Teaching SAPIENS: Centering Access and Relevance in Anthropological Education

Photo by Christina (@wocintechchat.com) on Unsplash.

Founded in January 2016, SAPIENS is a public anthropology magazine. Originally, SAPIENS was conceived as a repository, portal, and digital blog space to give formal academicians explicit channels through which to develop and share public-facing pieces that make their research impacts more legible and relatable for broader audiences. Over the past six years, our interactive platform has grown, nurturing and housing pieces from junior and established scholars alike. Pieces across the four anthropological subfields have worked to bridge and blur historically problematic lines drawn between ‘academy’ and ‘community.’ To date, the magazine has been read more than twenty million times from every country and territory in the world.

As important background, debates in the field have abounded, as of late, about what opportunities and accountability measures should be instituted in order to more widely, thoroughly, and sincerely cultivate a culture of anthropology that integrates community engagement and accessibility into its fabric—not just as possible research topics, but also vital considerations in developing, implementing, and assessing research and pedagogy. We anthropologists must address increasingly commodified notions of what education is and more perilously, to whom it is thought—and even said and structured—to ‘belong.’ To do so, we must be willing to endure the ongoing and necessarily vulnerable process of reflecting on where, how, and to what ends anthropology is not only conducted but also taught and learned. After all, education as a holistic framework includes the various ways, means, relationships, and contexts involved in nurturing, sharing, discussing, and co-creating knowledge. Therefore, it is crucial that we as scholars and world citizens interrogate both the assumptions and power dynamics that have driven much of our discipline’s past and present, and the types of educational materials and contexts still predominantly lauded in the discipline.

Furthermore, anthropological debates have also exploded to ask and deliberate ‘what makes anthropology, anthropology’ and ‘what themes, methods, purviews, and researchers are presumed the most rigorous and legitimate, and why.’ Against long-standing anxieties about the field’s relevance and accountability to the societies it engages, such conversations prod anthropologists to look, theorize, and practice beyond institutional walls, reformulating what teaching, research, and mentorship could look like along the way.

Here, ethically aware and communally engaged public writing platforms prove especially promising. They stand to contribute in layered and meaningful ways. For one, they can present, garner response to, and host collective grappling with questions generally dulled by disciplinary norms. For two, they can directly examine ethics such as those of the imagelanguage, and driving field assumptions. For three, they can offer resources for scholars who trained in highly specialized and jargon-heavy university contexts but want to communicate their findings more effectively to broader publics, especially those at the center of their work. Among possibilities for such resources are training seminars, informational materials, and multi-session workshops – all designed to expose them to different approaches and spotlight certain issues to keep in mind when writing to audiences and in genres beyond the academy. Through such actions, contemporary anthropologists can reframe ‘community’ from a romanticized abstract to an integral part of how we think up and through teaching specifically, and education broadly.

A major element of responsibly honoring community is intentional accessibility. Rather than gatekeeping anthropological knowledge behind exclusive conference fees and journal paywalls, making learning and discussion materials available online exponentially multiplies the number of people that can access educational resources and ideally, each other. Another pathway to increase both public interest in and instructive access to anthropology is to switch out jargon—another tool of exclusivity. While specialized discourses surely have their place, efforts to humble and make anthropology more relatable see and value education in its diverse forms, mediums, and linguistic registers. After all, anthropology’s driving objective is to analyze lived experience via frames and words understandable by those being described. Diverging from priorities to mark and defend disciplinary boundaries, anthropologists nowadays are moving to elevate and model approaches—theoretical, methodological, and ethnographic—that incorporate more progressive takes on relationships between scholarship and education at large.

As several progressive education scholars have asserted, many people from marginalized groups have historically attributed cultural significance to education and understood it to be an asset that can facilitate both individual skills development and professional and social mobility. Here, education does not boil down to institutional enrollment, networks, or prestige, but centers individual and collective striving towards greater awareness, critical yet constructive discussions, and conscious reflection on both the terms on which the world operates and the gamut of power dynamics underlying said operations. The most powerful educators take seriously not only the impact they can have in their immediate student and colleague circles, but also their relations with communities with whom they work. As bell hooks strikingly recalls in Teaching to Transgress, the first in her progressive education trilogy, she—as a young Black girl—was socialized to see and treat education as an apparatus of worldbuilding and liberation. Pushing back on the unfortunate disenchantment forced on her by a modern-day university machine more interested in profit, conformity, and prestige than transformative learning and conversation, hooks writes, “All of us in the academy and in the culture as a whole are called to renew our minds if we are to transform educational institutions—and society—so that the way we live, teach, and work can reflect our joy in cultural diversity, our passion for justice, and our love of freedom” (1994, 34).

In this spirit of progressive, accessible, reflexive, and multidirectional learning, Teaching SAPIENS is an initiative that strives to make anthropological materials accessible for use within, but also feasibly beyond formal academic spaces. Housed on the SAPIENS Magazine website, this living archive of digital lessons contains twenty (so far) thematic units grouped under five headings, corresponding with U.S. anthropology’s branches. This project began with sights on creatively presenting and inspiring creativity in learning environments. Accessible for free via the Internet, each unit provides a summary of the topic at hand along with links to related SAPIENS content (tailored for more general, public consumption); guiding discussion points, questions, and exercise prompts; and other academic and nonacademic resources. In doing so, this one-stop-shop can help professors or workshop leaders as they develop diverse introductory college courses that can spark invested discussions about anthropology’s wide-reaching concerns, contemporary viability, and potential role in social justice movements, among other issues.

We have received feedback from instructors happy and motivated by this resource. Several have used it to shape course or workshop design. Recently, a professor even created an introductory anthropology course syllabus fully composed of SAPIENS content. This relieved students of course book fees and taught them to engage different genres—and possibilities—of anthropological writing as valid. Mixing sources from diverse voices and vantage points, Teaching SAPIENS centers learning in the broader sense championed by hooks and others including but not limited to Paulo Freire, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Bettina L. Love, and Justin A. Coles. Inspired by these more progressive and democratic leanings in pedagogical design, we at SAPIENS Magazine are intent on recognizing the unique ways that education, cultural background, and lived experience intimately shape people’s interactions within and takeaways from educational contexts expansively defined.


hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. London: Routledge.