The Trouble with Teaching (and a call for help)

This week, I embark on my 12th year as an adjunct at the College of Southern Nevada (formerly the Community College of Southern Nevada, which I much prefer — they changed the name in a bid to sound classier). For the last 11 years, I’ve taught intro-level anthropology, even as my career shifted from academia into the museum world.

Teaching is a choice for me. I have a full-time job, a MORE than full-time job, running the Burlesque Hall of Fame, and much of what little spare time I have left is spent as a caretaker for my father (who suffers from Alzheimer’s) and maintaining some kind of social life, but when I can pick up a class, I do. I enjoy the classroom experience, and if you’ve ever worked at a community college, you know how rewarding it can be.

My classes are typically full of very bright, hopeful young people (along with a scattering of returning students and retirees) who have been terribly served by the educational system. Many of them are minorities and/or from poor families, which means not only has their K-12 education been abysmally bad (on purpose, I’d argue), but so has the rest of their lives during their developmental years.

So much of what I do in my classes is aimed not just at teaching the rudiments of cultural anthropology but helping them develop from the subject material something of a toolkit for contextualizing (and hopefully improving) their own lives. The hope is always that you can help them overcome the deficiencies of their elementary and secondary educations, nudging them towards stronger reading comprehension, better critical thinking skills, and a clearer understanding of the ways the social order in which they are embedded works.

But of course, they also have to learn basic anthropology. Subsistence strategies, kinship charts, political organization, the types of religious practice, and so on. Ironically, this is the stuff that I tended to pay little attention to in grad school, where I was more focused on theories of language and power, state domination and resistance, and historical process. So I’ve spent 11 years deepening my understanding of the basics — to the point, I fear, where I’ve fallen almost completely out of touch with the state of the art.

So I’m asking Savage Minds readers to help me catch up. Here’s the challenge: What should I read that well-represents what’s going on in cultural anthropology today? Bonus points (note: no points will actually be awarded) if it helps me breathe some new life into my classes. I’ll remind you that my time is limited — I figure I can probably pull off two or three extra books over the course of the semester, provided they aren’t Debt: The First 5,000 Years– or Capital In the Twenty-First Century-length. I also read a lot in nonprofit administration, museum practice, and fundraising, so, you know, something with a bit of zing would be welcome. And if its available on Kindle, all the better!

13 thoughts on “The Trouble with Teaching (and a call for help)

  1. For my own edification, Anthrodiva — though hopefully a peppier me-brain equals a peppier class. Honestly, I’m pretty good at the ol’ band-tribe-chiefdom-state thing these days, I just need to get my head around some of the more recent developments in anthropology.

  2. I’m still a lowly undergraduate student of social anthropology myself, but like you I have been trying to connect with more recent developments and debates. Ever since I read Writing Culture, I’ve been trying to work out where some thinkers in the field have ended up today: George Marcus, one of the contributors to this anthology, does perhaps in many ways characterize what some might call a ‘disciplinary pessimist’ – anthropology today produces nothing new or worthwhile, and if we don’t get back to uniting the four fields, we’re more or less screwed. See his 2006 interview (published as an article in 2008) called “THE END(S) OF ETHNOGRAPHY: Social/Cultural Anthropology’s Signature Form of Producing Knowledge in Transition”.

    However, telling as it is of Marcus’ position, I believe it is much less valuable than John Comaroff’s 2010 article titled “The End of Anthropology, Again: On the Future of an In/Discipline”. Of course, I can only speak from my point of limited experience, but this article more aptly answers the question ‘what do today’s anthropologists do?’ than any other work I’ve come across (and it’s a fairly short article). It should also be able to direct you to other relevant works, and I know I extracted a whole lot of new references from this article. Johannes Fabian goes even further, and in a 2012 article titled “Cultural Anthropology and the Question of Knowledge” he asks if ‘anthropology’ is a meaningful signifier today, and discusses how we might think about ‘anthropological knowledge’.

    Lastly, Matti Bunzl has a fairly interesting 2008 article titled “The Quest for Anthropological Relevance: Borgesian Maps and Epistemological Pitfalls” which similarly details the developments of post-Writing Culture anthropology. I found the combined effect of these articles to be a very pleasant update and they reveal the highly politicized status of current epistemology – a point that Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, as one of the principal contributors to the ‘ontological turn’, makes in his 2013 article “The Relative Native”. No clue if any of this is really helpful or new to you, but I loved all of these.

  3. But of course, they also have to learn basic anthropology. Subsistence strategies, kinship charts, political organization, the types of religious practice, and so on. […] So I’ve spent 11 years deepening my understanding of the basics — to the point, I fear, where I’ve fallen almost completely out of touch with the state of the art.

    If you want to do basic and bleeding edge at the same time, Godelier’s big kinship book (as in jam-packed; it’s actually relatively small physically) was translated into English in 2011: From Robert Barnes’ review essay of the original at

    The preeminent place of anthropology in the study of kinship has thus been confirmed, Godelier concludes, and experts in other fields are now turning to anthropology to answer their questions. However, just at the moment when their advice is needed, the majority of anthropologists have ceased to be interested in the topic. Though kinship was once thought to be the finest flower of anthropology, to which the great names all made a contribution, today it is treated by anthropologists as a non-subject. It is no longer taught in many universities in the United States and in some in Europe. The “postmodernists” rarely mention the topic. However, instead of disappearing, it has just migrated to other domains of anthropology, seized by new questions which reshape it. The analysis of kinship has simply deserted the place where anthropology roamed for decades, entangled in false problems that in principle are insoluble. The voids left by this desertion are not necessarily a sign that the announced death has already taken place.

  4. Since you mention “the ol’ band-tribe-chiefdom-state thing,” you may be interested in “Chiefdoms and Other Archaeological Delusions,” by Timothy Pauketat (2007). He’s an archaeologist, and one of a growing number in that field who are trying to re-align archaeology’s relationship with cultural anthropology. For anyone interested in what complex societies are and how they develop, it’s an excellent resource. A slightly older and denser volume is Adam T. Smith’s “The Political Landscape: Constellations of Authority in Early Complex Polities” (2001). Again, he’s an archaeologist, but one very interested in how the construction of physical spaces reflects and creates political life.

    Another book I’d highly recommend is Stephen Lansing’s “Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali” (2006). It’s a follow-up to his famous “Priests and Programmers,” but with more historical depth and a compelling use of mathematical models to describe the development of Bali’s subak water-management cooperatives.

  5. The articles recommended so far recall the memory of being in Seattle many years ago, when the meetings of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) and the American Ethnological Society (AES) were held the same weekend in hotels only a few blocks apart. The mood of the two conferences was day and night. Af the SfAA meeting the mood was upbeat; at the AES meeting all was doom and gloom. On reflection, it seemed to me that the reason was clear. The pure academics of the AES were caught up in an existential as well as epistemological crisis. Entirely dependent on academic employment in a collapsing academic job market, they had good, material reason to be worried about the future of the field. In contrast, the senior role models in the SfAA were people who had found recognition by people together with employment in other fields, both inside and outside academia, in medicine, law, K-12 education, criminal justice, banking, business, government.

    I bring recall this anecdote here because it seems to me that the articles recommended so far are very much in what I still think of as the AES gloom-and-doom tradition. All are well worth reading and thinking about. By way of balance, however, I would include the first issue of the Journal of Business Anthropology, which is open source and free to download.

  6. Great recs so far, thanks everyone! That Godelier looks really good (and not just because I called the decline of marriage years ago — you read it here first, folks!) but at 650+ pages it might take a bit before I get to it. The other books have been added to my wishlist for as soon as I finish my current reading. Seeing some good stuff on Paradigm PRess too — I totally forgot about them! I see they’re not quite so gung ho today about making PDFs available for free downloads as they were when they launched… I’ll have to see what articles and journals I have access to on campus — I don’t think we have all the academic subscriptions that the library at UNLV has.

  7. Two books that I’ve enjoyed that are also relatively recent and seem to be working within emerging themes are

    (1) The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom by James Laidlaw; and

    (2) Guerrilla Auditors: The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay (about how militant peasants work with and through bureaucracies and documents) by Kregg Hetherington

  8. That Godelier looks really good (and not just because I called the decline of marriage years ago — you read it here first, folks!)

    The grist for Godelier’s mill is the correlation of heterosexuals’ demand for the right to divorce with homosexuals’ demand for the right to marry.

  9. Can I add to this from a few different UK anthropology angles? Some reasonably accessible and interesting references that might have some contemporary relevance to their lives.
    Anything from Daniel Miller has ‘zing’, I always find his writings accessible and contemplating material culture in a contemporary context and considering objects in terms of consumption. (Maybe ‘Stuff’ or ‘The Comfort of Things’)

    Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright (2010) edit interesting reflections on Anthropology and Art. – ‘Between Art and Anthropology’ (Berg). As described in the book, it is ‘productively exploring the implications of the new anthropology of the senses’.

    To wander into the field of applied anthropology, and having been a practitioner and consultant in this field, I still see David Mosse’s ‘Cultivating Development ‘(Pluto Press) as one of the most ‘zingy’ and thoughtful explorations of practitioner anthropology in the development ‘world’. It is a few years old now (2005) and I have some qualifications but I still smile at the accuracy of his comment that a particular project went out of vogue with the donors and ‘had become the flared trousers of the late 1990s DFID (UK donor agency) wardrobe’. Since then he has been working with David Lewis following some interesting themes about anthropologists as brokers in this arena.

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