With my first teaching appointment in 2017, I moved to Richmond, a new town where I didn’t know anyone. Almost as soon as I got there, I enrolled in the YMCA swimming program with an instructor to finally learn how to swim as a 33-year-old. Over the winter break, I also enrolled for a beginner’s Spanish course that the university made available to its faculty. In the early days, it was my teaching that necessitated and sustained my learning journey. For the first time in my life, I had a disposable and predictable income, and savings to spend on leisure or learning activities. I also tried to mentally prepare myself for the hyper-mobility of academia’s early career, temporary jobs. Enrolling to learn an activity seemed like a good way to familiarize myself with a new place, hopefully find friendly people, and in the meantime, stay busy and avoid loneliness. Many of these conditions have somewhat eased now—I am back in India with a more secure, mid-career appointment—, but I continue to learn how to swim; I take private informal Spanish tutoring; and I joined a running club to learn how to run better. I also continue to teach anthropology; housed in interdisciplinary departments, I offer undergraduate courses on foundations and research methods, digital anthropology, gender studies, and economic anthropology, both in the United States and India. In this context, I often find myself thinking about how I want to teach anthropology, and my own learning journey offers a space of reflection.

Teaching in a Not Good Enough World

A question that I consistently grapple with is how to teach about a world that is not “good enough” and where myriad forms of inequalities, exclusions, discrimination, and violence persist. What is particularly challenging is how to teach this without losing sight of efforts at change, sometimes successful and usually slow, and the persistence of everyday life, joy, and optimism. While teaching about caste, class distinctions, violence, and gendered experiences, I often find myself having to contend with students’ rapid assessments of a social phenomenon as a success or failure, good or bad, based on its current materiality. Many voice their frustrations when social inequalities metamorphose and persist or are too slow to change. Students often offer quick fixes that will make the desired change happen and at a faster pace; typically, these are punitive or incentivizing measures.

I draw parallels with my own learning struggles, most notably with swimming. Despite finally being able to learn what one has wanted to for a long time, learning as an adult continues to be a challenge, and can be disheartening when you realize that your learning ability is slower than you had imagined. I have worked very hard with swimming, giving it time, money, coaching, dedication, and consistent practice, and never entirely gotten comfortable with water. I still don’t know how to tread water which essentially means that I don’t know how to swim. I still can’t do a full Olympic pool lap without stopping—again, perhaps I don’t still know how to swim. But this isn’t because of lack of effort on my part. I am just not a good enough swimmer and recognizing this has made me at least enjoy and look forward to being in the pool. But “do you know how to swim?” is a question that trips me up. Perhaps I should say no, because of the reasons mentioned above, but I cannot because that does not account for my effort, perseverance, and investment—both monetary and emotional—in the learning process. Furthermore, a straight no (or hopefully a yes soon) forecloses the space to account for the happiness and optimism (and frustrations) that swimming brings me—I like being in the water even though I’m not very good at it, although I have gotten better over the years, and hope to improve further.

Just as with swimming I have learned to focus on the process and everyday practice, I attempt to foster the same appreciation for process and its slowness in my students. Instead of final and measured outcomes—is there gender and caste subordination, do we still make endogamous and exclusionary choices in love?—, I draw students’ attention to the ordinary and the quotidian to appreciate how continued effort, a sense of optimism and fulfillment exist alongside hardships and inequalities. This shift in focus from outcome to process can be challenging with interdisciplinary students who, simultaneously studying economics or political science, are much more attuned to reading and assessing outcomes. However, anthropology has an integral role in this interdisciplinarity in making us slow down, pay attention to the everyday, and account for affective and emotional dimensions of social life alongside outcomes.

Cultivating Slowness

Learning as an adult and as an educator, I am much more attuned to the process. My own journey has highlighted that learning is multi-pronged, non-linear, and takes time. I “felt my way” through learning, quite effectively, Spanish pronunciation and present-tense conjugation, relying on instinct and my sense of the world and word. However, I had to accept the importance of learning the rules of grammar when I unsuccessfully tried the same approach to learning the preterites and subjunctive. Moreover, despite knowing the rules, a few days’ gap in practice continues to be a truly humbling experience, reiterating that while progress is rarely linear, dip in form can be fairly predictable. I also found that goal setting was restrictive and actively hampered my learning; I felt rushed, and learning felt like a chore. And when I inevitably didn’t master swimming or Spanish fluency within an expected timeline, I didn’t want to do those activities anymore. I also missed the small gains that I made by focusing too much on the bigger picture. Over time, I have learned the importance of cultivating a slowness in learning and attempt to impart the same in my teaching.

In interdisciplinary departments, educators are faced with a time-scale conundrum: how best to teach the most about one’s discipline in the limited time there is before students choose their majors and also to retain their interest in one’s own discipline. While setting curricula, I am always excited by too many topics and too many readings and scholars, all of whom I want to introduce to my students. However, by taking this fast and vast approach, we move from one topic to the next too quickly, and without giving ourselves the chance to fully immerse in a reading or topic. I am practicing curbing my enthusiasm by focusing on fewer readings and fewer topics so that there is more room for slow and thoughtful conversations. One strategy that has helped is to dedicate two sessions during the semester to revisions and revisiting topics. Students have used these to clarify questions or to delve deeper into topics that interested them. Furthermore, integrating these sessions in my curricula also forces me to limit my topics and reading choices. Perhaps the best of anthropology can be showcased through its depth rather than its vastness.

Among students, fast-paced learning is reflected in how they read, by often relying on existing summaries and discussions, and by promptly relating a concept under discussion with their contemporary and lived experiences or a popular culture reference. While these are valid and valuable ways to approach learning and tools that I frequently employ in class, I am increasingly discomfited that they limit the room to fully immerse oneself in a text to understand it in its original context.

To cultivate slowness, I incorporate in-class reading in my teaching sessions. Such reading exercise help practice a slowness in learning that mirrors anthropological inquiry. Ethnographies encapsulate a slow information flow that begins with cultivating trust and relationships. Furthermore, ethnographies also shed light on the fact that limiting one’s scope of inquiry allows room to better understand things in their context and variations.

I also encourage students to submit summaries of a key text or theorist that we’re reading before moving on to critically thinking through it. I have been surprised and encouraged to persevere in these exercises because more frequently than anticipated, I have realized that students haven’t had the time to read before class, and that students’ summaries miss or even misunderstand key aspects. Without these boring slow exercises, it would be difficult for me to realize that what is being critiqued has not been read or understood in its entirety.

Harmful Learning

Learning, especially physically challenging activities, like swimming and running, entail an awareness of and negotiation with harm. Mostly when we notice harm, it is through injuries that require us to slow down or sometimes stop entirely for a period. However, many injuries are undergirded by flaws in learning—faulty movements, misalignment, not enough strength—and necessitate a long-term plan to reset and correct one’s learning process to avoid greater, recurring, or debilitating harm. As I write this, I am currently nursing a hip and lower back injury that has slowly built up with bad posture and aggravated with running and inadequate rest. I’ve been out of commission for nearly three months, much longer than earlier anticipated. The primary reason is that I have become impatient and frustrated every few weeks and tried to return to activity too soon. The harm with pushing learning is evident. What was less evident to me but has now been driven home is that I cannot simply rest and return; to run without pain and recurring injury needs me to change my learning—modify posture, alter pace and footing, strengthen key muscles. This has forced me to think that how we learn is as important as being engaged in learning.

There are ongoing conversations in anthropology about harm that range from the discipline’s entanglements with power and colonialism to implications of studying down, positionality, representation, and exclusions. More recently, the potential of harm to researchers is also under consideration. I teach courses on research methods and supervise thesis students who undertake short-term research projects. Conversations of harm are pertinent in this context, and I find myself thinking of the possibilities of “harm” along two axes: doing short, “fun” ethnographies, and the propensity to search for fixed, accurate, and replicable answers.

Recognizing that slow ethnography is its own privilege, backed by financial security, job stability, and surety of access—itself a byproduct of power—, I also wonder if fast and furious ethnography can ever be respectful of the lives and concerns of research participants, and if it can yield information that is nuanced and not reductionist. I want my students to be aware that such ethnographic practices can run the risk of disregarding the complexities of social life, such as individual and collective affect and emotions. They can also flatten reality by seeking to fix and tabularize the wooliness of social life by disregarding the anecdotal, the contradictory, or the diverse.

When considering these questions, I am reminded of Veena Das who likens her approach to anthropology to turning the spade up and waiting once it hits the bedrock, because the aim of anthropology is “…not break through the resistance of the other, but in this gesture of waiting…allow the knowledge of the other to mark me” (2007, 17). I aim to impart this peace and patience with imperfect and partial knowing to my students as a means to mitigate the harm in learning. To encourage my students to mindfully think about harm, and how they can learn to recognize and mitigate it, I try to include ethnographic reflections in the curricula. Having book-length ethnographies as part of the course are also useful to underline that partial ways of knowing are both commonplace and invaluable. I try to include both these elements in my teaching, albeit not always with success due to the time-scale conundrum, to which I have alluded earlier.

This Isn’t Everything

One of the hardest things for me to make peace with is that sometimes students don’t love or pursue anthropology as much as I’d like them to. And in these moments, it is important for me to remember that this isn’t everything and yet, it is important in this moment. Again, I find solace in my own learning journey.

Even as I have consistently failed to keep pace with my own goals and have not gotten very good at either swimming or Spanish, I enjoy both the activities and look forward to them. Nevertheless, I struggle against my own desires as well as peer pressure to not measure my learning through an evaluative register. I continue to not have good enough answers for why I’m pursuing these activities, especially Spanish, which is, as someone once quipped, “not even a life skill.” This brings on further concerns about the time and money I’m putting into things without any remarkable improvement or suggestions to set better goals, like enroll for formal Spanish classes, take the proficiency test, get a certification, and take on some paid Spanish work. Over time, I have made peace with my indulgent and meandering learning journey and to accept that even as I love the things that I’m trying to learn, this isn’t everything.

This is harder to preach and practice while teaching because students face very real anxieties pertaining to grades and their impact on life and job outcomes. These anxieties are further complicated with an increasingly uncertain employment landscape that coincides with my students coming of employable age. In this scenario, advocating learning as a goalless process seems unaware of the material realities of their lives. However, remembering that this isn’t everything can also be a necessary corrective. It is something I continue to emphasize in my classroom and to my students: one class, one semester, one assignment, one grade are just that—parts of a whole that do not define them in their entirety. I try to imbibe this in my curricula where I incorporate modules and resources that students may find entertaining and engaging. Teaching through ethnographies makes this task easier, as students, once pushed to read, enjoy the storytelling. The increasing normalization of the use of multimedia and popular culture in academia has enabled me to integrate an element of fun and freeness in an otherwise high stakes learning process. I think of the anthropology classroom—my anthropology classroom—as a space for slow learning that is educative and enjoyable, and one that can provide a much-needed respite in a highly frenzied, competitive, and uncertain world.

This isn’t everything is a reminder that even when students have limited engagement with the discipline, that moment in the classroom still matters and may continue to be important, memorable, even defining for them—just as many of my own learning experiences have been formative for me. And perhaps that interest sparked in the classroom may be how students will continue to think with anthropology even when not studying it anymore.


Das, Veena. 2006. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press.