Why Pedagogy is an Anthropological Problem

Opening our teaching to risk, horizontal interactions, UnEssays, and ungrading offers ways to truly cultivate students’ learning needs, curiosity, and responsibility—in line with what anthropologists report from learning throughout the world.

The drive to learn in humans is something so strong, so defining of human nature according to anthropologists, that it should still amaze us as truly remarkable that we have been able to design a social institution that can teach [people] to fail at learning.
Ruth Paradise 

The first place to find education is not in pedagogy but in participatory practice […]. Democratic education […] is the production not of anonymity but of difference. […] We should cease regarding education as a method of transmission, and think of it rather as a practice of attention.
Tim Ingold

In teaching introductory anthropology, we often remind our students that one of the hallmarks of our species is the transmission of cultural knowledge and practices—in other words, social learning. (Yes, nonhuman primates do it too. And birds.) The early anthropologists were curious about enculturation and socialization, and attention to these topics endures in our discipline and social theory more generally. Anthropologists lovingly detail interactions among caregivers and children, between experts and novices, across networks. We have observed and analyzed the many ways humans learn, across time and space, through observation, imitation, trial and error, apprenticeship, and sometimes but in limited ways, direct instruction. We debate whether pedagogy is needed and universal. We note the ways racism, class, gender, ability, and nationalism are produced and reproduced in classrooms.

But usually this work focuses on childhood, not necessarily on older learners like the adults we engage with daily.

Which is funny, because for those of us teaching in higher education, that’s our milieu. That’s the air we breathe.

Or maybe that’s why. It can be threatening, even inconvenient, to notice the many ways people learn in life, and then to experience the limited learning practices in conventional universities and colleges. Not only limited: we have naturalized strange and ineffective and even harmful practices—practices that many of us are questioning. As the twenty-first-century anthropological inquiry into both the “suffering subject” and “the good”—topics analyzed especially by Joel Robbins and Sherry Ortner—continues, I urge us to direct some attention to observing, analyzing, and then improving our own educational practices. There is no doubt that students are often suffering, for reasons too complex to enumerate here, but also that faculty interacting with them daily, especially tenured, privileged, white faculty like me, have a choice about whether to intervene on behalf of “the good.”

Illustration of three people
Image description: Three people are pictured: one writes on a piece of paper with a pen, another wears headphones and speaks into a microphone, and another holds a camera up in front of their face. Emily Thiessen

Pedagogy—and its less-well-known but etymologically correct counterpart andragogy (teaching adults, not children)—involves purposeful learning interactions. Pedagogy can mean the narrow attention to direct instruction, as in Ingold’s charge, or a broader sense of any educational structures, including those emphasizing freedom.

I’ve been studying learning from an anthropological perspective for over 15 years—sometimes ethnographic, often autoethnographic, but often deeply ethnological too. I’ve become a proponent of progressive pedagogy, which has political and philosophical dimensions. My work has been simultaneously practical and applied, and deeply theoretical. I use insights from cultural, linguistic, biological, and psychological anthropology to improve the learning in my classes. We know that humans are inherently social, that we are bodily, that we interact in multiple modalities. We know that humans are socialized into and through language via meaningful interactions, and certainly not solely by means of direct instruction.

So in my own journey into the meanings of schooling and higher education, I’ve ended up focusing on pedagogy, and have shifted numerous practices.      

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“What do I need to do to get an A?”

Arbitrary due dates. Participation points. Closed-book exams. Five-paragraph essays. Permission for absences. Extra credit. Learning outcomes. Grading on a curve. Proctoring. Spelling. Penalties for wrong answers on the way to learning. Competition and individualism assumed and naturalized and enforced. Credit hours. Seat time. Speed. The lecture. The PowerPoints. The Learning Management System. Classroom management. A+.

In contemporary higher education, we often think about techniques, tactics, and strategies to improve or at least sustain our cooked-in practices, under the guidance of centers for teaching and learning who have been doing heroic work during the pandemic, forcing everyone to pay attention. How to record lectures and motivate students to watch? How to proctor remote exams and ensure that eyes do not stray from the screen? How to entice or require students to keep their cameras on during what is coming to be known as “Zoom class”?

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bell hooks writes that “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy […] I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions—a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom.”

Freedom to risk.

Freedom to speak. Or not to speak.

Freedom to choose how to engage, how to produce, how to communicate.

Freedom to ask the real questions.

In my efforts to create a microcosm of the world I aspire to—not fully unschooling, though I embrace the insights if not the privilege of the unschooling movement—I have begun to undo a lot of expected structures. My guide is an approximation of “authentic” learning outside the classroom, where learning is motivated intrinsically, by use and need and curiosity. (Like all mammals, humans are intensely curious—just often not expecting to satisfy this in school, which has become for most a high-stakes game of points.) I aim to create conditions where students interact horizontally and without need for permission. I aim to model authentic learning that is ubiquitous outside school. (The term is problematic, of course, but it is essential not to have entirely artificial, game-the-system structures.) This model of genuine learning derives in part from an ethnographic project I’ve conducted in community-based internships but also from the rich body of anthropological writing about learning.

Ungrading provides the safety to take the risks we know are necessary for real learning, and which includes mistakes, failure, imperfection along the way.

Using an ethnographic approach to my own classes—with long-term participant observation and autoethnography and attempts to develop what Ortner called “rapport” and using the self “as the instrument of knowing”—I’ve tweaked and revised and refined and analyzed and rethought every dimension of classroom practices. (Institutional review boards aren’t needed for classroom improvement.) Evidence comes from our interactions and student products, as well as from explicit feedback, including student evaluations.

I can no longer accept the contradictions between my theoretical and moral understanding on the one hand and conventional practices on the other: deploring surveillance theoretically yet practicing it by suspecting students of falsifying reasons for absences or tardy completion; celebrating students developing a voice and agency yet controlling all the interactions; knowing that learning requires mistakes-as-information yet penalizing error; learning that students doing is more effective than teachers telling yet continuing to tell students what I know.

So now I’ve shifted, as much as possible, to align my knowledge and my practices. You might say I’ve experienced a shift from semantics to pragmatics. Here are three ways this has occurred in my work-in-progress teaching evolution.

1. Horizontalizing interaction

Trying to invite, rather than coerce, student involvement, participation, and engagement, is a necessary challenge if we seek democratic and horizontal, not vertical, structures. This includes naming practices, initiation of topics, responses, and more. Our practices and structures are more powerful than our explicit claims.

Nearly a decade ago, anthropologist Michael Wesch contemplated the “soul-burning questions” his young son pondered in contrast to those his students asked, like “Do we have to know this for the test?”  I invite students to generate their own questions (“How do others’ thoughts differ from my own?” or “If society is a construct then does it matter what you do in it?”) to cocreate the curriculum and syllabus, to have different experiences during the same semester. If we celebrate diversity in the human world, shouldn’t we make space for it in classes? Multilingualism, assets, inclusion, diversity, and relativism force us to notice the ways processes of standardization and minoritization occur in classes too.

I constantly rethink how to organize the spaces in which we engage. I aim to find digital tools that can facilitate and invite students to initiate conversations rather than merely responding to my prompts (Slack is my current choice). In physical classrooms we move around, sit in small groups, have a lot of energy and bustle to remind students that they are part of a community of learners and that their choices and voices are not only welcome but needed. Remote learning is challenging; I love the freedom of the chat on Zoom, the collective energy of simultaneous writing on a Google doc, Google slide, JamBoard. We’ve newly rediscovered that the lack of “collective effervescence” is one of the principal losses of moving from face-to-face classes to online-only interactions.

2. Inviting UnEssays

Linguistic anthropologists study multiple forms of interaction, which may involve speech and writing but may also be visual, tactile, and so on. If one of our goals is to help students prepare for life beyond school, to be the confident learners and members of society that most other societies aim to produce—as George Spindler and Louise Spindler showed in their powerful essay on why the educational practices of the Arunta of Australia and the Hutterites of North America produce only success—then attention to genre is essential. Linguistic anthropology would remind us to consider modalities, audiences, effects, and pragmatics. In “real life” students will have to choose how to convey their messages.

Writing involves authorship, voice, genre, convention. Ethics of writing include local rules about acknowledgment and citation. Authorship is a deeply anthropological question. We know that in all communication the meaning is cocreated through interactions between producers and auditors (the roles are constantly switching) in particular contexts. What happens when the teacher is the only audience? What are the effects? What if that changes and the audience is more real?

UnEssays (see Denial 2019 for some examples) are college assignments that involve students choosing among a host of modalities and genres, not merely academic writing, in order to deepen their learning and convey it to audiences in ways that are appealing and currently relevant. So UnEssays not only occur in multiple genres, but they also have multiple, authentic audiences. In one course alone, my students produced podcasts, songs, games, infographics, Instagram interviews with images, videos, letters (to birth mothers, former selves, siblings, institutions that were helpful), odes, and more. They learned. They had fun. They experimented with challenging new technologies. They workshopped in small groups. They shared with friends and family. The class appreciated their efforts (unless it was so personal that they requested privacy). They had autonomy and practiced making genuine choices about how to present their learning.

But this risk-taking was possible only because of a third dimension: ungrading.

We know that humans are inherently social, that we are bodily, that we interact in multiple modalities.

3. Conversing with ungrading

Ungrading, the total or partial removal of a focus on grades in classrooms, is another approach to challenging the conventional institutional practices of higher education. Instead of grades (unified, simplified, quantitative summations of student “output,” whether numbers or letters), teachers such as myself have instituted other sorts of feedback, including narrative feedback, conferences, self-assessment, peer-assessment and workshopping, portfolios, reflection, and appreciation (see Blum 2020 for some examples). Just as in real life actions have consequences, which, like speech, evaluate actions, so in classes without grades the consequences do not stem from attempting to please one singular authority figure, who is likely to impose arbitrary and often inconsistent standards (research shows huge inconsistency among different faculty grading standards). In the work on the so-called language gap that many of us have been involved in for years now (see for example, Avineri et al. 2015; Blum 2017b; Ochs and Kremer-Sadl 2020), we’ve shown the harms of naturalizing practices such as parents asking known-answer questions and the I-R-E (initiation-response-evaluation) model, as Hugh Mehan termed it. These mimic the teacher-centered practices with high-stakes praise or failure that encourage gaming the system lest failure result.

Ungrading provides the safety to take the risks we know are necessary for real learning, and which includes mistakes, failure, imperfection along the way.

Motivation then stems not from the coerced external pressures to please but from intrinsic need, curiosity, and responsibility. Many of us still work in settings where semester-final grades must be submitted. Like most others who practice ungrading, I invite students to suggest their own grade in conferences and with dialogue (see Blum 2017a and 2020 for more on this). Students constantly report relief and pleasure in being able to learn for themselves rather than merely for the grade, and many say they work even harder because of that.

Toward the good

These ideas are not new. I didn’t invent them. Jules Henry, who wrote in 1967 of “sham” being taught in schools, was an anthropologist. All the studies of ritual, rites of passage, and socialization that form the often-colonialist foundation of the discipline point out that societies are often arranged for the purpose of teaching—with or without teachers. Education scholar Howard Kirschenbaum and colleagues wrote a critique of the “grading game” back in 1971. Little to nothing has changed since then in standard classroom practices. But a growing number of people are changing their practices.

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Pedagogy involves all the anthropological topics a person could want—personhood, emotion and affect, power, economy, well-being and suffering, social transmission, skill, the built environment, materiality, time, space, modalities, the floor, status, interaction, ontology and epistemology, learning, the brain, bodies, life stages and life course, novices and experts, care, discipline and surveillance, the normative, structure and agency, sociality, actor network theory, networks, institutions, identities, roles, genres, literacies, work.

Pedagogy requires attention to practice, consequences, and outcomes. It has become a completely absorbing focus for me, and I am in the field every minute of every day, watching, analyzing, critiquing, and changing. I learn and I try to walk in company with others on this journey toward the anthropology of the good, beyond suffering, especially in dark times.

Susan D. Blum is a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. Following a previous incarnation as an anthropologist of China, she has written or edited three books about higher education: My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (2009), “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College (2016), and most recently Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) (2020).

Emily Thiessen is an illustrator and climate justice organizer living in Lekwungen Territories/Victoria, British Columbia. She holds an anthropology degree and has a fire for creative troublemaking. You can see her work at emilythiessen.ca.

Cite as: Blum, Susan D. 2021. “Why Pedagogy is an Anthropological Problem.” Anthropology News website, April 13, 2021.

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