How is theory like spaghetti?

I am not a good cook, so I frequently ask silly questions like, “how long should I boil this?” My family members are not bad cooks, so they have no idea what the box says, and instead give me answers like, “until it’s brown and has the right texture.” But we have found synchrony in the cooking of spaghetti. How do you know when spaghetti is ready to eat? It’s ready when you throw a piece of it against the wall and it sticks.

I am a pretty good anthropologist, so I no longer have questions like, “what counts as theory in my paper?” But my students are still learning, and my thoughts on which models of power are most relevant to their data are about as helpful as the color brown. Luckily, cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz provides this piece of guidance:

“Theoretical ideas are not created wholly anew in each study; as I have said, they are adopted from other, related studies, and, refined in the process, applied to new interpretive problems. If they cease being useful with respect to such problems, they tend to stop being used and are more or less abandoned. If they continue being useful, throwing up new understandings, they are further elaborated and go on being used.”

I have fixated on the words, “throwing up new understandings.” Tempting though it is to think of theory like vomit, the spaghetti metaphor probably works better. Take that “related study” and “throw it up” against the wall; if it sticks, if it gives you a “new understanding” – or better yet, a new question – you have found theory.

Foucault, I tell my students, throws up lots of new ways of thinking about the world for me. I introduce my students to Foucault, but I know that they’re still struggling to understand what is meant by a “technology of the self” in relation to a contested chronic fatigue syndrome diagnosis. If they throw that idea against the wall, it’s still going to be a slimy noodle. If they need to keep cooking their Foucault, it’s probably not good theory for them yet. But the idea that a diagnosis isn’t a neutral experience for a person with chronic fatigue syndrome might be just right.

What I love best about this definition of theory is that it honors students as real researchers. Of all the things I’ve given them to read, good theory is what stuck.

Enlightenment is a Curfew

On Monday, Oakland youth led 15,000 people in a peaceful march. As the protest began, a curfew was announced. As the shadows of tall buildings got longer, the police attacked. On Wednesday, sit-ins and spread-outs formed small pockets of adult and family dissent from the curfew across the Bay. The Anti-Police Terror Project boosted a suggestion from Senior and Disability Action for disabled, senior, and immune-compromised people to hold their signs in front of their own homes. The police restrained themselves to lurking.

Instead of marching, I taught my last synchronous Anthropology of Aging class of the quarter. Race had been largely absent from this version of the syllabus*, but the themes of contingencies that wear us out made it easy enough to conclude with race closer to the center. It wasn’t enough. I invited my students to stay for an optional extra hour to get more deeply into turning our course themes into activism on behalf of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade. When no one* came, I closed the Zoom window. It wasn’t enough.

My pedagogy is heavy on inquiry-based learning, attempting to create a space where students can take risks and make use of their funds of knowledge. I’m an academic, so it is easy to continue to build my library of BIPOC social scientists and work them into my syllabi. But because I came to academia through self-critique of my direct service and activism work, epistemology felt safer than action. So I have prioritized helping students understand epistemology over supporting them in taking resistant action. Activism needs to have a bigger place in my pedagogy. But it isn’t enough.

A friend of mine recently pointed out that non-Black people trying to act in solidarity “need to own the fact that we are making choices about which Black people, voices and leadership to center in moments of struggle … to be willing to exercise self-leadership that is informed by Black leadership AND one’s own convictions” and to be ready to “be wrong” about our actions without confusing that with approval-seeking.

I’m not sure I have either the humility or self-esteem she points out are necessary to walk that path. But here’s what I am sure about: it’s not a path I can walk alone. Approval-seeking is easy enough to do no matter how isolated a person is, but vulnerability and mutual aid need some kind of network. Unfortunately, I’m very new to the communities where I live, and I have very few people* in my life – BIPOC or white – who are intimate enough to want to check my racism. In the face of that dilemma, I have been trying to reason it out on my own with the depersonalized popular and scholarly resources that are widely available. Yikes.

Kant, who told us that the motto of Enlightenment is “Sapere aude!” (“have courage to use your own reason”), was not a fan of revolution. He called for the free thought and speech of scholars in the public sphere while affirming that in the private sphere, “one must obey.” I doubt Kant would have been very impressed with Colin Kaepernick.

But of the infinite arguments to be made with Kant, the one that inspired me most as a budding life course ethnographer was with his central metaphor: “to escape your self-incurred tutelage.” In other words, enlightenment is supposed to be growing up, becoming a full rights-bearing citizen by taking on the responsibilities of adultish reason rather than childish listening. His celebration of the contingent graduation from social childhood to adulthood was a key that unlocked my understanding of how the naturalization of age grades (life stages) synchronize private and public marginalization, particularly through the institutionalization of gender, race, and class. Enlightenment, and the ideas of progress and becoming that go with it, seemed to be nothing so much as the moment when a middle class white boy became a middle class white man granted the authority to make rational decisions for the rest of us.

Eventually, I came to see tutelage, the “inability to make use of [one’s] understanding without direction from another,” as a site of resistance. I no longer want to “grow up,” instead I want to grow old embedded in networks of care. I don’t aspire to throwing off the “yoke of my guardians” anymore, but I do want to rethink who my guardians are these days. My children, a couple of my neighbors, community leaders I want to know better, and, yes, some of my colleagues, too. I want to replace my search for approval with my work to merit the trust of my network.

When I march, or sit in, or teach, I pay close attention to how those near strangers are reading me and I hope I am avoiding their disapproval. That world of approval-seeking has remained separate from my world of true accountability. At home it is the care and need of household members, not their approval, that shapes the ongoing patterns of my actions. Their lives matter to me in a way that the lives of acquaintances do not. I aspire to intimacy and my efforts are endlessly fallible and incomplete at best. But that is the work, and so I do it.

This Fall, as I begin the next round of improving my syllabi with the new things I’ve learned, I will be working to let my own inquiry be much more in the service of the actual lives who have mattered and do matter to me. It won’t be enough, but it is the work.


* 1. The syllabus this semester built around Margaret Lock’s Encounters With Aging and Caroline Bledsoe’s Contingent Lives. I’d love to discuss strengths and weaknesses of that approach with anyone interested, but for what it’s worth, I would not make that choice again because it didn’t leave enough space to discuss aging and race.
* 2. Shout out to Cathy, who did in fact come after I had given up and left. Shout out to the rest of my students, too, some of whom shared with me a little about actions they have been taking in their own networks all week.
* 3. If you’re reading this, you’re likely already in my life in some way and I welcome your critique both as a way for me to learn and as a way for us to deepen our relationship. If you are seeking a volunteer for accountability, feel free to reach out to me.

Group Led Reading Quizzes: a learning process

Quizzes are great retrieval practice. If they’re super short and low-stakes (like a Kahoot!), they can also be a good way of making sure the whole class is on the same page to start the day. But every time I use quizzes to assess student learning, I feel like what I’m really assessing is how much students think like me. And a good quiz takes a long, long time to make. They’re really at their best at supporting students through the “remember” and “understand” parts of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but I’d rather be investing my precious prep-time in helping students move into application, analysis, evaluation, and creation.


So this Spring, in my Anthropology of Aging class, instead of giving my own quizzes, I had students make reading quizzes in small groups. The groups exchanged quizzes and took them. Then I graded them on the quizzes they made rather than the quizzes they took.

There were downsides – students were not always able to identify what was most important about the readings, and they were certainly no better at designing good questions than I am. There was a bit of a learning curve on how much time we spent discussing the quizzes. But there were enough upsides that I’ll definitely be using them again.

The best thing about the quizzes was that good questions really did reinforce key ideas for everyone, and weaker questions worked as really useful class discussion prompts. After they had taken the quizzes and self-graded, I asked students to identify which questions they wanted to have explained, which gave the creating group a chance to talk at more length about what they thought mattered and why, and gave me a chance to redirect anything heading off in the wrong direction. It did the awesome pedagogical thing of really being able to build off of where students are, rather than just gauging how far away they are from me. And it clearly did give students a sense of ownership of the material in a way that made me feel really good.

The icing on the cake is that those questions are a useful gauge to make sure that I’m appropriately scaffolding the concepts I teach.

Next time, here’s how I’ll lay it out:

  • 6 question quizzes cover 2-3 readings each, and I tell them ahead of time which readings are best for which categories of question
    • For example, “Keyword questions should come from Bledsoe 2002 or Johnson-Hanks 2006; Writing Techniques questions should come from Johnson-Hanks 2006 or Sokolovsky and Cohen 2009”
  • Questions
    • 5 categories of questions: 1 “main point” question, 2 “keyword” questions, 1 “course concept” question, 1 “writing techniques” question*, 1 “comparison between readings” question
      • Questions should pull out the most useful points from each category
    • Multiple Choice (3 answers) or True/False
    • No trick questions
  • Group work
    • Each student contributes at least two questions to their group’s Google Doc, and they collaborate there (preferably using the chat feature) to choose and edit the best 6 questions (where I can see version and chat history to confirm everyone posted questions).
    • Each group needs to submit their questions and answers before class so that I can add them to the day’s Powerpoint. Answer keys should include a very short summary of who wrote which question, and who did what administrative (printing, organizing, editing) work.
    • Students are responsible for printing

This time, I included an individual annotation grade as part of the assignment (I walked around the room and checked off that they had annotated the readings covered in the quiz). But I felt like I left in a lot of room for BS, so I’ll probably do annotation checking differently next time.

I did four Group Led Reading Quizzes over 10 weeks this quarter, and I had them all exchange quizzes and take them at the same time. Next time, I think I’d rather have one group lead at a time, but have a quiz every week.

There were plenty of other take-aways at the end of this year (my first full academic year as a professor since completing my PhD!), but this one has the benefit of being easy to replicate, low-prep, and particularly good for new classes (or old classes with a lot of new readings). Hope someone else can get some use out of the idea, too!

* Because I ask students to write ethnographically at the end of the class, I ask them to pay attention to the writing techniques in everything they read and later experiment with applying some of them.

How old are you? An activity for the first and last day of class

When I teach cultural anthropology, the goal is nothing less than a total epistemological shift. I want them to see themselves, and the world around them, in context. I want them to end the class knowing how to go about answering questions they couldn’t have even imagined the first day.

First and last days of class are special in course design, because they frame the course. You are supposed to start as you mean to go on, and finish strong. Better yet if you can tie them both together in one big bow. This semester, I let my icebreaker do a lot of that work for me.

On the first day of class – which happened to be on “Aging and Culture” – I asked students to introduce themselves by answering the question “how old are you?” without using a number. On the first day of class, we followed that activity up with an analysis. How were they defining age? Were we talking about kinship? Institutional identities? Experiences of our own bodies? How were those things shaped by particular circumstances? What did they think might be universal? It set the tone for the questions we would ask throughout the course.

On the last day of class, after students finished their presentations and a Gallery Walk, and after I did my best to articulate where I hoped they would go next with what they had learned, we did the icebreaker again. I changed it a little. This time, since we had talked about chronology and how it was related to sociocultural infrastructures from disciplinary time to (post)colonial inheritance law, they could also use numbers. But, I added, the context of the age identity they shared should be meaningful to them.

Just like the first day, I took a turn first to confirm my expectations with a clear example. But what followed was a totally different experience. Everyone knew how to answer and so they could turn their attention to appreciating their peers’ reflections instead of worrying if they got it right. It brought home how much more thoroughly they could appreciate the context of their own answers. Even though the theory and methods they learned were necessarily incomplete – don’t we deepen our analytical skills with every project we undertake? – the icebreaker offered an ending to our semester long journey. A signpost where we could stop, and rest, and look around together at the horizon we had made together.

It was a good icebreaker. Good enough that I might use it in a cultural class that has little to do with aging and the life course. But it was also a special – a truly wonderful – group of students, and I will carry them and this semester with me as a touchstone of how transformative a good class can be for a teacher.

Dixit, for an end-of-unit review in a theory heavy course

Making good tests is hard. And especially in theory-heavy classes, where my goal is primarily for students to become proficient at actually using the big ideas they are learning, I worry that my tests will reflect who among my students already happens to think the most like me, rather than what they have really learned.



So when we came to the end of the second Unit of the class on aging and culture, I had already committed that I would not test them. Still, I wanted to give them the benefits of the opportunity to practice their retrieval, not to mention more chances to show them how much they have learned about the material.

We had already used group-based sketchnotes a few times in the semester to try and translate their understanding of course and reading concepts into a visual representation. Students discussed the concept in their group and revised their drawings in relation to what they learned from each other. The drawing was great, but it became quickly clear that the visual metaphor could work with almost anything if their sense of the concept were strong enough. In fact, the more theoretically dense the topic was – and in a class working heavily with comparing epistemologies of aging across sociopolitical contexts, the topics were often dense – the more useful the visual metaphor seemed to be in solidifying their knowledge of it.


The winning card for the objective “Define adolescence as a “technology” and discuss embodying politics in bodies through time.” Lots of groups chimed in with connections to Foucault and disciplinary time that I didn’t see until they said them.

So instead of using Kahoot! to whip up an on the spot competitive version of a test, I brought my big box full of beautiful Dixit cards to class. The premise of Dixit is that a person chooses an ambiguous word or phrase to describe the surreal art on their card, and then the other players put down their own cards with a similar theme and try to guess which is the “real” card. In my variation, I put the unit’s objectives on the powerpoint and selected a card that I thought might be the best metaphor for that concept. Each small group chose their own card, and then a representative from each group guessed which one I had put down (because it was the “best”). They could not, of course, choose their own card. The group that put down the card that won each round was asked to explain the logic of how their image represented the particular objective, and then others in the room explained why they had chosen that same card.

I got to hear students articulating – without a hint of the anxiety that so often comes when asking students to speak about heavy theory – a strong and nuanced grasp of exactly what I had been hoping they would learn. They got as many points for other groups choosing their card as they did for guessing mine. In fact, they almost never chose my card, but if they didn’t touch on an element that I thought needed mentioning, I took the time to explain the metaphor on my card as well.

It took about 30 minutes to do 5 rounds, but it was worth every minute of class time. I think I actually like playing the theory version of Dixit even better than the real version! Anyone wanna come over and play some anthropological life course theory Dixit?!

P.S. Check out the Tabletop episode on playing Dixit that made me want to buy it in the first place!