Teaching Anthropology Electric

I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.


—Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric”

The November 2015 issue of Cultural Anthropology included an Openings and Retrospectives collection on “Anthropology Electric,” edited by Dominic Boyer. The collection is a call to assess how anthropology is “electric.” As contributing editors, we feel that the collection is, additionally, an excellent opportunity to teach the discipline and its questions in the classroom. This Teaching Tools post is not a curriculum or syllabus. We have written this Teaching Tools post to be an inspiration and invitation to plug “Anthropology Electric” into your classroom. In what follows, we have made suggestions for how to adapt readings or activities for particular kinds of classrooms (introductory classrooms, for example) and goals (learning about academic publishing, for example).

Audience

Introductory to advanced undergraduate students in anthropology, sociology, political science, and related disciplines.  

Suggested Goals

Where appropriate in this Teaching Tools post, we refer back to specific goals in order to aid the instructor in selecting appropriate readings/activities. Since this Teaching Tools post is not a syllabus, we have elected to include a diverse range of potential goals:

  • Learn how to examine energy and electricity anthropologically
  • Enable students to think through the links between technologies and anthropological methods/theory via a specific, familiar example (electricity)
  • Increase student communication skills through an in-class mock trial
  • Interrogate the specific ways in which phenomena, including but not limited to electricity, “impact the social construction of needs (and value) and the mediation of social relations” (Winther and Wilhite, 576)
  • Explore the particular challenges of studying dispersed or networked phenomena (like power grids)
  • Introduce students to contemporary scholarship in science and technology studies and public anthropology
  • Building curricula via a recent academic journal issue is also an excellent introduction to scholarly publication, trends in the field, and library resources  

Prior to the Class

We recommend doing a mini-training on library resources prior to the class so that students are comfortable accessing journal articles online and in person at the library. With a little more advanced planning, library staff could be invited to give a short, in-class training on library resources. Have students source the articles from their libraries themselves.  

Suggested Readings

The “Anthropology Electric” collection includes five articles. By carefully selecting readings, the section could be adapted to introductory, all the way up to advanced, undergraduate classes. We recommend assigning at least two articles from the section (or inviting more advanced students to select two articles to read). For introductory classes, the article by Mike Anusas and Tim Ingold could be used as a provocation and guide for in-class activity. For more advanced classrooms, Dominic Boyer’s introduction could be paired with Tanja Winther and Harold Wilhite’s article.

Your selections from the “Anthropology Electric” collection could be complemented by additional readings. The Cultural Anthropology website includes a thematic index of articles on science and technology studies, a Curated Collection on infrastructure, and a Curated Collection on ethnographies of science. Here are our suggestions for additional readings from Cultural Anthropology and other sources:

Suggested In-class Exercises

Electricity may be a very abstract concept for some students. We suggest opening with a simple activity about electricity. We encourage:

  • Let students generate their own static electricity with mohair sweaters, balloons, etc.
  • Lead a group discussion in which students imagine a world without electricity. Alternately, have students pick five electronic things they would want to take with them in an island exile (assume a solar generator). Which ones would they pick and why? This exercise could lead to insight into values, priorities, and perceived needs.
  • Against Canay Özden-Schilling’s argument about consumer indifference, have students deconstruct an average electricity bill in their area. What is a kilowatt? What is a kilowatt hour? How much do electricity rates vary across the city, state, or region? What does this rate mean in other measures (time watching TV, number of loads of laundry, etc.)?
  • The instructor may bring in and discuss the electronic equipment she uses for research (such as her voice recorder, camera, video recorder, computer software, etc.). She could describe how her methods have changed over time as different technologies became available.
  • Trace an electrical outlet in the classroom back as far as possible (the classroom’s electrical system, the building’s electrical system, the campus’ electrical system, the city power grid, the regional hydropower dam, etc.). Create a schematic diagram on the board.  

Mock Trial

Mike Anusas and Tim Ingold playfully write their article as if two lawyers are presenting their case for or against electrification. The final verdict is left to the readers. We invite instructors to set up their own mock trials in class. The trial could either be further responses to Anusas and Ingold’s “charge,” or instructors could select a recent news event (such as the case of hydropower in Ethiopia, already mentioned in Suggested Readings) for students to debate. There are several ways to set up a mock trial, potentially as a short activity or as a stand alone class. The New York Times has published an excellent guide for using mock trials in the classroom. Here are a few guiding suggestions:

  • If you are devoting a half-hour or less to the mock trial, we suggest asking for groups of volunteers to present as if they are the two lawyers in the Anusas and Ingold article. The rest of the class may act as jury or tribunal.
  • If you included a primer on finding library resources (see Prior to the Class) and are planning on devoting a full class to the mock trial, encourage students to find their own additional sources and evidence.
  • In line with the collection’s theme, create a class website where students can choose to post their arguments, bibliographies, or response papers.  

Suggested Discussion Questions

  • The articles in the “Anthropology Electric” collection are an excellent opportunity to introduce students to the contemporary practice of ethnography. How might an ethnographer study energy? How might an ethnographer study the grid or other dispersed systems?
  • How does electricity (or energy, more broadly) enable social relations, social values, and needs?
  • The title of the collection is a reference to Walt Whitman’s poem, “I Sing the Body Electric,” and yet the collection is thin on discussion of bodies. How do electrical systems enable certain body norms or embodiments? What might a “body electric” be, anthropologically?
  • In light of the previous era of interest in energy and culture (see Leslie White, among others), what can we learn from the study of energy about cycles of knowledge production in anthropology? How do certain topics come into academic fashion at certain times?
  • Mike Anusas and Tim Ingold set their article up as a dichotomy: electricity is either good or bad. Is it really a dichotomy? How might the Anusas and Ingold piece be read as a provocation to think beyond dichotomy?
  • A running theme in the collection is ecological crisis. What is the relationship between anthropological practice and issues like global warming? What other changes can we trace in anthropology as a response to our changing world?
  • Several authors in the collection talk about what Anusas and Ingold refer to as “sensorial subtlety” and “remoteness.” Something that remains hidden in the collection is the human labor behind the apparently instant, seamless availability of electricity. What would a theory of electricity look like from the point of view of this unspoken, unacknowledged labor?