Close contact, intensive discussions




"I joined the Graduate Institute relatively recently, in autumn 2012. I have so far primarily taught courses at the doctoral level. In some ways, the contrast with the undergraduate introductory classes and advanced courses that I had been teaching at the University of Zurich for over a decade prior to my relocation to Geneva could not have been greater. For one, the medium of instruction in my classes is now English, not German. For another, small-sized seminars with the opportunity for intensive discussions in the classroom and close contact outside of it have replaced the large, anonymous lectures I gave earlier.

Not only was my teaching load at the University of Zurich much heavier, but I now teach a group of more mature students from all over the world instead of a cohort of young Swiss secondary school graduates. I greatly enjoyed teaching undergraduates in social anthropology then, just as I now profit from my interactions with doctoral students from the Department of Anthropology and Sociology of Development (ANSO) as well as those from other departments whom I co-supervise, or those who take my doctoral classes or simply drop into my office for consultation and advice. What  I do miss, however, is the enriching experience of co-teaching advanced courses with my post-docs in Zurich as they were often better abreast of the literature. The students benefitted from the pedagogical experience I brought to the class, including the lively and often controversial debates that ensued between the post-docs and me.

Teaching in Geneva has been rewarding but challenging. One of the difficulties I face is that of setting common standards for students from a variety of national, institutional, disciplinary and linguistic backgrounds. Trying to establish a common theoretical and methodological ground for students trained in different social anthropology, sociology and development studies traditions is not always easy either. The diversity of regional knowledge and professional competence they bring to the classroom has proved to be an asset as it allows me to draw on a wide variety of experiences. What remains a challenge is to design courses to meet very different expectations. Many students complain of the heavy workload while working part-time to support themselves. Not wishing to pursue an academic career, they are interested in learning more applied skills rather than acquiring a strong theoretical grounding or in  broadening their intellectual horizons. I often find myself recalibrating some sessions of a course to suit their specific interests. My courses aim to prepare students for independent research by teaching them to formulate cuttingedge questions, to design projects using a variety of methods, and to master ethnography as a method and as a form of writing so that they can learn various ways to generate empirical material and link it with different theoretical approaches. One pedagogical challenge is to stimulate intellectual curiosity and get students to engage critically with literature outside their own narrow regional and thematic interests. Teaching students to write elegant English prose that is free of jargon also remains an important if thankless task.

Three other issues merit mention. Integrating students of history, law and occasionally also economics, who have chosen to enrol for an ANSO minor, into a disciplinary doctoral programme has been an interesting challenge. It has fostered interdisciplinary debate in class but has also meant providing extra support for each student in consultation with the respective PhD supervisor. Similarly, the successful integration of the occasional older student with a decade or so of professional experience in international or non-governmental organisations has been useful to the class and the ANSO programme as a whole. But here too it is necessary to put together an additional reading list tailored to individual students in order to address the  lacunas; the progress of the student has to be monitored and mentoring provided until they are confident of integrating different disciplinary perspectives into their own research or master the return to an academic environment after a break of some years.

Many doctoral students also require regular supervision during their long spells of field research in faraway places, where they often struggle with ethical dilemmas, practical hurdles of access, or are caught in politically fraught situations without local support networks. Irrespective of how well one tries to prepare students for the practicalities and ethical issues of participant observation, it is the serendipity and surprises of ethnographic fieldwork that make it invaluable. Skype and email allow for quick communication with my supervisees while they are away in the field. More than three decades ago, as I left for my first spell of field research, I was told: “Do feel free to write every few months, but solve all your problems on your own. It will take at least three months before you receive a reply to your letter.” The advice I received then is relevant for my students today too: ethnographic research is fun, so be patient in the “field”; wait for events to unfold and take the time to build relationships that endure, as you will go back often; and be willing to drink innumerable cups of tea, coffee or alcohol, depending on the tastes of your interlocutors."

This article originally appeared in Globe No. 15, Spring 2015.