Teaching with Hope: An Introduction

From the Series: Cultural Anthropology Responds to Trump

Photo by Elijah O'Donnell.

The language of hope from the 2008 U.S. presidential election seems so distant from the doomsday rhetoric of the election we’ve just experienced. I, like many of my students and colleagues, have been left reeling with the sense that we’ve turned a corner in our country, into a darker world of divisiveness, betrayal, and “lesser of two evils” thinking that makes excuses for the devastating effects of fear and hate.

In this national climate, our academic community is desperate for hopeful perspectives and tangible pathways toward positive transformation. Channeling confidence in our collective abilities to effect change is one of our most powerful political tools at the moment, and it requires a new perspective on the anthropology classroom. A commitment to developing such a perspective motivates this new series within the Teaching Tools section of the Cultural Anthropology website, “Teaching with Hope.” Each post will offer pedagogical reflections from anthropologists about how they juggle critical and hopeful perspectives in their teaching.

Through its attention to diversity and complexity, anthropology asks us to question what we think we know. This is what draws me to the discipline, but also what makes it hard to feel hopeful and confident about a clear path forward. While the election has made this tension more pressing, it’s a longstanding concern that has impacted my approach to the classroom. Many of my undergraduate students struggle with the relationship between critique and action. Students appreciate anthropology’s critical message and understand what makes it powerful. But our discussions are often followed by the question “what next?” If everything fails in some way, depending on one’s perspective, then how can things be made better?

Students may find anthropological perspectives bewildering and frustrating—if nothing is simple or straightforward, then what can we do? Why should we try if there’s no right answer? Many of us have heard these kinds of questions in our classrooms, after reading an especially powerful analysis that has struck at the core of what anthropology offers. In these moments I feel deflated—this is what you can do, I find myself thinking. You need to see complexity and differential experiences, concerns, and desires. It’s my intention for these lessons to be a positive process—seeing the negative is transformative. But in a moment where pessimism seems to offer only deeper isolation and divisiveness, how can anthropologists teach with hope? How can we offer optimism, while being true to our understanding that there is no easy answer or singular way forward? How can we remain critical and convey complexities, while also being optimistic about the potential for positive change?

This series is an attempt at working through these questions. In each post, I will interview an anthropologist who has engaged with these conversations in the classroom and has advice for how to teach hope through complexity—in other words, how to use the insights of anthropology not only to educate a new generation of critical thinkers attuned to the world’s complexities and contradictions, but also to generate discussions in the classroom that emphasize the possibility of positive transformation. The goal of these conversations is twofold: first, to generate a community of anthropologists who are working through the challenges of combining critical and hopeful perspectives, and second, to offer a series of pedagogical tools and reflections on the role of hope in the anthropology classroom. While this first post focuses on the effects of the U.S. presidential election on classroom discussions and approaches, in subsequent posts you will hear from instructors with diverse research interests about how they answer the “what next?” question when it is posed by their students.

This first post focuses on what teaching with hope might look like in a moment characterized by extreme polarities of opinion: the victory of Donald Trump. I woke up the morning after the presidential election feeling grateful that I didn’t have to teach that day, unsure how I would have handled my students’ reactions, dismay and elation both. My sense of being unprepared for the postelection classroom made me decide that my first interview in this series should be with an instructor who had taken the time to discuss the election immediately after it happened. I was interested to know how the discussion went, what was most difficult and rewarding, and whether hope could be reclaimed in what felt like an exceedingly deflating moment for many.

To this end, I spoke with Purnima Mankekar, Professor of Gender Studies, Asian American Studies, and Film, Television, and Digital Media at the University of California, Los Angeles. Over tea and biryani, Mankekar and I talked about her teaching philosophy and how it impacted the way that she approached the election in her classroom. Mankekar is an anthropologist by training, and she teaches a wide range of classes in three departments at UCLA. At the time of the 2016 presidential election, she was teaching an upper-division class of 110 students titled “Sex, Race, and Difference in Transnational Film.” After the shock of election night, she decided that she would use a portion of class the following day for students to voice their opinions about the election results. She discussed her plans with her teaching assistants before the start of the class to make sure everyone was on the same page. She knew that she couldn’t give the entire period over to the election, since they had to discuss an upcoming exam. But seeing the look of despair on many students’ faces when she entered the classroom, she resolved to leave open the last forty-five minutes of class for conversation.

Mankekar spoke to the class in a way that she hoped would leave space for different reactions and opinions: “I said, for many people in this room this is devastating news. And I immediately said, and for some of you, this is probably a turn for the better. Because I wanted to make sure that nobody felt excluded.” She continued, “I don’t presume to know what you’re thinking, or how you voted, or even if you voted at all. But I want to create a space here where we can all feel safe with each other.”

She decided to leave the conversation completely open, for anyone to speak about whatever they chose. She did set out a few ground rules: “There’s going to be no blaming. There’s going to be no profanity. We’re going to try to keep our anger in check. But most importantly there’s going to be no blaming and no finger-pointing. And they really stuck with that.”

She was impressed by the result: “It was really amazing. I thought it was one of the most powerful and moving pedagogical experiences I’ve had. So many people spoke. And there were also a lot of people who said [to their classmates], ‘we had no idea that this is what you were going through.’” While many students spoke with heated anger about the president-elect, they remained respectful toward one another, and several shared very personal stories.

Mankekar admitted that the experience probably did not make anyone feel more positive about what had transpired. The feelings predominantly expressed that morning were despair, anger, and fear. But the conversation did allow students the space to share and reflect collectively on the future that lay ahead.

“I don’t think people left feeling optimistic,” Mankekar told me, “but they left feeling not alone.” This feeling of community made a big difference: “I felt it really, really created a space for people to personalize it in a constructive way.”

After the class’s discussion about the election, Mankekar noticed a change in the classroom that affected their conversations going forward: “I think something shifted in the class. The class was going well, but it got even stronger. The mood of the class shifted. It felt like a better space all around. I think it did create community.”

This new classroom dynamic led to a more productive learning experience overall. Mankekar had been planning to show La Haine (1995), directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, at the end of the quarter. It’s a French film about police brutality in immigrant communities that doesn’t show on-screen violence, but is extremely powerful and can be very upsetting. She had been nervous about showing the film, but decided that it was relevant because the film engages with violence, difference, and the nation. She felt more confident about showing the film after the election.

“After that conversation [about the election], I thought: OK, this is something we can deal with. And people totally got what was happening in this film. They totally got how racial difference and cultural difference are criminalized.” She attributed this to the relationship that they had been able to develop in their postelection discussion. “My class’s engagement with this film was shaped deeply both by the outcome of the election, but perhaps even more so, by our conversation about it.”

Giving students the space to vent their frustration and fear provided a way to see connections—among themselves and the larger issues and institutions that they were describing—that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. Building these types of connections is at the center of Mankekar’s teaching philosophy.

“I want them to be able to connect the dots—between what they’re feeling or what they’re watching [or reading] and what’s happening historically.” This is her pedagogical goal for every class.

An early teaching experience changed the way that Mankekar approaches difficult topics in the classroom. A student from her introduction to anthropology class at Stanford came to office hours feeling devastated by Mankekar’s lesson from the day before. The student felt that feminist anthropology’s critique of the institution of family had destroyed much of what she valued, and she was left angry and confused. This experience convinced Mankekar that she would need to be mindful of how to challenge students’ perceptions without ripping the rug out from under them. Finding this balance is difficult, but crucial to teaching students to think critically while also providing them the space to come up with solutions.

Students have to develop alternatives that make sense to them, Mankekar said, but “you have to give them the tools to do it; you can’t leave them on their own. And that’s the difficult part.” The question is always “how to come up with tools that make sense in their lives and in their minds.”

Mankekar has found ethnography to be the most useful teaching tool for this purpose: “I always try to include ethnographies that are really nuanced in terms of people’s resistance or in terms of their struggle. So that it’s not just this overwhelming picture of doom and gloom.” Capturing resistance is crucial, she said, because “it’s really important that they [these voices of resistance] be part of the discussion.” They may not always be the primary narrative in ethnography, and so “sometimes you have to read...against the grain, but that’s a good way to learn how to read critically anyway.”

Two ethnographies stand out to Mankekar as especially helpful in this regard: Miriam Ticktin’s Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France(2011) and Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015). She is assigning the latter for the first time in a research methods class for Asian American Studies graduate students in the winter term of 2017. When I asked why she had selected this particular text, Mankekar answered, “Hope, really.” She credits the book with giving space for alternatives by “looking for signs of life in landscapes of devastation.”

Miriam Ticktin’s book isn’t particularly optimistic, and Mankekar admitted that it probably doesn’t leave readers feeling more hopeful, because it’s such a powerful critique of humanitarianism. But she found that teaching it in undergraduate seminars was productive because the students’ “ideas of humanitarianism or good works changed. They saw the difference between good works and social justice. Which is a big difference.” Ticktin’s analysis is especially useful, Mankekar went on to say, because it doesn’t paint humanitarian aid in black and white. Rather, it shows that “the doctors and nurses have very good intentions. It doesn’t blame them.” Capturing the subtleties of how ideology intersects with larger structures of inequality to affect action on the ground prompts students to consider how their own ethical codes, goals, and practices reflect larger structures.

Mankekar focuses on capturing the nuanced experiences and opinions represented in ethnographic narratives, translating these into alternative readings. While these readings are rarely hopeful, they do create space for developing new ideas and programs going forward. She sees her role as one of providing students with the ability to critique a particular problem or phenomenon and then envision solutions that make sense to them. Her pedagogical goal is to equip students with the tools for this purpose.

In sum, Mankekar found her students’ open and respectful dialogue about the presidential election to be an especially productive instance of how the power of community can be captured in the classroom. It didn’t necessarily inspire hope, but it did allow students the space to begin working through their fear and frustration as a group. It was an experience that opened up a new classroom dynamic, leading to better insights and conversations about course topics. And, perhaps most importantly, it helped to alleviate the feelings of alienation that the election generated for many students. It was a difficult discussion at an incredibly trying moment, but one that had, and continues to have, positive effects.