Courses I will never teach

There are the courses that I hope I never have to teach, and then there are the courses that no one would ever LET me teach. It can easily envisage a time when a conjunction of sabbaticals and illnesses will force me to fake my way through Intro Physical Anthropology, despite the fact that I have never taken a physical anthro course in my entire life. But when will The Powers That Be let me run with some of these?

Anthropology of Professional Wrestling
This is a topics students know and care about. There is a large literature on the topic starting with Roland Barth’s essay to the more recent “Steel Chair to the Head”: What better way to explore gender roles, the body, and performativity? We could even have a lab section featuring suflexes and the Camel Clutch. But no, they will never let me teach it.

First Contact — For Reals
There is a large literature on colonial encounters and first contact — in fact this is one of my areas of speciality. But how about When The Aliens Land? Admittedly there was an ‘Anthro and Sci Fi’ moment that resulted in the “Anthropology Through Science Fiction”: reader and a few other pieces (including one wonderful kitschy volume with a contribution from Sol Tax!). But once ‘far-out’ faded away and it was clear NASA was not right around the corner from developing a warp drive, interest faded out (although some people, like Ben Finney, are still thinking it over. WHY? I am fascinated by First Contact novels that probe the limits of humanity and intercultural understanding. And after all, what will we do WHEN THEY ACTUALLY LAND? I think it would be great to have a class where you could read by both First Contact (by Connolly and Anderson) and First Contract (by Greg Costikyan). But no, they will not let me teach it.

Cohen and Kahuna: Hierarchy and Taboo in Comparative Perspective
I’ve always been fascinated with Polynesian notions of taboo (or, as we say in Hawai’i Nei, kapu) and various Jewish systems of taboo — especially the ones that are no longer practiced today (when was the last time you smashed a clay vessel because it was pasuch?) And just in general it’s an aesthetically pleasing juxtaposition. But alas, no one is interested in talking about blood and semen and food prohibitions the way they used to be. Someday, perhaps, this sort of thing will come back into fashion. But let’s facti it, they will never let me teach it.

Meaningless Relationships
I have actually done a reading course with one of my professors on this one, so I practically already have a syllabus ready. We regularly talk about ‘commodified’ relationships or life under capitalism as being less ‘meaningful’ than more supposedly robust and authentic face-to-face subsistence communities. There is also a large literature on one night stands, the short con, and so forth. Finally there is (again) the literature on culture contact. Why not do a whole course on what it means to have a relationship (or just interact with them) when you barely know them at all? We could start with Silent Trade, move on to 80s ennui (perhaps watch Better Off Dead or something), do something on the sex trade, or anonymity more generally. You could even through in ‘first contact’ or do some stuff on identity on screen. But because this is just a great topic rather than a clearly slotted ‘theoretical’ or ‘ethnographic’ course, they will never let me teach it.

Any good academic can take a good idea and turn it into a something that requires a reading list, but no matter how flexible your university is — for instance, mine has allowed me to teach a course of Virtual Worlds — there just comes a time when they don’t let you go there. It’s too bad, since my “Coffee and Gin: A Historical Anthropology” course is all ready to go…


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

9 thoughts on “Courses I will never teach

  1. Of course, once we take the next step from Savage minds and form the Savage Minds Free University, we can teach whatever we want, right?


  2. I think in the US we think of Schivelbusch as the author of “The Railway Journey” — at least that’s the book by him that I read in my ‘space and time’ class.

  3. We regularly talk about ‘commodified’ relationships or life under capitalism as being less ‘meaningful’ than more supposedly robust and authentic face-to-face subsistence communities.

    Funny, Kurt Vonnegut was on PBS’ Now last night and, when asked what advice he had for young people in such a depressing world, he told them to go and join gangs. He said that he learned, during his years studying for an anthropology MA at Chicago that people need extended families, that the nuclear family isn’t enough in this godforsaken world, so young people should form gangs!

  4. I think in the US we think of Schivelbusch as the author of “The Railway Journey”—at least that’s the book by him that I read in my ‘space and time’ class.

    That is another of my Schivelbusch favourites.
    I anyway dont want to heroize him, as i ve read some very weak stuff by him also (Die Kultur der Niederlage).

  5. Despite Vonnegut’s rather deep misstatement of what relativism is (I think in the intro to _Slaughterhouse Five_) I find a lot of anthropological echoes in his work. In one of his essays, he writes that we should each be assigned, willy-nilly, to a “tribe” (I think he uses the word “tribe”, though what he describes are more like clans). Tribal affiliation would be listed in the phonebook along with name and address and phone number, and when you landed in a strange town and needed help, you could just look in the phonebook and call up a member of your tribe or show up on their doorstep. They wouldn’t be obligated to help or do anything, but sharing a tribal affiliation would open up the channel of communication, just like being related or belonging to the same organization. Most of Vonnegut’s work in some way stems from his recognition of the need for people to somehow feel connected to other people, in a world that regularly rejects or distorts the possibility of such connection (Bokononism, anyone?).

  6. I actually heard accounts of people from various immigrant groups doing just that. I think it was a Hmong who said in an interview that he simply looked up Hmong last names in the phone book when he was looking for a place to stay in a new town.

    Somewhat related: A Palestinian friend once told me about trying to find an apartment in Canada. The woman on the phone heard his accent and said: “Oh, you’re Israeli!? Come over and I’ll introduce you to the Rosenbergs…” (He took a pass at meeting “his tribe.”)

  7. We make these kinds of connections all the time. In my class, I describe baseball caps and concert t-shirts as totems indicating “tribal” affiliations — when you wear a Yankees cap or Megadeth shirt, you provide a channel for others to connect with you: “Dude, did you see Megadeth at GlaxoSmithKline-Dell-ExxonMobil Stadium last weekend? They rocked!” Last names, too, provide a moment of recognition, as does geographical origin, religion, etc. When I first went to college in New York, I would get “You’re from California? My cousin lives in California!” a lot — at the time, I would patiently explain that there were milions and millions of people in CA, over a vast geographical area, and that it was unlikely I would have run into their cousin, but now, older and if not wiser at least wiser-looking, I realize that the most tenuous of claims can be latched onto in a bid for some sort of connection. Perhaps this is the human condition at its most basic — but in disaggregated post-industrial societies like ours, I think it becomes more and more desparate, as more durable connections like kinship and clan erode.

  8. As I sit here (not) writing my fourth consecutive syllabus for our Intro to Anthro course I totally misread the title of this post … courses i will never teach –> any subject that i’m actually a specialist in.

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