Teaching with Hope: Anand Pandian on Cultivating Possibility in the Classroom

Photo by Kristopher Roller.

“Why are we so interested in other ways of being human, if not to put those into practice as ways of pluralizing both what we can be and what the world we inhabit can be?”

Anand Pandian posed this question over lunch at a busy cafe on Los Angeles’s west side. I had asked Pandian, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, to meet with me after hearing him speak at the University of California, Los Angeles about his current book project on method in anthropology. In his remarks, he spoke of a “humanity yet to come,” an idea that left me feeling energized. But the pessimist in me was skeptical; the current moment often feels like one that closes down the kinds of humanity I want to see in the world. Still, I could appreciate the hope in what Pandian was proposing. What, I found myself wondering, becomes possible when we understand humanity as inherently open-ended, as always in the process of becoming?

As we talked, Pandian explained that he’s been thinking about how to “conceive of a moment that would appear to be an end as a beginning instead.” For Pandian, this perspective is intimately linked with the project of anthropology. He first entered a doctoral program in environmental studies, but realized that the perspective it encouraged didn’t fit his understanding of the world around him: “I was tired of the picture of human nature that we kept getting again and again...The notion that what people want is fixed, that what people do is fixed, that it’s all determined in some very basic and straightforward sense that didn’t really seem all that basic and all that straightforward, all that correspondent with the range of real phenomena...My interest in anthropology comes from trying to find ways to think of the human as more fundamentally open than we would otherwise conceive it to be.”

This open-endedness is what gives Pandian hope. In emphasizing possibility, we lose certainty, but we also gain ways of being otherwise. Ethnography generates insight into these other worlds of possibility. But for Pandian, this project does not end with ethnographic research and writing. The classroom, too, is a site of creativity. Teaching, for Pandian, is a central component of the anthropological project and is intimately interlinked with fieldwork and writing. What would happen, he asks, if we treated the classroom as a field site? This question seems revolutionary—classrooms are for using anthropological insights to guide students’ understanding of the world, while fieldwork is the process by which these insights are generated. But if we take seriously the pedagogical goal of cultivating independent thinking, then the classroom can be a space for delving into the unknown, for asking open-ended questions that generate further inquiry.

It’s one thing to take the cultivation of independent thought as a pedagogical goal, but another to know how to formulate lesson plans and establish classroom cultures that create space for the kinds of exploration and inquisitive thought so critical to this project. Pandian has thought a lot about this. His lesson plans bring a sense of possibility into his classroom, with the goal of developing “forms of pedagogy that are themselves open-ended in the way they unfold.”

One such form that he’s found particularly productive is the in-class exercise. But before one assumes that this means “think-pair-share,” there are two critical elements in what Pandian calls exercises that I believe sets them apart: one, the students come up with the activities, and two, the professor is an active participant. He designs the first couple of weekly exercises to give students a sense of the format, but after that leaves it up to student pairs to design activities that build from the readings to generate new forms of engagement and discussion.

Pandian gave me examples from his fall 2016 seminar on “Speculative Anthropology.” One week, the students in charge of planning the exercise for Donna Haraway’s (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene brought string and taught the class cat’s cradle as a way to begin a conversation about Haraway’s use of string theory. When the class read Ursula K. Le Guin’s (2004) Changing Planes, the student moderators invited their classmates to each occupy one of the different planes of reality in the book and to speak with one another across them. Both exercises helped to crack open the seeming impermeability of the contrasting perspectives presented in the texts. They proved to be effective points of entry that generated more lively discussion and analysis.

Pandian also described a couple of the exercises that he planned himself. For their discussion of Stuart McLean’s (2017) Fictionalizing Anthropology: Encounters and Fabulations at the Edges of the Human, he brought modeling clay to class and asked the students to create something that captured what it could mean to treat anthropology as an act of fabulating other modes of being human. Pandian shared a photo of the result, which leaves me wishing I could have heard students’ descriptions of their creations and what they meant in relation to the text.

Students model Stuart McLean’s approach to anthropology as an act of fabulation. Photo by Anand Pandian.

Pandian describes these diverse classroom activities as “little exercises that give more tangible and embodied form to the kinds of ideas, the horizons of thinking that are at stake in the readings: bringing them home that way, forcing a more substantial encounter, and then thinking with what happens in the exercises as a way of coming back to the readings. Was there anything more that we’d learned about them?” With such space for creative engagement, I imagine that the answer to this question is usually yes.

Importantly, his students seem to agree. Pandian shared with me his student evaluations from his “Speculative Anthropology” course, so that I could see the range of student responses. The responses make clear that his classroom offers a very different experience than what students are used to, and that they find this energizing. The students agreed that the course was well taught and stimulating: 87 percent of the fifteen students answered that the intellectual challenge of the course was excellent, and a full 100 percent marked excellent for the teacher’s effectiveness. The main complaint was the heavy reading load, but students were impressively reflective about what the course topic and texts opened up for them. As one student said, “the course felt like a collective adventure rather than a typical course where one has to read the material and interpret it in one specific way.”

Another student offered a personal description of how the class changed his or her perspective: “This course allows (or in my case, forces) you to open your mind to possibility and impossibility becoming certainties in this world of ours that we barely know. It forces you to acknowledge that what we see may not be real—and what we don’t see may be more real than anything we could possibly imagine. Moreover, it causes you to reflect upon yourself, your fellow humans, your fellow organisms, and truly your fellow Earth—and whether we can ever truly know ourselves, and whether that is desired or even matters. As somebody accustomed to the definitive and the empirical, it was stimulating—and somewhat refreshing—to delve into the materials of this course.”

For me, what is particularly exciting about Pandian’s approach to in-class exercises is how they connect actions with ideas, thereby underscoring that there are ways of using an author’s argument to ask questions that aren’t simply “is this what the text says?” but rather “how can we experience what the text might be saying?” This gets at the core of how Pandian understands the relationship between text, classroom, and learning experience. As he explained, “if we think of the text as something in the world in the same way that the chairs of the seminar table are something in the world, the table is something in the world, the lights, everything else; if we think of the text as part of the physical infrastructure of learning—which is never purely physical, which always carries with it certain possibilities for thinking (critical, imaginative, and otherwise)—then the question isn’t simply ‘what does the text say?’ The question is, what does the text do? What does it activate? What does it make possible? What does it open? What does it foreclose? How do we work with it?”

Working with a text in this way—as a thing in the world that generates ideas, conversation, and action—allows space for diverse engagements. Here we are brought back to Pandian’s belief in the open-endedness of human experience. Classrooms are spaces to explore this possibility through a pedagogical commitment to collaborative learning. As Pandian describes it, “if I take the classroom as a space for collaborative learning, I can’t help but acknowledge that the learning happens as an encounter among people who come together from different places, with different perspectives, with different pasts, with different points of view. And all of these things necessarily become part of the mix.” Exploring these differences results in a more transformative learning experience, and also creates space for diverse imaginings of what it means to engage with our past, present, and future worlds.

This approach is at the core of Pandian’s idea that the classroom is a field site—a space for collaborative discovery, for complex conversations that open up new horizons. I feel energized by this perspective; it formulates teaching as an act of discovery, rather than a performance of knowledge.

However, it seems to me that the challenge in treating the classroom as a field site is in transforming the role of the teacher-anthropologist. We are all prepared to learn in our field sites (and to use ignorance as a methodological tool), but the thought of exposing the gaps in our understanding to students is incredibly intimidating. This is especially true for young scholars, women, and people of color, who often have to go above and beyond to prove themselves as professionals. Yet Pandian’s past experiences suggest that it is in letting go of the mask of complete authority that anthropologists can convey their messages most effectively.

In his first year after receiving his PhD, Pandian held a one-year visiting position at a small college that required him to teach five new classes. The course schedule dictated how much time he could spend on lesson planning, which meant that he spent more time on some courses than others. He was nervous about what this would mean for his evaluations but was shocked to find, in his words, “a straight-up inverse relationship between the amount of time I put into preparation for a course and how well [students] thought that particular course went.” Yet, he explained, this isn’t really surprising based on what he knows now: “It makes sense to me, and it dovetails with everything I’ve been talking about. It was the first lesson in the value of allowing things to happen in the classroom, the first lesson in the value of not trying to nail down every little thing beforehand, in treating the classroom environment as an environment of emergence, as an environment in which lessons could be learned unexpectedly instead of trying to prime everything from the outset to go in a particular direction.” Students learn more when the professor learns alongside them.

Treating the classroom as a space of emergence seems to be the perfect perspective for small seminars, but as a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, I can’t help but wonder: would this work for large lectures? How can one cultivate a sense of shared discovery when the classroom consists of a mass of students facing a professor on a stage? Pandian responded to my concerns by breaking down the pedagogical purpose of an in-class activity:

What are we talking about here? Why does an exercise matter? It’s because it can bring home the inventiveness of the circumstances that anthropology depends on, the sense that there are things unfolding that are rife with possibility and that one can enter into this current of things that happen as a form of learning. In that form of learning you can stumble on unexpected insights precisely because of your attunement to minutiae that you wouldn’t otherwise pay as much attention to. You let them lead you and see where they’ve gotten you. That’s what we’ve been talking about at some level, and I want to say that one can lecture the same way. Can we actually put into practice a way of lecturing (and this may sound completely paradoxical and impossible), but can we conceive of a lecture in precisely these terms? Can we conceive of a lecture that takes the lecturer by surprise even in the act of lecturing, in the same way that these exercises that we’re talking about might do? Yes, only insofar as there are materials in the lecture that exceed the lecturer’s capacity to master them rationally and fully. That is to say, if there are materials that have a kind of affective charge about them, that exceeds the capacity of the lecturer to make sense of everything, to put everything in its place.

Pandian gave examples of how he allows this to happen in his own lectures, primarily by letting emotion into his lessons. He taught the book he wrote about his grandfather’s life (Pandian 2014) and let himself get choked up while talking through it. He ended a lecture on extinction by screening a short film of albatrosses feeding on plastic, letting the images stand on their own and dismissing the class without a word of further explanation.

These moments allow the students to see the professor as a person who is equally entangled in the world. Rather than an authority who can always speak with self-assured knowledge and rationality, the professor experiences the class and its lessons alongside his students. Doing so opens up space for diverse readings and responses, thereby capturing the plurality of human experience that gives Pandian hope for a “humanity yet to come.”

What better way to model the project of anthropology?


Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 2004. Changing Planes. New York: Berkeley Books.

McLean, Stuart. 2017. Fictionalizing Anthropology: Encounters and Fabulations at the Edges of the Human. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pandian, Anand. 2014. Ayya’s Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.