Guest Post: Embracing Affect in the Classroom [Embodying Reciprocity Series]

[Footnotes is excited to present a guest post by Schuyler Marquez. This post is a part of the Embodying Reciprocity series. Schuyler Marquez’s work focuses on bringing classical anthropological questions on religion and economy to the study of contemporary food production. Her dissertation research on the industrialization of halal meat production in Brazil analyzed the industry’s continuities and shifts within larger human histories with non-human animals and situated such developments within the wider history of Islam and capitalism. Currently Schuyler is developing a new project that analyzes the confrontations of violence and the reconfiguration of human-animal-environmental relations in plant based meat production. On Twitter: @SchuylerMarquez. Please cite accordingly.] 

While we spend time every summer tinkering away at syllabi hoping to deliver to our students a perfectly choreographed progression of theory and skill building, no crystal ball can tell us how the combination of student experiences and personalities will play out in a room (or Zoom meeting) in a given semester. While structural conditions make it so that both students and professors increasingly conceptualize courses as deliverables, this essay reflects on how an improvisational approach that focuses on students’ affective orientations to learning and responses to course content are important entry points for teaching anthropological analysis. Below I describe two times in which lingering in discomfort were important moments for cultivating the empathic stances and relational socialities needed to help students make anthropological analytical moves.

Addressing the grade as transaction view: “Will this be on the test?” I hear this question in my undergraduate classroom every semester, reflecting a pervasive view of education as an extractive transaction. When students ask this, they attempt to assess how much effort they need to exert to “collect” a sufficient amount of course content to trade in for their desired grade. Saturated in a world that prioritizes systems of metrics to signify value (SAT scores, GPAs, and admissions to universities that are rated on scales, and later on, salaries and consumer goods), students are hungry for lists or figures they can memorize and regurgitate in exchange for such coveted metrics. For professors, it is also easy to fall prey to seeing teaching as a transaction of inputs exchanged for metrics, especially when we are also subject to evaluations and the litany of other finished products we must use to show our worthiness on applications for jobs, grants, and tenure. While this view can be an obstacle in achieving our pedagogical goals, as I’ve encountered it time and time again, I now use the transactional view and the anxieties that are being expressed through such questions as a starting point for discussion about the origins of students’ aspirations and what the effects are of prioritizing grades as the units by which they relate to themselves and each other. Such discussions are especially helpful for getting students to see their own embeddedess in relations of power.

Theory as a threatening: I was in the middle of explaining the term “capitalist mode of production” when a voice from the back of the room called out in an accusatory tone, “that is subjective!” The student was upset at my use of the word exploitation to describe the relationship between wage workers and the capitalist class in the production of capital. 

Students walking through museum or poster sessions with posters and exhibits to either side of a large room.

Taken a little aback I asked, “what do you mean?” The student replied that the theory was biased, asserting that to call something exploitative was to make a moral judgment on the activity. In this student’s eyes, I had violated a sacred boundary that I was meant to uphold: disinterested objectivity. If I was a professor was I not supposed to only teach him objective unchanging truths? Even worse, I was asserting a moral judgement on something that he saw as natural and perhaps even good.

Such a moment reflects how students may be triggered by theories or texts that challenge their worldviews, commitments, and investments. Deconstructing something that they identify with can feel like an accusation or violation. Despite the discomfort this often brings, I encourage students to linger in the discomfort and reflect on why such a theory or reading feels like a personal attack. In the case of theories on capitalism, I push students to think about what kinds of ideologies might be shaping their affective responses. What is being threatened or critiqued that you are uncomfortable with?

Concluding Thoughts

 While I don’t believe that we can conceive of ourselves as teaching students empathy in the course of a semester, I think lingering in discomfort (or other affective responses) is a good way to help students begin to identify how their aspirations and commitments are socially located. It is important that we make clear to students that the content of our courses are not merely memorizable facts, but ways of relating that can be felt in the body. 

Thinking, acting, and being an anthropologist (and a human) involves affective ties and experiences that can thrill and invigorate, but also incite fear, anxiety, and anger. It is important that we give space for these emotions by improvising with students in these moments of discomfort. We can also offer writing prompts or facilitate discussions where students can reflect on how considering an idea might threaten the foundations of what they find meaningful. While I think it is important to set boundaries so that students know the classroom is no substitution for seeking psychotherapy, I aim to help them see that they can consider an idea while also being attuned to what such an idea brings up for them personally.

More broadly this essay suggests that a focus on affect and relationality may help students reflect on their own approaches to learning and redirect attention towards generating more empathetic stances and socialities. While students might come in with a transactional view, classrooms are critical sites for enacting and embodying empathy.

This is only made more evident as we face the lingering melancholy generated by the upheavals from a global pandemic. In this period of uncertainty students are expressing anxiety and concern about what the disruption in their education means for their futures. It is important to recognize that even in a devastating, confusing, and uncertain moment, attending to our collective anguish can be a source of learning. I pose the difficult question that we as anthropologists often ask ourselves—considering what we know now about these social processes, where does that leave room for spaces of possibility? While each class session does not result necessarily in a chorus of inspiration, this repetitive posing and attention to both shared and differential affective experiences may serve as a kind of continuity for ourselves and our students.

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