Teaching Uncertainty: Disrupting Nativism with Anneeth Kaur Hundle

Photo by Agus Dietrich.

In March 2017, I interviewed Anneeth Kaur Hundle, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Merced, on her two-part article entitled “Disrupting Nativism,” which was published in January 2017 in Anthropology News (Hundle 2017a, 2017b). In this interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity, we used Hundle’s article as a springboard to talk about pedagogy in this fraught and politically uncertain moment. We began the conversation with the process of constructing a curriculum on citizenship, asking how it might be influenced by the torrent of current events. We also discussed how to center the intellectual and affective labor of minoritized students as they are simultaneously marginalized and commodified in a hyper-neoliberal university. We focused on the anthropology of citizenship as a means of decolonizing the university and considered what it means to construct a pluriversal university. We also examined pedagogy and its relationship to an ethics of vulnerability, given the uncertainty surrounding academic freedom in atmospheres of political repression. Rather than romanticize the pre–Donald Trump era, Hundle centers critical, interdisciplinary, and historical pedagogies of citizenship in order to disrupt exclusionary ideologies of nativism, both within and beyond the classroom.

Kyle Harp-Rushing: How would you describe your experience with teaching your class on citizenship in the current political climate? Were there, for instance, specific media objects that proved helpful in teaching the course?

Anneeth Kaur Hundle: I should start by clarifying that I have taught the course only once, in the fall of 2016. I developed it based on a graduate seminar I took with Damani Partridge as a graduate student in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Michigan, which was called “Citizens and Noncitizens.” Inspired by this course, which has helped anchor my current book project, I was excited to develop something similar that spoke to our current context. This was during the run-up to the presidential election, around the time of the primaries. So Bernie was still in it and Clinton was still in it, but Trump was gaining popularity and the overtly nativist, xenophobic rhetoric was painfully relevant as I began to teach the course. I teach a majority of students of color, and in particular I usually have a majority of Latinx students, many of whom are Mexican and who may identify as Chicanx. So they were already aware of nativism and pretty fired up about it. The University of California, Merced is a recognized Hispanic minority-serving institution. I felt that the citizenship class would be really relevant to many of their experiences, particularly in California and the transnational United States more broadly.

I haven’t had a chance to teach the class again since Donald Trump became president. I think it would be a very different experience if I had to teach it again. I talk at length in my Anthropology News article about the feedback that the students gave me on the course and how I taught it. I did teach two ethnographies: one was Seth Holmes’s (2013) Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, and the other was Hans Lucht’s (2012) Darkness Before Daybreak, which is about rural West African migrants from Ghana who travel to Italy by boat. I wanted to teach one book that was U.S.-based and another based outside of the United States, so that we could work through these issues in comparative contexts and also trace continuities across geographical spaces in the ways that liberal norms of citizenship are deployed. The students really liked Seth Holmes’s book, because it was about migrant laborers from Mexico as they made their way to the United States. In particular, the book talks about Oaxacan indigenous labor in the Central Valley of California and in Madera, a small town near Merced. Many of my students have family that are migrant laborers, so they understood completely. And I think it helped them to deconstruct this idea of citizenship as a formal or legal juridical concept and to understand it as one layer of a historical formation or apparatus. That perspective really helps clarify what we mean when we talk about, for example, substantive citizenship or what substantive rights are. Pairing those two ethnographies was really effective.

At that time, we were already three years into the Black Lives Matter movement. The poet Claudia Rankine has this wonderful collection called Citizen and I didn’t assign the entire book, although I did assign one of her essays that was published in the New York Times Magazine called “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” which connects the spectacle of the 1955 murder and funeral of Emmett Till to ongoing extrajudicial murders of young Black men. The essay makes broader claims about the conditionality of American belonging for Black Americans, which has everything to do with the critique of the ideological baggage of multicultural liberal inclusion during the Obama years. I also assigned a couple of films, including I’m British But, a 1990 documentary about the cultural politics of British Asian life and youth culture in the 1980s and 1990s, which was directed by a Punjabi director with East African heritage, Gurinder Chadha. The entire film is about what it means to be a citizen of a place but to feel different or to feel Othered, to be racialized or Orientalized as a child of immigrants. So that was a comparative case, because I also wanted the students to think outside of U.S. exceptionalism and to put the American framework on pause for a moment. I wanted them to ask: what does it look like from the British perspective, or from another minority community perspective? How are postcolonial migrants and their children from Africa and Asia dealing with these issues when they migrate to Europe, or when they have been displaced from multiple places over many generations? I also had them watch short clips on YouTube by youth engaged in cultural production, a kind of alternative archive of citizenship narratives. For example, we watched this spoken-word clip about cultural appropriation, which produced a wonderful discussion in one of the classes: students got this right away.

I asked them to watch another clip from a workshop that we held in Michigan after the white supremacist Oak Creek shootings in Wisconsin in 2012, in which a young Sikh man talks about what it means to live in a society that predefines or forecloses the ways in which you can be seen or identified or talked about. Discourse predefines possibilities, making him feel invisible. Examples like this point to ways that students can enunciate what they are often intuitively feeling, which is that liberal norms of equal citizenship radically enshrine inequality.

If I had to teach the course over again, though . . . there is a lot of fantastic ethnographic scholarship out there. I hope to teach Jason De León’s (2015) The Land of Open Graves. There’s also Aimee Cox’s (2015) Shapeshifters. I would like to add more material on Israel and Palestine, which would theorize questions of liberalism and non-citizenship from that vantage point. And I would need to add more material related to the contemporary political moment in the United States, which is so relevant to the lives of students in my classroom right now.

Decentering Liberalism

KH: So did this class or others that you have taught give you the feeling of a sea change in the way you teach your courses? For instance, in your syllabus for the citizenship class, you open by talking about liberalism in relation to the ways that we think about citizenship. Of course, that continues to be relevant. But what is your sense of being and teaching in a moment of crisis?

AKH: I think one thing to keep in mind is that we don’t always have to start our syllabi with the West and Western liberal traditions, and only then deconstructing Western ideologies or deployments of normative citizenship. This point is increasingly relevant, because given that more folks seem to have joined the mainstream Left critique of liberal capitalist democracy, we can more strongly claim that that there is no presumptive or prescriptive notion of democracy as it is typically reified and mobilized. We always have to think about democracy as something in construction and in process, without a normative end or ideal. In that sense, we can learn about democracy (or even better, democratization) as much from the non-Western world and from postcolonial contexts as from the United States. (In fact, the postcolonial world and sites of ongoing settler colonialism might be in a better place to come up with alternative possibilities, given the critiques of colonialism and neocolonialism that have emerged and continue to emerge from these sites.) I have had many conversations with folks I respect and care about with respect to the way that the mask of liberal civility is sort of being taken off in this moment, and how painful this is. That includes teaching and working with students right now. I remember thinking to myself that for those of us who made it, those of us who attained higher education as the children of immigrants and joined the academy or the professional classes in the United States, even we got too comfortable with Barack Obama in the White House. Perhaps even the most critical on the Left have to fall from grace (liberal multiculturalism and neoliberal capitalism). It is so painful. These days the comparisons to fascism in referring to contemporary forms of state violence are everywhere. People are invoking “illiberalism” and “failed liberalism,” so there’s still that binary that maintains liberalism’s privileged position.

To return to your question, I think there are many ways in which people are thinking about teaching in the contemporary moment. One way that I am trying to use this moment is to reorganize my syllabi is so that they move away from liberal ideological baggage, center histories of colonialism, and explore nation-building and state violence in comparative contexts. I’m interested in local specificities and practices, asking questions like “how are people variously included or excluded in settler and non-settler colonial contexts, in former imperial metropoles?” Or, “what are the ways in which people are finding mobility or spaces to survive? In what ways are they using community resources and other kinds of transnational strategies?” I think there are still stronger ways in which I can reorganize my syllabi. I wonder if there is still a hegemonic centering of liberalism in my courses, and what I can do about it.

But the other thing I think we can expect to be hard is that there will be much more political repression in the university. I believe Henry Giroux calls it “patriotic repression,” which is an apt expression. I’m already feeling it in the classroom. There is definitely that pressure on professors from the administration to tread carefully around free speech rights, and to be sure to create space to protect the rights of “the Right” in class. I think the kind of conversations that I had when I first taught the citizenship class will become increasingly difficult in the years to come. But maybe I’m wrong; UC Merced might maintain a kind of critical classroom utopia because of the majority working-class students of color who I teach. I mean, I’m very grateful that I’m teaching at Merced and not in other spaces that could be more violent. But I think, even here, there will be more reactionary pushback to these perspectives that I teach. It will be the new normal and we’ll just have to anticipate that much more moving forward, strategizing effective ways to work past it.

Constructing the Pluriversal University

KH: I agree. I’ve been thinking a lot about that in terms of the deep contradictions surrounding the ways that free speech is often framed on university campuses, particularly by and for reactionary figures like Milo Yiannopoulos. Collective imaginaries of the university rarely allow for thinking about the ways in which we can and should be excluding hate speech, rather than grouping it with free speech. So I’m wondering: can you describe more about how, when teaching your citizenship course, you look for tools that work toward what you describe in your article as disrupting nativism and decolonizing the university?

AKH: That search is definitely informed by the critical study of the university. I have been engaged in the politics of the university and thinking about anthropology in the space of the university since I was a graduate student. And at that time, these sorts of questions were coming up because of the eventual rollback of affirmative action at the University of Michigan. I did a lot of work at that time thinking about questions of race, diversity, and inclusion in the university and in our department. If underrepresented students were not showing up in anthropology programs, then why? Where were they going?

After that, I went on to research and teach in Uganda at Makerere University. And that was a very different experience. It was a postcolonial university which also was dealing with questions about the aftermath of formal decolonization and so-called Africanization projects in the independence period, a place where nativist sentiments continue to characterize aspects of the university and the nation. The question about decolonization—what it means, how it is practiced, and what it is meant to achieve—is so central to all universities in the global South, particularly in former settler colonies, but also in nonsettler colonies where racial hierarchies were naturalized. And I think when I came back to the United States and started my job at Merced, I saw and was grateful that I had the opportunity to work with a lot of undergraduate students of color. But I also tried to bring these questions about decolonization from Africa, this idea of creating what Achille Mbembe calls a “pluriversal university” as a new kind of model or norm for the university.

Diversity, to me, isn’t helping. I’ve been thinking critically about diversity discourse in institutions for a long time, and I find that as an expression of liberal multicultural discourse, it often hides the real inequalities and forms of power that exist inside the university and precludes thinking about questions of equity, inclusion, and justice. Particularly when we’re talking about questions of race, ethnicity, culture, and class, or who has access to the university and in what ways. If students of color do get access to the university, in what ways are they recognized? In what ways are they defined? What kind of work are they doing for the university? And how does the university work for them? Those are the kinds of questions that I always want to ask. And, when I’m teaching, I think I always bring those bigger questions about the politics of the university, knowledge production, race, class, gender, etc. into my classroom. With the citizenship course, first of all (of course) I do the deconstruction of liberal political theory. We undertake this deconstruction of citizenship as a formal, juridical, legal state of being in this political entity we call the nation. It’s funny because, as I think I wrote in the Anthropology News piece, students know how to regurgitate the idea of a social contract because it is so ingrained in them, but when I kind of push them on it, they see the contradictions very clearly. They live those contradictions all the time, but they just don’t realize that there’s a space in the classroom for them to think about why those contradictions exist.

I also don’t necessarily just teach canonical anthropology, to the extent that there is a canon. I always try to think: how can I use ethnography and the work of anthropologists, but in relation to other fields? In the citizenship class, for example, the students read critical and political theory. I have them read postcolonial theory and we talk about what postcolonialism means, why working toward a postcolonial future is important. I also push them to think about things in historical perspective. So I push my own version of anthropology, and the way I teach anthropology, in interdisciplinary directions. For me, that interdisciplinarity is really critical to this whole project of decolonization, whether it’s decolonization of anthropology or of pedagogy or of the university itself.

Another thing I really try to do in the class, and actually I think all anthropologists do this, is to challenge students to think about the value of bottom-up claims, claims for belonging and inclusion in a basic, mundane sense that they very much understand and live. I contrast claims like these with the usual top-down dispensations of formal discourse on students. At Merced, amid the restructuring of the University of California system and the reworking of the “California Idea” of equity and access to higher education, I see this top-down dispensation of neoliberal identity discourse onto students of color, particularly in the ways that they are celebrated as bringing diversity to the university and are thus constructed as minorities

So often, these students have internalized the notion of minority and define themselves as “minority,” so I’ll push them to think about that and ask them: “Where did you get the idea that you’re a minority?” I invite them to think about that, like: “Where does that term come from? What does that word mean? What kind of work is it doing? What does it mean when you reproduce the idea that you’re a minority?”

Those are some of the ways that I’m thinking about decolonization. In general, I try not to use the language of diversity in the classroom or the university, unless I have to use it for practical committee work. I try to really push the idea that students represent or inform different kinds of knowledge, epistemologies that are valuable but not recognized by the universalizing tendencies of neoliberal capitalism and liberalism. I try to center that idea in my teaching, so that instead of thinking about an abstract student body that is primarily Hispanic or however the university and the state are constructing them, I really want them to think about how they can theorize the universal, or many universals, from their own particular experiences. This is why I have them do what I call the “personal citizenship narrative” at the beginning and end of my class, so that they can understand that they embody an archive of cultural, political, and spiritual thought with which they are already armed before they even enter the classroom.

Institutional Valuations of Diversity

KH: Yes, that comes through really strikingly in the Anthropology Newsarticle. You mention getting students to interrogate the work that they are called upon to do on behalf of the university, right? And to interrogate those categories in which they feel themselves becoming situated. You want them to think about disrupting those categories and situations, and to value their involvement in the process of knowledge production that collectively constructs the university. At one point, you talk about “becoming more attentive to the ways in which the neoliberal development ethos in the university is legitimized alongside the visible appearance of students of color and the multicultural celebration of diversity.” Can you say more about how to center and upend that double bind in your classroom? And how do students react when you do?

AKH: In the citizenship class, I don’t think that I really laid out the connection between the neoliberal university and their position in it, or the discursive celebration of diversity as institutional legitimization of inequality. I have discussed those issues with other students who are interested in understanding their place in the university. I make sure that they understand that the work they’re doing, the writing they’re doing in the classroom is extremely political, as a way to talk back to whatever administrative imperatives, whether from the university or from the state, are seeking to define them. But it’s something that I’m still working through myself, as a Merced faculty member: what does liberal multiculturalism look like in a new research university under late capitalism and now in the Trump era?

I have started writing a short piece on this for a symposium on neoliberalism that we are having in April, so that will be one place where I can explore these ideas further. Merced was founded in 2005, and the original plan was that it was supposed to be able to service twenty-five thousand students. They’ve really had to step back from some of those goals or, at least, the development of the university has slowed in terms of faculty hires and the number of students, and that is in part because the crash happened, but also because of neoliberal economics in general. So they have this kind of public-private model, and yet it is also based on the UC idea of providing educational access. To me what is interesting are the kinds of rhetoric that the university uses. There’s this celebration of Merced as the first research university of the twenty-first century, and I’m interested in the discursive function of the twenty-first century university and the ways in which it is linked to this kind of future-oriented, progressive teleology. To me, it’s related to the idea of cosmopolitan or multicultural futures, which are of course entwined with liberalism and late capitalism.

I also know that there are tensions on the ground within the university. I’m interested in the ways that working students of color are becoming increasingly indebted. I’m interested in the structural constraints on the research university, the material burden that’s being shifted onto students and the ways in which responsibility for this is abdicated. I’m interested in how students are both served and not served by the university. In what ways is the university profiting or benefiting from providing educational access to minoritized students, and in what ways do students deploy counter-tactics born from this neoliberal condition? And what is the purpose of the university now, anyway? How has it shifted from the original California Idea (see Douglass 2010)? I’m thinking about all of these questions as I work on my teaching and develop pedagogies in the classroom. Of course, they are not just relevant to the case of Merced; they’re critical for thinking about the larger structure of the UC system as we enter a new era of austerity that will disproportionately affect working communities of color and their children. But I think in the case of the Merced and Riverside campuses, because of where these universities are located and the composition of our student bodies, these questions are especially pressing.

Vulnerable Pedagogy

KH: One final thing that emerges in the Anthropology News article is the political act of vulnerability, of becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable and uncertain. I’m thinking about the actual act of facing one another, as when the class comes together for the second, follow-up assignment, in which you challenge them to work beyond the idea of the social contract in regard to citizenship. In closing, could you speak a bit more about that moment, in terms of the vulnerability that accompanies this kind of pedagogical work?

AKH: Yeah, such a great question. As a feminist anthropologist, I do try to bring a feminist epistemological perspective and feminist methodologies to the classroom. So I do try to center the affective when I’m teaching. And I don’t think every student enjoys it, but it has been effective in some of my classes, and especially in the anthropology of citizenship class. Again, it comes back to rethinking some of these exclusions that are embedded in the universalisms of liberal political thought. So, for me, what has become a central ethical issue that I take up in my teaching is that I’m interested in interrogating the privileging of reason in Western liberal thought. Through postcolonial thought and even through my own religious tradition, I have been trained to ask: How is the rational being deployed? What work is the rational doing? Is it doing exclusionary work and, if so, how does it accomplish this? What other ways of knowing are being erasing in the process? I am not trying to romanticize or essentialize affect or the subjective as the site of ultimate emancipation, but I do try to interrogate how these categories are constructed and what is accorded primacy in the Western university.

Along with these questions, I try to attend to questions of ontology and epistemology in my scholarship and pedagogy. Not only do I place importance on “the particular,” as opposed to universal knowledge, but I also ask students to think about what makes knowledge objective or subjective. I make sure they understand that both of these forms of knowledge are equally valuable. Another thing I do is ask students to read or watch something, and then I’ll ask them: “How does this make you feel?” Or, “when you read this text, what feelings came up for you?” I focus less on their rational and logical mind and a bit on their emotions: “Is there anything in the text that made you feel uncomfortable? Did it make you feel a little anxious or fearful?” Maybe it’s positive emotions, too. Not everyone is responsive to this technique, but many students do respond well and they have let me know that they appreciate the space for it. In a way, this functions a bit like an icebreaker, because when they’re dealing with really tough things like, for example, the intense kinds of patriotic repression that students of color are facing in this moment, that carries over into the classroom. So there is that fear of speaking up, that fear of being shut down or rejected or sanctioned. So if I open it up and say, “I’m presenting what might be a controversial text, but I want to begin with us talking about what kinds of reactions it provoked,” then it opens up the space to get a conversation going without diving right into the content. That was really effective when I taught the citizenship class, but I actually haven’t tried this technique since then.

In the class on ethnographic methods that I’m currently teaching, I tried to have a conversation about the so-called Muslim ban when it was first announced. But I felt that it was maybe too much for students; it was really difficult for them to speak up. I think many of my students are in a really horrible emotional state. So I want to keep playing with different pedagogical techniques to create an environment that is safe for them. I had this female student come to me and say that in the citizenship class, she really enjoyed everything that we read, but didn’t talk much because “I feel emotionally overwhelmed, and I’m afraid that if I talk in class, I’m going to start crying.” She was able to talk to me during office hours about that challenge, and about how she feels like she has all of these thoughts and feelings sort of stuck inside of her. So I tried to work with her to come up with ways to participate in the class. Teaching these texts is hard. We’re talking about difficult things, and they do inspire a range of reactions. It’s valuable just to acknowledge that there are different ways of knowing and speaking by which students can make a contribution.

I’ve mentioned the importance of particular and subjective knowledge, but I am also thinking of the counter to that: how does one continue to create space for these perspectives amid the violence of emerging right-wing nationalisms, when threats to academic freedom and free speech are often mobilized against those with the most to lose? When you’re in an age of alternative facts, you want to critique positivism and this objective, universal form of knowledge. But in some ways, you also have to defend it. So it’s increasingly difficult to navigate all of this. But I have been trying to anticipate some of the reactionary pushback that I will get. You know, the recourse is to go back to the privileging of reason, objective knowledge, and “hard facts.” But you also get pushback in terms of the problem of identity politics. I’m dealing with this issue right now with a student who take issue with what the student calls “liberal identity politics.” So I am grappling with how identity politics will be deployed in this moment, and what can be done. We need to think in much more complex ways about identity-making and the ways that historical and lived experience and subjectivity inform constructions of identity, which are then used for political claim-making. Often, these claims and identities are reductive or essentialized; both the Left and the Right mobilize them in the same problematic ways. At the same time, identity claims are also necessary to living in this world; to be seen, to be recognized can be a matter of survival. In Gender Trouble, for instance, Judith Butler (1990) talks about how you can’t reduce power to a hierarchy on the basis of identity. Rather, we need to keep interrogating the practice of power itself, acknowledging the ways in which power can be productive. So the society we navigate demands that we constantly interrogate the ways in which we deploy identity, understanding that we have to be used by identity but also to deconstruct it. We need to engage in complete and constant dis-identification while making political claims based on our locations. That’s the way that I’m thinking about it right now, but I don’t know. It’s a really difficult political moment.

KH: Definitely. One of the things that I love about being part of the Teaching Tools section of the Cultural Anthropology website is how everybody generates such wonderful, tangible means of intervening on the different, unexpected events that can arise in teaching. I think our conversation here does that really well. You’ve given a lot of insight into how to continue interrogating these concepts and constructions going forward, and how to center a recognition of multiple, partial, and particular knowledges and perspectives in tangible ways that our readers can bring into the classroom. And I’m glad you came back to speaking about the issue of academic freedom, especially with critics and trolls like Yiannopoulos on the horizon.

AKH: Yeah. I’m afraid that he and his followers will continue to target professors on the antiracist left, particularly more vulnerable professors and students of color. I’m glad that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) is mobilizing around issues of academic freedom in the classroom. At the very least, I feel supported by the AAA and colleagues and by anthropologists in other departments who are engaged in similar conversations about how to negotiate the university and the classroom in the Trump era, so I hope that we will get through it together.

Supplemental Resources

Anneeth Kaur Hundle’s Anthropology of Citizenship Syllabus

A Resolution on Behalf of the American Anthropological Association in the Wake of the 2016 Presidential Elections

AAA Rapid Response Network on Academic Freedom


Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Cox, Aimee Meredith. 2015. Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

De León, Jason. 2015. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Douglass, John Aubrey. 2010. “From Chaos to Order and Back? A Revisionist Reflection on the California Master Plan for Higher Education at Fifty and Thoughts about Its Future.” Research and Occasional Paper Series, Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley.

Holmes, Seth M. 2013. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hundle, Anneeth Kaur. 2017a. “Disrupting Nativism (Part One).” Anthropology News 58, no. 1: e116–21.

_____. 2017b. “Disrupting Nativism (Part Two).” Anthropology News 58, no. 1: e122–26.

Lucht, Hans. 2012. Darkness Before Daybreak: African Migrants Living on the Margins in Southern Italy Today. Berkeley: University of California Press.