others with your use of language, but on the flip side of that, when you are with people who all speak that language, there's such joy in being able to use words that you know that everybody else is going to be on board with and you don't have to explain yourself, and it's such a feeling of relaxation.
I feel like for us, with TFS, there's kind of a dual purpose. There is, on the one hand, the public-facing stuff that we do, the podcast, the blog, where we are really trying not to go into that jargonary land, to draw more people in so that they can have access to those tools even if they don't speak the language, but then on the flip side of that, we have things like the Facebook chats group, which is a place where most people there seem to speak the same language and can use jargon and can just feel comfortable to use the language that they know and feel like they're amongst friends. If we can achieve that to any extent at all, then that's a pretty big win.
[00:39:10] Kylie: You're winning.
[00:39:32] Kylie: That was it. Me and Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath. Today's interview was produced by me, Kylie Wong Dolan, with help from the other familiar strangers, Julia Brown, Alex D'Aloia, Jodie-Lee Trembath, and Simon Theobald. Our executive producers are the wonderful Deanna Catto and Matthew Phung. Subscribe to The Familiar Strange podcast. You can do it on iTunes, Spotify, and all the other familiar places. Don't forget to leave us a rating or review with your likes and dislikes. It helps people find the show and helps make the show better. If you'd like to support us, please check out our Patreon page, patreon.com/thefamiliarstrange. Not The Strange Familiars, which is another fun podcast, just not ours.
You can find the show notes, including a list of all the books and papers mentioned today, plus our blog about anthropology's role in the world at the thefamiliarstrange.com. If you want to contribute to the blog or have anything to say to me or the other hosts of this program, email us at email@example.com. Tweet @TFS Tweets, or look us up on Facebook or Instagram. Music was by Pete Dabro. Special thanks to Nick Farley, Will Grant, Martin Pierce, and Maude Rowe. Thanks for listening. Until next time, keep talking strange.
[00:40:42] [END OF AUDIO]
LINKS AND CITATIONS
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