Monday, December 12, 2011

Hard Second Looks at the End of the Semester

It’s mid-December, which means I’m deep in the midst of grading papers and giving final exams. Despite being under mounds of end-of-term course bureaucracy, I do my best to end each semester with some kind of wrap up that communicates to students my abiding enthusiasm about anthropology, curiosity and learning.

I also try to provide students with something they can “take away” from the class--a big picture kind of message. I know that throughout a semester, students (and myself), can get caught up in the details of class material and lose sight of that big picture, so as the semester ends, I’m compelled to remind them of it. Even though I’ve always got the gist of what I want to say floating around in my head, I regularly struggle with how to specifically communicate what concrete knowledge or skill students (especially those who will never take another anthropology course) can take away from this particular anthropology class.

This semester, I found a good, clear expression of some of my thinking in a chapter by Richard A. Shweder (2002). Unsurprisingly, this article offers an extended defense of the anthropological concept of cultural relativism as seen through the lens of international efforts to end the practice of Female Genital Cutting (FGC). Shweder is not arguing for the caricatured “anything goes” version of cultural relativism, but instead for considered and thorough evaluations of other ways of doing things.

In a nutshell, that’s what I want my students to take away. Shweder titles his conclusion to the chapter:

On the Virtues of Being Slow to Judge the Unfamiliar and Having a Hard Second Look [Shweder 2002:247]

I argue that this advice is worthwhile in almost any situation, be it cross-cultural, cross-national, or cross-personal. While Shweder’s article is specific to a controversial practice that is titillating to Western eyes, I feel like his message can be applied to much more mundane situations where tolerance, acceptance and understanding are needed.

Tolerance means setting aside readily aroused and powerfully negative feelings about the practices of immigrant minority groups long enough to get the facts straight and engage the “other” in a serious moral dialogue [Shweder 2002:247-248]

The value of the understanding that anthropology can provide was on clear display last summer in discussions of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case (my brief post, Living Anthropologically's more extensive coverage). Mike McGovern’s New York Times op-ed piece on the the accuser’s background highlighted how an anthropological approach appreciates the complexity of the accuser’s biography and moves us toward a better understanding of the situation. As McGovern noted, it’s not about excusing, it’s about understanding.

This seems to be one of the most useful “methodological” product an introductory class in anthropology can offer students. It’s very similar to the more general idea of “critical thinking,” but anthropology provides abundant case studies to hammer the point in over the course of a semester. Almost every class session in any anthropology course includes discussion of some practice, belief or situation that can seem initially troubling/exotic/problematic/dangerous/etc. But, with some reflection and considered examination, most of these examples become more understandable.

References Cited
Shweder, Richard A.
2002 “What About Female Genital Mutiliation?” and Why Understanding Culture Matters in the First Place. In Engaging Cultural Differences: The Multicultural Challenge in Liberal Democracies, edited by R. Shweder, M. Minow, and H. Markus. Russell Sage Foundation Press, New York.

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