Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Spring 2010
Over His Head and Happy:
Noted anthropologist Webb Keane CN '88 is committed to service
The impact of Protestant missionaries on Indonesians’ understanding of what it means to be a “modern person”; Melanesian ethical questions about assuming what goes on in other people’s minds; a look at intriguing evidence of Neolithic religion in the Near East; considerations of blasphemy and freedom of the press; meditations on markets, education, and comparative religion; a new book on morality in the social sciences: Webb Keane CN ’88 has a lot on his mind.
“My besetting weakness is being interested in too many things,” says Dr. Keane, professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan and a recipient of one of the university’s 2009 Faculty Recognition Awards. The award acknowledges “triple threat” faculty who excel in research, teaching, and service.
Having written on all of the subjects above since the publication of his book Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (UC Press, 2007), Dr. Keane also served for three years as his department’s director of graduate studies, acted as a member of three departments’ executive committees, served on the Michigan Society of Fellows, has been featured in an author-meets-critics forum on a blog of the Social Science Research Council, chaired or participated on more than 40 dissertation committees, and taught regularly.
Dr. Keane has also been a member, for five years running, of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s final selection committee for the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowships, which awarded him a Newcombe Fellowship for his own dissertation, “Representations and Social Life in Anakalang, West Sumba,” more than two decades ago.
“I’m in way over my head,” he says. “That is, in fact, precisely where I like to be. I’m quite happy there.”
In addition to the recent U-M recognition and a previous Henry Russel Award from the university for scholarship and teaching, Dr. Keane has received numerous other honors. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow at both the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Science and the Institute for Advanced Study, and has been invited to give both the University of Helsinki’s Edward Westermarck Memorial Lecture and NYU’s Annette Weiner Memorial Lecture. Moreover, Christian Moderns was the subject of special panels at the annual meetings of both the American Anthropological Association and the Academy of American Religion.
Given the extent and prominence of his scholarship, Dr. Keane’s commitment to leadership and service in his department, discipline, and campus community might seem all the more extraordinary. But he thinks not. “I’m as altruistic and as selfish as the next guy,” he says. “Doing my bit helps make the university the kind of place I’d like to be. The academic world depends enormously on volunteer labor and on people’s good will. I think people outside the academy don’t recognize that what we do outside the classroom and outside of research is a lot of work, largely volunteer.”
While this perspective and a sense of indebtedness provided his original motivation for serving on the Newcombe Fellowship final selection committee, Dr. Keane says the experience has become much broader. “Sitting on Newcombe is a terrific education. I first agreed to do it out of a sense of debt to the Foundation—it was the first sort of external recognition of my work, a huge morale boost, and the first competition I ever won that spanned several disciplines. It felt terrific to get it.
“While I was happy to repay that debt by serving on the final selection committee, I don’t think I knew how interesting it would be. Reading the files”—as many as 80 each year—“is fascinating. Most are first-rate, fabulous, exciting, interesting projects across a wide range of disciplines, subjects, methodologies. It’s like going back to college and being a generalist again, reading the best work that’s being done in these fields. And [committee] discussions are an enormous education because we come from very different disciplinary backgrounds. I’ve learned a huge amount from debates with other members of the committee.”
As a number of universities and other funders find alternative ways to support graduate work—an issue the Newcombe Fellowship was created in 1981 to address—does Dr. Keane think that fellowships still matter? Absolutely.
“It’s actually getting harder and harder to fund graduate education,” he replies. “Most funding pays for either the first couple of years of classroom education, or for the research. There are still very few ways to fund the actual writing of the dissertation; we lose more students there than anywhere else, because they just can’t make it through. It’s a terrible loss, including the loss of all the research they had already done.
“So the Newcombe fills a very serious gap and comes precisely at this moment when the money does make a huge difference. When I was ready to write my dissertation, it was either get the Newcombe or deliver pizzas or run copy machines for 20 hours a week.”
The intangible benefits, he recalls, are just as important. “It’s a huge affirmation. The Newcombe is very selective. You quickly figure out that it’s a big deal to get one. And being a graduate student at that stage, writing a dissertation—at least in the humanities and social sciences—can be a very lonely business. It’s just you and your notes and the computer screen. To have that extra affirmation, that someone out there thought your work was good and worth funding, within this big competition—it really makes a difference. Morale is so important.”
And in fact, Dr. Keane notes, scholarly service was crucial to the development of his own career in research and teaching. “When I think about how I started out, every grant I got, every article I published depended on other people’s labor, often unrequited,” Dr. Keane notes. “So I’ve always felt that I owe, and I do the same.”