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To Educate is a Labour of Love: Anthropology in the classroom. A Glance at the work of Dr. Alina Garcia

By Jessica Bridges, Oklahoma State University, Jacob Derksen, University of Victoria, Jemma Kosalko, University of Victoria, Cuba Ethnographic Field School 2018

While attending the CASCA-Cuba conference in Santiago, Cuba, we had the privilege of meeting and getting to know Dr. Alina Garcia, Professor of pedagogical sciences at the University of Oriente. After attending her presentation, “Anthropology of Education: An anti-hegemonic expression centered on society and culture,” we met with her the morning of May 19th for an informal interview. We would like to use this short article to reflect on the content of her presentation and our time with her.

One of the greatest strengths of anthropology is its holistic perspective. Anthropology endeavors to understand the entirety of the human experience, which is shaped by dynamic and complex processes. By observing, talking to, and participating with people in their daily lives, anthropology can shed light on the countless entangled processes that affect our ways of being. Through our experiences we are constantly learning. Every experience we go through in our lives builds on how we see and think about the world. We learn from everything, not only what our teachers tell us in school. In the classroom, our worldviews, our experiences, and our lives shape the relations of teachers, students and knowledge production. In order to better understand people, there must be an understanding of the interconnectedness with their social and physical environment – everything that has shaped their conditions and worldviews.

The practice of anthropology gives a holistic perspective, and provides the opportunity to understand the various aspects that are vital to people’s conditions and worldviews. In a classroom setting, teachers need to be able to see every student as unique individuals, each with their own backgrounds. In order to better understand their students, teachers need to place them in a broader context that goes beyond the classroom. If teachers can see their students holistically, by taking their diverse situations into account, they can develop more effective ways of transmitting knowledge and developing skills and values.

“There can be no revolution without education because a revolution means profound changes in the life of a country”

(Fidel Castro, “Education and Revolution,” April 9, 1961)

As a professor at the Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba, Dr. Garcia works with pre-service teachers in the Department of Pedagogical Sciences. Cuban higher education does not include anthropology in its degree programs much less, anthropology of education as a class for teachers.

Using the highly successful and popular movie from Cuban Cinema, Conducta directed by Ernesto Daranas Serrano, Dr. Garcia draws attention to the teacher as anthropologist. Using the character of Camila as the example of the teacher, one can visualize the complexities of teaching as it is interwoven with student’s home and social experience. Dr. Garcia, however, is not only drawing from Cuban cinema as the example; she has more than twenty years of experience with students. Starting her career as a special education teacher, her dedication to students is evidenced in her eyes and the passion that exudes from talking about her early years teaching special education students. There are many layers to Dr. Garcia’s career – At the Universidad de Oriente, she has worked in early childhood education, speech-language education, and with pre-service teachers. Dr. Garcia earned her PhD in Pedagogical Sciences specializing in educational semiotics. She is currently teaching educational research, and pedagogy for higher education. In her own words she explains, “I have always been a teacher on every level.”

Anthropology of Education, as such, does not exist as an area of study in Cuba. In fact, Cuban universities do not offer a degree in Anthropology – yet. Dr. Garcia would like to see this happen, especially for teachers. She talked to us about the importance of understanding the child as a whole person whose influences come from the home, society, religion, and within an historical context. One example she highlighted was children’s songs: some with colonial roots and others with African ones. Teachers should know this as it is an important foundational knowledge for teachers to understand their own roots as well as those of their students.

In addition to her work at the university, she provides workshops on anthropology and Caribbean culture with the Casa del Caribe. Dr. Garcia points out that, “we have been working and doing research without knowing that we were doing anthropology.” Motivated by the fact that there is no degree program, Dr. Garcia is undeterred, “here there is a lot of empirical anthropology being conducted.” Anthropological research in Cuba is conducted through the Instituto de antropología in Havana and various other cultural centers, for example, the Casa del Caribe, and the Centro de Estudios Africanos, that conduct empirical research on Cuban culture. On the other hand, Dr. Garcia reminds us that the teacher is an anthropologist – that teachers use anthropological methods to deepen the pedagogical experience- to reach every student. Dr. Garcia is hopeful that the time will come soon when anthropology is offered at the university level and within the department of educational sciences.

“Within the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing.”

Fidel Castro

As a result of our dialogue with Dr. Garcia and our shared experiences in Cuba, we have come to understand that creating a culture of inclusion through education ensures a strong sense of community and patriotic spirit. Anthropology can shed light on all aspects of one’s life, thus it is important to recognize the significance of anthropology within the classroom. Those working in the field of education can use applied anthropology to enhance pedagogical methods. By considering the subjectivity of teachers and students in the classroom, teachers can develop a deeper understanding of how to construct a more effective learning process. Using the practice of anthropology when designing pedagogical methods will bring greater involvement, and connection between the teacher, material and the students. By fostering and building on this connection, teachers are able to build a more accessible atmosphere which allows students to discover themselves as leaders and individuals.

Applied anthropology is about understanding how to navigate the various aspects of one’s way of being in the world and using that knowledge to create a shared educational journey. Self-reflection is required to understand and build on one’s goals and subjectivity. Examining the intention and meaning behind one’s actions allows for a more objective look at student-teacher interactions by recognizing the relativity of their shared experience. Teachers should practice anthropology in order to understand their students in a holistic way and use what they learn to shape their classroom practices. Teachers and students alike can grow a curiosity and motivation to learn.

Collectivity in the classroom makes for a collaborative spirit in the community. Communities are built upon the basis of trusting relationships. People recognize they need one another and thus view themselves in a collective and global context. In anthropology, the need for positive and strong relationships is first and foremost. Solidarity between teachers and students can create positive contributions to society. Cultivating a relational network allows people to not only thrive within the community, but for the community to flourish in the global context.

Although our time was short with Dr. Garcia, we learned a lot about the practice of anthropology in Cuba as well as the importance of anthropology in education. We share her enthusiasm for Cuba developing anthropology as a career path in the university system.

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