Knowledge is under attack, and “fieldwork” isn’t the problem


Southern states are trying to stop colleges from teaching about slavery and racism. Republicans around the country are trying to end the tenure system. Educational gag orders are proliferating across state and local legislatures across the country. It’s a war on science, truth, freedom — and education for all those things. Musk bought Twitter. Knowledge is in deep trouble.

We in universities have to keep our eyes on the prize: Discovering and disseminating new knowledge, training and educating people to save the world before it’s literally too late. To get this done, we are going to have to walk and chew gum. But not just any random gum. We have to do our jobs and protect our jobs at the same time.

The diversity establishment does some good things and some bad things. It’s not the problem, it’s not the reason for our problems, and it’s not the biggest waste of resources in education. But this is bugging me because it is symbolic of a broader kind of misguided intervention into education, which at best doesn’t help and at worst makes things worse. I’m talking, of course, about schools of social work eliminating the terminology of “field work” from their training programs.

This may have started at Cal State Northridge, which sometime around last December posted an unsigned announcement about their “language shift”:

As we continue our anti-racist work combatting anti-Blackness, CSUN’s Social Work Department Field Education Program has decided to no longer use the term “field” to refer to internships. “Field” and “fieldwork” connote the antebellum south, where slaves and indigenous people were sent to work for free on behalf of their owners. We recognize and honor the contributions made by Black and indigenous people in building our society and we refuse to be complicit in perpetuating white supremacy. Standing in solidarity with activist Joyce McMillan, we want to be mindful and considerate on how we send social workers into the field to police rather than liberate. We want to stand in conviction by implementing this language shift which will demonstrate our refusal to be complicit in perpetuating colonialism.

Two thoughts about this. First, this is a much more radical statement than the milqetoast stuff that came out as this became a “best practice” meme that moved up the status hierarchy, from CSUN to the University of Southern California to Smith College (a bona fide ranked social work program), which Kieran Healy called, “just a classic bit of neoinstitutionalism.” I have more respect for this CSUN statement, because even though I think it’s wrong in the connotation of the term and I don’t think it perpetuates colonialism (which I don’t think slavery was), and American slavery wasn’t the first or necessarily the worst thing that happened in the history of fields, at least it takes a stand for something I can get behind: anti-racism and Black liberation. (The reference to Joyce McMillan is interesting, as she is a thought leader who “believes the conversation about systemic oppression must happen on all levels consistently before meaningful change can occur,” with which I firmly disagree.)

Second, American social work — as a field — has a proud, counterhegemonic tradition of antiracism to go with its dominant, shamefully racist traditions. But as far as I can tell that antiracist tradition does not include any agitation about the use of the word field until last year (happy to be proved wrong on this).

Progressive language reform is always symbolic because language is symbolic, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons for the changes we’ve been through. Person-first language around disabilities has a point, and emerged as a demand from the affected groups. The changing names of racial and ethnic groups reflect the ups and downs of social movements and actors, so there is a politics to it, and we choose our sides. Similarly, there is at least an argument about why enslaved person is better than slave (in which I side with Frederick Douglass and Eric Foner, but not vigorously). Unhoused is not really a “better” term than homeless, but it’s a chance to make an argument at least. I’m not just tilting at language politics. It’s just that the war on field seems to lack any of these redeeming qualities.

Smith College

At Smith, until they changed terms, field was big. As a student, your “life in the field” provided an “extraordinary level of training and a lifestyle that is more like that of a working professional,” and it was “at the very heart” of the training. Now, the Office of Practicum Learning asserts that because “language is powerful and … phrases such as ‘going into the field’ or ‘field work’ may hold negative associations,” the terms are out. They don’t even name these supposed negative associations, although they do say the change is “in keeping with our values and our commitment to anti-racist work.” The change, “was not a reaction to complaints from students, staff or alumni, but rather ‘a proactive decision to bring the language of our program more in line with our goals and intentions,'” Smith’s director of media relations told MassLive.

Criticizing Smith College, rather than CSUN, is the kind of snarking up I value, so I’ll add this: How did Smith’s social work program decide to devote resources to this issue — changing all their websites, curriculum, letterhead, and other marketing materials — which they admit will be “challenging” and “will take some time”? Who thought this was such a good idea? To help answer that, I took a quick look at their administrative staffing in 2023, compared with a random recent year, 2019, and produced the table below. In 2019 there were 16 staff people listed on the “Contact the School” page (excluding campus-wide personnel like the police and the library). By 2023 there were 23 on the “meet our staff and administrators” page, an increase of 44%. Over the intervening years, there was no change in the number of graduates produced (now about 125 per year in the most data listed here).

The staff has the same number of deans, but has gone from 6 to 8 people who are some kind of director (adding a senior director, losing an assistant director). And they increased coordinators from 3 to 5, plus more specialists. Two of the new coordinators have “marketing” in their titles, and two new directors cover “communications” and “development” respectively.

I’m not saying this field thing happened because the new, enhanced administration had too much time on its hands, or too much investment in the symbolic trappings of communications and development, but I’m definitely waggling my eyebrows suggestively at this list.

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