Friday, August 17, 2012

Thinking About Course Readings, Fall 2012

Since it’s back to school time, I’m reviewing my syllabi in preparation for getting the semester started. Further, yesterday I read through Jason Antrosio’s review of the reader, Applying Anthropology. Subsequently, I’ve decided the spend this post thinking about the mix of readings I plan to use this semester.

In my Anthropology 101 course (which is a cultural and social course, not a four-field intro), I include a number of readings outside of the text to give students the sense of how anthropologists typically talk about who and what they study as well as to other anthropologists. I don’t use a reader because I want to be able to idiosyncratically mix and match from semester to semester.

In the spirit of reflection, I’m using this post as a way to think about exactly why I include these readings and what I hope students learn from them. There’s no system to the particular mix described below…these readings just happen to be the ones I assembled based on my academic training as well as relatively blind searching through anthropology journals. Quite a few of my past blog entries have been inspired by many of these readings and I’ll include links where appropriate. That makes this post super-self referential.

I structure the sequence of topics in the course in a fairly traditional way that basically follows the sequence of most introductory cultural anthropology textbooks.

Introduction and Culture
I don’t include additional readings here. I’m not sure exactly why that is, but I think it’s that I don’t want to jump right in with the extra reading. However, if any readers of this post have suggestions, I welcome them.

Cultural Relativism
“What About Female Genital Mutilation?” by Richard Shweder, in Engaging Cultural Differences: The Multicultural Challenge in Liberal Democracies, 2002.

I have mixed feelings about this paper’s use in the course. The major negative is that it is long. 37 pages. That tends to daunt students very quickly. However, I continue to use it because, despite its length, it’s written in an accessible style. Students are usually not confounded by the language Shweder uses. In class, I use the paper to dig into the many layers and complexities of cultural relativism. In Hard Second Looks, I describe some of the lasting messages I hope Shweder's paper imparts.

In an honors section, I once tried Michael Brown’s “Cultural Relativism 2.0,” but found it turned out to be way too inside-baseball for students to get much out of it.

Methods in Anthropology
“Christmas in the Kalahari” by Richard Lee

Sometimes “‘Thus Was Our Bodies, Thus Was Our Custom’: Mortuary Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society” by Beth Conklin, American Ethnologist, 1995.

In this section of the class, I’m trying to get across some of the challenges of participant observation, in particular the idea of culture shock in which the social rules the anthropologist had taken for granted aren’t followed by the people around them. Lee’s article is a tried and true classic and students engage with it easily (maybe because it’s not 37 pages). Conklin’s piece is long and a tough slog for many students. I depend on many students’ interest in exotica to keep them focused. The most effective strategy I’ve developed is to use Conklin in conjunction with Lee by asking students to write an account that follows the structure of Lee’s--a tale of confusion followed by insight--by written by a hypothetical anthropologist working with the people profiled by Conklin.

“Language, Race, and White Public Space” by Jane Hill, American Anthropologist, 1998.

Bar none, this is the reading students hate, which is largely the reason I use it. Students usually read through what can be dense, academic prose to get a part of her point. It’s provocative, but I hope it jars students into thought. I won’t go further here, as I’ve expanded on student reaction to this article in Sucks Stinks and Anthro 101: The Exotic and Mundane.

Subsistence and Economics
“Learning from the Tiv: Why a Sustainable Economy Would have to be “Multicentric” by Alf Hornborg in Culture & Agriculture, 2007

I often find the economics section of the course the most difficult to teach. Students seem to immediately glaze over. I think, this predisposition to boredom is the consequence of the hegemony of neoliberal economic thought. Students seem to buy in to the idea that markets and capitalism (profit making) are natural forces. I use Hornborg’s paper to show how anthropology’s focus on the many ways of being human challenges that assumption. I’m variably successful in this. I think that often students still leave that section of the course thinking that it’s unfair or inefficient to organize economies in any other way than the way they know (if interested in further thoughts on how common economic ideology shapes student thinking see Students as Individuals and Consumers).

Despite some of these problems, I really like Horborg’s paper as the ideas are challenging, but it’s short and is clearly written. I discuss this paper much more in Thought Experiment in Remaking Economies.

Kinship and Marriage
”Ethnographic Empathy and the Social Context of Rights: ‘Rescuing’ Maasai Girls from Early Marriage” by Caroline S. Archambault American Anthropologist, 2011

This semester will be the first time I’ve used this one, but I’ve already posted about how I think I could incorporate it in Anthro 101 Readings: Early Marriage Among the Maasai.

In past semesters, I’ve used “Extra Embryos: the Ethics of Cryopreservation in Ecuador and Elsewhere” by Elizabeth Roberts (2007). In it, Roberts compares beliefs surrounding individualism vs. corporate kinship and how those shape the preservation or destruction of excess embryos created through in vitro fertilization procedures. It’s a good article and I’ve used it to show how cultural/symbolic understandings shape how, even people in modern societies with access to the benefits of science, behave. I still like this article and will keep the ideas embedded in class lecture and discussion. However, students never really engaged with it...likely another example of its “un-exotic” topic.

“The Gender of Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes” by Don Kulick American Anthropologist, 1997.

Here I give in to student hunger for the exotic. A student once told me of how his mother was scandalized by the title alone. Of course, I strive to steer the discussion to the constructed character of all gender systems and simply use this one as an attention grabbing point of entry. I discuss these ideas, among others, further in Nádleehí, Ways of Knowing and Mutual Inclusion.

Race and Ethnicity
“Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality” by Lance Gravlee American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 2009
This article seems to have become a new classic and I point interested readers to Living Anthropologically’s section on the embodiment of race. and I won’t spend much time on it here, though I do use it heavily in Race and Consequence: "Reality" and Social Constructs.

“Rebutting Jared Diamond’s Savage Portrait: What Tribal Societies Can Tell us about Justice and Liberty” by Paul Sillitoe and John Kuwimb at, 2010

“Vengeance is Ours: What Tribal Societies Can Tell Us About our Need to get Even” by Jared Diamond, New Yorker, 2008

Like economics, I find politics difficult to make engaging. Don’t get me wrong, power is key to understanding people, but the treatment in textbooks still too often falls into neoevolutionary typologies. Focusing on violence as an obvious exercise of power is a useful foot in the door of student interest. I start with Diamond’s piece so that students can better understand the context of Sillitoe and Kuwimb’s.

The pieces contrast in a number of ways. Diamond argues for a natural, instinctual need for revenge, while Sillitoe and Kuwimb describe socially contingent political systems in which revenge plays an important role. Also, Diamond’s piece is short while Sillitoe and Kuwimb’s is long. While students more often initially gravitate toward Diamond’s since it’s an easier read, I then emphasize how thorough anthropological work documents complicated and dense relationships and factors. I further discuss my approach to these two articles in Road Rage and Bubbles of Protection.

I don’t have a good reading now. The quest continues....

Global Inequality and the World System
“An Anthropology of Structural Violence” by Paul Farmer. Current Anthropology, 2004.

In sections, this article gets dense (such as the section on late 20th century international aid disputes) and the structure of Current Anthropology with following commentary can confuse students. However, Farmer’s juxtaposition of the story of Antie, a woman suffering from a “fungating mass” on her breast with the political economic history of Haiti and the Atlantic World brilliantly illustrates the dense thicket of human relationships and interactions through time and space--one of the great strengths of anthropology--created the contemporary division of the globe into haves and have-nots (I also discuss this piece in Road Rage and Bubbles of Protection). This one can definitely be tough to get students through, but those who do seem to be affected by it. Farmer shows that anthropology can matter.

So that's where I'm at for 2012. I hope this list will continue to evolve as anthropology, my students and I change.

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