Resistance and power in rural China – Andrew Wortham

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.

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Embodiment and Identity Formation in Boarding Schools – Molly Sardella

I joined the Programs in Anthropology and Education in the fall of 2015 in order to conduct research on the links between identity formation, individual well-being, and environments where “forms of knowledge” are produced. My interest in knowledge production grew out of a project undertaken while working on my MA in Anthropology at Binghamton University(2009-2011). For my MA thesis, I looked at pedagogy and the creation of training policies and procedures among UN peacekeepers. Through this project, I began to think about the importance of different types of educational practices on the lives of people within various environments, and about how institutions can be simultaneously constraining and productive in learning and the shaping of identities.  

My curiosity about boarding schools as institutions and locations of identity formation began when I accepted a full time teaching position within one. I quickly began to notice something that appeared peculiar to me. The school had a very clear “philosophy” about what made someone a good student and a proper citizen, and life at the school, whether it be in the classroom, dormitory, athletic facilities, or elsewhere, appeared to be tailored to create an insular community of values and behaviors tied to that philosophy. Wanting to understand what was happening around me and the impact of such an environment on the people living and operating within it, I drew upon my background in anthropology to begin conducting participant observation. I was particularly interested in boarding schools as institutions and locations of identity production and formation. For one year, I conducted observations, compiled field notes, and became involved in as many parts of campus life as possible.

At Teachers College, I have continued to utilize the ethnographic material collected during the previous year, and I am pursuing further fieldwork and supplemental research on boarding schools. My goal is to complete a thorough project about the ways that the environment of a boarding school constrains and shapes student lives. I will be delving into student behavior, conceptions of self/identity, and embodiment, and how each of these components of lived experience are tied to the structures, rules, and philosophy of a particular school. While the majority of my previous work and research has focused on student experiences while they are physically present in boarding schools, I also plan to conduct future fieldwork among recent graduates. The goals of this seemingly “supplemental” research is to compare the way students operate and experience life within the school and outside of it, as well as to assess the potential long-term impact of attending a boarding school on the lives of students.

Students who attend boarding schools are often viewed as members of the “elite.” While it is true that the majority of these young men and women come from wealthy families, a focus solely on social class and the privilege required to attend a boarding school can mask the very real, often unpleasant ways that boarding schools constrain and shape student lives. I believe it is important to understand the impact of boarding schools on the bodies, identities, and behaviors of students, partially because of the ways people associate boarding schools with privilege and status. Many families aspire to send their son or daughter to private boarding schools, out of a belief that such schools offer their children a “better education,” or more opportunities in life. Some parents will go into considerable debt in order to finance private education. Unfortunately, the impact of this type of school on the current lives of students, including their sense of self and their physical health, is usually not taken into account. Perhaps this is due to a societal assumption that a private or more extensive education will be beneficial to a person in every possible way, lumping together beliefs concerning schooling, future happiness, and well-being.

As previously mentioned, it is my assertion that boarding schools actually exist with the express purpose of “molding” young people – to shape them into a particular type of person. The entire structure of the school – the routines, the rules, the physical layout, the relationships between faculty and students – exists to create a group of young people that embodies and lives out the philosophy of the school itself. This is important for people to realize, before they make the decision of whether or not to send their child to a boarding school. It is also problematic and can lead to trauma and suffering for students who disagree with or are uncomfortable with the type of community the school is attempting to integrate them into. This can take a toll on students emotionally and physically and may have repercussions for their health and happiness beyond their time within the school itself.

 

*Molly Sardella is currently a student pursuing her EdM within the Anthropology and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She earned her MA in Anthropology and MAT in Social Studies Education from Binghamton University and obtained her New York State Teaching Certificate in 2012.