Teaching Uncertainty: An Introduction

From the Series: Cultural Anthropology Responds to Trump

Photo by Kyle Glenn.

In launching a new Teaching Tools series, I wanted to begin by thinking with the generativity of uncertainty, with how uncertainty works politically and socially in this moment, and to better understand how we might reclaim and teach uncertainty to shape classrooms and political discourses into sites of resistance. Inspired by­ critical pedagogy (e.g., Freire 2000), I want this series to generate conversation on how uncertainty is a potent figure with which to reimagine and reshape alternative and more collectivist publics (see Kelty 2008). Following this introductory retrospective on uncertainty in past Cultural Anthropology content, this series will feature interviews on teaching uncertainty in relation to such issues as nativism, citizenship, and the data-rescue response. This search for uncertainty works against our “cruel” (see Berlant 2011) desires to find silver linings, which can obstruct political action by transforming the unacceptable into the ostensibly inevitable and immutable. Instead, it seeks to refigure uncertainty as potentiality, as the virtual scaffolding with which we imagine and materialize alternative and more egalitarian institutions of learning and flourishing.

While combing through the Cultural Anthropology archives in search of uncertainty, the concept was hard to place. A keyword search for “uncertainty” on the Cultural Anthropology website returns 153 results, with relatively few explicit mentions of uncertainty in titles or abstracts. Among them are Joshua Rubin’s (2014) excellent article, which argues that South African rugby emerges as a social production rich with an uncertainty and unpredictability that invites us to reimagine sporting performances as politically motivated forms of aesthetic expression. In the same issue, Hannah Appel (2014) brilliantly and imaginatively engages several Occupy protest sites as central points in which economic expertise is taken up into alternative economic imaginaries directed toward visions of more democratized finance.

In what Ieva Jusionyte (2015) describes as “states of camouflage,” we see how uncertainty is politically deployed in the (un/re)making of the state. Jusionyte’s keen insight into the Argentinian state’s use of emergency demonstrates how the state is formed through aesthetic, pragmatic, and moral performances of politico-legal obfuscation and confusion. More recently, critics have commented that the botched implementation of Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigrants, including refugees, from seven majority-Muslim countries was evidence of his astounding political incompetence. However, Jusionyte’s article provides a vocabulary for understanding how confusion, uncertainty, and incompetence are used as camouflage, as mechanisms for testing and ultimately consolidating political and governmental power toward more nefarious ends.

Eli Thorkelson’s (2016) article re-enchants the political imaginary by illuminating alternative protest modes in Paris, France. Thorkelson’s desire to decolonize the future, to imagine reparative futures alongside his interlocutors, resonates with a transnational political context increasingly beset by overtly patriarchal and white-supremacist settler-colonial capitalism. Included in the journal’s inaugural Sound + Vision section, Thorkelson’s article is a wonderfully vivid demonstration of broadening commitments to innervate alternative political imaginaries through care and attention to representational form as much as content (cf. Fortun 2012).

Thinking anthropological pedagogy in terms of resistance invites us into uncertain and indeterminate spaces. Because the shape of the political is indivisible from context, it’s perhaps less appropriate to construct general modes of critical pedagogy than it is to be responsive to a multitude of critical pedagogical forms. It remains vital, for instance, to anticipate and critically respond to ways in which teaching as resistance remains unevenly hazardous. For our other-abled, Black, Muslim, female, transnational, LGBTQ, Indigenous, and Latinxs colleagues and friends; for contingent faculty and adjuncts; for those teaching in “right-to-carry” states, undertaking critical reorientations in pedagogy toward collective resistance in this moment entails deep risks. The American Anthropological Association has been particularly responsive to many of these risks, for example in establishing a Rapid Response Network on academic freedom in response to requests from scholars at the annual meetings in November. Anthropologists have also formulated networked read-ins and teach-ins to help interpret and discuss post-election events and activate intellectual solidarity, and they have labored to produce and gather brilliant and timely syllabi.

In conversation with one another, these articles, documents, and emergent scholarly communities illuminate and activate potent grounds on which to grow increasingly urgent anthropological interventions in precarious worlds. Collectively, they demonstrate how an ethnographic sense-ability (in communion with Donna Haraway’s (2008) figure of response-ability) asks us to continually interrogate and reimagine the warp and weft of the political and our placements within it.

This ongoing series on “Teaching Uncertainty” will foster conversation on how anthropology teachers in the present climate engage their classes as sites for collaborative political and social imagination and resistance. Teaching uncertainty will illuminate the emergent, queer, experimental, and radically alternative relationships formed out of political and social precarity and crisis. While critical of the universalism of progressivity, it will nevertheless seek to explore the ways that anthropology teaching articulates alternative relationships toward collectively imagined futures of collective flourishing. “Teaching Uncertainty” will underscore the tangible ways in which anthropology teachers capture and replicate these relationships of uncertainty in their classrooms. It will ask how to construct a lecture on citizenship as a vibrant occasion for getting students of diverse backgrounds and standpoints to recognize the inestimable value of their personal narratives as intellectual contributions toward collectively decolonizing the university. The series will also ask how we might replicate and assemble in our classrooms the self-organized and highly effective collaboration across epistemic fields that was #DataRescue, imagining how anthropological classrooms can collaboratively converge around complex problems as they manifest. Borrowing from Thorkelson (2016), this ongoing series stubbornly pursues our simultaneously reparative and radical pedagogical attachments to uncertainty. It embraces Sara Ahmed’s (2014) figure of the willful subject in refusing to relinquish the generative grounds of the indeterminate collective, and asks how we are imagining our classrooms as worksites for organizing, crafting, and maintaining new and old relationships in intellectual and corporeal solidarity.


Ahmed, Sara. 2014. Willful Subjects. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Appel, Hannah. 2014. “Occupy Wall Street and the Economic Imagination.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 4: 602–25.

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Fortun, Kim. 2012. “Ethnography in Late Industrialism.” Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 3: 446–64.

Freire, Paolo. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum Press. Originally published in 1968.

Haraway, Donna. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Jusionyte, Ieva. 2015. “States of Camouflage.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 1: 113–38.

Kelty, Christopher. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Rubin, Joshua. 2014. “Making Art from Uncertainty: Magic and Its Politics in South African Rugby.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 4: 699–719.

Thorkelson, Eli. 2016. “The Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn: Reparative Futures at a French Political Protest.” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 4: 493–519.