Doing Our Feminist Homework

Feminist anthropology has long questioned who teaches whom, about what, and to what ends. As anthropologists confront a precarious future, can a feminist perspective help us to remake the discipline?

In the wake of political shifts over the past year, from the increasing visibility of racist and sexist discourses on campus to drastic cuts to state appropriations for higher education, anthropology’s future seems increasingly tenuous. Anthropologists recognize a discrepancy between our discipline’s potential to address current events and its current precarious position in the academy.

Anthropology’s pedagogical turn moves inward to interrogate the conditions under which we create knowledge—conditions that are necessarily relational and structural. Feminist anthropologists have long engaged in such interrogative projects.
In their recent discussion of precarity in anthropology, Platzer and Allison (2018) suggest that our enthusiasm for new trends and “turns” may be in part to blame for this inability to communicate anthropology’s value. Yet their piece also represents what we might call a pedagogical turn. Scholars engaging in this pedagogical turn recognize that anthropology’s futures rest on our capacity to dismantle conventional divides between theory and data, teaching and research, scholarship and service.

The questions at stake in these conversations are pedagogical in the broadest sense; rooted in reciprocal, iterative processes of teaching and learning. Such processes inform our work as students and instructors. But they also take place in the introductions and literature reviews of publications, in hallway conversations with colleagues in other disciplines, in arguments about what to teach in the theory course, in the tables of contents of readers, in projects conducted in collaboration beyond the discipline and academy. Anthropology’s pedagogical turn reshapes the discipline’s future by considering these various pedagogical projects within a single frame.

This pedagogical turn follows in the footsteps of feminist anthropology, which has always taken a two-pronged approach to critique. By exploring role of gender in economic life on the Trobriand Islands, or in diverse discursive strategies among the Bedouin, feminist anthropologists produced richer accounts of the politics of everyday life. But their work also raised critical questions about why gender had been absent from anthropological conversations in the first place. Feminist anthropology’s interventions have always moved both outwards, describing the world, and inwards, engaging the politics of academic knowledge production.

An ethnographic example: the question and answer periods at both keynote sessions of the inaugural Society for Linguistic Anthropology meeting in March were dominated by pragmatic discussions of how to broaden anthropology’s appeal. As participants brainstormed, they focused on issues of inclusivity: of linguistic anthropology within anthropology’s four fields; of anthropology within larger institutional and extra-academic conversations; of non-anthropologists in linguistic anthropology; and most of all, of female scholars, scholars of color, and scholars from a diverse array of institutional backgrounds. I was struck by how frequently participants gestured to classic works in feminist anthropology, such as Catherine Lutz’s classic work on theory and citation, to support their arguments.

Turning inward

We can ask similar questions of how power, privilege, and inequality work to structure our discipline within anthropology programs, across departments within an institution, and between institutions in an increasingly unequal higher education landscape.
Anthropology’s pedagogical turn moves inward to interrogate the conditions under which we create knowledge—conditions that are necessarily relational and structural. Feminist anthropologists have long engaged in such interrogative projects. Theoretical texts in feminist anthropology often begin, as Dána-Ain Davis and Christa Craven’s Feminist Ethnography (2016) does, with an ethnographic vignette set in the hallways of a conference. In her classic Fictions of Feminist Ethnography, Kamala Visweswaran describes this work as “homework” that engages “questions of our own schooling” (1994, 104). Such work explores the pedagogies that produced us as scholars by unpacking the assumptions about authority and belonging that they reproduce. And it requires learning from the embodied experiences of scholars in the field, in our institutions, and in the world (see e.g., Berry et al 2017; Navarro, Williams, and Ahmad 2013).

It is not a coincidence that these particular works are written by scholars of color who have asked whether feminist anthropology can fully address the complicated thicket of classed, raced, and gendered positions that shape who becomes visible in anthropology. The labor behind an inward pedagogical turn requires the kind of citational attention long discussed by feminist anthropologists, who have demonstrated the highly structured patterns of erasure that mark citation practices in anthropology. These patterns of citational erasure are recursive, as Lynn Bolles (2013) points out: the erased, too, participate in erasure.

Working beyond the discipline

By turning inward, revisiting who becomes an anthropologist, how, and through socialization into what canon, a pedagogical turn enables anthropology to look outwards as well. Such engagement is critical because the future of anthropology is interdisciplinary, and not only in the sense that many anthropologists find scholarly homes outside the discipline and academy. As academic resources, from grants to jobs, grow scarcer, the ability to communicate the value of anthropology is existentially important. For example, the small anthropology program where I had my first tenure-track job lost a line not long after I was hired, when a senior colleague took advantage of an early retirement program driven by budget cuts. Our ability to earn the line back depended on increasing the number of students who enrolled in classes and listed anthropology as a primary major. Growing those numbers, in turn, meant educating colleagues in other disciplines about cultural anthropology’s value so that they would promote our classes as electives. While I was ready to teach in the context of a classroom, my training had left me unprepared for this other pedagogical labor, where dynamics of authority and expertise were far less clear.

In these engagements, I’ve found myself drawing on the insights of my training in feminist anthropology. For example, scholars have used ethnographic insights to explode the notion of an automatic sisterly solidarity. Instead, researchers have contextualized efforts to create solidarity by asking how power, privilege, and inequality connect and divide women within and across societies. We can ask similar questions of how power, privilege, and inequality work to structure our discipline within anthropology programs, across departments within an institution, and between institutions in an increasingly unequal higher education landscape. Similarly, Sally Engle Merry and others drive growing conversation in feminist anthropology about how categories such as “women’s rights” transform as they are translated across scales, geographies, and economies (e.g. Gal, Kowalski, and Moore 2015). Again, we can ask similar questions about the effects on anthropology programs of campus key words like “diversity” as they circulate between federal education laws, administrative mission statements, curricular mandates, and the intimate politics of everyday interactions between colleagues.

A pedagogical future

If we are to ensure the discipline’s future we must look to its diverse pedagogies with a feminist eye. The contemporary structure of the academy treats classroom teaching, research, and the amorphous work of engaging with colleagues (often labeled “service”) as separate spheres. Feminist anthropology teaches us that such distinctions are arbitrary categories imposed on a connected set of activities. Feminist anthropologists argue that in order to make visible people whose experiences are erased by the powerful in our field sites, we must reshape the politics of knowledge production “at home” on campus.

Under the banner of feminist anthropology, scholars have long argued over questions of who teaches whom, about what, with what costs and to what ends. These questions have resulted in sophisticated analyses about the role of pedagogy in reproducing and transforming social worlds—including the discipline of anthropology itself. By bringing these insights into dialogue with anthropology’s pedagogical turn, feminist anthropology’s insights can be used to coordinate our efforts across the domains of teaching, conducting and disseminating research, and remaking our campuses in order to work towards a less precarious future for our discipline.

Beginning in August, 2018, Julia Kowalski will be an assistant professor of global affairs at the University of Notre Dame. She previously taught at North Dakota State University. Her research explores gender, kinship, and women’s rights discourse in north India.

Cite as: Kowalski, Julia. 2018. “Doing Our Feminist Homework.” Anthropology News website, July 12, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.904

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