Liminality in the Classroom

Madeleine Mant, Banting Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Archaeology, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Such is the reality of anthropological education that one must be prepared to engage with an enormous breadth and depth of material outside one’s own particular wheelhouse when teaching undergraduate classes. In various teaching roles (teaching assistant, seminar leader, and most recently as a lecturer venturing into the classroom before the ink had completely dried on my doctoral dissertation), I have presented students with a myriad of subjects – from skeletal muscle attachments to sympathetic magic, Australopithecine dentition to embodied racism, historic cholera outbreaks to zombies – many of which sit outside my own specialty of bioarchaeology and the anthropology of health. Before this sounds like a complaint, or that I believe this is a situation unique to anthropology, I hastily add that it is with joy that I research and prepare for these topics, as I am sure all lifelong learners do. It occurs to me, though, that much of my preparedness lies in my own undergraduate four-field education and its emphasis on the inclusion of anthropological theory.

I was lucky enough to be introduced to the basics of anthropological theory by Dr. Marko Živković at the University of Alberta, who cheekily drew a genealogical tree on the blackboard during an early session, tracing his take on the development of theory through a complex nexus of supervision and influence. He triumphantly included himself at the very edge, declaring that we could now add ourselves to the map since we were present to learn from him. Focusing on the impact of theory upon us as individuals was a brilliant tactic. Certainly I have never witnessed a wink without wondering what Geertz might have to say about it and often considered the involved webs of relationships surrounding jokes (particularly ill-timed ones on my behalf) à la Radcliffe-Brown.

But it is Arnold van Gennep’s Les Rites de Passage that continues to inform my anthropological teaching experience most profoundly. The universality of the separation, liminality, and reaggregation/incorporation makes this a key piece of theory for engaging students. I have incorporated this tripartite piece into every learning space I have entered, from archaeological fieldschool sites to graduate seminars. Personally, my own transition from student to teacher has involved many encounters with liminality, as has my research program, as I moved from a master’s focused exclusively on palaeopathology to a fuller engagement with social history and theory. Seeking new skills, new experiences, and new methods is a natural part of research and teaching; reaggregation is never entirely complete before we encounter further cycles of student-hood and mastery, apprenticeship and mentorship.

At some point we all teach subjects far beyond our research program; this disciplinary and pedagogical leg stretching (and liminality!) can be daunting, but also exhilarating. While there remains much to learn and I am constantly seeking better ways to ensure intersectionality and inclusion in anthropological teaching, I have found this one key theoretical insight an excellent foundation from which to build.

What theorists do others repeatedly return to? Why has their work resonated for you?

Madeleine Mant

Banting Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Archaeology

Memorial University of Newfoundland

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