'A Relationship of Equals': When Faculty and Former Students Collaborate

March 11, 2020

Professor Jeff Maskovsky collaborated with alumni and fellow faculty on his timely, new co-edited book, Beyond Populism: Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism.

Professor Jeff Maskovsky (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)
Professor Jeff Maskovsky (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

Professors love nothing more than seeing former students thrive in the real world. Even more thrilling for faculty is the rare opportunity to work alongside former students as intellectual equals. And that’s what happened when professors and alumni from the anthropology Ph.D. program at The Graduate Center, CUNY collaborated on a new book called Beyond Populism: Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism

“Typically, Ph.D. students get their jobs and leave,” said the program’s executive officer, Professor Jeff Maskovsky (GC/Queens; Anthropology/ Urban Studies). “We may see one of them at times at a conference, but what was great here was to have people who finished in our Ph.D. program together, all working on different topics, all of whom had cultivated their own distinct areas of expertise and perspectives, coming together around a table with Don Robotham and myself and Gerald Creed and others from other institutions. It culminated in a very open and productive set of dialogues out of which the book emerged. We all knew each other really well. But we were giving each other a lot of space to think in new ways.”

The book’s contributors, in addition to professors Robotham (Anthropology) and Creed (GC/Hunter, Anthropology), include Graduate Center alumna Mary N. Taylor (Ph.D. ’08, Anthropology), assistant director of the  Center for Place, Culture and Politics, and four other Graduate Center anthropology Ph.D. graduates: Vanderbilt University Professor Sophie Bjork-James (Ph.D. ’13, Anthropology) who co-edited the book with Maskovsky, and her husband, Carwil Bjork-James (Ph.D. ’13, Anthropology) also a Vanderbilt professor; Ambedkar University Delhi Professor Preeti Sampat (Ph.D. ’15, Anthropology); and Stockton University Professor Nazia Kazi (Ph.D. ’14, Anthropology). 
The Graduate Center professors were delighted to see former students develop “their own intellectual voices and their own deep knowledge, gained from their dissertation research,” Maskovsky said. Their relationships also evolved into “a relationship of equals, all doing research together. It was an exciting dynamic. Everybody was able to renegotiate those relationships in the next phase of their careers.” 

Beyond Populism grew out of conferences held at The Graduate Center and Vanderbilt. Its anthropological view of contemporary politics finds angry people the world over fueling right-wing nationalism. This anger stems from fiscal policies that bailed out banks after the 2008 financial collapse while cutting jobs and foreclosing on homes. Initially, public anger veered left into progressive movements like Occupy Wall Street. But nationalist parties and right-wing politicians proved more adept than progressives at channeling voter frustration and harnessing political power. They also demonized immigrants, nonwhites, and other minorities, while blaming affluent elites for ignoring the needs of the working class. 

The book’s focus on how ordinary people respond to “real-world challenges” is “very consistent with a long tradition within the GC’s anthropology program” of cultural studies, Maskovsky said. Cultural anthropology, he explained, takes “contemporary issues outside of the academy, and uses good, deep, historical, ethnographic knowledge and comparative understandings to speak out and think differently about those issues.  … We’re a very well-regarded program with an important history of important faculty doing this kind of research.” 

In his chapter, Maskovsky used “anthropology as a springboard” for analyzing contemporary white nationalism. “A lot of people — popularly, politically, and academically — were trying to explain away the new rise of white nationalism as anything other than race itself — as class-based anger and displacement,” he said. “I do think there are class elements of this, but I think we have to take the people who are talking about race in white supremacy and white nationalism at their word … White nationalism resurfaced because large numbers of white people are looking for a way to re-assert their power.” 

So what’s the solution? “Groups that have racist agendas need to be directly confronted with anti-racist movements that seek racial equality and justice,” Maskovsky said. “That is happening in the U.S., and it’s very important that those groups are able to flourish.” Anti-racist agendas have prevailed before, he noted, pointing to abolitionism and the civil rights movement. “There are a variety of different ways people could have responded to the global economic meltdown of 2008,” he added. “It didn’t have to be with xenophobia and racism.”