By Krista Dotzel
“But who are we to judge whether a 15 year old Yanomami girl in the Amazon can marry a 35 year old?! That’s being ethnocentric!” This impassioned proclamation came from a previously quiet and checked-out student in the introductory cultural anthropology class I was teaching. Other students in the class weren’t having it.
“Yes they should be able marry at whatever age they want. The problem is that he is American, and we have different standards,” they clamored “and he took her away from the rest of her people!”
“But doesn’t she get to choose? By their standards, she’s old enough!” the first student shot back.
I was thrilled. After assigning a provocative story called “Yanomami Mami” from one of my favorite podcasts, Snap Judgment, suddenly my students were having a very lively debate. The podcast episode follows a true story told from the perspective of the son of an American anthropologist and a much younger woman (girl?) from the Amazonian Yanomami group he was studying. As far as anthropological ethics goes, this was about as flagrant an ethical breach as you can get. Like anything in life, though, the story wasn’t altogether straightforward.
“They’re people too. And she loved him,” the first student kept insisting.
Suddenly, a topic that could have seemed stodgy and too far away to matter felt close and meaningful. Without realizing what I was doing, I had introduced provocative material into the classroom and the results were just fantastic.
One of the surest ways to foster genuine student engagement and critical thinking in class is to introduce provocative material. When students are faced with something deeply controversial, many can’t help but respond; the feelings they experience cause them to stop and think about a topic at a higher level.
By turning the mirror on ourselves and provoking students into examining the foundation of our own cultural values and morals, we can use provocation as a tactic to get students to engage in deeper reflection than they otherwise would. One of the main goals of anthropology courses today is to get students to understand that they are subject to the same cultural forces as any other group and to recognize how culture shapes what we see as “good” and “natural”. This is a goal worthwhile in many fields, whether it’s to get students to understand how political milieus shape the history, development, and goals of STEM sciences or to get students engaged with seemingly abstract philosophical arguments. Science is messy and malleable, and provocation can show students that every academic discipline is filled with endless debate.
Trying to provoke students doesn’t always go how you think it will, however, and instructors need to be thoughtful about how they apply it. When I began teaching, I quickly found that for most undergrad students, classic anthropological topics such as the practice of female genital mutilation or globalism haven’t been as controversial as I would have thought. At best, students often treat anthropological topics as curiosities with the same interest they would show in a wildlife video. “Maybe those people are interesting, but those people aren’t like us” they think. In my experience, provocation has worked best when paired with a human story with an emotional core or a topic that has direct application to their lives. Podcasts and written narratives are particularly useful for this. When students can begin to feel the realities that others live in or begin to see how academic topics manifest in their own lives, it can totally change the classroom experience.
In a thoughtful piece about provocation in the classroom, Jon Mills (1998) discusses the benefits of provocation in the classroom but also warns that we must be thoughtful and careful about how we use it. Mill cautions against making provocative statements for “shock value” or making provocative proclamations without a good reason for it, lest we undermine students’ trust in us. We also need to make sure that we are empathetic in the way that we use provocation. A little discomfort is good and desirable, but if students feel attacked, if we ignore the possibility of past trauma, or if we accidentally create a hostile class environment, provocation loses any of its potential for positive impact. The last thing we want to do is a cause student to shut down or feel like they are being personally attacked. No student should be forced to respond to provocative statements and we need to make sure that we validate students’ contributions (Mills, 1998). If we are careful, however, provocation in the classroom can be an excellent tool for demonstrating how academic concepts are relevant to students’ lives. Provocation can help ground the abstract in the concrete, and it can push students to think and respond at higher levels.