Who are you?
A very difficult question. I am me. My friends call me John, my colleagues, my students, everyone, in fact.
Where are you from?
I am from the United States. I am from the city of St. Louis, in the Midwest. St Louis is in the state of Missouri which is nicknamed the ‘Show-Me State.” We are supposed to be people who don’t believe everything they’re told. We need to be shown.
I think you have that in you
I probably do. I left St. Louis after I left high school. I went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where I had a liberal arts education. I left the United States after I completed university. But I still go back regularly.
Why did you come to UCR?
I was finishing up my Ph.D. and teaching at the University of Cambridge and looking for a job. There was the weirdest advertisement for this place you could ever imagine. It was in late-2003. Fatima [Mueller-Friedman, who also works at UCR] was also finishing her Ph.D. and had come across it. It was rather cryptic, but mentioned something about starting a new program, very vague. A couple of weeks later we looked at it again and we said, ‘what the hell, let us try’. They invited us to this little office above De Drukkery bookshop. We met with Hans Adriaansens [founding Dean] and Peter Powell [first Director of Education]. It was all a bit out of the ordinary, given the hiring processes we were going through elsewhere, but it was also very pleasant. They had an exciting vision.
And you didn’t think: we are at Cambridge, what will this small new place bring us?
Cambridge has a lot of the best that universities have to offer, but also a lot of the worst. The stress, the competition, the backstabbing, the politics, very little attention on the classroom. My father was professor and Dean at a small liberal arts college in St. Louis, during a time that had a very different, more tranquil idea of academic life — slow learning with teaching and students at its core. The university offered a place for reflection and engagement. It wasn’t a rat race. That idea of the university never quite left me.
This new liberal arts program that was going to be built in Middelburg sounded like something I had always imagined; a place I could have real impact with my discipline. Despite all the focus on research, conferences, and publications, I truly believe that 90% of the anthropology’s impact takes place in the 100-level student who is introduced to anthropology for the first time.
What is the impact of anthropology in a liberal arts program?
Anthropology is about social and cultural difference, and understanding and exchange. Here at UCR, you can teach any subject, let me say witchcraft, and there may well be a student from West-Africa saying, “Oh, God yeah, my cousin was accused of being a witch.” That will get a conversation going! Recognizing that our individual worldview is unique is really important for understanding how humans live together. It opens up different ways of learning and asking questions.
The field of anthropology looks at things holistically. Knowledge is not neatly compartmentalized; you need depth but also breadth to see the connections between things in society. This holism is also at the core of any liberal arts education.
What would be your hope for UCR now that it is 15 years old?
I would like us to be young, rebellious, daring, and imaginative again. We are a good university. Our students learn. But we should be more confident, more bold. We have learned a lot over the past years. There is no reason we shouldn’t use that experience to become pioneers again. We can re-invent ourselves, and liberal arts education in The Netherlands. Why not?
One of the biggest pushbacks I hear when I try to propose some re-inventing of my own is that we can’t do something like that because Dutch higher education law does not allow it. How is it that politicians have suddenly become educators? I am not telling them how to be a politician. We as educators should have the ability to chart a new course.
Last year, there was an accreditation visit, which went well. I remember that the most perfectly filled in assessment form the accreditors saw was one of yours. So how does that relate to the need for rebellion?
Firstly, I’m not proposing rebellion. I’m proposing rebelliousness. Well, in this case, like many, it’s a structure-agency thing. There is structure, the form and rules, and you can choose what to do with it. I maneuver within the structure. I fill in the form, but then have to think that it is ridiculous that I am doing this only for the accreditors. You know, the student is only allowed to receive the first couple sentences of those 6-page reports. That’s crazy. I’m not interested in writing for an auditor. I write my feedback for the student. And that’s why I always make sure to send my entire report to my student, even though I am not allowed to do that. I guess I shouldn’t be telling you that, huh?
It is not a major crime, John. What is your greatest ambition?
There are several, but at an existential level I want to be able to genuinely lead the life that I know to be true. What I mean by this is that there are things about life that I know to be true. I know, for example, that on my deathbed I will not lament that one paper that I never got around to writing. But I will probably lament that I did not spend enough time with my kids, or with my wife, or that I never visited this or that place. I know that, intellectually, and my ambition is to lead my life according to what I know. I find it very hard to do, and sometimes, maybe even often, I fail.
Do you have a message for our community?
I don’t know about a message. How about a question instead? I like questions, and they’re really important. So here’s a question: Is it possible that excellence actually sucks? Maybe we are all succumbing to a tyranny of excellence. Excellence makes everyone crazy. It is most often unreachable, and the term has been totally destroyed from overuse and branding. You know, DHL delivers ‘excellence in logistics’.
Students, just like UCR and DHL, want to be excellent. My students get a B and they complain. “I want an A”. But a B is good, that is what a B means: good. We can’t be excellent in everything. If you are lucky, then you are excellent in one thing, well, congratulations.
Maybe we need to replace excellence with good. If you can be good in five things, that is also great. And there are other things that favor good over excellence. Good means more than performing at a high level, is also denotes being good. We can be good, humane, decent, kind people who look after each other, and the planet. And then there is still another element to good, there is goodness. Like home-made chocolate chip cookies, like fresh air and a walk on the beach. Good as in wholesome. Yes, give me good over excellence any day.
UCR: small-scale, intensive and good. What do you think?