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16 July 2009

Toward an Anthropological Pedagogy

This entry is cross-posted on the OAC.

This past year, I graduated with a BA in anthropology, and I'm on my way to graduate school at the University of Maryland, College Park. There, for the first time, I will be engaged in helping to instruct college age students (as a teaching assistant), and, looking forward, I feel strongly that teaching anthropology will be as important to me as conducting research.
In the past I've taught younger children ranging from toddlers to young teens, and, being the reflective person that I am, I've spent a lot of time already thinking about the nature of pedagogy. Lately I've been thinking more specifically about an anthropological pedagogy. In particular, I'm interested in the context of education more than the content. When I taught younger children, I often found that it was more important to create an environment of learning rather than trying to teach the kids specific facts or ideas. This, I believe, is in accord with Bateson's concept of deutero-learning in which learning is differentiated into logical types. On one level, a student may learn a fact, but on another level, the student is also learning about the context of learning that fact. As a result, if the student learns the fact in order to regurgitate it on a test the next day, then what exactly is it that they are learning? There are also contexts of contexts; for example, why is it okay in the US education system that students can simply memorize and regurgitate, but still get a degree? What do they learn from that?
However, this post is not intended to vent my frustrations with the higher education system in the US, but to put forward a question, or rather a series of questions. Given the idea that we learn as much (if not more) about the context of learning as we do the specific incidents of learning, does the traditional lecture hall with discussion classes format actually teach anthropology? Certainly, students need to learn those facts about anthropology (i.e. Who are James Frazer, Edward Tylor, Margarette Meade, Clyde Kluckhohn, etc.? What is cultural relativism? and so on), but I believe we should embed those facts in a context in which students will learn what anthropology is really about. For that we would need a pedagogy based on the theories and methods of anthropology (indeed, each discipline could take this approach as well, so that we'd have sociological, psychological, economic, etc pedagogies; the lecture hall format is too one-size-fits-all). The real question is, what would an anthropological pedagogy look like? What skills would it foster? What experiences would it provide?
I know a lot of people are experimenting with new styles of teaching (most notably, Mike Wesch), and I like Bill Guinee's idea posted in the Teaching Anthropology group forum. I would like to hear about others as well - the primary question to ask about these experiments is, do they create a context for learning that emphasizes the theory and methods of anthropology or is it simply another way for students to collect facts?
On the other hand, I could be all wrong about this. Those of you with more teaching experience might see the value of the lecture hall or problems that would arise from the kind of teaching I've described. Please, share those as well. I'm ready to learn.

08 July 2009

To 'Be the Change' or 'Fight the System'

This post is a response to Derrick Jensen's latest article on the Orion website "Forget Shorter Showers." Those of you who have read my blog for a while know that I like Derrick Jensen's writing, and have, at times, shared his point of view. My views now are perhaps slightly milder, but I'm glad to see his new column in the Orion, and all of the attention it has been garnering. His writing is provocative, and, though we may not always agree with him, those of us in the environmental movement need to engage his (and similar) ideas in order to continually renew our own vision and action.

That said, I realized while reading this new article that Jensen's "Industrial Civilization" (a term I've used many times myself) is a reification. He presents it as a thing, which can be opposed, attacked and eradicated like the kudzu vines that he sanctimoniously chops down in his back yard. What this view fails to recognize is that "Industrial Civilization" is really a complex set of relationships which we are all implicated within. This has been made apparent by some of the commenters who referred to the fact that, for example, golf courses wouldn't exist if individuals didn't play golf.
On the other hand, the 'be the change you wish to see' camp relies equally on the reification of Industry and Culture which can be affected by the pokes and prods of our wallets and personal examples. The resulting changes may or may not comply with the end vision sought by the individuals trying to enact the change (see green-washing and biofeuls). Indeed, in any complex system (such as industrial civilization), the actions of one part of the system (i.e. individuals engaging in personal change) can resonate through the system to bring about a system-wide change. But that change will be unpredictable and limited at best.
An example of the complexity with which we are faced can be expressed in the concept of power. Jensen decries the power structures which we must oppose, but ignores the fact that those power structures are composed of people. Without the person, the position doesn't exist. On the other hand, those positions of power often serve as nodes in the web of relationships where many different factors converge. As a result, those positions may provide focal points where various forms of action can be more effectively directed (this may have implications for his concept of leverage which is discussed in Endgame), and the particular individual in the position can have a great effect on the character of the office.
The take home message of the article and this response, I think, is that personal change is not enough. In saying this, Jensen confronts the dominant ideology of the environmental movement, and challenges us to renew our vision. We need to 'live simply,' but we also need to do more than that. We need to confront the system that is destroying the planet while recognizing that we are part of that system. Only then can we bring about a more holistic change. I leave you with a quote that sums up my position well (Thank you, again, Aldous Huxley!):

"Patriotism is not enough" But neither is anything else. Science is not enough, religion is not enough, art is not enough, politics and economics are not enough, nor is love, nor is duty, nor is action however disinterested, nor, however sublime, is contemplation. Nothing short of everything will really do.
-Aldous Huxley, Island
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