TEACHING and MENTORING

My teaching reflects my interests as an intellectual, which are quite broad-ranging.  However, the topics and themes of highest priority to me are those that “world social sciences”— attentive to the
structurally-induced “knowledge divides” that characterize the international division of intellectual labor—deem to be of high priority (ISSC 2010).  This is so, in good part, because the problems  this pedagogical and interrelated research agenda addresses are among those defined as meaningful and often imperative by the communities, grassroots organizations, local/translocal social movements, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), development programs, and ethically responsible policy makers within state apparatuses from which we sample our “human subjects.”  The subjects of anthropological inquiry are now conferred the status of research consultants, research participants, and, increasingly, research collaborators and partners, whose voices and knowledges yield not only descriptive data but, in some cases, theoretical insights of more than parochial import.  Mary Weismantel (1995) found that the explanatory schema of the indigenous Ecuadorian community helped her to theorize the results of her ethnographic research. However, even beyond that, Zumbagua theory enhanced her rethinking of the prevailing terms of social scientific and public debates in the United States on “family values.”  She was able to think in more nuanced and effective ways about what constitutes legitimate family life at a moment when the status of same-sex coupling and adoption is highly contested in courts and public culture.

 

Weismantel and other kindred-thinking anthropologists realize that the forms of knowledge social scientists produce are situated within mutually- related contexts of cultural and epistemological diversity.  This can translate into our relating to our “informants” in substantially different ways from what was common in the past. It also entails that we locate ourselves and our scholarship within a wider ecology of plural, differentially-located knowledges that allow for potentially constructive cross-fertilizing dialogues and debates. These webs of connection can move us further along toward larger goals of: (1) “maximizing [our] respective contributions to build more democratic and just societ[ies]” and (2) “decolonizing knowledge and [its relations of co-production and] power” (Santos 2008:xx).  The global social justice to which many basic
and applied researchers aspire to contribute cannot be achieved without “global cognitive justice” (Santos 2008: ixx). The “world anthropologies”  (Ribeiro and Escobar 2006) approach much of my teaching and research reflects addresses issues being engaged across an interdisciplinary range of theoretical and methodological frameworks, including critical race theory, postcolonial discourse, transnational feminism, subaltern studies, and indigenous methodologies (e.g., Denzin et al. 2008) . These, more or less, converge in the basic assumption that more intercultural and democratized modes of knowledge are possible and can be built on grounds beyond those upon which dominant northern epistemologies have been erected (Santos
2008).  This ideal and long-term goal calls for the decentering and repositioning of North Atlantic knowledge(s) on a landscape of epistemological diversity.

 

In light of this conceptual orientation, what, then, are the implications for teaching, advising, and mentoring graduate students?  I understand teaching and mentoring to be a dedicated praxis whose purpose—beyond apprenticing students to prepare them for their individual careers—is to build a critical learning community in which my students and I along with kindred spirits participate. The dynamics of this intentional community permit the reciprocal support needed for both my students and me to pursue and achieve our interrelated objectives in research, scholarship, and teaching.  By meeting mutually-constituted objectives, we aim to advance anthropology (and allied fields of study) as a tool for strengthening and deepening our collective knowledge, understanding, and, to varying degrees, practical problem-solving capacity with respect to salient and, and in some cases, even urgent social issues. Some of the topics students are addressing in their research are: popular religion and environmental conservation (Cuba), transnational hip hop and political protest (Japan),  representations of Occidentalism in motivating emigration to Europe and North America (Nigeria), racial and sexual minorities’ claims for full citizenship (Argentina, Jamaica), parliamentary devolution and mental health policy (Wales), the relationship between indigenous healers and biomedicine-centered health care systems (Mexico), the commodification of indigenous women’s artisanry in tourist development (Bolivia),  the NGO-ization of development (Nicaragua), and the participation of feminist and cultural nationalist activists in a recent general strike and its aftermath (Martinique).

 

Mentoring through a community-building strategy is put into effect in a variety of ways. The linking and coordination of several individualized directed reading course sections have resulted in informal seminars or study groups in which I have worked with four or five students exploring common interests inadequately addressed in the formal curriculum. One example is several students’ concerns with the challenges of publishing and finding publishing outlets receptive to their work. This prompted us to organize a new “course” on Publishing in Anthropology.  We met over lunch every two or three weeks to discuss our “ethnographies” of anthropological journals.  We examined the histories of a selection of both long-established and relatively new journals, the composition of their editorial boards, their various methodological and conceptual orientations, the different styles, genres, and formats for anthropological writing, the multiple audiences for anthropological writing, and the pro’s and con’s of publishing outside of the accepted list or hierarchy of journals. We also discussed the publish-worthiness of the students’ papers, one of which was submitted that semester and eventually accepted and published.  The context for this successful outcome was my collegial network, which I extend to my students, whenever possible.  As a member of this particular journal’s advisory editorial board, I was asked to recommend potential authors who could write on recent changes in Cuba.  I suggested one of my students and a colleague, and the results of the editorial and peer reviews were positive in both cases.

 

Another way of building community and reaping benefits for students is to facilitate their participation in national and international conferences (including United Nations NGO forums), which provide opportunities for professionalization and pipelines for publishing.  Just this past spring, I was invited to give the keynote lecture at an international symposium on development and organizational capacity within Afrodescendant communities in Latin America and the Caribbean. Scholars, community activists, and representatives from major foundations and other funding sources (e.g., Ford Foundation) were assembled for a two-day meeting unique in the extent to which it acknowledged and sought to engage the broader ecology of knowledges integral to effectively addressing Afro-Latin Americans’ social problems, potential solutions to them, and the role of scholar-community partnerships and coalitions.  The students benefited immensely from the feedback on their paper, a chance to extend their networks, and an opportunity to have their work published in a volume that features the contributions of both established and emergent scholars along with key practitioners ( Rethinking the Black Atlantic: Afrodescendants and Development under contract with Michigan State University Press’s African Diaspora Research Project Series).

 

Over the years, I have also taken students with me to United Nations NGO forums, congresses and inter-congresses of anthropology’s international professional association (i.e., the International Union of Anthropological & Ethnological Sciences), and regional, community-centered conferences where they have learned important lessons on social justice and human rights from an array of change agents working on the frontlines that graduate seminars address in more abstract theoretical terms. In a couple of cases, these “field trips” have been the first time a student or former student has traveled outside the country. This invaluable exposure beyond the classroom and formal curriculum has often been a transformative experience. And I do not have the words to express the depth of gratification I have felt when witnessing my students hold their own in these high-powered venues. The critical learning community I facilitate and catalyze has developed its own momentum, motivating the students themselves to assume the principal responsibility for sustaining and directing toward their needs.  For instance, students have collaboratively organized scientific sessions and roundtables around their shared interests for conferences at the local (university), national, and international levels.  Last year’s meeting of the American Anthropological Association featured a University of Florida graduate students’ session that attracted a full audience comprising students as well as senior scholars with national and international reputations.  The students’ success with fielding the audience’s hard-ball questions and the informal after-session conversations demonstrated that the students were well-prepared to perform on anthropology’s national stage. While sitting in the audience, looking around to see the reactions to the papers, I realized that all but one of the panelists were students whom I advise. I was more than pleased that my students were reinforcing the University Florida’s reputation for having an excellent graduate program for training in diasporas, transnationalism, and globalization.

 

The students who share me as an advisor and mentor also sustain and strengthen their networks
of support by organizing potlucks, birthday parties, and graduation celebrations to allow them to socialize as, what they playfully call, “Faye’s tribe.”  At these “tribal” meetings, scheduled at least once a semester in homes or restaurants, there is always some time reserved for communally addressing their most immediate concerns (e.g., preparing research proposals, preparing for qualifying exams, looking for jobs).  We go around in a circle allowing everyone, including the faculty present, an opportunity to speak and receive constructive feedback. This socio-centric, peer-support style of advising and conscious-raising is consistent with feminist and other critical pedagogies and methodologies.  This approach, which underscores shared responsibility for learning and achieving academic excellence, is based on an ethic of care I work hard to implement in my life, pedagogy and other professional activities.

Practicing an ethic of care that is grounded in public interest anthropology, feminist scholarship,
and ethnic studies (which all espouse the complementarity between academic excellence and social responsibility) demands maintaining balance between supportive personal relationships and intellectual honesty.  The latter entails the uncompromising expectation of high caliber work informed by breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding.  Intellectual honesty also involves demanding inquiry and analysis that are convincingly theoretically nuanced, adequately designed methodologically, and grounded in evidence of appropriate quality and quantity.  In other words, theory, method, and data must be appropriately and, when possible, creatively triangulated in order to offset the risks of research results that may be  wonderfully descriptive but woefully under-theorized, or over-theorized but thin with respect to data, or reasonably designed but failing to effectively speak to bigger questions and to skeptical reader’s potentially discounting reaction of “So what?”  These ambitious learning and teaching goals may compel students to invest more time and energy to achieve their graduate milestones. They may have to read more of the literature, rewrite papers or dissertations more times than they would like.  The outcomes, however, are clearly to their advantage, and generally students come to recognize and deeply appreciate this regimen. While I insist, as gently as “tough love” will permit, that they work hard and walk that extra mile, I also demand that standard of myself.  My commitment to my students has, at times, has prompted me to go beyond the call of duty in my attempt to offer the intellectual guidance and moral support students may need.  This has also meant that sometimes mentoring extends beyond the official status of committee chair or member as well as beyond the boundaries of my one’s home department and institution.  I continue to mentor a former undergraduate student who is now in a doctoral program at another university. Relationships built through mentoring praxis can potentially have life- and career-long longevity, embedding cohorts of UF alumni in overlapping communities and coalitions of knowledge and civic engagement, which, hopefully,  will serve them –and the world—well.

In this statement I have described the basic parameters of my mentoring philosophy and practice.  I have emphasized the principles of responsible citizenship and community building that can be enacted across a number of levels and contexts. These range from the local critical learning community I have organized in partnership with my students and the intellectual- action networks and associations that operate nationally and internationally.  Whether my students end up working as academics or as practitioners in any number of non-academic domains, I attempt to encourage them all to aspire, through diverse modalities and situations, to translate their skills into tools useful for reimagining and remaking the world.  Mutually-reinforcing precepts of social and cognitive justice are central to the pedagogy I practice. Through it, I encourage my students and prospective colleagues to ask difficult questions about the constraints and possibilities for further advances in human dignity, reconciliation, peace, and social emancipation. Will or can such advances be achieved through greater corporate responsibility and other measures of economic justice, deeper respect for diverse ways of knowing, or the fuller and more evenly distributed attainment of the human rights to education and cultural life? What are the likely indices or outcomes, and how do we operationalize or discern them in different but ultimately complementary styles of research, including ethnographic and survey-based?  For me, effective mentoring prepares and empowers a new generation of human(e) scientists to engage a life-world fraught with difficult challenges and promising opportunities for asking, answering, and applying the results of potentially useful and liberating questions.

References Cited

Denzin, Norman K., Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds. 2008. Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (editor). 2008.  Another Knowledge is Possible: Beyond
Northern Epistemologies
. London & New York: Verso.

International Social Science Council (ISSC). 2010.  World Social Science Report: Knowledge
Divides
. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.

Ribeiro, Gustavo Lins and Arturo Escobar, eds. 2006. World Anthropologies: Disciplinary Transformations within Systems of Power.  Oxford: Berg.

Weismantel, Mary. 1995.  Making Kin: Kinship Theory and Zimbagua Adoptions. American Ethnologist 22(4):685-709.

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