Public Anthropology and Student Politics Syllabus

I wanted to share one last syllabus that I’ve taught myself: this one was from when I taught last year at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. The prescribed title was “Public Anthropology,” but it was really a critical survey of student movements since the 1960s, seen in global perspective with a focus on South Africa.

I’ll just post the course description and reading list, and then add a few further comments.

Course Description

This module is aimed at understanding the public role of anthropology in moments of political conflict and educational crisis. It will reach this goal through critical reflection on the notions of politics and publics, and through ethnographic study of the history of student protests since the 1960s, culminating in a reflexive study of the #FeesMustFall movement in South Africa.


Part I: Anthropology, publics and politics

Sept. 11 – Decolonizing anthropology in South Africa

  • Nyamnjoh, Francis B., and Nantang B. Jua. “African Universities in Crisis and the Promotion of a Democratic Culture: The Political Economy of Violence in African Educational Systems.” African Studies Review 45, no. 2 (2002): 1-26.
  • Dubbeld, Bernard, and Kelly Gillespie. “The Possibility of a Critical Anthropology after Apartheid: Relevance, Intervention, Politics.” Anthropology Southern African 30, no. 3&4 (2007): 129-34.

Sept. 13 – Power and the Postcolony

  • Mbembe, Achille. “The Banality of Power and the Aesthetics of Vulgarity in the Postcolony.” Public Culture 4, no. 2 (1992): 1-30.
  • Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. “Reflections on Liberalism, Policulturalism, and Id-Ology: Citizenship and Difference in South Africa.” Social Identities 9, no. 4 (2003): 445-73.

Sept. 14 – Decolonizing Knowledge

Sept. 18 – Publics & Counterpublics

  • Cody, Francis. “Publics and Politics.” Annual Review of Anthropology 40 (2011): 37-52.

Sept. 20 – Policy and Critique

  • Mosse, David. “Anti-Social Anthropology? Objectivity, Objection, and the Ethnography of Public Policy and Professional Communities.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12, no. 4 (2006): 935-56.

Sept. 21 – Test 1

We will have a written test in class covering questions about Part I of the module.

Part II: Historical anthropology of student protest

Sept. 25 – Public Holiday

There will be no class or reading today.

Sept. 27 – Biko

  • Biko, Steve. I Write What I Like. Oxford: Heinemann, 1987. (Selections.)

Sept. 28 – France

  • Feenberg, Andrew, and Jim Freedman. When Poetry Ruled the Streets : The French May Events of 1968. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2001. (Selections.)

Oct. 2 – United States

  • Jones, Alethia, and Virginia Eubanks, eds. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith. Albany: SUNY Press, 2014. (Selections.)

Oct. 4 – The 80s and “neoliberalism”

  • Bundy, Colin. “Street Sociology and Pavement Politics: Aspects of Youth and Student Resistance in Cape Town, 1985.” Journal of Southern African Studies 13, no. 3 (1987): 303-30.

Oct. 5 – SASO to SANSCO

  • Badat, Saleem. Black Student Politics, Higher Education and Apartheid: From Saso to Sansco, 1968-1999. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council, 1999. (Selections.)

Part III: #FeesMustFall

Oct. 9 – #FeesMustFall

  • Badat, Saleem. “Deciphering the Meanings and Explaining the South African Higher Education Student Protests of 2015–16.” Pax Academica 1-2 (2016): 71-106.

Oct. 11 – Gender

  • Cornell, Josephine, Kopano Ratele, and Shose Kessi. “Race, Gender and Sexuality in Student Experiences of Violence and Resistances on a University Campus.” Perspectives in Education 34, no. 2 (2016): 97-119.

Oct. 12 – Colonial History

Nyamnjoh, Francis B. “Black Pain Matters: Down with Rhodes.” Pax Academica 1-2 (2015): 47-70.

Oct. 16 – Stellenbosch

We will discuss a range of ethnographic materials dealing with the history of student organizing at Stellenbosch University.

Oct. 18 – Course Review

There is no assigned reading for today. We will review the module content.

Oct. 19 – Test 2

We will have a written test in class covering questions about Parts II and III of the module.


As always, the first time you teach at a new university — not to mention in this case, in a new continent — there is a lot to learn about fitting into the local context. If I were teaching this again, I would tinker quite a bit with the readings, especially in the first and last sections, and replace some of the denser texts with shorter, punchier ones. But I was happy with the general course structure, which moved from theories of publics and politics to protest histories and then to current events. The South African #FeesMustFall movement was still quite recent when I taught this class in September 2017.

I also found that this class was complicated to teach at Stellenbosch because my students themselves were deeply divided along political lines. It wasn’t the mission of the class to endorse any particular protest movement, of course, but it did insist that we take student protests seriously, and be willing to learn about them. For some of my South African students, that stance was controversial. A few people walked out the day we talked about Steve Biko.

Instead of assigning traditional papers, I asked students to do two teaching exercises. The idea was that you had to try teaching someone about something we’d learned in class, and then you’d turn in a short written reflection on how it went. I actually found that this was very effective: my students largely had no experience with teaching, but asking them to teach seemed to help shake them out of some of the traps and conventions of regular academic writing.

I’ll attach the full syllabus as well, and some of the lecture notes are also available on GitHub.

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