A Visiting Scholar’s “Big Year”

By Carol J. Greenhouse

Avid birders and butterfly hunters sometimes pledge to what they call a big year – dedicating themselves to expanding their experience with new habitats and species. A big year relies on communities of knowledge linked by hospitality, trust, and shared enthusiasms. I came to think of my season as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar as a big year – eight campuses, each of them distinct, all of them new to me, and all related both by their shared teaching mission and their chapters of Phi Beta Kappa. I welcome the chance to write this as a public “thank you” to the national office, my campus hosts, and their colleagues – not just for their organization on my behalf, but also for their personal thoughtfulness in countless ways. I savor our exchanges on those long rides, over meals, and on campus walks. Academia makes a small world, and a big year affirms many a common bond. Still, there were surprises – cherished among them, conversations with individual undergraduates impassioned with their studies and, on a more personal note, meeting a Luther College biology professor I knew almost thirty years ago as the young girl next door in Ithaca, New York. At Luther, too, I had the wonderful surprise of encountering my high school Latin teacher from long ago in Connecticut. (Miss Borelli, if you are reading this: salve et gratias!) And at Gettysburg, I met Kathy Navascues – revered by every chapter I visited – for the first time offline. 

Solicited for two lecture topics by Kathy last year, I proposed one on Citizens United and another on the anthropology of time. All the chapters opted for Citizens, though I got terrific feedback on the other topic from a campus philosophy club. As an anthropologist mainly concerned with the cultural dimensions of US politics and law, my public lecture necessarily entailed hot button themes (campaign finance, politics of law, the role of corporations in society, etc.). Given the excessive heat in the current electoral cycle, I prepared myself for any response as I set out across the map of red and blue. But the map wasn’t in any way predictive. In every one of these college towns, I relished the surprises of the Q & A sessions. The class sessions with students, too, yielded memorable encounters with young people ready to put their ethics, candor, and curiosity to work in the service of their own learning. 

My big year took me far and wide, including some parts of the country I had never before seen. As I write this, my mind’s eye sees the twilight view across the valley from Luther College; the emerald glow of moss-covered trees and glistening rhododendrons along the moist allees of the Lewis and Clark campus in Portland, Oregon; a clutch of monarchs fluttering over a garden on a late October afternoon at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. On some campuses (I think of Ohio University, Wabash, Gettysburg, and Hampden-Sydney), the layout of ancient quadrangles is still prominent – venerable old lawns arrayed for community and ceremony. At Kent State, a vibrant campus in a humming city, the sloping lawn and adjacent parking lot double as sites of remembrance, marking the events of May 4, 1970 – a heart-piercing day that remains long. Kent State was my last stop. As I stood up to present my lecture, still reflecting on the scene, I felt a vivid awareness of the special responsibility academics bear for taking care of time: the imaginative, learned, and prudential work of sustaining a compact across borders and generations. 

Looking back, I think of the students I met along the way – US and foreign-born, citizens and new immigrants, some first-generation college students and others heirs to legacies, some modest, some bold, all proudly diverse, whether at the two all-male colleges I visited or at the other six, be they public or private. I hear again their seriousness as they share their aspirations, each of them testing their wings on the ideas and experiences that college gives them. From the first stop at Ohio University to that last one at Kent State, in what turned out to be a year of student mobilizations across the country, I was impressed again and again with the students’ sense of responsibility for their own generation and what would come after them. I met faculty and deans striving to give their students their best chances, giving freely the very best of themselves – and  to their colleagues as well as office neighbors, in faculty reading groups or just as friends. It was a privilege to participate in these vital campus lifeworlds and to bring those conversations home to my own students. 

I finished my big year with a strong sense of the rising generation, as well as a clearer view of the diversity of the nation’s education ecologies, the extraordinary commitments-in-common of faculty and students across that landscape, the place of these eight institutions in American history, and the essential value of liberal education to anything we might like to contemplate as the future.  

Carol Greenhouse is the Arthur W. Marks ’19 Professor of Anthropology at Princeton. A sociocultural anthropologist, she is past president of the American Ethnological Society, former editor of American Ethnologist, a member of the American Philosophical Society, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her interests are in the ethnography of law and politics, and her research focuses on federal power in the US, particularly on the ways legal processes take up social knowledge from other settings and relationships. She has written on law as a cultural idea in Praying for Justice and Law and Community in Three American Towns. She has also worked on comparative problems related to law’s cultural legitimacy, A Moment’s Notice: Time Politics Across Cultures and Ethnography in Unstable Places. Recent publications include The Paradox of Relevance, on ethnography and citizenship in the US, and Ethnographies of Neoliberalism. Greenhouse served as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar during the 2015-16 academic year.