One of those classics you hear mentioned so often until one day you finally decide to have a look, that’s Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1990 , Dover Thrift Editions) for me. First, I had procrastinated on this one because of my classics-aversity, but when the book arrived and I noticed it’s a mere 72 pages, I thought it’s actually quite doable. I am ambivalent about it now, mostly because I didn’t find the story interesting (old white man telling a story about an old white man tellinga story about yet another old white man dying in the “heart of darkness” – which of course had to be central Africa), but was intrigued by the poetic use of language.
After reading Chinua Achebe’s essay “An Image of Africa“, this impression didn’t much change, or certainly not for the better. Achebe critiques his style, pointing out that it is repetitive and overusing adjectives to create a mystical atmosphere (something I actually liked), but more importantly shows that “Conrad was a bloddy racist” (p. 788). He continues to outline how “Africa” became a mere setting for the story, it’s people being depersonalized and dehumanized, negated almost any voice or action within the story. That this is not merely to be understood as Conrad being “a child of his time” was once pointed out to me by a student in one of my seminars: there always also have been other, different children of the time.
How did I come across the book?
Again, and again, and again, one of Michael Taussig’s works. I think it was Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man. Taussig has an incredible capacity to make me want to read into classics, which already worked with Walter Benjamin – and so much so that I discovered his usefulness for my own research. With Conrad, I am sceptical the experience is becoming something else than a footnote in the long history of novels with racist (under)tones.
When and where did I read it?
Even though a mere 72 pages, it still took me two weeks to get through with it. I had it with my for a conference trip to Milan, where I ended up reading way less than I thought. On the bus, I frequently fell asleep while reading. After the conference, I was busy organizing a workshop and finished a few days post-workshop, enjoing the sun at lake Constance.
I was within a hair’s-breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. (p. 63)
“To be a good teacher, you have to be part stand-up comic, part door-to-door salesman, part expert, part counselor.” – Bob Solomon
Halfway through the semester, it’s evaluation time again! And just because I like my seminar, that doesn’t mean my students do, too, especially considering that lately I forced them through tough theoretical readings and noticed an increasing disatisfaction on their parts. But, and that might be worse, I also noted an increasing disatisfaction on my part, because discussions would become slow and time and again they tried to force me to give them some ready-made answers to questions where “it depends”. Plus, many times I just feel they prefer to stick with their preconceptual ideas of affect, when for 8 weeks now we’re actually reading different approaches they could chose from to have a fruitful discussion. However, I also see evaluation as an opportunity to reassess my expectations and impressions of my performance, because in the end the important thing is that we all learn something from this.
So yesterday I handed out the evaluation sheets, and shockingly got the results back this morning already. I was hoping for some time to digest, especially since yesterday’s session wasn’t what I would call a complete success. Now the reason I got the sheets back so early is because they’re computer-based and converted into statistics, and my report is now full of colorful lines and circles which I feel I would need an introductory seminar to statistics to actually fully grasp. But then again, there’s the comment sections, and these do time and again offer clues on what the lines and circles might mean. First of all, let’s say it worked out fine, I’m mostly above average, which I think is great considering the international (50% are exchange students!) and interdisciplinary backgrounds (there is even a sport science student!) of my students and the demanding readings, and especially that this is the first seminar I invented all by myself.
What I learn from this, is that I have to continue thinking about how to make my learning philosophy much clearer, because my students want “clear” and “exact” answers, when I want them to learn that precisely those do not exist in many of the texts we’re reading and the problems we’re working on. In a similar vein, this goes for me chairing the discussions. I do not like to interupt people in class, and of course I do not have something to say about every comment they make. But for them, this might often look like I don’t care, or don’t moderate strictly enough. So I’ll have a look at the university’s advanced vocational trainings on these issues. Overall, the survey left me quite motivated, however, and I will try my best to make some concepts a little clearer in the next sessions. Also, there was this one comment that really gave me the feels: “This is one of the best seminars I have ever had. (…) You’re a wonderful and inspiring instructor. This is university as it should be.” How would I not want to make the most if this class now?
I recently came across this hashtag. (Yes, I’m preparing for fieldwork…) As it seems, there’s lot’s of things that can go wrong in the field, but fortunately most of them at least do for a good laugh afterwards. I was stunned by the amount of biologists and their wildlife-encounters gone awkward – for example, the drugged zebra stuck in a tree, the exploding vials of elephant blood on a plane, or the parakeet-observer at NATO Headquarters, who was arrested by security forces. These stories tell a lot about humans in science. Still, I was wondering about the anthropologists. As we all know, human interaction is pretty likely to go awry and I am more than curious to know what can go wrong beside the classic “no batteries in the recording device”. Anyone interested in sharing their stories?
You can find beautifully illustrated and funny #fieldworkfail stories here.