Helsinki at Night…

…glows with neon lights. Many of the grand buildings in Helsinki have spectacular and dramatic night-time lighting schemes — neon, light projected under eves, corporate insignia in bright back-lighting. This makes sense: as one of the world’s most northern capitals, Helsinki spends much of the year in the dark.

I have been madly preparing for my first seminars/lectures. Issues emerge.

1) Everyone here has told me quite explicitly that Finnish students do not talk in class. This is cited as an example of the generally ‘taciturn’ nature of Finns. I’m told that one is not to take the silence personally. I’m inclined to think that student silence will schismogenetically elicit gregarious extroversion on my part (complementarily, of course). Everyone advises me to let the silence linger; I tell myself, ‘Mimic your therapist.’

2) Syllabus as branding exercise. What should a syllabus actually look like? What should it say? Syllabus conventions of course vary between individual teachers and between institutions. One of my undergraduate teachers often simply handed out a list of books and told us we were expected to own them. Other teachers have poured voluminous amounts of bibliographic information into them; their syllabi are like indices of a subject area. How much ‘framing’ should a syllabus engage in, viz. themes and questions about particular areas, to focus discussion? I wish to remain open to student interests, inquiries, imagination; at the same time, there are things I want them to learn. A delicate balance I suppose. Right now I feel aware that the syllabus will be one of the first things students encounter about my teaching. I consider first impresssions.

3) Grading. Again, teachers have vastly different strategies with regard to explicitness in grading standards. Some syllabi seem almost like human subjects consent forms in that their primary purpose is to be as explicit as possible about how students will be assessed in order to foreclose ‘litigation’ concerning grades later on. And others are silent on the subject. Which way is best?

There are other issues of course. These concerns are of course ones that all teachers face — yet, they are for me right now heightened by the fact that I have never taught in a European university before. Academic convention and expectation is as culturally-varied as are kinship systems. I look at the enterprise as a learning endeavor.

So I prepare this morning for my class on “Kinship Today.” In fact, Savage Minds gave me the idea to open discussion in the class with controversy: adoption at the interface of indigenous tradition and liberal governance. I have structured the course around classic readings leading up to a focused exploration of the question of ‘gay kinship/marriage’ in the West. Kinship studies have always been about ways in which social orders ensure their own reproductive continuity. Adoption controversies not infrequently swirl around the question of how particular styles of life, unique identities, are sustained both collectively (as in the case of ‘indigenous’ folks in the US, Australia, or other settler states) and personally (as in the case of individuals adopted trans-nationally). Kinship, and its study, is about social organization through time; it has always also been about the state. The search for jural norms in ‘other’ places guided investigations into kinship quite explicitly. We know that Morgan’s interest in kinship was stimulated by his investigations concerning Iroquois land rights. So what looks like a contemporary sort of kinship question (adoption disputes today) in fact has a genealogy that goes back to kinship’s very ‘invention.’ I make the further point: what’s interesting about gay kinship vis-a-vis these time honored anthropological questions is precisely the extent to which it throws mechanisms of social reproduction, continuity through time, into question; gay kin are comprised of, in a famous phrase, ‘families we choose.’

So! Onward into some classic investigations.

3 thoughts on “Helsinki at Night…

  1. I heard this joke from my brother after he visited a friend in Finnland:

    A man visits his friend. The friend pours two drinks and they sit down on the balcony to watch the sun set. After the last rays of the setting sun finally disappear, the man turns to his friend and says: “Cheers!” His friend turns to him and scolds: “Did you come her to drink or to talk?”

    Regarding whether or not to be explicit about your expectations: I think the lesson from the anthropology and education literature is that students from well-to-do backgrounds are more likely to know the hidden expectations of classroom behavior, so making everything as explicit as possible about your expectations will help to even the playing field for those students who might be smart, but less well socialized into the system.

  2. A man visits his friend. The friend pours two drinks and they sit down on the balcony to watch the sun set. After the last rays of the setting sun finally disappear, the man turns to his friend and says: “Cheers!” His friend turns to him and scolds: “Did you come her to drink or to talk?”

    Historical note: I heard Ulf Hannerz tell this joke at the fourth ConsumAsiaN conference in Hong Kong, April 22-25, 1998. Only instead of two friends the protagonists were a Swede and a Finn, with the punchline delivered by the Finn.

  3. Kerim, Thanks for the tip re: explicitness. Things are very informal here, and there will be several students in my kinship ‘lecture’ who are not technically ‘enrolled’ in the course; which is actually really cool.

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