Teaching Anthropology in Uncertain Times

Patrick Alexander


This post reaches you from a suitably changeable July afternoon in Oxford, with dark clouds hurrying across the sky, promising rain but giving over to occasional patches of good old-fashioned, elusive English Summer sunshine. I‘m reminded today of a similar summer afternoon last year, when I sat down with David Mills, the out-going editor of Teaching Anthropology, to discuss future issues of the journal. My immediate inclination was to look to the future of teaching anthropology itself as a subject for discussion in the first 2017 special issue. In the immediate aftermath of the UK referendum on membership of the EU (it’s important to remind ourselves it wasn’t always called ‘Brexit’), and with the impending election of Donald Trump as president of the United States (it will be important to remind ourselves down the line that this was not always a truth stranger than fiction), it seemed logical that we as a community of educators and anthropologists should be thinking about what new pedagogic strategies might be needed to account for the rapacious and occasionally ominous nature of contemporary social and political change. As our discussion of the topic developed, the focus shifted away from a prophetic look at ‘what’s next’ for teaching anthropology to one that encouraged discussion of the discipline’s long-standing engagement with uncertainty and the future, both as substantive themes and as concepts that inform the nature of anthropologically-informed pedagogy. Engaging thoughtfully with questions of uncertainty, we argue, is crucial not just for engaged practice in teaching anthropology, but also for challenging the particular future-orientations of educative practices at large. Kyle Harp-Rushing and our colleagues at Cultural Anthropology have described this kind of engagement with uncertainty as reclamation – as a way of embracing uncertainty not as something to be anticipated as part of an inescapable, impending future, but rather as a concept that can enrich and deepen the learning process in a way that in turn helps to positively shape the future we will eventually inhabit.

In strange but familiarly uncertain times, the editorial collective at Teaching Anthropology hoped that this would spark discussion about how we teach and prepare students for futures defined by uncertainty, dislocation and rupture. Keri Facer, among others, has pointed to the increasing use of the military term VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) to describe the current state of social, political and economic systems. Baumann, Beck, and Giddens in particular have helped to shape a more complex sociological understanding of how risk and uncertainty frame our experiences of social life such that future risks and opportunities are presented in an increasingly individualized form, and yet also become increasingly difficult for individuals to know, control, or pre-empt. And yet amidst this increasingly volatile uncertainty, education continues to be represented as a locus for certain future outcomes, whether economic, intellectual, cultural, or in terms of social mobility. In the everyday life of teaching anthropology, this raises tensions because it demands a reassertion of the critical tenets of anthropology as a discipline primed to make strange the familiar certainties of education, but at a time when the teaching of anthropology is embattled and beleaguered because it does not explicitly promise (even if it regularly delivers) a clear return on investment or pathway to employment.

The well-worn tension between creativity and constraint in teaching anthropology was the main focus of discussion at a recent Teaching Anthropology workshop with secondary school teachers and academics, focusing on the theme of teaching about culture and difference in uncertain times. The workshop, held at Oxford Brookes University and funded in collaboration with Oxford University and the ESRC, revealed a range of personal anecdotes, pedagogic strategies, and individual initiatives all of which articulated different elements of how uncertainty emerges in the mundane every-day of the classroom. Some shared affirming stories about successfully encouraging young people to engage with uncertainty in order to unsettle preconceptions and challenge the taken-for-granted. Others described circumstances where critical approaches to teaching anthropologically led to intense anxiety on the part of both students and senior management because the learning was not designed explicitly to aid in examination preparation. In the latter case, this led to a disciplinary hearing and job instability, highlighting another facet of uncertainty for teachers of a subject already at the curricular margins both in secondary education and in universities.

This tension leads also to the question of stewardship, focusing on the disciplinary legacies that teachers nurture and protect, and why they think it’s important to do so.  In exploring the kinds of futures we are teaching anthropology for, we are prompted to consider the pedagogic moments of rupture when teachers decide to challenge disciplinary pedagogies and carve out new directions in response to new challenges. Advocating radically new ways of teaching and learning may offer ways of reimagining what the discipline has to offer students in helping them to find a way in uncertain times. The articles and reflections featured in the forthcoming special issue of Teaching Anthropology reveal how a combination of innovative practice and time-honoured, ethnographically-informed pedagogy can help to frame the teaching of anthropology in a way that makes uncertainty a powerful analytic tool for learning and living in uncertain times.

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