Sunday, January 10, 2010

Unteaching: its what we do

Its always nice to be reading along and find a reference to anthropology which not only seems to understand us but to promote the best of us.

So, here I was sipping the morning coffee with my laptop open to the Sunday papers (look Ma, no ink-stained fingers) and I ran across one of those same-ole/same ole articles. You can read it at the Saturday (okay, I was working my way up to the Sunday one-sheesh) New York Times here, in an article entitled "Multicultural Critical Theory. At B-School?". Condensed version: business schools are "rediscovering" the value of a liberal arts education for creative and critical thinking skills. I am not sure what is new about this. I worked for a year in the admissions office at Northwestern--waaaaay back then and we tittered at all the clueless students who would come to interview and express an interest in undergraduate business degrees (no, next please). Northwestern didn't have an undergraduate business degree (I assume they still don't). The Kellogg Graduate School of Management wanted students with good grounded liberals arts degrees for their MBA program. I always advise my students that IF they want to do the corporate path, they should get the best, cheapest, all-A liberal arts degree they can (something they like well enough to kick-butt at) and then borrow to the hilt for the best MBA they can get. (Funny to think of little ole me giving advice about how to succeed in the world of corporate capitalism--but I aim to please.)

Anyway, keep reading along and deep into page 3, you will find this lovely quote:

Instead of presenting existing problems to analyze or solve, design-thinking classes send students to do something akin to anthropological field work to find the problems. Then they field-test solutions, refining as they go.

Leaving aside my confusion with the difference between analyzing an existing problem and discovering a new problem--isn't a new problem still an existing problem and doesn't someone, somewhere "know" about it or it wouldn't be a "problem"--its nice to see we still have relevance as a frame of reference. We still retain that undercover, investigative, hanging out in the "real" world feel.

It makes me all wibbly inside. Its what we do--that part of us that can't be measured but easily translates to a classroom--not to be measured--can't be measured but it is transformative. Its Old School.

I always tease my students. Anthropology asks all those questions you asked in grade school and were told to shut up for asking. And then they tried to stuff all that crap into you that really seemed to beggar the question: why don't I have sex with my mother if dogs do? Does Santa Claus do a fly-over on Africa because they were all bad? Does God not like poor people? Do humans taste like chicken? Do human societies piss down their own legs? Do my genitals look like everyone else's? Does everyone else have a bigger penis? Did the Twilight Bark really work; I mean when the dogs were all barking at each other did they really say "quick, hide the puppies because Cruella deVille is after then to turn them all into coats". Is "evil" always angular? What is the meaning of skinny bitch? Does she just need a sandwich? Are we Americans really better than everyone else? Can we save the whole world or just some bits? If we kill all the bad people and only the good ones are left standing do we win? What is going on behind that curtain? If I think bad thoughts about someone else can shit happen? Why does shit happen?

And so you spend time unteaching. I think I spend most of my time unteaching--I suppose that gets labeled as "critical thinking" or the "reexamination of our own cultural biases". In many respects, a good cultural anthropology class just provides the safe environment to ask those questions and rethink how to find the answers. But first, students need to find their way back to those questions and like Walmart, we have to roll back those preconceived notions.

Its nice that when the New York Times is searching for condensed explanations, we still stand for that process: throw off your shackled thinking and go find the answer--in reality not your notions of it.

Now, its on to the actual Sunday paper with its articles about dumping unsold clothing or giving it away (does Africa really need H&M pleather miniskirts?) and exporting the DSM IV (God bless those crazy-ass psych people).


Anonymous said...

I wonder if some disciplines are more suited to unteaching that others? I know I spend about half of my time debunking false assumptions about religion or religious groups.

Eric said...

As a faculty member at the Army's School of Advanced Military Studies, I do much the same thing, and in many ways along the same lines as the NYT article. I think a brief description might help with your confusion about existing vs. discovered problems. We teach design/critical thinking to our students as a way to get them to ask the right types of questions so that they can get past their initial perceptions of a given situation (i.e. what they think the existing problem is) and try to discover those critical relationships that are at the heart of the situation in order to find the "real" problem - if such a thing can be said to exist. Because causal relationships are hard to identify in the highly complex (wicked) problems we ask them to work on, we often find ourselves working to manage rather than "solve" discovered problems. The students' questioning, along with faculty guidance, leads to a lot of unteaching (some of it self-imposed) about assumptions many have about the world and the various actors in it. Our biggest shortcoming is that we don't have any significant social science representation amongst the faculty -- mostly historians, with a few political scientists. I'm to start my graduate work in Anthropology this summer and hope that will better allow me to contribute regarding the human aspects of complexity.

Anonymous said...

Knowledge is power...................................................