by Raphaëlle Rabanes, Anthropology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2013
On the first day of Intro to Global American Anthropology, the lecture hall was overflowing with freshmen anxious to fulfill their American Cultures requirement. For many of them, this would be the only anthropology class of their undergraduate years, and while we wanted them to learn about anthropology, our primary goal was to teach them tools of analysis that would help them build a critical toolkit useful in any discipline. During the first section meeting, my students and I brainstormed about what “culture” might mean, and what “global American anthropology” might stand for. All ideas were culturally relevant, I insisted, and thus should be written on the board. They were a record of our representation of both culture and identity, and they would serve as a trace from which we would measure how our understanding had changed at the end of the semester. What, after all, was American culture? While most students started the semester with a rather stable representation of their role in a global eco-system, my intention throughout the class was to lift each of their cultural assumptions, rock by rock, questioning productively their foundation and role, and to reveal how anthropology as an analytic tool could help reveal the social construction of what we take for granted and tend to naturalize. “Render the familiar strange and the strange familiar” was the objective that Cori Hayden, the lecturing professor, had set. Students were in theory willing to adopt that intellectual stance, but would they get it on an experiential level? How to make them feel the strangeness of their familiar world, thus access a higher level of understanding? Their first assignment, the realization of a kinship chart, was an exciting occasion to turn the ethnographic lens toward themselves and invite them to make of this general posture a lived experience.
The kinship chart is one of the oldest tricks of anthropologists. It is also a tool of oppression, the enforcement of a modern Western norm that obliterates relationships and solidarities not defined by marriage and filiation. My goal was to teach them the tool and at the same time how to view it historically and critically. After asking them what they knew about making a family tree, and inviting a few volunteers to draw one on the board with the class’s guidance, I asked the students still seated to consider relationships that weren’t represented on this mapping of social networks. Instead of lecturing them on what a kinship chart should look like, I asked them to point to the relations erased by this tool, encouraging them to think critically about the history of anthropology rather than simply learn it. We then turned to their own networks. Whom did they feel related to? How could these bonds be explained to someone else, and subsequently represented on a map?
Their assignment was not to draw their own kinship chart but to interview a classmate and draw the chart reflecting their classmate’s narration. They had to explore their family history and current relations with someone they barely knew, and their partners had to find a way to convey what actually mattered to them rather than the bare branches of their family trees. This exercise taught them how to conduct an ethnographic interview and draw a kinship chart, both important anthropological methods. Most importantly, it led them to experience a level of understanding of a classmate’s personal story while putting them in the role of a critical thinker, and it pushed them to find creative ways of making valued networks visible. Now invested in reclaiming this old tool and queering it to make it represent actual networks of care, they each found different ways to do so. They turned in charts with colors figuring degrees of closeness, scales of geographic proximity, sparkles of feelings, or pets and soul sisters.
Enticed to reinvent codes, they experienced directly how to critically change a system rather than follow it. The assignment brought a change in their relationship to the course material and their peers in the classroom. They were now more engaged interpersonally, and more active in their questioning of the texts and the production of knowledge in general, which I believe is a tool that will serve them in any major they decide to pursue. At the end of the semester we reviewed the definition of culture we had drawn on the first day of classes. The discussion showed the expansion of their critical skills: they analyzed both the representations we had expressed and the way they were linked on the board, some even making jokes about false connections that had to be redrawn — just like the kinship charts.