On Wednesday morning, amid the turbulent mix of feelings that washed across the country and beyond its borders, an anxious existential question took hold of many of us: “what the f***k do we do?” Some seriously considered the need to flee for their lives. Others took to the streets. More than a few folks I know spent the day drunk or in bed. And, by the end of the day, safe spaces for decompression and community care emerged on many college campuses. Part of my own response, one shared by many other faculty, has been: TEACH.
This is post in the #teachingthedisaster series comes to us from Maria L. Vidart-Delgado. Maria lectures in the Anthropology Program at MIT and is also the co-founder of Department of Play.
I taught a class on the 2016 U.S. presidential election (syllabus here) to a group of undergrads at MIT with diverse political commitments, social sensibilities, and with different levels of exposure to anthropology. I faced two challenges. One was getting my students to think anthropologically about electoral politics and democracy more broadly. I mean moving away from analyses that mimic prevalent political punditry (do elections work?), to a comparative mode of analysis attentive to how different groups of people experience, understand and perform free, fair, legitimate elections. The second challenge was to build a common ground to listen to each other in an emotionally charged political environment. I found that in cultivating an anthropological perspective we built a common place to question the assumptions shaping our political preferences, and to discuss the implications of those preferences.
I made an effort to cultivate in my students what Clifford (1988:19) calls an “ethnographic attitude,” one that sees “culture and its norms—beauty, truth, reality—as artificial arrangements susceptible to detached analysis and comparison with other possible dispositions.” This “relativistic” approach (and I mean it facetiously) was fruitful to study electoral campaigning in its own terms. As charismatic assemblages—of experts, supporters, techniques, political ideals, political networks and media infrastructures—working in concerted action toward electing a candidate (Nielsen 2012; Stromer-Galley 2014). We saw that these assemblages deploy strict top-down management tactics to fuel and spread a collective enthusiasm for a political cause, and produce dominant storylines that ultimately become the bases for political judgment and policy design (Laclau 2008). 2016 provided abundant case studies, like Brexit or the Colombian Peace Referendum.
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?