Fall excitement in the summer?


Like all academics, I deeply appreciate the quiet of the summer and the time to get things done. This is particularly true for those of us with complex appointments. At times I can be very cynical, but allow me a moment of unadulterated and corny enthusiasm for teaching in the fall.

I have been delighted to teach Anthropology and Education (EDUC547/ANTH547) for the last few years at PennGSE, which I inherited from my dear colleague (and chair), Kathy Hall. Although I always change it up a bit, I’ve given it a complete overhaul this summer, and am excited by what it may bring. It’s typically my favorite course to teach, for several reasons, but I am particularly energized for this September. Why?

Intellectual Home

Although the story of how I came to my discipline may need to be a fuller post for some other time, in short, I came to anthropology after some frustrating experiences with simple, initial forays into educational research. After a tremendous amount of work, I felt as if I was no closer to actually understanding that which I wanted to better understand. I then sought a disciplinary framework that would do more than suggest that this tends to happen when that tends to happen. Although there were certainly challenges, anthropology cultivated in me a worldview that I felt was more compelling and aligned with what I was seeking. Today, I identify as an anthropologist of education; it has become a deeply internalized part of who I am, and thus in many ways it comes naturally. Of course, I know that it is not natural – I was not born an anthropologist, and it has taken many years of study and work to maintain that internalized identity. Regardless, for the most part, teaching this course right now does not feel like work.

There are challenges (as there are always are) to building an inclusive community dedicated to open inquiry. But the content feels like letting some visitors into my intellectual home and showing them around.

New and Innovative Works

As an anthropologist, I consider education to be a lot more than what happens in classrooms or schools. In fact, in my own work, I am most fascinated by the educative moments that do not take place in those spaces – either informally in other spaces, or in the peripheral bureaucracies that set up those institutions. This also means that I like to draw on works that cross a variety of different contexts and settings, and deploy a powerful, anthropological framework for thinking about educational processes.  Like many faculty before and after me, I thus have the opportunity to add extremely interesting and important works that I might not have other time to read given my busy life. Alongside classics by Ogbu, MacLeod, Levinson, Erickson, Varenne, McDermott and many others, we will draw on newer and perhaps unexpected works.

For example, this fall, we will draw on Karen Ho’s ethnography of Wall Street (Liquidated 2009) to look at the social construction of smartness as elite college kids are recruited into investment banking.  We will visit the School for Cool (Wilf 2014), where creativity becomes institutionalized in jazz music education.  Helene Mialet takes us through the social production of the greatest living icon of genius: Stephen Hawking (Hawking Incorporated 2012).  Fida Adeley’s Gendered Paradoxes (2012) shows us how girls in Jordanian schools struggle with/reconcile faith, nationalism and gender in schools (and outside of them).  Givens et al (2016) help us unpack Black male identity in school, in the face of a tumultuous year of racialized tension in the U.S.

Current events fill me with trepidation, but these readings fill me with an intellectual excitement that borders on corny.

Rich Discussion, Great Students

We have great students at PennGSE. I occasionally read blogs or twitter feeds about dull, uninterested students who don’t read and are barely awake in your class.  Although there may be other challenges to teaching here, part of the privilege of teaching at Penn is that I can be certain that the graduate students who enroll in the fall will bring a rich, intellectual dialogue about these works.  Certainly, some of them may struggle with that dialogue, but they will also bring a robust and thoughtful debate that moves in unpredictable directions.

Of course, the dynamics of every class are unique, and there is always a need on building a meaningful community among a diverse set of students – but I am genuinely excited by that prospect.