I’ve gone around and around about how to write this post because I have too many ideas running around in my head. Rather than prolong the agony for myself I decided on the brain dump approach, which makes for a long post. So here’s the brief outline of each segment: a response to a couple of comments on my last post about anthropology and exploitation/power, a discussion of Freire’s critical knowledge grounded in my own youth participatory action research experience, then some musings on and questions about mentoring as part of anthropological praxis.
Before I jump into the next discussion of my current thinking about anthropological praxis, I want to generally address a couple of comments and critiques that folks brought to the table concerning my last post to clarify a little bit what I was trying to lay out and to maybe connect a little more clearly to where I’m going next.
I do not think that most anthropologists necessarily experience fieldwork in the same way that I did in my first fieldwork experience or in the way that Behar’s quote from my last post suggests. In fact, I’ve had two very different experiences of fieldwork that, in their contradiction, really support the idea that anthropology doesn’t have to be this exploitative relationship between researcher and research participant (see discussion of Speaking Out project below). However, as Rex pointed out in his comment, thinking through unequal relationships of power in whatever research context seems to me to be central for many anthropologists…and not just thinking through unequal relationships of power, but also thinking about relationships (between teachers and students, mentors and mentees, researchers and research participants, etc) as potentially humanizing rather than dehumanizing – in other words, a more positive reflection that focuses on capacities.
While I certainly believe there is room in anthropology for many perspectives (and that the debate sparked by our differing perspectives can help us all to think more clearly about where we stand and what we do), I do lean towards a justice-oriented anthropology that is serious about critiquing and changing its own exclusionist practices when we find that they exist. I’ve been thinking about mentoring as one step in that process and a way of “acting” as an anthropologist. I’ll return to that momentarily. First…some Freire.
Freire on Critical Knowledge
Freirian praxis calls for both critical knowledge and action, and I’m considering his ideas (and those of folks who have come after him) as a productive way of framing anthropological work – something to think about and with when considering my (our?) roles as teacher, researcher, and community member.
I’ll take up the notion of action in more detail in the next post and try to respond more fully there to some questions on my last post about what “action” might mean; here I want to focus on this idea of critical knowledge. My discussion here is rooted in my experience working on Speaking Out, a youth participatory action research (YPAR) project in North Carolina. I worked as a co-researcher alongside high school students, college students, and university faculty and staff to examine educational inequities in Alamance County. With the support of the university professionals, the high school students published a book that focused on the research results, and we are now writing more about our research process. The following ideas about critical knowledge formed the basis of our work together, so my thoughts here come both from that experience and from some of the work I’ve been reading.
What we focused on in the Speaking Out research project was the intentional, critical production of alternative knowledges about educational inequities. We turned the sort of “received wisdom” on its head to challenge the assumptions that underlie discriminatory schooling practices. For example, one of the assumptions that underlies a “tracking” model in public education – AP track, college prep track, vocational track, special ed. track, etc. – is that students learn better when they are grouped with other students who have similar intellectual capacities (however we might measure that…) and academic goals. There’s quite a bit of research out there that shows that detracking actually improves learning for ALL students. The details of that is a whole other giant discussion, but the point here is that our research was oriented towards “speaking back” to dominant paradigms using the particular experiences of the high school student researchers and their peers.
And this is what I think Freire was talking about when he talked about producing critical knowledge. Production of this kind of knowledge, at least in the anthropology worlds I tend to walk around in, is often what anthropologists do – using ethnographic data to challenge dominant interpretations of the world and its many expressions of humanity. So I don’t think I’m necessarily offering anything original here. What I want to do is call attention to some of the multiple venues in which it might be possible to conceive of anthropology as praxis in the way that Freire suggested – including this practice of mentoring that seems to me to be a little mysterious.
Some questions about mentoring as anthropology in action
I teach in a community that supports many students who have been traditionally underrepresented on university campuses. Many of my undergraduate students (and a significant, but smaller, proportion of my graduate students) are first-generation college students, Native American students, Hispanic/Latino students, and English as a second language students. And much research in education shows that these groups of students are among the least likely to graduate from four-year colleges for numerous reasons related to social and cultural capital, racism and discrimination, limited resources to pay for college, lack of support and preparation in high school, multiple responsibilities outside of college, etc.
As I think about ideas about anthropological praxis in this context and as I gain experience working here, mentoring arises as really important action that builds on the critical knowledge I outlined above. But it also seems that it could be yet another way to marginalize students – what I mean is that it could be a way to focus on deficits rather than capacities or of positioning particular students as “at risk” and therefore in need of mentoring in a way that students who have more support outside of the university setting do not.
And maybe because of those potential pitfalls, mentoring seems like a really important thing to be intentional about. It’s something I’m just starting to think about as part of anthropological praxis because I am really only beginning to think about myself as a potential mentor to students. Ryan mentioned something related in his comment on my last post in terms of considering how we might “rethink the stories we tell about anthropology.” And this reminds me of some of Freire’s words on education from Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students). The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified. Education is suffering from narration sickness…Words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity (p. 52).
Those familiar with Freire will recognize this as a description of the “banking concept” of education. He argues for a different kind of education (this critical knowledge that I was talking about) and goes on to say:
Those who use the banking approach…fail to perceive that the deposits themselves contain contradictions about reality. But, sooner or later, these contradictions may lead formerly passive students to turn against their domestication and the attempt to domesticate reality. They may discover through existential experience that their present way of life is irreconcilable with their vocation to become fully human. They may perceive through their relations with reality that reality is really a process, undergoing constant transformation. If men and women are searchers and their ontological vocation is humanization, sooner or later they may perceive the contradiction in which banking education seeks to maintain them, and then engage themselves in the struggle for their liberation (p. 56).
Freire’s work is often used to rethink student-teacher relationships in the classroom and is increasingly used to rethink research – particularly in the area of youth participatory action research. I’m there too, but as I become “faculty,” I’m also being called on to become a “mentor.” I think about mentoring as a different kind of teaching/learning relationship, so I think Freirian praxis can apply.
But here’s the deal: I have a grand total of 6 semesters of independent teaching experience (i.e. teaching my own classes rather than being a TA) and 1 year of work on the participatory action project Speaking Out. I am clearly still figuring out my own positionality within anthropology, and I’m pretty up front about that with students. I believe that growing with students and opening up what may appear to be a black box of anthropological thinking to many students is a really exciting and supportive way of teaching and doing anthropology. But I don’t see many conversations about anthropologists as mentors out there beyond a call for more of it – especially for students and new faculty who are traditionally underrepresented in anthropology.
So I want to know: Do you think about mentoring or being mentored as part of an anthropological praxis? If so, how do you think about it? Can we consider mentoring part of this “public” and “engaged” anthropology that so much as been written about lately? What would you consider to be most important issues to focus on as a mentor to emerging anthropologists (and to college students in general)? Is there something particular about mentoring from an anthropological framework or not? Can we “do” anthropology through mentoring?
Mary Alice Scott is assistant professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University.