I left my junior year studying abroad in Delhi convinced that economics was the key to understanding all of the world’s problems. I had studied with an Indian micro-economist at Delhi University, and he had taken me to field sites in Haryana, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. During these trips we sat down with families and organizations, often spending the whole weekend collecting data. We normally began each field visit by trying to collect quantitative information about income and daily expenses, costs of school and family population. However more interesting descriptions emerged from people about the discrepancies of how policies were intended and what was being enacted. For example, we asked about the amount of money people received from the government employment schemes, but people told us about the performances they had to do to get the money. Or we tried to get data on school enrollment and attendance, but students told us about the hours of self study while their teachers chewed paan and read the newspaper. When I returned to the University of Texas, economics as a discipline did not seem to value the qualitative aspects of research. Instead, I was supposed to generate macro data that could be expressed in quantities and analyzed through econometric formulas. I was told that if I wanted to be an economist, I would be better off just taking math courses rather than courses that would help me understand more about life in rural India.
In this time of confusion,, I stumbled across a professor in the anthropology department, Heather Hindman, who studies development in Nepal. We began to chat about our various research interests and immediately connected. We talked about qualitative research, traveling to rural towns, and learning about the on-the-ground impacts of development initiatives. I began working with her closely on designing my senior research project to look at the role of education in the Indian state of Sikkim. I began thinking about the relationship between people and the state, power, and the ways in which people might resist normative educational institutions like schools.
These questions framed the next two years of my life in rural Yunnan, where I worked as a teaching fellow with the nonprofit Teach for China (TFC). As part of the Teach for All network, TFC optimistically believes that new graduates from China and the United States can solve the complex problems of education inequality between China’s urban and rural schools. I was placed in a village outside of Tengchong, about two hours away from the Burmese-Chinese border. As a teacher my focus became a group of rowdy boys in my sixth grade English class. Both my best friends and my nemeses, they would test the boundaries of school by bringing both dead and living animals to class and turning anything and everything into a weapon. Why did these boys work so actively to disrupt and resist school?
In the hope of returning to this village, I enrolled in Columbia’s Teachers College to learn the research skills and theoretical frameworks that might help me better understand students at my school. The coursework in the anthropology department has been extremely useful in helping me frame my questions and work towards getting back to the field. In Professor de Wolfe’s ethnographic methods course this semester, we are actually practicing methodology every single week. Despite a larger ethnographic project that we have to turn in as a final paper for her class, she regularly gives us interactive mini-assignments. Through these weekly assignments, we are able to practice the skills we need to conduct research, get insightful, detailed feedback from Professor de Wolfe and take time to speak with our classmates about our ideas and observations. Anthropology at TC of Columbia also has a strong foundation in teaching social theory, which I find to be necessary for re-thinking common sense problems with schooling or development. In Professor Varenne’s course I am pushed to reassess what I meant by the word “education.” He regularly assigns fascinating ethnographies that complicate and redefine what schooling is. I have also gained a great deal from Professor Limerick’s Anthropology of Power course, which has provided an incredible reading list for developing a framework to study many of the power dynamics that I have seen in my own research.
This summer (2016), I hope to return to Yunnan to do fieldwork for my independent research project. After a year of thinking about, writing, and discussing proposals with peers, my research questions have become more articulate and meaningful. I am looking forward to writing up my findings and getting meaningful feedback on my work through the master’s/doctoral student colloquium so that I can continue and expand this project for when I apply to doctoral programs.
*Andrew Wortham is a first year M.A. student in Anthropology.