Rodrigo Mayorga is a doctoral student in the Anthropology & Education program at Teachers College. After three years of coursework In New York City, he is now back in his home country, Chile, doing research for his dissertation. While back in NYC for a brief visit, Rodrigo took some time to catch up with the TC Anthro Blog. Hope you enjoy!
What brought you to Teachers College originally?
I’m a historian by training, and at some point I decided to shift to educational research. So I was trying to find a place where I could do interdisciplinary research and focus on other countries, since I wanted to work with the Chilean case. I wanted a place where I could combine both theoretical and practical approaches.
Also, I studied how TC alumni from Chile were part of educational reforms of my country in the 1920s. I think all this came together, and that’s what brought me here.
What professors or classes have been your favorite?
I had a really good class with Nicholas Limerick — Political Anthropology — in my last semester. It had a really nice syllabus. The things we read, especially for someone not really familiar with political anthropology, could really give you a good understanding of the field.
Also, the peers I had in that class were really helpful. It’s a class that depends a lot on the peers you have, because discussion is really important. So I think it allowed me to think through a lot of my ideas for the dissertation proposal.
I also had some wonderful classes with a visiting scholar, Ray McDermott. He was here for a year. I took Ethnography of Education with him; I TA’ed a class for him. That allowed me to understand a totally different perspective on anthropology.
And, I have to say, my first Colloquium with George Bond. It changed how I approached things here. It opened my mind to so many things.
Have you had any research experiences at TC that stood out for you?
I took an important course with Ansley Erickson, in the History & Education department. She does really interesting work with school archives and oral histories of Harlem schools. She has a really interesting perspective on how to publish. It allows you to think about other ways of publishing, like digital exhibits, but still within the parameters of academic publication.
With Professor Erickson, I published a digital exhibit of my work on how students in this Harlem school experienced World War II using school yearbooks. It wasn’t just like, “Let’s do the exhibit and upload it to the web.” We uploaded it and then gave time for reviewers to look at it and give feedback. I think in this time when we discuss the role of journals — who’s reading them, what are we doing this for — her work allows us to think this through.
Now you’re out in the field, doing dissertation research. What exactly is your dissertation about?
I’m looking at the convergence between citizenship education practices, student activism, and historical consciousness in Chile. For the last decade, Chile has been experiencing a wave of student protests. They are confronting the neoliberal policies implemented in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. Such protests have happened before, but what’s unique is that this movement is composed of people who were born after the dictatorship. So their temporal experience, the way their memories are connected to this moment of history, is completely different from the people who actually experienced the dictatorship.
They’ve been in the streets for the last ten years, and they’re one of the first social actors to actually change the policies implemented in the years of the dictatorship. They had three big demands. One was free college tuition, paid for by the national state, which they actually achieved. Second, they changed the administration of public schools. The dictatorship transferred public schools to local management in the 1980s, which created serious inequalities. Now, though, we have a decentralized system funded by the national state. Finally, the third big change was stopping for-profit state-subsidized schools. Now, if you want state funds, you must be a non-profit school.
So, I’m trying to look at the changes from these last ten years of student protest. How have the formal citizenship education practices changed within public schools? What are the new citizenship practices that students encounter outside of the school, in the contentious political spaces that they enter? And finally, what is the role of history as a particular way of thinking about the past in all this? What makes the students different in how they think of temporality?
Now that you’re far along with the dissertation, have you thought about what projects might come next?
Well, my research is about temporality, being a citizen in the present, and not projecting too much into a future that does not yet exist. So, I’m trying to be accountable to my own ideas! But I think I would like to explore further this idea of “the uses of history.” I’m interested in the ways we think about and relate to the past, the future, and time itself. Time is an important experience that is so hard to define. Historians do a great job of thinking about time, but often just in terms of the past.
I started this project as a history teacher, believing that history education is important for citizenship. I still do, but now I’m thinking about what kind of history and kind of relation to time. Is it about being part of a national community? Is it about knowing that you are a historical actor in the present, dealing with choices every second of the day, which will become the past?
For me, this is the field of historical consciousness, which is something I would like to keep working on. I’m trying to find projects that connect with local high schools, particularly using local archives, helping teachers and students learn about the past from a local perspective. I’m curious about how that might change the way we think about identity and commitment.
Do you have any advice for prospective Teachers College students who share your interests?
First, this is a place that attracts a particular kind of people. Here, people are interested in critical thinking about social issues, while still finding ways to do something about those issues. There is a practical side to it, that must be about learning and political action. That combination is something that people considering this program should think about.
Second, this is a great and crazy place. It can be difficult to navigate, but that’s life! And that’s why it’s important to build relationships with peers — older students, younger students, new cohorts that come after you. Plus, it’s New York City, an amazing place to be. If you want to do anthropology, you need to be part of the world, and this city is a little world unto itself.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.