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Teaching the Work of the Anthropology of Work

Rebecca Prentice reflects on the value of peer facilitation as a teaching tool in the anthropology of work, and how it helps students learn about the labor of teaching anthropology itself.

Published onMar 25, 2024
Teaching the Work of the Anthropology of Work
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How do we teach the “work” of the anthropology of work? Since 2021, I have taught an undergraduate class at the University of Sussex, “Anthropology of Work, Labour, and Precarity.” To create meaningful student engagement, we devote 30 minutes of seminar each week to peer facilitation: students, working in a small group, teach part of the topic by devising and delivering an interactive activity.

During peer facilitation, students take ownership of the teaching space and make their own decisions about what to teach and how. As instructor, I closely supervise the process, with pre-planning meetings, supportive guidance, and extensive feedback. Here we share some examples of peer facilitation with student reflections.

Aims of the Class

The Anthropology of Work, Labour and Precarity is an upper-level undergraduate class. It recognizes that most people spend a huge amount of their lives engaged in “work,” but what counts as work—and how much it is valued—is culturally and historically specific.

The class helps students develop an ethnographic appreciation of how labor mediates human relationships with the environment, with each other, and with utopian possibilities for organizing economic life. Drawing extensively on ethnographies of work (Smith 2001) helps us break down timeworn categories for theorizing work (formal/informal, public/private, paid/unpaid) to think anthropologically about the relationship between “making a living” and “making a life” (Millar 2018).

The class is one semester, with a one-hour lecture and two-hour seminar each week. The assessments are a 1,000-word book review (of an ethnography of work) and 3,000-word essay on a topic of the student’s choosing.

Instructions for Peer Facilitation

Peer facilitation involves a small group (3-4 students) planning and implementing an interactive activity for the first 30 minutes of the seminar. The purpose of peer facilitation is twofold:

  • First, students collaborate to design and experience seminar teaching. This requires meeting outside of class to brainstorm ideas, develop plans, and make collective decisions. In class, peer facilitators must work together with clearly defined roles and lead their fellow students through the planned activity.

  • Second, students take meaningful ownership of their learning. Peer facilitation is not a presentation. The peer facilitators’ task is to get the other students talking about the seminar topic, which requires peer facilitators to engage with the content from a different point of view than usual. Peer facilitators examine the subject from a teacher’s rather than a learner’s perspective, asking, “What do I want my classmates to consider, debate, discuss?” and “How might an interactive activity help bring these concepts to life?”

At the first lecture, students sign up for a week of peer facilitation by adding their name to a list of topics, with 3 or 4 students per topic. My role is to provide guidance and support throughout the process. Students must meet with me at least once to discuss and refine their seminar plans. My feedback helps them develop a realistic plan and prepare for common mishaps.

Peer facilitators can plan their activity around the preassigned seminar readings, but they are not obligated to. I encourage them to consider: what do you find most interesting about this topic, and what is worthy of discussion and debate? Our planning meeting emphasizes empathy and openness, with recognition that students are not equally comfortable speaking in class and that classroom activities have to be designed with this in mind.

Putting Work into the Anthropology of Work: Three Examples of Peer Facilitation

Here are three examples of peer facilitation, drawn from the 2021 and 2023 student cohorts:

Group 1: The Body at Work: Skill, Injury, and Compensation

For our seminar on occupational health and “the body at work,” students were asked to read the following ethnographic sources:

The peer facilitation group in 2021 took inspiration from Erynn Masi de Casanova’s “embodied” anthropology of work to create an activity that highlights the unequal impacts of work on wellbeing. They chose volunteers from the class to represent different jobs from their readings: cashier, banker, domestic worker, garment worker, miner, and yardero (migrant lawn care worker).

The volunteers were asked to line up in a row to represent the spectrum of whose job was most difficult (from easiest to hardest job). Next, the volunteers were asked to reposition themselves to represent their job’s skill (from least to most skilled), and whose job was best paid (from least to best paid). Fittingly for an activity during the COVID-19 pandemic, the peer facilitators ended the activity by asking the volunteers to position themselves in a line representing whose job is the most essential to human flourishing (from least valuable to most valuable)?

A group of students holding signs—the sign on the utmost left reads 'least skilful', and the sign on the utmost right reads 'most skilful'. Between them, the students are holding signs which read (in order) 'cashier', 'banker', 'domestic worker', 'yarderos', 'garment factory worker', and 'bolivian coat maker'.

A group of students holding signs. Photo courtesy of the author.

Through the constant shifting of positions along a spectrum, this activity illustrated the competing logics of value (power, skill, payment, and social value) in the organization and experience of labor. Our seminar readings provided a rich repository of information to help students determine and debate where different jobs should be “positioned” on the spectrum. These conversations led into a whole-class discussion about the alignment and misalignment of social and economic values.

Group 2: Spectrums of Emotional Labor

Our class devoted one week to the topic of emotional labor in relation to three types of work (care work, sex work, and housework) with these seminar readings:

The peer facilitators for autumn 2023 sought to surface their classmates’ experiences and opinions on the topic as a foundation for further discussion. They took inspiration from videos produced by Cut, Jubilee, and other YouTube channels, where a statement is read out and participants “vote with their feet” by positioning their bodies along a spectrum laid out on the floor, from “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree.”

Example video from Jubilee: Liberals and Conservatives Are More Similar Than You Think.

The peer facilitators read out each of these statements in turn:

  1. I have been expected to perform emotional labor in the workplace.

  2. I have performed emotional labor in my household.

  3. Offering wages for housework would be beneficial to society.

  4. Sex work is liberating.

Peer facilitators stood at opposite ends of the classroom, one holding a sign saying “Agree” and the other with a sign saying “Disagree.” On hearing a statement read out, students positioned their bodies along a spectrum between these two positions. The peer facilitators invited the students arrayed across the classroom to share the rationale for where they chose to stand. Discussion of question one, for example, prompted students to consider not just whether emotional labor is performed at work, but also to what extent it is paid for (via tips, wages, or bonuses). In the course of the discussion, sometimes students shifted places because they changed their position on the topic.

At the end of the activity, students shared verbal feedback on the experience, which deepened their engagement with the topic. We discussed how some of the prompting statements could be edited to encourage less clumping of students in the “Strongly Agree” side of the spectrum. For question two, students described how their answers would differ whether specifying their childhood home or current home.

Group 3: Precarity and the Precariat

For our seminar on precarity and the precariat, the class read:

In 2023, the peer facilitation group based their session on this seminar reading directly. They sat students at four tables, and gave each table a definition of “precarity” to work with, based on Millar’s text:

  1. …as a class condition (the precariat)

  2. …as a labor condition (precarious work)

  3. …as a human condition (ontological precarity)

  4. …as relational (combining labor conditions and human conditions)

The students were then led through a series of questions, one at a time, to probe the analytical value of their definition of precarity. They discussed these questions at their small tables, and reported back to the whole group:

  • What do you understand your definition to mean?

  • How useful is your definition? (What are the limitations?)

  • What does your definition include? (What class / people / kinds of jobs?)

Finally, the peer facilitators posed the question, “Does precarity have positive potential?” The purpose of this question was for students to reflect upon the analytical merit of the concept of precarity, as well as its usefulness in activism. This final question led to a whole-class discussion about the benefits and limitations of the concept of precarity for the anthropology of work and labor.

Reflections on the Labors of Learning

Peer facilitation is not an assessed activity. Students receive feedback from me, but they do not receive a grade. It is optional, meaning that students do not have to join a peer facilitation group if they do not want to. What is striking, year after year, is how readily students participate. It is rare for a student not to join a peer facilitation group. Even students who are uncomfortable speaking up in the classroom make valuable contributions to planning, organizing, and timekeeping.

In their evaluations of the class, students described peer facilitation as an opportunity to learn in a different way: more intensively, creatively, and collaboratively. One student explained in an anonymous class evaluation for the university:

It is a chance to really delve into your chosen topic and to be creative with choosing activities and questions.

The collaborative nature of peer facilitation helps create a sense of solidarity and community. Students recounted feeling “closer” to their classmates than they did before. Peer facilitation is described as a “challenging” experience, but also “useful” and “rewarding.” As one student put it in an email to me:

There aren’t enough ‘ungraded’ assignments in the university setting, and these can be particularly helpful in taking off the pressure off students to perform in the learning environment, and create space in allowing students to push boundaries they might otherwise have felt constrained by.

Peer facilitation reminds us that a crucial avenue into the anthropology of work is the work of academic work itself. Planning and facilitating a session undoubtedly builds students’ skills for their post-graduation jobs, but more profoundly it also helps them reflect upon the labor and value of their university education.

By developing an activity for their classmates, students engage in scholarship from a fresh vantage point. They ask themselves not, “What does my professor want me to know about precarity?” but instead, “How is the concept of precarity useful to our understanding of work and workers?” Not, “Isn’t it interesting how different jobs are paid and valued differently,” but instead, “How do different forms of value intersect at work, and how can we represent and learn from these intersections?” Through peer facilitation students see their own learning in a new light, as a form of work that produces better insights when we engage in it together.

Author Biography

Rebecca Prentice convenes the Masters in Anthropology at the University of Sussex, where she researches and teaches about economic anthropology, the anthropology of work and labor, international development, and poverty. Thanks to Anna Van Den Bos for critical feedback on an earlier draft, to Shruti Iyer for careful edits and suggestions, and to all the peer facilitators.

References

Millar, Kathleen. 2018. Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio’s Garbage Dump. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Smith, Vicki. 2001. “Ethnographies of Work and the Work of Ethnographers.” In Handbook of Ethnography, edited by Paul Atkinson et al., 220–233. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

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