Review, Reversed Gaze: Chapter 3: Pursuit of the Other

Ntarangwi, Mwenda. (2010). “Of Monkeys, Africans and the Pursuit of the Other”. In Mwenda Ntarangwi, Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology (pp. 52-77). Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

In the third chapter of Reversed Gaze, Ntarangwi takes anthropology and anthropologists to court on several charges, these include, but are not limited to anthropology’s obsession with constructing and pursuing otherness, exoticizing and ‘preserving’ cultures (which are far more fluid than is being ethnographically represented), emphasizing theory while devaluing applied and practical anthropology, and a complicit role in the commodification of the education system, which is supposed to be public.

He points out that the many shortcomings he experienced in undergraduate, graduate classes and as a professor within a Liberal Arts college in the United States have been widely overlooked by anthropological investigation. The root of this oversight is based on the discipline’s normative structure, which actively encourages its adherents to study ‘otherness’ in all its guises. Therefore the proximity, commonness, ethnicity and racial composition, and familiarity may have dissuaded many academics from researching and/or commenting on the culture of American anthropology. When the anthropology of anthropology is done, many times it is by academics in the later part of their career, which are less useful due to the acculturation which has already occurred over many years.

One example of anthropology’s continued obsession with the ‘other’ which Ntarangwi discusses is a situation in which posters for his university’s Undergraduate Association for Student Anthropologists (UGASA) were posted around the department, which depicted a picture of a monkey juxtaposed with an image of the professional basketball player Michael Jordan in his iconic scissor jumping pose. The poster also related information pertaining to fictitious fieldtrips to “exotic” locations (predominantly in the global East and South). Though these associations were made to attract students and to garner further participation within UGASA, it alerted Ntarangwi’s “symbolic interpretive mind” to its hidden (potentially racist) meanings. This for Ntarangwi was evidence of how anthropology is “fixated with alterity”(2010, 52-54). Another example, is how researchers who could not gain access to foreign (read: African) field sites would nonetheless focus on these groups in their local context, adhering to the normative practice of studying “others” wherever they are located (or constructed).

 Contradictory to anthropology’s obsession with the “other” is the lack of non-Caucasian, non-male faculty members within its American university departments. For our university’s anthropology department specifically, this phenomenon is also quite noticeable (there is not a single non-White professor). Perhaps this is due to class and race divides, which relegate these peoples to the role of informant, rather than as researcher and professor. Perhaps, anthropology still contains remnants of its colonial past. In any case, the fact remains that it is a predominantly an enterprise of White males and is hardly representative of the diversity found in anthropology throughout the world.

Ntarangwi then enters into a more holistic interpretation of what he sees as the fundamental issues which concern him about American anthropology and its proponents. One of his major concerns is that academia is largely selling-out and becoming a commodified product which is being packaged and sold to students in the most easily consummable fashion possible. Accordingly, the author is concerned that such a style of education will lead to student conformity and a disposition for not thinking critically, but instead accepting information passively. The commercialization of education within the US is turning students into consumers, who are investing in a “college experience”, one which may not be geared towards the purpose of learning, but which is viewed simply as another of life’s stages and/or boxes to check. This leads students to employ the best techniques possible to achieve high grades, instead of focusing on the learning process; the ends become the standard of evaluation. This standard is predominantly based on middle and upper class values, which reward compliance, non-responsiveness and the regurgitation of material without any real intellectual digestion. As Sherry Ortner states, “As silence and obedience to authority were rewarded, students learned that this was appropriate demeanor in class” (Ntarangwi 2010, 69).  This situation can lead to professors becoming the sole responsibility for students’ success and if a student does not succeed within a course the blame is laid on the professor’s lack of proficiency, regardless of the degree to which the student engaged with the material. This is problematic, especially considering the anecdotal evidence provided by Ntarangwi concerning undergraduate reading habits.

It is humorous to see the author unable to comprehend how American students were required to read and digest such a large amount of material in such a short period of time compared to their African counterparts, while simultaneously describing his incredulity over the fact that American students who were leading discussions in his classes had privately admitted to not having completed the required reading. Obviously, not actually doing the reading and “bullshitting” their way through seminars made it far easier to achieve these insurmountable goals which so impressed upon Ntarangwi.

Unfortunately, this is a reality which I can personally attest to. Undergraduates simply do not do the required readings and/or work involved. From what I have seen in just one semester as a Teacher’s Assistant (TA) at the undergraduate level in my own university, is that students put in the effort where they locate compensation for their work in the way of grades. If half the energy assigned by my students to the pursuit of grades were assigned to learning the material, grades would be significantly higher. Quite a catch-22, but as Ntarangwi aptly identifies, this is due to acculturation. So, we cannot simply blame the students.

My mother was a professor at the CEGEP level for over 35 years and much of what is described by Ntarangwi would simply make her laugh, furiously, but laugh nonetheless (especially the section which describes how students have become the new “customers” of education and that according to the rules of customer satisfaction, the student is always right). My mother was anything but a conformist. She had a very unique teaching style and would not accept bullshitting, not in the slightest. The idea of being concerned about her chances for tenure based on student evaluations would seem ridiculous to her. So would the idea of catering to students to allow them to achieve higher grades, thereby compromising the material for better results.  Perhaps, anthropology could use of dose of my mother’s specific brand of non-conformity. For conformity begets conformity, and if professors are not challenging themselves and the systems of knowledge in which they exist, such as any self-respective anthropology professor should, how can they expect more from their students?

Ntarangwi does not delve into his own practices as a professor and I would be interested to see if his practices differed markedly than those he is commenting on. If they do, why has the author not provided a more detailed account of potential avenues for similar improvement or alterations? From my own experience (two terms of TAship), I can simply provide one example of how things can be done differently in the classroom setting. This was when I gave a lecture on interviewing, in which I briefly explained what the process entailed (the students had already read assigned texts on the subject) and then had three students attempt to conduct interviews with me pretending to be their informant, for all to observe. This practical application of anthropology is rarely experienced within the classroom and yet the professor told me that the students believed that they had benefitted greatly from the process. It had given them an experience of what fieldwork could really be and the sorts of obstacles they may have to overcome with unreasonable, vague and discriminatory interviewees.

In reviewing this chapter, I hope that I have given our seminar group some interesting points to discuss. The chapter is so very rich in great ideas and pertinent questions, that no less than a full paper could begin to address them all. The unique perspective provided by Ntarangwi should allow us the opportunity to reflect on our practices, making for stimulating discussion and providing insight into potential inroads to improvements in the inclusivity of our discipline.

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