First, the controversy that does not matter: Beth Povinelli’s keynote at EASA 2014.
The #povinelli hashtag failed to erupt on twitter over the weekend after being used about seven times in three days by Allegra, who posted an embarrassing critique of Beth Povinelli’s keynote at EASA 2014 which focused on the style of her talk rather than its substance. After getting a pretty thorough drubbing in the sectors of social media where I hang out, Allegra than issued another post defending the claim that Povinelli’s talk was bad, but giving different reasons than the original post.
Despite the coverage on social media, we still have little idea what Povinelli actually said, just posts explaining what was wrong with it. From my vantage point, it doesn’t look like anyone covered themselves in glory on this one. In fact — and I say this totally lacking any actual evidence — it seems like the worst stereotypes of pretty much everyone were confirmed: the overbooked, underprepared American academic celebrity trying relying on force of personality to get through a talk. The Frenchmen more interested in rhetoric and style than substance. The Europeans dissatisfied that they invited a prestigious American to speak… but who still invited (and paid, I reckon) a prestigious American to speak. Or who complain that her topic is too ‘exotic’ — as if they didn’t know they were inviting an Aboriginalist? It is, as we say in America, a clusterfuck. I don’t think there’s a lot of lessons to be learned here, except that everyone is better off when they act professionally — even if at times the definition of ‘professional’ is culturally inflected.
In other news, The University of Illinois’s shameful treatment of Steve Salaita is at the center of a controversy that does matter and which is getting more and more shameful. Salaita left Virginia Tech for a position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While this was happening he issued some pretty strong tweets about Israeli treatment of Palestinians (““At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?”). As a result the chancellor of the campus, Phyllis Wise, revoked the uni’s job offer to Salaita and left him jobless.
Tim Burke has, as usual, some great comments on this case. But what is most important for anthropologists in this story is the reason given not to retain Salaita: that he lacks civility and students may feel ‘uncomfortable’ in the classroom with him, where he teaches on the same topics that he tweets about.
As anthropologists, we know that our job in the classroom is precisely to make students feel uncomfortable. Learning happens when people are uncomfortable. Not too uncomfortable, but uncomfortable enough to realize that the answers they currently have aren’t correct, or need to be improved — or that the questions they respond to are not the most important questions to answer.
This is a general point about education, but it’s also a specific point about anthropology. Our call to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar is fundamentally about instilling discomfort in students so that they can grow into people with larger comfort zones. But for their comfort zone to grow, students must first leave it.
The Salaita controversy matters because it is part of a larger, global debate about the politics of the Middle East. But it also matters for academics in the United States because it speaks to central issues regarding not just research, but teaching as well.