This academic year, many universities around the world made the professoriate wait until the last minute to receive guidance on whether we would be teaching in person, using a blended approach, or teaching exclusively online. Universities waited so long to protect their interests. If they had announced too early that all courses would be taught online they would risk a student backlash around fees and tuition, mass deferrals, and, thus, a loss in revenues. If they had announced that all teaching would take place in person for the year they would have risked a push-back from faculty and staff on a teaching policy that endangered their health and safety in pandemic times.
The announcements on how the institution would manage teaching and learning have by now most likely been made to all of us. They have left many of us scrambling to create last-minute pedagogies that attempt to straddle online/offline approaches or acquaint ourselves with the new world of virtual teaching. Yet the pressure to create these pedagogies is not a novel or exceptional circumstance produced by Covid-19. Rather, it has become integral to teaching at universities all over the world as they have been increasingly marked by austerity, the precaritization of university labor, and the rise of technocratic managerial regimes. One could thus go so far as to say that the manic rhythms of pandemic just-in-time teaching are simply another symptom of the now thoroughly neoliberalized university where demand—students signing up for classes—is met by a panicked set of teachers scrambling to respond.
The logic of emergency extends beyond the university, too. After all, the capacity to emergency rule—that is to say, to rule by decree and thus without democratic parliamentary input—has long functioned as the kernel of all modern government and has often been made use of in exceptional moments. This mode of government accelerated under the guise of “economic urgency” and “emergency,” especially after the 2008 financial crash—a form of rule that now proliferates ever more wildly in these pandemic times. Our point is not simply to note that emergency rule always hinges on frantic last-minute temporalities. Rather, we want to point to the fact that it hinges on a particular political form: a rule by executives and technocrats, none or very few of whom seek input from below. Our demand as professors for more say in the workings of the university is thus not unlike demands made by populations for more democratic say in the political workings of their countries. Universities, like the world at large, are increasingly ruled by managers, now more than ever demanding just-in-time production under steadily de-democratized conditions.
How can we (re)inhabit the kinds of experimentations with form and content that challenge our students and ourselves to unwind and unlearn?
We thus look at this moment as an opportunity to reflect on how to teach in the neoliberal and de-democratized university where priorities bend toward production, accumulation, and technocracy and consistently push us away from slower, more intentional, and considered approaches to teaching. How can we (re)inhabit the kinds of experimentations with form and content that challenge our students and ourselves to unwind and unlearn? In this sense the pandemic, as has been described elsewhere, can be imagined as a portal. Might this moment offer opportunities to critically reflect on university work under the stifling parameters of our age? What entry points might emerge if we use this moment of unsettling to invest in a more expansive politically engaged pedagogical project?
This Teaching Tools series engages with these questions by returning to Distribute2020, the biannual multimodal conference presented by the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) and the Society for Visual Anthropology (SVA) in May of 2020. As co-organizers of the conference, we might be somewhat partial to these materials, but we believe that Distribute2020—in terms of the content, socialities, exchanges, and relations it generated—offers some important insight into how we might navigate and resist reproductive convention as we gather ourselves to teach in the upcoming years. We anchor our offering in a selection of the multimodal content that was produced for Distribute2020 and in materials solicited panelists compiled, at our behest, to complement this content.
About a month ago we wrote to a number of panel organizers, asking them to provide a few paragraphs on the class(es) they could imagine their panel being taught in. We also asked them to provide approximately ten examples of readings, podcasts, films, or soundtracks that their panel might be paired up with. In some cases, authors added a few sentences on other Distribute2020 panels that their panel could be co-taught with, and why. As with several recent posts in the Teaching Tools forum, our collective thus focused on what we can do with our students that takes advantage of the rich body of materials available online as we adopt the language and practice of “synchronous and asynchronous” teaching.
These heterogeneous materials were gathered in the spirit of the
conference, which foregrounded not only a commitment to collaboration
and political engagement in both form and content, but also multimodal
approaches to the production and dissemination of knowledge as a
necessary step toward democratizing access and inviting participation
(Dattatreyan and Marrero-Guillamón 2019). The varied content compiled by
each contributing panel offers a means to activate different modes of
attention in panic-inducing times. Pairing their original audio-visual
content with readings, podcasts, and soundtracks, our collaborators
demonstrate how we might calibrate our offerings to students in ways
which are attentive to the challenging situations they face as they
struggle (like us) to contend with the uncertainty of our present moment
and the sensorial and emotional displacements it brings. As
importantly, the content reflects the co-organizers’ vision for
Distribute2020 to actively decenter North American anthropology by
inviting panels from across the globe. Their curated content reflects
and extends our vision to foster conversations across locations that
don’t take for granted the United States as the epicenter of empire (Al
Bulushi, Gosh, and Tahir 2020) while recognizing the crucial need for
amplifying intellectually and politically grounded perspectives beyond
it. Our hope is that these materials, which return us to the vibrant,
energetic exchanges that Distribute2020 made possible in May of 2020 and
which can be remixed and matched in multiple ways, offer an opportunity
to slow down and attend to teaching and learning anthropology in ways
that foster experimentation and that resist the temporalities and
authoritarianism of neoliberal emergency.
We close by thanking all of Distribute2020’s panelists who have generously offered to have their conference panels placed on our conference website for pedagogical purposes. We invite you to revisit all of these resources—use, re-use, combine, recombine, cite, relate, teach!
Al Bulushi, Samar, Sahana Gosh, and Madiha Tahir. 2020. “American Anthropology, Decolonization, and the Politics of Location.” American Anthropologist website, September 2020.
Dattatreyan, Gabriel, and Isaac Marrero-Guillamón. 2019. “Multimodal Anthropology and the Politics of Invention.” American Anthropologist 121, no. 1: 220–28.