To Craft a Wild Indoors: Teaching Interiority in the Anthropological Room-Space

When all of the students in your introductory course are non–anthropology majors, it can be difficult to decide which materials in the rarified and contested canon to assign. This semester, I tried to focus on digestible ethnographic vignettes that I think help to deconstruct everyday objects, things, techniques, technologies, and apparatuses. Together, my students and I attempt to craft a responsive and cooperatively symbiotic environment where we “think with” (see Puig de la Bellacasa 2012) each other and with anthropology as an embodied attunement and sensitivity that also affects the world around us. As any anthropologist would, I try to get students to tease apart the origins and trajectories of our most naturalized, most fixed and hermetically contained assumptions. For many students, anthropology is most enchanting when we begin to realize that our own individuality is predicated on leaky constructions of inside/outside that collectively disavow realities of relational interdependence and vulnerability.

Reading Ann H. Kelly and Javier Lezaun’s brilliant ethnographic exploration of interiority in “The Wild Indoors: Room-Spaces of Scientific Inquiry,” which was published in the August 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology, was, for me, one such enchanting moment. Feeling far too interiorized in my own project lately, Kelly and Lezaun’s research article inspired me to think of my own work on open-source software and open science communities along refreshingly new trajectories. Always interested in connections between my research and pedagogy, I was also inspired to explore methods of crafting our own pedagogical room-spaces toward more open-ended and spontaneous cultural horizons.

In my work with programmers, marketer-evangelists, and metascientists working in an open office environment, I find that people often struggle to negotiate an indoors that can be too wild. Kelly and Lezaun demonstrate not only the ways in which the categories of inside/outside are socially constructed, but also how they’re resolved through interdependent, more-than-human, and relational tweaks and calibrations. In a late capitalist context that fetishizes disruption and innovation, Kelly and Lezaun’s work invites us to approach the much more interesting figure of experimental room-spaces as a site of tenuous negotiations and questions of social reproduction alongside deliberate (but not always predictable) naturalcultural maintenance.

I designed the following set of activities with the dialectical process of anthropological pedagogy in mind. Put another way, I thought about what it might look like to “think with” this article with an eye toward constructing our classrooms as cooperative, wild, and experimental room-spaces. Coupled with the suggested readings, the activities described in this post would be appropriate for an upper-division anthropology course on the anthropology of science or design, while the activities alone would likely still be appropriate for lower-division classes.

In-Class Activities

Interiority Journal

Have students keep an “interiority journal” for the week leading up to when you plan to discuss the assigned readings. (Depending on the course level, you may find it best to assign the interiority journal after completing the course readings). Ask students to formulate thick descriptions of their experiences of crossing thresholds. See if they can find any intriguing places where distinctions between exteriors and interiors collapse and dissolve. Ask them to pay attention to possible discrepancies between architectural design and actual user interactions and experiences with(in) and across room-spaces. Are there some room-spaces that are wilder and/or more prone to creative interaction than others? Are there room-spaces, like the semifield station, that sit betwixt and between inside/outside categories? Invite students to consider how our interactions and interdependencies with and across room-spaces are implicitly and/or explicitly calibrated and regulated according to race, gender, class, ability, and other social markers.

Paired Field Notes

To illustrate how our situated knowledges (Haraway 1988) shape the composition of field notes, you might also ask students to complete the interiority journal activity in pairs. Having students explore similarities and differences between their observations can help to demonstrate the ways in which our own sense of ethnographic interiority (that which we internalize vs. that which we externalize in representations) is socially produced. Put another way, paired field notes can destabilize our sense of an individualized, independent, and contained self with a walled-off interior, underscoring how observations are both independent and relational. Coupled with postcolonial critiques of ethnographic method (Smith 2012), this approach can also provoke critical thought about the hierarchies of ethnographic representation and challenge students to think of ways to construct ethnographic relationships that seek to dismantle, rather than reproduce colonial encounters.

Photo Journal

While I suggest placing the emphasis for the interiority journal activity on creating written descriptions, the activity could also be coupled with a photo journal that could be shared with the class to highlight common themes for discussion. Instagram would work particularly well, as it allows students to use a specific hashtag to collate all of the images intended for discussion. Keep in mind that while smart phones may seem nearly universal, many students from working-class and low-income backgrounds in particular may not own these devices sand would face barriers to this component of the activity. For more on integrating emergent digital technologies into your teaching curriculum, I especially recommend Venera Khalikova and Whitney Russell’s Teaching Tools series “Teaching with Digital Technology.”

Classroom Discussion

When discussing the activities, I suggest allowing students to guide most of the conversation. Hopefully, they will be eager to discuss the process of ethnographically documenting and seeing everyday objects become strange. As a feminist anthropologist, I’m always interested in ways that we can privilege bodily and sensory modes of knowing. To help facilitate this process, I recommend allowing teams to work together as an ethnocharrette. The iterative process of deconstructing, projecting, and reconstructing their fieldwork experiences alongside the readings, with wildly recombinant sticky notes, should help to foreground the intersubjective processes embedded in ethnographic knowledge production.

Suggested Readings

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1970. “The Berber House or the World Reversed.” Social Science Information 9, no. 2: 151–70.

Murphy, Michelle. 2000. “The ‘Elsewhere within Here’ and Environmental Illness; Or, How to Build Yourself a Body in a Safe Space.” Configurations 8, no. 1: 87–120.

Woolf, Virginia. 2005. Selections from A Room of One’s Own. Annotated by Susan Gubar. New York: Harvest. Originally published in 1929.

References

Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3: 575–99.

Puig de la Bellacasa, María. 2012. “‘Nothing Comes Without Its World’: Thinking with Care.” Sociological Review 60, no. 1: 197–216.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 2nd edition. London: Zed Books.