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.


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.

Migration and identity: Rachel Ladany

Last semester I worked as a researcher just outside of Paris.  I was interested in  understanding how people who have migrated to France navigate the multiple identities constructed by and for them. I spoke with people from different nationalities, social classes, and backgrounds in order to gain a variety of experiences.

When asked the question “Do you consider yourself an immigrant?” many people told me that no, for a variety of reasons. I noticed several themes in their responses.  If they migrated from Europe, for example, they were definitely not an immigrant. If anything, they were an “ex-pat,” a “migrant,” or an “international.” Or, they were simply  “European.” If they came from a former French colony, they were less of an “immigrant” than people who came from Asia or Latin America because they grew up in French-speaking schools and areas. According to them, they had an easier time relating to French people.

My interviews also made clear that, despite common beliefs, being a  migrant depended on much more than the geographic places from which the individuals had traveled. One woman I spoke with classified herself as an “ex-pat” in the country she was born and raised in because she married a French man, worked around the world, and then came back to her home country.

Through the interviews, it became clear that “immigrant” is a word whose reference depends much upon the historical conditions of the individuals speaking. , In answer to my question, “What do you think of when you hear the word ‘immigrant’?” people would describe somewhat different types of people.   For them, an immigrant was a person who has a desire of permanence in their new home country, or a person seeking a better life, escaping war or poverty in the process. They would also describe an immigrant as something negative. The term was often used as a term to “other” another group of people. For example, someone might have said, “No, I’m not an immigrant, not like those Syrians” (referring to the crisis in Syria that has forced many migrants to travel to Europe). One of my participants said, “I’m not like them because I had money in my bank account and a home to go back to.” In this way, participants discussed these differences to distance themselves from an idea or issue, which ultimately leads to an “us” versus “them” situation. Such divisions were inherent to what they viewed as “immigrant,” as well as how group boundaries played out in their daily lives.

It is within these varying degrees and flows of migration that we, as researchers, can begin to understand how people understand themselves and how we can begin to understand the world. I initially chose to study anthropology because it afforded the researcher the  ability to bring a little humanity into the research process. In this small project, I found that the people who participated in my research appreciated  sharing their experiences . Oftentimes, they expressed to me things they had been wanting to say, but they claimed that they  had never had the opportunity to state publically before. But anthropology is not just a way to involve the stories of  individuals in research. Theories and methods from anthropology allow us to understand migration as a social process that is not just about where you are or where you are going, but also about how you construct your identity. The construction of identity does not just provide perspective on the lives of individuals, but rather tells us much about why individuals behave in a particular way, or how they are a part of larger social issues. In other words, such questions are essential to understanding migration as a social and historical process. These are some of the general questions that drive my research in anthropology.

*Rachel Ladany is a second year Master’s Student in the Anthropology and Education M.A. program at Teachers College. She will graduate in Spring 2016.

LD research: Emily Skanes

I became interested in anthropology as an undergraduate student at Eastern Kentucky University where I focused my undergraduate research, entitled Deaf Studies through the Eyes of Anthropology, on deaf children and on the Deaf Culture due to my previous experience learning American Sign Language.  This research experience piqued my interest in public schools and how they provide services for students with disabilities, and it led me to pursue a Master’s degree at Teachers College of Columbia University.

In my Master’s thesis research, I consider how public school systems implement special education policies through a qualitative research project interviewing general education and special education teachers in the public and charter school system in Manhattan. To understand how the school system establishes policies to educate all students equally, I analyze the national education policies like ‘No Child Left Behind’ and take an in-depth look into several scholarly works on disabilities and education. These works examine special education and disabilities from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, such as through the lenses of anthropology, sociology, and disability studies that I have been exposed to through my coursework at TC. I use theoretical approaches from each of these disciplines in order to understand the accommodations provided to each child with a disability.

As I started writing my thesis, I found that existing research states that there are few universals to learning, as each child processes information differently.There is no quick fix, especially for children with disabilities. Each child is affected differently by the disability. For my field research, I am interviewing twenty educators from across the public and charter school system with a fifteen-question interview on their classroom setting. My research pushes work on students with disabilities in mainstream settings to consider the transition from school age to high school. Previous research looks at students with a medical diagnosis and records the academic outcome. These works also record the point of view of the instructors, but they do not ask the students who have a disability their personal education experience. Therefore, I use my personal experience of being diagnosed with Dyslexia to further this point and consider how identity can intersect with having a disability and the stigma surrounding that disability. In addition to the personal experiences that I want to document, I found in my current research that policies are not static and change often over time. In the future, I envision intervening to develop better practices based on my research, and I have been asking the educators about what they think should be changed or needs to be addressed in future reforms.

I have interviewed fifteen educators so far, all of whom have different experiences educating children. Some have educated children for several years while others only have two or three years experience. Additionally, these educators work within different environments, like mainstream general education and self-contained special education classrooms. They all have expressed their positivity towards the current inclusion policy, which has been an enlightening part of my research. Alongside this I am also asking each of them their opinion on what they think should be addressed in the special education program. My goal is to determine what is still needed to provide the best educational opportunities for all students, and I plan to use my masters research to develop a future study on recording the personal experience of students in the special education system, focusing on children in mainstream settings and students with learning disabilities.

*Emily Skanes is a second year Master’s student in the Anthropology and Education M.A. program at Teachers College. She will graduate in Spring 2016.


Qualitative Funding Workshop


Earlier this month, the Society for Anthropological Studies (a student group for those interested in anthropology) organized a workshop on qualitative research funding for graduate students across Teachers College. The workshop featured two professors from the programs in anthropology,  Juliette de Wolfe and Nicholas Limerick. Here, readers can check out some of the funding opportunities available. While most are geared towards students of anthropology, the workshop also covered some general tips and processes in applying for funding for all students and young scholars. Some of those tips include the following:

First, there are often “demographic” characteristics that particular fellowships and organizations look for. Make sure to keep in mind requirements regarding citizenship status, enrollment status, area of research, and length of study. For example, some funding opportunities are looking only for full-time, doctoral students who are U.S. citizens, while others restrict their pool of candidates to those studying in a particular area or discipline, without constraints on citizenship or enrollment status.

Second, it’s important to critically think through your research questions and why other people should care about the outcomes of your research.  During the workshop, there was time to present and discuss research questions in small focus groups. It became evident that some students had never thought about how to position their research question in different ways to different audiences. Such exercises can be helpful when thinking about what sorts of projects the funding organization is looking for and whether/how your own projects fits into such a framework. What do you hope to contribute to your field? Similarly, you should know where your body will be and what it will be doing – what is your setting and who are your participants?

In closing, here is a step-by-step guide on how to apply for funding opportunities in general, followed by tips to keep in mind.

How to apply:

  1. Read EVERY direction listed in the program description
  2. Begin to collect necessary materials
    1. project description (intro/significance/contributions/methods, etc.),
    2. Curriculum Vitae (and maybe one from your advisor if necessary),
    3. proposed budget,
    4. letters of recommendation (ASK FOR THESE EARLY AND CREATE INFORMED WRITERS)
  3. Ask at least two other people (one from your field and one not) to read your proposal and give you feedback
  4. Do not wait until the last minute to submit your materials. Unexpected technological glitches/snafoos can occur.
  5. Plan for IRB approval
  6. Plan for travel needs (visas, immunizations, institutional approval, etc.)


  • Make sure the funding cycle and your research timeline align
  • Start with a WOW statement!
  • Follow with a brief introductory paragraph that ends with a clearly articulated thesis statement, briefly explaining your research topic. You will also have to mention your methods and anticipated outcomes in the intro.
  • You are writing to a group of reviewers who may be only marginally familiar with the technical writing or concepts of your field. Avoid jargon.
  • Write for that specific audience.
  • You will be held accountable for your budget.
  • Make sure that your methods section is detailed. Reviewers should be able to picture exactly what you plan to do (and some want to know your timeframe for doing it)
  • Describe your research question, participants and setting in brief detail. You should use no more than a few sentences.
  • Workshop your research question with your group. Consider:
    • Is the question clear?
    • Can you empirically answer the question with your methods?
    • Do you understand the language/vocab?
    • Are the participants and setting appropriate for the question?