The Political Statement: Thinking Beyond the End-of-Term Paper

"Die-In" demonstration to protest violence in Gaza, University of Michigan, 2023. Source: Alyssa Paredes

This past Fall, while serving as faculty instructor (Alyssa) and graduate student instructor (Felipe) for an introductory course in socio-cultural anthropology, we asked ourselves what we really wanted to hear from our students. Traditional exams, a conventional end-of-semester requirement for large lecture-based classes, can be an effective way to test the precision of students’ understanding but are in the end imperfect and dissatisfying ways to gauge anthropological thinking. End-of-term research papers are often better demonstrations of a student’s ability to put concepts to use, but they can be impractical for anything larger than a small seminar. Significantly, neither the exam nor the paper really prompts students to articulate what we consider to matter the most in teaching an introductory course. So, this term, Alyssa asked members of her fifty-person class to write a “collective statement.” More specifically, she asked that they produce 300 to 500 words in the form of the political statement addressing the question, “What, to you, is the anthropological endeavor for the 21st century?” Felipe helped explain the assignment to our students and accompanied them as they produced it.

First things first, what is a statement? Many students are likely to have seen examples on social media, not least those relating to the murder of George Floyd and the ongoing siege on Gaza. Some may have even had a hand in writing statements on behalf of student organizations they are a part of. Still, it is worth clarifying what this genre of writing is and what it is meant to accomplish. We described the political statement as an expression of solidarity, affirmation, and commitment to certain causes. It is a declaration of resolve and an attempt to articulate a vision for the future. Sometimes statements take on a critical tone, identifying the failures of existing strategies and the need for new ones. Sometimes they offer clarifying explanations about phenomena that the public has misunderstood. They are always motivated by a sense of urgency, by prevailing events that illuminate, exasperate, or awaken one’s sense of resolve. We emphasized that the best statements are not “just talk” but rather invitations to act in particular ways. For models, we pointed to the Association for Black Anthropologists’ Statement Against Police Violence and Anti-Black Racism (2020), and to the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association and the Association of Middle East Anthropology’s Joint Statement on the Ongoing War Against Gaza (2023).

The Assignments

Because students produce their best work when assignments are scaffolded, Alyssa began by asking them to submit two versions of the assignment—the first, a 300-word statement to be written individually, and the second, a 500-word revision to be prepared in groups of four or five. For the first version, she offered the following step-by-step guidelines:

1.  What are the social and political issues that you think matter most today?

2.  What were the ideas/arguments from our lectures, readings, and section discussions this term that you found most important, meaningful, or powerful?

3.  What about them was so important, meaningful, or powerful to you? Did it have something to do with the questions that the anthropologist tackled? The misunderstandings, stereotypes, or common understandings they thought to challenge? The decisions that they made for ethnographically representing a person, a community, or a culture in an unconventional or inspiring way?

4.  Are there ways that the questions, provocations, or ethnographic decisions from our lectures, readings, and section discussions can be useful for taking up the issues you mentioned in Step 1?

  • If so, great! State those as part of the direction you envision for future “anthropological work,” remembering that this refers to work done inside and outside the walls of academia. Cite the readings that inspired these ideas.

5. Are there ways that the questions, provocations, or ethnographic decisions from our readings were lacking in their ability to address the issues you care about? 

  • If so, that’s equally important! State those as part of the steps future anthropological work must take to step up to the challenges of the twenty-first century. Cite the readings that inspired these ideas.

6. Begin your statement with the following, “I, a student of ANTHRCUL222, believe that the anthropological endeavor in the 21st century is to...”

For the second, group-based version, we sorted students randomly with the intention of replicating the democratic process, where people bring many, often conflicting commitments and priorities. We prompted students to swap their statements, identify commonalities and disagreements, and decide on the portions that elicited the strongest assent from all. We explained to students that learning to work in groups is critical because all meaningful responses to social projects are born of community-based work. Felipe reserved an entire discussion section for students to collectively brainstorm. Questions quickly came up: Should the collective statements be a combination of each cause addressed in the individual statements? Or should students choose one overarching problem to serve as the goal of their group's “anthropological endeavor?" He made it clear to students that both approaches could make for interesting, creative, and inciting statements, as long as the final assignments reflected the students’ collective efforts in drawing out the commonalities across each cause. This was not only a pedagogical goal, but a political one as well: the statement is, after all, an exercise in getting students to break out of the paradigm of single-issue politics on campus today.

The Challenges of a New Genre of Writing

A common mistake that first-time statement-writers made was to confuse this particular form of writing for the essay. Felipe found it wise to allocate thirty minutes to explain the difference using numerous examples. Essays are often several pages long. Statements, on the other hand, are very short, frequently less than one thousand words, with the idea being to write pithily and forcefully. Further, essays are regularly written in a tone that is detached—many college students are taught in high school that they need to do so for their thoughts to come across as sufficiently academic and objective. Essays also have a distinct narrative arc: a research question, an argument, and supporting evidence. Statements are different in that they are much more to-the-point and operate in a declarative, even imperative mode: “We must!” “We should!” “We cannot!” They must be written from the first person point-of-view: “I believe!” “We support!” “We reject!” They should use active verbs like “to urge,” “to demand,” “to answer,” “to confront.”

In prompting our students to engage in this new genre of writing, we learned that we had to explicitly give them permission to write in unfamiliar ways. On one hand, some found the effect empowering. On the other, some struggled to break out of the mold of the traditional paper. Many students found it challenging not knowing exactly how they would be graded because the statement format does not rely on demonstrating knowledge of class material in the same way that essays, exams, or quizzes do. Felipe explained that as much as it was important to incorporate course content, writing a statement was above all an opportunity to think creatively and ambitiously about the challenges they face as young people. He felt it critical to stress that the statements need not only point to a problem, but also reflect on our shared responsibilities as a society. Conscious of the fact that universities and students increasingly tout a neoliberal service-model dogma of “you teach, I pay,” Felipe prompted students to ask themselves, “What do we owe each other?” and, “What is my education's role in making the world a better place?” Against the pop-psychology, social media mantra of “you don't owe anyone anything,” his point was to make the argument to the contrary: that we owe each other everything.

Another thing we warned students against was writing banal platitudes. Here, we were thinking about calls to “respect culture” or “trust science,” which we consider analogues of politicians offering their “thoughts and prayers” in moments of turmoil—they just don’t mean anything! Alyssa told her students that if we were interested in these types of statements, we would have asked ChatGPT (an artificial intelligence writing software) to write them! She also emphasized that their goal should be to produce work that reflects the complexity and sophistication of thought that they had gained over our time together. These thoughts should be rooted in the ethnographic experiences we had read and discussed. Most importantly, they should reflect who they are and what has mattered the most to them personally.

One particular moment crystallized the challenges and the positive impact of the task at hand. One Friday morning, a freshman student from Felipe’s morning section walked into an otherwise sleepy office hours session expressing her difficulty understanding the goal of the assignment. In an attempt to find a concise and direct response, somewhat unthinkingly Felipe asked her, “What do you think is just…wrong with the world you live in?” Her face scrunched up, and she seemed to be lost in thought, searching for the correct answer. After a moment, she replied that no teacher had really asked her or had been much interested in knowing what she or other students really felt about current issues. It dawned on him that instructors can often go through the semester unaware of how little political agency is given to undergraduates. The collective statement works to counter that tendency.

The Anthropological Endeavor for the 21st Century

In both the individual- and the group-based assignments, we were moved to see how students used their collective statements to reflect on some of the most important social issues of our times. They wrote about racial discrimination in law enforcement, inequities in access to higher education, wealth inequality, the cost-of-living crisis and houselessness, extreme political partisanship, misinformation, abusive structures of power, neocolonial practices in U.S. humanitarianism, and immigration injustice at the border, among so many others. Some of these topics were discussed in class, but certainly not all. Several students pointed to issues that emerged from the epistemic paradigms of anthropology itself and to a need for a stronger disciplinary commitment to political mobilization. We were frequently surprised at how this new genre gave voice to students who otherwise underperformed on their exams and quizzes. Reading their words filled us with renewed energy, passion, and resolve. We ourselves were reminded of the capacious power of anthropological thinking. In the mad rush of the end-of-term, when papers were piling sky-high and the clock to submit grades was ticking down, those feelings were a true gift.

In fact, they were a gift far too good to keep to oneself. As a final component of this course assignment, Alyssa dedicated the last lecture of the semester to presenting to the class a summary of all the statements they had turned in. She made it a point to draw on every single statement and to avoid adding any of her own thoughts. Inspired in large part by Laurence Ralph’s The Torture Letters (2019), an ethnography written in epistolary form, she adopted the second-person voice, echoing to them their own hopes, aspirations, and frustrations: “Many of you are members of immigrant or diasporic families. You want to belong to a country where diversity is not threatening.” “You want to be able to ask questions, to critique normative assumptions, but sometimes you feel that you can’t because political partisanship is so divisive.” At every possible turn, she retained students’ own wording and phrasing, frequently using direct quotes so they heard themselves in what she said and felt that what they had written was worthy of being shared. Preparing such a summary might seem a daunting task for a large class, but in her experience sifting through fifty such statements, she was surprised at how simple and straightforward it was. While the statements were diverse in their focuses and approaches, they were also strikingly united—and touchingly so—in their hope for a future safe for difference. In the end, Alyssa was glad to have put in the time, as she has never delivered a lecture that commanded such sustained attention.

One of the unique qualities of the statement is that it is meant to be a public document. Now that the semester is over and students are quickly pivoting to their next endeavors, Alyssa and Felipe are finding ways to keep students’ ideas alive and circulating. For a start, several members of the class have submitted their work to our undergraduate journal of anthropology, where they are currently forthcoming. We also plan to turn exemplary statements into posters to hang along our department corridors and in our classrooms. With luck (and a bit of creativity), our ultimate hope is that these assertions of solidarity, commitment, and resolve become blueprints for the future of anthropological thought, not only at our home institution, but also within the discipline writ large.


Association of Black Anthropologists. 2020. “ABA Statement Against Police Violence and Anti-Black Racism,” June 6.

Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. 2023. “MES/AMEA Joint Statement on the Ongoing War Against Gaza,” October 20.

Ralph, Laurence. 2019. The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.