What can a text about anti-colonial science teach us about teaching anthropology?
We started thinking together in early 2022 about how Max Liboiron’s book Pollution is Colonialism (2021) has shaped our political and pedagogical commitments. The book, and Liboiron’s work at the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), an interdisciplinary plastic pollution laboratory, has resonated across and outside disciplines. The book has many pedagogical possibilities, such as writing anti-colonial laboratory manuals and shaping community-driven research. As we approached the text as two feminist anthropologists-in-training, Liboiron’s book inspired us to question the anthropological pedagogies socializing us as graduate students located in United States settler colonial universities.
Frustrated with the way we were taught to read and analyze, we decided to respond to Liboiron’s call to read promiscuously. What follows is a deliberation on what anthropological pedagogy can learn from Liboiron’s text about practicing anti-colonial science as an opening to move beyond reading as a resource relation.
How many times have we heard from fellow scholars that reading is no longer a pleasure?
Reading as a Resource Relation
One provocation is Max Liboiron’s tacit reading pedagogy in Pollution is Colonialism. The text shows how scientific research is predicated on access to land and extractive resource relations and points to how those relations can be challenged and changed. Liboiron does this by thinking expansively about Land: actual, physical, unceded, appropriated, erased, and stolen land. Land also signifies research infrastructures, networks, and collaborations. Liboiron’s essential argument is that practices of settler colonialism have leveraged Land as a “resource relation,” where land is possessed and maintained for securing settler, not indigenous, futures.
As Liboiron offers, the book: “...has also been crafted as an invitation for you to look at the structuring logic of your own discipline and forms of knowledge creation to see what its land relations are, what might be colonial about it, and which naturalized and seemingly benign techniques grant access, moralize maximum use, universalize, separate, produce property, produce difference, maintain whiteness. If our methodological interventions do not address land relations, then they don’t address colonialism” (79).
Staying with Liboiron’s invitation to focus on Land and resource relations, we are encouraged to ask the same unsettling questions of anthropological pedagogy. How do teaching and mentoring in anthropology leverage access to research resources and relations? What does it mean to enact “good relations'' in a classroom? How can we learn from Liboiron’s successes (and failures) in an anti-colonial science lab? How do we enact ethics of specificity, accountability, and relationality in a classroom, especially given the uneven ways we enter the classroom and the material constraints on our time and labor? More broadly, (how) can teaching strive for anti-colonial relations?
Resource relations prefigure our engagement with scholarship, including the way we read. Liboiron writes: “I had been reading in a Resource relation (see chapter 1) that is unidirectional, assessing texts solely for my own goals and not approaching them as bodies of work, events, gifts, teachers, letters, or any number of other ways that would make unidirectional, extractive relations seem rude and out of place” (35).
As graduate students, we have felt in our minds and bodies how the act of reading itself can be carceral and punitive, a source of tension and stress in the graduate seminar rather than a space for working out uncertainties and complexities. Reading as Resource Relation happens when you read texts to mine them, to extract and excavate; more insidious than piranha reading that aims to take apart a text to demonstrate mastery over it, it is one of the dominant modes of the interpretive social sciences.
The impulse to mine texts is naturalized through the rhythms of reading pedagogies that encourage students to read extractively to race through the material. Graduate students are frequently reading multiple books in a week with a tacit directive to skim texts. This produces a feeling of urgency without an understanding why we are doing this, in a world where it is demonstrably difficult to find an academic job or get published. How many times have we heard from fellow scholars that reading is no longer a pleasure? That they used to enjoy reading fiction, but they just haven’t read outside academia in a while? It can feel amiss to read for pleasure, to read without a pencil in hand or a digital highlighter on the screen. The way we read for academia changes the way we read outside of it. To take, without giving back; one can only sustain it so far. It is bound to produce a snapping and a cutting.
Instead, following Liboiron’s call, we read their text as a teacher. This move might sound non-intuitive to those who associate teaching with the provocation of mastery, but following thinkers in radical pedagogy and psychoanalytic theory, we theorize teaching as a practice that unsettles mastery and troubles the distinction between a teacher and a learner. Theorizing teaching this way allows us to shift our relation to reading as we are forced to think about what is being troubled and who is being unsettled in our obligation to read. In encouraging us to read promiscuously, Liboiron encourages us to approach reading with an ethic of desire and obligation.
...refusing to read extractively also means refusing to look for things to take from a text, and instead fulfilling the responsibility to read carefully and closely as a gesture of obligation and reciprocity.
The Structuring Logic of Anthropological Pedagogy
How has reading come to be an atomized endeavor in anthropology? In a discipline that theorizes storytelling among humans, we can find only a few examples where collective or shared reading is a direct goal of anthropological pedagogy. Apart from intentionally-formed reading groups to push back against this, graduate students in anthropology are reading by themselves, for coursework, for fieldwork, for their candidacy exams, for their dissertation, for their publications. Researchers across disciplines are incentivized to prioritize publications over teaching, both by institutional standards and social norms and expectations.
Liboiron offers a provocation here: ethical pedagogy based on relations demands specificity to people, places, and histories. This does not mean models or pedagogical techniques are not—or cannot—be helpful paths into new ways of teaching, but instead suggests that thinking relationally means questioning the trap that a specific teaching style or technique is inherently good. Liboiron argues: “Different relations make different obligations, which engender different methods. This is not relativism, but a deep specificity based in place and in the relations to which we are accountable” (138). “Good” or ethical teaching means different things in different places and in responsibility to different communities.
For Liboiron, anti-colonial obligations means learning to ‘stand with’ one another in pursuit of “good relations.” By questioning that a naturalized goodness exists out there, Liboiron’s call for specificity of good relations helps us resist pedagogical models which obscure power relations within the classroom. Rather than aspiring for an (impossible) “flat” classroom, obligations highlight the ways that an uneven classroom can mean different responsibilities to one another. As we face different material constraints and contexts for our teaching, it can also ease the burden of trying to live up to an “ideal type classroom” and instead consider how we can care for the students and spaces we actually inhabit. This also means that anthropologists-in-training need to learn how to be responsible for classroom dynamics if they are to teach in the future.
The text pushes us to consider ways to teach research which focuses on obligations and relations. What would it mean to teach anthropology anticipating refusal, and presuming access to “field” is always contingent and dependent on goodwill? Ethical research is often taught as the ethics of approaching a subject or listening for consent, but anticipating refusal goes beyond this: “it requires ethics that can cause loss, rather than only gain, for researchers. It must be so: otherwise it’s a Resource relation” (145). At this time, when we are collectively grappling with unbelievable loss and grief, wouldn’t it be mildly healing to teach loss not as a drawback or roadblock in the way of research, but rather as a possibility for and consequence of ethical research? Teaching with loss means becoming comfortable with surprise and even discomfort. The researcher or student might have to do something different, substantially different, than what they had intended, based on pushback received; after all, if you presume a “yes,” can someone really refuse?
Moreover, in reading texts as teachers to whom we owe obligation and reciprocity, we see possibilities for challenging the structuring logics of anthropological pedagogy and dominant research infrastructures which reproduce unequal citational practice. We see points of connection with the recent #CiteBlackWomen Colloquy, which highlights that part of refusing extractive reading is also reading and citing carefully. Faye V. Harrison points out about citations: “Cursory glances, careless misreadings, insensitive misrecognitions, and perfunctory gestures toward inclusiveness are not uncommon. These problematic practices indicate that the cited work is not being taken seriously, nor given a close reading attentive to the nuances, complexities, underpinnings, and implications of the argument” (2022, 187).
In other words, refusing to read extractively also means refusing to look for things to take from a text, and instead fulfilling the responsibility to read carefully and closely as a gesture of obligation and reciprocity.
Considering citation and reading as a relation also enables us to reframe what is “theory” and what is “data.” The #CiteBlackWomen Colloquy interrogates the ways Black women specifically are often relegated to “data '' in ways which exclude them from “theory” while theory—understood as abstraction and universally applicable—is privileged. One tactic that anthropologist Savannah Shange recommends is to form “thought and theory partners” as co-authors of anthropological critique. Shange argues that “careful, ethical ethnography cites our research participants as thought and theory partners in the effort to speak back to the silences and violences of extant social science” (2022, 194).
Similar to the (always contested and messy) obligations anthropologists strive to produce with their interlocutors, Liboiron’s work encourages us to consider the texts we read as also forms of relations, ones which involve obligations to one another.
Conclusion: Theorizing Teaching in Anthropology
Experiments in teaching anthropology are not new. In her 1990 essay “Three Women, One Struggle: Anthropology, Performance, and Pedagogy,” Faye V. Harrison points out the role of Black women anthropologists in creative pedagogical applications of anthropology outside the academic field. Harrison recounts the pedagogical stories of three women: Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Dunham, and herself, who used performance, especially theater and fiction, for anthropological pedagogy: for political education, for training working-class students, and for autobiographical endurance.
Anthropologist Ruth Landes, whose work should be more well-known, taught prospective teachers and social workers at the Claremont Graduate School in the 1960s. She developed a series of interrelated projects based on anthropological field methods, constructing education courses for teachers to reexamine their beliefs and practices. Despite years of work, Landes was not given a permanent position until later, and when she did receive one in Canada, she abandoned pedagogical projects for “more recognizably anthropological projects” (Jewett and Schultz 2010, 439) .
Nevertheless, despite the undervaluing of pedagogy in anthropology, anthropologists have devised highly creative pedagogical programs that push against the pedagogical barriers we have highlighted thus far. Kim Fortun builds research sketchbooks to demystify and scaffold ethnographic research design. Joe Dumit teaches graduate students how to situate their subject in the world and the world in the subject through a series of assignments that funnels not towards simplicity but towards complexity. Angela Jenks’ graduate seminars on teaching anthropology is a rare example of a graduate-level course that centers teaching as an intellectual and professional pathway.
Sarah J. Martin, Associate Professor at Memorial University, recently shared possible assignments that put research relations at the front and center of pedagogy: a learning journal where students cite each other’s work; a practice that moves citation from an obscure, box-checking process to avoid charges of plagiarism and instead highlights how citations are forms of relations between peoples as students’ engage with each others work. Martin asks graduate students to reach out to contemporary authors and share their engagement with their work; such practices highlight learning as collective and facilitate gratitude for others’ contributions. Other possibilities might include writing a letter to a book author (rather than a review); even if never sent, a “letter” encourages an ethic of generosity rather than critique and thoughtful engagement. Alternatively, an assignment could require students’ to cite one another in final papers or reading responses, building a community of citation within the classroom.
Thinking about teaching as a practice of enacting good obligations and relations is a powerful way to call potential learners in and to cut through recurring moral panics about anthropology’s relevance. Often, attempts to make anthropology relevant reproduce the structuring logics of anthropology as the analysis and explanation of difference (Bonilla 2015). Instead, we could ask the classical ethnographic question of anthropological teaching and learning and see where we go from there: how do anthropologists teach each other and their varied learners about what is good, bad, right, wrong, desirable, meaningful, irrelevant, and boring in anthropology? And, how could we shift those practices so they emphasize not extraction but relation?
Bonilla, Yarimar. 2015. Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.
Duggan, Lisa. 2022. “Academic Affect.” Commie Pinko Queer (blog), Substack. January 17. Accessed February 26, 2023.
Dumit, Joseph. 2014. “Writing the Implosion: Teaching the World One Thing at a Time.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 2: 344–62.
Felman, Shoshana. 1982. “Psychoanalysis and Education: Teaching Terminable and Interminable.” Yale French Studies 63: 21–44.
Fortun, Kim. 2009. “Figuring out Ethnography.” In Fieldwork is Not What It Used to Be: Learning Anthropology's Method in a Time of Transition. Edited by James D. Faubion and George E. Marcus, 167–183. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
González, Norma. 2010. “Advocacy Anthropology and Education: Working through the Binaries.” Current Anthropology 51, no. S2 : S249–58.
Harrison, Faye V. 1990. “ “Three Women, One Struggle”: Anthropology, Performance, and Pedagogy.” Transforming Anthropology 1, no. 1: 1–9.
———. 2022. “Refusing the God Trick: Engaging Black Women’s Knowledge.” Cultural Anthropology 37, no. 2: 182–90.
hooks, bell. 2003. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge.
Jenks, Angela C. “Teaching Anthropology.” (Spring 2022 Course Site). Accessed February 26, 2023.
Liboiron, Max. 2021. Pollution Is Colonialism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Martin, Sarah J (@eatingpolitics). “on my favourite assignments from the last year that aim to move from the standard policing model of academic citation to a practice of connection and recognition.” Twitter, April 24, 2022.
Shange, Savannah. 2022. “Citation as Ceremony: #SayHerName, #CiteBlackWomen, and the Practice of Reparative Enunciation.” Cultural Anthropology 37, no. 2: 191–98.