Teaching Theory in Graduate Education: A Conversation with Elizabeth Emma Ferry

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We’ve all been there: you find yourself at a conference panel or in conversation with another scholar and, before you know it, you are drowning in a sea of theoretical terms, ideas, and names. Learning and reciting the “right” citations acts as a currency in anthropology and in graduate education more generally. But, is this best way to think about what theory is or what it can do for anthropology?

In this conversation with Dr. Elizabeth E. Ferry (Professor, Brandeis University), we discuss how syllabus design can help students and scholars think about theory in expansive ways. Reflecting on her experience of designing a whole course around the scholarship of Michel-Rolph Trouillot, we discuss how teaching theory is more than passing on a series of concepts or ideas to your students: it is about showing them ways to productively critique and enrich the discipline.


Scott Schnur: Thanks for sitting down here today. I'm interested in learning more about your thoughts on teaching theory in the context of graduate education. Before we dive into some of the bigger questions in the interview, I'm curious if you can give me an overview on some definitions. What do you take “theory” and “ethnography” to mean, and what do you see as the relationship between them?

Elizabeth Ferry: Obviously, the whole idea of anthropology as a purely inductive discipline is partly bullshit because nobody really starts with a completely blank slate for the questions that they want to ask. But there's something to the idea that anthropology distinguishes itself by tacking back and forth between ethnography and theory. We'll call ethnography something like phenomena, or inputs, or things in the so-called “world” that you can apprehend through your senses: things like what people say and do and the kind of worlds they inhabit. And of course, those inputs come through the anthropologist with all their limitations. So that's ethnography: all those inputs with those mediations and their failures and successes.

And then on the other hand, you have theory. I see it as the concepts that are mobilized, the questions that are asked, and the stories that are told (with the understanding that storytelling is a form of analysis). It’s about the kinds of choices anthropologists make when doing a study—the things that are looked at and therefore not looked at, the stories that are told and the ways they're told. That is what theory means to me. Now, that doesn't mean that our questions emerge out of nothing. The questions we ask, the ways of looking, and the choices we make emerge out of conversations that we read in books, journals, and hear about in conference papers. Plus, the things we talk about with our colleagues, our students, and our teachers. But I don't believe that the heart of what theory is are scholars and their writings, and citing scholars and their writings. The heart of theory is asking questions, making choices, and mobilizing concepts in order to generate new forms of critical practice.

I teach a contemporary theory class, and there's always a set of decisions that need to be made when you're putting together a syllabus for such a class. One of the things that comes up is the need to expose students to particular writers, debates, and discussions that are happening in anthropology. One of the issues is this: are they going to know certain people and their work? To me, that's a necessary condition but definitely not a sufficient condition. And it's not what I find the most exciting about teaching theory. I find it much more exciting to work with students to see how conversations have been shaped and how theoretical concepts are used to push our discipline forward.

SS: Do you think there's a point where learning theory in the way you describe becomes limiting, even if it helps people participate in some conversations? Where do you think that point might be for graduate students?

EF: It's hard to say exactly where that point might be. One of the things professors are supposed to be doing is training students for a career in academic anthropology. I don't think that's the only thing we need to do, but that is one of them. And that's all fine, it just isn't at all the point of teaching and learning for me. You know, one of the negative consequences of the abysmal job market is anxiety—totally understandable anxiety on the part of students—about being able to compete with other students. There's this feeling of, “Oh, I’ve gotta be able to know exactly who's on the so-called 'cutting edge' or exactly who people are talking about.” Knowing those names is something that will make you feel more confident if you can do it, and maybe to some extent you need to know that. But if you only cite people’s names and you're not thinking about how they are thinking then you’re not really letting the conversation shape you. And that's what a theory class should teach.

SS: When you talk about teaching theory, you mentioned that students should think about the mobilization of concepts and ideas they encounter in the field. How do you move people toward that as an educator?

EF: One of the ways in which I've tried to do that is through a course that I have developed on the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot. I chose Trouillot for several reasons. One is that I studied with him at Johns Hopkins—I took courses and worked with him. His thinking about how concepts get formed and what they do, about moving in the middle level between theory and ethnography, about the Caribbean as a site of theory, and about the conditions of production of history were all very formative for me and his other students. His work demonstrates these ideas very well. Just to name one example, his essay “Motion in the System” (Trouillot 1982) is a tour-de-force in how to work with scale in ethnography and how to tell the story of the world system in a way that gives space for protagonists outside of Europe.

SS: So tell me a little about the course you designed.

EF: Sure. It has three parts. The first section focuses some of the authors that were influences on Trouillot’s work. This includes people like Fernand Braudel, CLR James, Aimé Césaire, Sidney Mintz, Edward Said, Mervyn Alleyne, and a variety of other people. I draw from North American anthropology, European continental theory, the U.S. Boasian tradition, and from Caribbean theory in this section. So that gives you an example of how students would begin to trace different influences for one thinker.

The second part of the class focuses on the majority of Trouillot’s work. Tragically, because of his illness and untimely death, he didn't write as much as he no doubt would have. But there's still a significant amount written, and in a graduate class which has a fair amount of reading, you can look closely at a lot of what is published in English. His first book (Trouillot 1977) was published in Creole and apparently—I am sorry to say I don’t know Creole—is among his best works.

The third part of the class focuses on the work that Trouillot influenced. I divide that into three disciplinary categories: anthropology, history, and literature. I find scholarship that both directly cite him and things that say, “Okay, I'm using this concept from Trouillot, and I'm applying it in this way.” For instance, I mentioned the essay “Motion in the System” (Trouillot 1982). There's an article by Vanessa Agard-Jones (2013) called “Bodies in the System,” which is a corporeal analysis and an extension of Trouillot’s thinking. That's an example of a very specific application, as is Jafari Sinclaire Allen and Ryan Cecil Jobson’s (2016) use of the idea of “electoral politics,” which they draw from Trouillot’s (2003) “Savage Slot” essay. Their work is about the decolonization of academic anthropology and of syllabi and departments.1 But then I also use examples of people who aren't even necessarily citing Trouillot directly but in whose work you can see his influence in the kinds of questions asked. In this section, I invite scholars from each field (anthropology, history, and literature) both on and off-campus to come to class, assign readings, and discuss some of their own work or work by others that they see being influenced by Trouillot.

The course speaks to the relationship between theory and ethnography because it allows one to think about the Caribbean. The Caribbean is one place where anthropologists from the global North, and White anthropologists more generally, have a tendency to think of as a site of data production but not necessarily theory production (in spite of the deep influences of people like Aime Cesaire, Franz Fanon, etc.). Yarimar Bonilla (2015) has a good discussion of this at the beginning of her book Non-sovereign Futures. By organizing the class in this way and by including these different theorists, I'm also trying to disrupt that idea about the Caribbean. I think that lies at the heart of what Trouillot was trying to do: decolonize anthropology by recognizing that the Caribbean and other places are central sites of theory-making precisely because of their place in the world-system.

SS: And do you think you're trying to encourage your students to think about their own field sites through that same lens?

EF: Absolutely, and when you have people who come and talk about their work, this starts to come out very concretely. People will come back from the field and say, “Well, I thought this was what was going on, and then I learned through the conceptualization of the people that I was speaking with that something quite different was happening.” So, anthropologists aren’t just bringing theory they learned in a classroom to their field sites, but they’re learning it from talking to interlocutors who are themselves constantly theorizing about the world and how it works. So, we need to recognize that this kind of “doing theory” is not at all the privilege of the anthropologist, although I think anthropology has been good at mobilizing it as a methodology.

SS: We've talked a lot about course design as a way to get people to think about the relationship between theory and ethnography and to encourage people to think about theory in a more engaged and immersive way than what might be traditionally taught. Are there other activities or exercises that you could give someone that might help them start that process?

EF: Having guest speakers in a class who have written draft papers that they want to talk about, or papers that they published that they want to talk about, is helpful for graduate students. Secondly, giving students space to share talk about their work in progress, whether that is for a journal or a conference.

And of course, my students do a final seminar paper which must engage with an aspect of Trouillot’s thinking, whether that is a theoretical debate or something like a world area where his work has been influential. At the beginning of the class, they get kind of confused because I say, “I don't actually care if you cite Trouillot in your final paper.” But then by the end, most of them understand. Some of them do cite him and some of them don't. That's part of what I'm trying to get across: it’s not just about citing him, but about embracing his method of thinking and critique in such a way that we can build new theory and continue shaping the discipline.

I have also been bringing in more poetry, like Derek Walcott’s (1986) “The Sea is History,” and fiction, like Jamaica Kincaid’s (1991) Girl, and reading them out loud as a group. I am a big fan of reading passages from academic essays out loud and Trouillot’s certainly work well. Paragraphs of essays like “Adieu Culture” (Trouillot 2003) and “The Odd and the Ordinary” (Trouillot 1990) reveal worlds of analysis written in a style that draws as much from playwriting as academic exposition. Trouillot is a great writer! That was another reason I picked him. He’s got all these cosmopolitan interests, is very much engaged with conversations within the field, but he's also not jargony. Even though his writing can be dense, the clarity of his voice allows people to see the theoretical and disciplinary connections he’s making.

Syllabus Design Takeaways

If you were going to design a syllabus around one thinker or author, who would it be? As Ferry’s class around Trouillot demonstrates, courses which center one scholar can help graduate and undergraduate students think more critically about the creation of theory, the work of doing ethnography, and genealogies of thought within the discipline. Here are some of the major takeaways to help you with this type of syllabus:

  • Demonstrate where someone’s thinking has come from and who they have influenced: Have concrete sections in a syllabus that demonstrate the roots and influences of a thinker to give students a better understanding of how the discipline fits together and where it might go in the future.
  • Make it interdisciplinary: Include voices of scholars and activists from outside anthropology where applicable. Whether this is guest speakers or readings, demonstrating how scholarship moves across disciplinary bounds will help students better understand how theory is developed and mobilized across academic and nonacademic contexts.
  • Give students room to be creative in final assignments: As Ferry demonstrates, you don’t have to force students to cite someone in order to understand their work. It is as much about the spirit of how a scholar thinks as it is about using their voice in a final assignment. You can get creative too: do you have to choose an anthropologist to center your course on, or is there another author, scholar, or nonacademic practitioner whose work might be just as generative for your course goals?
  • Make it a conversation: Create space in the class for students to workshop their own in-progress work as a group. This is especially helpful before conferences and public presentations, and drafts of work from students in the class can be assigned as course reading (in consultation with the student).
  • Remember: The Teaching Tools archive is here to help! Previous posts have covered aspects of syllabus design, including how to create learning centered classes and how to treat students with the respect they deserve.


1. As scholars such as Laurence Ralph and Aisha Beliso-De Jesús point out in their analysis of works from the Open Syllabus Project, there is a long way to go before anthropology syllabi represent the diversity of the discipline.


Agard-Jones, Vanessa. 2013. “Bodies in the System.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 17, no. 3: 182–92.

Allen, Jafari Sinclaire, and Ryan Cecil Jobson. 2016. “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties.” Current Anthropology 57, no. 2: 129–48.

Bonilla, Yarimar. 2015. Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kincaid, Jamaica. 1991. Girl. San Francisco, Calif.: San Francisco Examiner.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1977. Ti Difé Boulé Sou Istoua Ayiti. Vol. 1. Kóleksion Lakensièl.

———. 1982. “Motion in the System: Coffee, Color, and Slavery in 18th-Century Saint-Domingue.” Review 5, no. 3: 331–88.

———. 1990. “The Odd and the Ordinary: Haiti, the Caribbean and the World.” Cimarrón: New Perspectives on the Caribbean 2, no. 3: 2–12.

———. 2003. “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness.” In Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World, 7–28. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan.

———. 2003. “Adieu Culture: A New Duty Arises.” In Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World, 97–116. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan.

Walcott, Derek. 1986. “The Sea Is History.” In Collected Poems 1948–1984, 364–67. New York, N.Y.: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.