Teaching Tales (Episode II)

That’s right – I changed my unit of analysis from a “part” to an “episode.” Those of you who teach, especially in the world of small, highly interactive classrooms full of undergraduates, will understand that the experience is enough like a sitcom to warrant the analogy.

Today’s episode took place in my senior capstone Anthropological Theory seminar during the final class meeting. We were munching on local delicacies such as shrimp tacos, carnitas tortas, and enchiladas verde, when students asked me to talk more about “that HTS controversy” and the AAA’s. (Although I could tell that this was somewhat of a cheap attempt to get relief from talking about reading they hadn’t quite completed, the food made me weak, and I went along with the diversion.)

What followed was an interesting little discussion about anthropological involvement in World War II, Vietnam and other South East Asian military campaigns, metanarratives, identity, ethics, personal responsibility, and agency/structure as mediated through practice (I can fit that last one into any conversation – just try me).

The tone in the room was getting increasingly agitated and concerned. Students looked genuinely worried. One finally said, “But if the government comes to your door and demands that you use your anthropology to help them, do you HAVE to?!” I was about to reassure her that as far as I knew it had not yet reached the point of forceful conscription, when a peer helpfully responded, “Omigod!!! Didn’t you people SEE Transformers?!!!”

It was time to move on to the next reading anyway, and she had now provided me with the perfect segue (an element of all well-crafted sitcoms): so we discussed Foucault’s vision of power and discourse analysis with a whole new zeal.

Many Random Things on my Mind

I am intrigued by what seems to be a persistent pattern among my peers, one that seems to render them unlikely (not to say incapable) of thinking anthropologically about their own lives, and careers.  I am frustrated by the number of times I’ve had the, “go ahead and submit that article you are sitting on, what are you waiting for,” conversation with my fellow women in anthropology.  Did they not  remember that article submission (among other things in our profession) can still be highly gendered, and that men tend to send stuff off because “it’s great,” and women tend to send the same quality of stuff off much less often, because it “needs some more work”—and then gets lost in the shuffle, and never gets sent out at all.  How can more of us not know this consciously, and then fight against it?  Why is it not a part of our graduate training (maybe it is for some, but it was not for me) to confront and discuss these patterns, and then be taught some real, practical strategies for breaking them?

 And what about the way that we treat our colleagues, sometimes (most of the time)?  I’ve blogged about this before, the anti- social, sometimes sociopathic tendencies of socio-cultural anthropologists, and how our training actually encourages this tendency to isolation and lack of social skills once we are in professional environments like, say, universities.  I marvel at the lack of self-reflexivity, in these people who are purportedly professional describers and analyzers of the human condition.  Or maybe it’s just an academic thing , and we anthropologists are nothing special in that regard.

I am also intrigued by the apparently unreflexive way that some are throwing around “ethnography” as if it is equivalent to Anthropology, and not, instead, part of our toolbox.  Ethnography springs from our particular disciplinary history, and has been adopted by people in other disciplines (sociology, for instance).  It also shows up in corporate practices, like research for advertising and design.  Perhaps it would be useful, in  (for example) our concern about HTS and ethnography, to make it clear that just because someone is engaging in ethnography does not make them, in fact, anthropologists.  And one can be doing unconventional ethnography (short-term, for instance, in the case of many corporate projects), and yet be doing so anthropologically. 

 Could some of these things be due to a persistent lack of grounding in both our disciplinary history, and in practical training for becoming professionals and colleagues?  Are we short-changing so many anthropologists, not giving them the right kind of toolkits, or perhaps mindsets, to succeed not just within their own narrow subfield, but in the wider world of academia, and (perhaps) the real world itself?  And are we rendering ourselves incapable of describing the significance of our work, and our discipline, to the wider world, by neglecting these parts of our professional upbringing?  Maybe we’d be in a better position to counter the Montgomery McFates of the world if we equipped ourselves a bit better to begin with, and gave others far less power over the representation of our discipline.

Really Nice Strangers

      I have traveled quite a bit in the last few months.  In June I was in Thailand about ten days, and I have been living in Germany since August.  During this time, I have had the usual mix-ups that go with traveling—missing trains, wandering off in unforeseen circumstances, and just generally misplacing stuff.  Generally people are pretty nice about these things.  Indeed, I just met “met” my third really nice stranger in these travels, so I guess it is time to acknowledge them.

        The first really nice person was a Thai woman on a small motorcycle after I decided to use a tourist map to walk from Chiang Mai University where I was staying, into town.  I thought it would take about an hour, and that I could do it before it got really hot.  But, I got the map sideways (or maybe backwards), and ended up walking off in a really wrong direction for about thirty minutes.  I ended up between some rice fields, construction sites, and noodle stands before finally acknowledging my mistake to myself, and starting to walk back.  

     I must have looked pretty odd along this hot stretch of road, because the woman on the motorcycle stopped to ask where I could possible be going. She was about 27, and had her three year old son with her. I told her, and she indicated that my destination was a long long ways away—and described the route I needed to take.  I groaned inwardly.  She did a really nice thing though, and asked me if I wanted a ride.  SURE, I did!  And so I piled on the back of the motorcycle made for three, and ended up back where I had intended to go in about five minutes.       

      My 16 year old daughter found the second really nice person the usual way.  She left her purse with about $200 in dollars and euros, as well as her California driver’s license on a bench near a the local castle here in Friedrichshafen.  We assumed that we would never see the purse or money again.  But our new neighbors convinced us that it was indeed reasonable to file a police report.  So we did, and the following day, the police called to report that the wallet had been found.  The purse was returned with all the money, i.d., and so forth.  

       We found our third last really nice stranger yesterday when my cousin, who was visiting from Berlin, left her cell phone on a train.  We had gone to a one of these really nice cute German towns for the afternoon, but by the time we reached there, her cell phone was gone.  Groan….But when we got home, my cousin went to check her email.  Someone found her phone, checked the entry for “home” in her address book, and had called her flat in Berlin.  Her roommates emailed her the phone number of the person who found the cellphone who we immediately called, even though it was 10 p.m.   Today my cousin is meeting the third really nice person at the ferry to pick up the phone before flying back to Berlin.

       I am sure that there is a moral, or at least an anthropological insight to all this, but I don’t know what it is.  Except maybe the point is that there are some really nice people in the world. Also, it is sometimes nice to accept rides from strangers, always check the lost and found for missing items, and you should always have “home” programmed into your cell phone.  

       And if you ever find someone’s phone, use it to call home—someone will really appreciate it!

Well, at least the AAA meeting gave me some perspective

I didn’t say it was a happy one, but it is a perspective. Of course there were the expected strident calls of moral outrage over anthropologists in the military. Then it got worse when a voice vote was taken and passed that “no reports should be provided to sponsors [of research] that are not also available to the general public and, where practicable, to the population studied.” (from the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Blog http://chronicle.com/news/article/3532/anthropologists-vote-to-clamp-down-on-secret-scholarship ). To be clear, this does explicitly include the kinds of proprietary research I do for my clients.

Well, there we go… apparently when that resolution passes next year (I have no doubt it will) my industry brethren and I will once again be non-anthropologist anthropologists and the rest of the field will return to the comfy tower without fear of getting its collective hands dirty. I am not renewing my membership that expired last Thursday. It’s not some form of protest, but more of why bother? I went into the AAA meetings feeling like people were having arguments that are nearly 50 years old, and already rolling my eyes. But now I’ve stopped rolling them.

I’ve realized that being annoyed at the American Anthropological Association and the more vocal members of the organization is like being annoyed at an old doddering relative. You know the one I mean, not quite crazy enough to lock up in the attic, but still likely to blurt out embarrassing anachronistic statements during holiday meals like “We may have lost the war, but I’ll be damned if I recognize missou-ra!” Also like the AAA, the effect on my life and career other than the occasionally embarrassing statement, is exactly zero.

The only function of the association is to hold a meeting once a year, distribute info about open positions in academia and issue statements about ideology. Other than that, I don’t see much. You can’t make someone stop being an anthropologist. No one can reach into my brain and remove the knowledge. Never in my career has anyone asked if I am a member of the AAA, I don’t even know if it’s a requirement of an academic department to be a member.

I don’t claim to do classical ethnography, that’s why many of us in my end of the field prefer the term Design Ethnography or Design Anthropology because it is a sub-field that is different from the long-term studies others do and used for different ends. Its not better or worse, it’s different.

So, I’m still an anthropologist but one that places academic and professional freedom above being in an Association that is trying to keep us all in a box.