Teaching cultural anthropology

Teaching Cultural Anthropology (via a quote from Tim Ingold, Making, 2013:13)

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Fall 2014, teaching Cultural Anthropology. The Hartwick College Anthropology format for teaching cultural anthropology is to begin with a four-fields Introduction to Anthropology, followed by mid-level sub-field courses built on this prerequisite. It’s a somewhat unusual approach for teaching cultural anthropology: many programs use cultural anthropology as an introductory course, but teaching a four-fields introductory course is what led to many of the teaching materials on Living Anthropologically.

This semester I am repeating the insane idea from last fall of using Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World as an overarching textbook. Last fall I tried assigning the highly-recommended Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking from Gabriella Coleman. However, I found Coleman’s recourse to depicting a “hacker culture” somewhat at odds with the reasons for why Trouillot said we needed to bid Adieu, Culture.

So this time I swapped that book for Tim Ingold’s Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture, which does certainly provide an inspiring quote for teaching anthropology:

Teaching cultural anthropologyMy teaching–all teaching–would be worthless were it not transformational in intent. And conversely, my studies–all study–would be worthless if it did not lead us to teach with this intent. To teach is to honour our commitments by repaying what we owe the world for our formation. In short, teaching (and not ethnographic writing) is the other side of participant observation: there cannot be one without the other, and both are indispensable to the practice of anthropology as an art of inquiry. To teach anthropology is to practise anthropology; to practise anthropology is to teach it. (2013:13; see also Dustin Wax’s The Trouble with Teaching on Savage Minds)

Teaching Cultural Anthropology: Does it work?

For this fall’s teaching cultural anthropology, I have retained a trio of books I’ve been using for several years: Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, Laura Bohannan’s Return to Laughter and Elizabeth Chin’s Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture.

This time around I’m trying to see if teaching cultural anthropology “works” by juxtaposing those books against selections from three recent offerings. First, I’m including a chapter from Jared Diamond’s Natural Experiments of History, as both Benedict and Diamond spend a lot of time talking about islands. In some ways–as I mentioned in Jared Diamond and Future Public Anthropology–I suspect this book is where Diamond gets much more historical and belatedly realizes one cannot do geography without history, especially colonial history.

Second, I’ll be juxtaposing Bohannan’s Return to Laughter with a selection from Nicholas Wade’s Troublesome Inheritance. Anthropologists have vigorously and correctly argued against Wade’s Troublesome Ignorance when it comes to race and genetics (for a longer history of this critique see Boasian Critiques of Race in The Nation edited by Alex Golub and Angela Chen). However, by juxtaposing Bohannan with one of Wade’s later speculative chapters, “The Rise of the West,” I’ll be interested to explore how some of the earlier anthropological tropes precisely reinforced the ideas of African “tribal” organization.

The final juxtaposition is Chin’s Purchasing Power against a selection from Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld on The Triple Package. Here, I hope the comparison is sharp–Chin provides an account of history, inequality, and power, of the kind anthropology should be delivering all the time (see editor Anne Brackenbury’s recent post on Going Public. Still, the frames Chin is fighting against are powerful organizing ideas–as with all these juxtapositions, I’m not sure teaching cultural anthropology always works.

Teaching Cultural Anthropology and the Purpose of Anthropology

To kick off the class, I’ve taken a look back at September 2013 and the Trouillot quotes I extracted for reflecting on the purpose of anthropology. I’m hoping to be able to re-investigate those blog-posts, since participating in liberal arts college planning activities sidelined blogging. Hoping also to finally work on the stable pages for Cultural Anthropology and Living Anthropologically. Because if blogging might also be a form of teaching anthropology, then (to paraphrase Tim Ingold) blogging is also the other side of participant observation.

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  • Juliet H. Foroughi

    Hullo! I’m Jay Foroughi, a Sophomore and potentially an Anthropology major. One concept from the introduction of “Global Transformations” that I quite liked was the idea that the West is not so much a place as it is an idea unto itself. Anywhere that is foreign and unfamiliar to the speaker was regarded as the West. With the spread of information and recognition of other countries and ways of life, you’d hope such a practice would die out. Still, misunderstandings and the inability to accept what is different seem just a rampant as ever.

    • Hi Jay, thank you for checking in. The idea that the West is not necessarily a place but a product or a process is indeed one of the most profound lessons Trouillot offers–something I’m still thinking about and used for a post about whiteness. It is perhaps worth quoting again at length:

      In creating “the West,” the European Renaissance shaped a global geography of imagination. That geography required a “Savage slot,” a space for the inherently Other. Martinican author Edouard Glissant (1989:2) writes: “The West is not in the West. It is a project, not a place.” Indeed, the place we most often call the West is best called the North Atlantic–not only for the sake of geographical precision but also because such usage frees us to emphasize that “the West” is always a fiction, an exercise in global legitimation. That exercise sometimes takes the form of an explicit project in the hands of intellectual, economic, or political leaders. Yet most humans who see themselves as Westerners, aspire to become so, or criticize that aspiration experience the West in the form of a projection: the projection of the North Atlantic as the sole legitimate site for the universal, the default category, the unmarked–so to speak–of all human possibilities.

      Thus, the West has never had a fixed content, nor is it an unchanging site. Its center moves from Rome to Lisbon, from Vienna to London, from Washington to Geneva, and from Venice to Grenada depending on the claims being made. It can absorb parts of Eastern Europe or Latin America, and more recently, Japan–not because of any feature common to these areas, but rather depending on who else is being excluded. As all default categories, the West as the universal unmarked operates only in opposition to the populations that it marks. (2003:1-2)

  • Noelani

    Howdy Ho everyone! I’m Noelani Browne, most calle Lani and I’m a sophomore anthro and psych double major! In reading the introduction to the “Global Transformations” book I found the same concept that Jay discussed as interesting. The statement that the West is not a place but a project is extremely relavent to the rest of the world that is not considered “the West”. As I have read in books by say a Japanese author, the “Western way” was just a concept of culture that was foriegn to him as a Japanese man. From that standpoint, what is foriegn is seen as either more sophisticated or “savage”.

    • Hi Lani, thank you for the follow-up. Indeed, tracking how the Western project is both exported, imposed, and appropriated will be important to understand for the course. Thanks!

  • Jessica Hannah

    Hello ! I am Jessica Hannah, an undecided junior here at Hartwick, I am interested in becoming an Anthropology Major after taking multiple classes and going to South Africa, a completely life changing experience. Something I found interesting out of the reading is on page 4 where it talks about globalization and the conflict it creates between the view points of the way life used to be “back in the day” the life we haven’t lived but have heard many stories from our elder family members of, but also the excitement and “promises” it says from globalization, a time we are growing up in now with technology at our finger tips. (Literally at my finger tips as I type this out on my computer.)

    • Hi Jessica, thank you for this. Indeed, the current use of technology–the cellphones and all the screens–is making it very difficult to get what Trouillot calls “critical distance”: “especially since globalization today sustains two major but opposite ideological illusions: euphoria and nostalgia” (2003:4).

  • Jessica Hannah

    Hello ! I am Jessica Hannah, an undecided junior here at Hartwick, I am interested in becoming an Anthropology Major after taking multiple classes and going to South Africa, a completely life changing experience. Something I found interesting out of the reading is on page 4 where it talks about globalization and the conflict it creates between the view points of the way life used to be “back in the day” the life we haven’t lived but have heard many stories from our elder family members of, but also the excitement and “promises” it says from globalization, a time we are growing up in now with technology at our finger tips. (Literally at my finger tips as I type this out on my computer.)

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