Anthropology is meant to unsettle students. It asks big questions, challenges everything they’ve been socialized to believe is normal and natural, and forces them to consider the world from completely different perspectives. What if “the self” is not a coherent entity but rather a composite of disjointed and conflicting orientations? What if “global poverty” is a technocratic fiction? What exactly is “the state”? How is democratic “transparency” created under the cover of documents? Examining these sorts of questions is as much a moral exercise as it is an intellectual one. As students become aware of their own cultural biases and the diverse worldviews they do not readily have access to, they develop a sense of humility that opens them to new perspectives and possibilities, which in turn helps them become more thoughtful and engaged citizens.
Among the basic principles I try to communicate to all of my students is the fact that “culture” is not a static attribute of distinct groups, but rather a constantly evolving field of social relations. Understanding culture therefore requires analyzing history, politics, economics, power-laden spheres of social interaction and the humdrum materialities of everyday life. All of the courses I teach emphasize global interconnection, social responsibility, and the intellectual and political imperative to take complexity seriously. In the tradition of Latin American anthropology, I also promote the practice of an engaged and ethically committed social science that encourages informed and compassionate public policy.
Regardless of what they do later in life, all students can benefit from experimenting with anthropological modes of analysis; that is, from reflecting on the social forces that shape their experiences and being sensitive to the truths embedded in alternative perspectives. I therefore teach anthropology less as a canon of texts than as an intellectual orientation that critically examines the active production of the social world and takes the lived experience of others as the starting point for analysis.
Three techniques that have been particularly productive in this endeavor are: orchestrating ethnographic encounters, enacting theoretical insights, and interrogating media. In the past, I have led medical anthropology students on ethnographic fieldtrips to hospitals and food banks, illustrated the effects of land titling by physically imposing a grid made of string on class working groups, elaborated on the moral quandaries of international adoption through role-playing games in which students inhabited the perspectives of different stakeholders in an adoption hearing, and used popular media to spark discussions about how commonplace portrayals of “Latinidad” invoke, contest, and reproduce imaginaries of Latin America. Together, these hands-on activities help students become critical consumers of knowledge, make them aware of how culture changes as it is reproduced, and teach them to think with theory while being sensitive to how the real world speaks back to it.
Original research projects are another useful way of encouraging students to think anthropologically while ensuring the material is as relevant to them as possible. Particularly when paired with mentoring, they allow students to take ownership of material and situate them as scholars rather than passive recipients of knowledge. In my War on Poverty class, students wrote research proposals and met with me twice to discuss their findings and how they related to course material before writing their final papers. I modified this for my Cultures of Latin America course and had students work in groups to construct “Topic Extension Presentations” in which they built on a course theme by reading a related ethnographic article, and used the article to analyze a cultural artifact of interest to them. I then met with students 72 hours in advance of their presentations to discuss their findings and brainstorm effective ways to present this information to the class. The results were remarkable. Students developed innovative presentations that demonstrated their abilities to think with social theories and provided fascinating case studies for the entire class. For instance, one group reproduced an immersive art installation from Chile’s Truth & Reconciliation museum and led a discussion on how the experience of being in a dark room with an ever-increasing number of white silhouettes representing faceless victims framed the process of national reconciliation. Another group led a heated but productive class discussion about how state heroin dispensaries would alter addiction dynamics in New Mexico.
My concern for keeping material fresh and giving students space to pursue their interests also informs my philosophy on graduate teaching. I believe the best graduate courses are ones in which students play an active role in designing and executing the course, as this helps students to become authors of their own intellectual trajectories. I also structure graduate courses in ways that encourage students’ continuous engagement with course material and their colleagues, and give students the freedom to use class assignments in ways that will further their individual research and professional agendas.
In sum, my teaching style makes anthropology compelling for undergraduates by emphasizing its relevance in everyday life and how it can be used to promote social justice. Meanwhile, my approach to graduate training fosters intellectual exchange between students, helps them situate their own research within contemporary scholarship, and supports them in working towards their professional goals. Whether lecturing or working with students in seminars, I use techniques that keep students invested in the material and engaged with their peers, and I am dedicated to helping students become better scholars and more engaged citizens of the world.