Teach America Great Again

By Rucha Ambikar

The day after Trump won the election, I went into my class as usual. I was setting up the smart podium, when a student in the first row turned back to another student to chat. I couldn’t overhear everything that went on between the two of them, but I did hear the student in the first row loudly exclaim “Well if you don’t like it; you can go to Canada.” Even though it was before class time, I gave this student the side-eye, wagged my finger at them and said “we don’t use that kind of language in this classroom. We’re going to practice being polite to each other in here!” The student apologized to me and class began. I don’t know if they apologized to the other student. This was the first day after the election and I wish I could say that this was the last time I heard exclusionary language in my classes. But I wasn’t surprised; throughout that semester I had been teaching to red ‘Make American Great Again’ hats.

I teach at a rural university in Minnesota where I am the only anthropologist on campus. It is not as much cache as it sounds. I teach large service courses where students in my classes are there only for the liberal education credits they receive. Most neither know nor care what anthropology is, and if anything, are prepared for college only as a hostile climate that may challenge their faith, their belief in creationism, their comfort with their ideas and self image. I wish I could say that this is a Trump-era problem, but the fact is that my classes at this university have always been this way. Barring a few welcome exceptions, students are not interested in learning anything that challenges their worldview, and certainly not from a foreign woman with an accent, who isn’t even Christian.
Post-election, when it feels like the entire climate in the country has shifted to resemble one I normally face in my classroom, I’m contemplating how we, as anthropology professors can continue to teach. Whom do we teach now, and to what purpose?

Teaching things students care about
My first proposition is that we understand why our students are in our class. This isn’t anything new or anything we don’t already do. However, I propose a more realistic organization of our syllabi (at least for introductory, service courses) to acknowledge that our students may not necessarily be in our classes for edification. It is time to not take this personally (easier said than done, I confess). If we are the evils in their path to a “practical” degree that will get them a job, what can we teach them that they care about?
I most often teach introductory classes in cultural anthropology and it is here that I am most successfully able to argue that anthropology offers insight into their lives. I set out to explain what anthropology is and how it may help them understand some things about their own lives I teach about social stratification and talk about race and ethnicity. It is usually a big revelation to the students that race is in fact not a biological categorization of people but a social one. Discussions on economic inequality are also rewarding. It is easy to frame student concerns about finding jobs after graduation into a discussion on Marx, analysis of capitalism and outsourcing. We discuss global competition, sectors of job growth in the US economy, the percentage of the population with degrees required to acquire jobs in these growth sectors. It gives student a clear, practical insight into what they are doing in college and the nature of the economy that they will participate in after graduation. Teaching about the Kula ring also goes much easier once we have established that members of any particular society will work hard to participate in the various forms of economic transaction of that society.
It is of course ridiculous to imagine that the entire anthropology curriculum be based on students’ grudging interests. However, for the students who take only one anthropology class in their lives, this may contribute to the continued relevance of anthropology to their lives.

Hold Trump accountable
In the weeks leading up to the election, I tried to avoid discussions on Trump’s campaign. I was not always successful in doing this, and so I tried to discuss the campaign promises of both Clinton and Trump in light of what these would mean for the students. I wanted to be respectful of my students’ choices and so whenever I discussed any of these issues, I reframed them into anthropologically accessible terms. I discussed the building of the wall as an issue of nationalism and how national culture is framed in election campaigns. This allowed us to understand what makes up culture and values. The campaign rhetoric made for lively discussions on linguistics, analyzing the formation of meaning via symbols and syntax.

I assigned students to read part of Rousseau’s Social Contract theory to outline how in a democracy freedom is limited through the notion of rights and duties and that freedom is only freedom if there is a system in place that protects it. As anthropology professors I would suggest that our job is to help our students understand how their political action or inaction will impact their own life, and to extend the definition of personal freedom as being entangled in the larger concepts of political freedom. After the election, I propose that we continue in the same vein. That we reframe national politics in terms of rhetoric and symbolic action, and discuss the impact of each political action as it related to student experience. We can train our students to differentiate between words and their impact – to tackle the question of whether Trump is not racist because he tweets that he isn’t; or analyze his actions as he fills his cabinet with white supremacists.
I propose that we teach every single person in our classrooms, be they Trump supporters or not, to understand freedom as a cherished political principle that requires care and effort on our parts to maintain. That we teach our students about civic society, about their own rights and their responsibility in maintaining this right to freedom. That we teach them about racism, misogyny and nativism and how these might get in the way of their own rights being respected. That we teach them about the world around them, and we teach them to navigate in this world. Most importantly, as Trump begins his term, we help students analyze the impact of his governance and how to hold him accountable for his actions.

Center minority viewpoints
It is easy to assume that my work everyday is full of hostility. The truth, however, is that my classes are also full of people who seek me out in corridors, after classes, in office hours and in student evaluations to mention how much they appreciate a professor who speaks about the reality of racism in this country, who assumes that we are all good people and calls on our good selves to support minorities, one who makes injustice visible and points out that the voice of the minorities must also be made central. It is these students who sought me out after the election to express their disappointment, to discuss how they could argue with their aunts, their parents, their community that even though Trump has promised a thousand and one things to make their lives better, it is unlikely that he is going to live up to his promise. And so I struggle with these students to find the words that will help them carry on.
My plan is quite simple – that we simply ask students to think of how they would want to be treated and help them figure out what the humanitarian cost of their wishes would be. While discussing how nation states creates communities oriented in both time and space, my students observed that a certain cadre of conservative politics harked back to “the way things were” in the 1950s. We watched documentaries to understand the schism between White America and minorities at that time, understood how government assistance programs overwhelmingly supported white people’s aspirations for a middle class life and how legalized segregation negatively impacted the lives of minorities. “So they want to go back to a time when the blacks knew their place”, one of my students observed, “but that is so racist”. My observation has been that even the most conservative of students will shy away from ideas that are blatantly racist in their impact today. Be it peer pressure or a real change in values, I find that even the conservative student of today is unwilling to engage in actions that are openly discriminatory.

For the most part then, I suggest that as anthropologists we use our agency to talk about the negative impact of actions and to break through the barrier of unawareness that allows students to remain conservative supporters. The answer may well lie in the history of anthropology itself. Anthropology as a discipline has always tried to give voice to minority viewpoints and the others of history. One of the most effective ways to be anthropology professors in the Time of Trump may be to simply continue teaching the discipline.

Teaching everyone in the class, not simply students we agree with.
Professors all over the country have lamented the election results, expressed shock and dismay and even shed tears in classrooms. At a board meeting in the recent American Anthropological Association’s annual conference, I listened to one anthropology professor who taught in a situation similar to mine express how she was in tears in the classroom the day after the election. She lamented that anthropology journals were not more accessible to students and that even though we had a lot to offer our students, our jargon prevented students from learning anything. Here I part ways with her. I have sympathy for her dashed hopes, but I strongly disagree with her actions – both in shedding tears in the classroom and in arguing that anthropology is inaccessible to our students. It is our job as professors to make the subject accessible to our students, no matter what level of preparation they have. It will take time, it will take effort; but it is important to work with our students and help them undertake the task of understanding difficult texts.
We cannot be successful as faculty if our language is inaccessible, our thoughts inscrutable and our principles unassailable. I propose with teach with care, with kindness and invite students to participate in exploring the values of diversity and respect that are central to anthropology.

Respect our students’ democratic choices
It is also our job as anthropology professors to respect the choices that students make. And so while the election results are indeed filling us with anxiety about the future, it is important to keep our tears away from the classroom.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, my classroom took on an odd sort of dynamic. Students who had voted for Trump (some of these students had self-disclosed) and students who were minorities all displayed signs of anxiety and doubled down on their opinion. I’ve discovered through intense class discussion that much of this behavior comes from imagined opposition to their viewpoints. And here, as professors we can demonstrate support for our students’ choices, regardless of whom they voted for.
Verbal reassurance is meaningless in the face of partisan reaction to students’ opinions and so I have been trying to reframe classes as simply issue-based. One of the modules in my class covered globalization and food. We watched Michael Pollan’s “The omnivore’s dilemma” to understand food supply chains in the US. As a class, this led to several interesting discussions on how we choose to eat and what we expect to be available to us as food. Students on both sides of the aisle devised strategies to eat local and to reduce the carbon footprint of our food. In the end, I think students surprised themselves by discovering how much common ground they had when the discussion was issue-based rather than framed by their identity as a Trump voter or hater. My job was to simply figure out a way in which students could realize their common interests.

In the end, I propose a simple solution – that we continue to teach. That we continue to teach every single person in our classroom, to the best of our ability. That we display the same duty of care to each of our students, no matter what their religious or political or social persuasion. That we hold ourselves accountable for the education we provide, and for making anthropology relevant to the lives of our students.

Rucha Ambikar is assistant professor of sociology at Bemidji State University. She holds a PhD in Social and Cultural Anthropology. Her current research interests include race, pedagogy and identity.

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4 thoughts on “Teach America Great Again

  1. Hi Rucha,

    Thanks very much for this post. I very much appreciate your teaching philosophy and the way you meet your students where they’re coming from. It sounds like you run a great class. I’m curious, do you get a sense this is how most folks teach across your college? How do you figure you came around to having this particular attitude towards teaching?

    Take care,

    Dan

  2. Hi Rucha, thanks for your excellent post. I couldn’t agree with you more on many of these issues, particularly finding ways to help students (and the rest of America, by extension) find their common ground. I taught Intro to Cultural Anth last summer and had one student who felt very challenged by the material. He actually went through the textbook and underlined all the references to Marxist theory and other forms of what he considered liberal doctrine (without using those words), and came to my office hours to present it to me. He was basically afraid that I was indoctrinating the class with liberal ideas. I found it very difficult to engage in a meaningful debate with him, and finally had to cut him off with “Thank you for your thoughts but I disagree,” shuttling him out the door. Unfortunately, he and others like him are the ones we need to reach the most. If you have any concrete strategies or materials you’re willing to share, they would be greatly appreciated. I’ll be looking into some of the ones you’re mentioned here already. Keep up the good work.
    Best wishes,
    Christina

  3. Hi Dan, thanks for your comments! I’m not sure what to say – I think the point is I’ve taught at a bunch of different places with the students looking radically different in each place. I’ve also never taught anthropology majors, so a large part of my job was to make my subject matter interesting to students (and potentially keep me employed). I guess that is where this attempt comes from. As for most of the college – I’m not entirely sure. There are a lot of well meaning folks and some of the younger faculty and I are in conversation about how we teach, so some of this is also shared wisdom.

  4. Christina, you are absolutely right. More and more we are all hearing this refrain – that college education is somehow a left wing conspiracy! My usual approach is to ask the students why they feel this way and let them talk while I listen carefully. Some students may simply want to make a point, but most I find are not quite sure how to reconcile what they feel and what they are learning. Whenever such a situation comes up I say my job is to demonstrate and teach critical thinking, and that I am not interested in telling anybody how to think. I do pivot to talking about facts, evidence based arguments, and eventually discuss what we may want out of life that is perhaps common. But you’re right, sometimes this does not work. I wish I could tell you more, but do persist! We can’t win them all, but over the years, you’ll notice we make a difference.

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