Decolonizing the Canon

These past couple of weeks there have been a lot of great articles regarding decolonizing anthropology. Just this week, Savage Minds published their last post on the Decolonizing Anthropology series in which Paige West discussed Teaching Decolonizing Methodologies. 

When I had the opportunity to teach my own class and coordinate the syllabus myself, I sought to teach an introduction to sociocultural anthropology that reflected my experiences engaging in an effort to decolonize anthropology. I compared syllabi, and rather than taking a safer (easier?) route, I looked for resources that reflected the diversity of anthropology and related disciplines. I actively sought readings that would provide the necessary fundamentals to students, while exposing them to the anthropology I wish I had been taught at the introductory level: a decolonized anthropology. Similar to the one I received back home in Puerto Rico.

Research led me to Women Writing Culture, edited by Ruth Behar. In the introduction she says (p. 11):

Anthropologists have belatedly begun to realize that we, too, have a canon, a set of “great books” that we continue to teach to our students, as dutifully as they were once taught to us in graduate school. That these books just happen to be the writings of white men is an idea that can never be brought up. It seems somehow impolite, given anthropology’s virtue as the first academic discipline even to give a damn about all those remote and often vanquished cultures. So we habitually assign the writing of Evans-Pritchard because his work on the Azande and the Nuer has been enshrined as part of our “core” reading list. Yet we rarely ask students to engage with the writing of Alice Walker, even though, as Faye Harrison persuasively shows in her essay for this volume, she has long seen herself as an active interlocutor with anthropology.

This made me realize that the reading list I put together would become the canon in my introductory anthropology course for these students. Whoever is teaching, reinforces the canon. I didn’t have the power to change the curriculum, but I had a chance to steer them towards a decolonized introduction to anthropology.

I did this by dividing each class into two parts. During the first part I lectured. This allowed me to discuss the assigned textbook material (although the textbook was not required for the students) and filter it through my perspective: a cisgender brown queer Puerto Rican anthropologist. This lecture component mainly consisted of discussing the traditional topics and terms that an introductory course touches on: What is culture? Who studies culture? Why do we study culture? What methods do we use? In the second part of the class, we discussed the assigned weekly readings. These readings would be traditional text readings, media readings, or both. In this latter part of the class, we took to task the materials from my own lecture by discussing the readings. I will write a second post detailing the readings and resources I used (post here), but broadly I drew from YouTube videos, Ted Talks, podcasts, and music videos. For text readings I drew material from poets, activists, and academics, giving particular importance to women, people of color, queer people, and Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native academics. I am still learning; if given the chance again, I would seek to include more resources from fields and perspectives that I didn’t include this time.

I received good responses from the students– informally and through the student evaluations. Students enjoyed most of the readings–in the methods classes, they particularly enjoyed reading about Faye Harrison’s fieldwork in Jamaica, from the Decolonizing Anthropology volume she edited. Furthermore, some of my students who identified as people of color were particularly fascinated by the concept of multiple consciousness she discusses. We learned together, and I saw the engagement and energy that the students brought. We even discussed (then) current topics such as the unrest in Baltimore.

Though I had the opportunity and relative power to decolonize part of their learning process, and there are others doing the same, there are criticisms. For example, I read this article recently that I found confronting. The article, aptly titled The Canon Is Sexist, Racist, Colonialist, and Totally Gross. Yes, You Have to Read It Anyway is a response to Yale students asking for their English Literature curriculum to be decolonized:

Here’s the thing, though. If you want to become well-versed in English literature, you’re going to have to hold your nose and read a lot of white male poets. Like, a lot. More than eight….

But you cannot profess to be a student of English literature if you have not lingered in the slipstreams of certain foundational figures, who also happen to be (alas) both white and male…

The canon of English literature is sexist. It is racist. It is colonialist, ableist, transphobic, and totally gross. You must read it anyway.

I disagree completely, mainly because of the author’s dismissive attitude towards the call for decolonizing the curriculum. The article can be discussed at length, but my point is that many of us still crave for this decolonization. We enjoy the richness of anthropology, however we don’t want to relive and reinforce the violence imposed to some of us in the name of anthropology.

Even here in Melbourne Uni!

In the end, my students were exposed to a different anthropology course. If they wanted to learn more about the traditional canon, those that are anthropology majors can do so. These students had exposure to a decolonized canon; one that is not considered irrefutable, and has not been strictly filtered through an outdated colonized mindset. For those students that went through my course, their introduction to anthropology was intersectional, and somewhat decolonized.

I’ll follow up this post with a list of the readings and resources I used for my courses. Follow up post: Decolonizing the Canon Pt.2

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