Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Commemorating the Anthropological Contemplations of Professor Gerald Sider with Gerald Sider

 The following are my speaking notes for a roundtable presentation at the CASCA/AAA meetings in Toronto. I'm not able to be there so I share my comments here instead.

The session is called "Transitions With and Against the Yesterdays and Tomorrows: Commemorating the Anthropological Contemplations of Professor Gerald Sider with Gerald Sider." Organized by L. Jane McMillian, Chair and Professor of the Department of Anthropology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Her PhD is from the University of British Columbia (2003) where I was a member of her supervisory committee.

I was a student of Gerry's at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York (1990-1998). 

The panel is comprised of former students, students of students, and scholarly friends of Gerry and his work.

Gerry has a close relationship with Canadian anthropology, not just his longstanding work in NFLD or his affiliation to Memorial University. Gerry did a Master's degree at the University of Toronto. 

Gerry told me about how he came to do a degree at UofT (MA 1960). Apparently he hadn't set out to do it. He had found himself in Toronto. Standing in a lineup outside Robarts Library Gerry said he fell into a discussion with a rather dishevelled looking old man. They talked all manner of things. As they made their way through the lineup the old man said to Gerry, you'd like anthropology, come see me in my office about applying to graduate school - the old man was Thomas McIlwraith, noted Canadian anthropologist. Thus began Gerry's graduate instruction which took him via Chicago to the New School for his dissertation about Lumbee people in the Carolinas and their struggle for rights and dignity.

Roundtable speaking notes

I doubt I have had the same influence on my doctoral students that Gerry has had on me. But maybe I shouldn't second guess this point. I don’t necessarily follow Gerry’s advice, but I hear his voice speaking when I think about teaching, mentoring, writing, research, office politics, and plain old life. Some of Gerry’s advice I have ignored, some I do use, but I have listened carefully to all of it over the years.


I once complained to Gerry about departmental politics and wondered out loud about changing jobs. It doesn’t get any better elsewhere I was told. “Go into your classroom, close the door, teach, and ignore the politics,” Gerry said. I wasn’t convinced that really would solve things. Though I took to heart his suggestion that the politics in my department weren’t really that bad and they’re a lot worse elsewhere. Despite Gerry’s advice I did go on to apply for several jobs over the years (some of which I was offered), but always decided to stay with what I knew. I’m a long-term sticker, I like to think of this as a strong loyal streak even if others might suggest it’s courage I lack (with a nod to Lennie Gallant’s 1991 single “Is it Love I Feel (Or Courage I Lack).” 


I first met Gerry through his Newfoundland book (Culture and Class in Anthropology and History: A Newfoundland Illustration, 1987).  It was uniquely appealing to me. What can I say. This was the 1980s. I was an undergraduate at SFU. I saw myself as a revolutionary socialist.  I worked as a commercial fisherman. Gerry’s book unabashedly positioned itself as Marxist theory. And, it was about fishermen. I was hooked.


I didn’t actually meet Gerry until I was living in Toronto doing an MA in social anthropology at York University in the late 1980s. Marilyn Silverman shared info with her class about a talk Gerry was giving downtown. I don’t recall anything about the talk. I do recall it was in the HQ of the Communist Party. At least I think it was what with all the busts of Marx and Lenin and bold red posters festooned around the room. When an invite went out to join the speaker at a nearby pub I trailed along. It was interesting listening as a student to the conversation, the back-and-forth Marxist anthropology debate. What I remember most though, was the attentiveness Gerry gave to each of us at the table. Then, once and a while, he would jot something down in his notebook.  “I’d like to learn more from this person” I recall thinking.


I know that my comments are supposed to be about theory, research and writing; about how Gerry’s work, by which I assume was meant written work, has influenced my own. But I think his influence on me comes more from his willingness to share advice (whether asked for or not).  


I am intrigued by his writings. I still scan the digital libraries for things I may have missed – like his 2014 “Making and Breaking the Aboriginal Remote.” 


Even though I can’t think of a particular source, I’m pretty certain my thinking about ‘isolation’ and ‘remoteness’ that I talk about in Red Flags and Lace Coiffes (2011, originally my 1998 dissertation) arose in some manner from discussions with Gerry. I also appreciate that growing up at the end of the road (Prince Rupert, literally at the end of Highway 16 in northwest BC) also seemed to propel me to study a place called Land’s End (Finisterre). But through listening to Gerry, reading his writing, and talking with him over the years I’ve also been able to mold ideas that might not have emerged quite the way they may otherwise have.


I’ve always felt rather deficient in terms of my Marxist theory when standing alongside the other students and colleagues of Gerry’s. My own work tends toward the ethnographic, not ethnological, but please don’t make the same mistake an acquisitions editor at UBC Press did by reading simplicity in prose as a marker of an atheoretical work. But I am less drawn by the nuance of theory and more toward the telling of stories. At the same time I am interested in organizing actions, not debating details, and thus have always been a participant in political action.


During my time at CUNY I was part of the crew that took over the campus in the 1991 student occupations. Since I’m still an academic I’ve also published accounts. One is in a Marxist journal called New Proposals (a nod to Kathleen Gough’s Monthly Review paper that cost her her SFU job in the early 1970s) and the other with Kate McCaffrey and Christine Kovach in Transforming Anthropology. 


While Gerry didn’t turn me into a socialist activist – I came that way- his conversations and stories of his own history as an activist allowed students to consider it a potential and reasonable pathway through anthropology. 


Going beyond interpretation to actively trying to change things is what brought me to anthropology and ultimately attracted me to Gerry’s work and to Gerry himself.


Before I relinquish the floor I want to reflect on two stories I remember from Gerry that has helped me be a better teacher. “Scared shitless” and “Done Friday.”  As with all remembered stories I have very likely taken great liberty here and the original author may not recognize himself within them.


As an educator I am often presented with letters of accommodation from students outlining how their learning plans need to be modified. I also get many long-detailed emails from Heads, Associate Deans, and various Directors of Instruction advising me on how to make the learning experience kind, comfortable, and student-centred. Having various family members with sundry learning disabilities I totally appreciate the need to accommodate learning differences in the classroom. What I take issue with is the idea that learning happens best when learners are happy, contented, and comfortable. This is where Gerry’s story – “You have to be scared shitless, or you’re not learning comes in.”


As I recall the story we were sitting in a class of Gerry’s (it was often said the course title may change, but the class remains the same). Some question had come up, perhaps a complaint about something, perhaps an observation about how much work we were facing between all our courses, I don’t recall. What I do remember is Gerry jumping right in without hesitating and telling us that we don’t learn unless we’re scared shitless. I use this story in my teaching to underline that fact that learning, especially when it’s about emotionally wrought subjects like race, gender, colonization, and oppression can never really be a warm fuzzy kind of experience.  Learning takes work.  Learning involves taking risk. Learning forces us to come to terms with what we can't do as much as what we can do. I thank Gerry for giving me a story to tell that helps my students grapple with the disruption of learning difficult subjects in a way that often leaves them ironically comforted.  


The other story, ‘done Friday,’ is helpful with the many deadline pushers I meet in my teaching vocation. Again, I don’t quite remember the circumstances, but with this story I have a better sense of sitting in a classroom in the old grad center campus. Gerry was explaining how he had worked in the US Dept of Economics (as I recall) writing reports. He had a boss who would say “it doesn’t have to be good, it has to be done Friday.” That’s such a powerful story. I didn’t realize it at the time, but after close to thirty years teaching, I can say that is one of the best pieces of advice I ever was given. So much academic sweet and tears lands in the wastebin of regret due to streaks of perfectionism. One sadly common explanation for the need of an extension is “I need time to do the kind of job I know I can do.”  Yet so much of life is about getting it done Friday, not producing the definitive work. 


There are more such stories. They are not really for me to tell. My own story has been deeply influenced by knowing Gerry and his work. Ideas like acting against experience is a powerful antidote to naïve ideas that place ‘experience’ ahead of analysis. Appreciating the ways in which we act within and against the tyranny of disrupted lives helps make sense of a senseless world. Even more profound is to think on how we navigate between yesterday and tomorrow when today is in total chaos. Gerry has written about dark and nasty subjects. Despite that I see him as an optimist who believes tomorrow is possible even when it seems hard to believe it in the moment.


I come now to a point in my own career where I can reflect backward.  I can look forward and try to imagine what my own third age will look like. In all of this I cherish my memories of Gerry, visiting him in his home, walking along a street, having coffee together. Even though I recall Gerry once saying, in response to a family and kinship discussion, that families are no refuge from the storm of life, Gerry is very much part of my family, an uncle[1] who has guided, shaped, shared, and provoked how I think about the things I write and teach about. 


[1] In Gitxaala’s world one’s uncle is the person who takes responsibly for teaching and guiding their nieces and nephews. One might say this is a more important role even than father.

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