2008 Winner: Erik Harms

Postwar Vietnam

In Mules and Men, Zora Neale Hurston celebrates a special way of seeing she calls the “spy-glass of anthropology,” a seemingly magical device that allows anthropologists to gaze at social life through both wide-angled lenses and microscopes at once. This magic spy-glass is honed through the reflexive combination of mundane, everyday description of phenomena with critical analysis of larger social processes. Indeed, anthropologists have long combined ethnographic description with theoretical reflection to study the interaction between “structure” and “agency,” “the global” and “the local,” or “state” and “society” in an effort to show how these seemingly different levels of analysis are intimately intertwined and mutually influencing.  This analytic stance requires writers to move between “levels” of analysis and also to synthesize these levels into a holistic picture of social life that is at once sensitive to detailed minutiae and cognizant of the bigger picture. The process can be invigorating, literally opening up new vistas on the world and bringing a sense of motion and energy into the writing process; but it can also be dizzying in the way it risks stretching writers thin, sending them “all over the place” with little coherent framework. 

In my teaching of writing 101 (20), I seek to help students see through this anthropological spy-glass. But this endeavor raises important pedagogical questions: How can student writers learn to maximize the advantages and minimize the risks of this anthropological perspective in their work? How can young writers toggle back and forth between ethnographic richness and theoretical breadth without stretching themselves too thin?

Unlike some anthropologists, I don’t believe in magic. The spy-glass doesn’t simply materialize in student writers, but must be carefully honed through deliberate, intentional course design. While I celebrate the potential of writing and thinking like an anthropologist, I also attend to the inherent pitfalls and risks of overgeneralization in young student writing.  With this in mind, I craft all of my assignments around a method of “controlled oscillation” that helps student writers to mindfully move between levels of analysis. Instead of simply telling students to connect the small details with the big picture, I craft assignments that actually foster a process of movement between levels, and give them the tools to make such connections. These assignments encourage students to embody this relationship at all stages of their writing and between levels of analysis, literally making their experience as writers replicate the analytic approach they are asked to develop. Every project and every class works along this principle of oscillation. Focus in, zoom out. Pay attention to detail. Ask questions: “What’s the big picture?”

In this particular course, the subject of “Postwar Vietnam” gradually unfolds as both a course and a topic of study through student writing projects that both focus on very specific details and attend to bigger issues. Taken collectively, student essays become central tools for developing a critical understanding of course content as well as a means for understanding the rhetorical practices central to anthropological writing. In each of their three different major writing projects, students enact this movement between levels, developing a writing process that combines a sensitivity to everyday human experiences with an attention to the larger political, economic, social and cultural structures that frame such experiences.

Key Course Materials for “Post War Viet Nam”

All of the projects in this course have been designed in order to foster a process of “controlled oscillation” that moves between the particular and the general in a way intended to help students develop a particularly anthropological way of seeing.

Assignment Sequence One
In the first project, an annotation essay modeled on a genre perfected in Harper’s Magazine, students must come to grips with a visual image of their own choosing that allows them to reflect on contemporary Vietnam, and to show how the image itself opens up a larger world “beyond the frame.” The assignment itself embodies the oscillatory movement of anthropological writing in its very format. Composed of individual text-boxes that zoom in to focus on specific details of the image, the annotation also comprises a much more comprehensive whole, which makes an academic argument about what the image can tell the reader about postwar Vietnam. As writers, students must quite literally move between detail and the larger whole in an effort to do justice to the image and its minutiae while also making the image speak to, and open up to, a world beyond its own limits. 

Assignment Sequence Two
In the second project, students engage simultaneously with the bigger history of Postwar Vietnam and course texts that focus on specific issues such as decollectivization, the development of economic reforms and “market oriented socialism,” ritual revivals, interpersonal relations, gender dynamics, and rising social stratification. The project begins with a collective course “wiki” project, which allows everyone to contribute to a larger timeline and encyclopedia of important events and social issues in postwar Vietnam. Building from the wide-angle view provided by this collective project, students then choose a particular topic to focus on. Here they zoom in, paying attention to the details of a circumscribed topic, which is nevertheless connected to the greater whole from which the topic emerged. At the end of the assignment, all of the student papers will be linked to the wiki with hyperlinks, bringing the process full circle again, linking their individual projects to the larger story of the postwar Vietnamese experience.

Assignment Sequence Three
In the final project, students engage with real Vietnamese students via email, returning to an intimate, personal level that encourages them to read the challenges of postwar Vietnam through the experiences of actual human beings who are currently living in the country. In this final project, the students once again follow the full circle of movement between the general and the particular. Their project makes them focus on an individual life, but it only does so after they have followed a journey outward from an image to larger questions of political-economy, history and culture. The individual, they learn through their writing, is both singular and social, a manifestation of both “agency” and “structure.”

In all of these projects, then, students oscillate between the general and particular, both in terms of the larger arc of the course and within each paper. Each individual paper guides the student through a controlled oscillation between a concrete issue they themselves choose to explore and the larger themes presented by course readings and discussions. When taken together, the arc of the three papers represents this movement on a broader level: Their first paper looks at a particular image in order to open up the frame to larger issues of politics, history, culture and society. The second paper begins by zooming out using the course wiki to capture Vietnamese history and social events since 1975, and then zooms in with individual papers written about topics that emerge from the class discussions. Building from this, students use their email interactions with a Vietnamese colleague to craft a final paper that tells a story about Vietnamese social change through the eyes of an individual who has participated in it. At all turns, students are zooming in and out, oscillating between levels of analysis in a way that lets them experience the craft of anthropological research as a recursive process of intellectually engaged writing coupled with embodied movement. The assignments challenge students to move back and forth between the mundane practices of everyday life and larger systemic issues gripping contemporary Vietnamese society.