Am I the right person to teach an introductory anthropology course?
I've taught cultural anthropology introductory courses at least a dozen times since arriving at UBC in the mid-1990s. First I was assigned it because I was the junior colleague. Then I volunteered for it because no-one else seemed to want to teach it.
I always enjoy teaching the intro course - especially if I get to teach it in the fall term. I find it rather special to be there at the start of the year with several hundred excited eager new students. There is an energy in the air. It is as though we are setting off on a new adventure of learning together. But just becuase I enjoy the students, the class, and the opportunities for my own learning doesn't mean the students share my sentiments.
In fact, I'm pretty sure that a significant number of them end up disappointed for one reason or another with their experience. Thanks to student evaluations of teaching I know all about my multifaceted flaws and faults - they are legion. But lest one thinks it's all depression inducing snark, it's not: there are almost as many students who are complimentary as are snarky and a good bunch whose commentaries fall into the grand middle zone. But I know that there are students who finish the class feeling disappointed with their experience.
It hasn't always been this way, and there are courses (like my courses about First Nations Issues, Social Inequality, or Local Ecological Knowledge) wherein the students express strong positive feedback and search out other courses I am teaching to take.
Early on, when I taught introductory anthropology like the majority of instructors teach it - a cross cultural tour of the varieties of human experience- the student feedback was far more positive about the course content. As I matured in my teaching I became more confident in breaking away from a mold that I find colonialist in it's approach. Yet the young students signing up for the course have been quite clear - for many of them they take an introductory anthropology course to learn neat things about peoples all around the world. If they want to confront issues of contemporary North American society they'd rather take a sociology course they tell me. This is compounded by the reality that the majority of anthropology courses, especially introductory ones, sell themselves as a kind of tour of human variability, exotic cultural habits, and then slip in a bit of small 'l' liberal sentiment about what an amazing thing human cultures are - a kind of many coloured path of difference and delight.
That's not what brought me to anthropology. Truth be told, I've always held a healthy sense of disregard for the cultural tourists who seem to flock to big sections of anthropology. I've been motivated by making sense of our world - not to be able to delight in difference but rather, to make meaningful changes in our society here and now. Anthropology, as an approach, provides a methodological view on how people create meaning and organize our relations (social, economic, material, and intangible). To make change one needs to understand this.
Is the only answer simply to step away from teaching introductory courses? Couldn't I just teach a "critical anthropology" introductory course?
I suppose I could. In fact once or twice I did try that. However, to teach a critical course one needs to teach the basics of what one is critical of. So one must first present the global cultural tour that anthropology normally does and then take it all down one piece at a time. There are ways of doing that but I wonder if an introductory course is the right place to do that. If the problem is with the way anthropology is done and taught then why, even for the sake of critique, teach a problematic content and approach? Wouldn't it be better to simply drop the problematic way and teach a new anthropology (if such a thing might be possible)?
Okay, so if the solution is to teach introductory anthropology in a new way what might that look like? We might call this the decolonized model- pulling the imperialist intentions and connections of anthropology out and focussing on the inner social scientist focussed on identifying how the world works and what is required to change it. I've tried that too (many of my upper level courses are very much cast in this mold). The difficulty here is that then the course can be read against the other sections of the same course as critique of the other sections or (more likely) failure of my section to deliver. As critique it gets under colleagues' skin - it is a de facto critique not just of anthropology, but more personally, also of them. It's not the intent of decolonizing approach - but it is an effect. As failure it just brings up the snark side of student evaluations.
Ideally we would collectively change our curriculum - but I know my guild well enough to appreciate that the majority is not really intersted in fundamental change. There have been attempts to do this. Paul Durrenberger and Susan Erem's Anthropology Unbound is one example that draws upon a political economic framework and bases things firmly in our contemporary world. Another is Eric Lassiter and Elizabeth Campbell's methodological approach - here the focus is on doing anthropology collaboratively. Lassiter also has a somewhat more classical text, Invitation to Anthropology, that while more aligned to the traditional approach, does shift direction to one more contemporarily focussed. Yet I find these and related solutions partial and unsatisfying in their application as they are still rooted within an anthropological discipline.
I think the underlying issue is more fundamental - it's the adherence to a thing called a discipline. I have been known to half jokingly say "Marxism is the discipline, anthropology is just the method." It's a tongue-in-cheek kind of way to draw attention to the idea anthropology is only a partial view of our world and without the discipline of seeking to improve it it is simply a method. It is also to suggest that a more wholistic view of humanity is needed than is provided by our contemporary disciplines.
Anthropology is the child of European imperialism - it was born on the decks of expeditionary ships sent to survey, map, document, and incorporate the worlds beyond Europe's shores. More than that it was a method fully formed in the crucible of an expansionary economic system called capitalism. Anthropology shares this history with the cognate disciplines of Sociology (designed to study the dangerous folks of the capitalist heartland) geography (to demarcate and enclose landed property on behalf of capital), and political science (the means to exert authority and control over subjugated people). These fours sisters of capitalist knowledge production equally stand in need of a transformative reconnection.
Realistically transformation of core disciplines is unlikely at this juncture. One can hope. Over the years there have been many attempts to reconfigure disciplinary practice - we are currently in a moment where trans/multi/inter-disciplinary practices are encouraged. My contention though, is that the fundamental factor that needs to be changed is the way these disciplines are configured to the structures and processes of capitalism. From the ways in which research is funded and directed (heavy emphasis on impact, utility, and 'innovation' as commercialization), the structures of the academic workplace (two tier labour contracts with privileged stable categories supported by underpaid/overworked contingent labour), to internal departmental funding (typically based on student enrolments and revenue generating capacities). All this highlights that transformation of disciplinary practice involves transformation of our universities and the societies within which they operate. This brings me back to my opening question.
Am I really the right person to teach an introductory anthropology course. Yes and no.
On the no card. I disappoint many of the students: most of whom want the cultural tour of the exotica of human cultural variation. I disappoint my department head: as the disappointed students drop the course once they realize it's not a cultural tour of the exotica of human cultural variation. I disappoint myself as I hold back halfway between doing the tour and deconstructing the discipline.
On the yes card. There are students who step up to the challenge and find themselves growing through the experience. Like the student who found themselves examine the social conservatism of their upbringing - not by rejecting it, but by seeing it as one of several ways they could honour their cultural heritage without remanning enslaved by it. There are those who speak out in class - picking up the challenge to engage, debate, explore, and examine received wisdom (mine as well as society's). Then there are students I run into years after they have taken the course and they tell me how much they appreciate the course now, some say they didn't like it at the time, didn't get it, but as they thought back on it they were glad they had taken it.
I think that the yes card outweighs the no card - at least in the long run. But in the context of the neo-liberal university of excellence the no takes it. In a world where teaching is considered a delivery of a commodity to meet a client's expectations I'm not the person for the cultural survey of exotica.