This year was my first year of teaching in the Anthropology Department at Michigan. In March, when coronavirus so radically altered our lives, I was teaching a 360-student Introduction to Anthropology course (“101,” affectionately). I was also parenting a 3.5-year-old. I didn’t have my son exclusively for the 101 content, but it was a perk I’d considered. I did not imagine, however, that I would ever be teaching and parenting at once, from my home. Luckily, aspects of that calamitous confluence turned out to be fortuitous.
When I began teaching 101, I drew upon skills developed through raising a toddler almost immediately. In one of our earliest classes, I asked my students to pull out a pen and paper: today, we would be “coloring.” Our reading for the week had been Miner’s classic, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.” As students saw the “small bundle of hog hairs” and “shrines” overflowing with charms and magical potions necessary for the natives’ mouth rites emerge as a toothbrush and medicine cabinet in their own drawings, realization dawned: Miner was describing our own society. This was our introduction into the power of ethnographic writing to “make the familiar strange.”
Class also occasionally involved “storytime,” where I read aloud from some of my favorite ethnographic texts. To make my pitch for four-field anthropology, I turned to Sarah Hrdy’s “Apes on a Plane,” from her interdisciplinary Mothers and Others. In this introduction, Hrdy envisions the carnage that would occur were hundreds of chimpanzee strangers to be gathered together in a small, confined space for any length of time. She marvels at the capacity of humans to engage in this activity cooperatively and without conflict, even when they find themselves in the intolerable situation of being seated near a crying baby. Not only do we emerge from such plane flights with our fingers and toes still attached, but we are also likely to share an understanding glance with the distressed parent, whom we know to be aware of the disturbance caused by her child. This drive to understand the experiences of others (and be understood), Hrdy argues, is what sets humans apart from other apes. Because humans are reared cooperatively, by more than one person, we learn from infancy to pay close attention to others. Babies maintain careful visual and vocal contact with their mothers, but there are also incentives to being able to ascertain who else might be willing to provide care. Young children become very adept at deciphering the moods and intentions of others, and learning how they can shape their own behavior to attract the kind of attention they desire. Humans are uniquely skilled at expressing and eliciting empathy. This is a core tenet of Anthropology, and a central theme in my introductory class.
Teaching especially involves this kind of exchange—a constant “reading of the room,” a desire to be understood and a commitment to knowing whether or not one is being understood. Of course, this careful reading of signals requires co-presence. After COVID-19 struck and we had all been removed to safer, isolated spaces, my teaching suddenly reminded me less of parenting a preschooler than of the early days of deciphering a newborn. The desire to understand and be understood remained, but all of the known signals were absent. Worse, I couldn’t even hear if the baby were crying or laughing, or tuning in at all!
The students and I no longer occupied the same space. (This was just as well, as the dark basement I’d hastily converted into an office could never allow for the proper physical distancing of 360 students.) Soon, though, we didn’t even occupy the same time. They reported becoming nocturnal, staying up late into the night to complete schoolwork and socialize online, and sleeping through the morning hours when other family members might divert their attention (or the wifi bandwidth). To cope with parenting a preschooler while continuing to teach, I had taken an opposite approach. I rose in the early hours to get work done before my husband’s job started and I took over childcare. Most of my students were heading for bed as I brewed coffee.
For a few weeks, I delivered lectures into a void. Gone were the usual mechanisms of feedback, replaced by page view statistics. There were upsides to recorded lectures–with an audience of none, all of my jokes landed. But the downsides were overwhelming, with that very human need for mutual understanding frustrated by a more pressing need for all to stay safe and healthy.
Gradually, we learned new ways of connecting. I looked again to my preschooler for resources. I recorded a storytime “hate-read” of Little Miss Brainy, one of the Mr. Men/Little Miss books in my son’s collection. Little Miss Brainy is only a hair brighter than Little Miss Ditzy, and the story began a conversation about how gender is taught. I included my son in the conversation, and soon I began to hear from my students. They were newly sharing space with younger siblings who had opinions on the subject as well. My son and I drew pictures and wrote cards side-by-side. He mailed his to preschool friends, and I used mine in video messages to my students, recorded over music in the same style that the preschool teachers were using to communicate with his class. The video calls that had sustained my son’s relationship with his grandparents since we moved away to Michigan became central to maintaining a relationship with my students, as did discussion boards, chat rooms, and Zoom meetings (or “square talks,” if you ask him).
The kind of cultural learning that my son is still working hard to master, learning that will improve his ability to understand and be understood in his society, we are all now learning anew. When my work and home life came crashing together this spring, I found myself learning from him in order to teach my Anthropology students. Unfortunately, teaching Anthropology at Michigan has had no corresponding impact upon my ability to be a satisfactory preschool teacher to my son. He is simply unimpressed by lofty lectures proffering this time as an example par excellence of the liminal phase, right down to the masks we wear and the distance we keep from potentially polluting in-betweeners. (My basement wall, by the way, was really quite receptive of this notion!) No, my son tells me often that he’d really prefer to go back to real school, where he can color and cut with someone much more qualified.
Hrdy, Sarah. 2009. “Apes on a Plane” in Mothers and Others: the Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Miner, Horace. 1956. “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.” American Anthropologist 58 (3): 503-507.
Turner, Victor. 1967. The Forest of Symbols; Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.