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Bonnie Urciuoli’s Reflections upon Retirement

SLA Interview with Bonnie Uriciuoli

Bonnie Urciuoli. Nancy L. Ford

What article or book that you wrote are you most pleased with?  Could you talk about the story behind writing it?   Or: What article or book was hardest for you to write, and why?

These two questions have the same answer, “Skills and Selves in the New Workplace,” published in AE in 2008. It took years and I sweated blood writing and rewriting and rewriting it, probably because I tried to pack way too much into each draft. I had long been thinking about how the word skill got thrown around as a count noun denoting some kind of plug-in. I was also having an extension on my house built by a very skilled contractor working pretty much by himself. By ‘skilled’ I mean he had been doing this work for decades and knew exactly what he was doing. I wanted to contrast this with the idea of workers and students as future workers imagined as bundles of skills like Lego pieces or Tinkertoys. What kind of corporate ethos comes up with the notion that ‘skills’ as the (supposed) outcome of workshops on ‘leadership’ or ‘communication’ could discursively parallel ‘skill’ as the (concrete) result of years of experience? Who was making money off this? Nor was I thrilled at how students were getting inculcated with this, especially students of color. (Diversity skills? Really?) After starting a draft in 2002, I played with it until 2004 when I figured I might as well send it in and get some useful feedback which I did (including “you’re going where with this now?”). It took a few more revisions over a few more years, not to mention a lot of help (big shout-out to Chaise LaDousa, Ilana Gershon, Virginia Dominguez, and the AE reviewers), to get it over the final hump. But the article was one of the most productive things I ever did, pulling together many many threads for me and apparently for quite a few other people as well.

What is one of your favorite fieldwork stories to tell?

During my first fieldwork on the Lower East Side in Manhattan in 1978–79, I spent a lot of time being a sort of fictive aunt to kids on the block where I did most of my research. I tutored and taught arts and crafts and took kids on various outings. Taking a bunch of 8-10 year old boys to and from Yankee Stadium by subway was some experience—amazing how five or six boys can seem like a dozen. Still, bleacher seats cost $1.50 and you could bring your own food and maybe see a Reggie Jackson home run.

Which class did you most enjoy teaching, and why?

I’ve enjoyed them all but my favorites were Phonetics/phonologySemiotics, and US Discourses: Gender and Technology. All of them, in different ways, allowed students to see the familiar or taken-for-granted in different and creative ways plus Semiotics gave many students excuses to write about college branding and analyze the hell out of their experience as tour guides. And Gender and Technology gave me all kinds of excuses to talk about Barbie, Disney, the Mercury program, tail fins on cars, two-tone refrigerators, and being a middle-class American kid in the 1950s.

How has teaching changed for you over the years?

I’ve always enjoyed teaching but I think I’ve especially enjoyed it over the past decade, when my research and teaching came together, even in my introductory courses, in all kinds of surprising and productive ways. The longer I’ve taught the more I’ve seen my students as co-participants in some kind of enterprise I’m not sure I can define. OK, not all of them and not in every class and maybe more in my 200-level and up classes that get a lot of repeaters. But I think I’ve become more aware of what I can learn from the process of teaching—talking with students, reading their stuff.  Can I take this opportunity for a big shout-out to my students? They have just been so much fun.

Over the years, who has been your favorite politician to teach with (or against)?

I got a lot of use out of John Boehner when he chaired the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in the 2000s. I could always count on him to issue statements clearly illustrating a model of education that had zip to do with liberal arts values.

What book do you think people would be surprised to know is on your bookshelf?

There are a couple of authors I dearly love that probably qualify as guilty pleasures (“you read them?”): Angela Thirkell and Georgette Heyer. I suppose they are considered lightweight romance authors with iffy politics. But they also create detailed worlds that are interesting and amusing. Adjacent on my bookshelves are the complete (and often re-read) works of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett (the latter thanks to Ilana) which actually wouldn’t surprise anyone who really knows me.

Do you speak for your pets, and if so, when or how?

I don’t have a lot of luck speaking for my (currently three) cats, though I try. Mostly I voice for them things like “of course we can put that vet bill on my VISA card” or “I’m so sorry I threw up on your shoe.” It so doesn’t work. For starters they expect me to pay their credit card bills.

What is your favorite curse word?

The f-word. It may be unoriginal and overused but it certainly works for me, especially when I’m screaming at the political news.

What is the worst piece of advice you have ever gotten?

The worst advice (received in the mid 1980s) was to change my research area to a topic that would serve me better on the job market by fitting established categories of anthropological research. I thanked the people who offered the advice and completely ignored it.

Bonnie Urciuoli is a professor of anthropology at Hamilton College.

Ilana Gershon curated this article.

Please send your comments, contributions, news and announcements to SLA contributing editors Anna Babel ( or Ilana Gershon (

Cite as: Gershon, Ilana. 2017. “Bonnie Urciuoli’s Reflections upon Retirement.” Anthropology News website, August 15, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.533