Saturday, November 26, 2011

More Harm than Good--Perils of Teaching about Anthropology and War to those Who've Been There

Easily, the majority of my students have had very provincial experiences by the time I encounter them. Despite living an easy hour drive from New York City, a good percentage of them have never made it there (and you know what you can do if you make it there). Far from having international experience, for many, their young lives have taken place entirely in the county, much less the country, of their birth. For them, that means that an intro to cultural anthropology class exposes them to very new peoples and ideas.

Increasingly, however, another population of students is filling my classes; a group that has traveled much more extensively and that has had repeated and sometimes very intense interactions with folks from very different cultural backgrounds. I’m not sure what the student profile looks like at four-year schools, but at my two-year one, students who are returning veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are becoming a small, but important segment of the student population (A piece last year from the Chronicle indicates that community colleges and for-profit schools are the most popular choices for recent veterans).

From my experience, veterans are better than average students. They’ve had life experience beyond a senior year in high school and are actively pursuing their education for some specific career purpose. They usually also add interesting comments and perspectives into class discussion. For instance, in my archaeology classes, I’ve had one student who witnessed the looting of the Baghdad museum at the fall of that city. Another student was stationed for a few months at the ancient site of Babylon and took several guided tours from Iraqi archaeologists excited to get access to the site again.

#TeachingFail, or How to Alienate a Student Veteran from Anthropology

In some cases, though, veterans can pose challenges to a well meaning anthropology teacher. I’ll recount one experience that demonstrates how tricky it can be to talk about anthropology with someone who has a very real personal history in the contexts that a teacher is trying to talk about in a disinterested and analytical way. A couple of years back, I was teaching an online section of cultural anthropology. In one segment of the course, we were discussing anthropological fieldwork and ethical considerations. As the controversy surrounding the use of anthropologists in the military through the Human Terrain System (HTS) was relatively current at the time, I used it as a case study. This particular course included a veteran of the Afghanistan war who was an exemplary student, consistently turning in thoughtful and insightful essays.

Initially, I began the discussion by simply mentioning HTS as an applied use of anthropological method and theory. At that point, the student veteran, Brad (pseudonym), became even more engaged and thought such a program was a fantastic use of anthropology. In a discussion board, he related an experience he had working with local communities in Afghanistan--trying to win hearts and minds--and how it ended badly with unexpected and unintended consequences. He passionately argued that the application of anthropological expertise to that situation would have improved its outcome tremendously. While deployed, he had been assigned to talk with local tribal elders in a Pashtun area that had recently been a hotspot of Taliban activity. He admitted knowing very little about the political, cultural, or economic context of the village before entering; he envisioned a homogeneous tribe/village/culture. He was simply to try and build a sense of trust and friendship between the US military and the village. During an early meeting, one of the elders asked if it would be possible for a well to be built in the village. At the time, Brad saw no problem with this and that it would be a win-win. His military unit had access to the means to build such a well and its completion would only serve to build goodwill with that village. Wells were built.

A couple of weeks later, Brad returned to see how things were going. He quickly realized things weren’t going as smoothly as he’d hoped. Social conflict within the village was on the rise. Unknown to Brad and his team, a well was placed on a particular lineage’s land. This automatically augmented the lineage elder’s power base as he was charging others in the village for access. The preexisting politico-economic balance had been rapidly upset. Brad later learned that some of this conflict boiled over into actual violence between various lineage groups in the village. So, in the end, the attempt to win over local groups to the US side resulted in deteriorating conditions, more conducive for Taliban recruitment efforts.

In online discussions, Brad argued HTS (which he first learned of in my class) was an important addition to US military projects that would lead to diminished loss of life, both US and local populations. He wished he had been paired with an anthropologist grounded in local issues when he was faced with the situation described above--he believed it would have had much more positive results--potentially saving lives of both local Afghans and US soldiers.

From the perspective of teaching, Brad’s experiences were invaluable. He added a wonderful depth and flavor to what could have been a drier, strictly analytical exercise. I sent him a private email expressing my appreciation for his contributions to the class and that I would like to set up a time to chat face to face.

At this point in the discussions, I wanted to bring in the controversy within anthropology and specifically the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) investigation into the ethics of HTS. Even though I definitely share many of the AAA’s concerns with HTS, I didn’t want my own position to be an obvious part of the discussion. I explicitly claimed the role of devil’s advocate and thought I contextualized the discussion in an academically, not personally, adversarial way to present the concerns voiced by the AAA. I hoped this would lead to a rich and thought provoking discussion. Brad didn’t seem to agree. After my devil’s advocate posts, he quickly and obviously “tuned out” of the class. A student that had previously been active and engaged now did the bare minimum to pass the class. And, he never responded for my request for a face to face meeting.

Lessons Learned?
So, what happened? I know I’m going to over-generalize based on this one experience, but it’s an episode that continues to gnaw at me after two years. Turning off a good student leaves a lingering hangover that’s hard to get rid of. In this case, I don’t think Brad’s disconnect had anything to do with any political views on the worth of fighting the two wars, but more about his sense of obligation to his fellow soldiers and to the significance of his personal experience. My sense is that my introduction of the complexities and nuance of the AAA’s position alienated a student that had intense loyalties and social connections to the military based on the extreme experiences of war. It’s not that I don’t think that such topics should be covered, I just think this particular student didn’t yet have a full sense of the discipline, its colonial history and more recent attempts at instituting full equality between researcher and subject populations. I also think that a teacher teaching about war, but has never been to war, has difficulties establishing credibility with a student who’s been there (some insecurity on the part of the teacher is also at play here). Military service is one of the few remaining intense and collective rites of passage left in contemporary culture and clearly creates a strong sense of social solidarity among veterans. I worry that I--and anthropology--came off as a elitist, academic exercise that cared little for the lives of Brad and other American soldiers. Before Brad got a more well-rounded feel of the discipline, I pushed him away. This type of animosity seems on clear display on a recent comment to a post about the anthropology of war by Patrick Clarkin.

Since that class, I’ve been hesitant to talk about HTS and the AAA’s response in class. I still address the importance of anthropological ethics, but am afraid of alienating another student. This may be a cowardly reaction, but I worry about doing more harm than good with such students. I think that intro anthropology classes can perform an important social good by introducing students to ideas of human commonality through human diversity. In that, I agree that sometimes a teacher must be provocative to elicit a thoughtful reaction. However, in this case, I fear I was provocative to the point of alienation. Once that occurs, the social good that I hope to be a part of doesn’t happen for that student. Maybe an intro class isn’t the place to get into the important issues surrounding the HTS controversy.

I haven’t run across any other descriptions of teaching anthropology to veterans, particularly in light of HTS. If any reader of this post has similar experiences, I’d be grateful for comments to follow this discussion further.


  1. Thank you for relating a story that still gnaws at you. This reminded me of something in the Chronicle by a military historian, Why I Can No Longer Teach U.S. Military History. The issues, of course, are not exactly the same, but it seemed related to your experiences and interesting to read through that comment stream for many more perspectives.

  2. Jason,

    Thanks for the comment and the link. The more I think about it, the more unusual the student veteran population is from the typical one. They've simply seen a world that the majority of their classmates are fairly clueless about. Also, many of them have already thought quite a bit about some of the concepts and issues we deal with in our classes. And, as I've noted, I'm seeing more and more

    But as with any group, there's tremendous diversity within. Another less "gnawing" student has decided to major in anthropology. He noted that most of his experience in the Army was in digging ditches, so archaeology would be a perfect fit--though I assured him we'd dig much slower.

  3. I join Jason in thanking you for this article Dalton. As a lifelong learner, an ardent student, a far leftist and a veteran, I appreciate the challenges and questions that this incident has raised for you.

    If it helps at all, I would suggest that you not let this incident with Brad dictate too much of your teaching going forward. HTS is controversial, and the AAA, among others, have outlined the ethical problems it presents. To bring those issues into the classroom is not only a natural course of action, but a necessity of the sort of transparency I wish to see permeate the field (especially in academia).

    I think an additional part of the mini meltdown with Brad had a lot to do with the format of the classroom as well. Online classrooms, just like any online experience, are not conducive to conveying tone in any meaningful sense, and unless you teach components in video/webcam, it's impossible to read emotional expressions. This lends itself to misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and misattribution of angst/anger. I suspect, based on your telling of events, that this occurred in a way that it probably would not have in a classroom.

    Another point I want to make is regarding your quote:

    "Military service is one of the few remaining intense and collective rites of passage left in contemporary culture and clearly creates a strong sense of social solidarity among veterans. I worry that I--and anthropology--came off as a elitist, academic exercise that cared little for the lives of Brad and other American soldiers."

    That you highlight this concern at all does wonders to diminish its power. Whether or not Brad knows and understands your concern for he and other military members, we know it, and more importantly, you know it. This will help you navigate the moral and ethical concerns of your teaching going forward, and again I would encourage you not to hang it around your neck too heavy on this one incident. More than anything, sharing information openly and honestly, with respect, is a fine ethical achievement for any anthropologist.

    Also, while it's true a certain cross-branch camaraderie exists amongst veterans, we/they too are facing an ethical crossroads, as evidenced by participation in Occupy movements and other forms of subtle and overt protest. It could be argued that as a collective rite of passage, enlisting is rigorous in different ways than graduating into academia, but no less or more honorable. We as a society tend to venerate position over person, and whether or not that's a good or bad thing, it's what we do. In this case, expressing to your student that you are willing to engage in a face-to-face discussion honors his experience, and the experience of others. So long as you keep that sort of respect in your work life, you and your students will reap the rewards.

  4. Dalton,I have two reactions to your attempt to show sensitivity to this veteran student. (1) Has our society become so militarized, the military so dominant and/or sacred, that as educators we have to seek or invent subterfuges to challenge anything that our military does? Are we losing the ability to apply or encourage critical thinking toward the military? In that case, we are starting to resemble Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan,where any question of the semi-divine military would be grounds for dismissal from employment or worse. Our public discourse from FOX to NPR is already saturated with pro-military, "support the troops" propaganda. The college classroom should be a space for more critical discussion. (2) What may have gone most wrong in your interaction with your soldier-student was your insincerity, despite your good intentions. He may have sensed that you are actually opposed to America's war in Afghanistan, and that you were not being forthright in hiding this behind the pseudo-academic, devil's advocate stance. I think we do better as educators, including as personal role models,when we let know students know where we stand, honestly, and let them have the space to disagree and assert their own views and experience. Your student was being honest about who he was and what he believed, but were you? I would acknowledged that it is very scary to take a controversial stance in the classroom, but if it is done honestly and with a certain degree of humility,ie, "this is what I think, I know others have other views, and I encourage you to express them," I think it can make for much more sincere and searching discussion. Taking the "I am an impartial teaching apparatus with no opinions, no ideology, no perspective, just displaying the tricks of my trade for your classroom consumption" is in my opinion, disingenuous, as your own values and views are still being expressed, just in disguised form. How can we ask our students to be honest with us if we are not honest with them?

  5. M.A.,

    Thanks for your comment,
    My original post was written from a place of out-loud thinking. I didn’t think I did anything “wrong,” but the episode simply left me feeling a bit off. I never like when a student doesn’t engage from the beginning of a class (and unfortunately, I have dealt with a lot of those). But, it’s particularly disheartening when a promising student so clearly seems to disengage after initially expressing interest.
    Putting the thoughts down into a somewhat comprehensible post has helped me realize that I largely did what I could and that I shouldn’t be surprised if every once in awhile someone just doesn’t like what I, or anthropology, has to say.
    I agree with your point about the online format. It creates a distance that more easily allows students to disengage. I think there is some value to an online class, but I still vastly prefer the live version.
    I also appreciate your discussion of the diversity of experiences and perspectives within the veteran community. My experience with Brad may have been partly the result of my own mental hall of mirrors where I projected particular reactions that weren’t necessarily consistent with his.

  6. Maelstrom,

    Thanks for the comments.

    As for your point 2, you may well be right. I’ll have to stew on that one awhile.

    As for point 1, from my perspective, this wasn’t motivated by any kind of “Support the Troops” mantra. I agree that sentiment like that is often used to squelch any critical discussion of US military excursions. However, whatever is meant by the “Troops” is a complex set of people, institutions and issues. I would argue that sympathy toward the experience of veterans is not automatically support of US war efforts, or generated by fear of reprisals about seeming unpatriotic. There is a lot of inequity and injustice in the system we’re all a part of, and I feel that veterans are part of the exploited in that equation. In the contemporary scene, the military pulls from folks from lower socio-economic classes, puts them in dangerous situations (and yes, I know that soldiers are also purveyors of violence), and then provides less than adequate assistance once they’re out of the service.

    My sensitivity toward this student wasn’t about hero worship, but about a human being who’d experienced difficult times.