Black Lives Matter Syllabus Project

Year-End Reflections on The 2016-17 Anthropoliteia BlackLivesMatterSyllabus Project

Welcome to the last post of the 2016-2017 year of Anthropoliteia’s #BlackLivesMatter syllabus. We’ve invited all of the series contributors to offer their thoughts here as we reflect on the past year. We can’t thank all of the contributors enough— collectively, hours and hours of inspired labor and creativity went into the blog posts. The 32 weeks represent sustained efforts by thoughtful faculty who produced these contributions in the midst of their on-going duties of teaching, research, and the thousand other jobs that professors due that go uncounted.

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Sameena Mulla: As I reoriented my teaching strategies in relation to the syllabus, I tried to be brave and experiment in the classroom. Learning is a long process— I only feel confident to say that I have begun to learn, and unlearn, some things through the writings on the syllabus. I think (I hope) that I set my students on a path of learning (and unlearning) this semester.

Anne Galvin: Thanks for inviting me to contribute to the project. I’ve been on research leave this semester and contributing has made me realize I need to rethink how I’m teaching Intro to Cultural Anthropology in order to include more of the dialogue that occurred between canonical anthropologists of the early 20th Century and scholars of color. I’m looking forward to experimenting with this in the fall and hope it will open up some good discussion.

Kevin Karpiak: Anne, this is one thing that stuck out for me as well. Not to get too far into the weeds here, but the whole project began to strike me as an exercise in critical genealogy. As opposed to, say canonical historiography which attempts to be both singular and exhaustive (and, in the process subsuming “diversity” even under the name of “inclusion”), genealogy (think Max Weber, Walter Benjamin, late Foucault or Paul Rabinow) explicitly and reflexively starts with a contemporary problem and, in the attempt to understand how it came to be, actually offers ways of reworking how we read the past in light of the present. I really started to read in these posts an ongoing experiment in how to reshape our understanding of the discipline–from how we tell our histories, to what we do in the classroom and beyond–in light of the challenge of the contemporary moment.

Sameena Mulla: Experimentation is a nice way to think about our pedagogy. I tried to encourage my students to be playful and experimental this semester. Savannah Shange’s reminder to use laughter to challenge the affective compulsions that accompany these conversations was helpful in this way.

Lee D. Baker: Thank you so much for pulling together this community of learning. It was such a great mix of different approaches united by common threads that teaching is a powerful way to educate students to become agents of social justice, or at least critically informed citizens. Another thread was that our teaching, and sharing what and how we teach, can be a powerful way to educate each other.

Ashanté Reese: I agree with Lee. I spend quite a bit of time thinking about texts and creating meaningful assignments for students. This series gave me an opportunity to see a bit of what that process looks like for others. Secondly, the diversity of perspectives and approaches further convinced me that limiting our discussions of anti-blackness to policing sorely misses the mark of how invasive anti-blackness is (and, conversely, how expansive black joy can be). Lastly, Shange’s piece about laughter is powerful. I have not intentionally engaged laughter as a form of accountability in the classroom space. Gives me some things to think about for future courses!

Amrita Ibrahim: Sameena and I had been talking about how the difficulty or unwillingness to talk about race shows up in ethnographic writing and thinking and professional practice of many anthropologists. This often amounts to a discomfort that doesn’t allow for the writer to make a claim, no matter how contingent, ‘that’s racist’. Racism is everywhere, but some scholars (or general public, too) – almost always not Black or scholars of color – are afraid or skeptical of calling it out as such even when it appears to be staring us right in the face. The complexities of race in the making of locality, experience, or an event are put on hold in favour of a kind of methodological or epistemological cop out – but how do we know? How can we be sure?

April J Petillo: When you sit at the intersection of several disciplines, operating as though black life actually matters (to paraphrase Sameena and Kevin’s initial conversation) can feel like sitting in sniper crosshairs. In academic institutions outside of urban centers and/or entrenched in the politics of fear, looming crosshairs keep you in a loop of “explaining, justifying, and clarifying” your perspective, your methods and your tools. That repetition is kinda cute in a romcom movie but not so charming in everyday academic life. And let’s face it: the academy can be a very lonely, isolated place. Further, the impacts and nuances of anti-blackness—both as culture and disciplinary focus—is scary stuff. Thus, committing to naming and addressing anti-blackness with a decolonized approach doesn’t usually expand your circles in these already lonely spaces. This syllabus has been a lifeline for the isolated who challenge folks (students, other faculty, and administrators) to question what they have been told as well as the particular manner in which that information was communicated. As many have already mentioned, this has been a LIFE GIVING exercise. Among other things, syllabus contributors have encouraged us to push pedagogy beyond the usual, to nudge conversations about state sanctioned anti-blackness beyond individual instances of police violence towards cartographies of state manipulated patterns of cultural behavior and to bring an expanded (even anthropological) notion of teaching as a transformative act/process into our classrooms.

Amrita Ibrahim: Another trope I have noticed are ethnographic vignettes that set up an elaborate scene that are almost like media templates through which Racism capital R is easily recognisable, followed by the revelation that there is a personal stake on the part of the ethnographer. “If this can happen to me, speaking from the place of whiteness/privilege, then it could happen to anyone!”/”We should really care more to understand the structure of police violence and its impact on communities of color”/”This personal experience gives me authority to speak to the experience of people of color who suffer police violence.” These same scholars speaking from the place of privilege also very visibly don’t really cite too many contemporary scholars of color who are doing excellent work in. This personal vignette mode to me just confirms recognisable liberal positions from which racism can be identified – clear instances of violence rather than the everyday ways in which our lives today rest on a history of racialised violence. Which is why Elizabeth Chin’s post, for instance, really stuck with me. We seem hemmed in by those who want proof of racism, point to where it appears emergent, point to the word, the gesture, find me the intent that discloses the racist beliefs that lie within a mind and body. Otherwise how can you say that so-and-so is racist or that race is even the major factor?

Thurka Sangaramoorthy: I appreciated being a part of this project, mostly because it allowed me the freedom to write and speak in ways that felt comfortable and calming especially in these tumultuous times, and to be a part of a community of teacher-learners pushing forth long existing and new ways of thinking and doing.

Sameena Mulla: It’s interesting to hear Thurka reflect on feeling freedom to write and to contrast that with what Amrita identifies as the closed off ways in which many ethnographies have dealt with racism and race, which then become the conditions under which many anthropologists are trying to write about #BlackLivesMatter.

Amrita Ibrahim: This is why I appreciated the #BLM syllabus project so much. It created an unapologetic, proud, emancipatory (at times also very viscerally affective) space to talk about race, violence, power, one that is hard, certainly for me to find, in some of the physical spaces I traverse on a daily basis. As I write this I embark on a year-long fellowship that places innovative pedagogy geared towards embracing ‘diversity and difference’ at the center of its mission. As part of a largely white cohort of fellows who will redesign courses with the goal of addressing diversity (What that means and what strategies to address it in the classroom look like is still up for discussion) I am constantly reminded how buzzwords like diversity and inclusion are often thrown around like master’s tools rather than with real dismantling power. As I redesign my course on policing for the fall, I’m planning to use Anthropolitiea and the #BLM syllabus project to generate innovative methods of reading and engaging my students in the classroom. This wouldn’t be possible without all the contributors who shared their work and thoughts unapologetically and with courage, their resilience, vulnerability, and celebratory vigor. My thanks to all of them, and to Sameena and Kevin for spearheading this incredibly important and inspiring project.

Meg Stalcup: That little phrase at the beginning, “The editors of Anthropoliteia are happy to continue an ongoing series…which will mobilize anthropological work as a pedagogical exercise addressing the confluence of race, policing and justice” was really true. As editors and contributors we’ve experimented in lots of ways since Kevin instigated the founding of this blog back in 2009, but I think the #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus Project implements what we were hoping for. Thank you, Sameena and Kevin. As others are highlighting in this wrap-up, one of the pleasures of the #BLM syllabus, and what I’d guess will be one of its significant ramifications, was sharing interests with a group of scholars and seeing, in the sharing, an open community of colleagues emerge. I learned from how everyone put their lesson plans together, multimodal, pluri-generic, empirical, attuned to students in all their specificity. It was confirmative (oh good, that’s how other people do it too) and instructive (excellent idea, I am going to try that; that reference is new to me, I’m going to look it up). Another aspect I appreciated was the descriptions of students and the centrality of their interests and backgrounds inside and outside of the classroom. The syllabus project was partly (not only) an exchange of texts and techniques, and one way it was useful for me (maybe particularly because I teach in a country not my own) was the discussion of how and for what student populations they were put into action. We developed a resource for learning, unlearning, and teaching different things, but also for teaching differently. I think of this project as an effort to make visible the anthropology that we are individually already practicing, but in doing so publicly, collaboratively, we effectively define an anthropology that is both actual and aspirational. This is an anthropology of the contemporary and its problems, which are mélanges of old and new, the enduring and the emergent. But creating a syllabus, which for us and our students conceptualizes the contemporary and offers tools for working in it, is also an ongoing act of newly imagining the world we want to live in.

Bianca C. Williams: This series has been a gift, for a multitude of reasons: (1) It was tougher than usual to teach during this last year, with the increased awareness around police violence and anti-Black racism globally; with students asking hard questions about what they were observing, experiencing, and feeling on and off campus, and needing real, practical answers. The series helped me hear how others were using the current moment to illustrate and apply the theoretical concepts we teach, with purpose and urgency. It pushed me to expand my pedagogy. (2) The contributors provided readers the opportunity to talk about teaching in a serious fashion. We underestimate the need for spaces like this. Teaching is often seen as the “soft” labor of the academy, even though many of us, particularly marginalized instructors and faculty, know that the teaching is where much of the transformative work gets done. (3) It was a pleasure to contribute to a multi-generational, multi-vocal conversation that includes some of my most beloved teachers, mentors, and role models (Lee D. Baker, Dana-Ain Davis, Gina Ulysse, and Faye Harrison, for example), and some of my dopest, brilliant peers (Ashante Reese, Riche Barnes, Christen Smith, and Savannah Shange, among others). It’s difficult to find physical spaces to get all of us together to think collectively and share our experiences as teachers. With this series, readers will at least to get to hear/read the gift of a long legacy of anthropologists who are dedicated to pushing the boundaries, and expanding the ways we do and teach anthropology. (4) It’s rare to have spaces in anthropology where Black folx are centered. For over 30 weeks, this series demanded that we center Black peoples, Black communities, Black researchers, knowledge(s) created by Black folx, and ideas about/strategies for Black liberation in the name of making #BlackLivesMatter. ALL of them. Everywhere. Thank you to Sameena and Kevin, for your editorial work, for your contributions, and for pulling us all into a conversation that I hope continues to teach folx for a very long time.

Maurice Rafael Magaña: I am so grateful to Sameena and Kevin for the huge undertaking of creating the #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus Project, to Deena for all her work on the project, and of course, to all my brilliant colleagues (those I already know and those I hope to connect with in the future) for their contributions. The invitation to participate gave me the space to really think critically about my own pedagogy- in a more formal way than I usually allow myself the time or space to do. Bianca’s comment about teaching being seen as the “soft labor” that scholars engage in, really highlighted for me the point that most of us- myself included- are never taught how to teach. Too often, teaching is seen as being less serious and consequential than research. When we are divvying up our precious time and energy, our success (read: job security) relies on our mirroring the parameters set forth for our promotion. For many of us that means “don’t be a horrible teacher but focus on your research and service.” The Syllabus was a gift that allowed me to take that time to reflect on my pedagogy and to see how some of my colleagues were tackling issues of anti-Blackness and state violence through their teaching. To see so many amazing scholars honing their craft in the classroom by developing innovative and urgent approaches to these issues gives me much hope.

Ashanté Reese: Bianca’s response made me think about something else. The 2016 AAA meetings marked a significant shift in the discipline to me; a manifestation of the blood, sweat, tears, and work of many Black anthropologists over the years. Between Melissa Harris Perry’s opening address, the Unapologetically Black Anthropology roundtable, and the many dope panels that were unabashedly naming and critiquing white supremacy and global anti-black racism, 2016 AAA demonstrated exactly what it looks like when Black anthropologists’ voices are centered and amplified. It was, quite honestly, the first year I’ve been excited to attend AAAs, and because of it, I built new relationships (s/o to Sameena for the great conversation we had sitting on the floor at the convention center) and intentionally nurtured old ones. Though this series was already up and running before AAAs, I believe it became a space for extending those conference conversations into a public, shared space that feels sacred. These posts will be among the artifacts folx will look back to 20 years from now when they ask, “what happened that led to xyz changes in the discipline?” This. This is what happened.

April J. Petillo: As Bianca Williams noted above—this has been a hard time to broach these subjects and do these things. And Ashanté Reese is on point—the 2016 AAA meeting hinted at a professional future wherein fully centered, amplified Black anthropological perspectives mattered. (Is there a “Yes, LAWT!” somewhere?) It’s also worth mentioning that the response at this meeting also highlighted association chasms that develop when a group shows up to engage in academically informed truth-speaking/testimony. As I orbit anthropological circles from a different discipline this syllabus has been that “unapologetic, proud, emancipatory…space” that Amrita Ibrahim describes, feeling like freedom to redefining capital T Truth. The tensions that freedom–amidst ethnographic spaces limited in their capacities to discuss the intersections of race, power and violence–produces are well represented in these glorious contributions. This tension has manifested what Reese calls Black joy—embodied and pushed out into the pedagogical universe. Thank you, Sameena and Kevin, for giving that joy creative, collaborative space. This has been a good, much needed thing that will ripple for quite some time

Gina Athena Ulysse: Thank you to both of you for spearheading the project and to all the contributors who shared their knowledge. I know I learned a lot and I will certainly continue to use it not just because of its breadth but also because of its timeliness. My hope for the syllabus, however, is its impact on the future. I concur with Ashantee Reese, this is a tremendous contribution to the anthropological archive. A reminder that as Lani Guinier wrote, Black folks are the canaries in the mine.

The Editors of Anthropoliteia would once again like to thank the contributors to this forum, and the series as whole, as well as all the readers who kept encouraging and inspiring us along the way. As of this time, The Anthropoliteia BlackLivesMatter Syllabus Project is no longer scheduled as a weekly series, however we do continue to welcome occasional submissions and other creative ideas for moving forward. Feel free to send these along to anthropoliteia@gmail.com.
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