Pedagogy at the Picket Line: Vulnerability and the Expanding Collective

From the Series: Book Forum: A Possible Anthropology

Photo by Anand Pandian.

In one memorable moment of A Possible Anthropology by Anand Pandian (Duke University Press, 2019), an undergraduate student asks the author an unexpected, disarming question. Pandian faints in front of the classroom.

This episode exemplifies in dramatic fashion that an anthropological disposition is one of embodied vulnerability. Whether in teaching, reading, writing, or ethnography, this openness to uncertainty is not just something to withstand, it is something to cultivate. “Putting oneself on the line” in this way can lead to radical transformation; writing, in the words of Pandian’s interlocutor Michael Jackson, “allows us to go beyond ourselves, to become other than what we are or have ever been” (118). Such expansions of self might, in turn, expand the domain of “the human” to which we feel morally committed, Pandian suggests, “reinventing the whole through a shift in perspective” (120).

The fainting incident illustrates vulnerability’s double edge; what opens us to transformative shifts in perspective might also incapacitate us. How, then, to cultivate vulnerability without debilitating doubt? How to loosen the contours of self without coming undone completely? Finally, what is the scope of vulnerability’s transformative potential given conditions of unequally distributed precarity that place certain bodies at risk?

I write this reflection at UC Berkeley on the eve of a graduate student strike. On Monday, March 16, 2020, many of our anthropology department’s grad students, along with fourteen other “strike-ready” Berkeley departments, begin a full work stoppage. They join students at UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, and UC Santa Cruz to demand the demilitarization of University of California campuses, a cost of living adjustment (COLA), and the reinstatement of the eighty-two graduate student workers fired from UC Santa Cruz after sustained protest for these demands. Since the union has not sanctioned their strike, these “wildcat” strikers lack legal protection for their wages, fee remission, and health insurance. To protest grad student precarity, strikers knowingly become more precarious.

Pandian also received his doctorate at Berkeley. So, I can’t help but read A Possible Anthropology through the lens of this protest and read this protest through the lens of the text. Both provide resources for how, in precarious circumstances, it’s possible to sustain the vulnerability from which a new humanity—and a new university—might emerge.

Throughout A Possible Anthropology, transformative vulnerability flourishes in co-created spaces of experimentation. When Pandian shadows Natasha Myers, they study and dance among trees in a Toronto park. Their rapport of play and mutual support is palpable. Wondering how to communicate with “arboreal interlocutors” (118), Pandian sticks his head into a hole in the forest floor and looks up at the sky. Dirt cascades onto his face. (In this experiment called ethnography, digging oneself into a hole can be a good thing.)

Encouraged by Myers, an anthropologist abandons conventional bodily orientation to engage unfamiliar beings in unfamiliar ways. This vulnerability allows communication with a wider range of actors. A collective emerges from this experimental milieu of others, enacting an alternative ethical ecology.

This seems to be a circular process. Self-transformation builds collectivity, and we need collective support to safely loosen the contours of self. However, as Pandian argues, collectivities are not static but fundamentally open. Good anthropology recognizes and cultivates this openness. Citing Gilles Deleuze, Pandian describes an author as "'a true collective agent, a collective leaven, a catalyst.’ One who works with ‘the seeds of a people to come’” (Deleuze 1989, 221–22, cited in Pandian 2019, 107). This is how anthropological dispositions of vulnerability can “fashion a novel domain of collective experience” (107), broadening “humanity as a moral feeling of responsiveness, as the sense of a fate shared with others unlike oneself.” The collective produced through encounter is broader than the one that made encounter possible. Vulnerability and collectivity form less of a circle than an outward spiral.

Conversations with trees might seem far removed from strike demands and protest chants. However, in the realm of the UC strikes, too, collectivity is both the goal of, and condition of possibility for, sustained embodied vulnerability of diversely positioned beings.

On a recent state-wide day of action, I followed organizers’ advice and held my discussion section for “History of Anthropological Thought” at the picket line. Our little group sat in a circle on the grass at the edge of Sproul Plaza, layering our discussion of Radcliffe-Brown, Raymond Firth, and Victor Turner over shouts of “Up, up, up with the People! Down, down, down with the UC!” I told my students that this was a good opportunity to apply and critique structural-functionalist theories of institutions, conflict, and change. Plus, good fieldwork experience. As members of the Ethnic Studies Department hyped the crowd, my students became the ethnographers, and I their ethnographic interlocutor.

“This goes beyond hungry grad students,” one speaker cried out to applause. Supporting a COLA also requires, they said, solidarity with the Third World Liberation Front protesters, whose strike efforts in 1969 had created the Department of Ethnic Studies but whose demands for decolonization remained unfulfilled. Furthermore, the speaker said, a “land acknowledgement” does not adequately engage with indigenous peoples on and beyond campus. The rally’s immediate demands for better wages implicated numerous others across space and time, urging “moral responsiveness” to an expanded collective.

Protest literalizes the relationship between collectivity and vulnerability. Those standing in front of the crowd help shield those more vulnerable to retribution or violence. Bodies maintain the tenuous line between endurable and unlivable vulnerability.

The openness of collectivity is built into the temporality of Wildcat organizing. A union-sanctioned protest builds a majority first and then strikes. In contrast, wildcat workers begin their strike as a minority, hoping to galvanize more people to join the movement as organizing efforts unfold.

“Up, up, up with the people! Down, down, down, with the UC!”

Like the “human,” “the people” is open and plastic. At the March 5th rally, this chant both celebrated the crowd assembled on the steps of Sproul Plaza and enticed others to join the movement. Call-and-responses summoned a new people into being with rhyme, alliteration, and the occasional expletive, harnessing the “world-making powers of language itself” (40).

Perhaps we could place “protest” alongside the other domains of transformative vulnerability: ethnography, writing, reading, and teaching. The wildcat protests do not just advocate for more material support for anthropologists and other scholars. They suggest a way in which the anthropological disposition of embodied vulnerability might be sustained in conditions of unequally distributed precarity. Wildcat protesters broadcast their vulnerability to expand a minority collective, and they build a collective coalition to make vulnerability survivable. In doing so, they find in the present the potential for a university yet to come.

* * *

Back when wildcat rumblings were just beginning at Berkeley, my students had used grad student worker protests as an example of Victor Turner’s “social drama.” Would rallying on Sproul Plaza, they wondered, simply vent conflict in a ritualized form, reabsorbing conflict and reinforcing the status quo? However, during that class at the picket line, one anthropology major shifted the conversation through an unconventional reading of Malinowski: If police presence at protests diverts the budget from housing and food, then the institution of the university won’t satisfy the seven basic needs, they said.

“If the basic needs aren’t met by the system, then the system would fail. And something new would have to replace it.”

I tripped over that phrase, “something new.”

“I don’t know,” I said after a long pause. “It’s possible.”


Since the drafting of this article, both course instruction and the picket line have moved online, part of the “social distancing” measures designed to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This global health crisis has brought the fragility of bodies into relief, and wildcat activists remain on strike as of April 2, 2020. The role of bodies-in-protest is changing as the pandemic unfolds. Activists explore how to strengthen the movement without bodily co-presence. They must now imagine a differently embodied collectivity.


Deleuze, Gilles. 1989. Cinema 2: The Time Image. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.